Rob Marsh SJ has been a leading light in the ministry of the Spiritual Exercises over the past few decades. His subtle insights have not only been a mainstay of training courses for spiritual directors, but have enlightened the lives of many others through their ministry. His latest collection of essays will be primarily of interest to those involved in spiritual accompaniment, but will also provide a useful background to someone who has made the Spiritual Exercises, or anyone with an interest in deepening his or her understanding of discernment.
One of the key features of the collection is its demonstration both of Rob’s detailed practical knowledge of the Spiritual Exercises and his thoroughly intelligent view of metaphysics. Modernity is characterised as lacking an appreciation for the personhood of God, which results in individualism, scepticism and secularism. St Ignatius’s insight that reverence for God is supposed to be included in our self-awareness is a striking correction to these tendencies. Rob deftly weaves his insights about discernment together with themes such as ecology, science, virtual reality and angelic spirits, along with references to contemporary culture, to reveal how the action of God is just waiting to be discovered in the underlying fabric of our universe.
One way to cultivate this reverence for God is given in the third annotation of the Spiritual Exercises: St Ignatius invites the person making the retreat to prepare for prayer by standing apart and considering how God looks upon him or her (SpExx §75). This exercise is the starting point for Rob’s first essay and the touchstone for the whole collection. He uses the example of the developmental inability of young children to distinguish the thoughts and feelings of others from their own as a way to describe our own resistance to letting God enter our awareness. Attending to the response that God makes to us in moments of prayer reveals the growing edge of our consciousness of God’s intimate engagement with us in every moment.
The wisdom of the Spiritual Exercises lies not just in individual meditations such as this but in its dynamic and structure, which has informed Rob’s approach to spiritual conversation which is to be organised around the experience of prayer and a preference for the action of God. He invites spiritual directors to move beyond passive listening to distinguish the different threads of human experience so that they can discover where God is most at work. It is by becoming vulnerable enough to open one’s heart to the spiritual movements of others that these ‘God-rich’ seams of consciousness are brought to light, thereby allowing them to become more influential on the intellect and affectivity.
The subtlety with which Rob treats discernment is the consequence of his years of practice as a retreat giver and spiritual director. He describes how fine-grained and coarse-grained seams of consciousness are revealed at different depths, how a movement towards God is often matched by a counter-movement away from God, and gives a maxim that will ring true for anyone with experience of accompaniment: ‘Stay with the movement and avoid the counter-movement.’ This approach recognises how threads of what are normally called consolation and desolation are in fact interlaced in the complexity of human life, requiring careful discernment. This insight alone is extraordinarily significant for the global field of Ignatian Spirituality.
In one essay he defines the vice of sloth, or acedia, which affected us all during the pandemic, as ‘a desire to be anywhere but here, doing anything but the one thing given to do’. A strikingly relevant cultural reference to the film American Beauty reveals a strategy for dealing with the vice that resonates with that of St Ignatius. The principal character, Lester, has a desire for beauty that leads him to sloth. However, this episode eventually allows him to sift through his emotions in order to discover what he really desires: ‘Ignatius learned to trust attraction enough to let it be the place where God continued to create him.’ It is through our desires, even the confused and misdirected ones, that God eventually draws us to Godself, and not in spite of them as is implied dangerously by some spiritual authors.
Another essay reimagines Advent as an opportunity to discover the incarnate God in our lives through the Ignatian Examen. Yet another entertainingly imagines the eponymous demon of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters writing to his nephew about how to distract someone during Lent. Instead of encouraging him to entice his target to sin with tantalising images of chocolate, he invites him to elicit religious pride at his spiritual dryness. Angels and demons fleet in and out of Rob’s work as the medieval counterparts to Ignatius’s good and bad spirits. They serve as symbols that point us to the constant work of God within us and the counter-movement which allows it to stagnate.
For spiritual directors and those who have completed the Exercises his book will be a treasure trove of new insights and the chance to build discernment into an integral world view. Others who are interested in discernment will discover a contemporary and often entertaining panorama of the spiritual life. Rob’s vision of the spiritual fabric of the world and our own participation in shaping it is an invitation to a reverent awareness that God is in all things and awaits us in the depths of reality.
Imagination, Discernment and Spiritual Direction is available now from The Way Books.
Events Related to Imagination, Discernment and Spiritual Direction
Formation Evening: Thursday 30 March (online and in person at Ignatian Spirituality Centre, Glasgow): https://www.iscglasgow.co.uk/pharrison.html
Formation Day: Saturday 13 May (online): https://londonjesuitcentre.churchsuite.com/events/urndyqab