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Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Again: consolation without cause

Something interesting at the Jesuit Post: Brendan Busse SJ writes ...

After a recent discussion on ‘spiritual experiences’ a student wrote to ask if there was a particular experience that led me to become a Jesuit and if I thought that the beliefs of a person who hasn’t had dramatic ‘spiritual experiences’ (like herself) weren’t as strong as someone who has had them (like myself – she presumes) ...

He goes on to write this to his student about experience ...

There were many experiences that lead me to become a Jesuit. Most of them had to do with a deepening sense of self and a greater capacity for love–both of which I found more readily available when I was breathing ‘Jesuit air’ (i.e. as a Jesuit Volunteer, working alongside Jesuits in prisons and on immersion trips, etc.). I wasn’t raised with any explicit religious images of God so, in many ways, I came to faith as an adult. Because of this I would have to say that my ‘spiritual experiences’ were really just normal human experiences like everyone else’s .....

‘Experience’ in the sense that I think you mean (i.e. challenging or confirming spiritual experience) is one gift among many. The gifts of experience come in all stripes, sometimes dramatic, sometimes mundane; in either case they just seem to happen upon us. The trick is paying attention when they do. I pray (as Ignatius would) for the grace to see my experiences in the light of the revelation of God, in light of love ...


What interested me about this was my own conviction when I first became a Catholic, and even more so when I learned about Ignatian spirituality, that doing religion correctly meant having a mystical experience. Ignatius writes about two kinds of experiences in the Spiritual Exercises - consolation with cause and consolation without cause. Here's a definition of these from John Veltri SJ ...

Consolation With Cause ....... This Consolation is received because of some outside cause and can be explained by it. This outside influence can be any interior event such as one's own personal insight and understanding, or exterior event such as a beautiful piece of music to which one is listening, or a gift received from someone, or a compliment, or a job well done, etc. In other words, there is some outside influence that can explain the Consolation. Much of our work with directees involves this kind of Consolation and, therefore, requires discernment.

Consolation Without Cause ...... This Consolation is sometimes referred to as taking place without proportionate cause because no accompanying interior or exterior event can explain completely how the Consolation has come about. The Consolation is beyond its cause. For some Christians, their "calling" was experienced this way ... [John] English writes that this Consolation Without Cause suggests "an experience of the presence of God that takes over our whole person. I describe this experience as the confluence of two things: a passive experience of the unconditional love of God and an active experience of unconditional response to this love. Such a Consolation is self-authenticating and cannot be doubted."


As I understood Ignatius, a consolation without cause was a true mystical experience of God - unmediated - and I was surprised to learn that many Jesuits, like Brendan Busse SJ, don't seem to have had them, and perhaps many think that there are actually no such animals. Here's what Philip Endean SJ wrote about Karl Rahner and consolation without cause in Karl Rahner and Ignatian Spirituality ...

Rahner describes 'consolation without preceding cause' as the pure, objectless brightness of one's whole existence being taken up -- a taking up that is consoled and surpasses anything that can be pointed to -- into the love of God; 'consolation with cause', by contrast, is the experience of 'being consoled in connection with a definite object of a categorical kind'. (p.i32)

... (snip) .....

Harvey Egan, in a doctorate written under Rahner's own supervision and building on what he takes to be Rahner's position, describes 'consolation without preceding cause' in terms such s these:

This central, core, touchstone experience cannot deceive and cannot in itself be measured; it is itself the measure and the standard of all other experiences, hence, the one movement among various movements of 'spirits' which carries within itself its own indubitable evidence ... and can serve as the Ignatian first principle in supernatural logic, because ... (it) ... is the becoming-thematic of supernaturally elevated transcendence, pure openness to God, and nothing else. It is essentially a consolation 'without conceptual object in the actual, concretely personal, radical love of God'.

... (snip) ...

Rahner seems, then, to be suggesting that there is one identifiable kind of experience that can be guaranteed as an experience of God. Such a claim seems problematic for at least two kinds of reason. Firstly, the claim that the experience somehow transcends language -- 'God himself. God himself I experienced, not human words about him' -- raises questions about how we can distinguish and reidentify different instances of the same experience ..... An associated question is that of the sense in which spirituality, or experience, can serve as a warrant for theological claims. (pp. 139-141)


I don't know - speaking for myself, I'm holding out for a seriously burning bush. If Ignatius (and Teresa of Avila, and Joan of Arc, and others) can have what they believe to be a direct experiences of God, then I would like to have one too.

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