Karate and Ignatian Spirituality

I recently took my girls to the drive-in to see the remake of a film I enjoyed when I was younger–The Karate Kid.  Now, several days removed from seeing it, I find myself struck by how much it resonates with a key Ignatian theme.

First, a note for parents: there are some hard scenes for younger children, notably bullying and fighting.  I brought my seven year-old, but I don’t think I’d bring younger children.

The story is about a child whose widowed mother is moved by her company to Beijing.  The young man, Dre, finds himself completely out of his element and the target of racist-inspired bullying.  Through a series of developments he seeks out Mr. Han to teach him karate.  He slowly learns, and must ultimately face the bullies at a karate tournament.

Now, the Ignatian part.  Dre’s experience of disequilibrium is rooted in the difference between how he imagines himself (a kid from Detroit) and the reality of his new life in Beijing.  I think of Ignatian spirituality as an invitation to a new way of imagining oneself, specifically as a child of God called and gifted to draw deeply from God’s gifts to create beauty in the world.  What holds Dre back early in the film–and what holds us back–is a weak imagination of ourselves.  We’re only this or only that.  The first week of the Spiritual Exercises is about dropping our limited self-imagination and coming to see ourselves as God sees us, beautiful creations of a loving creator even though limited by our sin.  For Ignatius himself, the experience of convalescence gave him time to slowly let go of his limited self-imagination in order to develop new ways of imagining himself: as another Saint Francis or Saint Dominic.  The desires that this new imagination incited in him led him to the new chapter in his life, even with mistakes along the way.

For Dre, the opening of imagination to see himself as capable of learning karate was difficult, and yet in time it gave him the motivation to seek out a teacher.  This too is very Ignatian: the spiritual director is the person who helps steer our self-imagination toward the greater good that God wants to unfold through us.  Initially, Dre has to undertake a series of incredibly tedious and boring exercises.  He sees no connection between these exercises and the imagination he has set for himself.  Ignatius, too, described his early days learning Latin with schoolboys as a kind of tedium, even though in his later years he knew that these exercises were important.  The moment of insight for Dre comes when Mr. Han shows him how those boring exercises have already prepared his body for the discipline of karate.  In that moment, Dre’s self-consciousness is transformed.  He is no longer a kid just doing what his teacher tells him; he is a student of karate whose potential is without limit.  And the rest of his training becomes focused, disciplined, and oriented toward the great good that he now imagines: beating the bullies.

We could talk long about what kinds of goals shape our imaginations, how our teachers challenge us or pose obstacles; the relationship between spiritual exercises and simply resting in God’s love; and so on.  What I am simply observing about this movie (however formulaic it may be) is that it is based on some basic observations about human nature that strike me as very consonant with the dynamics of Ignatian spirituality.  In particular, I am struck by the way it suggests something about how we imagine ourselves, and how the way we imagine ourselves shapes what we do with our lives.  That dynamic was at the heart of Ignatius’ own experience of conversion.  In my experience, that same dynamic is at the heart of many stories of conversion.  The whisper of God may be the often hidden idea that God is calling me to be something else, something greater, something more beautiful.

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Tim Muldoon
Tim Muldoon is the author of a number of books, including The Ignatian Workout and Living Against the Grain, and teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Boston College.


  1. Dre’s self-consciousness is transformed.  …he is a student of karate whose potential is without limit.  And the rest of his training becomes focused, disciplined, and oriented…
    Early practicing Aikido (noncombative martial art based on movements of samurai sword), I was the “senior” student. My sensei had not arrived so I had to begin the exercises before class. That was my transformative moment: it focused me as a practioner of aikido, & to my surprise it helped me refocus other dimensions of my life. Grace registers often as surprise.

  2. Tim,
    What a lovely reflection and a great reminder to remind ourselves to see ourselves as children of God. I am enjoying learning more and more about Ignatian Spirituality. I think it helps me to keep my life in balance and to be more conscious of God’s presence in all things. I loved your reflection on the movie.


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