Ignatian spirituality and the Jesuit ‘brand’

January 10, 2023 in Bill Toner SJ

BILL TONER SJ :: Recently I was part of a workshop in which a number of colleagues, both lay and Jesuit, explored the application of ‘Ignatian Spirituality’ in their place of work. All those taking part were managers of Jesuit projects or offices in Ireland. I took part as a member of the Jesuit ‘Curia’, which is essentially their HQ in Dublin. The workshop was thought-provoking, revealing both the possibilities and perhaps also the limitations of trying to apply Ignatian Spirituality to the ordinary workplace, rather than just to the more obvious evangelizing activities such as schools and retreat houses. A big part of the reason for having this discussion is that, because of the dramatic fall in vocations, there are now very few Jesuits working in Jesuit ministries in Ireland. While it could be presumed in the past that Jesuit schools and other ministries were imbued by the Ignatian Spirituality of the many Jesuits who worked in them, this can no longer be taken for granted, as lay employees rarely go through a long formation in the principles and practice of Ignatian Spirituality, and their vocation is different from that of the Jesuits. In a climate where discrimination in recruitment is frowned on, they may or may not be Catholics or even strong religious believers.

What is Ignatian Spirituality?

But first, a word about ‘Ignatian Spirituality’. This is a spirituality developed by the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), and is based mainly on his ascetical and religious experiences of his life’s journey. This journey led him from his rather dissolute life as a member of the minor Basque nobility, through a short military career that saw him seriously wounded, then through a period of convalescence and a conversion experience, eventually to becoming the founder of one of the most influential religious congregations in the history of the Church. Arising from his experiences, he wrote a manual of spiritual direction known as the Spiritual Exercises which, still today, is widely used by retreat givers and spiritual guides. The spirituality which permeates these Exercises have come to be known as ‘Ignatian Spirituality’.

The Spiritual Exercises are in fact quite limited in their intended scope. Ignatius wrote at the outset that they “have as their purpose the conquest of self and the regulation of one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment”. The key word here is ‘decision’. Ignatius became remarkably attuned to the influences of hidden internal and external forces that make us choose one thing rather than another. He was aware that before his injury in battle he was headed for a life dominated by pride, sensuality, and the desire for status, including even the possibility of a glorious death on the battlefield. He glimpsed too that he had been on “the high road to hell”.

After his initial period of conversion Ignatius began to read the Bible, especially the New Testament, and echoes of the sayings of Jesus and St. Paul permeate the Exercises. For instance, we can imagine him reading Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, and I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it… I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind…” Ignatius gradually became aware of an interior battle between what he called “the good spirit” and the “bad spirit”. The Exercises are partly a manual to help us distinguish one from the other, especially when it comes to making decisions, by getting in touch with our deepest feelings.

Meanwhile, the words of Jesus made Ignatius aware of the part played by attachments, referred to above, in sabotaging our spiritual lives. Certain things, such as money or prestige, can draw us away from God and from what Jesus saw as the really important things in life. We can imagine Ignatius reading the story of the Rich Young Man in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus invited the man to give all he owned to the poor and to follow Jesus, but the gospel tells us that the young man went away sorrowful, because he had great possessions. Perhaps if the young man had been more in touch with his deepest feelings, he would have paid more attention to the fact that his attachment to his wealth was in fact not bringing fulfilment.

The “discernment of spirits”, as it is often called, is the dominant theme of the Spiritual Exercises. A full exploration of the topic is beyond the scope of this blogpost, but it should be noted that Ignatius’s insights about discernment do not cover the whole of his spirituality.

The ‘Jesuit brand’

During our workshop, someone used the term ‘Jesuit brand’. By ‘Jesuit brand’ this person was referring to both the value and the values attributed by a wide number of people worldwide to Jesuit-inspired enterprises, especially secondary or high schools. For instance, for good or ill, great store is placed by many parents on the merits of a Jesuit education. The question that was implicit in our discussion was whether the ‘Jesuit brand’ could be preserved in the absence of Jesuits. The discussion had drifted a bit at this point from the topic of Ignatian spirituality, but for me it raised the important question as to whether the ‘Jesuit brand’ was totally dependent on Ignatian spirituality, in the narrow sense outlined above. It is not intended to imply here that Jesuit schools are the only Catholic schools with strong ‘brands’. For instance, Benedictine schools have a particular cachet which inspires great respect. However, it was a discussion on our own Jesuit schools that raised the issue for me.

Jesuit involvement in education

It is interesting to examine how the Jesuits became involved in education in the first place. When Ignatius and his small band of companions founded the Society of Jesus in 1540, they had no intention of setting up schools. They saw themselves as essentially as a missionary order at the service of the Pope, who would travel the world spreading the word of God and ‘saving souls’. In fact, many of the early Jesuits spent their lives in this activity, most notably Francis Xavier.

About 100 years before the founding of the Jesuits, the Italian Renaissance was stimulating the opening of humanistic schools of which the most notable was that of Vittorino da Feltre, in Mantua. The existing universities, inspired by the rediscovery of the words of Aristotle, were teaching science subjects such as biology, astronomy, and physics. However, the humanistic schools concentrated on ancient works of literature, focussing on poetry, drama, oratory, and history. It was considered that the study of these subjects would make the student a better person, and nurture the ideal of service to the common good, an ideal that was in line with what it meant to be a Christian.

In 1547 some citizens of Messina in Italy, prompted by a Jesuit named Domenech who was based in Sicily, petitioned Ignatius to open a school in the humanist tradition, which the citizens themselves would fund, to educate their sons. Surprisingly, Ignatius agreed to this proposition, and in doing so can be said to have fundamentally changed the character of the Jesuit order. Ignatius sent ten of the most talented Jesuits in Rome to run the school, which was a great success. By 1560 the schools had become the main ministry of the Society, and by 1773 there were about 800 Jesuit educational institutions.

Characteristics of early Jesuit schools

What was special about these schools? Some of their characteristics were certainly due to the influence of the Exercises, in that these shaped the way the way the Jesuits approached the task of teaching:

In their spiritual direction of schools, the Jesuits displayed an impulse towards interiority, that is, the acceptance of God’s action in one’s life through prayer, and guidance in the spiritual life. In a culture that was strongly Christian, this seemed to appeal to many people more than highly ritualized forms of religious practice that were in vogue. Another attraction was that the Jesuits tried to give their students a special awareness of social responsibility. Jesuits were already teaching catechism to children and adults and while this included the ten commandments, the apostle’s creed, and basic prayers, it also included the basic works of mercy such as feeding the poor that feature strongly in St. Matthew’s gospel.

The Jesuits also emphasised that it was the utmost importance for people to attain personal inward freedom, so as to be able to follow the impulses of grace that God puts within us and to follow the deepest yearnings of our heart. As noted above, this sums up the whole purpose of the Exercises.

Ignatius, possibly influenced by St Thomas Aquinas, was positive in his appreciation of the world, and in the need to “find God in all things” as explained in his Contemplation to Attain the Love of God at the end of the Exercises.

Another characteristic of the Jesuit schools was what is called cura personalis which could be translated as ‘care for the entire person’. It is notable in the Exercises how often Ignatius speaks of considering the needs of the individual. For instance, he says that “the Spiritual Exercises must be adapted to the condition of the one who is to engage in them, that is, to his age, education, and talent…Each one should be given those exercises that would be more helpful and profitable according to the degree of progress he wishes to attain”. The notion of cura personalis was originally used to describe the responsibility of a Jesuit Superior to care for each person in the community with his unique gifts and needs. It became applied more broadly to include the relationship between educators and students in Jesuit schools.

It must be said that while Ignatian spirituality was and is an essential component of the training of every Jesuit, especially in the two-year novitiate, it has not necessarily been integrated explicitly into the ethos of individual Jesuit schools. I spent only one year, in the late 1960s, working in a Jesuit secondary school, and I cannot recall any organized attempt by the Jesuit administrators to show us younger Jesuits where and how Ignatian spirituality could be applied in the course of our work. It was perhaps assumed that individual Jesuits would, consciously or unconsciously, bring the insights and approaches imbibed in the novitiate to bear on their teaching or prefecting, and perhaps this was also the case in the earliest schools. In fact, it is in recent times, as the number of Jesuit teachers have declined, that the most vigorous attempts have been made to give Ignatian spirituality a central and explicit place in the ethos of the schools.

Other features of the schools

While the core spirituality of the Jesuits was probably attractive to parents, insofar as they took notice of it, there were undoubtedly other factors that contributed to the success of the Jesuit schools:

• Most of the earliest Jesuits, including Ignatius, were fellow students at the University of Paris, which was the most prestigious university in Europe. Ignatius had tried to educate himself at colleges in Spain, but in a rather haphazard fashion, trying to study more difficult matter before he had grasped the basics. Part of the reason for this was that the teaching in most of the colleges of the time was badly organised, so that there was no clear path of progression for the student. Eventually, and rather late in life, the reputation of Paris led Ignatius to take the long road there. In Paris students were organised into classes as we know them today, with progress from one to the next in a graduated system. It is interesting to note that in modern Jesuit schools, such as Clongowes Wood, the six classes are still called, not ‘1st’, ‘2nd’ etc., but rather Elements, Rudiments, Grammar, Syntax, Poetry and Rhetoric. This provides a clear sense of progression and purpose to the overall experience of the student. There were other features of the University of Paris which we take for granted today, such as a division into faculties. There was also an effort made to make classical drama come alive, so that students had to act out plays and not just read them. Music (which Ignatius had a great love of) and dancing were part of this study of drama. There was also strong discipline in the university. The Jesuits who arrived in Mantua very well educated by the standards of the time. Curiously for one who was not an intellectual, Ignatius wanted Jesuits to study “human letters, different languages, logic, natural and moral philosophy, metaphysics, scholastic and positive theology, and Sacred Scripture”. The experience of the Jesuits in Paris made them not only learned men, but good organisers, and imaginative teachers.

• Ignatius spent the last ten years of his life writing the Constitutions of the Jesuits. Although these are infused with the spirit of the Exercises, and are the consequences of much prayer, they reveal a side of Ignatius that that has had a profound influence on the developing character of the Society. As one of his biographers, Jose Idigoras, remarks, Ignatius was never content with vague, abstract, formulations, but always went down to the small print, into “unbelievably minute details”. When we read them, says Idigoras, “we sometimes get the impression that we are standing before a confused labyrinth, a forest of rules impossible to comprehend… His simplicity and spiritual spontaneity appeared to have been transformed into a complicated system of organizational norms”. Ignatius loved order and cleanliness. This has meant that a characteristic of most Jesuit enterprises, including the schools, is that they are generally well organized. From early on the Ratio Studiorum (Plan of Studies) provided a standard template for every school, with a strong emphasis on the teaching of the classics. One would not expect to find ‘sloppiness’ in Jesuit schools. For instance, for many Jesuits punctuality is almost a fetish. I recall that in the novitiate I noticed a novice in the ‘boot room’ who did not put down his shoe brush when the bell rang for the next item of the time-table. I thought to myself, “he must be leaving”, and I never saw him again. Another Jesuit I knew evaluated the success of any day-long meetings or assemblies purely on whether the sessions began and finished on time.

• The concept of ‘excellence’ is strong in Jesuit schools. What is meant by this is not just organizational excellence, as expounded by Peter and Waterman in their book In Search of Excellence in 1982, but rather the notion of human excellence, the fullest possible development of all human qualities. In ancient Greece this was the concept of arete, meaning the full realization of human potential including virtue. Arete was a major source of debate among Greek philosophers and undoubtedly made a great impression on Ignatius in Paris. Ignatius may have linked this to his concept of the ‘magis’ meaning ‘more’. A recurring theme in the Exercises is the question he asks retreatants to ponder: ‘What more can I do for Christ’. In asking this he is more concerned with the qualitative rather than the quantitative. ‘What can I do better’ is the underlying challenge. In modern times the Jesuit concept of excellence seems to have broadened to take organizational excellence on board, but it would be alien to Ignatius’s thinking if the goal of promoting human excellence was weakened in any way.

• The fact that Ignatius was a member of the minor nobility in Spain, as were a few his companions, cannot be ignored. He understood the influence that the upper echelons of society had on culture. His tendency always to seek the ‘more’ and the ‘greater’ led him to believe that “greater fruit” would be gathered by winning over important and prestigious persons, and in choosing suitable Jesuits to deal with “cultivated persons of talent and learning”. He believed that any Jesuit chosen to be Superior General of the Society should have a good reputation and high esteem, and that nobility, wealth, and honour which he may have possessed in the world were worth consideration, though not decisive. Although he was originally driven by the desire to catechize children and illiterate people, Ignatius founded colleges with the educated elite in mind. However, it is also true that he insisted that no fees be charged, and in modern times most Jesuit schools have bursary schemes.

• Ignatius’s aristocratic background added yet another dimension to his character. Although he put a strong emphasis in the Constitutions on the practice of religious poverty, and spent part of his life as a wandering dishevelled beggar, he remained a person of good taste, with an appreciation of beautiful things, characteristic of his class. His background also meant that he was well connected, and had considerable success in gaining endowments for the schools. Down the centuries, there has always been a tension in the interpretation by Jesuits of evangelical poverty, not so much in their personal lives, but notably in their approach to buildings, churches, and furnishings, where the pursuit of good taste often proves expensive. It is interesting to read what Ignatius had to say in the Constitutions (179) about buildings of the Society:

“The buildings of the Society should be suitable for our ministries and useful for living purposes; they should be sound and strongly built. But they ought to be such that it will be clear that we are mindful of poverty. Consequently, they should not be luxurious or too elaborate.”

Nevertheless, many of the early Jesuits were not able to restrain their love of beautiful things that was part of the Renaissance culture. For them, part of the magis, the ‘more’, was to ensure that only the best was fitting for buildings that were dedicated to “the greater glory of God”, (A.M.D.G.), which became the enduring motto of the order. Howard Kramer, who became a pilgrim of beautiful religious buildings writes the following account of the Gesù, the mother church of the Jesuits in Rome, which was planned by Ignatius but built after his death:

The Gesù is one of the most magnificent chapels ever conceived… (It is) one of the Church’s greatest architectural treasures… Heavily funded from Church coffers, the building was designed and worked on by some of the finest artisans of the Renaissance… The church interior is stunning beyond description. Every of walls is covered with some of the finest frescoes ever conceived. The church highlight is the unparalleled St. Ignatius chapel, possibly the most gorgeous chapel anywhere…”

To this day, in the construction of buildings, Jesuits tend to look first for the best architects. They have also been notable patrons of the arts, with an instinct for identifying emerging artists, particularly of stained glass windows, such as Evie Hone and Harry Clarke in Ireland. Good taste tends to be another hallmark of the ‘Jesuit brand’.

Can Ignatian Spirituality survive as part of the ‘Jesuit brand’?

It seems, then, that there may be more to the ‘Jesuit brand’ than the distinctive spirituality of St. Ignatius, at least as narrowly conceived. At the same time, the spiritual motif of “finding God is all things” is pervasive, and appears to give Jesuits permission to strive for excellence in all aspects of their work and ministries.

It raises the question whether there is a danger in this for the Jesuit charism, at a time when Jesuits themselves are diminishing in numbers in the western world, and may become less able to control the direction of schools and other works set up by them. In an increasingly secular society, some lay people who direct many Jesuit ministries may find a worthy mission in merely preserving the drive for ‘excellence’ described above which has become a significant ‘add on’ to these ministries. This excellence can sometimes be remote from “seeking the glory of God and the good of souls”, and can even be more characteristic of ‘excellent’ companies such as Disney or Honda, than of religiously-inspired organisations. The persistence or otherwise of religious faith, and the back-up of an organised religious congregation, may be more central to the Jesuit brand than is sometimes acknowledged. The spirituality of the Exercises is inevitably of conflicted interest to people who are agnostic or atheist, some of whom do or will work in Jesuit institutions now or in the future.

This is not, of course, to pass over the current remarkable contribution of lay people to the promotion of the spirituality of the Jesuits in their schools and other foundations. Many have bought in strongly to Ignatian spirituality, and they and their Jesuit colleagues have shown that with some adaptation many of the core insights of this spirituality are of relevance to any person who seeks to lead a good and rational and caring life. Of particular importance in this regard are Ignatius’s observations in the Exercises of the prerequisites for making good decisions, – our lives unfold not only through external circumstances but also through the decisions we made. And the centrality of the Ignatian dictum that we should find God in all things is very much in tune with a central preoccupation of many people today that that we have a duty to save everything that is good and beautiful in our beleaguered planet.

Note: I found the following particularly helpful in writing this blogpost:
John O’Malley SJ, “How the First Jesuits Became Involved in Education”, 2000. (www.bc.edu).
José Idigoras, Ignatius of Loyola, the Pilgrim Saint. Loyola University Press, 1994.
John W. Padberg SJ (ed.), The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, The Institute of Jesuit Sources , St. Louis 1996.
Louis J. Puhl (ed. and translator), The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Newman Press, 1954.
Howard Kramer, “Mother Church of the Jesuits”. Completepilgrim.com.
Jim Maher SJ, Pathways to a Decision with Ignatius of Loyola. Messenger Publications, 2020.