In the sort of paradox typical of the Christian story, as the number of Jesuits in the United States declines, it appears that more and more lay women and men find themselves deeply attracted to and committed to the Ignatian spiritual tradition—to such an extent that many, like Ronald Modras, count themselves “members of the family.”
It was, in fact, while he was making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius over the course of nine months that Modras, a theology professor at St. Louis University, decided to research and write the present book. While he hopes that Jesuits may profit from his work, he writes for that wider Ignatian “family,” and for the students, faculty, staff, trustees and alumni of Jesuit colleges and universities, who desire to know more about the Jesuit tradition that animates their institutions. Modras is not an Ignatian imperialist, insisting that one spiritual tradition fits all people, but he is persuaded that this tradition has a special relevance and applicability for people living in the early 21st century. What he finds most helpful and appealing in it is its “humanism.” This humanism, he maintains, is particularly valuable for Christians responding both to the challenges of secularity and to the exclusivist claims of fundamentalists.
Modras’s thesis is that Ignatian spirituality, which begins with Ignatius and his first companions, was and remains so pervasively marked by the characteristic features of 16th-century Renaissance humanism that it can justifiably be described as “Ignatian humanism.”
He begins his book by retelling Ignatius’ story, with special attention to what he takes to be the distinctive traits of his spirituality, and then turns to a description of the characteristics of the Renaissance humanism which so critically shaped Ignatius and the nascent Society of Jesus.
The rest of the book is dedicated to exploring the evolution of Ignatian humanism, as illustrated by the lives and achievements of a group of particularly notable Jesuits: Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), pioneer missionary to China; Friedrich Spee (1591-1635), poet and defender of human rights; Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), scientist and mystic; Karl Rahner (1904-84), author of over 4,000 articles and books on theology; and Pedro Arrupe (1907-91), superior general of the Society of Jesus, regarded by many as its “Second Founder.”
In the chapter on Ignatius, Modras summarizes material that has been well worked over by others, but he introduces Ignatius in a manner that is clear and appealing, especially for those meeting Ignatius for the first time. His account, necessarily, draws on Luís Gonçalves da Câmara’s Acta Patris Ignatii. This text, more in the genre of a spiritual last will and testament than an autobiography, is notoriously problematic as a source for reconstructing Ignatius’ life. Like so many before him, Modras occasionally fills in the gaps left in the narrative with speculation, especially with regard to Ignatius’ interior state.
Modras avoids making grandiose claims for Ignatius, and recognizes that much that is characteristic of Ignatian spirituality is shared with other, earlier forms of Christian spirituality. He does, however, point to a distinctive “slant” and underlines the following as characteristic of Ignatian spirituality and, taken together, as accounting for its distinctiveness. He correctly insists that while all Christian spirituality will be Christ-centered, the Ignatian Christ is decidedly a man on mission, and intimacy with Christ will mean sharing with Christ his mission, its risks, costs, promise. Ignatius will stress as few did before him the universality of the call to share in that mission. Ignatius’ spirituality is marked by his intense devotion to the Holy Trinity and by his conviction of the liberality of grace. This grace is above all God’s very gift of himself, who, like a lover, desires to give himself to the beloved. This gift, if recognized internally, properly leads to trust and to a great desire to translate gratitude into service, into a desire to “help souls.”
Characteristic of Ignatius, as Modras notes, is his insistence that the God who is present and working in all things can be encountered and loved in all things. Prayer, then, becomes the effort to seek and to find God who is already bestowing himself in love on us and inviting us to follow Christ in mission. Prayer is “discernment” and a desire to love “more,” to follow more fully the One who overtakes us constantly in love and self-giving.
Modras provides his readers with an excellent overview of the chief components of Renaissance humanism. These include respect for the classics, concern for the development of a person of virtue, interest in outfitting persons with the skills and abilities necessary to serve the public good, emphasis on the value of the individual, heightened appreciation of the dignity of each person and confidence in the essential harmony of faith and reason, the affinity of grace and nature.
It is Modras’s conviction that these humanistic values definitively informed Ignatius and his companions, and the spiritual tradition and “way of proceeding” that began with them. He effectively illustrates the extent to which they influenced the formulation of the Spiritual Exercises, and explains how the values of humanism shaped the Jesuits’ “way of proceeding” in their ministries. It was the engine of humanism, he holds, that led them unexpectedly but quite naturally to the engagement with culture represented in the shift from itinerant mission to founding and maintaining schools.
Modras is surely correct to identify Renaissance humanism as a powerful influence in the formulation of Ignatian spirituality and in the development of Jesuit ministries. Yet I wonder if he has not given short shrift to other traditions and the impact they had on Ignatius and the early Jesuits, particularly the devotio moderna, which Ignatius had already encountered in Montserrat and Manresa, and even in the modus parisiensis, which incontestably shaped him and his companions at the Collège de Montaigu. Though Modras recognizes that Ignatius does not repudiate scholastic theology, he greatly underplays its role in analyzing how grace and nature complement one another—which is so much at the core of Ignatian spirituality.
The author’s approach risks obscuring what is the authentic inspiration and enduring gift of Ignatian spirituality: Ignatius’ own experience, from his sickbed in Loyola to his deathbed in Rome 35 years later. The pattern of God’s grace in the life of Ignatius would provide the paradigm for Jesuits’ understanding of their spiritual heritage and their “way of proceeding” in ministries. While the humanist tradition may have provided it with a theoretical justification and a coherent articulation, Ignatian spirituality’s roots were not there, but rather in the mysterious action of God in Ignatius Loyola.