Monday, September 17, 2012

Ignatius and Religious Experience

Here is my big personal take-away, something that has never occurred to me before, from the Friday evening portion of the week-end's program on Ignatius and his incarnational theology:

Ignatius was able to discover what he did about religious experience precisely because he had an inadequate education.

Irony of ironies.  Especially if you know about or have any connection with the Society of Jesus, which runs schools and universities all over the world, and which requires a formal education of its members that is the envy of anyone who wishes she had been directed into three years of philosophy studies before she touched theology.

Let's step back a bit.  Ignatius was a minor 16th century Spanish nobleman, a youngest child, and was therefore provided with only the rudimentary education needed to sustain a military career.  He was a soldier who drank and caroused (career choices which instill great affection for him in college students, when they discover through his biography that lifelong perfection is not a prerequisite for idealistic service to God), and then through an arrogant misjudgment in battle encountered a cannonball that altered the course of his life.  

It was while he lay in bed recovering from his injuries and in the months of pilgrimage following that he had the experiences in prayer and began to develop the practices that became the Spiritual Exercises

Our presenter pointed out that it is through higher education that we are given the framework that enables us to analyze and understand and discuss the world ~ but Ignatius did not have that particular advantage.  And so he fell back on his own experience of God.  

That experience created some bewildering difficulties for him, and he did eventually pursue the course of education that made it possible for him to be ordained a priest and, eventually, to become one of the most gifted of organizational administrators.

But his experience also enabled him first to encounter God deeply and affectively, with his feelings more than with his mind, and to pass on to succeeding generations his confidence in our capacity to meet God in our experiences, and to learn to evaluate them, and to proceed accordingly.

I was struck for a number of reasons by the assertion that it was his lack of education that enabled him to develop an experiential approach that can so profoundly change lives.

For one, I have been the beneficiary of excellent formal education in many guises, but it was the experience of the Exercises that changed my life.

For another, my seminary education was extremely lopsided, with a heavy bent toward the academic, and I will be forever grateful that it was balanced by my simultaneous immersion in Ignatian spirituality.  Many of my classmates found their own balance in other ways, especially through travel and mission, or through worship and service in congregations focused on experimentation, but for me, it was Ignatius who opened other doors.

And for a third, while I have an intense bent toward the intellectual and academic myself, and made good use of that approach to contend with Josh's death during my last two years of seminary, when the formal theology all splattered outward, as Aquinas described it, as "so much straw," and God seemed truly and eternally gone, my feelings were both legitimized and challenged through the gifts of Ignatius.

I'm so glad that he wasn't an eldest son destined for university from the outset!


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I also owe a great deal to Ignatius as the Spiritual Exercises are transformational and provided much healing. My life has been changed by this experience and I thank God for St. Ignatius and his faithfulness to our Lord.

  2. I celebrate the feast day of St. Ignatius in our Tuesday morning Eucharist and am always taken by this idea.....I do hope I get to go away for a time to more intentionally reflect on the exercises...

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I too had not thought about this in all the time I have been a fan of ignatius.