Feel the Force: Star Wars and Ignatius
by Tim McEvoy
Whether you have never seen it or whether you are a fully paid-up member of the Jedi religion (there are 176,632 of them in England and Wales according to the 2011 census), Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon that is hard to ignore. It began as a risk-taking ‘space opera’ in the tradition of Buck Rogers back in 1977 that many involved in the project assumed would remain a minor cult movie but has spawned a billion-dollar science-fiction franchise and merchandising empire that is winning a whole new generation of fans. The latest instalment, The Last Jedi, was the highest grossing film of 2017. Forty years on the Force is still very much with us.
One reason for Star Wars’ enduring popularity seems to be its tapping into universal themes of good versus evil, dark versus light, heroes (and increasingly heroines) versus villains. Although the action is set ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,’ for the most part the characters are instantly relatable and the plot reassuringly black-and-white. It is essentially a Western in space. The audience is left in no doubt as to who the baddies are, who are usually helpfully swathed in black.
Interestingly, one word that has cropped up in a recent critic’s review is ‘spiritual’ (see Anna Smith in The Guardian, 18 December 2017). Is there a spiritual dimension to Star Wars? I would like to hazard a ‘Yes’ in the best Ignatian tradition of ‘finding God in all things.’
For those unfamiliar with the story (spoiler alert here in case you have ‘watching the original boxset’ on your bucket list) the plot centres around the fortunes of the Skywalker family who are strong with the mysterious ‘Force’ that binds the universe together. The arc of the original trilogy describes the adventures of heroic young Luke Skywalker as he clashes with, and ultimately helps redeem, his fallen father, Darth Vader, against a backdrop of intergalactic war. Luke (whose name uncoincidentally means ‘light’) joins and helps turn the tide of a small and rag-tag rebellion against the evil Empire by drawing on the Force – a benign life-energy that holds light and dark, good and evil in balance – and ends the films as the last of the Jedi knights, the traditional guardians of the ‘good side’ of the Force.
Fast forward thirty years, and we enter the world of the latest two films to hit cinema screens, The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). A new threat to stability has arisen in the shape of the equally evil First Order and we meet a familiar, beleaguered band of Rebels who are once again on the ropes. Shockingly again it is a Skywalker – this time Luke’s nephew, Kylo Ren – who has turned to ‘the dark side’ of the Force and is hell-bent on destroying his former Jedi Master’s legacy. The Force apparently counters this upsurge in the dark with a new heroine strong with the light: young Rey (pun heavily intended) who by the time of the latest film has begun training as a Jedi knight herself and is poised to continue the fight to restore balance in the galaxy.
Clunky symbolism aside, the recent instalments in the saga end up providing an interesting space to explore decision-making in a deeply moral universe. Characters’ choices in Star Wars– especially those of the two opposites-that-attract Kylo and Rey – are not as clear-cut as one might imagine and destinies are not set in stone. The dark side of the Force is seductive, we are told and the good often only perceptible when one is calm and at peace. ‘How am I to know the good side from the bad?’ is a question asked early on in his own Jedi training by Luke of his Master Yoda – a character who pops up again in the latest film. Telling the difference, it turns out, is only possible through ‘reach[ing] out with your feelings’. An Ignatian person might prick up their ears at this point.
On a closer look, the Star Wars universe is a deeply spiritual one. Borrowing heavily from Chinese Daoist philosophy, Buddhism and other New Age elements, the Jedi worldview could be described as a sort of dualistic mysticism. Behind and beneath everything is the energy of the Force: ‘its energy surrounds us and binds us: luminous beings are we, not this crude matter!’ as the syntactically-challenged Yoda explains to the young Luke in the original trilogy.
True strength means more than sinew and relies much on faith in what is unseen. A Jedi knight is portrayed as a warrior-mystic whose strength flows from being in tune with the Force: passive, at peace, receptive. Those who have been seduced by the false ‘strength’ of evil – the ‘power of the dark side’ characterised by anger, fear, aggression and hate – attempt to bend the Force to their own will in some way but miss a trick. As Rey discovers in one scene in the The Last Jedi (appropriately enough in a Manresa-like cave) – the promises of the ‘dark side’ are basically hollow and leave her with no answers. Apparently, part of a Jedi’s training is paying attention to your feelings and noticing where they take you.
What would Ignatius make of all this? Well, perhaps he would attempt to enter through the gangway of the Millennium Falcon so as to come out through his door.
It is hard not to draw faint parallels between the imagery used here and his own ‘Rules for the discernment of spirits’: insights into the spiritual life that Ignatius was given through grappling with the various forces he recognised at work in himself and in the world. Unlike the Star Wars worldview which is distinctly Manichean - a cosmic battleground with the forces of good arrayed against those of evil – Ignatius would be keen to emphasise that the battle was already won, nevertheless the imagery of ‘light’ was central to his imagination also. While the Holy Spirit leads and enlightens on the one hand, the ‘enemy of human nature’ (all that is not of God) misleads and darkens, sometimes even by masquerading as ‘an angel of light.’ On an individual level, the key to recognising which way one was being led – to the light or to the dark, towards God or away from God – was paying close attention to the direction of one’s thoughts and feelings, ‘the movements of the soul.’
Ignatius’ genius was to observe over time that some feelings and reactions seemed to take a person towards God and to a deeper, freer engagement with life, while others either got in the way of this movement or took a person in the opposite direction. His descriptions in the Spiritual Exercises of the states of consolation (when a person is drawn to the things of God) and desolation (when they are pulled away into self-centredness) are classic spiritual texts fundamental to the practice of spiritual direction today and used by people the world over in attempting to make good, life-giving decisions.
For Ignatius, a person in consolation is fundamentally in tune with the forces of light and life – going with the grain of the Holy Spirit and their ‘factory setting’ as a human being created by and for God. As our heroine Rey was told in The Force Awakens, ‘Close your eyes. It’s always been there. The light: it will guide you.’ Rey could be seen as an example of someone who in Ignatius’ view is moving ‘from good to better’ in the spiritual life. She is not faultless, but is choosing to follow the light and trying to do good. Such a person, says Ignatius, experiences the action of the Holy Spirit as somehow deeply consonant with their core being. They are ‘consoled’ and encouraged by whatever thoughts and feelings build up the Christ-life in them, strengthened in hope, faith and love and left ‘quiet and at peace.’
Rey’s opposite number, Kylo Ren, on the other hand could be taken to illustrate a person who in Ignatius’ eyes is going ‘from bad to worse’ in the spiritual life or at any rate heading rather firmly in the wrong direction. Dominated by feelings of anger, fear and aggression – all signs of desolation if you speak Ignatian - he resists his fundamental orientation as a human being, and so experiences the presence and action of the ‘light’ in him as inner torment, a disquieting conflict he longs to be free from. Ignatius talked of the ‘sting of conscience’, where the Holy Spirit is perceived as dissonance in a person who is, for whatever reason, out of tune with God and their truest self.
Much of the plot of Star Wars, it seems, turns on the question of discernment – that graced ability to sift through the various forces at work in my life and to gradually notice which lead me to life in all its fullness and which take me away. ‘Which force be with you?’ Master Yoda might ask. Destiny and decision-making are central themes, and the image of a Jedi warrior-mystic is not a million light years away from Ignatius’ own vision of the Christian disciple as a contemplative-in-action: someone in touch with their feelings and true identity, who listens to the forces within and without them and who chooses to collaborate with the light: the redemptive work of Christ in the world.
Encouragingly, the cosmic drama of Star Wars also holds out the hope of redemption even for those caught, like Kylo and Darth Vader, in the downward spiral of the ‘dark side’. All that is needed is a spark. Against all the odds, hope is rekindled and sacrificial love consistently outweighs might. Just as one might expect from a good Western. While it remains to be seen how the new trilogy will resolve itself, it is likely that Ignatius – were he to head to a cinema sometime in May 2019 – would not be disappointed.