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Ignatian Spirituality 101

Posted: January 16, 2018 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

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


Rhythms, habits, patterns

Posted: January 9, 2018 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Yesterday was my first day back at college after the Christmas break, and we talked in our afternoon session about the importance of good rhythms and habits and patterns, both in forming our characters and developing our ministries.

Then this morning I thought I would look back to what I wrote at the start of last year, and found that I had reposted the graphic I created to capture some of our thoughts around engaging with the nine styles of spirituality.

That was all about identifying practices that would give us good rhythms and habits and patterns, so it seemed to good to remind myself of it, and to share it again here.

My graphic design capabilities have still not improved to the point of being able to make something both attractive and legible, so if you find yourself squinting too much to make out the writing, you may like to head over to the posts on Styles of Spirituality and Rhythms of Prayer.

However you engage with it, perhaps you might pick a couple of the practices we suggested together as a community, and build them into your rhythms and patterns and habits this year.

nine styles

Ring Out, Wild Bells

Posted: December 31, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

– In Memoriam (Ring Out, Wild Bells) by Alfred Lord Tennyson


Christmas Day – Still Waiting

Posted: December 25, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

In some ways the wait is over, and in some ways it has scarcely begun.

Christ is here, but his kingdom is still coming.

May you celebrate Christ today, and may you see his kingdom in the year to come.

Happy Christmas!


Advent 4 – Joy/Pain

Posted: December 24, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

The final week of reflections from Paula Gooders’ The Meaning is in the Waiting focuses on Mary, who was called to a lifetime of waiting.

After the visit of the angel, she must wait for the birth of this miracle child – wait for childbirth in the hope that all will be well, wait to see how Joseph will respond in the fear that she will be rejected.

After the encounter with Simeon at the temple, she must wait for the moment which he says will pierce her soul – wait without knowing when it will come or how much it will hurt, wait without knowing whether or not she will be able to bear it.

And after the death of Jesus, she must wait to see what will happen next – wait in the knowledge that those close to him may still be in danger, wait wondering if his cryptic words will come to something.

Luke portrays Mary as a woman who thinks deeply. She ponders the meaning of the greeting the angel brings, and she treasures up the words of the shepherds. I wonder if that thoughtfulness made her waiting harder, leading her anxiously into imagining worst case scenarios in the dark of the night, or if it enabled her to find great meaning in her waiting, bringing insights and glimpses that allowed her to hold fast to hope and expectation.

Either way, Mary’s lifetime of waiting surely brought her great joy and great pain. She bled and suffered through labour, but how she must have felt when she held that baby. Her heart was pierced at the cross, but how it must have soared at the empty tomb. And the joy must have won out in the end, because as Gooder notes, her presence with the disciples in the first chapter of Acts is her first act of voluntary waiting.

Jesus has been raised and ascended into heaven. Her role as mother is ended and she no longer has to wait for him. And yet she chooses to wait for the Spirit he has promised. The pain has been worth it, and if there is more pain to come she will accept it.

It was impossible to find a picture of Mary that wasn’t cloyingly sweet, but I believe she was tougher than the soft focus and warm glow of the portraits would have us believe. She was not just a woman of patient obedience, but she was also a woman of defiant faith. And for that I love her.


Advent 3 – Waiting/Meaning

Posted: December 18, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Last week’s reflections from Paula Gooder’s The Meaning is in the Waiting focused on John the Baptist, who leapt for joy in his mother’s womb when Mary visited bearing Jesus in hers, and then seems to have waited most of his life to meet him again.

We thought last week about active waiting, and John’s waiting was certainly not passive, as he proclaimed the coming of the one who was greater than he, and preached the message of repentance and forgiveness that Jesus would later reveal the full truth of.

Gooder wonders if John fully understood who Jesus was, when they finally met face to face in the waters of the Jordan, then suggests that this may be the wrong question to ask, recognising that “John was who he was and, more importantly, he was who he was called to be. He stood, waiting, between the old and the new, because that was what God had called him to do and, perhaps in that waiting found meaning”.

I’m sure that at times it must have felt like a frustrating calling, having a message burning so fiercely inside of him that his whole life was oriented around sharing it, but perhaps never fully understanding what it meant, and never seeing the fullness of it realised. (John was killed early in Jesus’ ministry, and so did not live to see his death and resurrection.)

I’m sure of it because I feel some of it. For two years I have had the words “God in the mess and the dirt” seared into my heart, but I cannot possibly express all that those words contain, and I will only ever have glimpses of what they look like in our present reality. But those words and those glimpses are precious, and there is great meaning in  waiting to discover more of their riches. Like unwrapping layer after layer of the greatest pass the parcel in the world, much of the joy is in the process.


Advent 2 – Then/Now

Posted: December 10, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

I have to be honest and say that I completely failed at my daily readings this week. I was all out of sorts on Monday and it completely broke the pattern. I have however caught up this afternoon, so I can share a brief reflection from Paula Gooder’s The Meaning is in the Waiting with you now.

The focus for this week was on the prophets, whose words seem to speak of what was to unfold within the space of a few generations AND of what came to pass with the birth of Jesus AND of the restoration and recreation that we still await. By reminding us of the prophets, Advent “invites us to inhabit a swirl of time that stretches forwards and backwards but by doing so anchors us in the present” and so to think about what we have waited for and what we are still waiting for.

We focus on the messianic prophecies at Christmas, but another popular set of prophecies concerns what we call the end times. We often interpret these as referring only to a future moment, but then we can find ourselves falling into a very passive kind of waiting. The end times these prophecies describe are characterised by peace and justice, and we can don’t have to wait for those things, we can celebrate and create them. Love, forgiveness, generosity…”these are all end time moments, breaking into our world now”.

As Gooder says in the introduction to her book, Advent is the wait for a child, and that is a very active form of waiting, with preparations to be made and futures to be imagined. We should also be active, not only in our wait for Christmas, but also in our wait for all that has been promised, as we enter into the mad swirl of time.