Examining Spiritual Practices Through a Wesleyan-Methodist Lens Part 3

This third installment on examining spiritual practices focuses on the third and fourth questions which Dr. Kenneth Collins offers as a means to examine spiritual practice through a Wesleyan-Methodist lens.  I chose to use The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius because I had no bias towards him.  I had never read his works prior to this point.   My previous two posts are found here and here.  For some of you, this whole line of questioning makes no sense.  "Who cares?," may be one of your thoughts.  "What does it matter?," may be another.  I tried to address this in a previous post found here.  I think at the heart of it, these questions are not limited to being just a Wesleyan-Methodist lens, they reflect a Christian lens beneficial for any believer.

Next up is Collin’s third question, “Are these trends soundly rooted in the atonement?” This question plagued Wesley’s relationship with William Law, a mentor and one whom Wesley considered a mystic. The central argument for Wesley was Law’s understanding of justification - saving faith. In reference to Law’s recommendation of the mystical classic, Theologia Germanica, Wesley wrote, “I remember something of Christ our pattern, but nothing express of Christ our atonement (Wesley 1996, Vol 3, 301).” To read Wesley’s writings, one would hardly miss the importance he placed on Christ’s atonement for sin.

A similar view of the atonement is found in Ignatius’ theology as expressed in the Exercises. As outlined in his four week program, Ignatius moved the excertiants from the first week of reflecting upon God’s love, God’s creation, and our sinfulness, to the second week, where the focus is on following Jesus Christ as a disciple. Then, in the third week, a person’s focus becomes the week of Christ’s passion, the Last Supper and Jesus’
death and the Eucharist being the fullest symbol of God’s love and grace. This third week begins with three preludes, the third of which expresses, “…the Lord is going to His passion on account of my sins (The Spiritual Exercises 1964, 91, emphasis mine).” Further reading reveals that our prayers should focus particularly on Christ’s atonement. Ignatius writes, “In the Passion the proper thing to ask for is grief with Christ suffering, a broken heart with Christ heartbroken, tears, and deep suffering because of the great suffering that Christ endured for me (Ibid, 93, emphasis mine). This consistency in reflecting upon Christ’s atonement places Ignatius’ Exercises alongside Wesley’s own theological beliefs.

There remains then, a fourth question presented by Dr. Collins, namely in regards to the means of grace. Is there a judicious employment of the means of grace in the spirituality presented? Specifically, Dr. Collins refers to, “…prayer, receiving the Lord’s Supper, and reading the Bible… (1993, 314).” To these means of grace, we can add a few more as outlined by Wesley and the United Methodist Church. These additions would include the practice of fasting, journaling, singing, small group meetings: classes and bands, public preaching, love feasts and family devotions (Coppedge 1993).

As noted at the beginning of this paper and it is echoed in the beginning of The Spiritual Exercises, spiritual direction is part of the faith experience. That there should be a “master of the Exercises,” is similar to John Wesley’s instructions to preachers not to preach if there can be no follow-up in a class meeting or band (The Spiritual Exercises 39 and Jones 2002, 79).

Prayer is found to be a consistent, daily practice throughout the Exercises. Not only is praying the Lord’s Prayer expressly stated, there is guided prayer throughout as well as encouragement to pray as one is led to do so. Prayers for forgiveness of sins and prayers to be made aware of our shortcomings become part of the rituals of each session. Ignatius appears to agree with John Wesley’s own practices when he encourages those using the Exercises to set aside an hour for prayer (Ibid, 49).

The book itself contains the scripture passages which Ignatius instructed exerciants to use for their meditations. Questions for reflection are given for those passages so one might pry more deeply into the text. These Scripture passages outline the life of Jesus Christ for the exerciant in 30 days, to study and contemplate, the full Christology (as we have previously noted).

Ignatius encouraged, “…Holy Communion every two weeks, or better, if he is so inclined, every week (Ibid, 42).” While this may seem excessive to us as protestants, it certainly was not to John Wesley. His sermon on “The Duty of Constant Communion,” states the Christian ought to participate in the Lord’s Supper, “…every time he can; like the first Christians, with whom the Christian Sacrifice was a constant part of the Lord’s day service. And for several centuries they received it almost every day: Four times a week always, and every Saint’s day beside (Wesley 1996, Vol. 7, 148).” I suppose it could be argued Ignatius does not go far enough, at least in comparison to Wesley. Still, the importance of the Eucharist for Ignatius is demonstrated not only in this teaching but the focus in week three on the Eucharist as well.

All Methodist Clergy are asked if we practice fasting and if we teach it. For Ignatius, fasting is an integral part of the Exercises especially in week one, where it serves as part of the reflections and practice of penance. Some of today’s modern mystic writers such as Jane Vennard make an important point to “…keep the purpose of your fast before you. (Vennard 1998, 21).” Even though within the Spiritual Exercises fasting is a penitential experience it is not to punish the body but is still in line with Vennard’s words, “to create space in your life to attend to God (Ibid, 22).” Ignatius himself writes one does not need to “…harm ourselves or cause ourselves serious illness (The Spiritual Exercises, 62).”

Another current mystic writer, Marjorie Thompson, author of Soul Feast, observes, “We trivialize spiritual disciplines when we lose sight of their real purpose (2005, 78).” However, if we do not examine a discipline or spiritual practice, it may not be trivialization that becomes the problem. Instead the problem will be our allowing of "infection" into the church, either through confusion regarding means of grace or possibly practice not in line with Christianity. This is what seems to concern Wesley. Dr. Collin’s questions give us guidance in this examination especially in light of John Wesley’s over-simplification of mystics as “all and only those who slight any of the means of grace (Collins 1993, 305).” I feel confident, that a spiritual director in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition could use Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises as part of a program of spiritual formation and be able to do so knowing the exercises would be both beneficial and in line with our own Methodist criteria of practice.

The next installment will likely be out next week after Easter weekend.


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