Finding God in All Things by William Barry

Summary: A companion to the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

Finding God in All Things was an assigned book in my Introduction to Spiritual Direction class. Barry is a noted author on spiritual direction, and this is not the first of his books that I have read. In Finding God in All Things, Barry uses the Ignatian spiritual exercises to model spiritual formation.

I paired Finding God in All Things with Becoming an Ordinary Mystic. The two books, both written by Catholic specialists in spiritual direction, were a helpful pairing. Barry is a Jesuit, and Albert Haase is a Franciscan. Finding God in All Things was published a couple of weeks ago by Intervarsity Press, and Finding God in All Things was published nearly 30 years ago by Ave Maria Press. Neither were spiritually fluffy books. In both cases, I found it hard to read more than a chapter at a time because they were pushing readers toward spiritual reflection.

What I continue to wrestle with is the focus on discernment in Ignatian spirituality. Ignatius assumes that someone who is seeking God will find God. And that God will use all available avenues for that. Imagination, coincidence, feelings, stories, etc., are all methods that God can and will apply to draw us toward him. Theoretically, I am all for this. I believe God has used feelings, emotions, stories, and coincidence to pull me toward him and show me areas of service or people he desires me to pursue. The fact that this is true personally is not the issue; I struggle with the explanation of them.

Traditionally, Protestants have been more focused on the Bible; “Do not tell me something that cannot be explicitly shown in the Bible.” That, of course, is in itself a problem, but while I see the issue of over-reliance on proof-texting of scripture, the Ignatian methods feel, at times, way too loose. Ignatius was very conscious of the possibility of being misled. I think many Protestants who would be opposed to Ignatius’ focus on discerning God would do well to pay as much attention to “the enemy” as Ignatius does.

Ignatius and the spiritual process of discernment that bears his name relies on several checks and balances. First, the goal isn’t power or knowledge but a relationship with Christ and Christlikeness. Second, Ignatius assumes the structure of the church as boundaries. While Ignatius sometimes pushed boundaries, he did not refuse direct orders even when he disagreed. If a spiritual director or superior gave an instruction, it was followed. Third, there is an assumed intimacy with scripture, Christ, and the Holy Spirit that is a clear boundary. That intimacy is still too free for many Protestants, but it trusts that even when we make mistakes and misunderstand the Holy Spirit’s leading, God’s grace will guide us back to the path of God’s choosing. God can redeem, and we need not be paralyzed with fear in discernment because God’s grace is there for us even in wrong choices and sin.

Finding God in All Things is a book of spiritual wisdom that goes far beyond just the spiritual exercises. There is a great section that riffs on Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories and the use of imagination to inspire us to understand the theological possibilities of what God can theoretically do and the depths of depravity. Barry attempts to give a lot of freedom in the method of prayer and freedom in not relying on our power for our spiritual growth.

There is a good section on discerning the right religion (Christianity) by:

We can distinguish real religion from unreal by contrasting their formulae for dealing with negative motivation. The maxim of illusory religion runs: “Fear not; trust in God and he will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you”; that of real religion, on the contrary, is “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.”

One of the essential parts of the discussion of spiritual formation in Barry and Haase is that they both assume loss and pain and do not diminish that loss or grief. One of the areas that I am struggling with is that Ignatius’ exercises believe that a retreatant will necessarily desire to seek after Christ’s passion (the pain of not just his death but the whole experience around his death as well). I initially assumed that this was a mainly Catholic presumption. But the longer I thought about it, the more I am unsure of this. Or at least if this is a particularly Catholic assumption, whether it should be. In Bebbington’s fourfold definition of what it means to be an evangelical, one of those pillars is a cruciform orientation. When I first realized that Bebbington was particularly talking about an orientation toward Christ’s death and not just a broader Christocentric focus, I balked.

I am still not really at peace with this point. But I am aware that part of the orientation of the book as a whole is that God uses pain and loss and the very nature of human life to illustrate God’s love for us. Part of what Barry is doing in referencing Tolkien is to say that we need the pain to understand the joy and vice versa. Neither Tolkien nor Barry says that God is causing pain, but God uses the natural grief and anxiety of life to show his grace.

Barry is asking the reader to understand that in Ignatius’ understanding, using MacMurray’s words at the beginning of this quote, God is not calling us away from pain but to God’s grace within pain.

MacMurray’s maxim of real religion. “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.” The resurrection of Jesus demonstrates real religion. The passion and death really did happen, but, the resurrection of Jesus says, they are nothing to be afraid of. When we receive the grace of rejoicing with Jesus in his glory, then we want to shout Alleluia over and over again.

Finding God in All Things: A Companion to the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius by William Barry Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

Leave a Comment