My soul is sore

Mine eyes will ne’re behold which my heart dost see so clearly inward stirs this passion deep, benighting leading my path away from all and to my love I reach out for thee and pray your hand be there to welcome mine your light to illum where my light be spent for my soul is sore

- Carl Reiner - “The Life and Love of Joe Coogan”, of The Dick Van Dyke Show (1964)

I’ve been doing a lot of spiritual reading lately, the sort that makes its way into your daydreams and forms elaborate connective metaphors with everything around you. It becomes easy to see the way all the patterns in your life add up in simple, elegant equations to one another, and tempting to let those harmonies overwhelm your concept of God. It’s easy to think of God as the connective force, or the connections themselves, or maybe just a power moving behind them. It’s a part of so many spiritualities, and it feels so right; but in living with these sorts of thoughts for so long, I’ve come to find it somehow shallow. God is so much more than that.

One of the most basic concepts in Ignatian Spirituality (that is, the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola) is the ability to discern God’s active hand in our lives through discerning the spirits. Does this spirit, this concept / act / path in life, lead you closer to God, unite you with the virtues of faith, hope, and love? Or does this spirit lead you someplace else? It’s not a matter of whether thinking about something makes you happy or sad, righteous or indignant, but rather about how it interacts with your soul.

When I am filling my nights with spiritual reading and my thoughts are on my own discernment, the role of Jesus and his sacraments in my life, and looking for God in all things, that’s exactly what I find: God in all things. I see him in the way a conversation suddenly turns, or in the way a new friend opens up to me unexpectedly. He’s there when I drive to work and when I’m remembering each of my friends in my prayers. His presence is more than just with me, though, it’s active and guiding if I pay attention. It leads me to things and away from others. Sometimes, like it has been in the sense of my discernment to religious life, it is “leading my path away from all, and too my love,” as the poem says.

Jillian of Norwich says in her own spiritual writings that we are closer to God than we are to our own Spirit. It is because our spirit is made of and by God, not of the earthly things like our bodies. The only way we can come to know our spirit is by first coming to know God. In the view of Ignatian Spirituality, that makes such beautiful sense. It is the way of God to illuminate his path for us through reason and faith together, and so what better way to come to know ourselves as well?

Which brings me to this past Monday night. I had mass and dinner with the Jesuit community at the Arrupe House in Philadelphia, and a wonderful discussion afterward about St. Ignatius’ spirituality. We were talking about these very things and I asked them something that had been on my mind. In the Examen, the daily practice of prayerful reflection on the day to discern God’s presence and direction, I told them I found it easy to spot God’s active and guiding hand in the big moments of my life, like joining the Navy, moving from one place to the next, or volunteering for certain things; but at the end of a day when I did nothing but work from my chair at home, write a blog post, draw a map for a D&D game, and watch some Hulu, how do you sense God’s presence? One of the priests talked a bit about his own experiences in the Examen and described something wonderfully helpful to me. He said he spends his time trying to find the “scent of God.” He doesn’t look at the actions, necessarily, but for something else. He looks for an element of presence in his day via a different sense than scrolling through your day like it’s on Tivo. To sense a scent requires a different tactic, more passive than active, an opening of yourself to the things in the air around you. When I think of it, I want to close my eyes and think of nothing but the deep inhalation and the questing search for something I know is there. It’s not a game of Where’s Waldo.

Tonight as I settled down to do the Examen, I kept this idea in my mind. I sense God’s presence in the little conversations I had over instant messenger, and in the choices of my reading, but there was something more. A general scent of God being with me, encouraging and guiding despite the lack of decision making. He was there with me in force, though no force was necessary. He was filling me up, illuminating my benighted soul at the very moment while I watched a simple episode of the Dick Van Dyke show on Hulu. When the plot revealed that Laura’s long-lost love, her boyfriend before Rob, was now a priest, I saw it in his light. And finally, when she realized that all those love poems he had sent her were not about her at all, but were about God, it was that sense of loving companionship that I was already experiencing that brought me tears.

So yes, in a way I do see God as the connecting force between everything I experience, and as a guide in that journey, but I also see him as a light of insight into who I really am, a companion on my constant pilgrimage, a teacher, father, friend, and confessor. He is all these things and so much more! I guess it’s like I told the Jesuits on Monday. Sometimes sensing his presence is pretty easy.