How the Spiritual Exercises can help non-Catholics

Father Paul Crowley, S.J. (Santa Clara Magazine)

Father Paul Crowley is a Jesuit priest and professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University in California. Father Crowley, who often teaches and directs non-Catholics in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, focuses on the intersection of systematic theology and modern thought in his research. In 2015 he became editor-in-chief of the journal Theological Studies.

On July 12, I interviewed Father Crowley by email about adapting the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola for non-Catholics.


How do you explain the Spiritual Exercises to non-Catholics?

I have given the Exercises to Protestants, although not to people of other faiths, nor to non-believers. So my experience is limited. But I tell them the same thing that I tell Catholics: the Spiritual Exercises are a key to the heart of the Christian Gospel, and are one means of helping people to encounter that heart personally, with a view toward conversion and freedom. I also emphasize that theExercises are one form of Christian spirituality, but not the only one. They are a means to an end, but not an end in themselves. We shouldn’t mystify them or turn them into a third testament.

What adaptations do you make in the Exercises for Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians?

That depends on the person undertaking the Exercises, but in most instances a Protestant would not be doing the Exercises were there not some openness to a Catholic imagination, including a sacramental imagination. This would certainly be true of Orthodox Christians as well.

How would you explain God to non-Christians who make the Exercises?

That depends on the type of non-Christian. In general, though, I think it important that anyone undertaking the Exercises grow in understanding that God is, as Karl Rahner put it, a Holy Mystery. I am not quite sure how the Exercises would translate into a non-theistic religious context, such as Buddhism, although there is plenty of room for dialogue and comparative work there, and much of that has been done by people like William Johnston and others.

What aspects of the Exercises appeal most naturally to non-Catholics?

Again, that depends on the person. But I think most people find the Ignatian imaginative approach to the Scriptures to be the most illuminating, even liberating, aspect of the Exercises. For many people, opening up the Scriptures in this way provides the freedom to find God afresh.

In working with a non-Christian or non-believer, to what extent could you minimize Jesus without losing the heart of the Spiritual Exercises?

Jesus needs to be understood at a minimum as the holy face of God within the world of the Exercises, the embodiment of the Transcendent. Those who come from doctrinally light traditions might have some difficulty with some aspects of the Exercises, and Ignatius’s Trinitarian mysticism. I do not think it a matter of minimizing Jesus so much as the points of departure and approach—what we emphasize, why and when.

Is it possible to give the Exercises without using the Judeo-Christian Bible as prayer material? Why or why not?

I am not sure that that would be entirely possible, as the Exercises turn on the Word of God which we understand to come to expression in the Scriptures. However, liberal use of non-biblical material is not only possible, but often quite warranted. I could imagine an adaptation of the Exercises that would make use of Shakespeare, for example, even as primary texts for some of the meditations. Or some use of film, which is frequently done. I once sent an exercitant to a museum to contemplate Rodin’s “Gates of Hell.” But even in these examples some deep reference to the Scriptures would be assumed, and at various points recommended as material for meditation.

What are some of the graces non-Catholics typically experience in the Exercises?

If you are speaking of Protestants, those graces would include the fact that they are loved by God as they are, that they are made free by their faith in Jesus Christ, and that there is a richness to the Catholic tradition, expressed in its spiritual paths, that presents to them a treasure. Most significantly, the Scriptures often come to life in ways that are new, surprising and energizing. Some Protestant exercitants take the Exercises to their own church communities and become spiritual directors.

What are some of the challenges non-Catholics face in approaching the Exercises?

For some, there may be a small matter of adjustment to a world that they have not known first-hand, and letting go of some preconceived notions about Catholicism. But these kinds of challenges are usually not very significant, especially these days when religious boundaries are so porous and many people are in mixed marriages or have multiple religious associations.

What advice would you give to a non-Catholic who asks you to make the Exercises for the first time?

The very same that I would give to a Catholic, drawing from Ignatius’s own notations: to enter into the Exercises with generosity, to be patient and to give it time, and to remember that in undertaking this kind of encounter with the Lord we are entering upon holy ground.

What are the most important things for a non-Catholic to know about the Exercises before making them?

Simply that the Exercises are a method of Christian prayer and entry into the freedom of the Gospel.

In what ways does the spirituality of the Exercises transcend cultural differences?

This is in fact a problem, and one that needs to be handled very creatively in this era of a “world church.” The Exercises are a product of the sixteenth century, after all, and come from a largely male imagination of that period (witness the Two Standards). We have a lot of experience by now in making various adaptations, which requires asking what lies at the heart of the Exercises and its various meditations, contemplations, and other prayer devices. I’ve noticed that some of our Vietnamese directors are very adept at working with this challenge.

Do you have any final thoughts or words of wisdom?

Only that I have a lot to learn.

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

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