About Ignatian Spirituality
by Dr. Kathleen Coffey-Guenther
Senior Mission and Ignatian Spirituality Specialist
Ignatius’s spiritual legacy spread through the lives of his companions in the Society of Jesus. But he also left four important documents, plus nearly seven thousand letters that give shape and color to his spirituality. Dictated toward the end of his life, his Autobiography tells the story of his conversation and life until 1538.
His Spiritual Journal narrates a small part of his unfolding inner journey. Through his Spiritual Exercises and Constitutions, he systematically laid out guidelines for the spiritual life. From all of these sources, the main threads of his spirituality can be outlined.
Encountering God in Our Experience
One unshakeable belief to which Ignatius held as to a rock in all storms was that God can be encountered in our experience. God comes directly to women and men, and they will recognize God’s presence if they open their hearts and minds. The purpose of the Spiritual Exercises is to help people experience God directly and powerfully. When people encounter God, they are changed forever. Such an encounter frees people to love wholeheartedly.
For the Greater Glory of God
For Ignatius, to live meant to embrace generously and enthusiastically, the will of God. To serve and glorify God became the compelling motive of his life.
Ignatius restlessly yearned for God. He experienced the thirst and emptiness that no power or possession could satisfy. He longed for the total and consuming love that comes only from the source of all love. Once Ignatius felt the embrace of God’s love, he strove with singleness of purpose for the greater glory of God.
The Spiritual Exercises urge retreatants to listen to the Holy Spirit in order to discover God’s will and what would be the greater glory of God. Through the process of his own conversion to life according to Christ, Ignatius learned a way of discernment that remains as applicable today as it was five hundred years ago.
The Mysticism of Service
Ignatian spirituality does not demand withdrawal from the world. Rather, Ignatius brought the word of God to classrooms and hospitals, orphanages, and the halls of government. Wherever humans suffered, the heart and hands of Ignatius followed with the compassion of Christ. No sacrifice was too great, no suffering too deep, no poverty too excruciating as long as the love of Christ would be mediated.
While answering the call to serve individuals in need, Ignatius sought to aid the reform of the Church. He preached, taught, and gave the Exercises, hoping to call the Church through its leaders to a rededication to the Reign of God.
The Call to Ongoing Conversion
Ignatius composed the Spiritual Exercises and the daily examen of consciousness to help people answer the call to conversion to Christ.
The Spiritual Exercises lead retreatants through a monthlong process that begins with a confrontation of their own sinfulness; continues with the contemplation of the birth, public life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus; and concludes with meditations on God’s personal and unconditional love for each person.
During the Exercises, the retreatants receive instructions about, among other topics, the three kinds of humility, methods of prayer, and how to discern God’s will. The retreat itself can be a powerful time of turning toward God, and the methods of prayer and discernment are tools for the retreatants’ ongoing journey toward God.
Devotion to the Church
For Ignatius, the Church gave physical expression to the love that Jesus has for the People of God. The Church served as a way to God and a symbol of God’s mysterious love for humankind.
Ignatius’s devotion to the Church was motivated by his desire to serve the souls of Christians. Even though Ignatius saw many human problems besetting the Church in his time, his loyalty was unflinching. The Church remained a herald of God’s word, a servant of God’s People, a community of believers, and a sign of God’s love.
Prayer that Permeates Daily Life
Ignatian spirituality invites people to daily prayer. In his writing, Ignatius described several methods of solitary prayer, and he encouraged people to develop the kind of prayer that best suits who they are and where they are on the spiritual journey. Ignatius recognized with great sensitivity that each individual has different gifts and a unique inner movement of soul.
Ignatius approached prayer not only with his intellect, memory, and will, but also with his senses and with active imagination.
The Discipline of the Ordinary
Contrary to the practices of his time, Ignatius encouraged moderation in fasting and penitence. He knew that meeting the ordinary frictions and trials of family, community, ministry, and the workplace with love required self-sacrifice and discipline enough to test anyone.
Ignatius also counseled adequate care of physical health. He appreciated the gift of food and recreation, acknowledging that health of mind and body were essential for one to be effective in ministry, seeking the greater glory of God.
Ignatius for Today
The desire for love, hope, and wholeness burns in the hearts of people today just as it burned in the heart of Ignatius. Ignatius’s time had its demons; our time has its demons. They may not really be so different.
The way to God that emerged from Ignatius’s own conversion can still lead us to freedom from the demons of our age: addictions, greed, emptiness of heart, despair, confusion, violence, and meaninglessness.
Through the centuries, the Spiritual Exercises, which compose the heart of Ignatian spirituality, have been a powerful means of spiritual formation. Ignatius can be a wise and discerning companion on our own journey toward the embrace of the loving God. On the way, we can learn to say with him, “All for the greater glory of God!”