How unlikely Catholic Steve Bannon uses St Ignatius' meditation methods to stay off alcohol

He may seem an unlikely figure for perhaps the most deeply spiritual Catholic meditation method ever devised, but Steve Bannon, the outspoken and divisive former adviser to Donald Trump has said that he abstains from alcohol with the help of the 'examen', a meditative daily exercise recommended by St Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises.

Bannon, who has now returned to the right-wing, libertarian news outlet Breitbart, and is notorious among many fellow American Catholics, told America Magazine: 'The simple but powerful technique of the daily examen has become a tool for me to lead a better, more fulfilled life. The daily exercise has helped to ground me by understanding my failures in the previous day before turning to the day ahead.'

Steve Bannon was formerly one of Donald Trump's closest advisers.Reuters

The comments follow the publication of a biography, Bannon: Always the Rebel, written by Keith Koffler and released on November 13 by Regnery Publishing, in which Bannon is quoted as recognising that his drinking in the 1980s 'was definitely having an impact on me, on just my ability to perform.... I didn't have a drinking problem, but I didn't have a drinking solution.'

He stopped drinking alcohol completely in 1998, and has abstained since by, according to Koffler, 'practising the spiritual exercises conceived by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order'.

Bannon is quoted in the book as saying of the examen: 'I could centre myself and get a practical program for each day...It's a five-step program to, essentially, become aware of the presence of God in your life, the presence of God as you review the day at the end of the day. You also then review the day with gratitude. You pay attention to what emotions you had at certain things. You choose, each day, what was the chief feature of that day—was that anger? Was it jealousy? It's just a way to settle yourself. To read religious texts in a certain way. Basically, you pray.'

Bannon today prays the examen daily, according to the book. 'He generally performs it in the morning and later reviews the day, through its perspective, at night. He has even done the full four-week program "probably ten times," though never in isolation at a retreat,' it says.

Often, the full Spiritual Exercises take place in the context of a 30-day silent retreat held in isolation, with the subject typically praying for several hour-long sessions per day, with specific meditations and Scripture passages.

But a modified version of the retreat, the '19th Annotation Retreat' or the 'Exercises in Daily Life' does allow for the subject who does not have the time to withdraw for 30 days to go through the Spiritual Exercises with an hour of prayer each day (and a once-a-week meeting with a spiritual director) while continuing with living 'in the world'.

Bannon told America Magazine that he had done the exercises 'on my own. I have never felt comfortable enough with a spiritual director.'

Jesuits undertake the full 30-day Spiritual Exercises during their first two years in the Society of Jesus, a period known as the novitiate, and then customarily take part in an eight-day retreat on the same principles every year. They will then take part in the full 30-day retreat again a few years after they have completed training, and some Jesuits have recently started doing the retreat again later during ministry. But only rarely would anyone do the Exercises, which are what America Magazine describe as 'an extremely rigorous spiritual experience,' more than three times in their life.

St. Ignatius of LoyolaBy Thomas Jefferson Page [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

'It is no surprise to hear that the Spiritual Exercises, and especially the examen, helped Mr Bannon with his consumption of alcohol,' William Barry, S.J., a longtime spiritual director and co-author of the book The Practice of Spiritual Direction, told America Magazine. 'Many people have been helped by the spirituality of the Spiritual Exercises without making them in a formal setting. It's more difficult that way, i.e., without a 'spiritual director' to talk over one's experience. But it does happen. In my own work as a spiritual director I stress, as does Ignatius, the centrality of developing a personal relationship with God, and especially with Jesus, the Son of God.'

Many other Catholic religious institutes also use the Spiritual Exercises, and Catholic retreat houses throughout the world also offer Ignatian-themed retreats. St Ignatius (1491-1556) intended them to be not just for Jesuits but as a gift to the whole church.

America Magazine pointed out that, while Bannon is described as 'not quite an alcoholic' in the book, and makes no reference to Alcoholics Anonymous, there are a number of parallels between that program's famous 'Twelve Steps' and Ignatian spirituality. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, had a Jesuit priest as his spiritual advisor, Father Ed Dowling, and the two often corresponded about the similar approaches of the two systems for 'regeneration'.

Following Fr Dowling's death, Wilson called him 'the greatest and most gentle soul to walk this planet,' adding: 'I was closer to him than to any other human being on earth.' In turn, Fr Dowling told his own Jesuit superiors that he saw numerous parallels between Wilson's writings and the 'rules for discernment' found in Ignatian spirituality.

Trump, Bannon's former boss, himself also reportedly abstains from alcohol, but there is no suggestion that he uses St  Ignatius's methods to pray or meditate.