The psychological insights of St. Ignatius Loyola

Sélestat, Bas-Rhin, Alsace, France ; September, 26, 2016 : a statue of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) holding his book, Spiritual Exercices, next to Sainte Foy church. (iStock)

William M. Watson, S.J., serves as president of the Sacred Story Institute in Seattle, a collaborative initiative that promotes research and program initiatives in Ignatian spirituality. His books, ranging from catechetical resources to prayer guides centered on the Examen, include Sacred Story: An Ignatian Examen for the Third Millennium and Inviting God Into Your Life: A Practical Guide to Prayer. I recently interviewed Father Watson by email about the intersection of personal narrative and Ignatian spirituality.

What role does storytelling play in the spiritual life?

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This question deserves a full book to do it justice, but let me focus on the importance and the power of a story in the Old and New Testaments. In 2 Samuel, the prophet Nathan tells a story to King David about the rich man who steals, kills and prepares for his dinner guest a poor man’s ewe lamb “who was like a daughter” to him. David is enraged at the injustice done to the poor man and says death is a deserving sentence for the crime committed. The story confronts David with his own sin, making him see and feel the gravity of his actions with Bathsheba against Uriah. And in Luke 10, a self-justified lawyer presses for the meaning of the word “neighbor” used by Jesus in the Great Commandment (to answer the lawyer’s question on what is essential to merit eternal life). Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan not only helps the lawyer answer his own question, but forces him to admit that the duty of charity extends to everyone, not just those in our affinity groups. The power of a story is unique in how it can unlock the mind and heart to recognize truth.

William Watson, S.J., discusses the intersection of personal narrative and Ignatian spirituality.

What psychological insights do you find in the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola?

I like to affirm that St. Ignatius can be considered the first practitioner of cognitive behavioral therapy. Why do I say that? In C.B.T., damaging thought processes are targeted and challenged with a new narrative to help alleviate emotional and behavioral patterns that fuel depression and other forms of mental illness. Now recall in the Autobiography that Ignatius’ first post-conversion crisis as he is heading to Montserrat has spiritual, psychological and physiological elements, and he resolves it with a method like C.B.T. Briefly, here is the backdrop of the crisis and his resolution.

St. Ignatius, who was contemplating a lifetimeof abstinence and asceticism to overcome the intense spiritual and psychological matrix of sinful pride, passions and addictions typical of his first 30 years, was rightfully paralyzed by fright. In light of this problematic history and a fragile yet maturing faith, Ignatius is tempted by “a rather disturbing thought which troubled him, representing the difficulty of the life he was leading.”

St. Ignatius can be considered the first practitioner of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Ignatius heard the “voice of the enemy” taunting him, causing fear and dread at the thought of suffering for “seventy years” without the illicit pleasures and addictions of his early life. He decisively confronted the thought and its attendant threat: “You poor creature! Can you promise me even one hour of life?” Using a cognitive approach, Ignatius challenges the “disturbing thought” and overcomes the temptation. He proclaims the “truth” out loud that the temptations are mirages that only promise life but cannot satisfy his authentic human nature. In this he regains sanity, clarity and peace.

This spiritual insight has many psychological and physiological implications. We might say that thoughts, whether they are positive or negative, have spiritual, psychological and physiological implications for the soul and the body. Ignatius’ graced insight to challenge these false internal narratives and, in so doing, challenging “the enemy of human nature” has made a lasting contribution to Christian spirituality and discernment techniques.

Why is Ignatian spirituality still relevant to us in the 21st century?

An effective case can be made that Ignatian spirituality is the most popular and portable spirituality in the Catholic tradition, used by more individuals in the church and other Christian professions than any other single spirituality. What is the reason for this continued relevance, even in our own 21st century? I believe one reason is that God used Saint Ignatius’ dysfunction to uncover a path to holiness that, at its core, is simply the Gospel path to conversion condensed into an effective and pragmatic method. So it retains its relevance and popularity because it is an authentic response to the Gospel call to repentance.

An effective case can be made that Ignatian spirituality is the most popular and portable spirituality in the Catholic tradition.

Also authentic to the Gospel, Ignatian spirituality, as codified in the guidelines for a director at the front of the Spiritual Exercises, focuses not on coercing an individual to conform to rules and laws but coaches one on how best to open to God, who will lead one to freedom. In this, St. Ignatius was an astute observer of the human condition. He understood that effective evangelization rests upon the individual personally and freely encountering the living Lord where one is most in need so as to experience God’s mercy in Jesus. The people I have encountered in my 40-plus years of retreat and spiritual direction appreciate this noncoercive method that leads them to the Lord of Life.

What aspects of Ignatian spirituality seem to work best for people today?

With this question, I would make a distinction between what people like best, or what is most popular about Ignatian spirituality, and what dimensions of Ignatian spirituality might work best for sustained spiritual growth. One encounters many popular dimensions of Ignatian spirituality on websites or in applications of the Examen for various age levels, especially in Jesuit secondary education. Another popular expression of Ignatian spirituality is in the applied pastoral practice or method captured in the phrase of cura personalis that is so common in Jesuit higher education. The impressions here of what are central to Ignatian spirituality or what “works best” are the focus on gratitude and thanksgiving, freedom of the individual and care for their uniqueness or “finding God in all things.”

It is not easy to allow ourselves to walk daily with the Lord where we need saving the most.

But you also have the more challenging aspects of Ignatian spirituality and the Examen that invite one to explore dimensions of one’s history and personal life that are difficult to confront. These aspects of Ignatian spirituality invite us to let Christ touch our wounds and bring us healing. Jesuit George Aschenbrenner has affirmed for years that the Examen is avoided by both Jesuit and laity alike because it is not easy to allow ourselves to walk daily with the Lord where we need saving the most. The encounter facilitated by the full Examen and the Spiritual Exercises between the sinner and Jesus Christ might not be that popular, but in my own work, I find it the most salutary in bringing lasting gratitude and interior freedom. Individuals do fall in love in a quite absolute and final way with Christ when he is experienced as loving them where they did not feel loveable.

What is distinctive about your own approach to Ignatian spirituality?

The distinctive approach I take towards Ignatian spirituality is my conviction that the power of the Exercises, or their 19th Annotation version, need not be administered by professionals at a retreat house or in a SEEL program (Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life) but can be both experienced and led by laity in any parish anywhere. To that end, the Sacred Story Institute researches new methods of delivering the Spiritual Exercisesand develops a full complement of resources for “plug and play” applications in parishes and faith communities. With five years’ experience, we have sufficient evidence that these new applications of theExercises work and work very well, empowering laity to be the evangelizers in their communities.

What are some of the graces you’ve experienced in your own practice of Ignatian spirituality?

During my 30-day retreat while on the tertianship program in Northern Ireland in the years 1993 and 1994, I had an epiphany, or, if you will, a conversion experience. Shortly before theological studies, I had quit the practice of a twice-daily examination of conscience. I did not think I needed it. Instead, I had fallen into the trap of considering myself a specialist and a professional in Ignatian spirituality who no longer needed the twice-daily application of the full Exercises in miniature Ignatius prescribed for Jesuits in the Constitutions. During my 30-day retreat, I was given the grace to encounter my sinfulness and was given the conviction that I absolutely needed this twice-daily discipline reintroduced into my daily spiritual regimen. I can say that the Examen practiced twice daily has saved me a thousand and one times and preserved me in my priestly and religious vocation.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

The main challenge I face is staying faithful to a twice-daily practice of the Examen. Part of what helps me is that I have had the same spiritual director/confessor for 12 years and I go to confession monthly to him. The Examen gives me the substance for my conversations on what is happening to me spiritually and keeps my heart focused on what I need to confess. Since I have to drive four hours each way for this monthly meeting, I can’t afford not to prepare myself by getting lazy with the Examen.

What’s your advice to someone who wants to try Ignatian spirituality for the first time?

The best advice I can give is for someone to find an authentic method of the Ignatian Examen and start doing it for five minutes a day, and then build from there.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Tim Donovan
3 months 1 week ago

As a Special Education teacher , (now retired) instructing children with brain damage, I found it useful to read simple stories with appropriate histrionics, to stimulate my children. For the most part, they couldn',t understand the language, but enjoyed the photos. Being gay, I struggled with depression, and often had negative thoughts based on my perception as being abnormal. I did read a book by the founder of cognitive behavioral therapy years ago, psychiatrist Alan Beck, M.D. and impressed by his writings, saw a cognitive behavioral therapist. Frankly, although the therapy wasn't totally effective, I did learn to adjust my thoughts so that I adopted an essentially spiritual viewpoint of my life, as being created in God's image and likeness. As I continue. to struggle with lustful feelings as did St Ignatius and the temptation to view pornography, I receive spiritual direction by seeing a compassionate priest each month and receive forgiveness and consolation through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Janice Poss
3 months ago

Your operative word is 'compassionate' priest. Would that more compassion was taught often and deeply in the seminaries as it is a necessary ingredient in pastoring and being pastoral. Thank you for your comment. Our 'lustful' feelings are a normal human expression of the movement of desire in our sexuality, not bad in and of itself, feelings are feelings and St. Ignatius also tells us to embrace those, but what one does with it and how, could be problematic if used incorrectly.

J Cosgrove
3 months ago

The term "spiritual" is used about 40 times in this article. I have yet to see a good definition of this concept or how it could change one's life. I understand Catholic morality and how that affects one's life and others around the person practicing it. I understand how praying helps in one's commitment to practicing Catholic morality. I have known a lot of Jesuits and other religious. But spirituality seems like a vague concept that does not have any concrete manifestation in anyone I have witnessed.

Sean Salai
3 months ago

Thank you all for reading. Let's continue to pray for one another as we grow in our relationships with God. -Fr. Sean

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