Douglas Letson and Michael Higgins, The Jesuit Mystique. Toronto: Macmillan, 1995. 276 pp. $29.95.Review by Andrew Kennedy
Few organizations have been more consistently controversial than the Society of Jesus. Almost since its inception, critics have zealously denounced the society's methods and intentions while supporters have glowingly praised it as the embodiment of Christian ideals in action. As illustrated in Douglas Letson and Michael Higgins's book The Jesuit Mystique, regardless of one's feelings about the society, the sheer testament of the society's successes (and failures) over the last 450 years is impressive.
The book begins with a brief account of Ignatius of Loyola's early life as the warrior son of a wealthy Spanish family. Gauging from his early years, young Ignatius appeared destined to become a dandy of the Spanish court rather than a saint. However, a French cannonball changed the course of history when it shattered his right leg during a siege of Pamplona in 1521. A painful and lengthy convalescence was tempered by books about the saints and apparitions of Jesus and Mary. Soon the brash soldier had shed his sword and shield for the more humble armor of God.
As Higgins and Letson point out, Ignatius's conversion and the founding of the society have given rise to controversy from the start. As John Donne wrote in 1611: "For having consecrated your first age to wars, and growne somewhat unable to follow that course, by reason of a wound; you did presently begin to thinke seriously of a spirituall warre, against the Church, and found meanes to open waies, even into King's chambers, for your executioners." On more than one occasion, the fledgeling band of God's warriors found themselves answering the Inquisition from prison. Nonetheless, on September 27, 1540, Pope Paul III formally approved the society and the rest is history.
The Jesuit Mystique is divided into six chapters exploring various components of the Jesuit charism. We see the Jesuit as liberator, educator, wordsmith and modern savant. An entire chapter is also devoted to the Spiritual Exercises, which lie at the heart of the society. The Exercises were formulated by Ignatius himself and are full of spiritual, mystical, psychological and pastoral insights derived from his own experiences.
The Exercises and a rigorous scholastic training were the tools that replaced Ignatius's sword and armor. Through the society's commitment to "contemplation in action" and a willingness to participate in all avenues of intellectual endeavor, Jesuits have gone on to excel in virtually all areas of human inquiry. The result is a remarkable cast of vibrant characters ranging from Ignatius himself and his dear friend Francis Xavier to Jean de Brébeuf, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan and Daniel Berrigan, to name but a few.
Although The Jesuit Mystique is a relatively short book, it tries to cover a lot of ground in as detailed a manner as possible. Much of it is written in the form of vignettes highlighting certain key moments or pivotal figures in the society's history. This approach is both a strength and a weakness. The style of jumping from episode to episode does not always convey a sense of continuity. Further, while Higgins and Letson rely heavily on quotes from current and former members of the society, as a reader you cannot help but wonder whether only one side of the story is being told.
Nonetheless, The Jesuit Mystique is a very enjoyable and readable book chock full of wonderful historical anecdotes, scholarly research and colourful figures. The society emerges as a very alive, dynamic order, brimming with lively debate about its own future and relevance. If you have any interest in learning about a remarkable organization that continues to create controversy almost everywhere it goes, pick up a copy of this book.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld