"The sense of a life beyond this one..."

In a strange moment of synchronicity I recently spent some time at a Jesuit institution, where I was reminded of the fascinating spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. As I left the gates of that institution I popped in my headphones and tuned into Rachael Kohn's The Spirit of Things podcast, and what should be on but a fascinating segment on Moira Rayner, previous director of the London Childrens' Rights Commission,  talking about her engagement with the Ignatian spiritual exercises.

I have been long fascinated by the figure of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the enigmatic religious order he founded.

St. Ignatius of Loyola

When I was a child I was a great reader of historical fiction, and the Jesuits would regularly pop up as shadowy figures, frequently villains. I was desperate to discover what a Jesuit actually was, but my thoroughly Protestant family was incapable of explaining. My grandfather told me that they were simply, "wicked, plotting priests," a description which captures perfectly their depiction in popular English literature.

I couldn't know then that the Jesuits would enter my life again as a young adult. A Vietnamese partner and long study of Vietnamese history brought me the knowledge of the Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes, the man who romanised the Vietnamese language. And soon after that I picked up a book written by a man charting the spiritual growth of his widowed father who, after following the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, makes the decision to become a Trappist monk (I can't remember the name of this book, and I no longer have it - would be interested if anyone out there knows the one I mean).

So obviously these mysterious exercises are very powerful things, and I have been aware in recent years that their popularity has been growing, even extending to the non-Catholic community. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Saints tells us that:

"Pope Pius XI declared him [St. Ignatius] patron of retreats and spiritual exercises...His Spiritual Exercises have had a vast influence on succeeding generations, among Protestants as well as Catholics, and are still widely read today."

In The Spirit of Things occasional series called My Spiritual Diary, Australian lawyer and public figure Moira Rayner describes her engagement with these exercises and how they have caused a deepening of her spiritual life along with a lightening of her compulsive and busy nature. As someone who, in her youth, had been radically atheistic, Rayner's spirtual journey as an adult began with a flirtation with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his Orange People, a wonderfully 80s rite of passage.

But these days she is quite seriously pursuing the Ignatian spiritual exercises, and has completed them. Now she helps others to follow them, and she describes being "humbled" by these antique spiritual exercises. The exercises, which she discovered by chance at a low period in her life where she felt the need to return to some kind of spirituality, have transformed her and convinced her that, "we are held by an embracing something." A beautiful descrition of a modern metaphysical understanding shaped by a religious system devised in the sixteenth century.

You can hear Moira Rayner's fascinating My Spiritual Diary on ABC Radio National's The Spirit of Things here

Rachael Kohn's previous program on the Ignatian Exercises here

Read about the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola here

Find out more about studying the exercises in Australia here


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