What is Ignatian Spirituality?

By Rev. Doug Leonhardt, S.J.

Spirituality is the lens through which one views the world and then makes choices. A person’s spirituality is formed by reflecting on life experiences and integrating it with one’s belief system. Christian spirituality integrates Scripture and the tradition of the Church into its world view.

 In the course of the centuries, many outstanding men and women of faith have chosen to follow Christ because of their attraction to him. One of these persons was Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus. In 1522-23, he paused for a year at Manresa, Spain on his way to the Holy Land. Ignatius recalls in his autobiography that it was during that year that God taught him as one would teach a small school boy. As any good student Ignatius jotted notes about the insights God gave him so that he could help others grow in union with God. These notes were compiled in what has become known at the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

The book of the Spiritual Exercises contains a series of reflections and meditations that are to be used by a retreat director to helping someone make a spiritual retreat. When a person begins a retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises, that person is invited to pray over what is called the First Principle and Foundation. It is a paragraph, written by Ignatius, that portrays a vision of life which summarizes who we are, where we are going and how to get there. It states women and men are created by God and destined to share life with him forever. In order to achieve this goal, Ignatius suggests a road map. All created reality can lead a person to know God. As a consequence, it is a privilege and responsibility to make choices either to use or refrain from using created things to help us toward our end. Finally, the motivation behind any choice should be that a person wants and chooses what more directly leads to God. Ignatian Spirituality is characterized by a vision of life.

In another part of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius suggests one pray over the invitation of an imaginary highly respected earthly king who issues an invitation to engage alongside of him in ridding the world of all evils like poverty and injustices. Anyone of good will would be honored by such call and would readily volunteer for the mission. In the second part of the reflection, Ignatius presents Christ issuing his call. His invitation is to help spread his message so others know the forgiveness and love of God and see their destiny as sons and daughters of God. Knowing who is calling and the lofty goal of the invitation, anyone in their right mind would volunteer for the mission. Ignatian Spirituality is a spirituality of action: to labor with Christ in building the Kingdom of God.

Once a person responds to the call, St. Ignatius invites a person to pray to come to know Christ more intimately, love him more ardently and follow him more closely. This petition is repeated any time one prays over a Gospel passage.

As one prays with the gospels and follows in the footsteps of Christ, one eventually ends up in Jerusalem where Christ is abandoned by his disciples, considered a criminal because he is considered blasphemous and is finally condemned to death and hung on a cross to die. But death did not conquer him nor result in his mission being scuttled, but God raised him. As the Risen Lord, he became the source of consolation, strength and hope for his followers. Ignatian Spirituality is marked by an invitation to intimacy with Christ in his living, dying and rising.

At the conclusion of the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius proposes a reflection that he titles, “Contemplation on the Love of God.” In this contemplation, one considers how God blesses a person with gifts of mind, heart and spirit, how these gifts bear the finger prints of a dynamic Creator and how the Creator energizes all his gifts to reveal his love and presence. Since this is the final reflection of a retreat, it is designed by St. Ignatius to be a transition meditation to everyday life in which one notices God present and active. Ignatian Spirituality is marked by having the insight, desire and ability to find God in all things.

The characteristics of Ignatian Spirituality are fourfold, based on key movements of the Spiritual Exercises:

  1. It presents a vision of life based on the First Principle and Foundation.
  2. It calls one to action: to labor with Christ in building the Kingdom of God.
  3. It invites one to experience intimacy with the Risen Christ who suffered, died and rose for humankind.
  4. It gives one the eyes, desire and ability to find God in all things. It is a spirituality for people actively engaged with others who know that pausing to reflect, allows one to know God is more present than they think or imagine.