Lessons in the Life of Prayer from Ignatius Loyola

Chris Lowney
Taking a walk with the best of the Jesuits.

For those seeking a more integrated life of Christian prayer, Saint Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises is an excellent shot in the arm. And for those wanting to know how to wield that tool in the 21st century, Chris Lowney, a former managing director at JPMorgan, has co-authored a new book on Ignatian pilgrimage — whether in Spain or at home. In On the Ignatian Way: A Pilgrimage in the Footsteps of Saint Ignatius, Lowney writes about how the Jesuits’ founder set down a guide for the spiritual life that can help us — especially now, when authentic people of faith are so crucial for the health of both the Church and the culture of the nation.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: How does one go from JPMorgan to On the Ignatian Way?

Chris Lowney: Well, maybe that’s a cheaper way to figure out my own life than going into psychiatric therapy! (Kidding . . . sort of.) In fact, I had been a Jesuit seminarian for a few years and then worked in investment banking at JPMorgan for almost two decades. So, I have always had these two “threads” in my life; and, as my life goes along, I more and more see how deeply my Jesuit and Ignatian formation marked my way of looking at the world.

I’ve also always been greatly attracted to pilgrimage: to leave one’s life routine behind and slowly make one’s way to a holy place. That process always seems to have a profound impact on a pilgrim’s life. I can’t explain why, exactly, but it’s happened to me, happened to those I’ve led, and it certainly happened to Ignatius himself. So, I was always drawn to this project of helping to create a pilgrim trail, a Camino, along the route of Ignatius’s iconic 1522 journey from his home in Loyola to Montserrat and Manresa.

Lopez: When did you first meet Ignatius — or at least, when did he make the greatest impact on you?

Lowney: I first met Ignatius as a scared little 13-year-old freshman who attended a Jesuit high school. Yes, scared: It was the first time that I took the subway by myself — all the way from Queens to Manhattan! And also scared because the Jesuit priests who taught us seemed to create such high expectations. (Good for them!)

That was my first exposure to the Jesuits and their founder, Ignatius. But the time of “greatest impact” would have been later. Right after high school, I became a Jesuit novice (that is, I entered the seminary, studying to be a priest). A core part of the training is a month-long silent retreat, undertaking the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, which is not only the centerpiece of Jesuit formation but one of the most popular retreat tools in the Catholic world today. It’s adapted in all kinds of forms: weekend retreats, online versions, and even in our book! Anyone in any circumstance can access this great formation or retreat tool. . . . It’s funny, though, when I went through the month-long “hard core” version of these Exercises as a 19-year-old, I kept waiting for spiritual fireworks, angelic visits, or visions. None of that happened. But I see now that, in a quiet but enduring way, it somehow had an abiding impact on me, in how I think and look at the world.

Ignatius’s 16th-century problem was similar to our 21st-century problem: How do you keep yourself recollected and focused as you reel along all day on a tide of emails, meetings, phone calls, texts, etc.?

Lopez: What is different about the Ignatian spirituality?

Lowney: Jesuits might not put it this way, but I’ve always felt that the reason Ignatian spirituality can be so powerful today is that, in a sense, Ignatius had to solve the problem that we 21st-century people had to solve! Let me explain. When he founded the Jesuits, most religious orders were monastic or semi-monastic. The whole community would come together for prayer multiple times a day, and this surely served to keep them recollected and focused on what’s ultimately important in life: their sense of purpose as Catholic Christians.

But Ignatius wanted to create a much more “activist” religious order, where, for example, Jesuits would be teaching all day or involved in other ministries that would not allow them to retreat to chapel multiple times daily.

Hence his 16th-century problem and our 21st-century problem: How do you keep yourself recollected and focused as you reel along all day on a tide of emails, meetings, phone calls, texts, etc.? (Well, okay: They didn’t have phones and texts to worry about in the 16th century!) But they had their own distractions, and Ignatius created tools and ways of praying to help keep people on track in the midst of their busyness. . . . One of the slogans Jesuits coined for themselves, which is a good slogan for any of us to emulate, is that the goal is to be simul in actione contemplativus, that is, “contemplatives, even while in action.” Or, put differently, the challenge to us is: Can we be active in the world, but not quite of the world, not wholly captivated and captured by daily life’s craziness?

Lopez: Why are pilgrimages essential?

Lowney: I wish I could say exactly! I am not a new age–y person, but I’ve seen enough to convince me that something powerful happens when we undertake pilgrimage. Maybe that’s why virtually every one of the world’s great religious traditions seems to have fostered its own unique form of pilgrimage.

I’ve come to suspect that there is something powerful for us humans in this practice, and I suspect part of the power is that pilgrimage takes us completely out of our regular routines. We are no longer just reeling along from one task and phone call to the next, carried by the superficial tide of life’s quotidian distractions. Rather, on pilgrimage, the whole day unfurls before us — with no phone calls to return. Invariably, other thoughts start to bubble up in that psychic space that opens up: We think about long-ago hurts or missteps; we appreciate how beautiful the world is; we think about what we’re doing with our life and why.

And, by the way: Even though the book is about a particular pilgrimage in Spain, I realize that most folks won’t have the time or interest to make that particular journey. But we can all get some of the “graces” of pilgrimage. One person wrote me to say that she worked through the Spiritual Exercises in our book while doing her early-morning walk every day in her hometown. Perfect! Why not! Others may not feel able to do even that much physical effort and may just want to read the text and use their prayerful imagination to “journey alongside” the pilgrims in the book.

Lopez: “You will survive even though you let several hours go by without obsessively devouring the news, sports scores, and phone and Twitter messages.” Is this true even in 2018, when presidential tweets make and break news?

Lowney: Yes, can you believe it? Even in 2018, you can survive for an hour — or even for a month — without your social-media feed. It might even be good for you! . . . In fact, how about if I make a money-back guarantee to your readers: If you go on the Ignatian Camino, or any other kind of pilgrimage experience, and shut off your social-media feed for a few days while doing so, I guarantee that you will feel greater well-being, peace, and life clarity when you return. If not, I will personally send you $1!

This is a moment of crisis, and those who love the Church have to appreciate that their gifts, ideas, and energies are needed.

Lopez: You’ve written books on leadership, and the Catholic Church has some leadership problems, to put it mildly. In the wake of the Cardinal McCarrick news, do you have any advice?

Lowney: Well, it’s my opinion that the Catholic Church is suffering its worst crisis in five centuries, and the McCarrick revelations are yet another blow. My previous book is Everyone Leads: How to Revitalize the Catholic Church, and I wrote it precisely to enter the discussion of what the Church needs to do in order to surmount our crises and thrive in this complex century.

Among my thoughts: Every Catholic has to step up and show some leadership. This is a moment of crisis, and those who love the Church have to appreciate that their gifts, ideas, and energies are needed. It’s not enough just to “pay, pray, and obey,” as the old cliché used to put it. Everyone has to play a more active role. Our challenges have multiplied, so we also need to multiply the human talent that we are bringing to those challenges.

Beyond that, we need a massive change in “culture” — that is, in the ways we think and do things as a Church. One aspect of our “new culture of leadership” will be to become more accountable, professional, and transparent in the ways we manage our ministries, including the ways we confront moral horrors like the one you mention in your question.

Another dimension of the culture change that we need: to be far more entrepreneurial, creative, and innovative in engaging the modern world, in order to find new ways of presenting our message to a world that is increasingly disinterested, jaded, and not very open to hearing our Christian message.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.

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