Contemplatives in Action: The Jesuit Way by William Barry and Robert Doherty

Contemplatives in Action: The Jesuit Way by William Barry book cover imageSummary: A brief exploration of Jesuit spirituality 

No regular readers of my reviews will likely miss the fact that I have spent the past couple of years studying to become a spiritual director in the Ignatian tradition. I intentionally choose a Catholic program because I have come to understand that I tend to learn in a dialectical approach. I want to have traditions in dialogue. My undergrad was an evangelical college, my seminary was predominately a mainline protestant school and my spiritual direction program was at a Jesuit college. Part of what is helpful about this approach is that I bring resources from outside of the tradition for conversation with the tradition. What can be difficult is getting enough of an understanding of the new to understand it on its own terms and not as a caricature from previous experience.

This dialectical approach fits well with the focus on Contemplatives In Action. Barry and Doherty focus on the tensions that they suggest form Jesuit spirituality, the both/and that inherently leads to tensions that some always will want to calm. The title takes on the first tension, the tradition of Catholic orders to be either contemplative or action-oriented. Ignatius and later Jesuits strongly resisted the call to pray through the hours as almost all other orders did. Ignatius thought that long hours of prayer, while helpful, would keep the Jesuits from their work with the people, the primary focus. But the tension with that action orientation is that Jesuits are most known for giving the Spiritual Exercises (a highly contemplative approach to spiritual direction) and Christian education.

Other tensions include attention to personal experience and emotion with what Ignatius calls dispassion. In Ignatius’ use, this is not dispassion as in uncaring or negligence, but dispassion as in getting to the point where you are willing to accept any of multiple options that God may be calling you toward. Jesuits have a reputation for being overly analytic and dispassionate in the first, negative sense, but that is contrary to Ignatius’ intent. “Jesuit spirituality is distinguished from other spiritualities by this personal attention to feelings, desires, dreams, hopes, and thoughts.” It is only through that attention that the “defining characteristic of Jesuit spirituality,” Ignatius’ Discernment of the Spirits, can really be practiced.

Although Contemplatives in Action is very brief, it gives a lot of background on the controversial aspects of Jesuit history. I wish I had read it toward the beginning of my program instead of nearly at the end. It provided a helpful counterpoint to an article I had assigned for class. Parmananda Divakar argues that Ignatius’ primary focus was loyalty to Christ (as an individual) while later Jesuits oriented toward obedience of the group. Barry and Doherty agree that the tension between obedience and sole loyalty to Christ is a hallmark of Jesuit history, but point out that Ignatius was largely responsible, not later Jesuits.

Rule 13 [of the Society of Jesus Constitution] states: “To maintain a right mind in all things we must always maintain that the white I see, I shall believe to be black, if the hierarchical Church so stipulates”

 Doherty and Barry continually grapple with how Ignatius could on the one hand teach discernment of the spirits, which relies significantly on individual awareness of feelings and emotion while requiring absolute obedience even to the extent of denying the experiential reality that was right before them. “What is surprising is that Ignatius should also place such emphasis on individual discernment, and on learning from experience, and then engage in actions that seem to run counter to his own thinking on obedience.”

I am not sure I think they really solved the problems, but at least they identified it, and several other tensions that have present implications for the current and future Jesuit order. There is no question about me becoming Jesuit, I am firmly protestant and married. However, I do appreciate the significant orientation toward internal critique, for the purpose of calling themselves toward more faithful service that is evidenced by the short book. I do not know if others will find the book as helpful as I did, but it was helpful for my context.

Contemplatives in Action: The Jesuit Way by William Barry and Robert Doherty Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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