Do you admire a religious order — the Benedictines, for example, or the Sisters of Mercy — and know that even though you’ve been called to another vocation outside vowed religious life, you desire to participate in the prayer and service of that community? Do you wish you could, to the extent life allows, embrace their charism, their worldview, grow closer to their essential character?
In many orders, you can be involved. If you are drawn to a particular religious community, you should look into whether they have a “third order” or associates program that encourages and accommodates lay members. You’d be surprised how many will welcome you.
Just as the Jesuits are a religious order that has never had a female counterpart (think male and female Dominicans and Benedictines), they’ve also never had a “third order.” Nonetheless, “The Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius of Loyola, formulated by their founder, have become wildly popular among laypeople in the past 50 years. Many seek to live “the Ignatian life.”
This summer, I made my first promises with Ignatian Associates, a group not formally associated with the Jesuits, but framed around the Spiritual Exercises and dedicated to an Ignatian life of prayer, discernment and service. This group exists in the tri-city area of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Milwaukee and Omaha — what is presently the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus.
The promises are simplicity of life, apostolic availability and fidelity to the Gospels. What do those mean? For each individual, the promises have unique meaning. How can my life be simplified to make more room for God? How available am I to help in Jesuit and other service areas based on my station and time in life?
Our promises followed a two-year period of formation and discernment, including practicing the Spiritual Exercises, guided by a spiritual director. I met for faith sharing with a small group three times a month. Although I have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Jesuit universities, I knew I had a lot to learn and found myself devouring some great books for guidance.
My spiritual director gave me Jesuit Father Kevin O’Brien’s book “The Ignatian Adventure.” I felt particularly at home with this since he had witnessed my daughter’s marriage in Philadelphia. Although he currently serves at Georgetown University, he was a campus minister at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia when my son-in-law attended.
I found myself drawn to other people’s experience with the exercises, especially other laypersons. Tim Muldoon, a theologian and former rowing coach, advances the idea in “The Ignatian Workout: Daily Exercises for a Healthy Faith” that a commitment to Ignatian spirituality demands much of the same hard work, dedication and sacrifice as a commitment to excellence in athletics.
The poet Paul Mariani’s “Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius” was a touching day-by-day reflection on a 30-day silent experience of the exercises, in which he discovered God at work in his marriage, family life and academic career.
And of course, even when they don’t touch directly on the exercises, there’s a wealth of great Jesuit writers out there. You can’t go wrong with any of Jesuit Father James Martin’s great books, and Jesuit Gregory Boyle, who wrote one of the most heartaching yet humorous books I’ve ever read when he shared his life working with street gangs in Los Angeles in “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.”
There are many who decry our lack of vocations in today’s church. But I look around at the many laypeople who today clamor for a deeper life of prayer and service, and I thank God for his abundant harvest.