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Jedi in the distance

Author Eric A. Clayton on Star Wars and Ignatian Spirituality

May 31, 2024


One of the most recognizable elements of Star Wars is its spiritual mythos: the light and dark sides of the Force as embodied by the Jedi Knights and their evil counterparts the Sith Lords. Eric A. Clayton, writer, speaker, retreat leader, and author of the new book My Life with the Jedi: The Spirituality of Star Wars (Loyola Press, 2024), thinks discerning Christians can find many surprising and instructive parallels between Jedi philosophy and the rich traditions of Ignatian spirituality. In this interview, Eric discusses how the characters and stories of the Star Wars universe can serve as guides along our own spiritual journeys. 

Thomas Salerno: Your book presents the galaxy of Star Wars as a door through which spiritual seekers can take their first steps into the larger world of Ignatian spirituality. How did you first make the connection between the themes of Star Wars and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola?

Eric A. Clayton: Ignatian spirituality is all about discerning between forces of light and dark, good spirits and not-so-good spirits, God and—as Ignatius says—the “enemy of our human nature.” That’s what Star Wars is all about too: We go on this galactic adventure where characters are constantly making decisions that will draw them closer to the light or closer to the darkness. In some of the original Star Wars stories, the characters are already there: Darth Vader shows up on the scene pretty squarely on the side of darkness. But as the story unfolds—and as we get more Star Wars stories—we begin to see the spiritual work that moves us along the spectrum between light and dark, the sacrifices that are needed, the work of hope and redemption. Ignatian spirituality is a lived spirituality because the work of discernment happens in the nitty gritty day-to-day. We don’t become Vader overnight; we don’t restore Anakin overnight. It takes slow, steady work—and trust in not just the Force but the God who delights in us all along the way! 

The entire trajectory of St. Ignatius’s life was famously altered by a cannonball. During his recovery from this catastrophic injury, he left his former military life behind to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. We all experience painful moments which have the potential to change us forever, inviting us to embrace and live out a deeper spiritual commitment. What can Star Wars teach us about these “cannonball moments”? 

In my book, I turn to a niche character, the Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus who we first meet in the animated series Star Wars Rebels. Kanan is blinded in a duel with the fallen Sith Lord, Maul. It’s quite a “cannonball moment”—he’s wounded, his whole identity is called into question, and he wonders if he’s really any good at anything. He encounters this Force creature called the Bendu who helps him realize that it’s not his physical blindness that is handicapping him but rather his own self-doubt and shame. Once he lets that go, he’s able to grow and adapt and become the Jedi Knight his friends need. In fact, it’s because he’s had this experience that he’s able to really sink into his role as teacher to the young Jedi Ezra Bridger and as a Rebel leader. But he could have just as easily wallowed in self pity. That’s often what the cannonball asks of us: Are we going to respond to these challenging moments by adapting, by muddling onward, by believing in our own vocation and God’s intimate presence therein? Or are we going to give up, keep doing things the old way, and refuse to grow and change? 

God’s great dream for our lives is the thing that gets us out of bed in the morning. But we have to discover that, one day at a time.

The Ignatian tradition invites us to become “contemplatives in action.” What does this look like in practice? Are there examples that can inspire us to live out this principle?

There’s a quote I always turn to by the Jesuit Walter Burghardt: being a contemplative in action, he says, means “taking a long, loving look at the real.” I think that’s very powerful: What we look at determines what our whole body focuses on, how we see reality and make subsequent decisions. There’s a Jesuit prayer, “Fall In Love” by Joseph Whelan, SJ, that says, “What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning . . . and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.” So, being a contemplative in action means first truly seeing the world—the good, the bad, the ugly—and then letting ourselves be moved by what we see. That movement inevitably leads us to action for the common good, and is very much reflective of the old Catholic social teaching framework of see, judge, act. We bring the world into our prayer, and our prayer informs how we deal with the world. And God is in all of it.

Or, as Qui-Gon Jinn tells a very young Anakin Skywalker: “Your focus determines your reality.” So, where do we give our focus? And what kind of reality do we create as a result? 

Hope is one of the central themes of the entire Star Wars saga. I think there’s a regrettable tendency among Christians to treat hope as a passive virtue. Yet in Star Wars, hope always inspires dynamic action. What should hope-in-action look like? How can we as Christians actively manifest a disposition of hope to the world?

You’re absolutely right: Hope demands action. We can’t wait on the sidelines, eyes shut, squeezing our fists, hoping things get better. No, hope means we understand the needs of the world, we understand ourselves—our strengths and limitations—and then we thrust ourselves into the world to make a difference. Because that’s what God did and does; that’s the story of the Incarnation. That’s how Christ is made manifest through our own individual lives each and every day. We do all we can for as long as we can, and we hope that God will fill in the gaps. And with hope comes another important virtue: trust. God takes what we offer and does marvelous things; our trust facilitates that work, conforms our will to God’s. Ultimately, God’s will for us and our own deepest desires are the same thing. Hope, too, points to something greater. It’s what separates Rebels from Stormtroopers—the Rebels are bringing something new into being; Stormtroopers are stuck in the status quo. Hope means we imagine a new world, God’s world. We’re inspired by that possibility and again trust that God will bring us along on our own unique paths to reach that ultimate goal. Hope is a choice we make to keep going. 

Think of Rey fighting for the Resistance. She puts herself at the disposal of a greater good, of the Force and the Jedi of old. But she also keeps pushing, keeps training, keeps finding new ways to leverage her skills—even when the Jedi disappoint her. The vision of a galaxy of peace and justice sustains her. 

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In Star Wars, the Jedi Knights are called to a life of radical detachment from possessions so that they can be freer to serve the common good. You draw a parallel between this lifestyle and the Ignatian principle of “indifference.” In what practical ways can we live out this holy indifference today, especially in the developed West, where we are so distracted by rampant consumerism? 

This is such an important point. Ignatian indifference—though it sounds like we’re saying to cultivate apathy—is all about channeling our passions and desires in a way that makes us most available to living out God’s will for our lives. So, if we hold tightly to our own assumptions, our own biases, our own goals, we might miss God’s whisper to something else, something new. 

I remember as an undergraduate student really wanting to lead the service immersion trip to Belize my senior year. Instead, I was assigned Nicaragua—a place I had already been. I remember hassling the campus minister in charge: “But I’ve been there; I really wanted Belize; I think that would make more sense.” He said simply to take it to prayer. Well, as soon as I did that, I realized that my priorities were all messed up. I was going to serve and to learn; I wasn’t a tourist. The whole purpose of such a trip is to put ourselves at the disposal of God’s will, and right out of the gate, I was putting my thumb on the scale. I think of that example a lot when it comes to indifference. It’s a low stakes example, but it’s illustrative. Both options were good; I would get to serve and learn in Nicaragua and Belize. But my own disposition was not one of availability, of openness, of a willingness to be surprised and challenged. How much more so do we need to cultivate such a disposition in our own lives when it comes to work, relationship, vocation, etc.? When we hold so tightly to what we think we want, we edge God out of the equation. 

I said indifference is about channeling our passions and desires. Conforming ourselves to the will of God is exactly that. Our own greatest desires—the true ones, the ones that speak to our core selves—are simply God’s own desires for us. But if we cling to things that are not God’s will, if we don’t allow God’s Spirit to work, we miss out. 

The Jedi certainly clung to a way of living that destroyed them, all while they were trying to do good. But they closed themselves off from surprise, from challenge, from an ability to respond in total availability to the needs of the moment. And so might we if we’re not careful. 

Another prominent theme in Star Wars seems to be one of vocation. Heroes like Luke Skywalker follow a calling and heed “the will of the Force.” George Lucas took a lot of inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s concepts of the monomyth and the hero’s journey. I think that’s what makes Luke’s call to adventure in the original 1977 film so powerful and universally applicable. How can the Ignatian process of discernment, of identifying our deepest fundamental desires, help us to respond to the divine call to adventure?

I think it all goes back to Joseph Whelan’s “Fall in Love” prayer: We have to get in touch with whatever gets us out of bed in the morning! Now, I believe that prayer points us to God and to God’s will. God’s great dream for our lives is the thing that gets us out of bed in the morning. But we have to discover that, one day at a time. We have to weigh all the many options of life and discern which resonates most deeply with us. I want to help people, but I’m not cut out to be a medical professional—I hate blood. So, I can rule out one manifestation while holding that central value of helping, of being compassionate, of healing up to the light to see what other ways I might live it out. Ultimately, as a spiritual writer, I hope my writing does that in some small way, even if I can’t do it as a doctor or nurse. 

Take time to find the story that moves you in the way that Star Wars moves me. And then ask: What is God saying to me in this story?

Look at Luke: There’s nothing inherently bad about his life as a moisture farmer. But Luke wants to make his mark on a larger galaxy. This want—first manifested as a desire to join the Imperial Academy and then fine-tuned into his role as a Rebel leader—reveals a need. Luke needs community, to get out into the galaxy to fulfill his destiny, to bring an era of peace and justice. His personal need corresponds with the need of the galaxy at large. But he is just one character.

We look at our values, how God is asking us to manifest them in the world. We look at what we want—holding all things lightly—and then seek to discover what we actually need . . . and how that need corresponds to the needs of our world.

In your book, you speak about identifying the “phantom menaces” that cast shadows over our lives. These inner obstacles like shame, regret, and fear hold us back from heeding the divine call to adventure. Could you share a “phantom menace” that you have faced in your own life, and how has Star Wars helped you to confront it? 

Ignatian spirituality asks us to always interrogate the fruits of our work: Are we becoming more available and compassionate toward others, or are we turning in on ourselves? I think about my own work and vocation as a writer; I believe it to be a great good—helpful to me as I think and pray, and helpful to my readers (I hope!). But I often recognize in myself a desire for honor (“Your book is selling so well!”) for praise (“That post got so many likes!”) and for bloated self-worth (“Your writing is doing so well, so you must be great!”). You can see how a good suddenly propels us—or at least, me—toward a path of darkness. The Sith “Rule of Two” uses a word that I find really helpful: crave. The master has the power; the apprentice craves it. When that craving elicits enough hate and anger, the apprentice topples the master. We know this to be the path of the dark side. And yet, how often do I crave honor and praise? 

In the Ignatian tradition, we talk about the Two Standards. I won’t go into it in depth here, but suffice it to say, the Standard of the Enemy lays out this pathway of craving: riches, honors, and then pride. It all points inward; it’s a lonely path that cuts out God. The Standard of Christ, on the other hand, pushes against this path: poverty, rejection, and humility. Christ necessarily leads us into community; we need one another. So, I try to keep my attention on the people who enjoy my writing, who are touched by it in some meaningful way. I try to also keep my attention on the folks who are teaching me about writing—after all, I have much to learn. Centering the community and remembering that ours is a God of abundance can help push back against these phantom menaces that so often masquerade as simple goods. 

The wars, rebellions, and injustice found on our own home planet are often reflected in the tales of the Star Wars galaxy. We live at a time when violence and retribution seem to be on the rise in our world. Do you think the themes of redemption and enemy-love that are so integral to the Star Wars mythos have become a clarion call for our age? How can we, like many of the heroes of Star Wars, persistently (almost foolishly) seek the good in people, especially in those people we are most inclined to hate or write off as lost causes? 

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I think you’re spot-on here. It’s almost a trope in Star Wars that the characters have “hope,” that they seek the “redemption” of even their enemies. And yet, that’s exactly what our faith calls us, too. As Luke Skywalker says in The Last Jedi: “No one is ever really gone.” 

Social media, unfortunately, tends to amplify our own biases and wall us off into communities of like-minded folks. It’s not bad to find communities with which you share opinions and interests, but it’s also important to remember that social media isn’t the fullness of life. There are people out there who disagree—and those people with whom we disagree on social media are likely more nuanced than a string of posts might reveal.

All this to say, we need to cultivate in ourselves—we always start with ourselves—a disposition of curiosity; we need to turn to wonder and awe at our fellow creatures. Because Christ is present in each of us, whether or not we can see it. God is in all things; each of us is the face of Christ. And not only are none of us ever too far gone, but, as Pope Francis reminds us, we need each other on our path to God. 

I’ve noticed an unfortunate knee-jerk reaction of some Catholics to dismiss contemporary pop culture entertainment, like Star Wars, as facile or as hopelessly corrupted by values of the secular world. I think you’d agree that this is the wrong approach to engaging with one of the most influential myths of the modern age. What advice or insights do you have for Catholic writers or evangelists who seek to engage with contemporary culture? 

I think when we dismiss pop culture—movies, songs, stories, whatever—as lacking in spiritual value, we actually limit God. If a story moves you, if it’s bouncing around in your head days later, that means there was a character or a theme or a plot point that struck a chord with you, that resonated on a very deep level. I believe that’s God at work, speaking to us in all things. We are creative, made in the image and likeness of our Creator. Why would the holiness of creation cease as soon as God’s beloved creatures started creating? 

Does this mean all aspects of pop culture are representative of God’s dream in the same way? Of course not. First of all, you might not like Star Wars; that’s fine—take time to find the story that moves you in the way that Star Wars moves me. And then ask: What is God saying to me in this story? Why does this resonate in such a way? That’s the Spirit pulling at the thread of your life!