February 18, 2009

Ignatius of Loyola

[This is part of a series on the historical stream of Reconnection]


“The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

As a young child, discipline was a naughty word to me. It was synonymous with early bedtimes, homework, and refraining from too many sweets. In fact, my aversion to this word led me to experience less self-discipline and more parental discipline. Nonetheless, discipline was forced on me and freedom as I knew it seemed a distant memory. This left me a little jaded in my approach to almost everything, including spirituality. The difficulty for me, even now, lies in reconciling “freedom in Christ” with spiritual discipline. Perhaps we can find some reconciliation in the life and works of Ignatius of Loyola.

Ignatius was born into a distinguished Spanish family in 1491. As expected of him, he pursued all the interests of a typical courtier with vigor and enthusiasm. In time, Ignatius entered the service of a prominent duke only to have his career as a soldier halted by severe injury to both of his legs. He spent the better part of the following year recovering from his wounds at a family castle. In order to pass the time, he asked his sister for some reading material; something along the lines of a modern day romance novel (damsels in distress, knights in shining armor…Danielle Steel, anyone?). Instead, his sister gave him all they had at the family castle: The Life of Christ and a book on the lives of saints. Although Ignatius was not enthused by the reading material, his subsequent months with these books drove him to make a drastic change in his life. This marked the point of conversion for Ignatius, and his heart prompted him to pursue the life of a saint and renounce all worldly desires.

The following year Ignatius spent in deep meditation and prayer. He was nearly driven to suicide over the scrutinizing of his past sins, and vowed not to eat or drink anything until God gave him complete peace. At the prompting of his confessor, Ignatius abandoned his plan and eventually received the satisfaction he needed to continue his spiritual journey. Some may question, as I did, the value of this year spent in isolation. The isolation, however, was remarkably fruitful as Ignatius began forming his principles for The Spiritual Exercises and the Prayer of Examen – both of which are still read and practiced today.

The Spiritual Exercises may very well be what Ignatius is most well known for, aside from being the founder of the Jesuit order. Rather than a book meant to be read as a cover to cover narrative, the exercises are a set of guidelines and meditations that Ignatius intended to be practiced under the guidance of a spiritual mentor or director. At first glance, the exercises seem highly prescriptive. We should however remember that Ignatius was also a very passionate man, one nearly driven to suicide over his emotions. His exercises were not intended to be done without some creativity on the part of the participant – a certain flexibility to “follow as the Spirit leads.” In fact, the beauty of such a discipline as prayer is that we enter into conversation and communion with a living God who “talks” back to us. In this way, Ignatius’ exercises allow one to experience creativity, expectation, and freedom within the discipline of prayer.

It is this tension between freedom and discipline that pervades Ignatian spirituality. It may seem counterintuitive that the two can coexist, but Ignatius provides a model that both embraces and builds on this paradox with the intention of leading one to a life of fruitful prayer.