Interesting times: an interview with Austen Ivereigh

Austen Ivereigh is a writer, commentator and author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the making of a radical Pope, a biography profoundly informed by his understanding of Jesuit spirituality and institutions. He kindly agreed to speak to me about his connection with the Society of Jesus and his short but eventful time as a Jesuit novice.

Photo courtesy of Austen Ivereigh

Photo courtesy of Austen Ivereigh

How did you first come into contact with the Society of Jesus?

It was really through my studies above all. It was while I was doing my DPhil at Oxford, which was on the subject of the Church in Argentina. I was generally looking at late nineteenth and early twentieth century history, and the Jesuits just kept coming up. And so I became very interested in them.

I think the first real contact I had with the Society was just after writing my DPhil thesis, when I felt the stirrings of a vocation. I remember rather boldly phoning up the Jesuit vocations director saying: I think I’ve got a vocation, and he—he’s actually now the Provincial—very patiently said: Well, come and spend a weekend up in Loyola Hall, near Preston. And there he gave me what I now realise is the Exercises—at least a very basic form of the First Week, getting me to do an Examen over my whole life. That was a great revelation to me, a huge opening-up for me spiritually. The whole question of vocation was put on hold, but I then embarked on what would be a couple of years of spiritual growth and spiritual development. I owe to the Jesuits my spiritual awakening. By doing the Examen of my life, I grasped that God had been there with me all the time, even though I had treated other people badly and so on; that there was unconditional love and mercy and forgiveness. In The Great Reformer I make a big deal of the fact that this, for Francis, is key to mission and evangelisation. It is that primary experience of God’s merciful love that opens the heart and mind to conversion, rather than doctrines and ideas.

When you say that you felt you had a vocation, can you take apart how that felt? What was the sensation of feeling that you were being called?

Well, I think it was excitement. I had experienced through my DPhil a kind of intellectual awakening, which wasn’t a spiritual awakening exactly, but it was a huge realisation that I was a Catholic, that I believed, that what I’d been struggling with intellectually over the many years in the university context was…I’m trying not to use the word “resolved”, because of course these things are never resolved, but they were completely reframed in terms of the Gospel and in terms of revelation. And then, I suppose, just a natural admiration for and identification with the Society, partly because of the life of St Ignatius, but I think mostly because of the role of Jesuits in the vanguard of politics and culture. And so I just had this enormous admiration for them. I didn’t at that stage know many Jesuits; they hadn’t been part of my upbringing—I was educated by Benedictine monks. And so that first weekend with Father Dermot Preston was the catalyst, really.

So where did you go from there?

That was in 1993-94. I then spent a few years spiritually searching. Soon after that weekend with the Jesuits, I went back to Worth Abbey, where I had been at school, and felt drawn to be in the monastery for some “desert” time. The monks were wonderful with me and gave me a berth for a few months to try and sort myself out, and just to explore spiritually. I was still trying to work out what I was supposed to do with my life. I applied for a couple of academic jobs, and then, while I was waiting for those to come through, I went off to Peru—the monks sent me to report on some projects they were funding—which was wonderful. Then I came back and I started at Leeds University but just before then I had a tropical disease which I had picked up in the Peruvian Amazon. It kept me in hospital in London for five weeks and I nearly lost my eye. Weakened by the treatment, I then started in Leeds as a lecturer in Latin American history. I lectured for three years at Leeds.

During that time, I went back to Peru and I did an eight-day retreat with a wonderful Spanish Jesuit whom I met in Peru in a place called Ayacucho. That was a phenomenal, revelatory eight-day retreat. It’s what left me convinced that I wanted to be a Jesuit, or at least wanting to explore the possibility. So, when I got back I then spoke to the then vocations director, who was different; and I was accepted for the following year. I entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1998. I entered in the autumn of 1998 and I left the following May 1999, having done the thirty-day retreat at St Beuno’s.

What did you experience in your short time in the novitiate?

It was a very gruelling experience of what I would now recognise as “descent”, which of course is exactly what the novitiate is designed to do. I just wasn’t psychologically prepared for it. I’ve realised this recently—it’s been a wonderful few years, these last few years, and one of the great things about the book is that I’ve fallen back into contact with the Jesuits. I recently did an eight-day retreat in Loyola, Spain, and reflected back on that time, and realised that I just wasn’t capable of it psychologically back then, because my ego was still too fragile. I realise now that—and this, by the way, is true of love in general—in order to be able to love you have to be willing to sacrifice; you have to sublimate the ego and so on. And I think I wasn’t capable of entering the Jesuits then. I wasn’t capable of marrying, either. I wasn’t capable of that kind of commitment, and I think I wasn’t for many years.

What happened on the novitiate was that I did the usual things that novices do, in the sense that I had to learn sign language, and then I did a couple of what are called Experiments; one of them was in Northern Ireland, in Portadown on the Garvaghy Road, where there was a lot of sectarian tension. But my memory of the novitiate was never feeling like I could do anything: always feeling like I was standing around and never really being any good at anything, or being effective at anything. And of course that was immensely frustrating for me, because I had joined with the excitement and hope of being a successful Jesuit. I now realise that that was the problem: that a person who thinks he can be a good Jesuit is going to be a bad Jesuit. Only the crucifixion of the ego can bring about any real adult spiritual growth—but I found it really really hard. I mean, there were things that I enjoyed about the novitiate, and I felt enormous affection for my novice master, who was a wonderful man, but it was gruelling. So much so that by the time the thirty-day retreat came about I was already strongly doubting whether I could do it, and I think I was relying on the thirty-day retreat to tell me.

Oh dear.

And that was like: okay, well, I’ll know. And then what happened on the thirty-day retreat was quite dramatic. It’s a matter of record, as I wrote an article about it in 2002 for The Tablet: they called it The Retreat that Changed My Lifeit’s on the web—and it’s the story of spending most of the thirty days in desolation. It was a crucifixion. But I remember saying towards the end of it to my novice master, who was also my spiritual director on the retreat: “God, this is absolute hell.” I remember him smiling, and he said: “I think this is a wonderful retreat.” And of course I look back and I realise that it was, because in fact that did change my life. I left the Jesuits afterwards, but I started writing and I discovered what my call was, which obviously took a long time to work out. But the Exercises gave me the space in which to allow God to work at a very deep level to re-orientate my life, and I think I could never have done it were it not for that.

I have spoken over the years to many people who either are joining the Jesuits or joining a religious order or the priesthood or whatever, and the whole question of commitment comes up, and how do you know, and so on; and I always say about that retreat—about the novitiate experience—that, in the generosity of allowing yourself to plunge into the unknown, God will always meet you. I’m absolutely convinced about that. It doesn’t mean you’ll have a nice time. You might suffer a hell of a lot, all sorts of bad things might happen, but you will look back on it and you will be grateful for it, and you will never regret it. And I think that’s my experience of the novitiate, even though it was a shattering experience in many ways, which it took me many years to recover from.

A sort of rebuilding from the ground up.

Oh, totally. I was in my early thirties by this stage as well. I think it’s easier if you’re twenty-one, and you enter the novitiate and it doesn’t work out—well, that’s the kind of age where you’re supposed to be trying things. Whereas I, of course, was left with all that feeling of: Well, now what? and starting again, because the whole direction of our life is supposed to be upwards. We’re supposed from our early twenties to be building our careers and our achievements, and to be knocked off your perch like that—to be thrown from a horse, as it were—is very hard going. But as most people will tell you, in their life stories, getting thrown from a horse is usually the thing that enables them to find new and better horses to ride.

The thirty-day retreat always strikes me as interesting because—and I confronted this when I started spiritual direction—you have this idea that meditation is restful, and it’s not. I’ve had panic attacks in meditation before. Do you feel sometimes that the Jesuit—and perhaps more broadly the Catholic—way of being, of spirituality, of reflection, is countercultural to this capitalist narrative we have of infinite improvement and upwards progression?

It’s what I found recently before I went on this eight-day retreat in Loyola. I told someone in the village where I live what I was doing and she said: Oh, you’ll come back in a sort of Zen-like state. And of course I did come back much calmer, because it was a wonderful retreat, but I couldn’t begin to tell her that that’s really not what it’s about—it’s not about a restful clearing of the mind. It’s an encounter with our deeper selves, where we meet God; we experience the joy of his love and gifts, but also an awareness of our sin. So it’s not a holiday, or a health farm; it’s more like going in for a re-tuning.

I don’t want it to sound as if the 30-day retreat was all desolation. The first week was an extraordinary experience of consolation, and enormous healing, and memories, and all the rest of it. And, actually—and I describe this in the article—because I’d had such a profound experience of the divine in the first week, the complete loss of that in the second week was even more devastating. Funnily enough, if somebody says to you that you’re going to go on a thirty-day silent retreat, and you go on it and from Day 1 you’re bored and you’re listless, after a while you’re going to say: Look, let me out of here. You’d probably be a bit annoyed that you wasted the money or the time. Whereas my experience was far worse, because I actually had that very, very clear experience of God, and then suddenly it was taken away, and it was deeply painful.

Just one amusing anecdote: I actually reached the point where I was, I think, beginning to beat myself up a bit. I was very frustrated. And my spiritual director said: Look, I think it’s a good idea if you get out for a while, just take a break—because they’re very intense, as you know. We were in the middle of North Wales, and I was a Jesuit novice with no money, so I said: What I am going to do? He gave me a fiver and the keys to his Ford Escort. I remember driving around North Wales thinking: What on earth am I doing? I ended up going to a pub and sitting there with a pint, and somebody next to me said: Oh, are you just visiting then? And I thought, shall I tell him I’m a Jesuit novice who’s been sent out by his spiritual director for being in a state of nervous breakdown? Anyway, when I look back on that I laugh. It was an extraordinary time.

But it was also—and I write about this in the article—an experience of powerlessness. I wrote about it in my journal in great detail, saying: I totally understand what is happening to me. I mean, I’ve read the rules of desolation—there were shelves of books on Ignatian spirituality in the library—and that information and that knowledge is of absolutely no use to me. That’s the purgation: to realise that—as of course my novice director kept saying to me—there is nothing you can attain by your own power; nothing important, anyway. And, actually, all is gift—which of course is at the heart of Ignatian spirituality. Again, I understood it conceptually at the time, but I don’t think I did understand what that means, and I do now.

So in fact it was a formative experience, but not in the way that you thought it would be when you went into it.

It was a necessary purgation. I think, you know, in a deeper sense I did discover my vocation. It just wasn’t as simple and as straightforward as what I had reckoned, which was that I would become a Jesuit. I didn’t become a Jesuit, and for a time that was a source of pain and sadness, a sense of failure and the kind of feeling you get after a relationship doesn’t work out: how could I have got that so wrong? But actually, looking back at it, I see that the vocation that I felt called to is indeed the one I had, and still have, but I needed to go through a process of learning to accept that that wasn’t the thing I had decided that it was. I read a book recently in which Pope Francis describes his own experience of desolation as a Jesuit in Córdoba, Argentina. And he says something like: for the religious person there is no experience which can ever be bad, because God uses our experiences to re-orientate us. It’s painful, because it’s not what we want; but later we realise that it was the right and good thing, like a child who screams because you won’t let them play with their toys—but then they’re delighted because once they’ve stopped screaming they realise you’ve taken them to the beach.

And so you left the novitiate after the thirty-day retreat.

I started from zero. I went out to Latin America, and I started to write. I left in 1999 and then in the year 2000 I joined The Tablet as assistant editor, and moved to London. I had very little experience of journalism at the time—I’d been doing some reports from Latin America for The Tablet—but I started and, well, that’s a whole other story. The Tablet was tough in its way, but I totally took to it. I remember the editor of the time saying he’d never seen anybody take to journalism so naturally.

By that time I was thirty-four, so it was not the first thing I was doing in my life. I had the sheer joy of realising that you can do something well. Because I had been an academic, and I’d published my thesis and all the rest of it, but I’d never felt that that was me entirely, even though they were things I really enjoyed. Whereas here was a skill, a craft, and a world and a subject which were totally me, and there was an enormous relief in that.

So did you keep in contact actively with Ignatian spirituality in this time?

I’m not sure I did. That’s why, in the last few years, getting back in touch with Jesuits has been great for me, and it’s been very healing. I never completely lost touch with them, and later had Jesuit spiritual directors, but initially I put distance, which is what they themselves suggest to people who leave. So no, I didn’t.

When I published the long article about the thirty-day retreat in a Tablet supplement in 2002, I had the most extraordinary response from Jesuits around the world who wrote and said thank you for describing desolation, which nobody ever does. I had been very worried, having written it—because at the time you tend to write and publish and only afterwards do you think about the effect—and I remember thinking, gosh, I hope I haven’t put anybody off doing the Spiritual Exercises. I did ask a very senior Jesuit a few years back about that article—whether it had put anybody off—and he said: Well, I do remember one lady saying she wasn’t sure if she would like to do it after reading it. And then he said something like: But then again, there aren’t many people who are willing to undergo that degree of existential displacement. I remember being absolutely delighted by his expression. That’s really what the Exercises is: it’s existential displacement which allows you to be open to God in ways, of course, which normally we are not, particularly not in our achieving society. As we know, in many ways it is easier for people who are poor in every sense to allow God to work in them, but for those of us who grow up in this kind of society, that degree of displacement is very unusual—at least to be undertaken voluntarily.

So what brought you to write the book?

Well, we have to fast forward a bit now. After The Tablet, I worked for Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor for a couple of years, then I worked for London Citizens organizing a campaign for migrants, then I set up Catholic Voices, and got married. From that time, the journalism and writing began to take off.

And then in 2013, in March, I was of course in Rome for the conclave. I was recruited by Sky News to do some commentary for them on the smokes. The journalists call it Smokewatch. Your job is to provide the commentary on the smokes as they happen: so, black smoke, you explain what’s going on; but then obviously when the white smoke happens, your job is to stay in the square, and the camera stays fixed on the stovepipe. Your job is really to fill the time until the cardinal appears on the screen to announce the next pope.

It was great fun, but I was quite anxious that I wouldn’t know much about the new pope, because our primary job was to explain to the world who they had elected. Of course, we all had our lists, but, as I say in the book, I had a bit of a tip-off that it might be Bergoglio and so I was able for a few minutes just to remind myself who he was. I did know of him, of course, because I was back in Argentina in 2001 to do some journalism about the crisis and people were talking about him then as a cardinal. So he wasn’t a completely new name to me, and also I knew about what had been revealed about him in 2005 within the conclave then. So I did my stuff, and I explained who they had elected, and that he was a Jesuit, and I remember afterwards just thinking: Wow, they’ve elected a Jesuit and an Argentine. And I suddenly thought, gosh, my whole life has come together in this moment. Even that funny old thesis which I wrote all those years ago on Catholicism and nationalism in Argentina, which was published but otherwise forgotten about—wow, that’s the church he came from.

I felt from the very beginning I understood him and I had this kind of natural sense that I must do the book. In the following weeks, I would say to people often, you don’t get him: first of all he’s a Jesuit; secondly, he’s Latin American; thirdly, he’s Argentine, and that makes him different from other Latin Americans. You can’t look at him through the lens of liberal versus conservative, and so on. I remember a couple of people saying to me: Well, you should write about this. I thought, well, I’ve never written a biography before; but the idea just grew over the next few months.

He was elected in March and—I describe it in the book—I met him in St Peter’s Square briefly in June, and by that time I had begun to think that, actually, I could do a good job in being a bridge between Argentina and the English-speaking world, particularly, in explaining who this pope was and what he was up to. I felt, because I had wrestled with the complexities of Argentina, of nationalism, of Catholicism, but also I understood the Jesuits, that this was a very unusual man who had been elected in unusual circumstances, coming from a part of the world which it’s very hard for people to get a grip on, and that he needed an interpreter—an English-language interpreter. There were obviously a couple of biographies around, which I felt, to me, only begged more questions—they raised more questions than they answered. By this time my curiosity about him was absolutely massive, and so I decided I would do it. I found an agent, did a book proposal, but I had actually booked my tickets to Argentina by the time I got the contract, I was so confident it would work out.

It sounds like you were in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills.

Absolutely. I just think there are times—and I do put this in terms of the mission—there are times when you have a mission, and you have to do it.

That’s very Jesuit.

That’s how I looked at it. Funnily enough, going along with writing a big book—and this is a big book, with a big publisher, and a big everything—I get called a lot. It’s easy for this stuff to go to your head. But it never has, because for me it’s been pure gift from the very word “go”. It’s almost had nothing to do with me; and I know how bad that can sound, but I really mean that I had to do this. And actually, from the very beginning, doors just swung open. It was a tough book to write against a very difficult deadline, but I always felt that the wind was behind me, to use a sailing analogy; however rough the seas, the wind was behind me. And that’s, of course, what I’ve learnt to realise is a sign of consolation. That’s what Jesuits, when they’re trying to discern what is God calling them to do—is it this or this—it is often that’s the way you tell, that there’s an ease about it, you’re being gently drawn; that’s what happened with this book. And the gifts which have flowed from it have been extraordinary: just the gift of being back in touch with the Jesuits, using that knowledge and those insights from twenty-something years ago, and my Spanish, and my knowledge of Rome, and my contacts in the Church.

The final question—and I think you’re in a unique position to answer this one: what does the Jesuit identity mean to you?

For me, the Jesuit identity is about a constant desire and willingness to serve and to be open. There’s a great phrase, which came up on our retreat as well, and it’s in The Great Reformer, because Francis always loved it. It’s a Latin phrase not by St Ignatius but linked to him: Non coerceri a maximo, contineri tamen a minimo, divinum est. It’s something like: To be able to be content with the little, but to be open to the big, that’s the divine quality.

I’m beginning to understand now, in perhaps a way I didn’t when I was a Jesuit novice, that that is where you find God: in the ordinariness of life, in the humdrum and in the daily and in understanding the movements of the spirit within you; and then somehow always being open to the moment where you are called, and the boat’s setting sail, and you need to be able to jump on it, because you’re going to be taken somewhere and it’s going to be extraordinary. It’s not really about you, and you just go with the ride. And then you’re willing to go back to the ordinary. That, to me—to use a very technical word—is the great Jesuit virtue of disponibility. It’s to be available, and to be able, and there’s great joy in that, actually; there’s great joy and great peace that comes from that.

I said to my spiritual director recently on my retreat in Loyola: I’m prepared now, in a strange way, in my life, having been through what I’ve been through, to do and be all those things which I now realise I couldn’t manage back then. Funnily enough, now I’m married I think I’d make a good Jesuit!

For Austen Ivereigh’s thoughts on Pope Francis and the question of a “conversion moment”, see my feature about The Great Reformer on Vulpes Libris here.

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