Jesuits publish new book on the Spiritual Exercises

March 24, 2023

A review of Rob's book by Nicholas Steeves SJ, a fellow Jesuit and theologian

Imagination, Discernment and Spiritual Direction proves that it is still possible today for a Jesuit priest to think up, write up, and share with his readers helpful new insights into Ignatian spirituality and the old craft of spiritual direction.

Rob Marsh SJ, the author of Imagination, Discernment and Spiritual Direction

Outside Britain, Rob Marsh may not yet be a household name among those who circuit-preach on the art of accompaniment. One hopes that this book, compiling insightful Ignatian papers he has published over the years, may make him known more widely. The exquisite nature of some of these insights, expressed in crisp, engaging English, makes them a treasure to which one can profitably turn time and again. In short, this reviewer hopes the book might become a classic. A classic—not one of those thick historic manuals on which experts rely to contextualize Ignatius Loyola; still less, one of the faddish pamphlets which de- and re-construct him selon la critique du jour. A classic, rather, in the sense of a well-loved family recipe book which provides food of godly comfort to the hungry soul.

As can be expected from the title, the Ignatian imagination is central to the book. In chapter 1, the reader can ponder how Ignatius invites anyone engaging in prayer to look at God looking at that person—a path away from being “mind-blind” to God. Chapter 2 gives new insights into sloth, using the 1999 film American Beauty to highlight the dangers that the apparently dormant capital sin still offers today—and remedying them with a sense of marvel at beauty. In Chapter 3, Fr Marsh renews the ancient Jesuit practice of humbly sharing spiritual advice on the basis of his experience both as directee and as director: by perceiving spiritual ‘movements’ and ‘counter-movements’, both can find a way in spiritual direction.

While the word ‘discernment’ is thrown about so much these days it risks becoming irrelevant, Chapter 4 explores the practice on two planes—the ordinary and the extraordinary—giving the classic Ignatian ‘spiritual grammar’ of ‘good spirit’ and ‘bad spirit’ a new spin. Thus, the discernment of spirits becomes less a slogan or a technique than a true, consoling path of prayer and union to God. Chapter 5 delves deeper, giving discernment of spirits a welcome cosmological dimension within our modern culture. Dr Marsh’s initial expertise in chemistry lends sound credence to his discussion of the tensions between science and spirituality. Patiently evincing how contemporary Ignatian commentators might skirt around the embarrassing question of what spirits actually are, his thought-provoking cosmology can help make discernment wonderful again.

In an amusing pastiche of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, acting as a literary, imaginative intermezzo, Chapter 6 broaches temptations and motions of the Second Week in one’s Lenten trip through the desert. Chapter 7 is imaginative in a different way, using the Spiritual Exercises to imagine how to carry on ‘day-to-day’ spiritual direction, analogically and painstakingly applying the structure of a classic Ignatian prayer period to an hour of accompaniment. Differently again, Chapter 8 uses Irish philosopher Richard Kearney’s 1988 The Wake of Imagination to explain how the imagination can be used in the discernment of spirits to make faithful decisions that are anchored in the real. Coasting on those key notions, Chapter 9 asks the grave question of what spiritual direction might be if director and directee took God for ‘real’ rather than as a mere ‘notion’ (to use Newman’s old distinction), making a convincing case based on experience. The Examen viewed as storytelling in Advent is the focus of short Chapter 9, while Chapter 10 presents the reader’s imagination with an engaging tryptic of ecology, angels, and virtual reality. Thus, she might marvel once again at the angelic beauty of the human imagination that helps make the invisible visible in contemplation.

The varying length, tone, and topic of each paper in the book does not warrant reading it in one setting—but that is not necessary for the book to become a favourite reading of those who practice spiritual direction following the school of Ignatius. Fr Rob is a worthy disciple and imaginative master.

Nicholas Steeves SJ

Imagination, Discernment and Spiritual Direction is published by The Way (the Jesuits' online journal and publishing platform) andwill be launched on Tuesday 28th March 2023. You can order a copy of the book here.

Banner: The photo shows the site of the Battle of Bear Paw (1877), where a massacre of indigenous people occurred. In his book Rob describes visiting the place and noticing a perceptible ’spirit of place’ that leads him to affirm the presence of God in creation.

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