catholic voices

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. (more…)