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By John Dougherty

One of my Ignatian role models is a fictional detective.

Sherlock Holmes isn’t Catholic (although he claims to have worked for the pope twice). Religion isn’t a central topic at all in the original 56 short stories and four novels that established the character and made him a worldwide sensation. But you can learn a lot about Ignatian spirituality from Holmes’ careful, patient methods of deduction. At heart, they both rely on a radical, simple thing: paying attention.

A Holmes/Jesuit connection isn’t that far-fetched. His creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was raised Catholic and attended three Jesuit schools in England and Austria. His middle name was, believe it or not, Ignatius. This is not to say that Doyle had any great love for the Jesuits: While he credited them with his academic formation, he also chafed against their strict methods, and he left the church in adulthood. Allegedly, he based Holmes’ brilliant nemesis, Professor Moriarty, on Fr. Thomas Kay, SJ, Stonyhurst College’s prefect of discipline.

Despite Doyle’s antipathy toward the Jesuits, you can find echoes of the Ignatian worldview in Holmes’ methods. For Holmes, careful observation of mundane details can reveal their deeper meanings. When he first meets Dr. John Watson, who will become his constant companion and biographer, Holmes immediately deduces that he is a former military doctor wounded in Afghanistan from his tan and the way he holds his arm. In each story he draws similar conclusions: discerning a man’s occupation by the condition of his sleeves or the breed of another’s dog from toothmarks in his walking stick. These insights always astound Watson, but Holmes insists they are “elementary.” “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes,” he comments in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

I often feel this way about God. I know God is always present — capable of being “found in all things,” as we like to say in Ignatian circles. But in the middle of a busy day, this omnipresence becomes surprisingly easy to miss. It’s usually only when I look back that I realize God was with me the whole time. I feel as chagrined as Watson: In retrospect, it all seems so obvious.

St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote (as translated by David Fleming, SJ): “All the things in this world are also created because of God’s love and they become a context of gifts, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.” Ignatian prayer invites us to notice God in the everyday. The Examen, for instance, asks us to review our day prayerfully, allowing God to reveal Godself in the experiences, opportunities and interactions that make up our day-to-day existence. For Holmes, marks in the dust or the absence of a barking dog can serve as critical clues for solving a mystery. For us, a chance encounter with a friend, our emotional reaction to a song, or even a detour on our morning commute can reveal themselves as hints to God’s presence.

“I have trained myself to see what others overlook,” Holmes comments in “A Case of Identity.” This is a skill any spiritual person should cultivate. I often think of the story in 1 Kings, where Elijah goes out to meet God on the side of a mountain. He observes a violent gust of wind that rips stones from mountains, a tremendous earthquake, a raging fire; but God is not in any of these. But after the fire, he hears “a light, silent sound” (1 Kings 19:12) and covers his face in reverence. So often God comes to us in the quiet whisper, and if we don’t train ourselves to pay attention, we may miss God entirely.

I mentioned before that Holmes isn’t Catholic. Later adaptations tend to depict him as an atheist, which I read as the secular imagination struggling to reconcile someone so logical with belief in the divine. But in Doyle’s stories, Holmes is a man of faith. In “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty,” a rose in a window catches his attention. It isn’t a clue related to the mystery he’s attempting to solve but instead, he tells Watson, evidence of God’s goodness:

“Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers,” he says. “All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

He sums it up in what could serve as a mission statement for Ignatian prayer: “There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion.”

John Dougherty is the director of Mission & Ministry at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia. He was previously the director of campus ministry at Saint Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey. His writing has appeared in America Magazine, Millennial Journal and more.