About eighteen months ago a colleague invited me on an adventure. Would I be willing to reimagine the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius in a team of two women and two men? Although I had intimate knowledge of the Exercises constructed by the sixteenth-century Basque courtier, soldier, and mystic, my experience of the thirty-day Ignatian retreat and the ideological assumptions structuring the Exercises gave me pause.
Iñigo de Loyola had been a man on the make, using court life and soldiering as a way to get ahead in the Spain of the Conquistadors. Only a severe battle injury prevented his career plans. His prolonged convalescence gave him a chance to profoundly reassess his life. He decided that, even with a limp, he could do “great things” for his newly chosen sovereign, Jesus. He would soon thereafter put together notes of his ascetical and mystical experiences into a small volume that would lead a person to discover, in conversation with a retreat guide, one’s true desire and whether an encounter with a narrative of the life of Jesus would go anywhere. This intensive and guided meditation, conducted over a few weeks, produced remarkable results. The earliest companions of Iñigo all went through these Exercises. They founded a company focused on Jesus, earning the name “Jesuits.” In fact, it was the Exercises that provided the motivational basis for the various counter-reformation attempts by the Jesuits throughout Europe.
I agreed to join only under certain conditions. I would bring to the conversation my longstanding research on the historical Jesus as well as an appreciation of historical limitations and an abiding critical skepticism. My colleagues actually hoped that that would be my angle of approach. So we began.
From the outset I was acutely aware of Iñigo’s latent machismo from the world of the Conquistadors. His use of the New Testament, not unexpectedly, was naive and literal. But perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the Exercises is that, while they concentrate on the life of Jesus, not one of the sayings of Jesus appears. Of course, various retreat directors over time have introduced various sayings, and those making the retreat are encouraged to imagine what Jesus might be saying in a scene. But it is quite telling that the Exercises actually make no mention. It was action, not words, that seemed to count.
And so the devil entered into me as we discussed the Exercises. I suggested that we take seriously some of the wisdom sayings of the historical Jesus. We began examining what happens to us when we test “What you treasure is your heart’s true measure.” I pointed out that as an itinerant sage Jesus would have challenged his listeners to determine whether what he was saying had any merit. They had to figure it out. It was up to them to “get it.” If they saw wisdom in his words, they would remember them, live out of them, and pass them on to challenge subsequent audiences. This was how the conspiracy of the atmosphere of God grew.
The aphorisms and parables of Jesus provided a number of incandescent moments. When my colleagues began to read the saying of “God sending sun and rain upon the good and bad, just and unjust” (Matt 5:45) from the point of view of a first-century peasant, their imaginations began to catch fire. Here was a vision of a God unreservedly showering benefits on those who “don’t deserve it” according to the norms of the first century. The story of “A man going down from Jerusalem” (Luke 10:30–35) no longer served as an example story, but as a shocking revelation that your enemy could be human, indeed human enough to entrust your life to. Such words transgressed boundaries, just as the God envisioned by Jesus could mercifully encompass just and unjust. Even the “eye of the needle” aphorism (Mark 10:25) was perceived no longer as a simple critique of wealth, but as a comic undermining of a cultural assumption shared by poor and rich alike—that wealth was an indicator of God’s favor. Rather, one could live life out of a fundamental trust, as simply as the wild lilies in the field (Luke 12:27).
Working with the words of Jesus is not everyone’s cup of tea. The results are not predictable; the engagement is not simple. Some of my students who have joined me in the Exercises resisted the task of working with the words. They would rather have me tell them what the words mean. Others did not like that some sayings run sharply against their presumed image of Jesus. They did not want words that can bite. Moreover, they resisted the burden of putting these words in historical context and having to ask whether the words still have any meaning for the present. Why not simply imitate “buddy Jesus” and leave the thinking out of the picture?
On the other hand, my experience with my colleagues and many students who have dared to struggle with the words and put them into play has convinced me that something quite real is afoot. We do not simply repeat the words of Jesus when we remember them. Instead, we chew on them, taste them, discover in them possibilities that fly against and beyond the fearful constrictions of our world. In knocking our heads together over those fragmentary utterances from a hauntingly creative voice, we pick something up. We discover how to reframe the very conditions of our life together.
—Arthur J. Dewey, Xavier University
"A Devil's Exercise," The Fourth R Issue 27-5
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