When people in the United States think about Jesuits — if they know us at all — they tend to associate us primarily with education. As soon as I mention to people that I am a Jesuit, inevitably I hear something like, “My father went to a Jesuit high school,” or “My sister is at a Jesuit university.” Before I entered the Order, I thought of the Jesuits in this way, having first encountered the Jesuits at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland. After entering, I discovered that the Jesuits and their lay colleagues are involved in an astonishing variety of ministries here in our country and throughout the world.
What holds all these ministries together is a spirituality that inspires and undergirds all that they set out to accomplish. That spirituality is first and foremost Christian, in that it originates from the Lord Jesus Christ, who summons disciples to share in his announcement and enactment of the reign of God. But it took particular form in the lived experience of one particular disciple, Ignatius of Loyola, who gives his name to this particular form of spirituality, Ignatian.
The Christian Church enjoys a variety of beautiful and effective spiritualities, or “pathways to God.” Each is usually tied to the extraordinary effect of God’s grace in the life of a charismatic founder or “originator,” somebody like St. Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day. Many of these founders left writings that capture their experience for the benefit of others who want to follow in their footsteps.
Ignatius Loyola’s writings include thousands of letters, an autobiographical account, and especially his seminal Spiritual Exercises, a work geared to help others discover the God Ignatius came to know through the ups and downs of his own spiritual journey. What he learned on his spiritual journey opened his eyes, “slowly” he says, to a profound understanding of God’s utter graciousness and the Risen Lord’s invitation to become a companion in His mission.
Ignatius Loyola’s journey began during his recovery from a battle injury that slowed him down for almost a year. His usual pleasures and distractions were unavailable, so he turned to some religious books, which surprisingly ignited his spiritual life and left him with a desire to live as a humble pilgrim in imitation of the saints. Ignatius was still imitating at this stage of his life the life of others — the saints — good in itself, but he was not yet in touch with his personal call. Eventually, at a small town named Manresa, he had a profoundly clarifying spiritual experience that he would later call the greatest grace of his life.
What this experience was exactly, he does not say. But its effects were momentous. Ignatius came to a profound realization that God was present and active in all of creation, including within his own soul. The holy desires he had experienced in recovery were God’s nudges, leading him to a more meaningful and holy life. God was not a judging God so much as a helping God. Ignatius would leave Manresa with a profound peace and sense of purpose. For the rest of his life, he would help others discover what he had learned.
Ignatius went through his conversion as a layman, and he used the ups and downs of his own life as the subject of his prayer. Years later he and some companions would found the Society of Jesus to be of help to people, but his original conversion and its deepening at Manresa happened long before the Jesuits.
Jesuit institutions try to keep alive the graced experience of Ignatius by offering our colleagues the chance to deepen their own spiritual lives. Here are some principles highlighted in Ignatian spirituality:
1. All that is, all of created reality, is a gift of a gracious Creator. Our response is one of gratitude.
2. God is not distant but present and active, nudging us toward the good.
3. God deals directly with people by means of spiritual movements that can be discerned as ones authentically from God.
4. We also learn to recognize unhelpful or even destructive movements within us that must be recognized if we are to grow spiritually.
5. Prayer, especially praying over the life of Jesus imaginatively, can help us develop a “felt-knowledge” of the Lord, by which we know Him intimately.
6. Our knowing the Lord leads us to desire profoundly to be with Him and share in His mission to help the world in an active way that fits our call.
7. By practicing various spiritual exercises, we become adept at recognizing what God desires for us to do in any given situation and at responding as best we can with generosity.
8. Our gratitude and love for God shows itself in action for the betterment of the world.
Fr. Brian Lehane, SJ, teaches theology at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy in Detroit, Mich.
This article also appeared in an abbreviated form in the Summer, 2017 issue of Jesuits magazine. Click here for the Summer 2017Jesuits magazine index