Not long ago a friend asked if I could recommend a good book on Ignatian spirituality. He was an intelligent, college-educated young man interested not simply in deepening his prayer, but, more specifically, learning about what could be called the specifics of the way of Saint Ignatiusfor example, the Spiritual Exercises, the examen, contemplation and discernment of spirits. I was stumped. Most books on Ignatian spirituality are either popular presentations that avoid traditional Ignatian terminology or, more likely, learned commentaries on the SpiritualExercises that are often too lengthy and abstruse for the beginner. In other words, not many books opt for the via mediaa serious and complete introduction to Ignatian spirituality accessible to the average reader.
Fortunately, that lacuna has been filled somewhat by two helpful books, one a revision of a volume that had been out of print and the other a new offering. Both, as it turns out, are written by English authors. Each author, however, takes a markedly different approach to introducing readers to the Ignatian heritage.
Eyes to See, Ears to Hear, by David Lonsdale, who teaches spirituality at Heythrop College in London, was originally published in 1991. Now revised and expanded, Lonsdale’s book is the latest volume in the Orbis Books series Traditions of Christian Sprituality. While it is the more scholarly of the two books, it is nevertheless written in a refreshingly clear style that will appeal both to those who are familiar and those who are unfamiliar with the field.
Unlike a number of authors who rely almost exclusively on the Spiritual Exercises, Lonsdale locates three main sources of Ignatian spirituality: the Exercises, of course, but also the Jesuit Constitutions and the personal journals and letters of St. Ignatius. Happily, this broader approach leads him to a thematic introduction of Ignatian spirituality, which is far more engaging than, for example, a forced march through the four weeks of the Exercises.
Eyes to See begins with a profile of Ignatius of Loyola, organizing his life into such categories as would-be romantic, courtier-soldier, pilgrim and evangelizeran approach that superbly illuminates the various aspects of the saint’s personality. Two early chapters, Ignatius and Jesus and The World and the Trinity, do a fine job of explicating how the personal devotions of Ignatius influenced what would eventually become Ignatian spirituality. But perhaps the best chapters in the book are those on the discernment of spirits, the Spiritual Exercises and Ignatian prayer, in which Lonsdale explains what can sometimes be jargon-laden concepts with skill, clarity and grace. Along the way, the author provides a lucid explanation of the Ignatian concept of consolation in prayer. It is perfectly sensible, writes Lonsdale, that when one is working in concert with the God who resides in our deepest parts, that one would feel at peace and experience deep joy.
Surprisingly, in his otherwise excellent chapter on Ignatian prayer, the author gives short shrift to the examen, the prayer that Ignatius suggests for believers who desire to see the presence of God in their daily lives. It is unfortunate that Eyes to See does not give something of a précis for the prayer that has helped so many experience God. Readers interested in the how-to’s of the examenand other Ignatian techniqueswill have to look elsewhere.
Less successful are Lonsdale’s later chapters, entitled Ignatian Spirituality and the Church and Ignatian Spirituality and Lay Christians, which seem padded and might have profited from some judicious editing. On the other hand, in his chapter on lay persons the author raises the important question of how women can appropriate a spirituality whose texts were written in an age and culture when women’s subordinate roles in the Church and in economic, social and political life was seen as natural and taken for granted. Overall, however, Eyes to See is an excellent general introduction to a spirituality whose popularity finds itself ever on the increase and continues to attract adherents.
While Margaret Silf’s Inner Compass is written in a more popular vein than Mr. Lonsdale’s book, it is no less valuable a contribution to the field. Ms. Silf is a laywoman and experienced retreat director who is employed in the computer industry, as the book jacket tells us. Inner Compass (the book’s felicitous title refers to the guiding role of one’s heart) is a more relaxed treatment of Ignatian spirituality, combining autobiographical stories, suggestions for meditations and practical advice, along with more focused descriptions of Ignatian spirituality.
The author begins the book with a brief biography of Saint Ignatius, before moving into chapters on finding God in one’s past and discovering God in one’s emotions. Later chapters are stronger, as Ms. Silf begins her discussion of discernment, disordered and ordered affections, the place of desire in the spiritual life, seeking intimacy with God and the use of imagination in prayer.
Unlike Lonsdale’s book, Inner Compass offers practical guides to such basic Ignatian techniques as the examen and what to do in the midst of desolation and consolation in prayer. The strength of Ms. Silf’s book is that it draws heavily on her own experience in prayer and as a spiritual director. Its homey wisdom and informal style make it a good start for those beginning their exploration of Ignatian spirituality.
But this same informality is also the book’s occasional weakness. At times it is too breezy, particularly in its vocabulary. The reader is forced to digest a whole raft of spiritual neologisms that begin to grate. One reads, for example, about one’s Godseed, the Who Center, rosebed feelings and, worst of all, The River Mee. And, like Lonsdale’s work, Inner Compass suffers from longueurs. Fewer stories and examples would have made for a tighter and more readable book.
But overall, her book is a useful contribution to the ever-expanding canon of books on Ignatian spirituality. For Ms. Silf takes seriously the need to expose new readers to the way of St. Ignatius. And to do this one needs occasionally to experiment with new methods, new stories and, indeed, even a new vocabulary. These two books, then, are perhaps best read as companion pieces, one leading to the next. True to their subtitles, Inner Compass serves as a friendly invitation, Eyes to See as a more substantive introduction. Both, in their own distinct ways, will assist readers who seek in their lives the Ignatian ideal of finding God in all things.