Ignatian Spirituality and the Fine Arts

Roc O’Connor, S.J.

As a young person, I did not set out to be a musician or a composer. Even now, having composed liturgical music for more than thirty-five years, I do not see myself sharing the sensibilities often associated with artist-types. I consider myself as a sort of person whose life simply mirrors that of his peers in its joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams, graces and trespasses. Yet, somehow Grace tapped a stream somewhere in me that flowed out as music.

Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, I took great delight in singing or dancing to the popular music of the day. It was only after I entered the Jesuits in 1967 that I discovered music as a path for personal as well as ministerial expression. Over time, music, in particular, liturgical music, “found” me. It was a gift from God, I ultimately realized, one that took a long time to reckon its importance in my life.

I joined the Jesuits just after the era when novices sang litanies in Latin. At that time, Mass was undergoing the stress and strain of being adapted to the modern world. Our thirty-day experience of the Spiritual Exercises was still based on the ‘preached retreat’ model (before the advent of individually directed retreats). And Jesuits associated with the arts were regarded with suspicion. The “present” of my novitiate years played out the tension between past and future.

 During that same time, I sang in novitiate choirs (notably the Viri Gallilei, the choir for those who usually did not make the main choir!). I learned to play guitar from other Jesuits and began to play at Mass after a while. Whether singing or playing music, I experienced joy and delight and wonder and a sense of freedom in the very doing of it! It wasn’t that different from the profound gladness in music I felt at high school dances. Although I took deep delight in these forms of self-expression, I have come to realize that my delight had more to do with me sensing the connection between God and a community at prayer, supported by liturgical music.

That sort of liturgical sensibility took some time to develop. I believe that my encounters with Jesuit/Ignatian spirituality through directed retreats based on the Spiritual Exercises set me on a course that shaped my essential spiritual vision of life and liturgy. Several definite elements proved to be foundational.

First, the directed retreat movement of the 1970s sought to retrieve both goal and purpose of the Exercises from studying St. Ignatius’ writings. As a result, retreat directors increasingly focused on listening to the personal experience of each retreatant instead of insisting on a “cookie-cutter” approach. They came to see how Grace engaged individuals at whatever point of development each found himself or herself. It was my own experience of a particular mediation from the Exercises that made a great deal of difference to the way I compose.

The “Contemplation on the Incarnation” provides a key part of the foundation of the Ignatian worldview. Here, the retreatant stands (or sits!) with the Trinity looking with loving clarity at the world. They perceive that there exists “some order, some chaos,” that “some are happy, some sad; some are doing good, some evil; some progressing to heaven, some to hell.” 1 Now, let me demonstrate how Ignatius’ worldview affected the way I compose liturgical music by highlighting several key points.

 During prayer, the retreatant attends to what the divine persons say about the situation: “What shall we do in response to this world?” 2 The second person of the Trinity says, “Send me!” 3 And, in the fullness of time, the angel Gabriel visits the house where Mary dwells in Nazareth. What does the angel say? What does Mary say? What does each feel? How does the retreatant respond to this interaction? What does the retreatant say to Mary, to Gabriel, to the Persons of the Trinity? What is the flavor, the quality, the mood of my response?

The key to this exercise is that Ignatius sets a person in relationship to the Mystery of the Incarnation as both something that happened then, and something to which I am called to participate in now! Ignatius is right in having the retreatant engage the Mystery now. It is analogous to what liturgy does. It provides the structure for a community of believers to remember and encounter the saving deeds of God that are still being done in our midst today!

Here is the analogy again: Ignatius invites an individual retreatant to engage in the “Contemplation on the Incarnation”—“How do I respond to God as I see God acting (in my religious imagination) to save people today?” The liturgy allows a community (a “We” more than “Me”) to hear the proclamation of God’s saving deeds today and then wrestle with the question, “How do we respond to this divine initiative?” So, whether contemplating the Incarnation or hearing a gospel at Mass we are basically oriented toward an attitude of responsiveness to the divine initiative.

 When I compose, I usually start with some intuition. For example, I rarely “choose” a text to set to music. Rather, the text chooses me. That is, sometimes when I hear the words of Scripture some phrase suddenly begins to “sing” itself within me. I do not find that every text or phrase comes tumbling out as a completed work. Most often a phrase or two surfaces in my awareness as the sort of response a community could make. In other words, I experience myself singing these words explicitly with a congregation in answer to a specific facet of God acting now.

It took me the longest time to realize that I can reply to God positively, negatively, or with total boredom and still remain in relationship! In fact, I am still discovering the truth of that insight. Whether I respond out of joy or sorrow, out of disillusionment or delight, God is not only big enough to handle my reactions, but is humble enough to continue to draw me into the Mystery.

Finally, let me say again that I never set out to be a musician/composer. Divine Grace found me and opened up this way for me to relate to God and to the Body of Christ. The Society of Jesus not only allowed me to follow this path, but came to foster this vocation within a vocation, particularly through the Spiritual Exercises.

So, having served the Church as a liturgical composer for about thirty-five years, I can say that for me music is not end in itself; it is ministerial to the core. Although I am still tempted to make this ministry serve my personal needs, it is equally true that every time I return to the “Contemplation,” I see my life resituated within the context of all other people on the earth as simultaneously an expression of chaos and order, of good and sin. And, in this context, I strive to hear God and answer, “Here I am, send me!”


. Taken from Ignatius’ instructions to the director in the “Contemplation on the Incarnation” from The Spiritual Exercises.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

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