THE essence of Jesuit spiritual formation is a book of meditations and guidance called the Spiritual Exercises, written by the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola. Young Jesuit novices make the famous 30-day silent retreat praying and meditating following St. Ignatius’ direction. But the Spiritual Exercises are not just for Jesuits.
The book was written in order to help a person come to know and follow God’s will in their lives, without letting anything else get in the way. As an integral part of the Exercises St. Ignatius composed “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits.” These aid the seeker to recognize the movements of the Holy Spirit in one’s heart and soul. These “Rules” are unique in the history of Catholic spiritual direction, and to my mind, have never been equaled or surpassed by any other saint or spiritual writer.
Having been a Jesuit for over 40 years, Fr. Watson knows the mind of St. Ignatius. Having devoted the majority of his life using the Spiritual Exercises to direct retreats for university students, influential business leaders, and normal folks you’d find in the pew on a Sunday morning, Fr. Watson knows these writings well. The genius of Fr. Watson’s book is that he can take these spiritual “Rules for Discernment” written in the 16th Century and make them seem fresh, new and exciting. He accomplishes this while being totally faithful to the original intent of the sainted author.
For example, even if you only read and pray over the first chapter, “Be Not Afraid”, this book can change your life. Fr. Watson, like St. Ignatius, has the ability to get inside your thoughts, know what is in there that can stand in the way of your receiving God’s love, grace and peace, and help you get rid of the block. I can say that about myself after reading the first chapter. With the many challenges I encounter in being a bishop, fear can easily get the upper hand. Fr. Watson is right. God is not the author of fear. Evil is the author of fear.
What is so attractive about this book is that it can be picked up and used immediately by parishioners and seekers no matter your educational or socio-economic background. In my large diocese I have rich, poor, and in-between parishes begging to begin the 40 Weeks program of prayer and discernment.
People everywhere are thirsty for God. They are looking to priests and lay leaders to help them grow in their spiritual lives. It’s not enough just to attend weekly Mass – as beautiful an experience as that may be. They want to taste more of the riches of the Catholic spiritual tradition. People have a professional life. They have a family life. They have a social life. As Christians, they are entitled to a spiritual life! And we Church leaders need to give it to them. Who else can? This book, when used properly, makes a huge contribution to helping us do that.
One last thing. This book is not “for Catholics only.” A growing number of Christians from other denominations are discovering Ignatian Spirituality and loving it. Why? Because it is biblically based. By that I mean St. Ignatius draws lessons for discernment from the Sacred Scriptures and applies them in a practical way to people’s lives.
The present book has biblical quotations supporting each of St. Ignatius’ and Fr. Watson’s principles for discernment. I have friends who are pastors of Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches who are anxious to begin Fr. Watson’s Forty Week’s program in their parishes; the source of the original Affirmations phrases in the current volume.
Fr. Watson has done the Catholic Church and the wider Christian community a great service in giving us this volume.
Most Reverend Michael C. Barber, S.J.
Bishop of Oakland