Preparing to introduce a group to Ignatius’ approach to prayer the other day, I was pondering how common it is to be preoccupied with our performance. Am I doing it right? What should I be doing? What should I be experiencing? Why aren’t I…
I am aware, that for both myself and others these rather self focussed thoughts intrude and disrupt the very act of seeking to engage with and be open to God in prayer. They undermine our intentions.
If my experience is common, and in sharing it with the group, it seemed that it was, when giving time to pray, it is normal to find some aspect of self-evaluation if not self-criticism accompanying any attempts to ‘get down to it’! No sooner do I seek to give attention to God, whatever the way, the self-conscious critic or evaluator pops up with a kind of running commentary on how poor one is doing, or watching to notice at what point prayer starts to ‘work’ or affect one in some way – doing a brilliant job at undermining the intention to give attention to God. It seems that built into our human nature we have a need to monitor and evaluate!
I was struck by the realisation that Ignatius offers a way of managing these thoughts. He doesn’t tell you that they should be resisted or kicked into touch. He’s as ever, more helpful than that!
He offers a positive use for them, but in a much better place than in the midst of the prayer itself. He puts this ‘evaluation’ of prayer to a later stage – to the time of reviewing prayer – but he also shifts the paradigm of evaluation from am I doing this right or well, to the paradigm of consolation/desolation. So he moves the place for this into the review and then deftly moves the goalposts from our crude and self-centred evaluation based on our own particular prejudices about what makes prayer good, successful or worthwhile, to a God-centred reflection and where consolation and desolation were experienced in prayer.
Of course one of the effects of the intrusive self-evaluation in the middle of the process of prayerful seeking God is that those thoughts bring desolation! The review will help recognise and build the desire to resist those thoughts should they arise again! I find my self delighted by the way doing discernment is so revelatory!