There are many things that one can say of Ignatius Loyola, for he was a key figure in an age which was a turning point in the history of the world.
Clare Booth Luce, the American feminist writer, was fond of saying, “A great man is a single sentence”, meaning thereby that the achievements of great men can aptly be summed up in one line.
So let me frame that line for Ignatius: He taught the modern Church to pray.
Benedict of Nursia did this for the medieval Church. As the father of western monasticism, Benedict’s motto, “Ora et labora” (pray and work) set a template for religious life for centuries. Benedictine abbeys were storehouses of know-ledge and tradition, and the psalms sung by monks in choir became the universal pattern for Christian common prayer.
In a time of turmoil and disruption, Benedict’s monasteries were oases of peace and stability.
Ignatius and his Contemporaries
But Ignatius lived at a different time, the “Renaissance” – an age of discovery and exploration, not just of new lands, but also of the intellectual riches of antiquity. And the new findings began to challenge older perspectives.
The Renaissance defied tradition and the Roman Church, which upheld it.
A quick glance at Ignatius’s contemporaries makes it clear how the times had changed irrevocably.
Luther broke the grip of the Church on religious belief, by insisting that the Bible spoke to individual men, and so every man could interpret the word of Scripture for himself.
In science, Copernicus argued that the earth was no longer the centre of the universe, and a century later, Galileo confirmed this with findings through his telescope.
Closer to home, the Moghul commander, Babur won his first victory at Panipat barely five years after young Ignatius was wounded at Pamplona, and thus changed the history of India forever.
And in the Punjab, a religious mystic called Nanak the teacher (“Guru”) made disciples (“sikhs”) of both Hindus and Muslims for the very first time.
In the arts, Michelangelo experimented with linear perspective – that is, the way we look at a scene from a particular point of view. His statue of the young David in Florence symbolized the individual freed from the clutches of a feudal, oppressive society, and on a threshold of a new age.
So too Ignatius: by letting the individual and his experiences become the basis for his relationship with God, by emphasizing subjectivity in prayer, Ignatius changed the way in which we see God.
For this is what ‘being modern’ really is -- giving importance to oneself and to one’s personal experience, over community and social order.
Ignatius and his Pedagogy
How did Ignatius do this? Beginning with himself , Ignatius reflected on his own experience of defeat and depression, and his own vain ambitions...and brought them into his relationship with God.
As he began to “discern the spirits”, he discovered that in the seeds of his despair lay his future vocation.
And that prayer, our encounter with God, is rooted in our encounter with life.
It was a struggle which lasted many years, and whose outlines may be found in his autobiography, A Pilgrim’s Tale, and even more in the workbook, The Spiritual Exercises.
The Exercises prepare someone for this encounter with the Divine, not in any haphazard way, but very methodically – through control of the memory and the affections, through a regular review of what has taken place, through continuous petition and intercessory prayers, through “staying with the feeling” to decipher its meaning ...to ultimate openness to God’s grace, acknowledged and welcomed (“Give me only thy love and thy grace...”).
Here are some of Ignatius’s insights:
In all this, the individual at prayer rooted in her own personal experience, acts consciously to prepare herself for God’s initiative, confident that it will come.
And when we recall that millions of Catholics down the ages have learned these ways of prayer from the Jesuit fathers through their preaching and retreats, through spiritual guidance, through the catechism and sundry devotions, through the influence of schools and colleges, we realize how much Ignatius helped the Church become aware of God’s presence in the ‘here and now’, in the mundane experiences of us all.
For this is how Ignatius and the Society he founded taught the modern Church to pray.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.