If you were able to conduct a free association exercise among Catholics, the term “Jesuit” would most likely evoke responses like “educators,” “intelligent,” “worldly” and perhaps even “liberal.” But as the largest male religious order in the Catholic church, the Society of Jesus—as the Jesuits are officially known—has nearly 20,000 members spread out across 112 nations around the globe who are involved in an endless variety of work ranging from education and pastoral ministry to medicine, the law, social justice etc. The one common bond that ties this diverse international group together however is their experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
Formulated in the early 16th century after Ignatius of Loyola’s conversion, the Spiritual Exercises represent Ignatius’ gradual understanding—through prayer—of how God worked in his daily life. It is a powerful tradition that enables people to understand their relationship with the divine through their own unique experiences in the world. While all Jesuits are required to do the Exercises in a 30-day silent retreat at the beginning of their formation, countless others—religious and lay alike—feel drawn to Ignatius’ spiritual insights and do the Exercises as well. The Jesuit Collaborative is a an East coast organization, headed by Jim Conroy SJ, whose mission is to promote the Spiritual Exercises outside the Society of Jesus. In the following interview, Fr. Conroy discusses the origins of Ignatius’ approach to prayer and why young seekers looking to make sense of their world are often drawn to it.
Busted Halo: Can you tell me what exactly the Spiritual Exercises are?
Jim Conroy: Sure. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is a 500-year-old tradition of prayer based on the experiences of Ignatius of Loyola, who was a 16th century solider, courtier of the Spanish court. He was wounded in a battle in Pamplona as this massive conversion experience, and then begins to go more deeply into his relationship with God. And it’s really out of those experiences — a reflection on life and how God was present within his own life — that he began to understand the basic movement of God’s spirit in his life.
Busted Halo: He was a courtier; he was a soldier, a warrior on some level. This is a man who was well acquainted with wealth and privilege?
JC: He was, really. Spain in the 16th century was the emerging dominant political and military force in the world. It was from Spain that Columbus set sail from America. It was Spain that began the exploitation of peoples of Central and South America. It was Spain that really encouraged slave trade. There was an enormous amount of wealth and culture that was really centered in Spain. And Ignatius, more than being a soldier, was a courtier; that is to say, he was one trained in the professional diplomatic life of that court, and so had the ability to network/connect with people not only in Spain but throughout Europe at that time and even in England. So he was on a track of what we today would probably call an ambassador’s kind of life. He came from an important enough family that he was recognized as somebody with talent and somebody who would be loyal to the Spanish crown.
BH: So this conversion story after he was wounded in battle, what exactly happened?
JC: He was recuperating in a lonely castle with nothing to do, and there were only four books in the house. One was the Lives of the Saints; the other was The Imitation of Christ. Those were kind of religious books. And then there were two contemporary romance novels. So Ignatius had the experience of reading those romance novels and remembering all those romantic fantasies of his earlier life, and that would get him really excited. But when he finished that reading, that dissipated quickly and he began to contrast that with reading the Lives of the Saints and The Imitation of Christ. And when he reflected more deeply on that experience, the consolation, the joy, the peace, the excitement, the contentment remained with him. And so, once he began to understand the different dynamics that were being evoked within him by the stimulation coming in, he knew that there was a basis there for some kind of choice in his life. And as he refined what he was learning, Ignatius discovered that the closer he allowed God, the more clearly he understood himself and with that, the freedom to make choices that were not based on pride or lust or greed but really based on something even deeper. And that is the essential thing of loving and caring for others.
BH: So that happened over how long of a period?
JC: It was really a two year conversion process. This is no experience of a bolt of lightning. This is a long experience. If one comes to understand their religious experience, it’s not an “aha” moment. It takes time. Levels of insights are built one upon the other. We come to truth gradually. It’s not something that we can suddenly, massively comprehend. As human beings, we learn truth and sometimes we learn it the hard way.
BH: A lot of people have the notion that saints have these revelatory, visionary moments, but Ignatius didn’t have that at all?
JC: No, it was over a period of time. And you have to understand that Ignatius had a bit of a rowdy reputation. He was known to be vain. He was certainly a ladies man. He was quick with the sword by his own admission. And he was worldly ambitious. So with this gradual conversion process he comes to look on all that was part of his past life — you know, those things that are self-centered, that are ambitious, that are about vainglory — he saw them as empty compared to that developing relationship that he was having with God. And in that, he was beginning — and God was very good to him this way — to re-imagine his life: “What would it look like, what would it be like, if rather than serve in the royal court, I became one who was open to serve God?” He had no idea what that meant, and for Ignatius in the beginning it meant “I go to the Holy Land; I want to go where Jesus was,” and be a part of providing culture and opportunity for people who had come to the Holy Land. But that’s not what God wanted for him.
JC: Well he was kicked out. [Laughs.]
BH: He went off to the Holy Land filled with the Spirit and then, what? He hit a dead end?
JC: Well he was so intent on being devotional that he got in the way of the Christian agreements with the Arabs at the time who were there — the Muslims who were there — and was affecting a basic truce that had been worked out for years and years between Christians and Muslims, so much so that the Franciscan prior of the Holy Land of Jerusalem had to say to Ignatius, “If you do anything out of the ordinary, I have the power to excommunicate you. And of course Ignatius listened very carefully to that and went on and did whatever he wanted to do anyhow. So the Franciscan superior went and got Ignatius, who was — one more time — going out to the rock from which Jesus ascended into Heaven, and said to him, “You’re doing it again; you’re out of here,” and he put him on the next ship out of the Holy Land. He was a troublemaker.
BH: And he was very affected by St. Francis, right?
JC: Ignatius, as he starts the Society of Jesus [the Jesuits], calls it the Least Society. And when he does that, he’s looking at St. Dominic, he’s looking at St. Francis, and he’s saying, “What they have done is so far superior to anything this poor soul could do?” Ignatius knew himself as very weak, as very sinful, and not even of the same degree or kind of holiness that was embodied in the lives of Dominic and Francis.
BH: Ignatius was this kind of restless soul who’s trying to find something. Where, along the line, do the Spiritual Exercises become codified?
JC: The experiences of the Spiritual Exercises are essentially from 1521 to 1523. That’s when Ignatius undergoes that transformation process. It starts in Loyola — where he is carried by the French who have wounded him at Pamplona — and then as he begins to recover he goes more to the eastern part of Spain and into Manresa, and Montserrat. And really that’s where the majority of the Exercises go. But the Exercises have been developed and shaped by not only Ignatius reflecting on what he did, but listening to what others’ experience of the Exercises was. So he took this experience, two years of this intense prayer with God, and condensed it into what we call the Spiritual Exercises.
BH: The Jesuits I’ve met are a really diverse bunch who do all different types of work around the world but the Spiritual Exercises seems to be the uniting experience for them.
JC: It is the formative process for Jesuits. Every Jesuit in the world has to make the Spiritual Exercises. Everything that’s done prior to the Spiritual Exercises and everything that’s done afterwards is working on the gifts of that core experience in which one comes to know God in a way that is different than anything they would have previously experienced. So once a Jesuit has that experience in the Spiritual Exercises and lives out of it, well, his life is transformed. But it’s important to note that as Ignatius was forming the Society of Jesus and giving the Exercises to people who would come to him, he was also working with lay men and women who would not become Jesuits and never were intended to become Jesuits, but people of holy desire who wanted to grow closer to God. Ignatius knew that this gift of the Exercises would enable them to do those holy things, those good things that were of God and deep within them.
BH: Was that unique for his time to be doing those sorts of things?
JC: There was certainly no method of prayer like the Spiritual Exercises. It was absolutely unique for his time. As a matter of fact, he was imprisoned a couple of times: once in a Dominican priory, because there was a thought that what he was saying and what he was doing with the Spiritual Exercises was dangerous. And it took a long time for Ignatius to persuade people that the Exercises were really an authentic experience of God’s grace.
BH: Can you talk a little bit about how you approach God differently through the Exercises and why it is unique?
JC: I think people are really looking for meaning in their life, and they’re looking for truth. In a culture that is built around “quick and easy,” that looks for satisfaction and then moves on as quickly as it can to the next thrill, there becomes a substantial part of who we are that is malnourished. And that’s the part that’s looking for meaning, and that’s the part that’s looking for deeper truth. And it’s not only to give in to instant gratification or satisfaction, but it is that spirit within us — and I think it’s innate — that draws us to look for more, for greater insight, for a relationship that’s based on substance. So I think the Exercises then become that vehicle for a lot of different people who become aware of a desire to understand what’s going on in their life, to relate to the experience of God, to begin to enter into that kind of prayer, that kind of relationship with God, which just opens up all kinds of doors, all kinds of windows. And whether one recognizes it or not in the traditional religious language that is often used, there is still that hunger for meaning, that desire for truth, for a relationship that’s based on substance. That’s all of God. And our culture is loaded with opportunity for that, because what is around us is sometimes so shallow and vapid.
BH: Busted Halo is designed for spiritual seekers and one of our founding missions or principles is that everybody has an experience of God, even if it is to say, “I don’t believe in God.” How do the Exercises help people deepen their awareness?
JC: In the first annotation of the exercises you pray to be free of disordered attachments, the things that are consuming us, driving us crazy. Let it go and quiet down and discover who you are, and then with that you have the freedom to choose what comes next. So the very first movement of the Exercises is to move away from those things that we’re attached to, those preoccupations, and ask God to come into our life in such a way that we can begin to see ourselves not only as the world sees us — not as our culture, our group — but to begin to see ourselves as God sees us. And once we’re open to that, well then it changes from just my view of myself — and so often we get locked in our negativity, our destructiveness, our incapacity, our addictions. When we allow ourselves to be seen as God sees us, it’s a whole new world.