If you’re like me you love change and new experiences. “In with the new and out with the old!” people like us might say. But Saint Ignatius says, “Woah, how about going back to the old again? You might just find something new there.”
This is Ignatian repetition. It’s a key part of Ignatian spirituality and prayer. Built into the Spiritual Exercises are repetitions of earlier meditations, some one right after another. One might meditate on the gospel passage where Jesus multiplies the loaves and fishes and find a great deal of fruit in that: seeing a God who gives lovingly and freely. But Ignatius says, pray with it again. Take yourself to that same scene and see what more might unfold; see if God might have more to tell you. Perhaps the second time you notice that God’s free giving is not just of bread and fish, but of the gift of community that formed in that shared meal together.
“The repetitions are efforts to engage mystery, to center on the depth of riches within revelation, and to discover how God specifically invites this particular man or woman to find the meaning of a gospel event for him or her.”
(Howard Gray, SJ)
In a Lived Experience
But can we take repetition outside the Gospel? One of my Jesuit friends, before entering the Society of Jesus, spent a year in Portland, Oregon working as a Jesuit Volunteer (JVC). He loved his work in a homeless outreach centre. This summer he requested to go back to Portland as a kind of real-life repetition. There was something that was drawing him back, a curiosity if God had something more to share with him there. He won’t be at the same ministry centre, but he’ll be in downtown Portland working at a parish, even having the chance to interact with the local JVC community.
In prayer, St Ignatius encourages us to re-visit an experience that we feel drawn to for one reason or another. In the Examen prayer, after you review the day, I tend recommend returning to an experience, a feeling, or an emotion that stuck with you, and pray with it. Relish it. Examine it. My Jesuit friend is doing this very thing in real life. He is responding to God’s subtle invitation to return Portland. There’s no doubt memories of his past experience will return, but new fruit will form as well. This is raw material for discernment and personal and spiritual growth.
Repetition offers a unique invitation to discover more about how God is actively touching our lives. When we discover deeper meaning in an experience, that discovery is an uncovering of the spirits, as Saint Ignatius calls them, those tensions that make up much of the spiritual life. We find where God is pulling us and where the “bad spirit” is pulling us. My friend has no idea of what he’ll discover on his next encounter with Portland. There may be a mix of good and bad tensions, but he will certainly deepen his understanding of his calling and who God is.
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Music by Kevin MacLeod