The Letters of St Ignatius

The Letters of St Ignatius
Counsels of the Holy Spirit: A Reading of Saint Ignatius’s Letters

by Patrick C Goujon SJ, translated by Joseph Munitiz SJ (Messenger Publications, €14.95 / £12.95)

Counsels of the Holy Spirit promises in the blurb that “the lay reader will find [it] an accessible and practical guide to the core concepts of Ignatian spirituality”. Being myself a lay reader, and one with only a vague knowledge of the Ignatian way, I am well qualified to say that it achieves its aim. It is an excellent introduction to the teachings and spirituality of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

Its strength is down in part to the clever ‘hook’ of using Ignatius’ letters as an entry point, and then the very readable prose of its author, Fr Patrick C Goujon SJ. Fr Goujon is a professor of Spirituality and Theology at the Centre Sèvres – Jesuit Faculties in Paris. He is also an adviser to the journal Études, and as of 2020-2021, he is a Visiting Fellow at Campion Hall, Oxford. Thankfully, however, he wears his learning lightly, conveying in well organised summaries the broad scope of Ignatian spirituality.

The book is just 130 pages long, with eight chapters all broken down further by sub-headings. The bulk of the book is devoted to analysing closely several letters St Ignatius sent to friends and those seeking his counsel. This, as I say, is the hook or unique angle the book takes, and it is one that works well.

It enables Fr Goujon to explain with concrete examples the rules for spiritual counselling laid out by St Ignatius in his famous Constitutions. One of the aims of the book is to answer the simple question, why have rules? This is the title of the second chapter, and here Fr Goujon devotes the most time to answering that question.

However, it’s one that recurs frequently in the next 90 or so pages. The Ignatian way is full of rules, Fr Goujon explains, which are intended to cover as many different situations as possible. How does this square with the freedom we are given by God to discern for ourselves what He is calling us to – a freedom which St Ignatius encouraged?

Fr Goujon’s conclusion is, roughly, that the point of the rules is to free us from our limitations, so that we may conform freely to the will of God. The subtlety of Jesuit methodology – so often called sophistry by its detractors – encourages free assent to the rules, and also the prudence to know when they apply and when they don’t.

The rules guard us from scrupulosity on the one hand or carelessness on the other, providing rational criteria against which to measure our interior states. But as the guidance given by St Ignatius in his letters shows, these rules only make sense in the context of a God who believes that we can freely choose to act well.

The role of the spiritual counsellor is to engage his excertant or retreatant as part of a tri-fold relationship – God, the counsellor and the excertant. The primary actors here are God and the excertant. A good counsellor will know when to act and when not, all in the name of furthering the excertant’s understanding of God’s will for them.