Harnessing the Good in Daydreams with St. Ignatius

Sep 27, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

In the spring of 1521 at the battle of Pamplona, a prideful 30-year-old Ignatius of Loyola convinced his commanding officer to defend the city walls against a vastly superior force of more than 10,000 French soldiers.  The battle ended when a cannonball broke Ignatius’ leg, sending him to an extended, painful convalescence from multiple surgeries where his stimulus-seeking adventuresome nature was sorely tried.  According to published accounts, he went nearly stir-crazy from boredom, confined to his bed.  He asked for the popular chivalrous adventure stories of knights doing great deeds and courtly romance that he could use to fan the flames of his imagination, seeing himself in the role of the dashing hero.

His daydreams were vivid and engrossing, as he saw himself vanquishing his foes and rising triumphantly to any challenge from any foe.

But he didn’t get those books.  He got other books instead.

Ignatius’ sister-in-law provided him with Ludolph of Saxony’s, The Life of Jesus Christ and the Flos Sanctorum, a collection of short stories of  popular saints.  The effect of these books on Ignatius’ daydreams was gradual but real.  Ignatius’ companion Luis Gonzalez de Camara shares with us Ignatius’ recounting of his daydreams in St. Ignatius’ Own Story:

By the frequent reading of these books, he [Ignatius] conceived some affection for what he found there narrated. Pausing in his reading, he gave himself up to thinking over what he had read. At other times he dwelt on the things of the world which formerly had occupied his thoughts. Of the many vain things that presented themselves to him, one took such possession of his heart that without realizing it he could spend two, three, or even four hours on end thinking of it, fancying what he would have to do in the service of a certain lady, of the means he would take to reach the country where she was living, of the verses, the promises he would make to her, the deeds of gallantry he would do in her service. He was so enamored with all this that he did not see how impossible it would all be, because the lady was of no ordinary rank; neither countess, nor duchess, but of a nobility much higher than any of these. [p. 7]

These were the morally problematic fantasies of vainglory that we were warned against by Fr. John Hardon, SJ and Catholics in the weekly reflection from August 9, 2023 titled Catholics Discussing the Downsides of Daydreams.  I cannot describe the content of Ignatius’ “narcissistic” daydreams any better than Fr. William M. Watson, SJ, in his book Forty Weeks: An Ignatian Path to Christ with Sacred Story Prayer, Second Edition, who wrote:

Anxiety, fear, lusts, compulsive appetites, resentment and anger, control of others, getting even/getting back, addictions, lost innocence, aggression, and vices populate these story lines. In short, they are linked to your broken heart and wounded human nature. These daydreams/fantasies generate electrical energy, excitement, and urges to things low and earthly. [p. 133].

This list of Ignatius’ daydream motifs maps on well to the many of the themes  that we described in the weekly reflection from September 6, 2023 titled Your Daydreams Reveal Your Secret, Unmet Needs.  I never worked with St. Ignatius of Loyola – he was never a client of mine.  The last time I worked in a hospital setting was in the late 20th century in Seattle, never in 16th century Spain, so the following ideas are speculations.  I could see Ignatius’ parts seeking to have the following deep, unmet integrity needs met in his fantasies:

  1. the need to matter (his managers may have feared he would be forgotten by the world as he languished in his hospital bed;
  2. the need to exercise agency (when he was physically incapacitated);
  3. the need to be good, by virtue of his (imagined) heroic deeds, as an antidote to unrecognized shame; and
  4. the need to have a mission and purpose in his life

But daydreaming in this way leaves one prone to emptiness.  Fr. Watson goes on to describe the effects of these kinds of problematic daydreams on both Ignatius and us – the “fruits” of this kind of fantasizing:

[These narcissistic fantasies] inflate your ego and excite you while you are fantasizing or engaging them, but they leave you dry, empty, hungrier, and dissatisfied—even depressed—after the fact. Or out of your sadness, depression, anger, emptiness, and dryness, you may turn to them for satisfaction and release—like a narcotic—a painkiller for your heart. [p. 133]

Fr. Watson identifies the functions that parts are trying to exercise through a disordered use of daydreaming and the effects of that problematic fantasizing.  This kind of daydreaming often is motivated by firefighter parts’ desired to numb, stifle, or distract from the unmet needs of exiled parts, and this coping strategy can result in a kind of temporary relief, but it never resolves the underlying issues.

Fr. Brian O’Leary, SJ, in his article Learning from Daydreams describes how, through reading the two books at hand, Ignatius’ daydreams began to shift, to change:

When Ignatius turned to the Life of Christ and the Lives of the Saints, his vivid imagination was still at play. He asked himself, ‘How would it be if I did this that St. Francis did, and this that St. Dominic did?’ He was daydreaming, playing with different possibilities to those of being the chivalrous knight. Yet he was still thinking like a knight.

He was focusing, not on the inner life of Christ and the saints, not on the values they lived by, but on their great deeds. Soon the possibility became an imperative: ‘St. Francis did this, so I must do it; St. Dominic did this, so I must do it’. It was an impulsive, immature response, of no great spiritual depth, but it was where Ignatius was at that time. And it was enough to allow God to lead him a bit further and continue teaching him.

Slowly and gradually, grace was operative and working with Ignatius.  He was taking his fantasies of vainglory and chivalry into to context of the lives of the saints.  Gradually, Ignatius began to engage in much more healthy and ordered daydreaming, best described by Fr. Watson as follows:

Peace, calm, self-control, forgiveness, surrendering angers and hatreds, appreciation of beauty and innocence, holy dreams and high ideals, inspirations to selfless love, desires for healing, and the joy of making a difference and living a meaningful life are their storylines. These storylines are linked to your God-given human nature and the deepest dreams of your heart .[p. 133]

And these themes are also reflected in the list from the September 6 reflection.  And as Ignatius’ companion and biographer, Luis Gonzalez de Camara, recounts:

[O]ne day his eyes were opened a little and he began to wonder at the difference and to reflect on it, learning from experience that one kind of thought left him sad and the other cheerful. Thus, step by step, he came to recognize the difference between the two spirits that moved him, the one being from the evil spirit, the other from God. [St. Ignatius’ Own Story, p, 10].

Fr. Watson describes how these holy daydreams differ in their effects:

These [holy] daydreams/fantasies generate peace, tears, quiet hope, and aspirations to all things innocent, beautiful, and noble. They humble your heart and fill you with gratitude while you are fantasizing or engaging them, and they leave you fulfilled, content, and satisfied—even joyful—after the fact.  [p. 133]

Why the difference between the emptiness, dryness, and frustration after the narcissistic daydreams and the humility, gratitude, fulfillment, contentment, and satisfaction and even joy of the holy daydreams?

I argue that the holy daydreams brought Ignatius into the living relationship with God, Mary and the saints, into an authentic intimacy, lived out internally.  These daydreams brought with them internal order and integration; and as part of that, his deep unmet attachment and integrity needs were actually being met.  I imagine how his exiled parts were allowed a place to be healed and nourished.

In the narcissistic daydreams?  There was no depth and no real needs being met as Ignatius anesthetized himself to avoid pain.

In summary, a great clue as to the moral quality of daydreams is in their effects, their fruits, and this can help you discern how better to manager your interior life.


Be With the Word for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dr. Gerry and I invite you to our conversation about work in this week’s 38-minute episode titled Choosing Unity Without Losing Integrity. In that episode, Dr. Gerry and I discuss how we can choose unity, especially as part of the mystical Body of Christ, without losing our integrity. Trying to listen and understand another’s point of view does not require us to agree with them. Instead, we are called to foster a unity in Christ’s love.  You can listen to the Mass readings here.

Also, don’t forget about Dr. Gerry’s book, Litanies of the Heart. Check it out and pre-order your copy here.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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