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By Eric Clayton 

Throughout history, Ignatian spirituality has undergone significant changes and adaptations, driven by the evolving needs and circumstances of the world. In Canada, two Jesuits, John English, SJ, and Gilles Cusson, SJ, played a critical role in this process. They widened its reach and accessibility and introduced novel perspectives and practices. Today, their legacies continue to influence our engagement with Ignatian spirituality, empowering us to respond to contemporary challenges related to social justice, femininity, ecology, and more. 

The ongoing evolution and development of Ignatian spirituality 

Ignatian spirituality as we know it today was not handed down fully formed by its namesake. While St. Ignatius of Loyola did write what is arguably the most essential text in Ignatian spirituality during his lifetime — his Spiritual Exercises — unpacking, implementing and continually reflecting upon that foundational text is an evolving task that necessarily responds to the signs of the times. 

How is it that key elements of Ignatian spirituality were nearly unheard of less than a hundred years ago — elements that so many of us today have come to understand as essential to the practice of our faith?  

“What is now called Ignatian spirituality is fundamentally faithful to the original inspiration of the Society and, paradoxically, is at the same time new,” write Jesuit historians Timothy W. O’Brien, SJ, and the late John W. O’Malley, SJ. 

For O’Brien and O’Malley, there is a direct link between how the earliest companions of Ignatius understood their spirituality and the Jesuits of the modern era. “Were this not the case,” they argue, “the phenomenon now called Ignatian spirituality could have neither emerged nor been validated.”  

In 1894, the first collection of primary Jesuit texts was published in Madrid: The Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu. This was a watershed moment within the Society, an invitation to return anew to the way of proceeding marked by the earliest Jesuits. “By the 1930s, the growing corpus of sources available about Ignatius and the earliest Society … began to yield more comprehensive biographical studies of the founder.” And thus, new insights into the spiritual practices that bear his name. 

John English and Gilles Cusson were born into this moment, in 1924 and 1927, respectively. This period saw “the emergence of the academic discipline of spirituality — a development that began to take notable shape in the 1920s,” write O’Malley and O’Brien.  

Despite the changes afoot in the field of spirituality, both English and Cusson received the traditional Jesuit formation of the day, and their experience of the Spiritual Exercises likely looked very different from how we experience them now. 

“The full Exercises were only being given to vowed religious,” says Gilles Mongeau, SJ, socius for the Jesuit’s Canada Province. “The retreat master would give a conference in the morning and then you were on your own with the points that he had given you. He might visit you during the day, but no more than 10 minutes.”  

“John [English] was convinced that the Church needed to recapture the art and skill of spiritual direction and that this should not be the preserve of a clerical class.” 

These preached retreats, as they were called, had been the predominant way in which Jesuits gave the Exercises for nearly the entirety of the Society’s existence. Nevertheless, both English and Cusson were drawn to engage with the Exercises in a new way. 

Insights from two Canadians 

John English, S.J. [198-?]
Photographer unknown, provided by The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada
For English, his tertianship — the final stage in Jesuit formation — proved pivotal. He went to Saint Beuno’s in Wales where he encountered a different way of receiving the Exercises: the personally directed retreat.  

“It was a revelation,” reflects Mongeau. “He brings that back to Canada and starts mulling over: How do we do this? How do we share this experience of the Exercises not just with religious but with everybody?” 

“John was convinced that the Church needed to recapture the art and skill of spiritual direction and that this should not be the preserve of a clerical class,” writes J. Veltri, SJ. “He was also convinced that the Spiritual Exercises could be used to help faith-filled people with appropriate natural gifts … to become spiritual directors.”

For his part, Cusson was heavily influenced by the work of the French Jesuit Maurice Giuliani. Giuliani “showed how the gift of Ignatius to the Church was more than a school of prayer. It was, rather, an apostolic ‘way of proceeding’ in which service and ‘the help of souls’ was central,” according to O’Malley and O’Brien. 

Cusson, who studied in Rome from 1963 to 1965, was interested in the spiritual and mystical tradition of the Church. He wrote his doctoral thesis on the pedagogy of the Spiritual Exercises and later taught spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University.  

“Gilles tried very early to formulate his comprehension of Ignatius’ ‘spirit,’” reflects Bernard Carrière, SJ. “In his doctoral thesis, he expressed especially how to translate for our time the 19th Annotation” — the retreat in daily life.   

Father John English, SJ with Paul Sullivan, then CBC producer. Photo: ignation.ca

By 1965, both English and Cusson were well-established Jesuit priests, the Second Vatican Council had concluded, and the encyclical “Perfectae Caritatis” had been published, instructing religious orders to return to their roots. Importantly, as O’Malley and O’Brien note, “This gave the Society’s [31st general] congregation the impetus to make operative on a corporate level the fruit of the return to the sources that had been underway for the previous six decades.”  

“In his doctoral thesis, [Gilles Cusson] expressed especially how to translate for our time the 19th Annotation” — the retreat in daily life.   

In short, this was the moment to concretize the spiritual insights both English and Cusson had been praying and practicing.  

The legacy of Gilles Cusson and John English 

In 1969, English started a program called the Institute on Practical Asceticism at the Guelph Centre of Spirituality. “This was the very first experience of the 30-day Spiritual Exercises given by a team in a retreat house setting using the silent, personally directed retreat method with a large group of persons,” writes Veltri. They began with 39 women who were in formation with various religious congregations — and it grew from there. 

Gilles Cusson, S.J. [196-?] Photographer unknown, provided by The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada
For English, seeing one’s life within the scope of salvation history was essential. “Life is an experience of graced history,” English writes. “It is from the perspective of being the beloved of God that we can approach all of our life as graced history.” 

In 1976, Cusson founded the Manresa Spirituality Centre (Centre de spiritualité Manrèse). From the start, the Centre pursued new insights into the Exercises with intellectual rigor, committed always to bringing the Ignatian tradition into dialogue with contemporary culture.  

The 19th Annotation — the “Exercises in Daily Life” or EVC in French — plays a central role in the Centre’s work, allowing for, as the Jesuit Curia notes, “a certain democratization of the Spiritual Exercises, making the Ignatian journey and the ministry of spiritual accompaniment more accessible to all of God’s people and especially to lay people.” Cusson’s work has mainstreamed — and made available — the Exercises in ways that were unimaginable a century ago. 

As for English, his early interest in ecology, his commitment to engaging women in the Exercises, and his understanding of communal spirituality continue to have an impact in Canada and around the world. “This critical reflection under John’s influence helped us to develop the personally directed retreat modality in a multiplicity of ways … that coalesce into what John has called ‘Communal Spirituality,’” Veltri reflects. “For John, this term came to include societal perspectives with social justice, feminine and ecological aspects. 

Cusson’s work has mainstreamed — and made available — the Exercises in ways that were unimaginable a century ago. 

“Since sinful social structures are complex communal realities, only communally generated decisions can be the carriers of grace for change of these structures,” Veltri continues.  

Fortunately, thanks to the legacies of Gilles Cusson, SJ, and John English, SJ — the increased availability of the Exercises and a deepening understanding of their radical potential for change in our lives and the world — Ignatian spirituality can equip us to address these necessary challenges.  

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