Four Steps to Spiritual Freedom, Thomas Ryan, CSP, (Paulist Press, 2003), 281 pages
Reviewed in The Catholic Times, December 2003 (Montreal, QC )
People want to be happy. This comes as no surprise, especially in North America where the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is considered fundamental to what it means to be human and to live in a democratic society. The contemporary spiritual marketplace capitalizes on that desire. There is no shortage of books, videos, Web sites, and programs that seek to address this quest for happiness and fulfillment.
Underlying this quest, however, is a more basic desire: inner liberty or what the Church calls spiritual freedom. According to the celebrated Trappist Thomas Merton, the most important question in the spiritual life is not "Are you happy?" but "Are you free?" If this is so, what concrete steps must we take to embrace and live out of this freedom? Paulist priest Thomas Ryan addresses this question in his seventh and most recent book, Four Steps to Spiritual Freedom.
As in his earlier works, Ryan draws heavily on his personal experience: broad and inclusive, yet always kept in focus by his insistence on the importance of spiritual disciplines. No cheap eclecticism here! Montreal readers would be familiar with Ryanıs anecdotal backdrop given that the Paulist ministered here for 23 years, from 1977 to ı99. He started at McGillıs Newman Centre, then moved to the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism and, later, founded Unitas, an ecumenical spirituality centre.
In Four Steps to Spiritual Freedom, the ecumenist draws on his own recent experience of a guided 40-day retreat, following the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
In 281-pages, Ryan deftly "popularizes" the complex world and technical vocabulary of Ignatian spirituality. The paperback attests to Ryanıs mastery of an often underappreciated art: that of translating complex theological and spiritual traditions into simple and user-friendly terms, easy for even the casual reader to access and recall.
Ryan presents a clear, compelling sketch of four steps along the journey to spiritual freedom; each corresponds to steps in the Ignatian exercises. Moreover, drawing on his gifts as a storyteller whether recounting his own experiences or that of those he has met Ryan brings each of the four steps to life, giving them flesh and blood, and relevance to daily life.
Ryanıs outline of the first step, Know who you are, is the longest and most systematically developed section of the book. It is based on the insight that self-knowledge demands the capacity to distinguish between our ego and our self.
In the external world, we tend to be defined in terms of ego; namely, our identifications (national, religious, political), our roles and relationships (marital, work, family), and by the convictions or values that we hold. These external realities provide us with what Ryan calls our "last name of grace." However, through the experience that Ryan proposes, we are invited to reflect on the mystery of Godıs good creation and on the disorder introduced by human sinfulness. Although called to union with God, we are not God. Four Steps to Spiritual Freedom helps us to embrace what we are: creatures, and hence limited; we are sinners, yet loved and redeemed ones; we are children of God, an identity that nothing or no one can take away from us. It is only in embracing this identity our "first name of grace" that God gives us a sighting of our true self, the "me" that exists beyond the masks.
Ryan suggests that true self-knowledge comes in humility and not in the paralysis of shame and false guilt. It is rooted in a healthy, grounded sense of our own self in relation with others and with God. To "know who I am" is to develop a realistic perception of my gifts, my values and my convictions, without concealing my weaknesses and limitations.
The second step, Live your calling to the full, reminds Christians that God speaks to us through our desires. A central task of the spiritual life is to learn to locate and to name these desires, and to distinguish them from more superficial wants and needs. These desires are revealed to us not merely by introspection but by the grace of discipleship through which we come to see, know, love and follow Jesus more completely, and allow him to reveal Godıs plan for us.
Helpfully, Ryan stresses that Godıs will is not some predetermined blueprint with which we have to comply. Rather, it is connected with the discernment of our authentic desires, the exercise of our freedom, and our openness to the needs of the world. Experiences, thoughts, feelings, events, all become "data for discernment." Each has something important to reveal to me about Godıs unique way of working in my life, making his will known. Ultimately, I begin to identify and to respond to my unique vocation: that place where my deepest desires meet the deep hungers of the world.
In a society obsessed with results and productivity and with what St. Ignatius called "riches, honors, and pride" Ryanıs third step calls us to take a risk: that of letting go of our various "disordered attachments." Let go of results, not because they are unimportant but because, in the end, we have little control over them. During the Passion, Jesus chooses fidelity to the mission of love entrusted to him by the Father, even unto death, over success in the eyes of the world. So, too, must his followers.
After pondering the mystery of the Resurrection, those who have experienced the Ignatian exercises are called to live its graces in the world. Ryanıs fourth step, Daily rededicate your life to God, builds on this theme and is concretized in a particularly helpful way in the bookıs final chapter, Freedom Tools. Addressing the critique that the churches have failed to teach practical methods by which believers can progress in the spiritual life, Ryan presents three Christian spiritual exercises suitable for daily practice: the consciousness examen, Christian meditation and a diverse collection of prayers of dedication.
Four Steps to Spiritual Freedom is a timely, valuable addition to the vast library of works on Ignatian spirituality. More importantly, it is an excellent, practical guide for anyone seeking concrete means of growing each day in their walk with the Lord.
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine is chaplain and professor of theology at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec