Ignatian Spirituality and the 12 Steps

Bill Wilson was asked the following question at a roundtable discussion:

Can the Twelve Steps be compared to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius?

Here was his answer:

In 1941, I visited St. Louis and Father Ed Dowling met me at the field. This was aJesuit Priest, very influential in the formation and deepening of AA spiritualityblistering day and he had come to bring me to the (Jesuit) Sodality Headquarters. I was struck by the delightful informality. Of course I had never been to such a place before. I had been raised in a small Vermont village, Yankee style. Happily there was no bigotry in my grandfather who raised me but neither was there much religious contact or understanding. So here I was in some kind of a monastery. Even then, believe it or not, I still toyed with the notion that Catholicism was somehow a superstition of the Irish!

Then Father Ed and his Jesuit partners commenced to ask me questions. They wanted to know about the recently published A.A. book and especially about AA’s Twelve Steps. To my surprise they had supposed that I must have had a Catholic education. They seemed doubly surprised when I informed them that at the age of eleven I had quit the Congregational Sunday School because my teacher had asked me to sign a temperance pledge. This had been the extent of my religious education.

More questions were asked about AA’s Twelve Steps. I explained how a few years earlier some of us had been associated with the Oxford Groups; that we had picked up from these good people the ideas of self-survey, confession, restitution, helpfulness to others and prayer, ideas that we might have got in many other quarters as well. After our withdrawal from the Oxford Groups, these principles and attitudes had been formed into a word-of-mouth program, to which we had added a step of our own to the effect “that we were powerless over alcohol.” Our Twelve Steps were the result of my effort to define more sharply and elaborate upon these word-of-mouth principles so that the alcoholic readers would have a more specific program: that there could be no escape from what we deemed to be the essential principles and attitudes. This had been my sole idea in their composition.

This enlarged version of our program had been set down rather quickly – perhaps in twenty or thirty minutes – on a night when I had been very badly out of sorts.

Why the Steps were written down in the order in which they appear today and just why they were worded as they are, I have no idea.

Following this explanation of mine, my new Jesuit friends pointed to a chart that hung on the wall. They explained that this was a comparison between the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, that, in principle, this correspondence was amazingly exact. I believe they also made the somewhat startling statement that spiritual principles set forth in our Twelve Steps appear in the same order that they do in the Ignatius Exercises.

In my abysmal ignorance, I actually inquired, “Please tell me – who is this fellow Ignatius?”

While of course the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous contain nothing new, there seems no doubt that this singular and exact identification with the Ignatius Exercises has done much to make the close and fruitful relation that we now enjoy with the Church.

Reported in The ‘Blue Book’, Vol.12, 1960

Because I am restlessly, stupidly, insanely curious, this little reading started a journey for me. I Dove into this thing called Ignatian Spirituality,  discovering the path of the ancient Catholic Mystics, men and women who understand the Great Mystery, the Unnamed, Unknowable God in a way I REALLY dig.

If you are anything like me, before you Read more, you want a cliff-notes version (just to see if you are interested).

Here you go:


The Ten Elements of Ignatian Spirituality

Ignatian spirituality is one of the most influential and pervasive spiritual outlooks of our age.

It was a vital component of Father Ed Dolwing’s spiritual practice and  and there is no doubt it deeply influenced the AA and NA fellowships.  It’s a deep path, with many tributaries to be discovered and explored for those who wish; but possessing simpler aspects too, for those who wish to enjoy the journey but who are spiritually displaced or put-off by Catholic language or systematic approach.

It all starts with a story….

1. It begins with a wounded soldier daydreaming on his sickbed.

Ignatian spirituality is rooted in the experiences of Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556), a Basque aristocrat whose conversion to a fervent Christian faith began while he was recovering from war wounds. Ignatius, who founded the Jesuits, gained many insights into the spiritual life in the course of a decades-long spiritual journey , during which he became expert at helping others deepen their relationship with God. Its basis in personal experience makes Ignatian spirituality an intensely practical spirituality, well suited to laymen and laywomen living active lives in the world.

2. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

This line from a poem by the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins captures a central theme of Ignatian spirituality:

its insistence that God is at work everywhere—in work, relationships, culture, the arts, the intellectual life, creation itself.

As Ignatius put it, all the things in the world are presented to us “so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.” Ignatian spirituality places great emphasis on discerning God’s presence in the everyday activities of ordinary life. It sees God as an active God, always at work, inviting us to an ever-deeper walk.

3. It’s about call and response—like the music of a gospel choir.

An Ignatian spiritual life focuses on God at work now. It fosters an active attentiveness to God joined with a prompt responsiveness to God. God calls; we respond.

This call-response rhythm of the inner life makes discernment and decision making especially important.

Ignatius’s rules for discernment and his astute approach to decision making are well-regarded for their psychological and spiritual wisdom.

4. “The heart has its reasons of which the mind knows nothing.”

Ignatius Loyola’s conversion occurred as he became able to interpret the spiritual meaning of his emotional life.

The spirituality he developed places great emphasis on the affective life: the use of imagination in prayer, discernment and interpretation of feelings, cultivation of great desires, and generous service.

Ignatian spiritual renewal focuses more on the heart than the intellect. It holds that our choices and decisions are often beyond the merely rational or reasonable. Its goal is an eager, generous, wholehearted offer of oneself to God and to his work.

5. Free at last.

Ignatian spirituality emphasizes interior freedom. To choose rightly, we should strive to be free of personal preferences, superfluous attachments, and preformed opinions. Ignatius counseled radical detachment:

“We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one.” Our one goal is the freedom to make a wholehearted choice to follow God.

6. Sum up at night what thou hast done by day.”

Plate: St Ignatius Loyola writes the Spiritual Exercises in a caveThe Ignatian mind-set is strongly inclined to reflection and self-scrutiny. The distinctive Ignatian prayer is the Daily Examen, a review of the day’s activities with an eye toward detecting and responding to the presence of God. Three challenging, reflective questions lie at the heart of the Spiritual Exercises, the book Ignatius wrote, to help others deepen their spiritual lives: “What have I done for God? What am I doing for God? What ought I to do for God?”

7. A practical spirituality.

Ignatian spirituality is adaptable.

It is an outlook, not a program; a set of attitudes and insights, not rules or a scheme.

Ignatius’s first advice to spiritual directors was to adapt the Spiritual Exercises to the needs of the person entering the retreat. At the heart of Ignatian spirituality is a profound humanism. It respects people’s lived experience and honors the vast diversity of God’s work in the world. The Latin phrase cura personalis is often heard in Ignatian circles. It means “care of the person”—attention to people’s individual needs and respect for their unique circumstances and concerns.

8. Don’t do it alone.

Ignatian spirituality places great value on working with others.

Ignatian spirituality sees the link between God and man as a relationship—a bond of friendship that develops over time as a human relationship does. Collaboration is built into the very structure of the Spiritual Exercises; they are almost always guided by a spiritual director who helps the retreatant interpret the spiritual content of the retreat experience. Similarly, mission and service in the Ignatian mode is seen not as an individualistic enterprise, but as work done in collaboration with Christ and others.

9. “Contemplatives in action.”Ignatius

Those formed by Ignatian spirituality are often called “contemplatives in action.” They are reflective people with a rich inner life who are deeply engaged in God’s work in the world. They unite themselves with God by joining God’s active labor to save and heal the world. It’s an active spiritual attitude—a way for everyone to seek and find God in their workplaces, homes, families, and communities.

10. Men and women for others.”

The early Jesuits often described their work as simply “helping souls.” The great Jesuit leader Pedro Arrupe updated this idea in the twentieth century by calling those formed in Ignatian spirituality “men and women for others.” Both phrases express a deep commitment to social justice and a radical giving of oneself to others. The heart of this service is the radical generosity that Ignatius asked for in his most famous prayer:

Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not count the cost,
to fight and not heed the wounds,
to toil and not seek for rest,
to labor and not ask for reward,
save that of knowing I do your will.

There are lots of books related to the Spiritual Exercises. Here’s one (with a link):


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