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Posted January 5, 2004

Spiritual Exercises

From Spiritual Combat Revisited

by Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory
Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, pp. 303


Pierre Hadot in Philosophy of a Way of Life has shown how much of the theory and practice of spiritual exercises is rooted in Hellenistic and Roman schools of philosophy. These exercises were designed:

"to raise the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by uncounsciousness and harried by worry, to an authentic state of life in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom."

It is difficult to read these words without a sense of excitement and a feeling that this is exactly what the modern world needs. To achieve "an authentic state of life" seems like an ideal that is both human and noble, and Christianity can be viewed as playing a part in the achievement of this ideal. However, it will not do as a description of Catholic spiritual exercises, because the focus is wrong. The purpose of Christian spiritual exercises is union with God through knowledge and imitation of Christ, and Christ is not a means to anything else.

Imitating Christ involves more than trying to achieve "self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom." An authentic Christian spirituality must deal with the reality and the "ordinariness" of everyday existence, and over everyday existence there hangs the shadow of the cross, of sin and of suffering. These realities have to be recognized and dealt with, not as realities that unfortunately interfere from time to time with "an authentic way of life", but as part and parcel of real life in the world. For Scupoli, and for Cardinal Newman, it is in and through these hard and painful times that Christ is found and imitated. "Indeed I count everything a loss", said St. Paul, "because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." Newman wrote in the same vein:

"And be sure of this: that if He has any love for you, if He sees aught of good in your soul, He will afflict you, if you will not afflict yourselves. He will not let you escape. He has ten thousand ways of purging those whom He has chosen, from the dross and alloy with which the fine gold is defaced . . . Let us judge ourselves, that we be not judged. Let us afflict ourselves, that God may not afflict us. Let us come before Him with our best offerings, that He may forgive us."

There is more to imitating Christ than the cross, sin, and suffering. St. Paul tells us that we are to think on "whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious", and to deny beauty and goodness of Godís creation is not part of Catholicism. But, at the same time, we will think well of these things only if we have tried to imitate Christ and have followed St. Paul, who forgot what lay behind and strained to what lay ahead.