Tuesday, August 2, 2011

St. Ignatius and the Jesuits - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Goes on Retreat

In addition to being a psychoanalyst, I am a faculty member at a Jesuit Catholic University.  There are 28 Jesuit Universities in the United States (the most Universities of any Catholic order), and many more high schools than that.  There are additional Jesuit Universities and High Schools scattered around the world.  The Jesuits were founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in the 16th Century.  Loyola was a young courtesan and minor royal in Basque Spain who was injured by a cannonball when he was leading a foolhardy defense of a castle.  During his convalescence he discovered that he was not drawn to read the tales of Chivalry that he thought he would have preferred, and instead found himself reading about the life of Christ and the lives of the Saints.  This inspired him both to reconsider his life as a young knight, and to become an academic - in part so that he could learn more about Christianity.  After training at the University of Paris, and in company with ten others, he founded an order of activist priests who ended up creating an international confederation of High Schools, Colleges and Universities.
The Jesuits in the United States have a problem.  They are not attracting members at the rate they once were.  Fifty years ago, virtually all of the faculty and administrators at my University were Jesuit priests.  Today, there are about 12 Jesuits at a University that employs roughly 500 teachers.  Our President has publicly mused that he is likely to be the last Jesuit President.  In the last 10 years, 10 of the 28 Jesuit Colleges and Universities have hired lay presidents (who are all white, male, and Catholic).  So I spent the week at a retreat for faculty, administrators and board members of Jesuit schools.  The retreat is a kick-off to an 18 month process that is meant to mirror the formation of Ignatian priests so that we can, in effect, maintain the Jesuit or Ignatian character on our campuses.

Formation for Jesuits involves becoming a priest.  That is not on my to-do list.  But the group leading this effort wants to both inform; that is, to teach us about Ignatius, and to form us; that is to help us become emotionally resonant with a Jesuit position with regard to issues that emerge in an academic setting. 
From the information presented this week, I came to be able to articulate things that I have felt about the Jesuits but have not had a knowledge base that has allowed me to know why I have felt them.  Ignatius, it turns out, is not unlike Freud:  He was a revolutionary thinker who emerged at a propitious moment in history and built an organization that promulgated his ideas.  Ignatius was roughly contemporary with Luther and, like Luther, he proposed that the individual person could be in direct contact with God.  This “protestant” idea did not lead to a schism for Loyola and the Jesuits because he worked very hard to remain connected with the church, but his ideas were consonant with those who split away.  And, raised in the Episcopal Church, I think I resonated with both the “protestant” views of my Jesuit peers, but also with their organizational loyalty – the Episcopal Church has been called Catholicism without the Pope.
The “protestant” position of the Jesuits is important as a cornerstone for Colleges and Universities.  From Ignatius’ position, knowledge is something that is acquired by direct engagement with the world, not through indoctrination at the foot of an authority.  This position was essential to and a product of the zeitgeist of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance; Freud’s discovery of the unconscious – deposing the authority of consciousness, like Ignatius's and Luther's deposing the authority of the pope, was both a product of and essential to the transition to modernism.


Ignatius reminded me of Freud, though, not primarily because they were both transitional thinkers, but because Ignatius created a method of listening that is eerily reminiscent – or presages - Freud’s listening method.  Ignatius created the Spiritual Exercises.  They were based on the conversion process that he went through in the wake of his injury.  These exercises are engaged in by a spiritual director and a retreatant who has a particular problem that he or she wants to address – the Jesuits have always used the exercises as a means of helping a novitiate determine whether he was truly called to be a Jesuit.  They are intended, in their original form, to be undertaken over the course of a month, give or take.  The part that seems to me to be centrally parallel is that the spiritual director is to help the retreatant engage as directly as possible with God – indeed, where possible, the director is to try to facilitate without interfering with the conversation that emerges between the retreatant and God.  The listening perspective for the spiritual director is supposed to be one that is attentive, reverent, and devoted, which feels very much, to me, like the evenly hovering attention of the analyst.  What does not feel strictly analytic is that the retreatant is asked to imagine particular scenes from the life of Christ rather than to simply follow his or her own associations.
The analytic process can be thought of in many ways, but one of my orienting thoughts is that one of the analyst’s central tasks is to facilitate a conversation between the analysand and his or her unconscious.  Ideally this conversation becomes an ongoing, dynamic conversation where the unconscious, instead of being always unknown and even hostile to a person’s conscious personal intent, becomes an ally, using different but very powerful processes and data to work on the very problems the conscious mind is struggling with and to propose an array of solutions that can be implemented in ways that become more and more consistent with the consciously experienced self.
Ignatius used the Spiritual Exercises as a means to facilitate a dialogue between the retreatant and God – an entity that, like the unconscious, is not directly knowable by most of us most of the time.  In my own analysis (and in my current life), I have been confronted over and over with evidence that I do, indeed, have an unconscious that attempts to communicate with me; sometimes by engaging in outrageous or embarrassing behavior, but more frequently through dreams that symbolically – through the use of images and narrative - represent problems that I am wrestling with.  Dreams do not necessarily offer solutions, but might offer a representation of the problem in ways that clarified aspects of that problem that I was uncomfortable representing to myself consciously.  For instance, if I am struggling to help a patient articulate a particular thought, a dream might help me realize that this has to do, in part, with the ways in which that feels like an expression of affection that feels, on some level, sexual, and therefore forbidden.  Recognizing this, I can reflect on the amount of sexual oomph behind the idea and determine whether pursuing it is likely to be more useful or more distracting to the analysand.  
From the perspective of dreams as informing our consciousness, when the spiritual director in the spiritual exercises proposes that the retreatant imagine an episode from Jesus’ life as clearly and vividly as possible – imagining the sights, sounds, feelings and smells - the director is encouraging a guided dreamlike experience.  It is then up to the retreatant to discern (this is another Jesuit technique that I may discuss in a later post) how God would have the retreatant engage with the current problem.  As a central component of the formation process, I will be going through the spiritual exercises – probably in about a year.  I don’t yet know whether I will still be blogging at that point, but should I be, I intend to report on the experience of parallels between going through the exercises and going through analysis, not just the theoretical parallels that I have reported on here.

Postscript:  I did both continue with this process and continue blogging.  Part of the formation experience included a trip to Nicaragua to appreciate a very different world view.  I blogged in anticipation of going here, and then wrote about my experiences while there here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.   I returned from Nicaragua and, a week later, did a condensed version of the spiritual exercises, which I blogged about here, here, here, here, and here.  I am now aware, in putting together this compendium, that I did not write about the final, concluding retreat, nor a kind of summary blog of the experience of being a participant in the ICP.   

It is also the case that, through the rest of the ICP experience, my views on Ignatius changed.  I came to see him less as a protestant who didn't leave the church and more as a mystic - a person who truly believed that direct access to God was possible.  In addition to being a mystic, he contributed to the reformation of the church in many important ways.   In terms of education, he reintroduced Plato and Aristotle as important thinkers.  The church had marginalized them as being pre-Christian and thus necessarily unenlightened.  Ignatius disagreed with this position, pointing out that the world has always been God's creation and that we have always been able to learn about God by learning about the world.

As to the process of discernment that is at the heart of the spiritual exercises referred to in the post, the very simple version is that Ignatius taught us to notice how we feel about things that we engage in - as he noticed that he felt energized after reading the lives of the Saints and depleted after reading the exploits of the Knights.  This process is, of course, more complex than that, but this is the foundation on which it rests.  The intent, from Ignatius' position, is to discern what it is that God has in mind for us - to read His will through our experience.  The psychoanalytic version of this is to live a life where our unconscious needs - the entire range of them - can be met by the life that we lead - a life that we become deeply invested in leading.  Or, as Confucius is reported to have said, at 70 I follow my heart's desire without breaking moral principles. 

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