Throughout much of the world, the Jesuits are best known for their colleges, universities, and high schools. But in a time when many are searching for greater meaning, another aspect of Jesuit life is attracting wide interest. And that is the unique spirituality introduced nearly 500 years ago by St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.
Ignatius was a Spanish soldier and aristocrat who discerned his calling after suffering nearly fatal wounds on the battlefield. He established the Society of Jesus in 1540, instructing the early Jesuits — to go out and “find God in all things.” That is the signature spirituality of the Jesuits.
Ignatian spirituality is grounded in the conviction that God is active in our world. As the great Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote: “God is not remote from us. He is at the point of my pen, my pick, my paintbrush, my needle — and my heart and my thoughts.” The spiritual path laid out by Ignatius is a way of discerning God’s presence in our everyday lives. And doing something about it.
The Jesuits have a handbook for this search. It is The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, composed by the saint before he was even a priest. Often described as Ignatius’s greatest gift to the world, these exercises unfold a dynamic process of prayer, meditation, and self-awareness. The basic thrust is to make us more attentive to God’s activity in our world, more responsive to what God is calling us to do. Ignatian spiritual directors accompany or guide people through the exercises in retreat houses, parishes, and other settings.
One of the most popular Ignatian exercises is the Daily Examen. It’s a spiritual self-review that involves prayerfully recollecting moments during the day and reflecting on how God was present at those times, followed by a decision to act in some way. The Examen is concrete: It focuses your mind on segments of time (no more than a day, preferably), and the feelings that stirred within you, at those specific moments. Walk through the five steps of the Examen here.
There are a number of outstanding resources devoted to Ignatian spirituality. Sacred Space is a popular prayer site run by the Irish Jesuits, and Jesuitprayer.org was created by the Chicago-Detroit Province of the Society of Jesus to provide daily online prayers and facilitate prayer requests. In addition, The Jesuit Post, founded by a group of Jesuit scholastics (those in the process of religious formation), provides a contemporary look at Jesus, politics, and pop-culture in our secular age.
Ignatian spirituality is not merely an inward journey, much less a self-absorbed one. It aims to bring people closer to God and more deeply into the world — with gratitude, passion, and humility — not away from it. Ignatius called on the Jesuits to be “contemplatives in action.” Today, Jesuits and their lay collaborators work with people in many walks of life, such as education and business. They help nurture “men and women for others.”