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What Is Ignatian Spirituality?

What Is Ignatian Spirituality?

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by David L. Fleming

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Its effects are often life changing. But what exactly is it, and why do so many people embrace it?

The most influential spiritual movement of the modern age is Ignatian spirituality, an approach to the spiritual life based on the insights of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatian spirituality teaches an active attentiveness to God joined with a prompt


Its effects are often life changing. But what exactly is it, and why do so many people embrace it?

The most influential spiritual movement of the modern age is Ignatian spirituality, an approach to the spiritual life based on the insights of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatian spirituality teaches an active attentiveness to God joined with a prompt responsiveness to God, who is ever active in people’s lives.

In What Is Ignatian Spirituality?,David L. Fleming, SJ, provides an authoritative yet highly accessible summary of the key elements of Ignatian spirituality, among which are contemplative prayer, discernment, and dynamic involvement in service and mission. In twenty concise chapters, Fr. Fleming explains how this centuries-old method of disciplined reflection on God’s work in the world can deepen our spiritual lives today and guide all the decisions we make.
Also available in Spanish! ¿Qué es la espiritualidad ignaciana?

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"What Is Ignatian Spirituality? covers slightly different territory; it is also one of the shortest introductions to Ignatian spirituality I have ever read. The editor of Review for Religious and an experienced spiritual director, Fleming offers bite-size chapters on love, pilgrimage, prayer, work, discernment and sin, each highlighting an aspect of the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Fleming expertly weaves into his book, as through a tapestry, stories from the life of Ignatius and examples from his classic text, the Spiritual Exercises. Like Barry, much of Fleming’s writing not only explains but reveals: 'Imaginative prayer makes Jesus of the Gospels our Jesus.' This is one of those statements, common to both books, that makes you think at once, 'I’ve never thought of that!' and 'That’s exactly right!' Fleming’s is the perfect book to give to someone who asks his title question. How lucky we are to have these two experienced guides offering to lead us along the way of Ignatius, and how lucky we are that they have followed the lead of the homiletics professor who gave his class excellent advice for giving a good homily: 'Be clear, be brief and be gone!'”

--James Martin, S.J.

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Loyola Press
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Read an Excerpt

Jesuits and others involved in Ignatian endeavors often refer to “our way of proceeding.” This is a hard-­to-­define collection of attitudes, customs, and values that gives Ignatian work its characteristic flavor. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, paid much attention to “our way of proceeding” when he wrote the foundational documents of the Society of Jesus. He was more interested in a whole-­person approach than in rules. He did not spell out the Jesuit way of life in detail, but rather prized a certain way of thinking, praying, and behaving.
I take a similar approach in this little book. I try to answer the question “What is Ignatian spirituality?” not by systematic analysis but by describing the ideas and attitudes that make this spirituality distinctive. Ignatian spirituality is not captured in a rule or set of practices or a certain method of praying or devotional observances. It is a spiritual “way of proceeding” that offers a vision of life, an understanding of God, a reflective approach to living, a contemplative form of praying, a reverential attitude to our world, and an expectation of finding God daily. I try to capture the tone of this spirituality in a number of short essays. They are suggestive rather than exhaustive. Books can (and have been) written on all of these themes. I am trying only to describe something of the spirit of Ignatian spirituality.
For four decades I have been speaking and writing about Ignatian spirituality, directing Ignatian retreats, and training others in the art of Ignatian spiritual direction. I have found that the best way to plumb the depths of Ignatian spirituality is to reflect on Ignatius’s life as he relates it in his autobiography and to draw upon the retreat experiences that find their dynamism from his classic text the Spiritual Exercises. I make frequent reference to the life of Ignatius Loyola and refer often to his book because, nearly five centuries after Ignatius’s death, this is still the best way to grasp his innovative ideas.
I am writing for people who are drawn to Ignatian spirituality. They are people who are curious, who want to know what makes Ignatian ministries tick, who know a bit about Ignatian spirituality and want to know more, or who think they might want to learn how to pray this way. I hope these reflections will encourage readers to go deeper. Ignatius Loyola believed that God is always inviting us to respond to his presence and love. I hope that this book will show the way to a more generous response.
David L. Fleming, SJ
A Vision of Life, Work, and Love
In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius Loyola presents us with a vision in three interrelated exercises: the Principle and Foundation, the Call of the King, and the Contemplation on the Love of God. His vision takes in how we see our world, how we see our life, and how we are to grow in our relationship with God. We begin with this vision.
It’s often said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But Ignatius Loyola reverses the saying: “When I believe it, I’ll see it.” He observed that our vision largely controls our perception. If we think the world is a bleak place, full of evil, greedy, selfish people who have no love for God or each other, that’s what we will see when we look around. If we think that our world is full of goodness and opportunity, a place that God created and sustains and loves, that is what we’ll find. Ignatius thought that the right vision lies at the heart of our relationship with God.
Ignatian spirituality offers us a vision. It is a vision of life, of work, and of love—a three-­part vision that helps us see what is really true about God and about the world he created.
The Ignatian vision is contained in the Spiritual Exercises, the book that Ignatius Loyola assembled to help people come into a more intimate relationship with God. Ignatian spirituality flows from the Spiritual Exercises. The essence of the Ignatian vision is contained in a reflection at the beginning of the Exercises called the Principle and Foundation.
God who loves us creates us and wants to share life with us forever. Our love response takes shape in our praise and honor and service of the God of our life.
All the things in this world are also created because of God’s love and they become a context of gifts, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.
As a result, we show reverence for all the gifts of creation and collaborate with God in using them so that by being good stewards we develop as loving persons in our care of God’s world and its development. But if we abuse any of these gifts of creation or, on the contrary, take them as the center of our lives, we break our relationship with God and hinder our growth as loving persons.
In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not bound by some responsibility. We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a more loving response to our life forever with God.
Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.
Ignatius’s first principle is that all creation is a gift, coming from God and leading toward God. Furthermore, “all the things in this world are . . . presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.” This means that God is in this creation. The choices we make in our daily life in this world push us away from God or draw us closer to him. Ignatius sees God as present, not remote or detached. He is involved in the details of our life. Our daily lives in this world matter.
The Principle and Foundation is a life vision. It asks, “what is life all about?” It is a vision that directs us to the source of life. We will return to this life vision repeatedly in this book because it truly is the foundation of the Ignatian outlook.
Ignatian spirituality also offers a work vision. What is our work in this world all about? Why do we do what we do? What values should govern our choices? In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius asks these questions in the context of a reflection he calls the Call of the King. He proposes that we think about Jesus after the model of a king to whom we owe reverence and obedience. He is a leader with ambitious plans: “I want to overcome all diseases, all poverty, all ignorance, all oppression and slavery—in short all the evils which beset humankind,” he says. He poses a challenge: “Whoever wishes to join me in this undertaking must be content with the same food, drink, clothing, and so on, that comes with following me.”
Note two particular features of this work vision. Christ our king calls us to be with him. The essence of the call is not to do some specific work, but, above all, to be with the One who calls, imaged in the everyday details of living like our king lives. We are to share Christ’s life, to think like him, to do what he does.
The second feature is a call to work with Christ our king. Christ is not a remote ruler commanding his forces through a hierarchy of princes, earls, dukes, lords, and knights. He is “in the trenches.” He is doing the work of evangelizing and healing himself. His call goes out to every person. He wants every one to join with him, and each one receives a personal invitation. The initiative is Christ’s; he asks us to work with him.
The third part of the Ignatian vision is a vision of love. Above all, God loves, and he invites us to love him in return. Later we will look carefully at Ignatius’s Contemplation on the Love of God, which concludes the Exercises. Here we will note two statements Ignatius makes to introduce it.
The first is that “love ought to show itself in deeds over and above words.” The second is that love consists in sharing: “In love, one always wants to give to the other what one has.” The Spanish word that Ignatius uses here is comunicar—”to share or to communicate.” Lovers love each other by sharing what they have, and this sharing is a form of communication. God is not just a giver of gifts, but a lover who speaks to us through his giving. God holds nothing back.
The ultimate expression of his self-­giving is Jesus’ death. He shares his very life with us. He also shares with us the work he is doing in the world. Thus, the work we do is a way of loving God. It is not just work. By inviting us to share in his works, God is showing his love for us. In our response of trying to work with God, we show our love.
Ignatius raises the questions: What does it mean for us to love? How do we go about expressing our love? How do we show our love for God, for ourselves, for others, and for our world? He invites us to answer these questions by looking at how God loves. He is a God who sets no limits on what he shares with us.
God Is Love Loving
In his autobiography, Ignatius describes a mystical experience of God actively involved in the creation of our world. At the beginning of the second week in the Spiritual Exercises, he imagines the Trinity coming to the decision of God-­becoming-­man for the salvation of our world. At the core of Ignatian spirituality is this perception of a loving God actively involved in the world.
Ignatius’s life changed drastically in 1521. He was a soldier serving the kingdom of Castile, fighting to defend the city of Pamplona against a French attack. During the battle a cannonball struck him in the legs. Badly injured, Ignatius was taken to his family castle in the town of Loyola to recuperate. There he endured two extremely painful operations to repair his wounds, and spent many months convalescing. Ignatius had a lot of time to think about his life, which, to that point, had been an undistinguished and unsatisfying pursuit of military glory and frivolous pastimes.
Ignatius was a keenly observant man. His talent for simple “noticing” or “taking note” became a cornerstone of his approach to the spiritual life. In 1521, bored and restless as he healed in his family’s home, Ignatius took special notice of the movements in his own spirit.
He had asked for romance novels to read. These tales of love and adventure were the most popular printed books of the time, as they are in our time, and Ignatius loved to fill his imagination with these stories. But the only books available in the house were a life of Christ and a book of stories about saints. Ignatius read these instead, and he was struck by the feelings they stirred in his heart. The stories of Jesus and the heroes of the faith inspired and stimulated him. By contrast, he was restless and discontented when he remembered his favorite tales of romantic love and adventure.
Gradually, a new and inspiring image of God began to form in Ignatius’s mind. He saw God as a God of Love. This was no abstract philosophical concept. God as Love was no longer just a scriptural statement. Ignatius experienced God as an intensely personal, active, generous God, a God as Love loving. God creates, and by so doing God is actively showering us with gifts. God acts, and all his actions show his wisdom and love.
God’s love is unconditional. It is not something we earn, or buy, or bargain for. God does not say, “I will love you if you keep my commandments” or “I will love you if you go to Lourdes.” Lying on his sickbed—in pain, crippled, agitated—Ignatius came to understand that active loving was God’s most outstanding quality. This is his foundational image of God. He arrived at it by “noting” how God dealt with him in his body, soul, and spirit, and through the people and events in his everyday life.
Ignatius saw how this image of God as an active lover profoundly affects the way we act. Because God’s love is infinitely generous, we are motivated to make the most generous response we possibly can. The choices we make in life become very important. They are all about our seeking and finding the Giver of gifts. As Ignatius says in the Principle and Foundation, “All the things in this world are also created because of God’s love and they become a context of gifts, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.”
This image of God affects how we understand the purpose of our lives. If we think that God loves us only if we act in a certain way, we will see our lives as a time of testing. We need to rise to the challenge, to avoid mistakes, to labor to do the right thing. But if God is Love loving, our life is a time of growing and maturing. “All the things in this world” are ways to become closer to God. Lovers don’t test each other. Lovers don’t constantly demand that the other measure up. Lovers give to those they love.
Our world is far from perfect. God’s loved creation cries out for us to act with God to bring it to a fulfillment and so to bring about the kingdom of God, a reign of justice and love. We often abuse God’s gifts by wasting them, polluting them, hoarding them, destroying them, but we can never be so pessimistic as to think that God will be defeated by our bad use of his gifts. God came into his creation in a definitive way in Jesus Christ. With the defining life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has entered into the assured victorious struggle against every limiting factor, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual.
Reflection on God’s gifts is the first part of Ignatius’s Contemplation on the Love of God, the concluding prayer of the Spiritual Exercises. Here, Ignatius has us consider all that God has given to us—our life, our family, our friends, perhaps husband or wife or religious community, our talents and education, our native country and the times in which we live, our faith, our church, the forgiveness of our sin, and the promise of life forever with God.
Then Ignatius tells us how God is not content with just giving us gifts; God gives us himself in Jesus, his only Son. Jesus gives himself to us in his life, passion, and death, and he continues to be present to us in his resurrected life. Jesus gifts us with himself in the Eucharist, where he literally puts himself in our hands. We become his hands and his feet and his voice in our world.
Ignatius then points to God’s continuing efforts on our behalf. God is not a distant, snap-­of-­the-­fingers, miracle-working God. Our God is a God who labors over his creation. In Jesus, God is born in an occupied country, lives the life of an itinerant preacher, is betrayed, put to death, raised up. This is a God who labors with and through his church to bring to fulfillment the redeemed creation. Ignatius sees God as a busy God, involved in a labor of love.
Ignatius ends the contemplation by stressing the limitless nature of God’s love. God has broken through all barriers, even the barrier of death. Ignatius compares the gifts of God to the light that pours forth inexhaustibly from the sun. He compares them to the waters that flow from a spring-­source. But even these are pale images of the mighty flow of love that gushes forth from the heart of the Lover.
This is the God whom Ignatius would have us know. He is Love loving, and we, his loved ones, can generously share with this God everything we have.

Meet the Author

David L. Fleming, SJ, is internationally known for his conferences, retreats, and writings on Ignatian spirituality, spiritual direction, and the spiritual life. He is the editor of the journal Review for Religious. His books include Draw Me into Your Friendship, Like the Lightning, and Prisms for a Christ-Life.

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What Is Ignatian Spirituality? 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous 4 months ago
This is an excellent explanation of Ignatian Spirituality; very easy to read and understand.