St. Paul and St. Ignatius on Retreat

SPIRITUAL EXERCISES BASED ON PAUL’S EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS. By Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 255 Jefferson Ave. S.E., Grand Rapids, Mich. 49502 [2004]), 235 pp. PB $20.00.

Most priests and religious make a retreat of some days each year, often eight. Those in the Jesuit tradition follow the lead of the Exercises of St. Ignatius. Every retreatant likes to spend considerable time during these days with Scripture itself. Ignatius himself gives many specific directions during the four “weeks” of his Exercises about how to meditate and contemplate incidents in the Bible, from the Incarnation, to the Nativity, to instances in the hidden and the public life of Christ, on to the Passion and Resurrection. Ignatius has his own particular way of relating what is known to our imagination of what further it might be like to have been there and to savor the meaning of the various scenes in the life of Christ.

Joseph Fitzmyer, whose name everyone who knows anything about biblical studies knows, was asked several years ago to give a retreat to a group of religious but one not directly based on the Exercises but rather on the Epistle to the Roman of St. Paul. In thinking it over, Fitzmyer decided to try it out. He undertook to see how the Exercises of Ignatius might be adapted to, or better, placed within the incisive thought of Paul in his magisterial letter to the Romans. “The thrust of the Epistle to the Romans, however, is such that one can follow it and find in this epistle the Pauline way of putting many of the things that preoccupy Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises, for there is a striking affinity in both writings” (2). The result was first published in 1995 by Paulist Press, but when that edition went out of print, Eerdmans of Grand Rapids asked if they might publish an edition. The current edition is the happy result of that initiative by Eerdmans.

The book is designed essentially for an eight day retreat, but is open to any adaptation in terms of number of days. It consists in twenty-four chapters, each progressing step by step through the sixteen chapters of the Pauline Epistle. Each chapter begins with a whole text from the Epistle. Following this reading, Fitzmyer offers a relatively brief but quite clear discussion of the basic spiritual point of the reading. Here he goes briefly through any obscurity or problem that may deal with the text or its various historical interpretations. He realizes how easily a misunderstanding or confusion about a text can bother even the most pious soul and, yes, justify the more vicious one. Fitzmyer is marvelously meticulous but not at all pedantic in setting the stage, both textual and critical, of the passage being read.

Fitzmyer understands that an accurate comprehension of what exactly is being said must be the basis of any accurate use of Scripture in our spiritual understanding of its effect on our souls. He is a master of the classical languages of Scripture and of commentaries on it. He will discuss an interpretation of Romans from Augustine, or Luther, or one of the Church fathers, or modem critics where appropriate. He does not intend to repeat his own more thorough studies on this text. Rather he wants to clarify the meaning so that an ordinary reader can see just what Paul is driving at as the essence of our spiritual lives, which is to affirm in faith that Jesus Christ is Lord in grace and in freedom.

Meantime, all along, Fitzmyer relates the flow of Paul’s thought to Ignatius. He does not try to make a square peg fit into a circular hole. He sees when passages or ideas of Ignatius do refer to something that Paul has been treating. The structure of weeks in Ignatius thus does not exactly follow the structure of the argument that is found in Paul, but there are often surprising resemblances. Fitzmyer actually finds Ignatius at times rather more “philosophical” than Paul, granting his very good discussion of the early part of Romans where he does discuss what the Gentiles should know by their own reason. As Aquinas said, one of the most important things in understanding any tract is to see its order. The very consoling part of this book is precisely in Fitzmyer’ s presentation of the order of Paul’s argument and indeed in that of Ignatius, that is, that there is a real order and consistency of revelation and its understanding.

As one goes through each of the chapters and its commentary, one is often quite moved by the lucid Pauline thesis about Christ, who he is, what he did, how we are to follow him. Romans no doubt deals with many controverted and delicate matters. Instead of shying away from these issues, Fitzmyer rather shows their meaning and how they are related to the central focus of Paul’s teaching and of our own lives. His discussion of the Gentiles who do not know God, of the chapters on the fate of Israel, of the discussions of Adam and Christ, sin and grace, are cast in such a way that their often opaqueness to the ordinary reader becomes convincingly sensible and a guide to both understanding and action. Fitzmyer is also very good on the relation of faith and action, again an oft-controverted issue in Romans. Faith is not opposed to action but leads to it, but faith is faith, not itself action.

Each chapter, mindful of Ignatius, is followed by a list of very decisive questions for reflections. Fitzmyer actually shows how and why we should still, for example, pray to our father Abraham, yes, we Christians that we might have his faith. Each chapter also ends with a psalm on which to meditate the themes just presented. It gives the one making the retreat plenty of understanding and incentive to prayer.

Those, be they lay, religious, or clergy, who are looking for a new and fresh approach to their annual retreat, one that combines both Paul and Ignatius in an original way that reinforces the teachings of each, could do no better than follow this book. It is useful for private retreats or for ones that are preached. The book provides orderly readings. There is consideration of sin, of the call to the spiritual life, the life of Christ, of the various admonitions on thinking with the Church, of rules of fasting, of the place of the Holy Spirit. In short, the great themes of Christian life are here. I am sure Fitzmyer could write a similar book using his studies on John, for example. But what this book does is to remind us of the careful attention we must pay to what Scripture teaches us in the Church and in our tradition when we come to reflect on our own lives.

“God’s plan is behind all that happens to Christians; he is in control of human history and their lot. God’s transcendent power governs those who love God. His power and influence are such that all things, even what is done against his will, subserve the guidance that comes from him” (147). In short, Spiritual Exercises Based on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, however unexpected a title, is a welcome and most useful guide from a man who has spent his life reflecting on not just the text but what it means in our on-going lives in faith, freedom, and grace.

James V. Schall, S.J.
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.

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