This past weekend I attended a silent retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, led by a priest and a brother from the order Miles Christi. It was an extraordinary experience (though, not having been on a retreat for 11 years, I have little to compare it to), and I strongly encourage all of you to go on a retreat like this, if you have the opportunity. You can see when and where the Miles Christi priests are preaching these retreats all over the country here. I'm very grateful to my wife and my cousin who each recommended that I go on this retreat. I hope that it has made a real difference in my life of prayer and seeking virtue. I wanted to share some thoughts after this retreat.
The Spiritual Exercises are a series of meditations based around the life of Our Lord. But their aim, at least as they were preached this last weekend, is to evoke acts and affections of repentance and resolution to reform one's life. Too often I, at least, think about repentance in the sense of trying to do better in the future, rather than having a keen sense of how horrible sin is--that is, how it ought to and properly does evoke the feeling of horror. Horror, repulsion, is the proper response to sin, especially my own sin.
The Spiritual Exercises as preached this last weekend were aimed at leading one to see all things in light of eternity. To be a Catholic is to live one's life under judgment--that is, to be aware that every single moment of every single day, every act and every feeling, is to be judged. To act well or act badly is not just to act in accord with or in violation of the moral law, or to act such that one moves closer to or away from the fulfillment of one's nature. Rather, to act well or badly is to treat Another well or badly, to act in such a way that God's proper intentional stance toward one's act is one of approval or abhorrence. (I do not, of course, mean to imply that God reacts to our acts in such a way that He is causally affected by them, nor do I mean to imply that our good acts are done apart from His prior grace.) To act well or badly is to act in such a way that Our Lord judges the act good or bad--and not just now, but at the end of our lives as well. To be a Catholic is to live one's life not just under judgment now, but to live life in reference to a future judgment, to experience every act as tending towards and having its ultimate meaning in the judgment of Our Lord at the end of our lives.
This is of course the proper source of the much lamented Catholic guilt. Aristotle says that shame is a proper response of the one on the way to virtue to his own wrong-doing, and so it is a said to be a quasi-virtue, "quasi" because a genuinely virtuous person wouldn't need shame, but still it is the right response. Catholic guilt is the corresponding infused quasi-virtue: it is the proper response to the evil one sees in oneself once one sees how one's deeds stack up relative to eternal values, and, more importantly, relative to the conscious, concrete judgment of the One to Whom I owe all my love.
To be a Catholic is to live always in the hour of our death, which is to say in the hour of our judgment. Everything on this retreat was oriented to giving one a keen sense of the truth of these claims, and of their immediate import in one's life. To say that God is my First Cause and Last End is well and good, but it is better to experience it, to feel it. One should come to experience everything that occurs as proceeding from God, whether operatively or permissively, for our Good and for the revelation of His goodness, and as ordered to Him and His judgment for its ultimate meaning.
There is something very attractive (at least to me) about the lofty mysticism of the Carmelites or the deep feelings of nature of the Franciscans. But there is a great deal to be said for the straight-forward and pious devotions given to the laity of the Roman Church. Most of us have not experienced a genuine dark night of the senses. But that is because we flail about with good intentions and never a firm starting point in prayer. The Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, meditation on the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady, veneration of the Cross, the formulae of Eucharistic adoration, books of devotion like The Imitation of Christ or the Introduction to the Devout Life: these, with their pious, deeply affective, relational language are a solid foundation in the life of prayer that is within my reach. It is these that we prayed and listened to on this retreat. Lately, I have been re-reading St. Louis de Montfort's True Devotion to Mary, longing as a I do for a deeper Marian piety. There is something so eminently Catholic about the language of these old prayers and devotionals, so solid, with such intimate feeling for Our Lord and Our Lady and the saints. There is nothing novel or sophisticated about, but just a deep feeling of the faith, captured in deeply felt pious language, the language of the lover to his beloved, the language of one who would clothe the poor content of his heart in rich, even rococo, forms, because his Beloved, his Lover, deserves such language.
I have long desired a recovery of the Tridentine Liturgy, and I have long thought that the scholastic philosophy, theology, and casuistry of the 16th through 18th centuries is some of the most sophisticated and compelling thought I have ever encountered, but I am beginning to see that the devotion of that period (that of St. Francis de Sales, St. Alphonsus Ligouri, St. Ignatius of Loyola) is also a most solid foundation on which I can build my life toward God (and on which one can even move toward that deeper mystical life of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila). It is a much-maligned period, denigrated not only for its highly affective piety, but also for its metaphysical basis, which, it is said, is nominalism or Scotism draped in Thomistic language, itself considered a paltry shadow of the Angelic Doctor's words. That is a gross caricature, and probably just shows that the one who asserts it has not read the doctors of that time. But I also think we have a lot to thank Scotus (and maybe even Ockham, loathe though I am to admit it!) for: for a keener sense of the individual, for a powerful sense of the primacy of Our Lord and Our Lady in the whole cosmos fallen or unfallen, for a deep sense of the omnipotence of God, for a powerful understanding of both the metaphysical difference of God from us (captured in the analogy of being) and of the power of the mind to grasp God through reason (captured in Scotus' highly nuanced sense of the univocity of being, and also in Thomistic notions of the single analogical concept of being.) We could do much worse than recover the order and splendor of Baroque Catholicism, in all its aspects!
For that too was the period of the great missionaries, of St. Francis Xavier and St. Jean de Brebeuf. I can understand, after even this short version of the Spiritual Exercises, why a life formed by them (by the longer, 30-day version, repeated year after year) would lead one to want to go to such heroic extremes as these great saints did. In the meditation on hell, one gains a keen sense of what awaits one if one continues to live a life of mediocrity (I felt like Stephen Daedelus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but I hope the effect will be more long lasting for me than it was for him!) In the meditation on following the banner of Christ, one gains a knowledge that one's every act leads one to follow Christ or Satan. In the spiritual direction and general confession, one is sweetly compelled to abandon all evasions, all excuses, for not sacrificing all to one's King. All in all, it is an inspiration to heroism, to not just try to follow Christ, but to follow Him! The Exercises lead one to make concrete resolutions as to what one will do for Christ, for the One Who deserves all, for His greater glory. Pray for me, that I may keep the resolutions I made on this retreat, and really make a beginning of pursuing virtue. (I am praying for all of you who read this blog.) And again, I really encourage everyone to make a retreat like this!