What do Pope Francis, and actor Andrew Garfield, who plays a lead role as a Jesuit priest in Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, have in common? Answer: they have both undergone the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuits in 1539, and whose Exercises are at the core of Jesuit spirituality.
For both Pope Francis and Andrew Garfield the effects of the Exercises have been profound. In an interview with America magazine, Garfield said that through the Exercises he had fallen in love with Christ. And Pope Francis too radiates being in love – with Christ and people.
Jesuits are normally required to complete the Exercises in a retreat of 30 days, but completing them part-time over 30 weeks is another option, particularly for lay people.
This 30-weeks-in-daily-life retreat seeks to integrate the Exercises into normal life. It covers the same material as the 30-day retreat, which is divided into four weeks or segments: God’s love for us despite our sinfulness; Christ’s life and ministry; Christ’s Passion and Death; and the Resurrection and life in the Spirit.
Being ‘transformed utterly in love’ was a process that began for St Ignatius when he was recovering from severe injuries sustained in battle. For this dashing young man –with an eye for the ladies and dreams of fame and glory as a soldier – life was to change dramatically when a cannon ball shattered one of his legs. In the long recovery period, he read about the lives of the saints, and found they inspired him in a way that his military heroes could not.
So began a lifelong and life-changing love affair, which would lead him to offer his life in the complete love and service of Christ, and he was able to pray:
Take Lord, and receive all my liberty,
My memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
All that I have and possess.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
All is yours.
Dispose of it according to your will.
Give me your love and grace,
For this is sufficient for me.
He also wrote: “There are very few who realise what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves entirely into His hands, and let themselves be formed by His Grace.”
The idea of falling in love with God and Christ was explored by St Ignatius’ 20th century successor as Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr Pedro Arrupe, who wrote: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way… Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
Last year I undertook the Spiritual Exercises at the Campion Centre of Ignatian Spirituality in Kew, Melbourne, and discovered the practicalities of falling in love with Christ, for the Jesuit, include:
The Principle and Foundation: recognising that I am created by the God who is love, to love, praise and serve God – “I am from love, of love, for love”, as one translation puts it.
The Daily Examen: invites you to reflect on how God has loved you, and to give thanks for the many blessings and graces you have received throughout the day.
The Discernment of Spirits: which includes seeking to discern where have been loving and generous-hearted; and where you have failed to love, or have been stonyhearted.
The Imaginative Contemplation: which invites you to place yourself in a gospel scene either as an observer or as one of the protagonists, imagining the sights, sounds and smells so that you feel physically present, and ending with a colloquy, or conversation, with Christ.
I found this way of engaging with Scripture particularly powerful.
Falling in love with Christ is also about experiencing the power of forgiveness – for oneself and for others. It is difficult to love and forgive – yourself and others – unless you have experienced being loved and forgiven. Jesus said of Mary of Bethany, the ‘sinful woman’ who showed him great love by anointing his feet with perfume and washing them with her hair, that “he who has been forgiven little, loves little” (see Luke 7: 36-50).
The second great commandment – “love others as yourself”– is difficult unless we know and experience God’s love for us, despite our sinfulness. This is the love which has enabled Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche Communities for the disabled, to say, “Each of us is more beautiful than we can dare to believe [because we] are children of God”. One of the most painful, but cathartic and liberating moments of the 30 weeks came when my director suggested I write an apology to someone I had wronged nearly 40 years ago, and then to give the matter up to Christ. Learning to let go of past mistakes, and see them as “buried in the heart of Christ”, as Br Roger of Taize put it, is a critical part of learning to love and forgive – yourself and others.
The Spirit-filled ministry of Pope Francis, who has acknowledged the failures of his early priestly ministry, is testament to the power of such forgiveness, and to the love that “transforms utterly”.
Roland Ashby is editor of The Melbourne Anglican (TMA) newspaper. See www.tma.melbourneanglican.org.au.
He is also editor of Heroes of the Faith – men and women whose lives have proclaimed Christ and inspired the faith of others (Garratt Publishing).