An Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality: Part 1

John Kubasak

An Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality: Part 1

In times of great crisis, God blesses His Church with great saints and religious orders.  This was true in the first few centuries of the Church, in the present day, and no less true in the 16th century.  The Protestant Reformation split continental Europe along Protestant and Catholic lines.  Wars abounded, mixing political and religious motives.  King Henry VIII of England officially severed ties with the Vatican in 1534, after Parliament gave him the title of Supreme Head of the Church of England.  The “New World,” being aggressively colonized by western European nations since the late 15th century, presented an extensive evangelical challenge, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the early days of the Church. 

Enter St. Ignatius of Loyola: a former soldier who, after a conversion, wanted to campaign under the banner of Christ and His Church.  He founded the Society of Jesus in 1534 with six companions. The religious order received formal approval from Pope Paul III in 1540.  St. Ignatius’ passion and zeal for the Church spurred the Jesuits to found schools, send out missionaries to foreign lands, and to work to preserve the Catholic faith in the face of Protestantism.(1) 

The spiritual guidance of the Holy Spirit through St. Ignatius provided the Church with some remarkable saints.  St. Francis Xavier spread the Gospel through India and died trying to enter China.  St. Peter Faber, recently canonized by Pope Francis, trekked throughout Germany, Spain, and Portugal in his preaching.  St. Isaac Jogues and St. John de Brebeuf sailed to North America to bring Christ to the Native Americans—they both endured dramatic suffering and martyrdom, but sowed the seeds of the Catholic faith.  The Spiritual Exercises composed by St. Ignatius lay out a retreat and spiritual program for religious; still, being one of the seminal works of Christian spirituality, there’s much that every Catholic can get from them. 

There are roughly thirteen pillars of Ignatian spirituality, all of which apply to our everyday lives. 

1: God’s Greater Glory

In all humility, St. Ignatius sought the glory of God in all of his actions.  The Latin phrase ad majorem Dei gloriam (A.M.D.G.) became a motto for the Jesuits.  This is more than a slogan, however; seeking the glory of God brings us in line with the reason for our existence.  The first line of the first week of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises begins with: “man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.”(2)

Everyday Life:

Wanting what God wants has been difficult for humanity from Adam and Eve to the present day.  We can look at all areas of our lives with the glory of God in mind.  Here are a few quick areas:

Does our work give glory to God?  Even if we don’t work for the Church, how we work can bring glory to God.  Many jobs are never-ending opportunities to build virtues like patience and fortitude.  And, every day our conduct is a silent witness to our faith, whether for good or ill. 

Do our families bring glory to God?  The union of a husband and wife echoes the communion of the Holy Trinity, and their love should similarly echo the Trinity: completely self-giving.  And, “the family has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God's love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church His bride.”(3) That’s a tall order and an impossibility, unless God is the first priority.  If sports, activities, or income come first, is the family fulfilling its mission?

Does our entertainment bring glory to God?  We live in an era of endless, instant entertainment.  The entertainment industry thrives under the mistaken, popular assumption that it doesn’t matter what we watch or listen to.  I did as well, until I made a concerted effort to limit the types of movies and TV shows I watched.  I was amazed at how much of the content of those movies & shows sank in... and how little I missed them.  Social media and screen time fall under this category, too.  I’m terrible at this during baseball season, football season, or when I get hooked on a game/app.  So I can watch a game for three hours... or log in to Facebook everyday... but I can’t make time to pray for even fifteen minutes.  Something is wrong!

2: Union with Jesus

Going beyond mere devotion, St. Ignatius wanted all of his followers and students to develop a union with Jesus.  This is the ultimate goal of our lives on earth: to be as He was, to love as He loves, and to unite our hearts with His.  That was no invention of St. Ignatius.  Jesus Himself wished “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.  The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one” (John 17:21-23).

The conclusion of the Spiritual Exercises ends with St. Ignatius’ famous Suscipe prayer, of the soul enveloping him/herself into the Divine Master:

“Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess.  Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it.  All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will.  Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.”(4)

Everyday Life:

St. Paul begins with some good advice: “rejoice always, pray constantly” (1 Thess 5:16-17).  We cannot expect to be deeply united with Jesus if we don’t frequent the sacraments, read the Scriptures, pray daily, and live out Christian charity. 

Apart from that, I’ve found the best advice is to keep trying.  Advancing in the spiritual life so that we can arrive at a fuller union with Jesus is impossible without a lot of effort.  Putting in the time and effort in the spiritual life is half the battle!  It might mean getting up early, reserving your afternoon break for prayer time, or finding a Eucharistic Adoration chapel to stop in on the way home.  Fight and fight and fight for spiritual progress! (cf. 1 Tim 6:12)

3 and 4: Self-Awareness & Spiritual Direction in Everyday Life

Even though these two pillars aren’t the same thing, they’re intimately connected in Ignatian spirituality. In being self-aware, the goal is both positive and negative.  On the negative side, we should know our weaknesses and frequent occasions of sin.  Hopefully that means we’re more careful in avoiding sin.  On the positive side, we should know what brings us life and how we get closest to the Lord.  Some may gain a lot of value through spiritual reading; others, through youth ministry; others, through being a catechist. 

The aim of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises is “to find out what the will of God is in regard to his future, and to give him energy and courage to follow that will.”(5) A spiritual director can help in the discernment of the Lord’s will, provide good counsel, notice and then steer us away from our sinful tendencies.  Not everyone has access to a spiritual director, but anyone can have a regular confessor.  The more a priest knows you, the better able he is to prescribe the right spiritual medicine. 

5: Effective Love

This pillar is rather simple, as St. Ignatius pressed effective love as the kind of love that “should manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.” Fr. John Hardon says it very well: “we are not mere pawns in the almighty hands of God. We have to work out our salvation: with divine grace, of course, but work it out no less. And if we ask where human effort is more required: in verbal statements or in actual deeds, the answer is rhetorical.”(6)

Everyday Life:

I can give my wife flowers, or leave her a little note to tell her I love her.  I can’t give God flowers or notes in the same way, but I can do small acts of love for Him.  St. Ignatius emphasized disinterested love—focused entirely on the other, and not done out of any selfish motivation to make myself feel good. 

6. Detachment

The Ignatian principle of detachment seeks to live a healthy indifference to the things of this world.  “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matt 6:28-29).

Everyday Life:

Although the particulars of this application are different for Jesuits than for the laity, the underlying idea is a very valuable spiritual lesson.  All too often, we get caught up in having all the things that the secular world promises will make us happy.  St. Ignatius reminds us that nothing apart from God will fulfill us—we should "use these things to the extent that they help us toward our end, and free ourselves from them to the extent that they hinder us from it."(7)  The only end we should concern ourselves with is heaven, and we should look at all our material possessions through that lens.  When we die, God will not ask about our retirement account, baseball card collection, DVD library, vacation home, or how many trips to Europe we took.  Will our material possessions help usher us to heaven, or will/are they a hindrance?  If we treat things as an end unto themselves, we self-inflict spiritual harm on our souls.

I think there are two common traps with material detachment.  First, there’s a tendency to see it as a problem for the rich.  That is, only people who can afford big houses, new cars, and large TVs have to worry about being detached from material possessions.  Not true!  This presents a great challenge to the rich, the middle class, and the poor alike.  I can be attached to my things regardless of my income level.  Second, this pillar can be seen exclusively in a negative light.  That is, God wants everyone to become mendicants and eschew material possessions of every kind.  Yes, that’s a calling for some, but not all.  It’s important to remember the first pillar on the list—AMDG—and look at detachment as something positive for the sake of God.(8) “Seek first His kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matt 6:33).  The more room in our life, the more room for God!

7: Prayer, Self-conquest, and Reflection

This is related to pillar #3 above (self-awareness).  After gaining a road map of through self-awareness, the soul can more effectively conquer the ego, the passions, and temptation.  Since worldliness and corruption were forces holding sway within the Church of St. Ignatius’ time, he sought to have the members of his company “conquer oneself and to regulate one's life without determining oneself through any tendency that is disordered."(9)  Through these things, we advance in the spiritual life.  There can be no deeper union with Christ without prayer; orienting ourselves toward God cannot happen unless we work with grace to turn away from our concupiscence.

Everyday Life:

There are so many different methods of prayer and reflection within the Catholic faith.  They enrich the Body of Christ and provide many paths along the same road to union with Him.  If you can’t find one right away, keep looking!  You may find a treasure trove of grace in devotion to a particular saint, the rosary, the chaplet of Divine Mercy, lectio divina, the Liturgy of the Hours, or in the charism of a particular religious order. 

A misconception regarding self-conquest: fasting isn’t just for Lent.  Besides fasting, holding one’s tongue is a very difficult battle.  What’s great about this area of the spiritual life is that practicing restraint in one area helps out in other areas.  The reverse is also true.  Having trouble with a vice, like pride?  Reflect on your habits and the state of your soul.  If one vice has taken root, there’s a good chance that others have, too.           

Stay tuned for The Pillars of Ignatian Spirituality, part 2!


Scripture quotes used from The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version – Catholic Ed. Ignatius, 1966.
(2) Online (PDF) translation of The Spiritual Exercises.
(3) St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio #17.
(4) Amy Welborn, “Suscipe, the Radical Prayer,” quoting St. Ignatius. 
(5) Pollen, John Hungerford. "St. Ignatius Loyola." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 21 Jun. 2015
(6) Fr. John Hardon, S.J. “All My Liberty,” quoting St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.   
(7) Fr. Joseph Koczera, S.J.  “Further Reflections on Detachment,” quote from St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.  
(8) Fr. John Hardon, S.J.  Modern Catholic Dictionary, “Detachment.”  Doubleday, 1980
(9) Online (PDF) translation of The Spiritual Exercises