Ignatius of Loyola (Basque: Ignazio Loiolakoa, Spanish: Ignacio de Loyola) (c. October 23, 1491 – July 31, 1556) was a Spanish knight from a local Basque noble family, hermit, priest since 1537, and theologian, who founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and, on 19 April 1541, became its first Superior General. Ignatius emerged as a religious leader during the Counter-Reformation. He is considered one of the Christian tradition’s profoundest mystics and perhaps its greatest mystagogue. However, his apostolic successes, as well as those of the Society of Jesus from his time to the present, have overshadowed the importance of his mysticism.
After being seriously wounded in the Battle of Pamplona in 1521, he underwent a spiritual conversion while in recovery, in which he was purportedly inspired to abandon his previous military life and devote himself to labour for God, following the example of spiritual leaders such as Francis of Assisi. After experiencing a vision of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus at the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat in March 1522, he went to Manresa, where he began praying for seven hours a day, often in a nearby cave, and formulating the fundamentals of the Spiritual Exercises. In September 1523, Loyola reached the Holy Land to settle there, but was sent back to Europe by the Franciscans.
Between 1524 and 1537, Ignatius studied theology and Latin in the University of Alcalá and then in Paris. In 1534, he arrived in the latter city during a period of anti-Protestant turmoil which forced John Calvin to flee France. Ignatius and a few followers (Francis Xavier, Alfonso Salmeron, Diego Laynez, and Nicholas Bobadilla, all Spanish; Peter Faber, a Frenchman; and Simão Rodrigues of Portugal) bound themselves by vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In 1539, they formed the Society of Jesus, approved in 1540 by Pope Paul III, as well as his Spiritual Exercises approved in 1548. Loyola also composed the Constitutions of the Society. He died in July 1556, 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.
Bernard McGinn defines a mystic as the person who is conscious of the presence of God. Ignatius deserves to be ranked among the great mystics of the Church including Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross. His early companions, especially Jerome Nadal and Juan Polanco, considered him a theologian whose learning was born of direct mystical experience.
Important evidence for his mystical experiences is found in Ignatius’ Spiritual Diary written while he was general of the Society of Jesus living in Rome. The Spiritual Diary testifies to the infused mystical gifts he received before, during, and after saying morning Mass. His mystical experiences involved the Trinity and the humanity of Jesus. Ignatius describes being drawn into the essence of the Trinity giving him insights into the Triune mystery. Throughout the diary, Ignatius describes receiving the gift of tears, spiritual peace, intense consolations, divine illuminations, visions, and feelings of love and joy.
Four foundational mystical events stamped Ignatius’ life. The first took place at Loyola during his long, boring recuperation from the shattering leg wounds received at the battle of Pamplona. Daydreaming for hours on end about the stories of courtly love he had previously found in the trashy literature of his day, he also pondered what he now read in the only literature at hand—the lives of the saints in The Golden Legend by Jacopo da Voragine and the Life of Christ by Ludolf of Saxony. Daydreaming about “worldly matters” quickly vanished and left him “dry and unhappy.” Reveries about imitating the saints in their holy follies not only consoled him, “but even after they had left him he remained happy and joyful.” The insight that some thoughts left him sad while others consoled him caused him to understand that joy is from God and sadness from the devil: “Little by little he came to perceive the different spirits that were moving him; one coming from the devil, the other coming from God.” From this seed grew his famous rules for the discernment of spirits.
The second significant mystical experience also occurred during his recuperation at Loyola: a vision of the Virgin Mary holding the Child Jesus. This transformative vision instilled in Ignatius such a disgust for his past life—especially for sins of the flesh—that it seemed to erase all the images that had been previously imprinted on his mind. From that hour, he wrote, “he never again consented, not even in the least matter, to the motions of the flesh. Because of this effect in him he concluded that this had been God’s doing.” It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of Ignatius’ transformative visions for understanding his mysticism.
Recovering from his wounds, he went to Manresa where for almost a year he indulged his thirst for great penances and long hours of prayer. Severe depression, doubts, temptations, and scruples—alternating with great spiritual joys—filled his soul. So painful were the tortures from the scruples about his past sins that Ignatius almost committed suicide, and ill health from the severity of his penances brought him to the brink of death.
Ignatius later claimed that at Manresa God had treated him like a “schoolboy” in order to deepen his desire for selfless service of the “Divine Majesty.” It was here that indescribable and unforgettable mystical visions of the Trinity, Christ’s humanity, Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, and how the world was created indelibly penetrated his soul. These experiences contained such purity and certitude that Ignatius confessed: “if there were no Scriptures to teach us these matters of faith, he would still resolve to die for them on the basis of what he had seen.”
The third—and most important—event in Ignatius’s life took place on the banks of the nearby river Cardoner, where “the eyes of his understanding began to open” and he was infused with a comprehension of many things pertaining to both faith and learning. His understanding was enlightened to such an extent “that he thought of himself as if he were another man and that he had an intellect different from the one he had before.” Ignatius would claim only a few years before his death that the clarity he received in his understanding on this one occasion surpassed the sum total of all the numerous and great mystical gifts he had received throughout his entire life.
The fourth salient mystical event took place several years later when Ignatius and several of his companions were on their way to Rome to place themselves at the Pope’s disposal. In a small chapel at La Storta, some six miles north of Rome, Ignatius had a vision of the Eternal Father with his cross-bearing Son. Ignatius heard the Father speak interiorly to his heart saying: “I shall be favorable to you [plural] at Rome,” and to the Son, “I want you, my Son, to take this man as your servant.” Then Christ said to Ignatius: “I want you [singular] to serve us [Father and Son].” The graces at La Storta confirmed Ignatius’s trinitarian, Christ-centered, and ecclesial (a dimension of which has been called “hyperpapal” [Karl Rahner]) mysticisms, all directed to the service of God and neighbor.
To be with the trinitarian Christ so as to serve in his Church with discreet love is a good summary statement of Ignatius’ spirituality and mysticism. Another can be found in one of Ignatius’ key exercises, the “Contemplation to Obtain Divine Love,” in which I “ask for what I desire. Here it will be to ask for interior knowledge of all the great goods I have received, in order that, stirred to profound gratitude, I may be able to love and serve the Divine Majesty in all things.”
The book of the Spiritual Exercises written by St. Ignatius offers a structured 30-day retreat built around four “weeks.” These weeks represent Ignatius’ appropriation of the overarching narrative of the Bible that includes creation, the fall, and the life of Christ. Each week has its own structure and each day is divided into five prayer periods in which a person engages in meditations and contemplations on the truths of our faith and the life of Christ. Ignatius instructs the retreatant to pray for specific graces and offers points for the mediations and contemplations. For the person making the 30-day retreat, he or she is asked to pray five hours a day, keep a journal, attend daily mass, and meet a spiritual guide on a daily basis.
Anyone reading this description without undergoing the retreat itself would have reason to believe this is a highly rigid and regimented approach to spirituality. Those who emphasized the ascetical dimension of the Exercises,with a special emphasis on indifference, humility, and self-denial, offer further evidence for this claim. However, any person who has made the Exercises or guided another through them knows how personal and flexible they are. The error people make is to equate structure with rigidity, whereas the structure built into the Exercises is designed to adapt to the needs of the one making the Exercises. Ignatius tells us that the Exercises are to be adapted according to the capabilities of the one engaged in them. He says “careful consideration must be given to the individual temperament and capabilities.” Ignatius had great respect for the personal experience of the retreatant and warned directors not to get between God and the one making the Exercises. He believed spiritual fruit blooms when a person comes to an insight or a deep feeling on their own.
The opposition between head and heart is quite common in popular spirituality today, but it does not apply to the Exercises. The Exercises engage the total person, including the body, memory, intellect, imagination, desires, and feelings.
Knowledge is important in the Spiritual Exercises. For instance, the retreatant uses his or her understanding as they mediate on the sin of the world, praying for inner knowledge of our own sins and knowledge of the world. In the second week of the Exercises, we pray for an inner knowledge of the Lord. We also ask God for knowledge of the deceits of the enemy and knowledge of the true life revealed by Christ. At the conclusion of the Exercises, we are to pray for an interior knowledge of all the good we have received. Thoughts also play a role in discernment of spirits and decision-making. In each of these instances, knowing is a dynamic process that moves from the universal to the personal and from insight to feelings. Knowledge, especially interior knowledge, is a powerful source of motivation in the spiritual life. It can move a person to change his or her life. It can also motivate a person to love, follow, and serve Christ.
While knowledge plays an important role in the Exercises, so do all the other dimensions of human consciousness. Ignatius instructs us to pray for what we desire at every prayer period. He expects our prayer to generate powerful feelings such as remorse, confusion, abhorrence, love, and gratitude. The body is very important in Ignatian spirituality. We are invited to pray using different body postures. Ignatius also asks us to pray using our five senses. Throughout the Exercises, memory and imagination play a central role in entering into the life of Christ. For instance, using our imaginations, we enter into and experience all the important events in Christ’s life from his birth through his death and appearance to his disciples.
Ignatian spirituality has often been associated with asceticism, self-denial, humility, and indifference, but not love. Yet love—God’s love and our response to that love through service to our neighbor—is the real purpose of the Exercises. In our world, love is considered a feeling or a need—usually my feeling and need. Not so for Ignatius. He believed love is expressed in deeds characterized by mutual communication and self-giving. When two people love each other they share their personal concerns, listen to each other, ask favors or seek advice from each other. They share what they have. Ultimately, they share their very selves with each other. According to St. Ignatius, God’s love for us and our love for God operates on the same principle of mutual exchange. The Exercises tell the story of God the creator and redeemer loving the world and each of us. The story begins with the generous love of God the creator. We then hear of God’s freeing and forgiving love in Christ. God so loves us that he dwells with us and in us in Jesus. This story of God’s love culminates in Jesus’ kingdom, ministry, death, and resurrection. We are invited to enter into this story so as to experience God’s love in our own lives. Our response takes the form of growing gratitude, devotion to Christ, and loving service. Listening to the story of God’s love, entering into it and responding to it, fosters an ever deepening exchange of love between God and the person making the Exercises. The goal is to foster the “motive of pure love in the constant service of God our Lord” which enables us to “love and serve his Divine Majesty in everything.”
A large website dedicate to Ignatian Spirituality, with extensive links to related materials, can be found here:
Some quotes from Ignatius:
“God freely created us so that we might know, love, and serve him in this life and be happy with him forever. God’s purpose in creating us is to draw forth from us a response of love and service here on earth, so that we may attain our goal of everlasting happiness with him in heaven.
All the things in this world are gifts of God, created for us, to be the means by which we can come to know him better, love him more surely, and serve him more faithfully.
As a result, we ought to appreciate and use these gifts of God insofar as they help us toward our goal of loving service and union with God. But insofar as any created things hinder our progress toward our goal, we ought to let them go.”
“Love is shown more in deeds than in words.”
“Act as if everything depended on you; trust as if everything depended on God.”
“To give, and not to count the cost; to fight, and not to heed the wounds; to toil, and not to seek for rest; to labor, and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do thy will.”
“Laugh and grow strong.”
“He who goes about to reform the world must begin with himself, or he loses his labor.”
“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.”
“If our church is not marked by caring for the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, we are guilty of heresy.”
“For it is not knowing much, but realising and relishing things interiorly, that contents and satisfies the soul.”
“There is no doubt that God will never be wanting to us, provided that He finds in us that humility which makes us worthy of His gifts, the desire of possessing them, and the promptitude to co-operate industriously with the graces He gives us.”
“Few souls understand what God would accomplish in them if they were to abandon themselves unreservedly to Him and if they were to allow His grace to mold them accordingly.”
“He who carries God in his heart bears heaven with him wherever he goes.”