on 9 August 2007
This edition is a mixed bag of Ignatius' writings (1491-1556), including the Reminiscences, Spiritual Diary, forty of his letters, and the famous Exercises themselves. It comes with a helpful introduction, and extensive, often fascinating, endnotes.
The Reminiscences were dictated towards the end of his life to a friend who write them down. Although they miss out much important material regarding the growth of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), they provide a fascinating first-hand account of Ignatius' early life and the key moments in his journey. It is astonishing to discover that he didn't make it to university in Paris until he was 36 years old, that he paid his way over six years there by begging, and that among his friends and founding members of the Jesuits was Francis Xavier. What's more, he shared the Paris college with none other than John Calvin!
The spiritual diary is really quite bizarre. Given that Ignatius' genius is often said to lie in his ability in `finding God in all things', his spiritual diary records his highly emotive responses while narrowly saying the Mass. Many of the entries merely record either `tears' or `no tears'. The diary is doubly inaccessible to readers: most of us are not in a position to say the Mass, and few of us can identify with his strange ecstatic experiences. There is something almost adolescent in the way they are recorded. It is hard to believe that these are the experiences of a highly influential man in his mid-fifties - but then perhaps the later medieval world is further removed from us than we (I) commonly think.
With the letters, I began to feel I was getting to know the man. They contain sober wisdom, compassion, balance, godliness, tact, discretion, and many qualities that would explain why Ignatius came to lead one of the most influential reform movements of the sixteenth century, and to detonate a spiritual depth charge whose shock waves are still reverberating around the world today. At the same time, I am left feeling that Ignatius is a contradictory character. There is a grandiose, perfectionist, striving element within him, which seems to make him want to be larger than life. This can be seen pre-conversion in his willingness to have his badly-set broken leg re-broken and set properly for the sake of macho vanity. You can see it in his striving after God, his radical embrace of poverty, his determination to visit Jerusalem, and his desire to gather other uncompromising men around him in a united cause. This is the medieval Ignatius. You can see it in Week One of the Exercises, which could easily be misconstrued by the modern reader as an incitement to self-harm.
On the other side of his character, much of his pastoral advice in the letters is concerned with encouraging a more moderate approach to devotion on the part of members of the Society. He challenges the necessity of spending four or five hours a day in prayer, as some zealots were doing, and he encourages those who self-flagellate to avoid piercing to the bone. On the whole, it is on this side of his character that the `adult' seems to speak. This side is temperate, gracious, wise, loving, and it is this side that proffers the jewel of imaginative contemplation.
The counterpart of the `medieval' Ignatius is the man who ultimately doubts himself. The perfectionist typically suffers from low self-esteem, and no amount of achievement can permanently repair the cracks. Most revealing of this aspect of Ignatius' character is a letter in which, at the age of sixty, he offers his resignation as superior of the Jesuits on the grounds that he is simply not up to the job. How, one asks, could a man of this wisdom, influence and spiritual genius, come to conclude that he was unfit for office? Presumably, because in his inner life he had never resolved the wounds of low esteem, wounds which he rationalised in his perfectionist moments, but which he transcended by the grace of God in his moments of graciousness.
Then there are the Exercises themselves. It seems significant that they were hammered out over the course of his life, as some parts seem more in tune with the 'striving' Ignatius, while others display the more spacious, grace-filled, creative aspects. The first form of the exercise was written just three years after his conversion at the age of thirty. By any standards, he was new to the faith. It may not be surprising, then, that the first of the four `weeks' of the Exercises make scary, and even disappointing, reading. The emphasis on examining oneself to uncover sin is right and good - but done carelessly, in the spirit of the medieval system of penances, is a terrifying prospect. Reading through week one, I could not but help feel that there were elements here that were abusive. In the subsequent three `weeks' there is calm after the storm, and Ignatius' great insights are given space to flourish. Perhaps those who have undertaken the Exercises themselves would be better qualified to comment here.
By the end of the book I felt as if I had met the man, a contradictory and complex character who stands at the pivot of the medieval and the modern world, a combination of mystic piety and modern self-help. Perhaps for this reason, above all others - this ability to speak to modern people while harnessing the power of ancient currents of spirituality - Ignatius stands as one of the giants of devotional life, and a tutor to those of us frantic moderns who still long to learn how to pray.