Think hard, live well


25 Aug 2020

Thinking – really thinking – requires commitment, but the rewards are there for those who are prepared to put in the hard work.

Homework for my philosophy class was always a practical task.

The first was to remember someone we knew who was wise. What qualities made them wise? You probably have your own list, but mine included thoughtful listening, slowness to judgment, goodness, simplicity, insight, and openness in decision-making.

Then we considered a problem, and asked ourselves, ‘What would a wise person do?’ My immediate answer was ‘How would I know? I’m not a wise person!’ ‘Yes, you are,’ my teacher replied. ‘We all have inner wisdom. You are just not used to using it.’

Thinking – really thinking – is hard work. Staying with a thought, reflecting on its various aspects, following it through to a considered response, and deciding what action should follow is hard going.


So much gets in the way. We are impatient to have the matter settled. A thousand little thoughts distract our attention. It’s difficult to make a decision; a job calls us away. It will work itself out, we say. ‘I’ll think about it tomorrow.’

And we allow the opportunity to make wise choices drift away. Or we make rushed decisions and come to regret them. If only I had known . . . if only I had . . . if only I hadn’t.

In his autobiography, Ignatius of Loyola, author of The Spiritual Exercises, recalls his own search for wisdom. For the first 30 years of his life, he lived as the younger son of an aristocratic family, educated as a knight in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. He lived by the values of courtly chivalry; and as a soldier, with courage and honour. He dreamed of a beautiful, distant princess, and winning her regard, and was once arrested and run out of town after a brawl over someone less distant. No-one could have been a less likely candidate for saintliness.

It was during his long convalescence with a smashed leg at the family castle in Loyola that he became drawn to holiness. Reading the lives of the saints and the Gospels, he began to notice inner movements of his heart, which he called consolation and desolation.


Thinking about chivalrous deeds for his princess made him happy for a while, then left him empty and restless – desolate. But thinking about the lives of St Francis and St Dominic fired him with a deep desire to do what they had done, which stayed like an afterglow – consoled.

He decided that once well, he would go on a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Monserrat, and thenceforth to live as these spiritual heroes had done, in radical poverty. It would be Christ the King whom he would serve.

His journey to Manresa in 1521-22, and the 11 months he spent there, were a schooling in prayer and wise discernment. He adopts the rough wool robe of a mendicant; he gives away his fine clothes to a beggar; he gives away his mule and travels on foot; he spends days and nights in prayer; he fasts to extremity; and he pays no attention to his appearance, letting his hair and nails grow, rejecting all worldly vanity.


He has visions. One in particular is beautiful, and beguiling, and he describes in detail its serpent-like shape. At first, he welcomes its appearance. But after a while he recognises that it distracts and diverts, rather than sustains him.

In another, praying on the banks of the River Cordoner, God shows him the unity of all creation and Jesus labouring within it for the Kingdom, redeeming and saving. This profound experience of love, understanding and peace remains lifelong.

As for the serpent, one day it demands how he will be able to sustain this punishing lifestyle for another 70 years? ‘You wretch,’ he exclaims. ‘Can you promise me even one hour of life?’ It never returns.

During his ‘apprenticeship’ in Manresa, Ignatius develops a way of life lived in deep intimacy with God, learning to discern between the ways of the Holy Spirit and the Bad Spirit by their fruits: one characterised by peace, wisdom, spiritual joy and inner freedom, the other by deceit, confusion and futility.

He discovers in himself a gift for spiritual conversation, helping others to grow in closeness to God, following their own unique call to live their daily lives in holiness.


He come to realise that this can be achieved within the scope of our own life – world. So, he adopts ordinary clothes (gift of a friendly family who have cared for him), and reverts to his customary neatness. God, he realises, is not impressed by pretence to holiness, but by generosity of heart.

Ignatius learns that prayer is both contemplative and active. He develops a simple, powerful tool of discernment – the five-step Examen, or Review of the Day. Where was God today in my life?

How does wise Ignatius help me with my homework? I think he would say, first, where is God here? And then, what is our way of proceeding? And I consider what to write, and I ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. And dedicate this article to Ignatius with grateful thanks for his inspiration.

This article first appeared in Madonna magazine Spring 2020 edition.

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