Spirituality is hard to define. It has to do with the “style” or the “spirit” of our life with the way in which we live out our faith in God: our way of being religious. Richard McBrien has written:
To be “spiritual” means to know, and to live according to the knowledge, that there is more to life than meets the eye. To be “spiritual” means, beyond that, to know, and to live according to the knowledge, that God is present to us in grace as the principle of personal, interpersonal, social and even cosmic transformation. To be “open to the Spirit” is to accept explicitly who we are and who we are called always to become, and to direct our lives accordingly (Catholicism. Winston Press: Minneapolis, MN. 1980, 1057).
Each of the great religious families in the Church, like the Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans, has a distinctive way of following the Risen Christ and responding to the Holy Spirit.
This is an introduction to Jesuit spirituality, giving a sense of its contours or distinguishing characteristics. A written description, however, can only go so far. The best way to come to know Jesuit spirituality is to incorporate some of its principles and prayer into daily life, and to talk with Jesuits and other people who live by the spirituality of St. Ignatius.
St. Ignatius and The Spiritual Exercises
The life of our founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, there was a significant time stretching from his convalescence after his injury at the battle of Pamplona, up to his months of prayer in the cave at Manresa on the other side of Spain.
During these months, Ignatius noticed how God led him to pay attention to the diverse “voices” inside of him– to the movements of consolation and desolation in his heart and spirit. Furthermore, he gradually learned to discern the sources of these desires, thoughts and movements of the heart and spirit: which of them came from God and which of them drew him away from God– and, perhaps most importantly, which of them he should act upon.
Throughout this time, Ignatius learned how important it is to look for God in the stuff of his everyday experience; he learned that God was shaping and forming him to be a companion of Jesus. The fruit of these months of prayer and reflection is contained in his Spiritual Exercises.
If there is any genius to the Society of Jesus, it lies in this little treatise on prayer written over 450 years ago. The method of prayer outlined in that book helps each Jesuit to follow Jesus and seek God’s will in any circumstances, from the most mundane day of teaching, administrating or writing, to a particularly trying experience of walking with people experiencing grave suffering or social injustice.
Following the example of St. Ignatius, Jesuit life centers on the imitation of Jesus, focusing on those priorities which constitute Christ’s mind, heart, values, priorities and loves (this section adapted from Howard Gray, S.J.). What are those values, priorities and loves? Ignatius would encourage us to consider what Jesus said and did.
At the foundation of Jesus’ life was prayer, a continuous search for how best to live as an authentic human being before a loving God. Jesus preached forgiveness of sins, healed the sick and possessed, and gave hope to the poor, to those socially and economically outcast. Jesus spoke of joy, peace, justice and love; he summoned men and women from all classes of society to continue to follow his way to God and his commitment to helping people become whole and holy.
The Society of Jesus attempts to incorporate these same gospel values into all its works. Jesuits stress the need to take time to reflect and to pray, in order to find out how God wants us to serve in all our ministries. This active commitment to seeking God’s leadership is called discernment.
As Jesuits, the overriding characteristic we see in Jesus is loving obedience, an open-hearted desire to find and to pursue how God wants other men and women to be forgiven, to be free, to utilize all their talents and opportunities in ways which build up this world as a place where faith, justice, peace and love can flourish.
This kind of spirituality is incarnational. It views the world as a place where Christ walked, talked and embraced people. It views the world, therefore, as a place of grace, a place of being able to give life to others. At the same time Ignatian spirituality is realistic. The world Christ faced was also a world of cruelty, injustice and the abuse of power and authority.
Consequently, Jesuit spirituality affirms our human potential but also is dedicated to the ongoing, day-in-day-out struggle between good and evil. No one apostolic work exhausts how good can be done; therefore, Jesuits do all kinds of work. The Jesuit norm is: to find where God will best be served and where people will best be helped.
Le Moyne College, the Jesuit College of Central New York