14 March 13 // Desire to be found in Ignatian Spirituality


DISCLAIMER: I am currently working on this essay as part of a project on spiritual practices. It is an unedited proof, but one which I am excited about. In the coming days, I can only imagine that it will be altered in some form as I continue to add to, reflect on, and edit. Until it reaches its final form (and this disclaimer is removed), please post your ideas, reactions, thoughts, corrections, etc. as I will be taking them into mind. Also, should you want to discuss these matters further, please do not hesitate to contact me. I love fan mail.


Perhaps more than at any other time, the world seeks meaning and the fulfillment of longing. Christianity, especially in Western Europe, the United States, and Australia, have spent the previous three modifying their theology to allow for personal meaning and experiential spirituality. At best, this allows for a degree of personal satisfaction in the life of the individualized believer. At worst, it is seen by some as a corruption of the faith. Indeed, certain celebrities, the influence of psychoanalysis, and the search for meaning have helped to shape the American experience of faith and personal satisfaction. But these changes are more chicken-and-egg than we might initially admit. Social migration towards an individualized society had been steadily developing for centuries, becoming a communal desire for desire in an increasingly dangerous world. People want to know their lives matter – not just to each other, but also to God and the universe – wherever and whoever is “above” the quotidian of humanity. To this desire, Ignatius of Loyola spoke to a new landscape of possibility in spirituality.

The sixteenth through nineteenth centuries in which Ignatius emerged as a saint/reformer and his influential understanding of spirituality flourished was a time of great change. The Western Church split into Catholic and Protestant expressions, Europe took sides and developed nation-states, and tolerance greatly diminished leading to an abundance of wars and rumors of wars. Seeking to overcome ignorance, the modern science and rationalism of the seventeenth century changed the social attitudes of the eighteenth and nation-states evolved to some extent with democracy. Women began taking a more active role in religious expression, and each of these developments, the Church – Protestant as much as Catholic – was involved, influenced, and deeply affected. As it concerns the origin of Ignatian spirituality in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Catholic spirituality saw a renewal of interest. Reacting to the Protestant Reformation, the Church went through a “Counter-Reformation”. This reawakening began in Spain at a time when the country was in a political “Golden Age” under the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, who took it upon themselves to ensure religious reform. This reform (or counter reform) produced many spiritual writers, including the Carmelite contemplative reform led by Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. From this fertile bed of spiritual life, Ignatius of Loyola trains himself, adding marginalized notes to a worn copy of Ludolf of Saxony’s Life of Christ. He renounces the wealth of his family and for a time, devotes himself to poverty, prayer, and pilgrimage. He reappears some time later, the marginalized notes evolving into what will become his most famous work – Spiritual Exercises. In the Exercises, Ignatius makes extensive use of “imaginative contemplation,” then a popular way of praying, allowing for an illiterate society to meditate on a Biblical narrative as though they were there, for example as though they were present at the Crucifixion or a member of the audience in Paul’s sermons. In many ways, this was Ignatius’ version of a mystical experience, one always tied to the stories of scripture. Further, the Exercises contributed to the institution of spiritual retreats and personal spiritual direction – an idea we shall return to momentarily. For proposing these things as someone without rank in the Church, Ignatius found himself imprisoned during the Inquisition. Undeterred, he moved to Paris with Francis Xavier and other friends, forming what would become the Society of Jesus (“Jesuits”) which was recognized in 1540 after they pledged loyalty to the papacy. As founder, Ignatius was named Superior-General of the order and his views, which had previously caused him to be imprisoned, were considered legitimate. The order, perhaps in reaction to former accusations, insisted that their members be educated and trained in religious life. The order also allowed priests to move out of monasteries and function outside of traditional service to the Church. Further, Ignatius proposed during this time that the faithful could pray anywhere they happened to be for “wherever they happened to be: the world, and not the cloister, was their ‘house.’”[1] More, adherents were allowed to work and serve anywhere there was need – they did not have to reside in the silence of a monastery but were actively, strongly encouraged to go outside the walls of the Church and participate in active evangelism. In 1556, he continued his work with the publication of Constitutions, which encouraged people to “find God in all things,” even the quotidian and pedestrian daily activity of work, life, society, nature, and the arts. And it is here that Ignatian spirituality created a new way of understanding God – our desires. This may seem a leap, for whatever can out innermost desire have to do with such things?

Ignatian spirituality (hereinafter “IS” for brevity) may seem like another sound spiritual practice, but the nature of its expression is inwardly-driven, placing import on the individual experience. Those employing IS “strive to participate in the actual event by projecting themselves back into the historical happening try to become a part of the scene [of history, meditation, or mystical/prophetic experience] in order to draw some practical for their life.” Imagination is employed to relive the event in an affective way and come to feel “real sorrow, joy, or resolution of amendment.”[2] In the Exercises, for example, Ignatius contemplates the Nativity of Jesus. He writes,

I will make myself a poor, little, unworthy servant, and as though present, look upon them [the holy family of Mary, Joseph, Jesus and a maid], contemplate them, and serve them in their needs with all possible homage and reverence.

But then he goes a step further, tipping his hand,

Then I will reflect on myself that I may reap some fruit.


Next, I consider, observe, and contemplate what the persons are saying, and then reflect on myself and draw some fruit from it.

And again,

Next I see and consider what they are doing, for example, making the journey and laboring that our Lord might be born in extreme poverty, and that after many labours, after hunger, thirst, heat, and cold, after insults and outrages, he might die on the cross, and all this for me. Then I reflect on the cross, and all this for me. Then I reflect and draw some spiritual fruit from what I have seen.

Finally, I think over what I should say to our Lord, and I converse freely with him. According to the light that I have received, I will ask for grace to follow and imitate him more closely, who has just become man for me. I end with the ‘Our Father’.[3]

Far from criticizing Ignatius’ self-involvement, I celebrate it for this marks one of the first movements towards personal acceptance, not as mental/emotional/spiritual assent but as a way of moving people of faith to accepting the reality of these events, accepting God in the mundane as well as the supernatural occurrences so well chronicled in the lives of the saints. To the point, Ignatius creates a psycho-spiritual landscape in which everyday “saints” are allowed to first find, then communicate with God. Indeed, as Michael and Norrisey point out, IS finds a ready audience with those who are “striving toward a relationship with God” instead of following forms and practices in liturgy[4]. It is a spirituality for those who seek engagement – to do something with their lives, and as such is a spirituality for those who are either self-aware or trying to become such. In those societies where people long for meaning, IS accepts those with such temperament, who are of the inclination to hold the historical as “especially important”, but who admit that continual reflection on the past can lead to “a static status quo where there is no promise of healthy advancement of any kind”. Instead, holding forming to the past, these believers seek vibrancy in experience.[5] They seek desire.

What kind of a desire do I mean and what kind of a desire does IS seek? Indeed, until now I have been speaking broadly about the origins IS. What I mean to propose is that through each practice of IS, there is an under-truth of self-interest; the self desires something and IS seeks to make something of those desires.

The Church has historically not done well with the concept of desire, as though people rise from the baptismal waters as automatons. The self is divided in loyalties, breeding self-criticism when you find comfort and joy in things, exercises, or fantasies. To desire is thus a shameful “human” or “fleshly” endeavor. Now-retired pastor John Piper says that desiring, even “enjoying anything other than God, from the best gift, to the basest pleasure, can become idolatry,” pointing to St. Paul’s corrective in Col. 3:5 that “covetousness is idolatry”. Piper continues, saying that all parts of the human experience that are not perfect, including all manner of relationships, “from marriage and family to friendships to neighbors to classmates to colleagues – all of them are rooted in various forms of idolatry, that is, wanting things other than God” before proceeding to list twelve ways that “enjoyment” of anything other than God is “idolatrous.” For Calvinist theology, anything that “draws us away from our duties” is sinful.[6]  This may seem a harsh or excessive view, but it is helpful to see Piper’s theology rooted in the Reformed tradition so prevalent during the period that the Society of Jesus flourished, and during which time IS was being formulated, tested, tried, and proven in the heart, minds and lives of believers. Indeed, it is not a leap to see the sobriety of Reformed theology in counterpoise to the “idolatry” that IS celebrates.

Yet the personal point of reference as “sinful” in spirituality is not uniquely Calvinist. Martin Luther also used the self & self identity in his teachings – just in a radically different way. Luther, for his part, constantly focused on the sinfulness of self, demanding sorrow and penance. As Richter would put it, Luther “would want the life of the faithful to be one of ‘unending sorrow and penance’” ultimately finding satisfaction in death by drowning oneself “daily in sorrow and penance.” The inner self “is to die daily” whether by drowning, or by a Promethean daily crucifixion. Only then can the “new man” – a dead man, purged of self interest and desire – be born again, not as self but as a God-man.[7]

Introspection or “conscience-examination” in the Examen is predominantly a reflective exercise, involving “a movement from thinking and reasoning to a lessening of reflection with the head and more a responding with the heart” – where the seat of desire resides.[8] The curious thing is not so much what the desires say about us, though of course that is supremely interesting! The curious thing is the way in which Ignatius understood desire in contrast to Calvinist thought. For Ignatius, desire was the personal interaction of self with the transcendent. Desire, understood in this way, was suppressed in devotion to God, to “service” or “duty”, depending on whether one separated from the Roman Catholic Church. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, writes that one of the most illuminating periscopes in scripture is the encounter of the blind man, Bartimaeus.[9] The miracle of Bartimaeus does not stop with the healing of his vision. The miracle is that Jesus responded to the man’s desire – which he expressed quite vocally against the wishes of the disciples who taught primarily of service and loyalty. Martin, reflecting on why Jesus would ask someone who so clearly wanted to be healed, “What do you want me to do for you?” presents a dilemma. Either Jesus is asking the man to stop yelling and instead beg to be healed (and thus acting in an oppressive way), or Jesus is asking the man to name his desire. “Jesus asks Bartimaeus what he wants, not so much for himself [how can Jesus help] as for the blind man. Jesus was helping the man identify his desire, and to be clear about it.”[10]

It is likely that “desire”, the personal interaction with the transcendent, has become too broad a term. When others speak of sexual and deeply intimate experiences as transcendent, our natural tendency is to try and locate how they are using this descriptor. Since, as a result of Calvinist, there is a polarization of thought – something cannot be both “good” and sinful” unless we, as host, are corrupt – we are unable to access our own desires, for when we look at others we classify their behavior as shameful. As Martin puts it, “When most people hear the term [desire], they think of two things: sexual desire or material wants” neither of which are explicitly “sinful” in scripture.[11] It is our cultural conditioning, not scripture and not the experience with God, that makes desire sinful. Dyckman, Garvin and Liebert say that believers “may often feel that paying attention to their desires is somehow selfish and that they should not honor their desires if they are being truly generous with God” insisting that desire cannot be dictated, as this would “distance” the believer “from their own sense of themselves as expressed through their desires.” The “primary goal” of IS is to help the believer

get in touch with [their] desires and feel free to place them before God without having to compare them with those [someone else] suggests… The [believer] who resists paying attention to her desires may require some encouragement to ask for what she desires, albeit tentatively, by understanding that the Holy Spirit works precisely through her desiring.[12]

This injunction to empower the believer rather than prescribe their desires for them (i.e. to provide scriptural precedent for desire, without consideration of what God might desire of us, individually and personally, today in our own times) can be seen as a conflict in obedience to God for IS “has never enforced a ‘cadaverous obedience,’ or for that matter, any obedience that completely takes away a [person]’s freedom.” Autonomy of desire is “one of the characteristic features” of IS, “that the freedom of human person is respected in every member. Superiors are constantly alert to special talents that any individual member may possess and then to provide for the fuller development of these talents.”[13] Attention to the individual and holistic care for them speaks of a relational dynamic – the believer in union with God, not apart from God. Indeed, Dyckman et al., put forward this idea of the Spirit of God and the believer desiring together as “the interpretive frame” through which IS can be viewed. Not so with Reformed thought. For Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers, the personal experience must lead to self-negation. Luther in particular used his own personal religious experience “the standard of truth… Luther does appeal to the Bible, but only after the manner dictate by his personal religious experience.”[14] In other words, Luther’s experience of shame became the normative he presented for all people at all times. Ignatius’ personal experience was one of optimism, of accepting that a distant Omni cared about the particulars of his own life. This was Ignatius’ contribution to spirituality, the thought that God cared about even the mundane parts of lives and especially our aspirations and desires. Like Luther and Ignatius, when we find ourselves in moments of crisis and then come out of them, the experience is meaningful and often life-changing. It is in the moment of suffering most that our defenses are lowered, when we begin to “die” that we can see God’s call within our own desires. In some ironic sense, dying is about becoming more human, more fully alive, for it is there at the moment of “death” that we most clearly see what is or has been absent – our desires. Where the Spirit of God revives us, resurrects us, we are bound in union with the Spirit towards a new engagement of those desires. And for Ignatius, desire was, is, and ever will be[15] a key way that God speaks to us.

God-given desires[16] are, in some ways, different from superficial wants for they are those desires we might say are ”imprinted” into and onto who we are. These kind of desires shape our lives, convict us, and help us know who and what we are to become and what we are to do when integrity to our character is challenged. It is in such circumstances that we are left to make no other conclusion than to be convinced that God has desires as well, and that we are living in that moment with the eternal. For James Martin, this means “God, I believe, encourages us to notice and name these desires, in the same way that Jesus encouraged Bartimaeus to articulate his desire. Recognizing our desires means recognizing God’s desires for us.”[17] Indeed, naming our desires tells us as much about God as it does ourselves. It is, as any life coach can assure you, freeing and liberating to say “This is what I desire in life” by virtue of owning the desire, the want, the felt need. But expressing these desires brings a greater intimacy with God, with whom you are sharing/expressing/confiding the desires as much as sharing/agreeing with/reciprocating the desires. As Margaret Silf puts it, “Desire is what makes two people create a third person.” Desire can be productive, creative, life-sustaining and life-giving, because apopahatically, “No desire means no life, no growth, no change.”[18]

For his time, Ignatius’ idea of a near God who cared was revolutionary, a kind of  “reformation of the imagination.” In Spiritual Exercises, he develops techniques towards nurturing these desires, “for working with mental imagery, emotions, and the internal senses.” Adapting techniques of visualization from devotio moderna and other mystical traditions, Ignatius advocated a regulated practice of meditation “to help the exercitant to conquer himself” and “to make Christ or the Virgin directly present to the powers of the soul.”[19] The purpose of contemplation is to “root out any disorder in our lives and thus be free to choose what God wants for us… [as] tested in the Third Week and confirmed in that of the Fourth” of the Exercises.[20] At the root of contention between Catholic and Protestant spirituality (if there is in fact any, since, as I have shown, Luther, Calvin and Ignatius each devote themselves to better understanding the nature of the will, the soul, and the believer) is the concept of replacement of self. For the Reformed believer, my desires must not be my own for this is replacement of God. For the Ignatian, God actively participates in my desires and affirms them[21]. It is a particular tradition of practice which should be affirmed to better understand the nature of self, desire, and communion with God.

[1] Liz Carmichael. “Catholic Saints and Reformers: 16th to 19th Centuries.” The Story of Christian Spirituality: Two Thousand Years, from East to West. Ed. Gordon Mursell. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 205.

[2] Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey. Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types (Charlottesville: The Open Door Inc., 1991), 46.

[3] Slightly adapted, with emphasis, from The Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius, ed. Louis J. Puhl, SJ (Chicago: Loyola Univ. Press, 1951), 52-3.

[4] Michael & Norrissey, 48.

[5] Ibid., 49.

[6] John Piper. “Discerning Idolatry in Desire: 12 Ways to Recognize the Rise of Covetousness” Desiring God. 17 June 2009 <http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/taste-see-articles/discerning-idolatry-in-desire&gt;

[7] Friedrich Richter. Martin Luther and Ignatius Loyola: Spokesman for Two Worlds of Belief. Trans. By Rev. Leonard F. Zwinger (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1960), 59-60.

[8] David L. Fleming. Notes on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola (St. Louis: Review for Religious, 1989), 6, 9.

[9] Mk. 10:46-52.

[10] James Martin, SJ., 58.

[11] Ibid., 58

[12] Katherine Dyckman, Mary Garvin, and Elizabeth Liebert. The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed: Uncovering Liberating Possibilities for Women (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001), 76.

[13] Friedrich Richter. Martin Luther and Ignatius Loyola: Spokesman for Two Worlds of Belief. Trans. By Rev. Leonard F. Zwinger (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1960), 164.

[14] Ibid., 60.

[15] … world without end, Amen.

[16] Ps. 37:4; Jer. 29:13;

[17] Martin, 59.

[18] Margaret Silf. On Making Choices (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2004), 55.

[19] David Chidester. Christianity: A Global History (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 328.

[20] Barbara Bedolla and Dominic Totaro, S.J. “Ignatian Spirituality” Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church. Ed. Robin Mass & Gabriel O’Donnell, O.P. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 179.

[21] Epistola Ignatiana, VI, 91. Quoted in Giuliani, Finding God in All Things, trans. by William J. Young, S.J. (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1958), 17.

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