Having grown up in a military family, being born on a Navy base in Florida while my father, a Marine Corps Officer, was in flight school, I have always had something of an appreciation for Ignatius Loyola, his personal story, and his military-like organization skills. An injured combatant — a canon ball to the leg sounds like something right out of the Hunger Games, but is true no less — Ignatius found himself captivated by the story of Jesus Christ and the lives of the saints while he recovered from his injuries. It was during this time that he had what hagiographers will describe as “his conversion,” his turning away from his previous life toward more of a life in Christ. He went from living for his own glory, to striving always and to do all things For the Greater Glory of God, the motto of the Society of Jesus.
One of the things that I most appreciate about Ignatius was his ability to synthesize the spiritual threads of influence that came to him from the various traditions that inspired his conversion. While it sounds like an insult to suggest that Ignatius didn’t offer a whole lot of originality in his Spiritual Exercises, what is meant by this is to say that he made seeming disparate points of wisdom in the Christian spiritual tradition come together in such a way as to speak perennially to generations to come.
So many people today have been shaped and informed, sometimes without realizing it, by Ignatius’s vision of forming a life of prayer. Insights like the goal of striving to find “God in all things” or the daily “examen” are helpful frameworks and lenses through which women and men continue to shape their daily worldviews. The structure to prayer and Christian living that Ignatius provides has helped to transform the way hundreds of thousands of young people, especially, engage the world around them.
But of all the things that Ignatius popularized in his Exercises and in his lived example, I most appreciate his focus on the Christian Imagination. This should come as no surprise from someone who wrote a book titled Dating God and continues a blog by the same heading. I think that the imagination should play a huge part in the life of every Christian, every person who is striving to recognize God’s Grace in his or her life.
Although St. Bonaventure, the thirteenth-century Franciscan, theologian, and Doctor of the Church, promoted a similar use of imagination in the spiritual life in his lesser-known treatise The Tree of Life (something the late medieval scholar from Fordham University, Ewert Cousins, noted in his work), it is Ignatius who made it a constitutive dimension of the Exercises and therefore a popular and accessible way to get into this way of prayer. Here are a few examples from the Third Week of the Exercises:
While the person is eating, let him [sic] consider if he saw Christ our Lord eating with His Apostles, and how He drinks and how He looks and how He speaks; and let him see to imitating Him…
It belongs to the Passion to ask for grief with Christ in grief, anguish with Christ in anguish, tears and interior pain at such great win which Christ suffered for me…
One doesn’t simply strive to “imagine” as if you were reading a book or hearing a story for your own entertainment, but to take that experience of the Holy Spirit working through the human capacity to imagine and use it as a way to see how Christ would act in a situation and follow the model of the Lord in one’s own life. In a sense, like Bonaventure before Ignatius on imagination in prayer, Ignatius anticipates the popular phrase “what would Jesus do?” that comes some three-hundred years later as it first appeared in Charles Sheldon’s 1897 book In His Steps.
There is so much more wisdom that Ignatius leaves us today. For more, I recommend three excellent and relatively recent books that you should check out.
The first is the newest, Mark Mossa, SJ’s Saint Ignatius Loyola: The Spiritual Writings – Selections Annotated & Explained (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2012). This is a handy little collection of Ignatius’s writings and some wonderfully insightful notes and comments by Mark along the way.
The next is Kevin O’Brien, SJ’s The Ignatian Adventure: Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in Daily Life (Loyola Press, 2011). This is a heftier book, one designed especially for college-age people who are looking for a meaningful and accessible way to study and embrace the Exercises in everyday life. Kevin is the director of campus ministry at Georgetown University, so his writing style is informed by that experience.
Finally, last but not least, the best-selling The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (HarperOne, 2010), by James Martin, SJ. This is perhaps the most popular book on Ignatian spirituality currently on the shelves (perhaps even more than the Exercises themselves!). Jim, in his usually humorous and accessible way, delivers a very approachable guide to seeing how the wisdom and writings of Ignatius and the Ignatian tradition can speak to the everyday experience of Catholics, Christians and even non-Christians.
To all my Jesuit friends, colleagues, and acquaintances — Happy Feast Day!
And St. Ignatius Loyola, Pray for Us.