The enduring appeal of St Ignatius of Loyola
The Feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola on 31 July finds me reflecting on how much this great 16th Century saint and his teachings have shaped the lives and prayer of countless millions, from the earliest Jesuit missionaries to Pope Francis.
Along the way, Ignatian Spirituality has gifted the church with a vision of finding God in everything that is open to people from all walks of life, religious and lay alike.
This phrase ‘Finding God in all things’ that has become so synonymous with Ignatian Spirituality was coined by Jeronimo Nadal, a contemporary of Ignatius, who described the great saint thus
He was ‘wholly caught up in the presence of God and the love of all things spiritual: contemplative also in the midst of action which he used to express in this way: God is to be found in everything’
(Joseph E Conwell SJ, Walking in the Spirit: A Reflection on Jeronimo Nadal’s phrase ‘Contemplative Likewise in Action’).
We become ‘contemplatives in action’ when we ‘find God in all things’, and vice versa. What does this mean in practice? Joseph Conwell SJ defines contemplation as ‘a certain awareness, attentiveness, a being in touch with mystery, being caught up with delight in what is going on in life, or in a gospel story, or in the mysterious depths of God. To be contemplative suggests watching, and also receiving and being present…to be contemplative suggests an attitude, a way of being. It has something to do with mystery.
This contemplative awareness is something of which everyone is capable at any time when we recognise that every moment, every situation, every person we encounter, is also the place of encounter with God. St Ignatius believed that God was constantly teaching him, as a schoolteacher teaches a pupil (autobiography 27), and so too does God teach us in all our feelings, emotions, moods, desires, needs, talents and energies.
The prayer closely associated with St Ignatius, the Examen, helps us to notice each day what gives us life and energy, or a gentle sense of wellbeing (a consolation that Ignatius describes as feeling like a drop of water falling gently onto a sponge), and also what disturbs us, causes us anxiety and drains us of life and energy (the desolation that he describes as feeling like water splashing harshly onto a stone).
As we pay attention to these ‘inner movements’, and our responses leading either towards God and other people or away from God and other people, we become aware of the direction in which God is gently leading us as he shows himself intimately involved in every aspect of our lives.
This intimate encounter is greatly fostered by another key feature of Ignatian Spirituality, the use of Imaginative Contemplation. When we pray with a Gospel passage using our imagination to place ourselves in the scene, we find that we are not just ‘saying prayers’ to God but are actively caught up in all that Jesus says and does – and in who he is.
When we pray with the Gospels in this way, we do not just read a story about Jesus; we become part of that story. We do not just seek to acquire knowledge of what Jesus said or did, important as those are, but we want to know him personally as our intimate friend and lover. St Ignatius writes in his Spiritual Exercises that ‘it is not much knowledge that fills and satisfies the soul but the inner feeling and relish of things’ (Annotation 2).
So in imaginative contemplation we see Jesus, we hear him, we touch him, we walk with him, we have dinner parties with him, go to weddings with him, climb mountains and walk through cornfields with him. We feel and experience all of this, and we savour and relish it. And as we do so, we come to experience how deeply Jesus wants to be with us, to see, hear and touch us, walk with us and be intimately involved in our lives also.
Of course no genuine spirituality, whether Ignatian or otherwise, is for ourselves alone. God’s gifts are to be shared, and we find that, as our hearts are expanded in love, we are moved outwards to share God’s concerns for our world.
Thus we become ‘contemplatives in action’ as we respond to God’s promptings to share his work in the world and be labourers in his vineyard. Ignatian inspired volunteers are active in ministry amongst the Jesuit Refugee Service and London Jesuit Volunteers, to name but two, but this action, to be truly fruitful, is always entwined with the contemplative element of awareness of God’s constant care and love for ourselves personally and for his entire good creation. It is an exciting and affirming vision of a life lived in, with and for God and God’s people everywhere, with God always ‘to be found in everything.’
Thank you, St Ignatius!
For further information on all that is offered at Mount Street in London, St Beuno’s in North Wales and the Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Glasgow, including the new programme of events commencing in September 2017 and various Ignatian ways of praying, see www.pathwaystogod.org