Examining Spiritual Practices Through a Wesleyan-Methodist Lens Part 4

This wraps up my work in examining Ignatius' Exercises from a Wesleyan-Methodist tradition.  There were some additional thoughts and questions raised in this research.  I will continue to reflect on some of those in the future, mostly as it relates to Wesley's own works as opposed to Ignatius' writings.  I am convinced there is a real benefit we can find in being forthright and careful in examining other practices for we may find we have more in common than we thought at the outset.  

As the first paragraphs here focus on differences, be sure to read my previous posts starting here.

However, there are those practices which Ignatius’ outlines and encourages within the Exercises that are problematic in nature and ought to be addressed as well. As I have just addressed the penitential practices in week one, we must consider that beyond fasting, Ignatius encouraged denying oneself comfortable sleeping and more drastic, the chastising of the flesh. He writes on this account: “This is done by wearing hairshirts, cords, or iron chains on the body, or by scourging or wounding oneself, or by other kinds of austerities (The Spiritual Exercises, 62).” I certainly have no doubt our Methodist tradition flinches at even the thought of such practices. The response I received in an e-mail correspondence with Paul Brian Campbell, SJ, a Jesuit and Publisher at Loyola Press, confirms the same from the modern day descendants of Igantius’ practice. Paul writes,

“Penance and self-denial can sharpen our senses and help us become more receptive to God's gifts. Ignatius wrote the Exercises in the 16th Century. Our understanding of the psychosexual dynamics of "scourging or wounding oneself" has progressed considerably since his time, to say the least…I cannot endorse any form of self-harm, any more than I would allow an illness to be treated by the standards of 16th century medicine (2012).”

Additional practices not part of Methodist (or many protestant churches) such as praying the “Hail Mary” or the “Anima Christi” are encouraged throughout. One also finds references to the “dark night” or that “the Divinity hides itself (The Spiritual Practices, 92).” John Wesley’s views on this subject are somewhat conflicted as both Collins and Tuttle note in their writing. Wesley appears to misunderstand John of the Cross’ “dark night” as a place of “sin and ignorance” and not as a spiritual journey of purgation (Collins 1993, 310). A spiritual director in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition ought to be aware of this if using the Exercises.

So while both Collins and Tuttle address concerns of contemporary spirituality, we in fact are talking not about contemporary practices at all. Instead, to examine Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises is to engage in a ecumenical study and to continue in the same vein as John Wesley himself, which was to see what the practices of other denominations and Christian traditions might hold for us as a Methodist people. It seems on further reading, there is much in common with Ignatius and Wesley.

Unlike the complaint Wesley seemed to have with other mystics, namely, they tended toward the heresy of Quietism, Ignatius it might be argued, leaned more toward the Pelagian side of the equation – a salvation by works. As I have already stated, Ignatius placed his feet firmly in a belief in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. However, like other mystics (and Wesley himself), Ignatius believed the journey of our life was toward Christian perfection; a perfection in love. Ignatius made clear, “…love ought to be manifested in deeds rather than words (The Spiritual Practices, 103).” Indeed, much as the Wesleyan-Methodist movement has been characterized by “social-holiness," a faith of serving others, Ignatian mysticism could be described as at once a “mysticism of love," it is a striking “service mysticism" (Egan1978, 415). In one meditation, Ignatius calls the exerciant to reflect on the Nativity story, taking upon the role of a slave and caring for the needs of a the Holy family, who themselves are poor. This is done so a person might gain an understanding of the poor estate into which Jesus was born. All of this is consistent with Jesus’ own words given to his followers, "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13 NASB)

By examination using the Albert Outler's, "Wesleyan Quadrilateral," I have presented already the heavy emphasis on Scripture in the Exercises. In addition, the intent of the Exercises is to provide the exerciant with an experience of knowing Christ Jesus and imitating Christ Jesus. But what of tradition and reason? Rabbi Kushner makes a statement, I think, both Ignatius and Wesley would agree upon when he writes, “Religious rituals are a funny sequence of things we do to help us remember that we have forgotten why we have been created, and gently provide us with the instruments of return (Kushner 2006, 88-89).” Ignatius’ Exercises incorporate many of the rituals and traditions of the Church. Yet, the Exercises offer us additional instruments to return to the world with humility, “...that I may obey in all things the law of God our Lord (The Spiritual Practices, 81).” In addition, the exercitant is not asked to suspend reason in the exercises but employ it in the reading of Scripture, meditation, and in the use of imagination. In week two, Ignatius addresses making good choices and the exerciant is challenged to, “...use my reason to weigh the many advantages and benefits...(Ibid, 85).” While not solely ecumenical, clearly The Spiritual Exercises put to use the criteria of the Quadrilateral.

What then does it mean for us as Wesleyan-Methodists if we find a mystical practice does fit within the criteria of both Collins’ questions and the Quadrilateral? In the case of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, where it is intended for a person to participate under the direction of an experienced spiritual director, finding an experienced director would be the first requirement. Secondly, it ought to be addressed that there are practices which fall outside the norm for the Methodist Christian (already named). Ideally, a Wesleyan-Methodist spiritual director will have already participated in the Exercises and would be aware and available to those seeking to practice the exercises.

It would benefit the spiritual director to have an understanding of what Gary Thomas terms an exerciant’s, “sacred pathways” or personality type, such as Myers-Briggs. This need not be required but worth the time to consider. Because of Ignatius’ use of imagination, Eucharist ritual, and full engagement of the senses, to name a few practices, having an understanding of either the pathway or personality, the spiritual director might be more attentive to the work of the Holy Spirit during certain aspects of an exerciant’s experience. This is not to imply the director manipulate the exercise, but to be aware of where an exercise might overlap with a natural pathway in the life of the exerciant.

Worth considering as well, is the use of the Exercises as part of a Methodist Select Band. Daniel Prechtel references the work of Morris and Olsen in regards to group spiritual direction as they highlighted the unique aspect of the Select Bands in the Methodist Societies. Not only were the select bands a unique peer group, the focus of these small groups had to do with the coming to live out a perfect for God and for one’s neighbor (Prechtel 2010, 65). The unique process of The Exercises would need to be honored and so would the typical ways we might measure success in a small group (Dougherty 1995, 65 & 67). Directors in the United Methodist Church should also be aware of the reporting structure of the Vital Congregations reporting format.

The Spiritual Exercises are given the flexibility by Ignatius, through the spiritual director, to be accessible to all, regardless of ability or education. Ignatius writes, “A person who is uneducated or of little natural ability should not be given matter which he could not…bear or…get no profit...to each should be given those exercises which will be of the most profit…(The Spiritual Practices, 41).” This is certainly in accordance with John Wesley’s wish for us to speak “plain truth for plain people (The Wesley Study Bible 2009, 592).” The director ought to be attentive to making the Exercises available to all so all might grow in grace.

In our time of societal upheaval and religious exploration, churches are being both challenged by searching voices and offered practices from differing faith traditions. The growing field of spiritual formation as both an academic area and ministerial practice, as well as the vocation of spiritual directors, presents us a unique opportunity to re-examine faith practices within our Christian traditions. John Wesley’s own journey provides the Methodist people with an example of this practice of questioning and assimilating and Kenneth Collins’ questions provide us with a modern means for this endeavor. A further refining of these questions might benefit us in exploring spiritual practices to be introduced into our churches.

In the case of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the questioning work has demonstrated the Exercises to be beneficial to the life of Christians, regardless of their denominational background. The theological and practical similarities between Wesley and Ignatius prove at times to be striking. Under the guidance of an experienced and gracious director, both Methodists and Roman Catholics could find a meaningful middle ground to journey together in grace toward the perfecting love which both Wesley and Ignatius clearly desired and prayed for in the followers of Jesus Christ.


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