Ignatius for Evangelicals?

How do you nurture your spiritual life moment by moment? A 16th century Roman Catholic has something surprising to offer to Christians of different traditions, even today

Ignatius Loyola (1491—1556) is often seen as head of the Pope’s anti-Reformation shock troops in the 16th century. Like most one-line characterizations, however, that is a caricature. Certainly Ignatius was the founder of the Jesuits, perhaps the most powerful Roman Catholic missionary movement ever. Certainly there were Jesuits at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which set out to counter Protestant “heresies.” And, equally true, we do know that at least once Loyola personally engaged in debate with Protestants.  His legacy in the history of the church, however, is both deeper and wider than that, for Catholics and Protestants alike

The story in brief is this.

Having grown up in Spain, at the age of thirty Ignatius was wounded in battle against the French. While recovering, there being nothing more interesting to read, he read a life of Christ and a book about the saints—and, somewhat like one of his heroes, St Francis, had a mystical conversion experience. His life was never the same again. The year was 1531.

Quite soon, he found that people started coming to him for spiritual advice and direction, and discovered that he had a gift in this area. Over time, his direction evolved into a more or less standard form now known as the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, based on how he had experienced God’s work in his own life. Gradually some to whom he had given the Exercises, and who had been dramatically affected by them, grew into a group of between six and ten friends who lived together and engaged together in a ministry of preaching, catechism and care for the poor. In 1537, this group decided to call themselves the Companions of Jesus and in 1540, the Society of Jesus was given official Papal approval, and Loyola was elected Superior.  Not that all was straightforward, however: twice, Loyola was imprisoned and brought before the Inquisition, who were suspicious of his teaching! (Both times he was acquitted.)  Loyola died in 1556 and was canonized in 1609, by which time the Jesuits numbered around 15,000 and were at work in countries as widespread as China, Peru and Ethiopia.


These days, much of the old suspicion between Roman Catholics and Protestants has evaporated, thank God, and we are at least more understanding of our differences. Wycliffe students often take courses at Regis, TST’s Jesuit College, and Jesuit students have been known to take courses at Wycliffe. One perhaps unexpected fruit of that greater understanding has been increased Protestant interest in the Ignatian Exercises. The best-known way to do this is during a forty-day retreat, paralleling Christ’s forty days in the wilderness. Loyola House (the name is not coincidental) in Guelph is favourite place for people to do the Exercises this way. (Check out www.ignatiusguelph.ca.) Many others, however, do the Exercises in the course of everyday life, simply taking an hour a day for it (the so-called “19th annotation,” since it is in section 19 of his instructions that Ignatius explains this). I did this, following the course of the liturgical year, in 2009-2010.


 So what is the attraction of Ignatian spirituality for Protestants, not least for evangelicals?

I suspect there are four areas of resonance.

One is that the Exercises require a close engagement with Scripture. A distinctive of Ignatius’ approach is that the student imagines him or herself in the Bible story, whether it be with the shepherds at the manger, with Jesus as he leaves Nazareth and walks to the Jordan river, or with Mary as she encounters the risen Jesus. Many insights come through this contemplative engagement with scripture that might never come through academic study alone. Even familiar stories take on new dimensions. I confess that, when the Exercises required me to read the Prodigal Son for the third time—yes, the third—I was sceptical: “I saw something new the first two times. Give me a break! Surely there can’t possibly be anything else!” But of course there was. (It became a joke with my spiritual director that every week I would say, “Well, I’d read this story a thousand times, but I saw something new this time.”)

 Secondly, Ignatius could almost have coined the phrase evangelicals are notorious for, “a personal relationship with Jesus.” As Ignatius guides us through the Gospels, always the emphasis is on what you might say to Jesus and what he might say to you. Of course, orthodox Catholic that he is, for Ignatius, that “personal relationship” is never free-wheeling like that of some Protestants, but is always securely in a Trinitarian context (most of Ignatius’ mystical visions were of the Trinity), and in submission to the teaching of the Church. Yet at the heart of the Exercises is a yearning to be a more faithful and dedicated disciple of Jesus, and to learn all that he has to teach.

 Thirdly, the Jesuits are a missionary Order with a clear passion to evangelize the world: this obviously appeals to the missionary heart of evangelicalism. Unlike many Orders, the Jesuits did not (and do not) build or live in monasteries. They needed (and need) to be flexible and nimble for the sake of Christ’s mission. According to biographer Philip Caraman, Loyola insisted that “Jesuits . . . must have one foot on the road, ready to hasten from place to place.” Ignatian spirituality therefore is internal, personal and highly portable—though again, that is not in isolation but is set in the context of communal worship and frequent attendance at Mass.

 The last point of resonance came home to me in a comment by Caraman, that Loyola’s “contemporaries . . . saw in him, first and foremost, not a champion of Roman Catholicism, still less a hammer of heretics, but a passionate believer in holiness, reaching out with his whole being towards God.” A characteristic of evangelicalism is to recognize and be drawn to that passion for God, even across traditional barriers. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, and despite differences of culture and theology, evangelicals recognise in Ignatius something of a kindred spirit. Within that mysterious and wonderful thing called the Body of Christ, there is much to learn from him. Maybe you would like to try doing the Exercises some time—either during a forty-day retreat or following the 19th Annotation—and discover it for yourself.

3 thoughts on “Ignatius for Evangelicals?”

  1. Nice succinct and revealing explanation of who Ignatius Loyola is and his thinking. Hope one day to have time to do the exercies.

  2. Hi John
    I am now doing the Ignatian Exercises for my second time (the first was about 20 years ago). I think it would be great for someone to put together a Protestant version. I am too busy, and I suspect you are too, but I think it would be a big seller if we could find someone to do it!

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