Spiritual Exercises -- Christian, Jewish, Ancient

As part of my family is Jewish, I am a Catholic theologian who participates not only in Catholic parish life but who also is a member of a synagogue. I have not previously written about this part of my theological life, but I thought it might be appropriate, here on the America magazine blog, to briefly write about my experience giving a talk at our temple a few weeks ago on Yom Kippur. The occasion felt personally meaningful as well as theologically significant, if only for the openness of the moment in Catholic-Jewish relations that such an opportunity symbolized. I said yes to this invitation a few months ago, though later wondered whether this yes was a fully prudent response, given the recent public tensions between Catholic and Jewish leaders occasioned by developments on the Catholic front.

Still, I ended up being grateful for the yes, and following the inspiration of Ignatius Loyola, stood by my original good decision made in relative consolation. So on Yom Kippur, I gave a talk at our temple that placed myself between Catholicism and Judaism as much as it placed a theological item on the temple's itinerary: I talked about spiritual exercises.


But not spiritual exercises according to Ignatius, rather spiritual exercises according to the rabbis in the Mishna, and as refracted through the research of Jonathan Wyn Shofer, of Harvard Divinity School. As a lay person, a father, a theologian at a Jesuit university, as one who has experienced the spiritual exercises not only as personal askeses but in and through friendships with Jesuits, and as one of those children whose father was once a Jesuit, I find these disciplines cycling through my mind, life and everyday practices, and influencing my teaching and writing. The Exercises more or less season everything I write, consciously and unconsciously.

So it was recently that I was speaking at Yom Kippur about spiritual exercises in  Jewish culture and theology. I took as my theme the problem of relating spiritual practices to secular practices in our lives, which is a theme of much of my research.

I discussed favorable and critical views of secular culture in religion research, the turn to practices in religious studies and theology, and the signal role of popular culture in secular culture as a forum for religious experience. Having thus set up the modern problem of the relationship between "spiritual" and "secular" life, I then turned to Schofer's work on spiritual exercises in rabbinic culture (See Schofer, The Making of a Sage: A Study in Rabbinic Ethics (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). In a nutshell, Schofer is interested in how spiritual exercises appear in the Mishna. He argues that a fundamental exercise is that of "attention." The rabbis, he argues, counsel discernment regarding to whom or what one gives one's heart so as to avoid sin and foolishness, and recommend sayings that are akin to mantras regarding God's judgment and the ways one ought to think about one's own success.

Why, you might ask, would spiritual exercises, which many a Catholic fan supposes were innovated by Ignatius, show up in Judaism? Because they predate Ignatius. Schofer is heir to a scholarly trajectory from Pierre Hadot (and before him, from Michel Foucault and Paul Rabbow) that appreciates the spiritual techniques ingredient in reflective practices. Hadot applies this perspective on spiritual exercises -- that reflection and analysis are intended to reform one's subjective disposition and relation to one's community -- to ancient philosophical schools. Schofer shows how it is relevant to ancient rabbinic culture.

When I taught at Santa Clara University, I used to give a seminar to undergraduates that related Hadot's perspective on spiritual exercises in ancient philosophy to Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises. It is this teaching that led me to defend a "pre-Christian Catholic theology" in my most recent book.

Those who have endured this far may find the theological substrate of this post: that the genius often attributed to Ignatius needs to be reinterpreted in the light of what we are learning about the 'prehistory' of spiritual exercises -- not least of all in ancient Judaism and ancient philosophy. All this was signaled in my remarks at the synagogue, on Yom Kippur.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States


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