The soldier

1491 - 1522

Ignatius (born Iñigo Lopez de Loyola) was born in 1491 in the castle at Loyola, as the son of a local landowner. Here, in the Basque Country, he was brought up in the cottage of the blacksmith's wife and had little formal education. For much of his youth, Ignatius was, in his own words:

' ... a man given over to the vanities of the world, and took a special delight in the exercise of arms, with a great and vain desire of winning glory'. Reminiscences [1]

In the pursuit of such glory, he served as a soldier until he was twenty-six. It was in the army that he was to have an experience that would change his life forever. Whilst defending the town citadel of Pamplona in the name of King Ferdinand of Spain from a vast French army, Ignatius suffered a terrible battle injury. On 20th May 1521, French cannon fire smashed into both his legs.

This traumatic event hospitalised Ignatius for eight months and this served as a period of intense reflection for Ignatius. Ignatius wanted to read tales of chivalry and romance in his bed-bound state, but to his dismay, he found that the hospital only had the life of Christ and the lives of saints available to read. Ignatius found in reading these stories that they awoke something strange inside of him, a desire to live like the saints.

‘For, while reading the lives of Our Lord and the saints, he would stop to think, reasoning with himself: ‘How would it be, if I did this which St Francis did, and this which St Dominic did?’’ Reminiscences [7]

It was also in this period that Ignatius had his first spiritual insight into himself.

‘... from some thoughts he would be left sad and from others happy, and little by little coming to know the difference in kind of spirits that were stirring: the one from the devil, and the other from God.’ Reminiscences [7]

Slowly, Ignatius discovered that the things of his old life no longer brought him joy, but the idea of a new way of living, of living the life of a saint, really did. The dream of doing good deeds for God and imitating the saints by walking barefoot to Jerusalem thrilled him, whereas dreams of romantic gallantry no longer did. This observation of the movements of his soul became a spiritual insight he would later teach to others known as the Discernment of Spirits.

Ignatius entered that hospital a broken soldier but left determined to be a great saint.

The mystic

1522 - 1523

‘Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.’

On leaving the hospital, Ignatius made a pilgrimage to the statue of the Black Madonna at the shrine of Montserrat where he planned to lay down his previous life. On arrival, he stayed up all night in a vigil of all-night prayer and even had a confession that lasted for three days!

‘This he decided to keep a vigil of arms for a whole night, without sitting or lying down, but sometimes standing up, sometimes on his knees, before the altar of Our Lady of Montserrat, where he had resolved to abandon his clothes and clothe himself in the armour of Christ … He also arranged with the confessor that he should give orders ... that his sword and dagger should hang in the Church at the altar of Our Lady.’ Reminiscences [17]

Here, he renounced his former ways, with all its vanities, and dedicated himself to his new Master. From this time on, he would live a simple lifestyle, embracing poverty. Having lain down his sword for good, Ignatius threw himself into the spiritual life with zeal. He exchanged clothes with a poor man, then left Montserrat at dawn, to leave unrecognised and to pursue his new life.

From the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat, high among the wild and jagged peaks, Ignatius descended to the bustle of the nearby town of Manresa. For ten months he learned to interpret the way in which God deals with the individual soul. He first punished his body. Reacting against his former tendency to vanity, he cut neither hair nor nails and took no care of his appearance. He begged daily for his meagre food. It was not long before this radical life transformation began to affect him.

‘The difficulty of his way of life would present itself to him, as if it was being said to him inside his soul; ‘And how are you going to be able to stand this life the seventy years you’re meant to live?’’ Reminiscences [20]

This period of Ignatius' life in Manresa was wild and strange. He was tormented by guilt and despair and at some point seriously contemplated suicide. Eventually, he came to see the error of the self-punishment he was putting himself through and realised that the forgiveness of God is free, not bought with self-inflicted penances.

‘But at the end of these thoughts there came to him some feelings of disgust for the life he was leading, and some impulses to cease from it; and with this the Lord willed that he work up as if from sleep. … Thus from this day onward he remained free of those scruples, holding it from certain that Our Lord in his mercy had willed to liberate him.’ Reminiscences [25]

Having changed course, Ignatius learned in a deep way how to make life decisions with God, how to discern better God’s path for him through life, an insight he would share with many in the future. Ignatius stayed for almost a year in Manresa and began to see great spiritual fruit from his time there. Sitting in his cave by the banks of the Cardoner river, he prayed often, and the fruits of his meditation there laid the foundations for his Spiritual Exercises. A moving passage from his biography states that it was in Manresa that he received the greatest spiritual experience of his life, all whilst simply watching the river.

‘One cannot set out the particular things he understood then, though they were many: only that he received a great clarity in his understanding, such that in the whole course of his life, right up to the sixty-two years he has completed, he does not think, gathering together all the helps he has had from God and all the things he has come to know (even if he joins them all into one), that he has ever attained so much as on that single occasion. And this left him with the understanding enlightened in so great a way that it seemed to him as if he were a different person, and he had another mind, different from that which he had before.‘ Reminiscences [30]

The pilgrim

1523 - 1524

‘It is dangerous to make everybody go forward by the same road: and worse to measure others by oneself.’

From Manresa, the pilgrim set out on the long journey to Jerusalem. Braving the dangers of a war-torn Mediterranean, he begged his way to the Holy Land in 1523. From Spain he travelled to Venice, boarding the ship for Jerusalem with ‘nothing with which to feed himself beyond the hope he was placing in God’. In Jerusalem, he spent time devotedly walking in the footsteps of Our Lord.

‘His firm intention was to remain in Jerusalem, forever visiting those holy places. And, as well as this matter of devotion, he also had the intention of helping souls.’ Reminiscences [45]

Ignatius expressed a desire to stay and convert the Muslims, but the more prudent Franciscan keepers of the Holy Places ordered him home. They explained kindly that it would not be appropriate for him to be a missionary there for the following reasons.

‘For many people had had this desire, and then one had been taken prisoner, another had died, and then the order had been left having to ransom the prisoners. He should therefore get ready to go the following day with the other pilgrims.’ Reminiscences [46]

Ignatius was crestfallen that he could not imitate the saints by ministering in these holy places, but accepted that this was the will of God. This dream shattered, he headed home in order to find Christ, not in the romantic notion of converting the world, or living in the land walked so long ago by Jesus, but in the events of daily life in his own country.

The prisoner

1525 - 1528

‘If God causes you to suffer much, it is a sign that He has great designs for you, and that He certainly intends to make you a saint.’

Ignatius’ great desire became to help others see God working in the ordinary events of their own lives. His work was frequently looked upon with suspicion by the church authorities who saw heresy lurking behind every tree, for Europe at the time was in the throes of the Reformation.

Ignatius felt that the best way to be allowed to teach in the Church was by studying philosophy and theology and becoming a priest. So, he settled down to life as a student. In Barcelona, at the age of thirty-three, he went back to school and joined classes of boys to learn Latin, the language of the universities. In 1526, when he had mastered the basics of this ancient language, he moved to Alcalá University to study Philosophy. It was in this town where he gave his Spiritual Exercises to the townsfolk and began to draw crowds!

‘While in Alcalá he was also occupied in giving spiritual exercises and in explaining Christian doctrine, and through this there was fruit borne for God’s glory. There were many people who came to considerable awareness and relish regarding spiritual matters … and there were other things like this which stimulated talk in the town, especially given the great crowd that used to gather wherever he was explaining doctrine.’ Reminiscences [57]

It was then that Ignatius fell foul of the Spanish Inquisition, who travelled from Toledo to investigate his way of life and his teachings. Ignatius was imprisoned in 1527 for teaching religion before his completion of the required training. The severity of the Inquisitors' treatments of people can be felt in a striking part of Ignatius’ biography, in which he has this exchange with a friend,

‘We’d like to know if they’ve found any heresy in us.’
‘No’, said Figuerao, ‘if they had found it, they’d have burnt you.’
Reminiscences [59]

In the end, Ignatius was imprisoned in Alcalá for forty-two days!

‘At the end of these … the notary went to the prison to read him the verdict: he could go free, they were to dress like the other students and they were not to talk about matters regarding the Faith within the four years that they still had to study, because they weren’t learned.’ Reminiscences [62]

Ignatius would be arrested again in the town of Salamanca by Dominican Friars who were suspicious of Ignatius' lack of education on moral issues. Again, an investigation of his Spiritual Exercises was held and Ignatius had to stand trial before judges. After twenty-two days of imprisonment here, Ignatius and his companion were released, with it being concluded again that there was no heresy in what they taught.

Upon release from prison, Ignatius the student moved from Spain to the freer atmosphere of Paris and Montaigu College, even though France at the time was a treacherous place for a Spaniard!

‘Many prominent people urged him strongly not to go … when he arrived in Barcelona, everyone who knew him advised him against the move to France because of the major wars taking place, recounting to him very specific examples, to the point of telling him that they were roasting Spaniards on spits. But he never had any kind of fear.’ Reminiscences [72]

The founder

1528 - 1535

On arrival in Paris, academic study alone could not satisfy Ignatius. A desire was growing in Ignatius’ heart to do this work for God with companions.

‘Now, since at this time of being imprisoned in Salamanca these same desires that he had hadn’t gone away - of doing good for souls, or studying first with this end in view, of gathering together some people with the same intention and of keeping those he already had.’ Reminiscences [71]

He gathered about him young men whom he fired with enthusiasm to serve the Lord. He gave the Spiritual Exercises while continuing his studies of philosophy at the University. These included six key companions, namely, Francis Xavier, Alfonso Salmeron, Diego Laynez, Nicholas Bobadilla, Pierre Favre and Simão Rodrigez.

To finance his studies, Ignatius would spend a little time each year in Flanders begging for alms. In the summer of 1530, he went further afield to London. The generous Londoners gave him much more than he had collected previously - sufficient, to keep him for the whole year.

On 15th August 1534, one of their number, Pierre Favre, said Mass in a chapel on the slopes of Montmartre where they all took vows of poverty and chastity and, further, promised that upon completion of their studies, they would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. They agreed to meet in Venice to embark from there. On that day, the ‘Society of Jesus’ was founded, with those companions all as co-founders. Their great mission was now ahead of them.

‘And already at this time they were all resolved on what they were to do, namely, to go to Venice and Jerusalem and to spend their lives in what was beneficial to souls. And if permission was not given them to remain in Jerusalem, they were to return to Rome and present themselves to Christ’s vicar [the pope], so that he could employ them wherever he judged to be more for the glory of God and the good of souls.’ Reminiscences [84]

The priest

1537 - 1556

The agreed meeting took place, but the companions waited in vain for a pilgrim ship to the Holy Land. The normal dangers of wind and weather were added to that of war with the Turks. However, what happened during the wait was more significant than any pilgrimage could have been. It was during this time that Ignatius, and those of the companions who were not yet priests, were ordained on 24th June 1537. Ignatius, however, waited until Christmas Day 1538 before celebrating his first Mass, such was his devotion to the Eucharist and his low estimation of his own worthiness to celebrate it.

In July 1537, the companions left Venice for nearby Vicenza, still awaiting their passage. Here they began ministry, tending the sick and helping the poor, while they themselves lived in destitution. In order to attract an audience for their preaching, they cavorted and threw their caps in the air, and then, in a hilarious mixture of languages, these men from Spain and France preached to the Italians.

‘And with each of the four going into different squares on the same day and at the same hour, they began their sermons first shouting loudly and calling the people with their caps. With these sermons there arose a great deal of talk in the city, and many people were moved with devotion.’ Reminiscences [94]

During this period, they were frequently cold, hungry, and ill, yet ecstatically happy. In bringing the love of Christ to the poor and sick, while themselves living the simplest of lifestyles, these men found the most profound joy.

Early in 1538, the companions, whose number had now grown to nine, decided to go to Rome to put themselves at the disposal of the Holy Father. During the journey, Ignatius had a memorable vision where God the Father 'placed him with his Son' carrying His cross. Following Christ crucified, Ignatius continued to Rome.

Ignatius and his companions considered long, hard and prayerfully whether to band together formally. They decided that they would be more effective together than apart and so, in 1540, with the blessing of Pope Paul III, the Society of Jesus was officially born.

They dedicated themselves to teaching, to preaching the word of God, to working with the poor and the sick in the slums of the cities of Europe, and to travel to far-flung destinations to preach Christ to people in lands new to European eyes. The new religious order had chosen to be flexible to meet the demands of the new age of Reform and Reformation. Gone was the monastic meeting together many times daily to sing God's praises as a community. Gone too was the requirement of wearing a distinctive habit; now each man worshipped God in the way he found best and was totally free to respond to the needs of those around him.

The Jesuit 'community' was maintained over vast distances by means of the pen. They were to be educated men who could debate with the reformers on their own terms; men who would not be seduced by worldly power and wealth; men who sought to convert whole nations to Christianity; willing to do anything for the greater glory of God.

Ignatius of Loyola was elected by his first companions as Superior General of the Society of Jesus, so he remained tied to an office desk in Rome writing letters to men who, like Francis Xavier, matched him in fame - letters which encouraged, which made requests, which chided; letters telling of everyday events, and of outstanding feats. The playboy, the soldier, the pilgrim had to learn to watch others doing the adventurous deeds while, for sixteen years, he supervised and organised the building up of the Society of Jesus and its movements across the world. Indeed, he became one of the most prolific correspondents in Europe during the 16th century: over 7000 of his letters still survive.

The Saint

St Ignatius died on 31st July 1556 at the age of 65. He was beatified by Pope Paul V in 1609, canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622, and declared patron of all spiritual retreats by Pope Pius XI in 1922. Ignatius' feast day is celebrated on 31st July. In his Spiritual Exercises, he repeats a phrase often, a phrase in which he articulates the purpose of life,

‘Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord and by this means to save his soul’.

Ignatius never lost sight of his purpose, or his quest to reveal this to others. Today, we still have all the spiritual ways that he taught people then, all fruits of his life lived in relentless pursuit of God. Why not discover this spirituality for yourself?