What would Ignatius do?


Having been asked to play a small part in the second Ignatian Festival this coming weekend, I have found myself in the last several days wondering what it is exactly that draws me, again and again, to Ignatius of Loyola.

The author of the Spiritual Exercises and the founder of the Society of Jesus was an extraordinary man. The contradictions of his life would give a soap opera writer pause: a vainglorious soldier become ascetic priest, a restless romantic turned organization man, a stoic (wounded in the siege of Pamplona, he underwent leg surgery twice without so much as a complaint) who shed tears at Mass.

Not least, at least for me: An indifferent writer, who could change lives with the turn of a phrase.

It is not common practice to think of Ignatius as a writer; his prose was rough-hewn, even ungrammatical—hardly an example to be set before millions of Jesuit students. “St. Ignatius writes in coarse, incorrect, and labored Castilian,” the Jesuit historian Antonio Astrain wrote, “which only at times attracts the attention by the energetic precision and brevity with which certain thoughts are expressed.”

But his writings were extraordinarily consequential, especially the Spiritual Exercises and the Constitutions. For about a year, he also kept a Spiritual Diary—an almost code-like record of his religious and mystical experiences, punctuated by occasional confessions of “tears, many tears.”

He was also a dutiful writer of letters; he wrote several thousands, because it was the only way to administer a rapidly growing missionary enterprise in the middle of the 16th century.

Among these letters is a list of instructions he gave the three Jesuits on their way to attend the Council of Trent, in 1546. The Society of Jesus was then a fledgling religious order, Ignatius a reluctant administrator in Rome, but two Jesuits had been summoned to serve as theologian-advisers to Pope Paul III himself, and another was a cardinal’s representative.

The letter makes for a revealing read; it is characteristic of Ignatius’ way of proceeding, as it were, and it gleams every now and then with the apt or felicitous phrase. With it, we can attempt a summary of Ignatian writing, in four steps.

1. Begin with the end in mind. Stephen Covey may have popularized the idea, but for Ignatius it was the living basis of his entire life. His Spiritual Exercises begin with “Principle and Foundation”—and his “Instructions for the Journey to Trent” also begin with a statement of purpose.

Why was he writing? The first paragraph gets straight to the point: “the more we are prepared and armed with some predetermined purpose, the more evenly shall we go in Our Lord. The following are some points, to which we may add others, and from which we may subtract, to keep ourselves in Our Lord.”

2. Be fair. (But at the same time be seen as fair.) The first of the letter’s three sections, on taking part in the Council’s deliberations, deals with how the Jesuit delegates are to conduct themselves (“I should be slow to speak, but deliberate and sympathetic”) in Trent. For instance: “When matters of this kind are being discussed, we should give the reasons ad utramque partem, so as to show ourselves not inclined merely to our own side, and not to leave anyone dissatisfied.”

As was his habit, he leavened the passage with a Latin phrase (this one means “on both sides”). It may be that he found the occasional use of an almost aphoristic quote in Latin time-saving or argument-clinching, but I cannot also help thinking that it was the application of a lesson learned with difficulty. When he realized he wanted to serve the Church, he went back to school in his thirties, to learn Latin beside schoolchildren.

3. Do something more. Given that the new Jesuits were headed to Trent to take part in debate, it is surprising to read an entire section devoted to the doing of apostolic works. “To the greater glory of God Our Lord, the principal object we have in view in this journey of ours to Trent, and in our efforts to be united in our work, is to preach, to hear confessions, to teach, at the same time instructing children, setting a good example, visiting the poor in the hospitals, and exhorting our neighbor, according as each one finds himself in possession of this talent or that to move such persons as we can to devotion and to prayer.”

This seems to me to strike the authentic (but less audible) Jesuit note.

4. Serve in community. The letter’s third section details instructions on how to help each other, as members of a new order. “On one night let one ask all the others to correct him in whatever matter they think fit; and let the one thus corrected not make any answer, unless he is asked to give an account of the matter in which he has been corrected.”

He continues: “On another night let a second do the same; and so on for the rest; so as to help one another on to greater charity, and to greater good influence in all things.”

If there is a passage in this list of instructions that strikes me as classic Ignatius, with the kind of energetic precision and brevity that even Astrain would approve of, it is the following. At the end of the letter’s second section on helping souls, almost as though Ignatius remembered something he should have included in the first section, we read:

“While on the one hand, when laying down definite opinions, it is well, as has been said above, to speak late and to speak little, on the other hand, when it is a question of bringing souls to a sense of their spiritual good, it is profitable to speak at length with method, love, and feeling.”

Method, love and feeling: Not a bad example to set.


Editor’s note:  In the original version, Mr. Nery mistakenly identified the pope who convened the Council of Trent as Pius III, instead of Paul III. This version corrects that mistake.

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