The Ignatian Charism: A Spirituality for These Times
Six characteristics of the Ignatian charism


As our North American culture evolves, it becomes more pluralistic, complex and practically atheistic. It is also a rapidly changing culture, fueled by the computer revolution and other technologies. Some of our cultures is clearly good, some clearly bad, and most of it is ambiguous at best.

Among the people of God we find various responses to the reality of this contemporary culture.

For many serious Christians, to venture off to work or to carry on daily tasks beyond the home and Church is like walking into a confusing, Godless world. And it is lonely.

Among these Christians, some find hope in rejecting the present culture by working for its total transformation into a future world of peace and justice. Others find their hope not in the present world either, but in the final Kingdom when the Lord comes again. Still others regard the present world as relatively unimportant and find hope in their personal conversion to Jesus and a renewed interior life.

But there is yet another stance which Christians take. It is a stance of affirmation of the basic goodness of the world and of hearing the Lord calling from deep within it to join Him in fashioning its History. For these Christians the challenge is to penetrate the culture and to join the Trinity there, creating and redeeming from within. I believe that it is for this last group that Ignatian spirituality is most meaningful.

There are at least six characteristics of the Ignatian charism which speak to the needs of the present-day culture and to the needs of those called to become leaven from within. Ignatian spirituality contains a positive, incarnational world view, it calls for a life attitude of reverence; it leads to interior freedom; it is action oriented; it is rooted in reality, i.e. humility; it is communal.

The spirituality of Ignatius contains a world view which is essentially positive and which is rooted in the twin realities of the utter graciousness of God and the indwelling of the Trinity in all creation. For Ignatius, the chief characteristic of the Godhead is its sovereign graciousness. The Trinity is and outpouring of love. All through the Spiritual Exercises we are confronted with this image of God. But nowhere is it more evident than in the final meditation. The Contemplation to Attain Divine Love. So convinced was he from his experience that God is pure graciousness that Ignatius could write these astounding words to Fr Simon Rodrigues in 1542: ... it seems to me in the light of the Divine Goodness that ingratitude is the most abominable of sins... For it is a forgetting of the graces and blessing received. As such it is the cause, beginning, and origin of all sins and misfortune. It is for good reason that Ignatius instructs his disciples to begin every consciousness examen with an awareness of benefits received and expressions of gratitude.

Not only is God transcendent and sovereign goodness, but God is also immanent indwelling in all created reality. The Ignatian ideal in finding God in all things makes sense only if God can be found in all things. In the third and fourth points of the above mentioned Contemplations to Attain Divine Love, Ignatius has pursued the mystery of the Incarnation to its profundities level. The Godhead dwells in all creatures upon the face of the earth and through them works and labors for us. The indwelling of the Trinity in the universe is a huge conspiracy of love, as it were, for our benefit.

In this light of the utter graciousness of God and the indwelling of God around us, our spirituality encourages us to draw religious energy from and in the midst of the culture, in all its complexity, ambiguity, and dynamic change. Because our God can be found in all things we are mobile... free to leave the safety of specialized sub-cultures and to penetrate this world, finding God's self-revelation in the historical (and secular) events of our personal biographies as well as the broader events of history.

In the second place, our spirituality orients us to a life-attitude of reverence for all created reality because of its Incarnational nature, The indwelling of the Godhead achieved by the Word made Flesh draws from us a respect for the earth and the fruit of human labor. This attitudes stands in contrast to the attitude of arrogant ownership of the earth and its fruits which is at the root of the environmental crises and the malfunctioning of the international economic order. It encourages us to express this reverence in a simple life-style and in cooperation with social movements which alter our relationship to the earth and which aim for international economic justice.

Anyone who has tried has discovered that one cannot live at the heart of any culture without a certain interior liberty.  This is the third characteristic of our spirituality.

The aim of the Spiritual Exercises is to free us from all that is not God, that we might recognize what is of God and attach ourselves to that.

Freedom from inordinate psychological, spiritual and cultural attachments allows us to be sensitive to the work of the Trinity in our personal lives and in the events of history.

Interior freedom is that quality of being which finds its identity and sense of worth in God alone. Much in our North American way of life would have us find that sense of self and identity in what we do, or what we own, or how we look. Ultimately spiritual freedom is worshipful because it delivers us from the subtle idolatries of daily life. It dethrones the tin gods in our lives in order that we may enthrone the one true God. It delivers us from the absolutes of the cultures in favor of the one and only absolute. It is the root of hope and trust in Life.

If we want to get a hold of our unfreedoms, we have only to ask, In what or whom do I put my trust? Every answer which is not the living God is a source of unfreedom and idolatry. I invite the reader to reconsider the Meditation on the Two Standards in the light of this question.

The call of God to us from the heart of the world is the call to be responsible, with the Trinity, for the world in which we live. Hence, the fourth quality of the Ignatian charism relevant to our discussion is its action orientation. Once again, in the Contemplation to Attain Divine Love, Ignatius reminds us that love expresses itself in deeds and sharing. It is nothing less than the Christ-life we make real in time and space by what we do ant the consequences of what we do. Our decisions and human actions have religious meaning and value for the building up of the world of Christ.

Because action is the central image of our spirituality, we live our Christian lives in a rhythm of discernment, choice, and wholehearted response to God's invitations to be united to the divine love energy permeating all creation.

We seek union with God through our free choice to be united with God's action in the world. Because God's action permeates all dimensions of reality, no sector of life is meaningless or devoid of religious energy. This is what we mean by integration of life.

Ignatian spirituality is rooted in lived experience, consciously confronted. It invites us to live squarely in the reality of things. Throughout the Exercises is the insistence that the retreatant face the reality of life, whether that be personal and social sin, suffering and hardship, or the reality of joy, gratitude and compassion. It has often struck me that the Rules for Discernment are rules for staying rooted in the reality of the ups and downs of life. They help us to avoid the escapes of illusion and addiction.

There are many aspects of our culture which assist us to face what is real in life. There are also many aspects of the culture which thrive on our being disconnected from what is real: if it hurts, medicate it away, buy it away, lie it away, pray it away. Just don't face it.

To face the truth of life is to live in humility. For Ignatius, the lightness to be needy and vulnerable produces humility, from which all other virtues flow. Humility takes the beam from my own eye before it takes it away from my sister's eye. Humility makes me accountable for my own actions. Humility produces a down to earth person capable of compassionate living.

Finally, the Ignatian charism is communal, in the best sense of the word. It takes its energy and direction from the mystical communion which is the Church, visible and invisible. It speaks of love and commitment to the Body of Christ which is the sign and sacrament of love and commitment to the human family. This communion is expressed in bonds of caring and sharing which begin with our local CLC group and ultimately embrace the universal Church and all of creation.

I believe that our world today is yearning for persons who will believe in it and invest in it, who will live in it reverently and with free hearts, who will take responsibility for its development, who will not let it get lost in destructive illusion, and who will commune intimately with the mystery which it is. To the degree that the Ignatian charism can develop and sustain such persons, it is a precious gift for our time.  

John P. Milan

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