The Craft of Guiding Ignatian Spiritual Conversation

Hold the Conversation

Ignatius understood the art of dealing with persons and of binding them to himself through charming, winning behaviour, to a degree which, to be honest, I have never found with anyone else. He could gradually affect their hearts in such a way that, through his behaviour, and through his pleasant, gentle speech, he carried all mightily away to the love of God. Simon Rodriguez

When Ignatius instructs people on how to converse, he begins with awareness of the other person. The essence of guiding spiritual conversation is to simply and humbly hold the conversation of the people gathered in the circle. You take care of the time, moving the conversation through each of the phases below and gently bring the conversation back on track if it wanders away from sharing the graces of the exercises.

The structure of the five phases below will enable you to do just this. The time needed for conversation will vary with the size of the group. As a guide for a group of five, try this: Silence 5 min, Listening 15 min, Conversation 15 min, Mini-discernment 5 min, Silence 5 min.

Hold the Relationships

Those conversing should prescind from the outward person and look upon creature, not as good looking or attractive, but as someone bathed in the blood of Christ, an image of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit.

This is why Ignatius focuses on relationships and aims in spiritual conversation. Little is said of particular content. This is left to preaching, teaching catechism and sacred lectures. As a spiritual conversation guide you need to understand that spiritual conversation is none of these.

Rather you hold everyone in the loving, listening, speaking, discerning and inviting relationships of spiritual conversation – at times with each other, at other times with the Trinity. You are holding these relationships in the now of the conversation. A person’s personal life details, or how they are coping with life or their beliefs, is no business of yours as conversation guide. You hold what they are willing to share – you hold just those words and feelings. You, and the whole group, hold the relationships present between one another, and the Trinity, in this time.

1. Silence – Held by the Loving Trinity

I begin with eyes closed, to focus on the feeling of my breath as it passes through my nostrils. I do this for two minutes. … Then I imagine the Trinity, sitting in a close circle with me, as four friends do in a conversation. I imagine talk has stopped and they are just loving me unconditionally. . . . I remain in this silent loving presence for three minutes. . . . When distracted, I return to the circle by praying, ‘Thank you, I accept your love’.

Contemplative silence begins the conversation, from the busy world into the sacred now. Guide the circle with the words above.

Affectionate Awe

Be slow to speak, and only after having first listened quietly, so that you may understand the meaning, leanings, and wishes of those who do speak. Thus you will better know when to speak and when to be silent.

In this special listening and conversing relationship, Ignatius would encourage “acatamiento,” awe and reverence of the other. This is a “way“ pointed out to him by God, one at the end of his life he wished to take forever. You can see his awareness grow in the following excerpts from his Listening Book:

2. Sacred Listening

Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food, Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.

God explains to the prophet Isaiah that to listen is to receive life, that listening is like eating. The second phase of spiritual conversation is Sacred Listening. Here each shares something of their prayer experience, if desired. The details in the Craft of Sacred Listening.

During the FSE, the content of sacred listening, and each phase that follows, will be about the spiritual exercise, or set of exercises, recently prayed, or about what was noted in Listening Books. While this guide suits both one or a group of receivers, it will address a group having a spiritual conversation.

Penetrated the depth of my soul

I had a steady thought which penetrated the depth of my soul; How great is the reverence and affectionate awe with which I ought pronounce the name of God our Lord, and so on; and further, that I ought to seek, not tears, but this affectionate awe and reverence.

3. Spiritual Conversation

 Let no one seek to be considered a clever talker, or pride himself on being polished, witty and well spoken; he should look at Christ, who despised all this and chose for our sakes to be humiliated and looked down on by people rather than honoured and esteemed.

The third phase is spiritual conversation. For Ignatius, the spirit of such conversation is clear: be slow to speak, listen quietly, treat others as equals, be humble and sincere, speak with kindness and love, be reverent and see the Trinity at work in all. Also remind the circle that confidentiality for the conversations is essential.

Remember the group converses about the graces experienced in prayer and daily life – it is a focussed conversation on what was desired and found in the spiritual exercises and daily life following. The details of  how to converse are found in “The Craft of Spiritual Conversation”.

The path came to meet me

I became convinced of this, I ought to attach a greater value to this grace and knowledge than to all other past graces. . . . I had found the way which was being pointed out to me. It seemed to be the best of all and the one I ought follow always.

4. Mini-discernment

In the matter of desolations and the tricks of the enemy, as well as in the matter of consolations, instructions can be given about the rules for recognizing various spirits. These instructions are the rules by which to perceive and understand to some extent the various movements produced in the soul: the good that they may be accepted, and the bad, that they may be rejected. Ignatius

The fourth phase is discernment of spirits. Here is each invited to share briefly any mini-discernment as in “The Practice of Discerning the Spirits,” Everyone just listens.

In the discernment of spirits phase, you need to be very clear with your receivers that there is no discussion of another’s experience of the spirits. Rather, the group returns to listening, like in the first phase, to appreciate with affectionate awe and reverence, how the good spirit works in each.

Be not fearful but loving

I kept on thinking that humility, reverence, and affectionate awe ought to be not fearful but loving. This took root in my mind so deeply that I begged over and over again: “Give me loving humility, and with it reverence and affectionate awe”.

5. Silence – Held by the Working Trinity

I close my eyes. . . . I imagine the active Trinity sitting in an intimate circle with me . . . in silence after Father, Jesus and Spirit have expressed their desire to work with and through me. If distracted I return to the circle by praying, ‘Yes, work through me.’ I remain here in silent presence for three minutes. . . . Now I listen to the sounds surrounding me . . . near and far, loud and quiet. After two minutes of listening to the active world, I end with opening my eyes and a sign of the cross.

Contemplative silence ends the conversation, joining the working Trinity to return to the world.

I had a vision

It seemed to me that I ought not stop there, but that the same would apply in relation to creatures: that is to say, loving humility and all it brings would so apply.

During these periods of time, on several occasions I had a vision of the divine being in circular shape.

Please note.  For greater depth in giving the FSE and guiding Spiritual Conversation see the Manual  here.