How can we adapt the Spiritual Exercises in our times? Q&A with Kevin O’Brien, S.J.

Kevin O’Brien, S.J., is an American Jesuit author, attorney and academic who is the outgoing vice president for mission and ministry at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. On Aug. 1, he begins his new job as dean of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, Calif.—a major seminary for Jesuit priesthood candidates and lay students that is the only school west of Chicago with an ecclesiastical faculty approved by the Congregation for Catholic Education to grant degrees in the name of the pope.

Father O’Brien holds a bachelor’s degree in government from Georgetown University, a Juris Doctor degree with honors from the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, a master’s degree in philosophy from Fordham University and a licentiate in sacred theology and master of divinity degrees from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology. Before arriving at Georgetown in 2008, he served as associate pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Washington, D.C., and taught philosophy and ethics at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. An active spiritual director, he is also the author of the award-winning The Ignatian Adventure: Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life (Loyola Press, 2011).

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On June 28, I interviewed Father O’Brien by email about his work to integrate the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola into the life of Jesuit higher education.

As a theology lecturer and vice president for mission and ministry at Georgetown University, how do you bring Ignatian spirituality to students and faculty?

My colleagues and I coordinate a variety of retreat experiences for the Georgetown community: a 19th annotation retreat spanning the academic year; weekend silent retreats based on the Examen; five-day Ignatian retreats off campus; five-day retreats in daily life on campus. We also try to infuse Ignatian spirituality throughout our other retreats. For example, in our first-year overnight retreat, ESCAPE, we introduce new students to tools to reflect on the experience of their transition.

Recently, we introduced a discernment retreat for juniors and seniors. In my senior theology class, I introduce students to the Examen and contemplation in action as ways of integrating and deepening what we are learning.

In your experience of high school and university ministry, what aspects of Ignatian spirituality work best for students and teachers at a contemporary U.S. Jesuit school?

The practical nature of Ignatian spirituality is most appealing to students and educators today. The tools of Ignatian spirituality help people become more attentive to God’s presence in our lives and our world, more reflective about the meaning of these experiences and more loving in response to the needs we encounter.

What’s the difference between “Jesuit” and “Ignatian” when describing your programs?

When we speak of the “Jesuit” education or “Jesuit spirituality,” we share particularly the tradition of Jesuit education and spirituality as articulated by Ignatius and Jesuits over the centuries.

An “Ignatian” approach is more inclusive of lay men and women and those from other religious orders and religious traditions, all of whom express the Jesuit tradition in a unique way. I appreciate in particular the gifts and insights that women have offered to Ignatian spirituality. Such diversity of expression helps to translate the deep richness of Ignatius’ legacy to us. The exercises are a living tradition, meant not just for Jesuits but for all people.

How do you adapt the Spiritual Exercises for your colleagues and students?

Ignatius built adaptation into both the Spiritual Exercises and the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. This flexibility of approach stems from Ignatius’ own experience of God, whom he described as working with him personally and directly. Ignatius was also very attentive to the world in which he lived, which was animated by various cross currents of culture: the discoveries of science, the adventurous spirit of the age of exploration and the intellectual vibrancy of the Reformation and Renaissance.

In the same way, we must adapt the exercises in our times, amid the cross currents of our day. We strive to accommodate the experience of each person within their context, while preserving the essential components of the exercises. In the spirit of Ignatian adaptation, we first listen carefully to where the person is, noting especially their deep desires, holy longings and present needs. We then offer the exercises accordingly, ready to follow the lead of grace and avoiding the compulsion to follow the director’s predetermined plan. The goal is coming to know God, not coming to know the exercises. The exercises are a privileged and flexible means to this noble end.

What’s distinctive about how people live Ignatian spirituality at a Jesuit university?

Ignatian spirituality informs the atmosphere of learning, teaching, scholarship and service at a university. Ignatian spirituality helps to frame questions and guide priorities. It should animate all we do at the university and not just in campus ministry. The questions and challenges may be particular to a Jesuit university, but the tools and insights of Ignatian spirituality are available wherever we work.

For example, in making decisions about priorities and programs, we can rely on the Ignatian tradition of discernment. Our commitment to diversity is grounded on the bedrock principle of God laboring in all people and places. Our dedication to educating for justice is animated in part by the conviction that, following Jesus, love ought to show itself in deeds more than words.

Your book on the Spiritual Exercises in daily life was called “The Ignatian Adventure.” How is Ignatian spirituality an “adventure” for you?

Ignatian spirituality is an adventure because it views one’s relationship with God as dynamic, not fixed. God is at work in the midst of our daily lives and in the beauty and brokenness of our world. Attentive to God laboring in history and in the ordinary details of living, we must be ready to be surprised by God, a holy mystery who allures and fascinates.

What are some of the graces of your Ignatian spirituality work in mission and ministry?

The most meaningful part of my work with Ignatian spirituality is appreciating how generous and creative God is, as I see God laboring so uniquely in the lives of others. From them, I’m always learning something new about God. To borrow an image from Pope Francis, statements about God should always end with an ellipsis, not a period.

I also love collaborating with Jesuits and those from other walks of life who share Ignatian spirituality in their own way. From them, I learn a great deal about the exercises as they are presented in new and creative ways.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your work?

The greatest challenge is balancing the need to adapt theSpiritual Exercises to each person and context, with remaining faithful to the core elements and movements that define the exercises. This requires much study and prayer, and conversation with other practitioners. For example, we are called to offer the exercises to non-Christians, but how exactly do we do that? Another challenge: meeting the seemingly inexhaustible demand for Ignatian spirituality and not having the time, people or programs to meet that demand.

What sort of feedback have you received from Georgetown students and faculty about Ignatian spirituality?

Our students, faculty and staff have appreciated the adaptability of the exercises in both form and content. They appreciate how the exercises can be translated to modern day concerns and to various time schedules. Such adaptation requires skilled spiritual directors.

What do you say to a Georgetown student or teacher who wants to try Ignatian spirituality?

In his preliminary annotations to the exercises, Ignatius insisted that the most important disposition for one interested in making the retreat is generosity of spirit. So I would urge the person interested in Ignatian spirituality to rely on that generosity and openness as they try some novel ways of praying and stretch their souls for God’s greater glory and the good of others.

What have you learned over the years from your own practice of Ignatian spirituality?

God, who is revealed in the exercises, is always waiting to surprise us.

Moreover, the exercises begin and end in gratitude to the God, who is so good to us. A day, or a life, that begins and ends in gratitude is marked by joy.

What are your hopes as the new dean of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley?

I hope to continue to support the good work that the theology faculty has done, bringing rigorous theological inquiry to help address the pressing questions of the church and the world today. Theology does not exist in a vacuum, or ivory tower. It is lived out, as Pope Francis would say, on the streets. So we must continue to enliven theological discourse so that is meaningful to people who are hungering for meaning today.

To do this important work in service to the church, we must ensure that the Jesuit School of Theology remains on firm financial footing, which is challenging in the marketplace of higher education today. So I will spend significant time finding sustainable ways to support both student scholarships and faculty development.

Given the unique setting of J.S.T., I hope to find more ways to enliven our work by engaging with other religious traditions represented by their schools in Berkeley and with diverse communities in the Bay area and Silicon Valley.

Finally, we will continue to deepen the bonds between J.S.T. and other schools of Santa Clara University, relationships that can enrich the work of all partners devoted to Jesuit higher education today.

Any final thoughts or words of wisdom?

The Spiritual Exercises are an invitation to greater interior freedom. Especially for young people, whose identity is unfolding, there are so many expectations thrust upon them, so many voices that can distract them from a truly meaningful life. The exercises help all of us to understand who we are (or Whose we are) and then to make decisions from that fundamental identity. To live with integrity, what we do should flow from the deepest sense of who we are. By drawing this life-giving connection, the exercises help us live with authentic freedom, the means to a happier life.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
1 year 4 months ago
It's nice to read that Ignatian Spirituality is making a comeback. So tired of enneagrams, never did understand why Jesuits employed a system that has its roots in Sufi (Islamic) tradition......
Sean Salai, S.J.
1 year 4 months ago

Thanks for reading. Let's continue to pray for a deepening of relationship with the Lord.

Crystal Watson
1 year 4 months ago
I went through the Exercises in Daily Life (19th annotation) offered online by Creighton University and liked it very much. One thing that bothers me, though, is how the Spiritual Exercises seem to mainly be available to people with means ... given at expensive retreat centers, private colleges, etc.
Steven McCarville
1 year 4 months ago
There is one in North St Paul MN that is reasonable but it is male only. They are buliding one near Omaha that will be reasonable and will be coed. It should open in a couple of years. Google cloistersontheplatte
Crystal Watson
1 year 4 months ago
It's not that I'm looking for some place that gives retreats for reasonable rates. I'm wondering why the Society seems to typically work in venues that serve the well off ... their high schools, colleges, retreat houses are so expensive. "[S]omething in the conventional wisdom today says that the Exercises are not for everyone, that you have to be mature, educated and settled before you can delve into their mystery. They are also expensive. So, with the exception of Jesuit novices, only a privileged minority, proven over the years, and therefore, older, ever get the opportunity. The Exercises have become a specialty, given by experts, to those seemingly predestined few, with special talents, from whom we expect greatness." http://www.sjweb.info/documents/cis/pdfenglish/200811704en.pdf

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