Why a Scientist Finds Ignatian Spirituality Compelling

science globeAbout six months after I finished making the Spiritual Exercises, I was chatting with a couple of colleagues at the college where I teach. One asked me how my time away had been. When the other wondered what I’d been up to, I said I had taken four weeks to do some contemplative exercises at a retreat house in Massachusetts.

“Oh, did you make the Spiritual Exercises?”

“Ah…yes,” I stuttered in surprise. She had assigned the Exercises as a reading for a Spanish art course. What was it like, she wondered, to experience the Exercises, not just read them? And what drove me to do them in the first place?

It was a good question. What do I—a middle-aged mother of teenagers and scientist—find so compelling about a spirituality birthed in a 16th-century Europe awash in mystics, pilgrims, and explorers? All that. Its mystical nature, its sense of being on pilgrimage, its way of seeing how God permeates the ordinary.

I am challenged by an approach to life that is “all in”—offering a springboard from which to take the mystic’s leap into the unknown and the unknowable, pouring everything I have into God’s enormity. “I surrender it all to you,” declares the Suscipe, the prayer that Ignatius suggests a retreatant might be drawn to offer in the final movement of the Exercises.

Ignatian spirituality pushes me to recognize that I’m a pilgrim in this world, clutching a rough map, but not always so sensible of conditions, to borrow a phrase from Annie Dillard. The daily habit of the Examen helps me be aware of the road conditions. It keeps me on the path God has limned out for me and keeps me moving forward with intention.

Perhaps because of my scientific bent, I appreciate Ignatian spirituality’s attention to the details not only in prayer, but in all of life, including my laboratory. In his 1952 Nobel Prize address, physicist Edward Purcell observed:

I have not yet lost a feeling of wonder, and of delight, that this delicate motion should reside in all the ordinary things around us, revealing itself only to him who looks for it. I remember, in the winter of our first experiments, just seven years ago, looking on snow with new eyes. There the snow lay around my doorstep—great heaps of protons quietly precessing in the earth’s magnetic field.

Like Purcell, I delight in eyes to see what resides in the ordinary things, the wonders that lie just beneath their surface. Ignatian spirituality stirs up in me the desire to seek God in all things, to be on the lookout for what God wishes to reveal to me in the everyday pieces of my life—in the laboratory as in my kitchen, in conversation with my teenagers as in prayer. God in all things? I’m all in.

About Michelle Francl-Donnay 29 Articles
Michelle Francl-Donnay is the mother of two 20-something sons, a professor of chemistry, an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory, and a regular contributor to Philadelphia Archdiocese’s CatholicPhilly.com, where she writes about the joys and struggles of trying to live a contemplative life in the midst of everyday chaos. Michelle blogs at Quantum Theology.

21 Comments on Why a Scientist Finds Ignatian Spirituality Compelling

  1. Thank you Michelle. There is much on which to ponder. The 19th Annotation has opened me up to “God’s enormity” and Ignatian Spirituality keeps me focussed constantly on God and helps me to be more intentional in everything that I do. As I say frequently, I am grateful for Saint Ignatius and for all those who continue his legacy of Ignatian Spirituality.

    • Lynda, I’m grateful, too, for the multiplicity of access points that Ignatius offers, the adaptability that people make the Exercises in so many different circumstances!

  2. “‘ …great heaps of protons quietly precessing in the earth’s magnetic field,'” (Edward Purcell as quoted in your essay): Ah to think of snow as something besides a four letter word. Thank you, Michelle. I’ll try to remember that next February by which time we’ve invented a few more lettered words for it.

  3. I love this post! I just got back from a retreat at a Benedictine monastery. I said to my husband on the way home, that the monks seemed to put all the things in their lives into God, and Ignatian Spirituality seems to take things as they are and find God in them.

    I don’t know if that distinction makes sense to anyone else, but it had a profound effect on me. I prefer the latter method.

    Thank you for your thought provoking post.

    • Good thinking Linda — you think like a writer/detective. Love it. I guess if you put it that way I don’t do either of those but consider that everything and everybody is already IN the God bubble so we don’t have to put God anywhere or bring it to him either. In other words the sauce is different but the pasta is the same.

    • I tend to think of the monastery as the hot house, where experts tend the plants in an atmosphere where you can feel God hovering, and contemplatives in action to be the sturdy native plants, drinking in God from even the most unlikely of streams. Each feeds the other – I learned much about how to recognize God at work in those hot houses, as well as in the Exercises!

  4. Oh what a rich post – thank you Michelle. I have taken to daily, intentional recitation of the Suscipe in the morning. I’m using a bookmark that has this prayer on the back, someone special sent it to me.

    Lately I have been pondering a lifetime of what I am now calling”NJEs” – or near Jesuit experiences. More about that later, but it is a little like cataloging things for an experiment… not that I am much of a scientist myself!

    The words of Edward Purcell touch me in a special way today, and for that, and for so much more, I am grateful.

    • Bookmarks are handy in so many ways!

      I read Purcell’s address many years ago, and now often share his words with my students — who can have a tough time seeing the beauty in the science they are up to their elbows in wrangling.

  5. Like you, Michelle, I also very much like the Spiritual Exercises and find them relevant and adding much beauty to daily life.

    Pilgrims, definitely, like Ignatius was… Ignatius, such an incredible man, who gathered around him a remarkable group of friends.

    There is always more to learn and discover about Ignatian Spirituality… It fits scientists like you and regular folks like me 🙂

  6. A great post, Michelle. It reminded me of this quote from the Jesuit saint Robert Bellarmine:

    What various powers lie hidden in plants! What strange powers are found in stones, especially magnetic stones and amber. What strength do we see in animals, such as lions, bears, bulls and elephants. How clever, although tiny, are ants, spiders, bees and flies. How great is human genius, which has invented skills such that we wonder whether nature surpasses art or art surpasses nature! Now lift up your eyes to God, my soul, and reflect on how great is the strength, efficacy, and power of the Lord your God.

  7. Such a beautiful, thought provoking message you’ve shared with us, as is obvious by the comments! Sometimes we need a reminder.

  8. Can you mention where the retreat house is in Massachusetts? I live here, and have only done a very small portion of the exercises. I would like to do more of them in a complete series. Thank you.

    • Ryan, I made the Exercises at Eastern Point, in Gloucester, MA. There is also the Campion Center in Boston. Both of these would be good starting places to ask about making the Exercises. I do know that Eastern Point is closing for some months for renovations.

  9. Within the ordinary, there lies the extraordinary. Thank you for reminding me to look more closely, to pay attention. Oh and how I love the Jesuits and St. Ignatius. His message always rings so clear.
    A pilgrim, that’s what I am!
    Amen to that,
    Phoebe

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