Monty Williams, SJ is known for his innovative readings of Ignition spirituality arising from his interest in contemporary literary and cultural theory. The author of six books on spirituality, two of which are co-authored with John Pungente, SJ his most recent work is The Way of The Faithful: The Dynamics of Desire in The Spiritual Exercises (Novalis,2017).
JCP: Can you tell us something about your book, and why you wrote it in a field already crowded with works on the Exercises.
MW: As you know the Exercises arose from Ignatius’ own reflections on his spiritual experience, and given their continuing presence in 500 years of history and many different cultures what was it that made them so powerfully engaging.
I wondered if, though expressed in their own cultural matrix, there was not a particularly human dynamics of spiritual desire in these Exercises that appealed beyond their immediate context of the 16th century.
So I was not interested in adapting the Exercises to meet some local concern, or interpreting the Exercises for a particular ideological contemporary, and probably necessary, exigency. I was interested in the spiritual plot of the Exercises within the context of human spiritual desire. That is, how does one move along in one’s spiritual growth.
JCP: Traditionally one talked about the purgative, illuminative, and then unitive way as the path of spiritual transformation, how does your description differ from that?
MW: Ignatius in the Exercises only uses once — in note 10 —the terms purgative and illuminative way. He never uses the unitive way. As one becomes more and more aware of one’s rootedness in the Father one becomes more and more a companion of Jesus by sharing in his mission of bringing all of creation into right relationship with the Father.
Is this an Ignition description of the unitive way? What I am interested is how that right relationship created, maintained and developed.
JCP: And how is that done?
MW: I believe it is done through recognition. Because of our own personal disorder, and social and human disorder, we misrecognize ourselves, and others, and even the Mystery we call God.
The first stage on the path of transformation is recognizing ourselves as we have been recognized by God. As people created in,by, and for love but trapped by mis-recognition. Some people call this stage discovering we are loved sinners, but I think the basis of our life is love, and though we are yes, caught in sin, we are more trapped lovers.
When we discover we are loved, even though we still find ourselves immeshed in sin, the second stage is learning how to love as we have been loved.
This carries us to the third stage where we have learnt to love to such an extent that we can lead loving lives even against the malign horrors of the world. This stage asks us: can we die for love? Or can we be present to and follow, Jesus who died for love?
Here we see our lives against the template of the Passion and death of Jesus Christ. We recognize ourselves by our radical abandonment to the Divine providence. Here we hand ourselves over to the Mystery we call Father.
In this handing ourselves over we wait for the fourth level to manifest itself when we discover the power of the resurrection in our lives, inviting us to witness to that life with our own lives. We recognize ourselves as being called to enter into the dark places of creation and to allow the compassionate mercy of the Father to pass through us to touch and transform what has been damaged in creation.
JCP: This is all very interesting and moving but how does it tie into your book?
MW: The Way of the Faithful traces that journey. The first stage moves us from the Security of our fragile constructed lives into a profound sense of being rooted in the Father.
The second stage carries us past the ideologies with which we have constructed our lives into a relationship with Mystery which incorporates but refines and moves beyond the stories we live out of.
The third stage asks us to live out of that relationship in vulnerability and emptiness rather than holding onto power to maintain the radical ego structures which establish our existence.
Out of that emptiness emerges the fourth stage in which the power of God moves through our emptiness to build community, which is the highest form of creativity.
JCP: I can see the uses of this approach. It may allow us to discern and address the spiritual needs of a person or of a culture by appealing to what seems to be the basic drive of the human towards the Mystery we call God.
MW: Maybe so, I would like to be sensitive to post-secular differences in cultures without falling into the trap of rigid divisions between between the worldly and the sacred. My own perspective as a Jesuit priest is that we are created as the desire for God, and that God desires us.
Those two desires meet in the person of Christ and His Incarnation, Death and Resurrection gave us a share in his resurrected humanity so that each of us, in him, can reach the fullness of life. All I have tried to do is show how that is played out using the plot of St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises , anyhow that plot is driven forward or halted by the tensions within each stage of becoming more and more faithful to God.
JCP: One final question: To whom do you hope the book will appeal?
MW: The early Jesuits considered as the “universality” of the Exercises the fact that they could be understood by anyone, and that the belief in one God, without any other theological and religious understanding or belied, was the only condition for fruitfully following the Exercises.
So I would say I hope the book would be of interest to those, of whatever culture, who see their lives a spiritual journey and that it would at least open the horizons of intercultural spiritual dialogue.