Minding Our Thought Patterns – Ignatian Spirituality

In St. Ignatius’ second rules of judgment – the rules relating to more subtle judgment, what we might call advanced judgment – he addresses in rules 5 and 6 how we can respond to our own thought processes.

Ignatius’ experience

Ignatius had experience with it. During his many months in Manresa, he was plagued with guilt about past sins until he felt unable to escape his constant bad memories. The story is more complex than we need to go into here, but we know from his autobiography that for an extended period of time he had wrestled with a mind that tormented him.

He kept himself free from this by an act of grace; He was somewhat supported by his confessor and supported by other friends, but his deliverance seemed to be a direct act of God. We do not doubt this, but rules 5 and 6 suggest to me that Ignatius had other experiences that invited him to explore what was going on in his head as he walked through a patch of spiritual darkness.

Rule 5 directs the person to “pay close attention to the course of thoughts, and when the beginning, middle, and end are all right,” then those thoughts were inspired by the good spirit. If it doesn’t end well, if it “worries or disturbs the soul” then even the origin of this process is suspect.

Rule 6 tells the person who has been tempted or misled to take another look at the development of thoughts and see where things have turned.

Remember that Ignatius was dealing with people who wanted to do God’s will, whose aim was to do good in the world. Because of this, these rules are part of advanced judgment. We are no longer faced with the choice between obviously good and bad. We start with good intentions. We want the right things. But it still goes wrong. Ignatius himself had various intentions that never worked, and so he was very interested in judging his own trials. And given his ruthlessness – an obsession with his own sins – he wanted to understand how his own mind worked so that he could sense when it was most likely to be tempted or misled.

Patterns in our life

Most of us experience thought patterns that are not good for us. The obvious example is addiction, a pattern of thoughts and impulses that gets stuck and prevents our freedom. We now understand physiological causes and see addiction as more than just mental and emotional. However, we cannot deny the important role that thoughts play. However, we all, with or without addiction, experience unhealthy thought processes.

For me, judging others is a common pattern. When I first notice I’m having a negative reaction to someone, I can usually trace the origins of it: certain physical traits that I have been conditioned not to like; a quality of openness that makes me uncomfortable; or a resemblance to someone in my past who hurt me. The key is to stop and ask myself: when did I start feeling negative? If I don’t do this, I begin to accept motives or intentions in that person that sprung from my imagination. I’m responding to a person who doesn’t even exist.

Though Worsening Thoughts

Some interactions worsen because we don’t see where our minds are leading us. Maybe I wanted to help a friend with housework because she is immobilized with a broken foot. It starts well until I realize that the condition of the house is longer term than my friend’s current situation explains; she’s never kept it very clean and she’s totally disorganized. I ask her if I should clear some shelves; she says, yeah, go ahead. The more I work, the more outraged I get, because this person doesn’t share my enthusiasm for order and cleanliness. Three hours later, I am deep in a growing task and I am angry with this friend and feel quite overwhelmed. Where did that go wrong? When I judged this friend’s standards, which were different from mine. I went to a place where I compared my ways to their ways and insisted (internally) that mine were better. That is where the shift took place.

The Holy Spirit does not threaten us or incite us.

The most outlandish thought patterns are not about others at all. When I was still in music school, I went to the practice room and started working on my piano skills. When I got to the point on a piece too difficult to play well, my thoughts jumped to: I don’t have nearly as much skill as other types of music; I’m already behind and will never catch up. The practice got more frustrating and my mind and heart got more hectic and depressed until I stopped practicing completely and decided it was time for a coffee break. Granted, I was behind other genres of music and I would never become a performer on stage. But I had never felt called to this life anyway, and if my own thoughts hadn’t sabotaged my piano practice – and it happened almost every day – at least I would have enjoyed the growth I was experiencing, and the practice would have been a lot more productive. I can look back and see this thought process, but I didn’t recognize it then. It was a discernment that I hadn’t yet learned.

Impatience and fear

My judgment now has more to do with the thought patterns that make me become impatient or angry with my husband, or with the subtle ideas that interfere with my prayer. How many of us give up prayer because of thought patterns like: I don’t even know how this works, or in the face of my outburst this morning, I really have nothing to do, ask God for anything.

Often our thought patterns lead us to a bad place out of fear. I almost always find it a bad sign when I think that I have to do something or something else. Another bad sign is feeling like you’ve been cornered. Decisions made in such a frame of mind are bound to go wrong. The Holy Spirit does not threaten us or incite us. There is nothing compulsive about the way God deals with us. When we are feeling compelled, desperate, or out of time, these states of mind should raise red flags for us.

Reflective exercise

I encourage you to think about a time when you started with the best of intentions, but the end result wasn’t that good. Try to remember your thought process. Also remember your emotions. What was going on inside you that made things turn in an unhealthy direction?

Sometimes this type of discernment works best with a spiritual guide. Ignatius relied on his confessor; we have spiritual leaders, pastors, and close friends. Of course, we also have our own daily conversations with God, who loves us through everything.

Image by chenspec from Pixabay.

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