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St Ignatius – not just a simple mystic

Ignatian mysticism is a theme in the writings of Brian O’Leary SJ. The Irish Jesuit author has written numerous books and articles, and for many decades has travelled internationally to teach on St Ignatius. This interview, with Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications, took place on Monday 23 October, the birthday of the founder of the Jesuits. In it, Brian alludes to the rise in interest in mysticism and the mystics in recent times, and discusses Ignatian mysticism in this context.

He notes that the term ‘mysticism’ can be misleading as people often associate it with extraordinary experiences of God that appear to be the preserve of the few. He suggests that terms such as ‘interiority’ or the ‘contemplative stance’ might be more helpful in understanding Ignatian mysticism which is rooted in the everyday. In Ignatius’ Contemplation to Attain Love, we can find an explicit articulation of the contemplative stance. It is one of ongoing self-awareness, and openness to the experience God in the ‘other’, and in creation, he says.

Referencing other well-known mystics such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Brian says they have indeed written powerfully about their experience of God.  But they don’t really explain too well the ways in which people might attain similar union. However, St Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, outlines a clear path that can lead the one who does the Exercises to an affective relationship with God.  They then feel impelled to live out the fruits of that experience, based on gospel values, in their everyday life. What distinguishes Ignatius is his pedagogy, he believes.

Brian also discusses the importance of the Spiritual Director in accompanying a person who is searching for God. Many people pray, but they don’t always know what’s actually happening when they’re doing so. Sharing with a Spiritual Director can help them not just understand and deepen their prayer but also widen their vision and horizon. He says we mustn’t forget that Ignatius himself was influenced by, and drew on, the wisdom of former mystics, the Fathers of the Church and the Desert Fathers, and he studied for nine years at the University of Paris.

Ignatian mysticism is not elitist and Brian notes the gift St Ignatius had for accepting people wherever they were at on the spiritual journey, and how important he believed this principle of acceptance to be. He says Ignatius was a practical psychologist who saw self-knowledge as a starting point on the road to interiority.  Many people today who don’t have a grounding in faith will always be able to begin with some self-reflection, he says. This is an especially important point regarding those today for whom traditional religious language means very little but who are seeking for some sort of spiritual meaning for their lives.

Finally, on this birthday of St Ignatius, Brian gives a short review of the just published book, St Ignatius of Loyola: Legend and Reality, by Pierre Émonet SJ. He says it’s an important work for doing what the sub-title suggests, namely sifting out what can reliably be said of Ignatius, bearing in mind the many myths that have accrued about him since his death in 1556.