Ignatian Spirituality

Andy Alexander, S.J., and Maureen McCann Waldron

A spirituality is a way of understanding and living our lives. Ignatian spirituality is an approach to life grounded in the way St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, “the Jesuits,” came to understand and live his life. (See the story of Ignatius and his first companions in Richard R. Super’s “Ignatius of Loyola: Soldier, Saint, and Scholar.”)

What makes Ignatian Spirituality so alive and helpful for so many—including students, parents, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni—is that Ignatius experienced his conversion and call to intimate companionship with Jesus while he was still a lay person. This is a robust lay spirituality. Another reason for the popularity of Ignatian spirituality is that this is a spirituality for active people. Ignatius was convinced that we do not need to leave the world in order to be intimate with God and to live in an ongoing relationship in the midst of our everyday lives. He often wrote his companions about “finding intimacy with God in all things.” He talked about his spirituality as being “contemplatives in the very midst of action.”

Ignatius’ spiritual experience came out of his own conversion from his previous life “before he had learned humility” to a time where he was a “pilgrim” being led by God and taught by God. What Ignatius learned was that he had an interior life that he could pay attention to and learn from. He kept a journal of his experiences. He discovered that he had movements within himself, sometimes pulling in competing directions. Through reflection, Ignatius discovered he could discern which movements were from God and which were from the Evil Spirit. Ignatius learned that he was a sinner. However, he was overwhelmed to discover that he was a loved sinner, and that God’s love was far greater than his sin. He discovered that God’s mission for Jesus is to save the world. Ignatius experienced Jesus’ calling him to be side-by-side in the mission Jesus has from God, the Father.

Ignatius learned all about Jesus and his way by studying him intimately. In deep experiences of prayer, Ignatius took individual scenes in the gospels and entered them so completely that he let his imagination fill in the details that were missing. In the end, he entered the scene and experienced Jesus quite personally. His desire to be like and with Jesus grew in intensity. Ultimately, Ignatius learned to respond the way a lover responds.

Ignatius carried his notes with him as he traveled, first to the University of Paris, and finally to Rome. Along the way, he organized them into his small book, The Spiritual Exercises. His Jesuit companions and lay persons could use this book as a guide in accompanying others in their faith journey. Eventually, Ignatius’ Exercises became the pattern for how retreats were adapted around the world. The central elements of Ignatian Spirituality for us today flow from these Exercises.

On a Journey

We are all on a journey. God desires to help us to know God intimately and assures us that we will not be alone. God has desires for us and we can find those desires in our own hearts, just the way Ignatius kept discovering and naming desires in his own heart. Despite the conflict and division in our world and the cynicism and skepticism about faith, this spirituality helps us come to know how much God loves us, even though we might be acutely aware that we are unreliable sinners. This is the spirituality of loved sinners who are grateful and open to hearing what we can do to express our thanks.

An Everyday Life Relationship

In today’s world our lives seem busier and busier. Few of us have much leisure time to spend in reflection and formal prayer times. We sense our lives would be better if we could give ourselves more formal time for reflection and to relate with our God consciously each day. The beauty of this spirituality is that it calls us to a life that is fully engaged, doing what God calls us to do, and at the same time being fully connected with our Lord throughout our day. The more we see ourselves gratefully wanting to be with and like Jesus, the more we will want to communicate and support the union that we are living.

For example, when we first wake up, we can begin our day thanking God for this day of life and remembering the key events and responsibilities of our day. We can continue that communication while we are getting dressed. Ignatius calls it talking with our Lord, “friend to friend.” This “conversation” may seem unfamiliar or even uncomfortable at first, but it is very easy to use these background moments of daily life to say, “Lord, you know what you are asking of me today, particularly in this next hour. I’m grateful I am here and I am ready to say ‘yes,’ with your help.”

Little moments of connection with our friend and Lord, while walking to class, while doing laundry, while putting a meal together, will transform our days. Jesus accompanies us through our day and we are consciously aware of his presence and his love. The choices we make along the way will inevitably be freer and the desires we discover in our hearts will more clearly express who we are, as people blessed and chosen to serve.

Examination of Our Conscience

Some busy young Jesuit students once wrote to Ignatius to tell him that their studies were so demanding that they did not have time to pray. He wrote them back saying that they need not spend extra time in prayer. He preferred that they give themselves completely to their studies, but that they looked for and discovered intimacy with God in their day, while walking, while talking with others, while going about the many tasks of their day. The one thing he asked of them was a simple prayer they had learned in the Exercises. He asked them to examine their consciences twice a day.

The purpose of this brief examen is to become aware of the movements in my own heart for each half of my day. Have I moved away from my Lord? Have I moved away from God’s purpose for me? What has brought me closer to my Lord? Ignatius was not thinking of big sins, but of the subtle ways I might be drawn away from my deepest desires for union with God. (See Dennis Hamm, S.J.’s “Rummaging for God: Praying Backward through Your Day”) For busy people, this exercise of looking back, to make sure we are not losing our direction, even in small ways, is very important. The authenticity of the service we do depends upon the integrity of our desires. Therefore, checking in with our hearts twice each day is an essential way to stay faithful to our call.

Service for Others: Living a Faith That Does Justice

This is clearly not only a spirituality of relationship and openness to God’s call in my life. The very nature of the relationship calls us to service. Grateful people are generous people. Lovers share each other’s dreams. The closer we are to God, the closer we are to God’s desires. Ultimately, we hear the cry of the poor and the needy around us. Being one with Jesus becomes completely about self donation— loving others the same way we have been loved. (John 15:12)   Sometimes the people we are called to love and serve are very close to us, in our family, among our friends. The closer we are drawn into relationship with Jesus, the more we will be drawn into love and service of those who need special care: the poor and the marginalized of our society. Some will be called to direct service of the poor. All of us are called to do what we can to dismantle unjust social structures—especially the ones we benefit from directly—in order to lift the burden that the poor experience. (See Roger Bergman’s “Jesuit Education, Ignatian Pedagogy, and the Faith That Does Justice.”)  

At Creighton, we celebrate the diversity of faith traditions that enrich our community. Ignatian spirituality, a gift of the Jesuit tradition, is an apt means of supporting the faith and service of many because it is designed to give life to active, dedicated followers of Jesus. Although we celebrate this treasure within the Christian tradition, we are deeply aware that many other spiritual traditions among us give genuine support to faith and service, leading to a generous contribution of gifts.   Ignatian spirituality is a process of opening ourselves to a relationship with a God who loves us in Jesus. It is an experience of being loved to such a degree that we are freed from so much of what our culture might impose on us. It is a spirituality that allows us to discover our deepest desires that come from this growing intimacy with God. This spirituality teaches us to live in communion with God in our everyday lives and it transforms us into servants for others.  

There are many resources for learning more about Ignatian Spirituality.
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