By Sr. Laurence Loubières, xmcj, Director of the Service for Discernment in Common
In his autobiography, A Pilgrim’s Journey, Saint Ignatius of Loyola recounts the circumstances of his conversion in 1521, when he spent weeks in bed at his family’s castle recovering from a military injury. He tells how, after reading religious books and spending time in prayer and reflection, his heart was touched by the love of God, and he began to share this joy with those in his home, who were surprised to see “a change in his soul.” When he saw that this was also “doing their souls a great deal of good,” he understood that entering into conversation was a good way to invite others to discover God in their lives and to open themselves up to the desire to love and serve him.
As the rest of the story shows, this burning desire to “help souls” come closer to God through conversation continued to deepen. Throughout his life, Ignatius continued to engage in conversation to help others draw closer to God: over shared meals, through numerous exchanges of letters, or in what is now called spiritual accompaniment, that is, regular meetings in which one person confides in another about the stages of his/her spiritual journey. It was thanks to long conversations with Ignatius that Francis Xavier and Peter Faber, his fellow students in Paris, chose to share his commitment to serve Christ.
Elected the first superior of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius made conversation a privileged apostolic tool for the Jesuits, who had to work tirelessly to help souls turn to God through preaching, catechism, confessions, the Spiritual Exercises, and spiritual accompaniment. Ignatius insisted that conversation was also at the heart of the life of the Society. He also insisted that the Jesuits, scattered in distant missions, keep up a lively correspondence with each other, even if the letters sometimes took several years to arrive! It was important that they all know what each one was experiencing in their missions, as this would strengthen their own zeal—and help even more people.
The Spiritual Exercises can be understood as a series of structured conversations between the retreatant and the Lord in prayer and between the retreatant and the person who guides him/her, step-by-step, in the accompaniment meetings. By sharing what has touched their hearts in prayer and in their experiences, retreatants gradually become more open to God’s call and to the ways of reorienting their lives in response.
Over the years, the term “spiritual conversation” has come to describe this way of conversing that directs people toward God.
A specific form of spiritual conversation is proving very useful in helping groups to collaborate more fully with the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. Through successive rounds of sharing, which require attentive listening and speaking that take into account the emotional impact of what is being shared, it allows group members to become aware of how the Holy Spirit is inviting them to move forward together. In the course of the conversations, a path that leads toward growth and life takes shape.
The term spiritual conversation should not be understood in a restrictive way; however, a conversation can be spiritual even if its content does not refer directly to God. Who has not experienced deep conversations with friends that energize us and lead us to gratitude? These kinds of conversations can be moments when God communicates with us through the way our hearts are touched. The traces of joy, hope, and love that these moments offer us indicate, if we pay attention, that God is revealing himself in some way. It is the effect that the conversation has on us, rather than its object, that allows us to describe it as “spiritual.”
This is what the disciples on the road to Emmaus understood when they recognized Christ and remembered that their hearts had been “burning within them”3 during their conversation with him on the road! Following in the footsteps of the first disciples, following Ignatius, let us become attentive to what touches our hearts and directs us to God in our conversations. And like them, let us burn with the desire to help those around us to open themselves to the love with which God wants to fill us. So, who would you like to have a conversation with today?