Before, during and after

Raymond Perrier teaching in South Africa

Bales of straw on a field

Today we offer up our lives to bear fruit.

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My experience of both receiving and sharing Ignatian spirituality falls neatly into three phases: before I became a Jesuit, while I was a Jesuit, and after I left the Jesuits.  For me this demonstrates the great versatility of Ignatian spirituality which is one of its many strengths.

The antidote I needed

When I was running an advertising agency in New York – flying around the world, making lots of money, dealing with clients’ business problems, never stopping to think – Ignatian spirituality was exactly the antidote I needed.  I learnt the power of 30 minutes of God-centred reflection at the beginning of each day, though I confess that it remains for me more honoured in the breach than in the observance.  I encountered Ignatian spirituality via the Jesuit parish I attended (St Francis Xavier on 16th Street in Manhattan), a reminder of why easy access through parishes is so important.  Long before someone can graduate to a residential retreat, or a spiritual director, or a 19th annotation, or even Pray-As-You-Go, they need to get a personal taster to see how valuable this can be in their lives.

I ended up graduating to all the above – including the great privilege of following the Spiritual Exercises in daily life with the late New York Jesuit Ned Coughlin.  I also became friends with the Jesuit journalist Jim Martin which, along with my later acquaintance with Gerry W Hughes SJ, showed me the impact of being able to write about Ignatian ideas in language that is accessible to ‘ordinary’ readers. 

I actually went on to the join the Society of Jesus

All that is good and every gift descends from on high; so, my limited power descends from the supreme and infinite power above. Sp Exx. 237

I so got the taste for this that I actually went on to the join the Society of Jesus.  Others in this series have written eloquently about Jesuit formation and its transformative impact so I shall not dwell on this.  Enough to say that having a second chance to follow the Spiritual Exercises – this time in 30 days’ silence with Brendan Comerford SJ, my wise novice master – was not only personally powerful but also showed me how the same core element of Ignatian spirituality can differ in its impact depending on the situation and disposition of the individual.  It is always as much about the pilgrim as it is about the pilgrimage.  Talking of pilgrimage as a novice, I also did an ‘experiment’ of walking for 30 days on my own across central Europe – 15 years on from that my own short experience of being a man of the road gives me some useful empathy with the homeless people with whom I now work. 

Ignatian spirituality is a constant challenge to be open to the Lord – indifferentia – believing that He always knows what is best for us even when the answer surprises us.  So having learnt to be open to Him to lead me into the Society, I then after six years had to learn to be open to Him to lead me out of the Society and I found myself back in the ‘real world’. 

Back in the ‘real world’

But this then gave me a chance to draw on my formation in Ignatian spirituality to make it accessible to others who would not necessarily have encountered it.  First of all, its themes became a useful way of assisting some of the people I worked with when at CAFOD – a chance to help us to stay connected to the deeper purpose of the work and in a way that made sense for the practising Catholics, the lapsed Catholics and the never-been Catholics! 

I then found myself heading the Jesuit Institute in South Africa, with a team of lay people and Jesuits.  A key part of the work was the promotion of and training in Ignatian spirituality but doing so in a way that broke out of the traditional clerical Catholic mould.  I recall a Zimbabwean Jesuit priest being surprised at how much he could learn about Ignatian spirituality from a lay woman (she did have a doctorate and 20 years’ experience in the field!); and the African Catholics who wondered if we were hoping to convert our non-Catholic spiritual directors (we weren’t – one of the was very happy being an Anglican bishop!). 

We managed to infiltrate MBA programmes

The most exciting part of this was the ‘Spirited Leadership’ programme (originally pioneered by David Smolira SJ and Dr Anne-Marie Paulin-Campbell) which took Ignatian spirituality into business schools.  In good Jesuitical style, we managed to infiltrate MBA programmes in South Africa by presenting the themes of Ignatian spirituality as a model for authentic personal development: which they are.  Reflecting on the day, sifting desires, uncovering deep-seated attitudes, identifying which beliefs are driving behaviour, seeing what is negotiable and non-negotiable in your life – all of these are important tools for business leaders no less so than for Jesuits or church workers. 

We presented the material in such a way that the listener could turn the God-volume up or down, depending on what was most helpful to them.  So we could have classes of completely mixed religious affiliation – Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, agnostic, atheist – and yet all seemed to draw value from the Exercises.  When once, on a Friday while teaching at a secular business school, the Muslims had to leave the class for prayers, and the Christians were all very supportive, I wondered if the 16th century Spanish Ignatius would have been proud or appalled. 

Called to work as a Muslim in a Catholic school

Elements of this programme were also used to help train potential leaders in Catholic schools.  I recall the Muslim deputy in one school telling me afterwards how this experience had helped her to understand why she had been called to work as a Muslim in a Catholic school.  The course was also taken to the United States and used in a secular business school (where it was accepted despite anxieties about the encroachment of religion) and in two Jesuit business schools (where, ironically, the students had had no exposure to Ignatian spirituality!). 

Now I am running a multi-faith community centre in the heart of one of Africa’s most vibrant cities – helping the homeless, refugees, drug users and the unemployed.  We do so in a way that literally brings together Hindus, Jews, Christians and Muslims to serve the urban poor.  When people ask if I do not find that difficult, I realise that Ignatian spirituality has helped me to appreciate what for me is negotiable and non-negotiable.  That gives me the freedom to respond with flexibility, not despite my faith but because of it.   And when, occasionally, the stress of looking for funding or fighting with the Municipality gets too much, I return to the words of the Suscipe prayer and get reassurance from there: “And all I ask is the grace of knowing that I do your will.”

Raymond Perrier is a lay man working as Director of the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban, South Africa.  For more information or to support their work go to www.denishurleycentre.org

Go Deeper

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With Pray as you go the Jesuits in Britain created a calendar for the anniversary of the restoration of the Society. It featured 12 Jesuits from recent history. Have a listen to the stories of their lives below.

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