The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to dive deeper into the “Presupposition” from the Spiritual Exercises. To learn more, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: The Presupposition, A Guide for Better Conversations”
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s new book The Deep Places is a book about listening and trust. In it, Douthat documents his struggles convincing his doctors that he has chronic Lyme disease, a disease that officially doesn’t exist. In the preliminary stages of his illness, as he struggles through bouts of dizziness, pain, and sleepless nights, Douthat is eager for the mainstream health professionals who are treating him to be proven right. Despite their insistence that chronic Lyme is nothing to worry about and that its apparent existence is only a problem for the “mentally disturbed”—Wikipedia designates chronic Lyme as a “health fraud”—Douthat finds himself, after an intense and years-long onslaught of debilitating symptoms, simply unable to accept the official judgment.
The memoir is among other things a cri de couer for the medical establishment to take chronic illness more seriously. It certainly has the potential (and in fact has already begun) to start many meaningful discussions about the virtues and vices of contemporary medical practice. As I read the book, though, my mind was drawn elsewhere: to a humble convent in 17th century France, where not so different circumstances were playing out in the spiritual order rather than the physical.
There is a striking similarity between Ross Douthat and Margaret Mary Alacoque, the Visitation sister (and now canonized saint) whom we know today as the woman responsible for the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On a monthly basis in the years 1673-74, Margaret Mary received a series of revelations from Jesus, the most famous of which involved Jesus asking her to inaugurate the First Friday Devotion and to work for the establishment of the Feast of the Sacred Heart.
While Margaret Mary is mainstream today—the devotion originating with her is now fully approved by the Church—she was anything but in her own time. Many people, including her own family members and members of her religious community, thought she was crazy. Her spiritual experiences and visions were strange, different, and did not fit into the established models. Many wrote her off as delusional or even demonically possessed until at last she found a spiritual director, the Jesuit Claude La Colombière, who listened to her and trusted her experiences. Eventually her visions were vindicated and celebrated.
Margaret Mary divulged to Claude experiences that many others, including her own religious sisters and superiors, claimed were deceptions. Referring to Claude, she said that “the manner of humility and of thanksgiving with which he received it… touched me so much, and profited me more than all the sermons that I would have been able to hear.” 1 The very fact that Colombière listened to her and believed her was for her the cause of enormous consolation. His trust proved instrumental in legitimating the devotion to the Sacred Heart centuries later.
Contrast this with Douthat’s experience. One of the more poignant elements of his memoir is his description of incredulity with which others greet his long-lasting pain. It is not only the medical establishment which cannot understand it; friends and family are speechless too. “Mixed in with the surprise, I always hear a hint of disbelief,” Ross says about friends and family members who find out that, even after months and years, he still isn’t feeling better.
Doctors and scientists in the 21st century are a bit like priests and religious superiors in the 17th. Science and medicine are generally trusted today, but in Margaret Mary’s world, to rock the boat of the religious establishment was a serious matter. Undeterred by the waves he might cause, Colombière listened to Margaret Mary and believed her. His ministry shows us a particularly powerful illustration of the Ignatian Presupposition in action. St. Ignatius exhorts spiritual directors to be “more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false.” I am no doctor, and I claim no special knowledge of disease or pathogens. But I can’t help but wonder if Douthat’s account of his painful struggle with Lyme disease and the cold indifference with which many greeted him might inspire us to bring the attitude of the Presupposition into more areas of our lives.
We spend so much of our days listening to others speak, but how often do we truly listen? I know that I sometimes have my mind made up about what I think a person is going to say before they even open their mouth. Surely the Presupposition calls us to something greater than this. It may be worth asking yourself: How do I respond when I hear a viewpoint that I’m particularly skeptical of? Do I reject it out of hand? What is my response when someone shares with me a deep experience of pain or loss? Do I provide them with an immediate answer, a quick solution? Do I say nice words with my lips but something very different in my heart? These are temptations for all of us, but none of them compare to the humble stance of simply listening. Listening allows the attitude of the Presupposition to permeate one’s entire life. It is an attitude that we see in action in the life of Colombière. It is an attitude that Douthat no doubt wishes he had encountered more.
The Deep Places by Ross Douthat is available from Penguin Random House and wherever books are sold.