Ignatius Among Us: Great 20th-century theologians share a common spiritual heritage.
Where would contemporary theology be except for the works of the Jesuits Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) and Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) of France, Karl Rahner (1904-84) of Germany, Bernard Lonergan (1904-84) of Canada and John Courtney Murray (1904-67) of the United States?
The Swiss-born Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) may be appropriately added to this group because for several decades he too was a Jesuit. After taking a doctorate at the University of Zurich in 1929, he entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained in 1936 in Munich. The approach of World War II forced him to return to Switzerland, where he became a chaplain to students of the University of Basle. Here he met Adrienne von Speyr, a physician and convert to Catholicism who had remarkable mystical gifts. Some 10 years later, Balthasar left the Society of Jesus in order to join Speyr in the founding of a secular institute.
These great giants of the mind unquestionably belong to the advance guard of the Second Vatican Council and, except for Teilhard, who had died in 1955, were among the leading interpreters of the council’s work. And if one asks what these men had in common, the obvious reply is that all of them were deeply formed by the Spiritual Exercisesand the teaching of St. Ignatius of Loyola, whom they took as their spiritual guide. Teilhard de Chardin, Rahner, de Lubac and Balthasar, upon whose achievements I shall focus my remarks, give clear manifestations of this intellectual genealogy.
De Lubac, in a short book on Teilhard de Chardin, notes that his The Divine Milieuis permeated by Ignatian motifs such as passionate love of Jesus Christ, ardent longing for Christ’s Kingdom and boldness in conceiving grand designs to serve him (Teilhard de Chardin: The Man and His Meaning). Balthasar, in a volume on de Lubac, remarks on the centrality of the church in that author’s theological vision and comments: “One could show that this center—a pure passageway for pure transmission of the gift—is also the center of the Ignatian spirit. Henri de Lubac lives so intimately in and from this spirit that he diffidently refrains from quoting the holy founder of the Society of Jesus among the thousands who throng his footnotes” (The Theology of Henri de Lubac: An Overview). Even this statement is not strong enough. As we shall see, de Lubac in his The Splendor of the Churchrefers to various passages in the Spiritual Exercisesand to the Ignatian “Letter on Obedience.”
Speaking of himself, Balthasar likewise gladly confesses his indebtedness as a theologian to St. Ignatius, whose Spiritual Exerciseshe translated into German. Referring to his experiences as a student at Lyons, he says: “…almost all of us were formed by the Spiritual Exercises, the great school of christocentric contemplation, of attention to the pure and personal word contained in the gospel, of lifelong commitment to the attempt at following…” (My Work in Retrospect). The Spiritual Exercises, he writes, provide “the charismatic kernel of a theology of revelation that could offer the unsurpassed answer to all the problems of our age that terrify Christians.”
As for Rahner, he declared in an interview at the age of 75: “…in comparison with other philosophy and theology that influenced me, Ignatian spirituality was indeed more significant and important…. I think that the spirituality of Ignatius himself, which one learned through the practice of prayer and religious formation, was more significant for me than all the learned philosophy and theology inside and outside the order” (interview in America, 3/10/79, reprinted in Karl Rahner in Dialogue).
These expressions of appreciation on the part of 20th-century theologians are in some ways surprising, since Ignatius, though he was a great spiritual leader, scarcely comes up for mention in histories of Catholic theology. He aspired to no theological originality. For the training of Jesuit students he recommended the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas. Instead of calling for innovation, he directed that Jesuit professors should adhere to the safest and most approved opinions, avoiding books and authors that were suspect.
What inspires the creativity of modern systematic theologians is not primarily the theological views of Ignatius but rather his mysticism. Modern authors speak frequently of this as a Christ-centered mysticism, a sacramental mysticism and an ecclesial mysticism. They mention Ignatius’ mysticism of service, of reverential love, of the Cross and of discernment. Whereas other mystics may find communion with God by withdrawing from activity in the world, the contrary is true of Ignatius. He seeks union with God primarily by dwelling within the mysteries through which God makes himself present in our world—especially the mysteries of the incarnate life of the eternal Son. It is a mysticism of action, whereby we unite ourselves with the mission of Christ in the church.
I should like to comment on four themes from the Spiritual Exercisesthat have particularly inspired 20th-century theologians: finding God in all things, the immediacy of the soul to God, obedience to the hierarchical church and, lastly, the call to glorify Christ by free and loving self-surrender into his hands. I shall illustrate each of these themes—the cosmic, the theistic, the ecclesial and the Christological—from the writings of one of the theologians already mentioned.
Finding God in All Things
To the best of my knowledge the expression, “finding God in all things,” does not appear verbatim in the writings of St. Ignatius. But there are many similar expressions in the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius’ letters and the constitutions Ignatius wrote for the Society of Jesus (e.g., Constitutions, No. 288).
In the “First Principle and Foundation,” at the opening of the Exercises, St. Ignatius teaches that sickness and health, poverty and riches, dishonor and honor, a short life and a long life, can all serve as means to that union with God that makes for our eternal salvation (No. 23). In the “Examination of Conscience” he writes that those advanced in the spiritual life constantly contemplate God our Lord “in every creature by His essence, power, and presence” (No. 39). In the “Contemplation to Obtain Divine Love” at the end of the Exercises, Ignatius reflects on how God dwells in all creatures and especially in human beings, who are created “in the likeness and image of the Divine Majesty” (No. 235). Indeed, says Ignatius, God works and labors not only in human persons, but also in the elements, the plants and the animals (No. 236; cf. No. 39). From this and similar passages it seems evident that God can be found in all things.
St. Ignatius’ close disciple, the Majorcan [Jesuit] Jerome Nadal (1507-80), contended that Ignatius was endowed with a special grace “to see and contemplate in all things, actions, and conversations the presence of God and the love of spiritual things, to remain a contemplative even in the midst of action.” Nadal believed that to be a contemplative in action and to find God in all things were graces or charisms especially proper to the Society of Jesus.
Among modern Jesuit authors, none has extolled the sense of the divine omnipresence more eloquently than Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his classic work, The Divine Milieu, first published in English translation in 1960. This work was written, according to the author, with the intention of instructing the reader “how to see God everywhere, to see Him in all that is most hidden, most solid and most ultimate in the world.” The divine milieu, Teilhard declares, “discloses itself to us as a modification of the deep being of things”—a modification that does not alter the perceptible phenomena, but renders them translucent and diaphanous, so that they become epiphanies of the divine.
In successive chapters Teilhard explains how to find God in the positive experiences of successful activity and in the negative experiences of failure and diminishment. The Cross, he maintains, enables sickness and death to be paths to victory. His is a mystical spirituality that involves detachment from all creatures for the sake of union with the divine. As he wrote in a private letter of Oct. 22, 1925: “After all, only one thing matters, surely, ‘to see’ God wherever one looks.” The Protestant pastor Georges Crepsy observes quite correctly: “It is not difficult to recognize the Ignatian inspiration of the Milieu Divin.”
For Teilhard the realization of God’s universal presence was not simply an ascetical principle for his own interior life. It was the inspiration of his lifelong quest to build a bridge between Christian faith and contemporary science. Having meditated deeply on the Kingdom of Christ, as set forth in the Spiritual Exercises, Teilhard was filled with ardent longing to set all things on fire with the love of Christ (see Henri de Lubac, The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin). Aflame with this missionary zeal, he saw the worlds of science beckoning to him as the new territory to be evangelized. In 1926, referring to a recent lecture by a Harvard professor on the dawn of thought in the evolution of species, he wrote in a letter: “However farfetched the notion might appear at first, I realized in the end that, hic et nunc, Christ was not irrelevant to the problems that interest Professor Parker: it only needed a few intermediate steps to allow a transition from his positivist psychology to a certain spiritual outlook. This realization cheered me up. Ah, there lie the Indies that draw me more strongly than those of St. Francis Xavier.”
Just as the early Jesuit missionaries sought to adopt all that was sound in the cultures of India and China, so Teilhard sought to utilize the new findings of science as points of access to faith in Christian revelation. In his enthusiasm he identified Christ as the Omega Point toward which all the energies of religion and science were converging. This hypothesis certainly went far beyond anything that St. Ignatius would have imagined, but it may be in part an outgrowth of the Ignatian vision of Christ in glory as the “eternal Lord of all things” (Sp. Ex. No. 98); it recalls the universalistic horizons of the meditations on the Kingdom of Christ, the Incarnation and the Two Standards.
Whatever the weaknesses of the Teilhardian synthesis, it should not be dismissed as a kind of secularism. He explicitly warned against this error: “The sensual mysticisms and certain neo-Pelagianisms (such as Americanism),” he wrote, “…have fallen into the error of seeking divine love and the divine Kingdom on the same level as human affections and human progress” (The Divine Milieu). The Christ into whom all things must be gathered was for him none other than the historical Jesus, who had been crucified under Pontius Pilate. When he spoke of the convergence of all religions, he added that they must converge on the Christian axis, “the other creeds finding in faith in Christ the proper expression of what they have been seeking as they grope their way towards the divine.” In an essay entitled “How I See,” he presented the Catholic Church as “the central axis of the universal convergence and exact point at which blazes out the meeting of the Universe and the Omega Point.” Repudiating every kind of vague syncretism, he insisted that Christianity is the phylum through which the evolution of the religions must pass in order to achieve its goal. From Rome in 1948 he wrote: “It is here in Rome that we find the Christic pole of the earth; through Rome, I mean, runs the ascending axis of hominization.” As we shall see, this ecclesial and Roman spirituality is also thoroughly Ignatian.
Immediacy to God
A second theme from the Spiritual Exercisesis that of the immediacy of the soul to God. In the “Annotations for the Director” in the introduction to the Exercises, St. Ignatius admonishes the director to refrain from urging the retreatant to choose the more perfect way of life. “It is more suitable and much better,” he says, “that the Creator and Lord in person communicate himself to the devout soul in quest of the divine will, and that He inflame it with love of Himself.” The director should therefore “permit the Creator to deal directly with the creature, and the creature directly with its Creator and Lord” (No. 15).
In choosing a way of life, Ignatius later declares, the individual should turn with great diligence to prayer in the presence of God our Lord (No. 183) and assess whether the inclination one feels toward a given choice descends purely from above, that is, from the love of God (No. 184). It is possible for God to act directly on the soul, giving spiritual joy and consolation that are not humanly prepared for by any preceding perception or knowledge on the part of the creature (Nos. 329-30). Since God alone can act in this manner, such consolation can be a sure sign of God’s will (No. 336).
Among modern theologians who have built on this Ignatian theme, none is more explicit than Karl Rahner. On the ground that God can draw the soul suddenly and entirely to himself, Rahner argues that it is possible for the human mind to have an experience of God, as he immediately bestows himself in grace. Rahner rereads Thomas Aquinas, in light of a transcendental philosophy that has its roots in the work of the Belgian Jesuit Joseph Maréchal (1878-1944).
The basic idea of this philosophy is that the human spirit, while it knows objects in the world through sense experience, is oriented beyond all objects to a nonobjectifiable divine mystery. The entire enterprise of theology, Rahner maintains, must be sustained and energized “by a previous unthematic, transcendental relatedness of our whole intellectuality to the incomprehensible infinite.” “The meaning of all explicit knowledge of God in religion and in metaphysics is intelligible,” he says, “only when all the words we use there point to the unthematic experience of our orientation toward the ineffable mystery” (Foundations of Christian Faith). All conceptual statements about God, for Rahner, live off the nonobjective experience of transcendence as such.
This nonobjective transcendental knowledge of God may be seen as the keystone of Rahner’s whole theology. As Francis Fiorenza has noted, it forms the background of many of Rahner’s characteristic theses: God’s presence to man in grace and revelation, the “supernatural existential,” the anonymous Christian, the ontological and psychological unity of Christ, the limitations of Christ’s human knowledge, the historicity of dogma, the nonobjective factor in the development of dogma, and many other points.
Rahner recasts the theology of the sacraments on the ground that they do not mediate grace in a reified way but bring about and express an experience of grace that consists in a direct contact between the soul and God. He cautions against the trap of imagining that God should be identified with any one “categorically” mediated religious presence, such as the Bible or the sacraments. After all, Rahner might say, there is no such thing as bottled grace!
On the ground that every individual is in immediate contact with God through grace, Rahner develops an original theory of the relationship between the charismatic and the institutional elements in the church. The charisms, or gifts of the Holy Spirit, he holds, are in principle prior to the institution. The charismatic element, in fact, is “the true pith and essence of the church,” the point where the lordship of Christ is most directly and potently exercised. The external structures of the church, in his system, are seen as subordinate to the self-actualization of the transcendental subject, achieved by grace. Office holders in the church are obliged not to stifle the Holy Spirit but to recognize and foster the free movements of the Spirit in the church.
Holding that the articulation of dogma always falls short of the reality to which it refers, Rahner pleads for a high level of tolerance for doctrinal diversity in the church. He favors a pluriform church with structures that are adaptable to local and transitory needs. The institutional forms, for him, are radically subordinate to the nonthematic experience of grace. The student of the Spiritual Exercisesis reminded in this connection of the way in which Ignatius instructs the director to adapt the meditations to the age, education and talents of those making the Exercises. Retreatants are encouraged to adopt whatever posture best enables them to pray. For Ignatius, external forms and practices were always secondary to spiritual fruits.
On the ground that the human spirit is always and everywhere open to God’s gracious self-communication, Rahner draws a further consequence. All persons, he contends, have some experience of the immediate presence of the divine, and have the possibility of living by God’s grace, even if they have failed to arrive at explicit belief in God or in Christ. Even those who have never heard the proclamation of the Gospel may be, in Rahner’s famous phrase, “anonymous Christians.” We have a right to hope for the salvation of all.
Rahner combines his conviction that God is found in transcendental experience with the characteristically Ignatian tenet of God’s presence in all things. While insisting on the primacy of the inner experience of God in the depths of consciousness, Rahner holds that this experience is actualized through encounters with inner-worldly realities. The transcendental is not the remote; it continually mediates itself through particular historical experiences.
In an early essay on “Ignatian Mysticism of Joy in the World,” Rahner celebrates the distinctively Jesuit affirmation of the world and its values, the disposition to accept the achievements of culture, to esteem humanism and to adapt to the demands of varying situations. Once we have found the God of the life beyond, he concludes, we are able to immerse ourselves in the work required of us in our world today. Since God is active at all times and places, he argues, there is no need to flee to the desert or return to the past to find him. Like Teilhard, therefore, Rahner interprets Ignatius as having laid the foundations of a lay theology that discovers God’s presence in worldly realities.
Rahner, again like Teilhard, accepts the Ignatian theology of the Cross. He insists that God is to be found not only in the positive but also in the negative experiences of life, including failure, renunciation, sickness, poverty and death. Just as the passion and death were central to Christ’s redeeming work, so privation and self-denial can be paths to the ultimate renunciation that each of us will have to undergo in death. God is greater than either our successes or our failures. He, the Deus semper maior, is our only lasting hope.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, while recognizing the immediacy of the individual soul to God, strongly emphasizes the mediation of the church. He repeatedly speaks of the church as the Mother of Believers and the Bride of Christ (Sp. Ex. 353). “In Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and in his Spouse the Church,” he asserts, “only one Spirit holds sway” (No. 365). Ignatius in the Exercisesspeaks of serving Christ in the church militant and on two occasions refers to it as the “hierarchical church” (Nos. 170. 353), a term apparently original with Ignatius. On one occasion he adds that the hierarchical church is “Roman” (No. 353. some manuscripts). He takes it for granted that no one could be called by the Holy Spirit to do anything forbidden by the hierarchical church (No. 170). This ecclesial mysticism is recaptured in the theology of the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac, as well as in that of his friend and disciple Hans Urs von Balthasar.
De Lubac, like Rahner, was strongly influenced by Maréchal’s view that the human spirit is constituted by a dynamic drive to transcend all finite objects in quest of that which is greater than everything conceivable (see The Discovery of God). The dynamism of the human spirit toward the vision of God, he believed, surpasses all the affirmations and denials of both positive and negative theology. A ceaseless inquietude of the soul towards God drives the whole process forward. Primordial knowledge comes to itself in reflexive concepts, but these concepts are never final; they are always subject to criticism and correction (see Balthasar, The Theology of Henri de Lubac).
Conscious though he is of this inner drive, de Lubac does not fall into religious individualism. Picking up the Ignatian designations of the church as Bride of Christ and as Mother of all Christ’s faithful, he affirms that a “mystical identity” exists between Christ and the church. He repudiates every tendency to introduce an opposition between the mystical and the visible, between spirit and authority or between charism and hierarchy. Although the church has an invisible dimension, it is essentially visible and hierarchical. “Without the hierarchy which is her point of organization, her organizer and her guide,” he declares, there could be no talk of the church at all (The Splendor of the Church).
In a celebrated passage of The Splendor of the Church, de Lubac paints a glowing portrait of the loyal Christian, one who seeks to be what Origen termed a “true ecclesiastic.” Like St. Ignatius, such a person will always be concerned to think with and in the church, cultivating the sense of Catholic solidarity and accepting the teaching of the magisterium as a binding norm. The ecclesiastical person, according to de Lubac, will not only be obedient but will love obedience as a way of dying to self in order to be filled with the truth that God pours into our minds. De Lubac discountenances negative criticism and complaint. “Today,” he writes, “when the Church is in the dock, misunderstood, jeered at for her very existence and even her sanctity itself, Catholics should be wary lest what they want to say simply to serve her better be turned into account against her.” A certain delicacy will prompt them to refrain from public criticism. In these assertions de Lubac echoes the teaching of St. Ignatius in his “Rules for Thinking with the Church.”
The Call of the King
A final theme in the Spiritual Exercisesthat has inspired modern disciples of St. Ignatius is the call of Christ in the meditation on the Kingdom. All persons with good judgment, Ignatius maintains, will offer themselves entirely to labor with Christ in order to share in his victory (No. 96). But those who wish to distinguish themselves in service will wish to imitate Christ in bearing all wrongs, and suffering abuse and poverty, in order to give greater proof of their love (No. 97-98). The drama of the following of Christ through his sufferings to ultimate victory is central to the entire theological project of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Balthasar’s theology of revelation is centered about the self-manifestation of the divine majesty, a theme he himself connects with the Ignatian motto, ad maiorem Dei gloriam. The glory of God, he holds, overwhelms and captivates all who perceive it. The culminating manifestation of God’s glory is Jesus, the crucified and risen one. Jesus glorifies God by the faithful execution of his mission, which is the prolongation in time of his own origin from the Father.
The perfection of human beings cannot be measured by abstract ethical rules but only by their response to the call that Christ addresses to them. That call is always to share in the lot and mission of the Lord. The church incorporates its members into Christ, first of all through baptism into his death. Christians achieve the freedom of children of God by renouncing their self-will, putting on the mind of Christ. In Balthasar’s ecclesiology, therefore, obedience is central and constitutive. To be church is to be, like Mary, the “handmaid of the Lord.” The church’s task, like hers, is to hear the word and do it.
In developing his theology of obedience Balthasar draws extensively on the Spiritual Exercisesof St. Ignatius, especially on the “Rules for the Election” and the “Rules for Thinking with the Church.” Christian perfection, he has learned from Ignatius, consists in a faithful and loving response to God’s call. The love of Christ, his view, requires not only the observance of the commandments but the following of the evangelical counsels, which are nothing but the form of Christ’s redeeming love.
Balthasar’s large volume The Christian State of Lifeis an extended commentary on the call of Christ described in the Ignatian meditation on the Kingdom. The vocation to the consecrated life, in the view of Balthasar, is a fundamental feature of the church. Since Jesus called the Twelve to poverty, chastity and obedience during his public ministry, the state of the evangelical counsels existed even before the priestly state. By renouncing every desire of their own, Christians are best able to share in the absolute freedom that is in God. The prayer of St. Ignatius, “Take, Lord, and Receive,” magnificently expresses the sacrifice of personal freedom for the sake of living by the divine will alone.
The following of the crucified Lord takes on concrete form in the hierarchical church, which retains its Christological form thanks to the authority of office holders over other members of the church. If this opposition between hierarchy and faithful were dissolved, he writes, “all that would remain would only be a formless mush of ethical instructions.” Like de Lubac, therefore, Balthasar holds that office and charism belong together. From one point of view, office may be seen as a special charism for coordinating other charisms and bringing them into the unity of the church as a whole.
Recognizing the centrality of the office of Peter, Balthasar wrote a thick volume against what he describes as the “venomous” and “irrational” anti-Roman feeling that has been spreading among Catholics since Vatican II. Within the Christological mystery, he asserts, the Jesuit ideal of combining personal maturity with loving submission to ecclesial authority does not involve the absurdity that some have found in it (The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church). In its vow of special obedience to the pope, the Society of Jesus, he notes, as a body practices the disponibility or universal availability that lies at the heart of the Ignatian ideal of “indifference.”
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These reflections on four Ignatian themes as found in four 20th-century Catholic theologians suggest authentic and apostolically fruitful ways of thinking about God, Christ, church and world. In a longer presentation many other themes and authors could be studied. One might wish to survey the missionary theology of Pierre Charles and Jean Daniélou, the ecumenism of Augustin Bea, the theology of conversion of Bernard Lonergan and the views of John Courtney Murray on religious freedom. In all these authors it would be possible to trace Ignatian motifs based on the Spiritual Exercises. Reference should also be made to theological disciples of Ignatius who are teaching and writing today. Considerations of space and the limitations of my own knowledge prevent me from exploring these interesting questions in this essay.
Ignatian principles, as I have tried to indicate, can lead to a variety of theological systems. In the Spiritual Exercisesthemselves there seems to be an inbuilt tension between immediacy and mediation, between personal freedom and obedience, between universalism and ecclesiocentrism, between horizontal openness to the world and reverence for the sacred and the divine. Some theologians, such as Teilhard de Chardin and Rahner, put greater emphasis on immediacy to God, personal freedom and universalism; others, like de Lubac and Balthasar, especially in their later work, insist more on ecclesial mediation, sacramentality and obedience. The “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits” seem to point in one direction, the “Rules for Thinking with the Church” in the other. But because both emphases are valid and are held together in the Exercises, they must be harmoniously reconciled in theology.
The Ignatian charism, as I understand it, consists in the ability to combine the two tendencies without detriment to either. A purely mechanical obedience without regard for the movements of the Spirit and a purely individualistic reliance on the Spirit without regard for ecclesiastical authority would be equally foreign to the heritage we have been exploring. For Ignatius it was axiomatic that Christians are called to achieve authentic freedom by surrendering their limited freedom into the hands of God. The theologian who is most prayerfully open to the impulses of the Spirit is best able to enter into the mind of the church and by this means to interpret the Christian faith in fullest conformity with the intentions of the Lord himself.