Ignatian Spirituality 101

Last Sunday we started a new series exploring Ignatian Spirituality, the tradition that comes from the insights and teaching of Ignatius of Loyola and is practised by the Jesuits, the Catholic order he founded in the sixteenth century. We started with the basics, and you’ll find everything we covered below. In Ignatian style, there are also some questions for reflection built in, so I do encourage you to make some time for those if you can.

I cannot claim to be an expert on Ignatian Spirituality, and I am even less certain of the history and inner workings of the Jesuits, but I have really benefited from Ignatian traditions of prayer and contemplation, and am excited to share them with you and to learn more as we explore this together.

This series will be based on The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything by James Martin (a Jesuit priest not the tv chef!) but I will also be digging around to find answers to any questions that come up, so after the picture of Ignatius at the end of this post, you will find a little bit of research I have done this week.


The Life of Ignatius

Ignatius of Loyola was born in the Basque region of Spain in 1491. As a young man preparing for life as a soldier and courtier, he was vain and hotheaded, but then when he was thirty, his leg was shattered by a canonball, forcing him into a long period of rest. While struggling for things to entertain himself with, his sister in law offered him a book on the life of Jesus and another on the life of the saints. They wouldn’t have been his own choice of reading materials, but they captured his imagination and changed the course of his life.

He began to wonder if he could live like the saints, and his ambition to succeed in the military life was transformed into an ambition to succeed in the spiritual life. He began by going from one extreme to other, replacing a life of wealth and pleasure with a life of hardship and austerity, but after an intense spiritual experience while walking by a river, he began to form the ideas that would later form what he called his “way of proceeding”.

After several false starts, including a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he began training for ordination in the Catholic Church, during which time he gathered around himself several new friends, with whom he founded the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits. This was in the early years of the Protestant Reformation, and it is sometimes thought that the Jesuits were founded, or at least approved by the Pope, in order to counter the reformation. However the founding documents for the order speak most about helping souls, and Ignatius believed God met people where they were and wanted his methods to be available to everyone. It seems appropriate then that we should be exploring his style of spirituality, even as members of a different tradition.

Much of Ignatius’ life was dedicated to writing the two texts that contain most of his thinking. Spiritual Exercises to Overcome Oneself and to Order One’s Life, Without Reaching a Decision Through Some Disordered Affection, which focuses on how to live one’s own life, and offers a series of  exercises which are generally worked through with a spiritual director. And Constitutions, which focuses on how to live with others, setting out the rule of life for the Society of Jesus but always with a degree of flexibility and pragmatism built in.

Ignatius died of malaria in 1568, and became a saint in 1622, with his feast day celebrated on July 31st, the date of his death. I didn’t realise this when I suggested looking at Ignatian spirituality, but that means this year marks the 450th anniversary of his death. In those 450 years, hundreds of thousands of people have benefited from Ignatius’ way of proceeding, from Jesuit priests to lay people of all backgrounds.

The openness of Jesuits to the world means they have been active in many different areas, from the arts to astronomy to activism. They invented the theatre trapdoor and discovered quinine, and there are thirty five craters on the moon named after Jesuit scientists. St Peter Claver was known as the slave of the slaves for his ministry to the slaves in what is now Colombia in the seventeenth century. The Nazis perceived the Jesuit ethos as the most intransigent opposition to Nazism, and a Jesuit college in Innsbruck served a centre for anti-Nazi resistance until it was closed down in 1938. The 1945 film On the Waterfront was inspired by the groundbreaking labour relations work of John Corridan. Daniel Berrigan was for a time on the FBI’s ‘Ten Most Wanted Fugitives’ List as a result of his protests against the Vietnam War. And of course the current Pope, known for a degree of theological free thinking more characteristic of the Society of Jesus than the wider Catholic Church, is a Jesuit. There are inevitably darker moments in Jesuit history, not least their implication in the child abuse scandal, but I do think that we should judge the merit of an idea or a tradition when it is at its best and most true, and I think men like Corridan and Berrigan argue strongly that the Jesuit tradition is worth engaging with.

What is the most compelling part of the life of St Ignatius? Where might your life intersect with his?

Four Way of Understanding Ignatian Spirituality

A spirituality is simply a way of approaching God, which when fully embraced can become a way of life. Many Christian spiritualities have grown out of religious orders, and each has its own “charism” or founding spirit. For example, the Franciscans are known for their love of the poor and environment, and the Benedictines are notable for their generous hospitality. We might say that the charism of revive is a willingness to question.

James Martin notes that it used to be said of the Jesuits that they were so well disciplined that if you asked five of them what their charism was then you would get one answer, but that they are now a more independent movement and so you would more likely get six different answers. But he ventures to suggest that there are four elements of Jesuit spirituality, or four ways of understanding it, that all Jesuits would agree on.

Finding God in all things This is about acknowledging that there are no dividing lines between the secular and the spiritual, that God cannot be boxed into church or religion but is present in all things. In our work and our relationships, in the music we listen to and the games play, in doing the weekly food shop and in crying on the stairs because it’s been a really long week. It means that every aspect of our lives is important and open to God, and that we can engage with God whatever we are doing. Perhaps it sounds obvious, but it was a revolutionary idea when Ignatius thought of it, in a time when the church got to say what was and wasn’t holy.

Being a contemplative in action The Jesuits were never a monastic community, but were expected to lead active lives out in the world, and so they had to learn ways of weaving prayer and meditation into the chaos of their everyday lives. That is one of the things that is so attractive about Ignatian Spirituality. I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s contemplated running off to a hut in the desert, but the reality is that we have jobs and families and social lives, and we’re not really going to sack all of those things in, so we need to find way of holding all of that business within a deep rooted spirituality. Action includes social justice, community, simple living.

Seeing the world in an incarnational way The fact that Christ took on flesh and blood means that God takes embodied life seriously, and that means we must take it seriously too. This really links back to the idea of finding God in all things, as it calls us to look for the ways in which God is still incarnated in the world, but it really emphasises that we can engage with God through the physical. It gives us permission to enjoy the world, while calling us to engage more with God through it.

Seeking freedom and detachment This is about ridding ourselves of distractions and unhealthy desires, so that we can become the people we’re meant to be, love and accept love, make good decisions, and experience the beauty of creation and the mystery of God’s love. That may mean letting go of things, but when held in tension with the previous point, it isn’t simply a denial of pleasure. It may mean reordering our priorities, so that the things we can not or need not let go of have less of a hold on us.

Think about these four ways of understanding Ignatian spirituality. Are there any that come more naturally to you? Are there any you shy away from?


Six Paths to God

If spirituality is simply about approaching God, then it may help to step away from Ignatian Spirituality for a moment to think about the our own experiences.  James Martin identifies six paths people may take to God, acknowledging that many of us will move between them at different times in our lives

The path of belief For people on this path, God has always been part of their lives, and they have always been more or less confident of their beliefs. That doesn’t mean that they have never experienced doubt, but that faith has been their dominant experience, giving their lives meaning and sustaining them through struggle. This path sounds great, but it can lead to complacency or become stuck in immaturity.

The path of independence People on this path have rejected organised religion, perhaps because they have been hurt or rejected or quite simply bored by it, but still believe in God. This can be a very well considered path, and where there has been serious pain it may be a necessary part of the healing process, but it can be a lonely journey.

The path of disbelief People on this path have come to reject not only religion, but belief in God. Some have thought more deeply about God than those on the path of belief, and they have a knack for detecting hypocrisy and lazy answers, but there is a danger that they can raise intellectual or emotional barriers, so that they are no longer able to see the other paths.

The path of return People on this path grew up with religion and walked away from it, but have found their interest reignited, perhaps by a believing friend or a major life event, and started to feel their way back to faith. They start on this path with questions gained in their period of atheism or agnosticism, questions which can lead to a more mature and considered faith, but they can also come with hurts which must be resolved.

The path of exploration People on this path are constantly asking questions, with genuine curiosity rather than cynicism, and trying out different ways of engaging with faith. This willingness to explore can lead to greater depths of understanding and the right spiritual home, but there is a danger of never settling or committing because nowhere is perfect.

The path of confusion For people on this path, finding God is a worry or a problem. They may believe enough to pray in a crisis and attend the odd service, but their faith runs hot and cold, and their questions weigh heavier than their beliefs. There is nothing wrong with having doubts, but this kind of confusion can be uncomfortable and ultimately lead to disbelief.

The good news is that there is an openness and pragmatism about Ignatian Spirituality that means it can be used by anybody who wishes to engage with it. Whatever path you are on, it can meet you on it and travel it with you. But it will not travel with you alone, as we all need companions along the way. People often talk about being spiritual but not religious, but if spirituality is about approaching God, and religion is about creating a community of faith, then we need both together. That’s whay it’s so important that to remember that engaging with Ignatian Spirituality connects us with a community and a tradition.

Which path are you on now and which paths have you travelled in the past?  Who are you travelling with and how does being in community affect your faith?

Quiet Heartfelt Moments

Returning to Ignatius for a final chance to reflect, we see that his journey along the path of relief began with small steps. As he read the life of Jesus and the life of the saints, he began to intersperse his thoughts of knightly service and courtship with thoughts of doing heroic things for God, and gradually he realised that the aftereffects of these thoughts were different. The joy that came with thinking about the things of the world didn’t last, but the joys of thinking about God did, and he began to understand these feelings were the way in which God was communicating with him.

The idea that God may communicate with us directly landed Ignatius in trouble with the Inquisition, who thought he was trying to bypass the institutional church, but many of us will testify alongside Ignatius that God does often speak through quiet heartfelt moments. A sudden sense of awe at the beauty of the ocean. An overwhelming feeling of love towards a friend. A moment of calm in the midst of a storm.

When have you experienced those quiet heartfelt moments in which you have felt the presence of God? How can you be more open to recognising those moments?




A Few Tentative Answers

Can women be Jesuits? Women cannot be admitted to the Society of Jesus, but there are female religious communities that are closely connected to the Jesuits, and many laywomen engage with Ignatian Spirituality.

Are there Jesuit churches? Yes, there are Jesuit churches and even Jesuit parishes. These are part of the Catholic Church, but were founded by Jesuits and are served by Jesuit priests. Jesuits priests do also serve in normal parish churches as well as chaplaincies..and of course the Vatican.

Where are the Jesuits in Britain? This is not an exhaustive list, but they run a number of schools and charities, there are centres of Ignatian Spirituality in London and Wales, St Bede’s pastoral centre in York is run by a female order specialising in Ignatian Spirituality, and Manresa House in Birmingham is where Jesuits train to join the order.

Did Ignatius believe in Catholic doctrine? Ignatius was broadly orthodox in his faith, but he emphasised the importance of living theology and wished to reconcile the authority of church with personal faith, and his theology was above all spiritual and Christ-centred. This put him within the moderate wing of church, and it did get him into trouble, but I am not aware that he was ever seen as heretical. (In fact, if you Google Ignatius and heresy you’re more likely to find people still praising him for fighting the heretic Luther!)

Tell me more about the Spiritual Exercises. The Exercises were not written to be read by individuals, but to act as a guide for spiritual directors. As I have not had opportunity to be led through the Exercises, it seems right that I have not attempted to read them, and so I can’t give details of the finer points, only a very broad description. The original and complete form of the Spiritual Exercises is a retreat of thirty days, but the most common form now is a “retreat in daily life” which is spread over several months, and it is directed at developing discernment. An overview can be found at https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises/an-outline-of-the-spiritual-exercises


Published by leighannegreenwood

Baptist minister in training with Revive Leeds. Blogging on behalf of Revive and (coming soon) for myself at Covenant Project.

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