The Ignatian tradition of Christian faith and practice draws from the work of Iñigo López de Oñaz y Loyola, also known as Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556 A.D.). A Spanish knight from a noble family, he originally had more interest in war and wooing women than faith. But that changed when a battle injury forced him into bed rest for several months. Bored, he asked for reading material. The only thing available was a book on the Christian saints and a book on the life of Jesus. When he wasn’t reading he passed the time fantasizing. Ignatius alternated between imagining himself as a heroic saint like the ones he read about and daydreaming of being a macho knight who wins a lady. As the days went by he began to notice that after daydreaming about doing the work of Jesus he felt invigorated, the positive feelings persisted long after. But when he imagined exploits of bravado and romance, the good vibes soon dissipated, leaving him feeling discontent.
From this experience Ignatius realized the power of spiritual influences and their impact on our moods, desires, emotions, and imagination. He soon committed his life to Jesus. Thereafter, Ignatius lived many years in poverty, endured interrogation by Church authorities for starting his ministry without proper credentials, and went through years of schooling to be allowed to continue his work, all for the sake of encouraging people to follow the ways of Jesus. Ignatius lived a celibate life and devoted himself to helping others. He went on to found the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits. One of his greatest contributions was the development of the Spiritual Exercises.
Principles of the Ignatian Way
Experience of God in everyday life. God is alive, active, and can be found amid ordinary events of daily life. Human beings can communicate with God and have an intimate relationship with this loving Being. Ignatius believed we are all created to love and serve God and live out this reality in tangible ways. Understanding this created purpose affects how we engage with all of creation. Other creatures and life forms are not for exploitation, but are gifts that help us in the endeavor to serve God.
Imitation of Jesus. The Second Person of the Trinity is our example for how to live out the ways of God. Just as Jesus cared for the poor, sick, and oppressed, so also we are to help others. The Ignatian Way is all about joining with God to bring justice and healing to the world as “contemplatives in action.” This is sometimes articulated in the phrase “men and women for others.” We are empowered in this work by the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
Humility. The ability to love well is rooted in an awareness of our own frailty. Helping others does not come out of pride or paternalistic attitudes. Ignatius believed it was important to have an awareness of one’s own sinfulness and the ways we personally contribute to problems in the world. But his understanding dovetailed with an image of a loving God. Rather than incurring condemnation, acknowledgment of our weaknesses highlights the incredible kindness of God who never gives up on us. For Ignatius, humility is characterized by selflessness and a malleable heart that is willing to change to embrace life-giving ways.
Care for the whole person. Various aspects make up each person, including the heart, intellect, body, interests, talents, work, etc. Caring for the whole means attending to all parts of a person in an integrated manner. It also means recognizing that every person, along with his or her circumstances, is unique. Ignatius was very attentive to the specific needs of each person he encountered and adapted his help accordingly. When applied to education, Ignatian pedagogy asserts the importance of caring about a student’s life beyond the walls of the classroom.
Integration of the heart and mind. Ignatius understood the importance of both emotions and intellect. He believed integration was important in order to achieve an authentic faith. The spiritual life is not merely stoic adherence to doctrine, but heartfelt devotion. For example, Ignatius encouraged people to enter into the Gospel story as emotionally affected participants, including using our imagination to see, touch, smell, hear, and taste all the sights and sounds of the biblical narratives of Jesus’s life on earth. When applied to education, Ignatian pedagogy emphasizes the role of reflection in the learning process. The purpose of education is not an “information dump,” but transformation of the person such that he or she aspires to make a difference in the world.
Inner Freedom. Also known as “Ignatian indifference,” this principle refers to living life with open palms. For example, Ignatius wrote: “I neither desire nor prefer to be rich rather than poor, to seek fame rather than disgrace, to desire a long rather than a short life, provided it is all the same for the service of God.” This indifference is not to be confused with apathy or lack of caring. It is not the suppression, rejection, or escape from desire. Rather, it refers to the idea of holding things loosely so as to be open to ways God might direct us. It involves freedom from obsessive attachments to find contentment in the divine will.
Discernment & Decision-Making. Spiritual influences exist that can draw us toward God or away from God. Understanding these influences is closely connected to awareness of our emotions, moods, and desires. Ignatian Spirituality values attention to the experiental. Experiences are not necessarily untrustworthy or bad nor are they automatically edifying. Rather, through prayer and listening to the Spirit of God, we grow in the ability to discern how to assess and respond to an experience with wisdom. Some desires may lead us toward destruction, while others lead to what is life-giving. Ultimately, Ignatian discernment principles are about fostering good decisions, whether for small daily things or life vocation.
Purpose. All of us have a God-given purpose(s) regardless of our station in life or abilities. That purpose is rooted in love of God and others. What that means for each person practically and specifically can be discovered through a process of prayer and discernment (and may change throughout a lifetime). Ignatian Spirituality holds that our deepest desire is to work for and with God, even if we do not always recognize or embrace that desire. This desire becomes manifest specifically in what makes us most come alive. God’s will for our life is not whatever makes us most miserable, but rather is tied to the passions, talents, and spiritual gifts we have been given. As pastor Frederick Buechner once said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Our calling might be difficult, but if it is from God the call is accompanied by a burning in the bones that makes it compelling.
For a more detailed discussion of the Ignatian Way see also ignatianspirituality.com.