Praying with the Jesuits

Tap into a spiritual tradition that can enrich your prayer life

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By James Martin, SJ


In the mid 1960s, a French Jesuit named Joseph de Guibert offered a charming analogy about spirituality, first made in the Middle Ages. A spirituality is like a bridge, he said. Every bridge does pretty much the same thing: It gets you from one place to another, some- times over a perilous route, or a river, or a great height. But each does it in a different way. Bridges might be made of wood, bricks, stone, or steel; they might be arches, cantilevers, or suspension bridges. One is adaptable to a setting in ways that others may not be.

 

“Yet each one in its own way achieves the common purpose,” Father de Guibert said, “to provide a passage....”

 

Each spirituality, by analogy, offers a distinctive “passage” to God.

 

Many Christian spiritualities flow from the great Religious Orders: Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Assumptionists, and Cistercians. Over the centuries, each Order has developed its own spiritual traditions — some directly handed down by its founder, others that came by meditating on the life of the founder. Today, members of those Religious Orders live out what Father de Guibert calls a “family tradition.”

 

So what is the spirituality of the Society of Jesus, aka the Jesuits?

 

It begins with St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the Jesuits. After hoping to be a great soldier, Ignatius was injured in a battle in 1521. Carried back to his family’s castle to recuperate, the proud soldier began reading books on the life of Christ and the lives of the saints. Slowly he began to recognize, through his emotional reactions to what he read, that God was inviting him to something new.

 

Setting aside his old life, Ignatius began to live as a hermit in a cave and experienced a series of mystical experiences that convinced him more than ever that he was being called to conversion. Over time, Ignatius gathered together friends who would later form the Society of Jesus. In his later years, the former soldier worked as an administrator, and also counseled and advised many people — Jesuits and other- wise — in their spiritual lives.

 

Overall, the total sum of the practices, methods, emphases, accents, and highlights of the Christian way of life that comes from Ignatius and from the Jesuit Order is known as “Ignatian spirituality.”

 

But how can the everyday lay- person benefit in his or her daily life from the insights of a 16th- century soldier-turned-mystic?

 

If you asked 10 Jesuits to define Ignatian spirituality, the first thing out of their mouths would probably be “finding God in all things.” That deceptively simple phrase was once considered revolutionary. For it means that nothing is seen as outside the boundaries of the spiritual life. Ignatian spirituality is not confined within the walls of the Church. It does not consider only overtly “religious” topics, like reading Scripture, as part of a person’s spiritual life. The way of Ignatius looks at all your experiences as ways to meet God. That includes prayer and service to be sure; but it also includes friends, family, work, relationships, sex, suffering, and joy, as well as nature, music, and pop culture.

 

The second definition those 10 Jesuits might give is being “a contemplative in action.” That idea resonates with many people today. How would you like to live more contemplatively? Or simply, more peacefully? Would you like to disconnect sometimes from the distractions of constant e-mails and phone calls for just a little quiet?

 

Well, while peace and quiet are essential to nurturing our spiritual lives, most of us are not going to quit our jobs or leave our families to join a monastery and spend our days in silence. And, by the way, monks work hard (some even have e-mail!). So while Ignatius counseled his Jesuits to carve out time for prayer, they were expected to lead active lives. They were to be active people who adopted a meditative stance toward the world. They were to be “contemplatives in action.” Instead of seeing the spiritual life as one that can exist only if it is enclosed behind monastic walls, Ignatius asks you to see the world as your monastery.

 

But the spirituality of Ignatius also invites us into certain ways of prayer.

 

Perhaps Ignatius’ greatest gift to the Church is his Spiritual Exercises, a four-week manual for prayer based on the life of Christ. In the Exercises, we are invited to use our imaginations to place ourselves creatively within scenes from the Gospel. So, for example, in a meditation on the Nativity, Ignatius asks us to imagine our- selves inside the stable with the Holy Family. Use your imagination as you ask yourself the following: What do I see? Hear? Smell?

 

That may sound odd to you. It once did to me. The first time I heard about “Ignatian contemplation,” I said to my spiritual director, “Isn’t it just making things up in your head?” My director patiently asked me some helpful questions. Did I believe that God worked through relationships? Yes, I said. Did I believe that God can work through my emotions? Of course. “Then why can’t God work through your imagination?” he asked.

 

Once I felt free to place myself imaginatively into the Gospel scenes, I noticed how many emotions insights, memories, desires, and feelings arose as I prayed in a new way with Scripture. Placing yourself imaginatively into Gospel passages often helps you feel closer to Christ, who is, after all, speaking to you through Scripture.

 

Another traditional Ignatian practice is the “examination of conscience.” This type of prayer was so important that Ignatius said that even if a Jesuit neglected all other kinds of prayer — excepting the Mass, of course — he should never omit this one.

 

The examination is a review of the day in which we look for signs of God’s presence. First, you place yourself in the presence of God, as we do at the start of any prayer. Second, you recall things for which you are grateful. They don’t have to be big things: any- thing at all that makes you happy. Ignatius asks us to “savor” these gifts and give thanks. Next, you review your day, looking for signs of God’s presence: Where did you accept God’s invitation to love, and where did you turn away? Then you express sorrow for your sins, and perhaps decide to seek out the sacrament of Reconciliation. Finally, you close with a request for God’s help the next day.

 

The examination of conscience is a wonderful way to live out the call to prayer as a “long, loving, look at the real,” as the Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt once wrote.

 

It’s tough to summarize Ignatian spirituality in a few pages. For it includes not only a variety of spiritual approaches (like “finding God in all things” and being a “contemplative in action”) and specific kinds of prayer (Ignatian contemplation and the examination), but also derives from other sources. The varied activities of the early Jesuits — for example, opening up a house for reformed prostitutes — shed additional light on the idea of finding God in all things. The lives of the great Jesuit saints and martyrs give us further insights into Ignatian spirituality. And the lives of the thousands of lay men and women who have followed the way of Ignatius also reveal something about this flexible and accessible spirituality.

 

For me, Ignatian spirituality has been a wonderful bridge to God. Its emphasis on finding God in all things, being a contemplative in action, using one’s imagination for prayer, and carefully considering your day helped me realize that, as Ignatius said, “the Creator can deal directly with the creature.” It has brought me into a much deeper relationship with God than I ever imagined possible. And for this I thank St. Ignatius Loyola. And God, of course!

James Martin, SJ

James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest. His new book is The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything (HarperOne).