At the beginning of the spring term I was asked to do a presentation in Dr. Anne Pasero’s honors course on the Spanish mystics. Pasero was concentrating on three of the more famous mystics in Spanish history: John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Ignatius Loyola.
My initial reaction was to question why Ignatius would be placed in the same company as these contemplative mystics. John and Teresa were members of the Carmelite Order and spearheaded the reformation of the men and women’s branches to make them more strict. Their reforms led to a renewal of prayer in rigorously cloistered convents and monasteries. Their writings for the nuns and monks as well as for others were aimed at giving people an understanding of prayer as mystical union with God.
Even though he was later considered a mystic, Ignatius Loyola did not start off with that reputation. During his teen years and through his 20s, he was immersed in a culture of brawling, drinking and drawing attention to himself. He turned to God when he had to spend months recovering from a cannon ball injury. When he opened himself to God, he wrote that God taught him as a teacher would instruct a small child. Gradually, he grew into a person of prayer.
His growth reached a significant moment when he began his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Stopping at Manresa in Spain, he often prayed by the Cardoner River. One afternoon his mind was opened to a mystical awareness that God is not confined to churches or monasteries, but God is alive and active in everything. God is dynamic and not static, therefore there is no distinction between secular and sacred. That awareness changed his life.
From then on Ignatius was able to find the presence of God in other persons, in his studies, desk work and planning, in the stars at night, in the countryside and the city, and in everything he encountered. It was a mystical grace that allowed him to be in union with God in the midst of ordinary activity in the same way that John and Teresa experienced union with God in their times of prayer and contemplation. This mystical grace of Ignatius — to find God in the midst of daily life — does place him beside John and Teresa.
Ignatius, like John and Teresa, saw that the grace of prayer he received, that called him to be a “contemplative in action,” was to be shared with others. Ignatius’ primary way of sharing his gift was through the small book he wrote, The Spiritual Exercises. This book has been used as a model for Jesuits and lay people in preaching and directing retreats for more than four and a half centuries.
A retreat based on The Spiritual Exercises has formed many men and women to experience God in daily life. Is making a retreat an invitation that attracts you?
Rev. Doug Leonhardt, S.J., formerly associate vice president for mission and ministry and associate director of the Faber Center, is now Jesuit rector at San Camillo in Milwaukee.