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Learning from daydreams

30 November, 1999

Conversion refers to something more than a moral dimension. It also involves the heart and the emotions. Fr Brian O’Leary shows how St Ignatius used his day-dreams and his imagination as a means of finding out what God was drawing him towards and moving him away from.

The early part of Ignatius Loyola’s life is probably better known than his last years in Rome. He was wounded while leading the defence of the citadel of Pamplona, in the north of Spain, against an invading French army. That stubborn, heroic but futile display of bravery remains readily in the memory.

Similarly, the scene where he lay on his bed in the castle of Loyola, recovering from his wounds and subsequent surgery, also captures the imagination. We may well have gone through periods of convalescence ourselves, and so can empathise with the boredom he felt.

Ignatius did not have a radio at his side or a television monitor over his bed. He tried to relieve the tedium – and the pain – by asking for what most appealed to his taste in reading: romances of chivalry. But none could be found in the castle; it was obviously not a household where much reading was done. All that came to hand was a book of Lives of the Saints, and the Life of Christ by a medieval Carthusian, Ludolph of Saxony.

What followed at Loyola is often called his conversion. It might be more correct to say the beginning of his conversion. This was to be a gradual process, continuing through his later experiences at Manresa and beyond.
The word ‘conversion’ can sometimes be misleading if it is interpreted too narrowly, as it often is, to refer to moral behaviour only. But morality is only one dimension of conversion, and perhaps not the most profound. Underlying it, there is a more fundamental conversion, a turning of the heart to God. Having made that turn, a person sees everything in a new way.

Remember that Native American saying, ‘Where you plant your feet determines what you see’. The person who has turned to God now has a new and wider horizon. Beauty reveals itself in unexpected places. Virtue begins to seem attractive. Personal priorities begin to be revised. New decisions are called for and made.

This is the kind of experience that Ignatius began to have as he convalesced. It was, of course, grace at work. But what way did grace ‘get through’ to Ignatius? We tend, perhaps, to think of God speaking to our reason, our understanding, our conscience, or drawing us through our feelings. Both reason and feelings came to be involved in Ignatius’s conversion, but the whole process began with his imagination, his ability to daydream!

The fact that he had no books to read about knights and ladies, thrilling adventures and great deeds, loyalty to a king and love of a fair maiden did not prevent Ignatius from imagining such scenarios. This was the imaginative world in which he normally lived. He inserted himself into these stories where, of course, he was always the hero.

He tells us in his Autobiography that he spent many hours in such daydreams, and in particular ‘imagining what he was to do in the service of a certain lady: the means he would take so as to be able to reach the country where she was, the witty love poems, the words he would say to her, the deeds of arms he would do in her service’.

When Ignatius turned to the Life of Christ and the Lives of the Saints, his vivid imagination was still at play. He asked himself, ‘How would it be if I did this that St. Francis did, and this that St. Dominic did?’ He was daydreaming, playing with different possibilities to those of being the chivalrous knight. Yet he was still thinking like a knight.

He was focusing, not on the inner life of Christ and the saints, not on the values they lived by, but on their great deeds. Soon the possibility became an imperative: ‘St. Francis did this, so I must do it; St. Dominic did this, so I must do it’. It was an impulsive, immature response, of no great spiritual depth, but it was where Ignatius was at that time. And it was enough to allow God to lead him a bit further and continue teaching him.

Like many energetic people who have been forced into inactivity by illness or convalescence, Ignatius was becoming more reflective. He was growing more aware of the oscillating feelings that he was experiencing. In a particular way, he was noticing changes of mood in relation to his reading and his daydreaming.

Imagining himself both as the romantic, swashbuckling knight, and as one performing great deeds for God in imitation of the saints brought him great delight. He really enjoyed playing the hero!

Now, however, he began to notice a difference in the aftermath of the two kinds of daydreaming. Whenever he stopped musing about knightly honour and adventure ‘he would find himself dry and discontented’. But whenever he had been engaged with thoughts about the great deeds he would do for God ‘he would remain content and happy even after having left them aside’.

Telling the Difference
Noticing all this did not immediately bring understanding ‘until one time when his eyes were opened a little, and he began to marvel at this difference in kind and to reflect on it… and little by little coming to know the difference in kind of spirits that were stirring: the one from the devil, and the other from God’.

The word ‘spirit’ in this context can be puzzling for some people. It refers to movements within us, sometimes accompanied by a lot of emotion, that influence us in some way. We find ourselves drawn towards some person, idea or course of action. This brings with it feelings of enthusiasm, elation, desire, love and so on. Or we find ourselves repelled by some person, idea, or course of action. This, on the contrary, brings with it feelings of distaste, revulsion, fear, antagonism and so on.

When we notice what is going on, there are two questions we can ask. The first is: Where is this spirit, this movement, leading to? If I follow through on the direction of this movement, will I find myself coming nearer to God? Or will I be moving away from God?

The second question is: Where has this spirit, this movement, come from? Has it come from God or from some source that is not God? The two questions go together. A movement that is bringing me towards God is clearly one that has come from God. Whereas a movement that is leading me away from God is obviously coming from a source other than God.

This was, in fairly simple terms, what Ignatius learned at Loyola. It was the first step in his understanding of discernment. This theological word, sometimes over-used nowadays, refers to the art of distinguishing one kind of spirit or movement from another. Discernment is at the heart of what we now call Ignatian spirituality.

As with Ignatius, it begins with awareness, with noticing, with paying attention. Then come the questioning and the interpretation. If you are not accustomed to living with this degree of attentiveness, perhaps you could learn from Ignatius’ experience. Maybe you could practise on your own daydreams!

This article first appeared in The Messenger (August 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.