The Story of Companions

All organizations are built on stories. In order for an association like Companions to function well, its story needs to be expressed, clarified and commemorated.
Companions is founded on two shared stories. First is the story of Íñigo López de Loyola (1491-1556), his wounding in battle, his subsequent conversion, his personal encounters with the risen Lord, the Spiritual Exercises he composed as a manual to guide others in their journey towards God, and his Autobiography. Íñigo’s story is the great resource of the Jesuits, laypersons and religious who give the Spiritual Exercises as Companions.

The second story is less well-known.  It is the story of a German laywoman named Hildegard Ehrtmann. She was one of the first laypersons to make the full Spiritual Exercises in the Twentieth Century. Her story illustrates the Spirit drawing the laity to make the Exercises, and the further call for some lay persons to be formed to give the Exercises in partnership with Jesuits and other religious.


The story of Ignatius of Loyola
Ignatius of Loyola was a Basque. He belonged to a family of the minor Spanish nobility in the 16th Century.  Born in 1491, the year before Christopher Columbus discovered America, Saint Ignatius was the youngest of thirteen children.  Until the age of thirty he describes himself as A man given over to the follies of the world; and what he enjoyed most was the exercise of arms having a great and foolish desire to win fame.

Ignatius commanded the Spanish forces who defended the castle of Pamplona against the stronger French army. Combat lasted until a cannon-ball struck Ignatius shattering his right knee and wounding his left leg. Then the garrison surrendered. It happened on May 21, 1521, in the week of Pentecost. Ignatius was just thirty years old.
He spent many months convalescing at the family castle at Loyola. As so often happens in times of personal tragedy, the crisis opened him to God. He began a journey from the courtly style of life into the less worldly lifestyle of penitent and pilgrim.
On his sickbed, Ignatius spent long hours reading tales of chivalry and  day-dreaming about a certain noble lady and of all the wonderful things he might do to win her hand.  He gave his imagination free rein!

Weary of day-dreaming, he asked for something to read.  The only books he could find were about the lives of Christ and of the saints.  An inveterate day-dreamer, he started to imagine himself being like these holy and daring people.
“So, Saint Dominic did that…I reckon that I could do what he did for Christ…even what Saint Francis did.”  Then he would see himself as a hermit in the desert dressed in sacking, living on wild herbs; or walking barefooted to Jerusalem; or alone in a cave giving himself over to the most dreadful penances. His day-dreams began to oscillate between  these dreams and his fantasies of winning the lady’s hand.

He began to notice something very interesting: when he day-dreamed about the lady, he found it very pleasant at the time, but afterward he felt empty and discontented.  When he day-dreamed about imitating the saints, he found that also quite pleasant at the time, but afterwards he felt peaceful and at home with himself.  So, after he reflected on all this, he decided to imitate Saint Dominic and Saint Francis.

After his recovery, Ignatius decided to go to the Holy Land.  So he went to Barcelona to board a ship. Unable to do this, he spent much time in prayer, penance and fasting at the monastery at Montserrat and along the banks of the Cardoner River at Manresa, protected from the elements in a shallow cave. His life was one of severe interior struggle with doubts, anxieties, scruples, temptations and divine illuminations about his past and future life. He made careful entries describing these experiences in his notebook. This much revised text eventually became the book of the Spiritual Exercises for which Ignatius has become renowned throughout the world.

Gonzales de Camara, to whom Ignatius dictated his Autobiography, asked him how the Spiritual Exercises were composed:
He answered that the Exercises were not composed all at one time, but things that he had observed in his own soul and found useful and which he thought would be useful to others,he put in writing — the examination of conscience, for example… The forms of the election in particular, he told me, came from that variety of movement of spirits and thoughts that he experienced at Loyola, while he was still convalescing from his shattered leg.

We see here that he did not merely observe external events, but especially how God touched his heart.
Ignatius saw God as his teacher. God did indeed teach him, and, through  him, generations of Christians. Ignatius did not want others to suffer the interior torment that he had experienced.  The Spiritual Exercises are a means of guiding people to find God. Their genius is that they reflect the experience of one man, but are adapted to different people with their individual characters and situations.


The story of Hildegard Ehrtmann
gnatius was clear that the full Spiritual Exercises were not for everybody, and indeed stipulated that they were for a “few” (Constitutions [#649]).  After his death, the few became fewer: there was a drastic decline in the numbers of laymen and  women making the full Spiritual Exercises. They were reserved to priests and religious.
In the last fifty years, laymen and women have again begun to make the full Spiritual Exercises.  One of the first laypersons to do so in the modern era was a young German woman named Hildegard Ehrtmann.  This is her story.

After the World War II, Henry Ollendorf, a German-born Jewish immigrant to the United States, initiated the International Youth Leader Exchange Program.  This three-month program invited gifted people from Germany and elsewhere to travel to the United States to study.
So, in 1957, at the age of 26, Hildegard, a young social worker from Hamburg, travelled to Cleveland, Ohio.  During the  Exchange Program she found the Cleveland Alumni Sodality (CAS), a group of young professional men and women who met under guidance of Fr. Joseph Schell SJ from John Carroll University.  The group had asked Fr. Schell to introduce them to Ignatian spirituality.
Hildegard, who was attracted to their commitment to social justice and spirituality, wanted to join the group. They suggested that she make a retreat rather than try to understand Ignatian spirituality theoretically. She stayed in Cleveland at the conclusion of the Exchange Program to take a two-year introductory program about Ignatian spirituality.  She hoped to discover whether the Ignatian way of life was for her.

Although the young men and women in CAS had made annual eight-day retreats since the early 1950s, none had made the 30-day retreat.  Hildegard, who had heard about the full Spiritual Exercises, wondered why the laity didn’t make them.  She saw that the findings of modern social sciences corresponded to the growth process of the Exercises.  So the group decided that they wanted to make the full Exercises, and asked a Jesuit if he would direct them.

Faced with this unusual request, he asked his Provincial, who asked the Bishop, who was sufficiently disturbed to suspend the CAS. Undaunted, the group moved to another diocese.  In June-July 1959 Hildegard and the other nine members of her group made the 30-days retreat with Fr. Mulhern SJ at the convent of the Precious Blood Sisters in Marywood, Ohio.  They were probably the first lay people to make the long retreat in centuries.
Returning to Germany in 1960, Hildegard gave the Spiritual Exercises to individuals, and from 1964 she worked with the Christian Life Communities (CLC), partnering Jesuits in  giving Spiritual Exercises to laypeople. In 1971 she and Fr. Alex Lefrank SJ developed a one-year program to form laypersons and secular priests to give spiritual direction and Spiritual Exercises. Later improved and extended to two years, this program has been subsequently given many times.  As a member of the Executive of the World CLC from 1970-79, Hildegard’s major concern has been to form laypersons in the Ignatian way of life and to develop international formation programs for lay givers of the Exercises.


Our story as Companions
The story of Ignatius and the story of Hildegard are important aspects of our emerging story as Companions.  These stories capture how we collectively understand who we believe the Spirit is calling us to be: an association of Jesuits, laypersons and other religious committed to giving the
Exercises to others.

It is important to remember that Íñigo was a layman when he composed the book of the  Spiritual Exercises and it was as a layman that he first gave the Spiritual Exercises to many laymen and women of his time.

The first generation of Jesuits recognised that in the book of the Spiritual Exercises they had a unique gift to help people grow spiritually.
In the early days of the Society of Jesus, close relations quickly developed between Jesuits and lay people to whom they had given the Spiritual Exercises. For example, “Peter Faber preached in the town of Parma for something more than a year. He gave Exercises in Daily Life to groups,
urging each exercitant to pass it on.”
In our time, after the Second Vatican Council, Jesuits, lay people and other religious have again formed close relations in the ministry of the Spiritual Exercises.  Many lay people are attracted to Ignatius’ firm belief that in the Exercises “the Creator deals directly with the Creature”, and to
his practical ways of helping this to happen. Many Jesuits find that, in partnership in spirituality, roles disappear, and they find an image of church at once earthed and enriching.
Hildegard’s story illustrates the major changes in the ministry of the Spiritual Exercises since the middle of the 20th century.

These changes include:

  • Laypersons now make the full Spiritual Exercises, either over thirty days or in their daily lives.
  • Laypersons now give the full Spiritual Exercises 
  • Laypersons and Jesuits now work as colleagues in the ministry of the Exercises 
  • Laypersons now form others to be givers of the Exercises.


These developments lie behind the move to establish Companions — a group of people linked in the Church by a shared spirituality and called to promote the ministry of the Spiritual Exercises.
The mission of  Companions is to provide, in close partnership with the Society of Jesus, a professional association for those engaged in the ministry of giving the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.   Companions  offers Jesuits, other religious and lay colleagues an opportunity for genuine partnership in the ministry of the Exercises.

Companions is committed to the highest standards of formation, ethical practice and accountability.
Companions formally recognises those who wish to engage in this ministry within the Church and whose formation as givers of the Exercises meets the standards set by Companions.


Lay-Jesuit Partnership
The emphasis today on partnership between Jesuits and the laity was encouraged by the Thirty-Fourth General Congregation of the Society of Jesus which, quoting Pope John Paul II, acknowledged as a grace of our day and a hope for the future that laity “take an active, conscientious, and responsible part in the mission of the Church in this great moment of history.”

The 34th General Congregation in 1995 says to Jesuits:
We must increasingly shift the focus of our attention from the exercise of our own direct
ministry to the strengthening of laity in their mission. To do so will require of us an ability
to draw out their gifts and to animate and inspire them. Our willingness to accept this
challenge will depend on the strength of our Jesuit companionship and on a renewal of our
response to the call of Christ to serve his mission.

As  Companions  we are most grateful for the Society’s desire to strengthen the laity in their mission as givers of the Exercises. The ministry of the Exercises is best done in partnership between Jesuits, laypersons, other clergy, and members of other religious congregations. This partnership is an important aspect of our emerging story as Companions.
The Exercises are the gift of Ignatius to the Church. Fr General of the Society of Jesus, PeterHans Kolvenbach, recently reaffirmed that the Society of Jesus does not own the Spiritual Exercises but has a responsibility in the Church for their authenticity.

For a Jesuit, the Spiritual Exercises are central to his identity.  The Exercises are not just ‘a ministry’ but rather part of who he is, the heart of his life and work.  Many lay people too live out of the Exercises as a way of life and are giving the Exercises to others. Companions gratefully acknowledges that, in God’s providence, more and more laymen and women in the Church are being called to both live and give the Exercises.

In a reflection made by Fr. Kolvenbach and conveyed by his Assistant, Fr. Joseph Tetlow SJ, to the Second European Conference on the Spiritual Exercises “Understanding and experience in giving the Spiritual Exercises” held at Loyola in Spain, 18-23 February, 2004, he drew attention to the distinction between (i) the ownership of the Spiritual Exercises, which is not exclusive to the Society of Jesus as is their ownership of their Constitutions which Jesuits alone interpret, apply and adapt, and (ii)  the role of the Society of Jesus in promoting and guaranteeing authentic Spiritual Exercises.