Given that our prayers typically include asking God for something we want and asking God to keep away from us something we do not want, to reverse direction and instead ask for something contrary to what we want or ask God to bring to us whatever we might want to avoid seems absurd. Why would anyone pray for that which is undesirable?

Yet such prayer is exactly what we are invited to try in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises in what is termed agere contra, or acting against. Ignatius offers this strange practice as a means of unhooking ourselves from attachments, so that we ask God for such unwelcome experiences as poverty or humiliation or sickness—and then watch out, for making these undesirable requests will quickly highlight our deepest attachments.

Again and again Jesus urges us to ask God for what we want and reassures us that out of love for us God stands ready to give us what we ask for. Yet being sinful and limited creatures means that we often do not know what is best for us and are likely to ask for things which are not truly in our best interest. So the Ignatian practice of agere contra offers a way to understand better what I truly want to ask God to grant me, no longer seeking superficial gratification but instead praying for what my spirit most needs, the love and peace that the world cannot give.