Four Ways of Helping People

Howard Gray, SJ, is a spiritual director, educator, writer, and popular speaker. Here he describes how Ignatius came upon the central insight of his spiritual way:

proud graduateWhen Ignatius began to look at where God was truly nudging him, God was nudging him not toward withdrawal but toward engagement. Not toward suspicion but to trust. Not toward an unloving removal from human life but a love of human life.

Gradually what came into Ignatius’ mind was that everything God does comes as a helping presence. Everything that is not from God comes as a destructive presence. So when I move away from love or life, God’s not there. But when I move toward love or life, God is there. Ignatius called this movement discernment of spirits. Discernment was a way of sifting through the movements in his heart.

Gradually what he felt drawn to was this wonderful expression, “to help people.” He didn’t know what it meant in the beginning. He was awkward about what it meant—how he understood it. It took him a number of years of study and trial and error to finally say what most helps people. . .

Ignatius said, first of all, people have to know that God is love and I want to preach that.

Secondly, people have to learn how love can enter into their lives as a basic way of being human.

Thirdly, most people that come to talk with me have a part of their life in which something is screwed up. They need to be reconciled. They’re mad at some relative. They’re unhappy about where their life has gone. Or they just feel that somehow or another they’re not as good as they could be. And so they need some kind of reconciliation, some way of being at home with who they are in the world in which they live.

Finally, Ignatius realized that people need education. He didn’t think of schools at the beginning. The schools came gradually. But he did think of how important it was to educate both the mind and the heart. And we call that whole connection of educating mind and heart, the ministry of the word: the way in which the word of God can come to life in people through preaching, teaching, through personal counseling and conversation.

When people ask, “What is this ‘Ignatian thing’ that Jesuits invite us to understand?”, tell them it is just one more human experience of life’s non-negotiables but channeled in ways that help other people.


From the speech “Ignatian Spirituality: What Are We talking about and Why?” by Howard Gray, SJ. Howard Gray, SJ, is currently the Assistant to the President at Georgetown University. Excerpts used with permission. For more from Fr. Gray, see a collection of his lectures.