Ecclesial Mysticism in the 'Spiritual Exercises' of Ignatius

Article excerpt

A striking paradox confronts any attempt to assess the place of the Church in early Ignatian spirituality.(*) This spirituality has exerted an important influence upon the Church over the past centuries, yet paradoxically the reading of the Spiritual Exercises themselves, their meaning and their influence upon Catholic piety, has terminated in very different and mutually exclusive conclusions. On the one hand, so perceptive a philosopher of religion as Baron Friedrich von Hugel maintained that among the elements in authentic religion, the Jesuit heritage has placed its greatest weight upon the institutional, with the commensurate emphasis upon authority, submission, and obedience that emerges from such an orientation.(1) On the other hand, so heavily has the individual and the ascetical been accented in the standard commentaries on the Exercises, maintained Burkhart Schneider, that one must take issue with Lilly Zarncke and any number of traditional commentators to protest as a counterthesis that the Exercises are deeply concerned with the Church, that they "are not exclusively concerned with the single human being and his or her personal destiny." Schneider pays tribute to Hugo Rahner who "brought back to awareness the complete meaning of the Exercises and especially the central place the Church occupies within them."(2) Emphatically institutional or emphatically individualistic or something in between, what is the place occupied by the hierarchical or institutional Church in the Spiritual Exercises?

At a period such as ours, one that celebrates New Age spirituality and witnesses the alienation of so many intellectuals from institutional religion, such a question is by no means simply academic nor is its resolution an abstract exercise. Institutions and their use of authority have become highly suspect, and their internal battles have rendered them even more so. Margaret Steinfels has identified as of serious concern "the growing polarization in the Church and the breakdown of genuine dialogue," together with the unprecedented manner in which mass communications have made this internal estrangement and suspicion public property. This "current mood in the Church" has served to discredit further the religious value of the Church for many - to be dismissed as another embodiment of the institutional will to power.(3) Some communal and spontaneously organized charismatic movements, ecological and therapeutic spiritualities, personalized prayer groups, the revival of native religions and of Eastern prayer forms have tended, in their diminishment of the institutional, to confirm this alienation and to marginalize the "institutional Church" - with all of its episodes of narrowness, power politics, controls, and intrigue - as religiously irrelevant, as an external, even an oppressive, inhibition of genuine religious experience and promise.

Do the Exercises have anything to say to this widespread alienation? Or do they subtly confirm it? More pointedly, do the Exercises foster an indifference to the ecclesial community as something peripheral, fading into unimportance before the Creator's "working immediately with the creature," or does the Church function vitally in the radical encounter with God during the Exercises?(4) This is the question this article addresses, and its bears critically upon the meaning of the Exercises and their ability to respond to the religious issues of our time.

To delimit this question further, a short remark on the focus and method of this study is important. It makes no attempt to deal with Ignatian spirituality and ecclesiology as a whole. Such a vast and fundamental project would necessitate an investigation of the entirety of the Ignatian corpus both for the explicit treatments given to the Church and for those areas in which ecclesiology forms the context or the subtext, i.e., where an understanding of what constitutes the community of the faithful underlies what is asserted and, consequently, gives intelligibility to an overt statement. …