Issue 28 - 27 July

Why is it that 465 years after his death Ignatian Spirituality still works?

You may not know it, but we are in an “Ignatian Year”. It began on 20 May, which marked the 500th anniversary of St Ignatius Loyola’s conversion, and runs until his feast day next year, 31 July. So it’s not really a year, but an “Ignatian 14 months”. The centerpiece of the celebrations will come on 12 March 2022, the 400th anniversary of the canonizations of Ignatius, Francis Xavier, Teresa of Avila and Philip Neri. That was a big day for the Church. 

I may be the only Jesuit who will ever tell you this, but St Ignatius was an obsessive, compulsive, neurotic nut. He was also a person of great holiness, a mystical genius and one of the most brilliant men of his time. But some of his behaviour reveals that my first observation is neither facetious nor unwarranted. One of the most important chapters in his life gives the key to why Ignatian Spirituality has been so enduring and adaptable.

For almost the whole of 1522, Ignatius lived in a cave alongside the River Cardoner at Manresa in Spain. From his autobiography as well as some of his letters, we know that this cave was the scene of some of his best and his worst days. That cave saw the genesis of what would later become spiritual masterpieces: the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits; his version of the Examen; and the Spiritual Exercises. But that cave was also the scene of some very dangerous behaviour.

Ignatius-the-penitent whipped himself three times a day, wore an iron girdle which he kept retracting until it broke his flesh, fasted on bread and water which he had begged, slept very little and then only on the ground, spent up to seven hours a day on his knees in prayer, covered his face with dirt, grew his hair and beard rough, and allowed his dirty nails to grow to a grotesque length. Ignatius suffered so badly from religious scruples he considered throwing himself into the river.

These days the 1522 Ignatius might be diagnosed as an at-risk self-harmer, suffering from a chronic depressive disorder and exhibiting a suicidal ideation. In the contemporary vernacular, he’d be known as a “cutter.” Two things saved him. Because he had been a soldier, he was used to taking orders from legitimate authorities and obeying them. On seeing how far Ignatius was mentally and spiritually deteriorating, his confessor at Manresa ordered him, under holy obedience, to eat, to wash, to cut his hair and nails, to stop all the penances, and to take care of himself. Ignatius did as he was told. He turned a corner.  He was to emerge from that cave a wiser and holier man.

Second, Ignatius reflected carefully on how even good things, done in the name of God, - such as prayer, penance and fasting - can quickly became instruments of self-abasement. Ignatius believed that those brutal penances would lead him to God, whereas instead they led him to isolation, despair and destruction. By looking after himself he had a “flooding of the heart”, wherein he encountered God’s love so powerfully he discovered that although he was a sinner he was a “loved sinner”. This was a breakthrough in the way we think about holiness and spirituality.   

The life experiences and insights of St Ignatius still resonate with many of us who have glimpsed a dark place and need to find a way back from the abyss. From 1521 until he died in 1556, Ignatius Loyola went from soldier to saint, from masochist to mystic, and from philanderer to the founder of a religious order that still flourishes today. 

For the last 34 years of his life, Ignatius moved away from trying to find the easy side of easy to embodying Jesus’ call to love God, his neighbour and himself. His hard-won lessons in that cave gave the foundation to the spiritual school that now bears his name. It teaches that we have to embrace suffering as an inescapable and essential part of coming to grips with our human condition.

Ignatius knew we should never embark on this journey on our own, that we need each other, “friends in the Lord”, and that God was to be found in the midst of this companionship. His conversion is enshrined in his famous Prayer for Generosity, here masterfully translated and reworked by Daniel Madigan SJ:

 Lord, teach me to be generous,

to serve you as you deserve,

to give and not to count the cost,

to fight and not to heed the wounds,

to toil and not to seek for rest,

to labor and not to look for any reward,

save that of knowing that I do your holy will.

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of ten books. His most recent one is The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom (Paulist).


Fr Richard Leonard SJ

Nominated by the Jesuit Provincial, Fr Quyen Vu SJ, Fr Richard Leonard SJ has been appointed by the Archbishop of Sydney as next the parish priest of Our Lady of the Way incorporating the communities of Star of Sea, Kirribilli, St Francis Xavier, Lavender Bay and St Mary's, North Sydney.

Richard is well known to many in the parish, having lived with us for 13 years as Superior of the Jesuit Community, a role he will continue to fulfil in the short term.

Richard has graduate degrees in theology and communications and a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He has been a visiting scholar within the School of Theatre, Film & Television at UCLA and a Visiting Professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He directed the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for 22 years.

He is a regular columnist with The Tablet magazine in London and is the author of ten books including the international best sellers: Where the Hell is God?; Why Bother Praying?; and Hatch, Match & Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to Sacraments. His most recent book The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom was released in April this year.

A highly acclaimed international speaker, Fr Richard has lectured on faith and culture all over the world.

 “The Jesuits have been devoted servants of the parish community of North Sydney for 143 years and it is my honour to follow in that tradition. I hope we will make our own what Pope Francis has said should characterise contemporary Catholic parish life: a missionary community that ‘reaches out to everyone, without exception, particularly the poor’; that possesses great flexibility in helping people to find God, and celebrate Christ’s presence in their lives; that has good preaching, excellent liturgy and is generous in its mercy, compassion and hospitality,” Fr Leonard said. “The parish of Our Lady of Way has been my base for my other ministries for 13 years so I know what a wonderful community of lay people, religious and brother Jesuits we have, and how together we can inspire each other to be even greater disciples of Christ.”


About the author

Richard Leonard is a Jesuit priest. He has degrees in arts and education, as well as a Master’s degree in theology. Fr Richard did graduate studies at the London Film School and has a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Catholic University; has been a visiting scholar within the School of Theatre, Film & Television at UCLA and a Visiting Professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He directed the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for 22 years. He has served on juries at the Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Warsaw, Hong Kong, Montreal, Brisbane and Melbourne International Film Festivals and he has lectured on faith and culture all over the world. He has been published in America MagazineEureka StreetUS Catholic, is regular columnist with The London Tablet and is a regular guest on ABC Radio.

He is the author of ten books, among the titles are:  

Where the Hell is God?

What does it all mean? A guide to being more faithful, hopeful and loving

His most recent book is Hatch, Match & Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to Sacraments.

Richard’s next book The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom, will be released in early 2021.