The Ignatian Year II: Personal Encounter With Christ

Central to Ignatian spirituality is the understanding that we need to encounter Christ in a direct way.  St. Ignatius encouraged believers to foster a deep personal relationship with the person of Jesus Christ in how they prayed with scripture and how they lived their lives.

This is something of central importance: It is not enough to learn about Jesus Christ. To read about him.  To think about him.  (To listen to homily or another talk about him.)  Instead, we need to encounter Christ.  To be with Him.  We need to see Jesus not as a “topic” within Christianity, relegating him to someone or something we express beliefs about, but as a person with whom we are in a relationship. 

Ignatius believed that without a personal encounter we will never deepen our own conversion.  And, if we pass up opportunities to help others experience that personal encounter, we miss an opportunity to facilitate their conversion. 

The corollary to the importance of personal encounter is an emphasis on religious experience over doctrine.  To be crystal clear, I am not saying doctrine is unimportant – experience and doctrine inform each other.  But, Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises direct out attention not to doctrine but to Christian religious experience.  In the language of Fr. William Reiser,

[religious] experience holds a certain priority over conceptualization, that is, over doctrinal formulations, for several reasons.  First, the process of understanding often starts at a pre-conceptual level.  Secondly, human language has its limitations – limits that become particularly evident when talking about God.  That means that interpretations of texts, as an ongoing challenge and responsibility for the church, constantly brings us back to the experience that gave rise to them in the first place.  And thirdly, the religious truths that we profess need to be confirmed in terms of what happens in our daily lives; in other words, through practice and ‘experience.’  Otherwise beliefs remain at the level of abstraction and the assent we give to them remains merely cerebral or notional.

Reiser’s articulation resonates with my own experience.  A Catholic Christian today, I was born and raised Catholic, but abandoned that faith before graduating high school.  I subsequently practiced Buddhism for twenty years (including spending some time as an ordained Tibetan Buddhist nun) before returning to Christianity.  What I realized during the early part of making the Spiritual Exercises – realized in a time-stopping moment of awareness – was that my rejection of both the Catholicism of my youth and Buddhism (specifically in its Tibetan strain) was the same – a rejection of what appeared to be externally imposed rules from the outside that did not resonate with my internal experience of God. 

This emphasis on religious experience helps to explain why taking time for retreat is so important, and why many of us steeped in Ignatian Spiruality go on retreat every year.  For some of that means an 8-day directed retreat each summer, for others it may mean attending a weekend preached Ignatian retreat.  We do that because, although we can encounter God anywhere, retreat affords uninterrupted time for us to just be with God, to experience God, to deepen the personal encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.

Maybe it is time to consider when your next (or first) retreat will be.

Note that this is a the second in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20.