Practice Makes Perfect: Ignatius and The Big Game

Downtown at the Superbowl

St. Ignatius Loyola must have loved this year’s Super Bowl.  The commercials were decent (and, in the case of this commercial beyond decent); Madonna rocked; and the game came down to the very last play.  Actually, I am convinced that Ignatius is actually a fan of the Jets, who came nowhere near this Super Bowl (a brash coach, a hotshot quarterback, and an offensive line more porous than the Navarrese army under cannon fire should be right up Ignatius’s alley!), but I suspect he’s been sleeping on the job of intercession since January 1969.  More to the point, I think he was too focused on the very matchup of the Giants and the Patriots, or rather, the rematch of these two teams that played one another in a memorable Super Bowl four short years ago.  And Ignatius always appreciated a good rematch; or, as he would have called it, a repetition.

Surely, he does not get one every year.  Of the 46 Super Bowls that have been played since Ignatius’s death, only six of them (including this year) have featured rematches.  Of those six, only two occurred in closer proximity to the original, with the Cowboys and Steelers facing one another in ’76 and ’79, and those same Cowboys playing back-to-back games against the Bills in the early 90’s.  The shorter the elapsed time between a rematch and the original makes it all the more likely that some of the same people, and not just the same franchises, will face off again.  This year’s game, for instance, brought together the same two coaches, quarterbacks, and owners that battled it out four years ago.

This familiar cast of characters made the usual array of pregame questions and speculations especially varied.  In Boston, where I am living now, and in New York, where I was raised, people wanted to discuss not only this year’s game, but also how that game would compare to, be affected by, respond to, and either reinforce or erase the memory of the 2008 contest.  Indeed, reading the sports pages of The New York Times and The Boston Globe over breakfast every morning these past two weeks allowed me to relive that first game, only this time I was able to bypass all the minor plays and remember instead catches like this and this.

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Ignatius loved rematches.  As much as he was someone whose spirituality focused on the present, he appropriated the present by gaining a heartfelt awareness of the past.  This is not to say that Ignatius was, at base, an historian, one who professed the credo of “remembrance of the past helps us to understand better the future.”  Rather, to borrow from Maurice Blondel’s History and Dogma, Ignatius, “with the help of the past, liberate[d] the future from the unconscious limitations and illusions of the present.”  His was a creative retrieval of the past, which vivified the present and opened up new vistas for the future.  Nowhere is this more evident than in his Spiritual Exercises, the greatest gift that Ignatius left the church; tools of prayer “to overcome oneself and to order one’s life without reaching a decision through some disordered affection” (I’m using the George Ganss version of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius here).

Ignatius divides these exercises into four units, what he calls “weeks,” each of which corresponds to a different theme.  Scholarship abounds on these themes and their interrelatedness, so rather than rehash what others have said or wade into a sea of complex, albeit important, nuances, I will, with all the finesse of a blitzing defensive lineman, put it bluntly: the exercises invite me to look honestly at myself, to acknowledge that I need saving, and to recognize in Jesus’ life, passion, death, and resurrection a new way to live.  The weeks break down into days, and the days are each composed of five distinct periods of prayer lasting about an hour.  The one making the exercises – a commitment that wins her the noble title of “the exercitant” – encounters repetition just after the first and second prayer periods of the first week, that is, right as the retreat begins the exercitant is already being asked to repeat things.

Repetition

Having spent those first two exercises mediating upon sinfulness, both on a macro and a micro scale, she then moves to the instructions for the day’s third prayer period: “This exercise will be a repetition of the first and second exercises.  I should notice and dwell on those points where I felt greater consolation or desolation, or had a greater spiritual experience.” In other words, the exercitant is asked to host a rematch in her heart.  And the prayed-over material of the first two exercises is just hours old, so the second take will have familiar characters.  The distractions, the odd tangents, and the unplanned nap can all be skipped this time around, and she can focus on what was really important, those movements that really said something, or even better, moved her to feel something during her initial prayer.

Do not be fooled, sports fans!  This is a rematch, not just a re-watching of the highlights on SportsCenter over lunch.  Ignatius says as much when he writes, “I have used the word ‘repetition’ because the intellect, aided by the memory, will without digressing reflect on the matters contemplated in the previous exercises.” Repetition, then, demands that the exercitant actively engage the fruits she reaped from that morning’s prayer.  Her task is one of creative reception, or, perhaps even better, co-creative reception. Ganss, commenting on Ignatius’s instructions for this third exercise, argues something quite similar: “The descriptions given here… make clear that the repetitions are not a mere reviewing of the preceding meditation or contemplation, but rather an affective assimilation, a deepening personalization of one’s previous interior experiences.”

So important is the act of repetition that the fourth exercise of the day “is to make a repetition of the third.” Once begun, this same schematic of (i) first exercise, (ii) second exercise, (iii) repetition of these exercises, and (iv) repetition of the repetition, runs throughout every single day of the first week.  The same goes for the second, third, and fourth weeks, with only one or two days singled out for a different plan.  This means that the most frequent exercise the exercitant performs during the entire 30-day retreat is the repetition.  And for those of us – lay or Jesuit – who’ve made the Exercises, it’s easy to believe the claim that repetition, the act of hosting a rematch, lies at the very heart of the Spiritual Exercises.

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Repetition’s pride of place in that other historically Jesuit endeavor, academics, is no less notable.  The Ratio Studiorum, the magna carta of Jesuit education, describes repetition in this way:

And so one or two students, appointed in advance, should give the repetition from memory for not more than a quarter of an hour. Then discussion should begin, with one or two proposing objections and one or two answering them. Any time remaining is to be given to resolving difficulties. To secure time for this the teacher will insist that the syllogistic form of reasoning be strictly followed. When the objectors have nothing new to advance, he should cut short the discussion.

All students at Jesuit schools engaged in such repetitions at least once a week.  For some courses, it was a daily exercise.  But regardless of its frequency, its aim was always twofold: “First, what is most often repeated will be more deeply impressed on the mind. Second, the more gifted… can complete the course more rapidly than the others, since they can advance each semester.”  Though Ignatius did not have a hand in writing the Ratio – it was first published more than 40 years after his death – these academic goals of deep impression and steady advancement have obvious spiritual analogs in his exercises.  The second paragraph of the Spiritual Exercises, for instance, reminds the director, “For what fills and satisfies the soul consists, not in knowing much, but in our understanding the realities profoundly and in savoring them interiorly.” For Ignatius, this filling and satisfying should be done over, and over, and over again, in the quiet of the chapel and the noise of the classroom.

Speaking of noise, when I talked about this whole rematch/repetition idea over a beer with another Jesuit a short time ago, he had to raise his voice over the din of a crowded bar when he told me, “You should say something about Augustine’s Retractiones.”  Doing so as I bring this essay to a close puts me in league with Ignatius, who mentions Augustine of Hippo three times in the Spiritual Exercises, including once in the last section of the entire text.  Augustine, at the end of his life, did a repetition, a review of his ideas, his arguments, his battles, his victories, and his losses.  The account of that look back makes up his Retractiones, a work that gets far less play than Confessions or City of God, but one that says just as much about Augustine as do either of those more famous texts.  Retractiones is more than Augustine doing some revelatory journaling, though.  It is new theology born from his creative retrieval of his past.  It is an exercise in humility, vulnerability, and transparency; virtues that Ignatius lauds throughout the Spiritual Exercises.  But is it a rematch?  Perhaps.  A repetition?  I’ll drink to that.