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St. Ignatius



St. Ignatius, a man of great passion, is a good selection for the saint this week.  The readings this Sunday are all about love and passion: “I am impassioned for you O Lord, my strength.” (Ps. 18:1)  From the University of Loyola Chicago, we find a summary of his early life.  Inigo de Loyola was born in 1491 in the Basque province of Gulpuzcoa in northern Spain, the youngest of thirteen children.  When he was sixteen, he was sent to work as a page for Juan Velazquez, the treasurer for the kingdom of Castile.  There, he managed to develop a taste for the good life and for the ladies.  He became addicted to gambling and swordplay.  By the time he was 30 years old, he was in the military and found himself defending the fortress of the town of Pamplona against the French.  Outnumbered, the Spanish commander wanted to surrender, but Ignatius convinced him he should continue for the honor of Spain.  During the battle, he was wounded with a canon ball in the legs, wounding one and breaking the other.  The French were so enamored by this brash young man that they let him return to the castle in Loyola to recuperate rather than send him to prison.  His leg did not heal well however, so it became necessary to break it again and reset it, all without anesthesia, and he was told to prepare for death.  On the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, he took an unexpected turn for the better and began to pull through, though for the rest of his life, he walked with a limp.  While he was recuperating, in the large castle of Loyola, he had to stay in bed and was bored silly.  He looked for something to read and asked for some romance novels, but there were none.  All he could find were two books, one a Life of Christ, and another, the Lives of the Saints.  He began having dreams of future adventures and with future ladies, and then he would go back to reading the lives of the Saints.  At the end of the day, however, he began to notice something: when he was dreaming of future adventures, he became anxious and restless; when he read the Lives of the Saints, he felt deep peace.  He started to wonder why the difference.  His wondering set the stage not only for his conversion, but for what he would later understand to be “spiritual discernment,” one of primary reasons Ignatius becomes so successful in founding a religious order (Jesuits) and creating a prayer practice (the spiritual Exercises) that have been used by millions since then.


While he was recuperating, he decided to travel to Jerusalem when he was strong enough, in order that he might visit the place where Jesus walked.  Before he set off on his journey, he prayed all night at the Benedictine Shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat, following the normal rites of chivalry.  When he was done praying, however, he left his sword and knife at the altar, gave away all his rich clothes, and dressed himself with rough clothes, sandals and a staff.  He was turning to a new way of living.


He traveled first toward Barcelona, but stopped at Manresa along the way and stayed in a cave outside the town.  While he intended to stay just a few days there, he stayed for ten months, and while there, he had his first mystical experience.  His vision was one of enlightenment.  While Ignatius never revealed the exact content of his vision, he began to see and “find God in all things,” which would become the motto of not only his religious order, but of all Jesuit institutions to this day.


Ignatius finally did arrive at Jerusalem, by way of Rome (he needed to ask permission of the Holy Father to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and then as is now, Jerusalem was not always a safe place to visit).  The pope told him to check in with the Franciscan superior who had authority over Catholics in the region.  The Franciscan ordered him to leave, since it was too dangerous.  At first he refused, but on threat of excommunication, Ignatius relented and returned to Barcelona. 


At this point, he was 33 years old and decided to become a priest.  He had never studied Latin, however, which was a requirement in those days, so he enrolled with young school boys to learn the language.  It must have been an amusing sight to see a grown man sitting in a desk alongside young boys, but Ignatius was a driven man.  After two years, he moved on to the University of Alcala.  While there, he started gathering young students around himself and started preaching the Gospel.  This was also the period of the Spanish Inquisition and the powers that be were fanatically concerned about orthodoxy, did not like anyone who was not ordained preaching the Gospel, least of all a student who was teaching other students, so they arrested him and sent him to jail for a short period.  When he was released, he moved onto the University of Salamanca and began to do the same.  He was picked up again and told he could only teach young children, so once more he moved on, this time to the University of Paris.  Here, he resumed his studies in theology and philosophy and also shared a room with two men, who would become part of the initial group of his early followers: Francis Xavier and Peter Faber.  Ignatius and his two friends decided to go to Rome and ask the Holy Father what he would like them to do.  On their way to Rome, Ignatius had his second mystical experience: he heard God telling him “I will be favorable to you in Rome”.  The pope wanted them to continue teaching and preaching the Scriptures and theology.  The following year, they decided to become a community, and take an additional vow besides the usual ones of poverty, chastity and obedience: they would put themselves at the disposal of the Holy Father, traveling wherever he sent them to do whatever work he deemed appropriate.  Ignatius also didn’t follow the strict monastic model that most religious orders did in his day.  His priests were not to accept ecclesiastical offices, such as bishops, cardinals, etc.  They were not to pray in common or wear distinctive clothing.  They were not to accept the direction of convents.  They were, however, to work in foreign missions, to educate youth of all classes, to minister to the sick and imprisoned, and to care for the poor.


Ignatius did establish his religious order, write its constitutions and serve as its first Superior General.  From his tiny office in Rome, he would see in his lifetime, the initial group of eight men grow to over a thousand, and they would became the pope’s theologians during the Council of Trent at the time of the Reformation.  On July 31, 1556, Ignatius went home to God.  He was beatified on July 27, 1609 and canonized on March 12, 1622 together with St. Francis Xavier.  His feast day is July 31st.

St Ignatius.resized.two

Today, the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits as they became known, is the largest missionary order in the Church.  Most folks ordinarily associate them with education and especially higher education, for along the way, the order has excelled in teaching, and there are numerous Jesuit high schools and colleges all around the world.  Spreading the gospel and continuing to teach to “see and find Christ in all things,” the Jesuits also adopted the motto for their society: "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam,” or "All for the Glory of God”.


Ignatius was a man of passion throughout his entire life.  He was totally in love with God, impassioned with love for the Christ.  He wrote the Constitutions for his order, but he also wrote his autobiography (he dictated it rather than wrote it himself). One  of the things he recognized was that after he had those disquieting dreams of chivalry, he felt the need to do penance.  He had an acute awareness of his own sinfulness, not unlike a lot of other saints and mystics.  Ignatius began practicing the life of a mendicant, by begging for his food.  He abstained from meat and wine, but did not fast on Sundays.  He kept long fasts and prayed for hours on end to the point of sleep deprivation.  His confessor called him on some of these practices and told him God was treating him like a child, because he was acting like a child: it’s NOT what you do with your life; it is what God does.  Ignatius had a great devotion to the Trinity and to Our Lady.  He loved the Gospel stories with Jesus’ everyday activities and words, and recalling his spiritual discernment while recuperating from his leg wounds, he began a practice and encouraged his fellow brothers to use it as well.  He would meditate on the stories of the Gospels, starting with the infancy stories and moving all the way through the passion and resurrection narratives of Christ, he would meditate on one particular story and use his imagination to put himself in the story.  What would he have done? or said?  How would he have felt?  It was a realistic, hands-on, kataphatic (concrete use of the senses, especially inner sight) approach to the Gospels: it was full of imagery.  Then, at the end of the day, he would engage in an examination of conscience.   He would reflect on what he had said and done that day, what he had done, what he had said, how he had offended anyone, how he had sinned, and then what he had experienced and learned from his earlier meditation.  He would go back and sort of stand outside himself and examine what had happened to him during that prayer.  He cleared his mind and tried to examine objectively his prayer.


He began to learn all kinds of things about himself and about God.  One thing he learned was that God want us to be happy.  And we will be happy if we identify what is really our passion, be that teaching, or woodcarving, or singing, or whatever…. That was meant to be God’s will for us.  Our passion was what was going to make us happy and if one stepped outside oneself  to reflect, one might be able to more clearly discern what that passion was or what God’s will may be for us.


From this idea was born Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.  They were originally developed as a handbook for the priests to discern what was God’s will for each individual man, but they have been used since Ignatius’ times by priests and laypeople as well in a variety of ways.  Jesuits may make periodic 30-day retreats in which the retreatant is guided through four weeks of meditations: the first week on one’s sins and its consequences, the second week, on Christ’s life on earth, the third week on Christ’s passion and the fourth week on Christ’s risen life.  The retreat is usually a guided one, meaning one takes advantage of engaging a spiritual director, a faith-filled man or woman who will walk through the experience with this person and act as a sounding board to help the retreatant see and hear more clearly.  While an ideal format might be a 30-day retreat, for most people, that is practically impossible, so modified forms have existed for years.  One example is a 30-week format, where the retreatant meets once a week for 30 weeks with a director and meditates on his or her own.   Other shorter versions or segments of the whole have also been used.  The stories of wisdom that have been gained from this practice are astounding. 


Harvey Egan, SJ, who contributed to this website by allowing me to use his essay on mysticism and the ordinary life, wrote a text, entitled: Ignatius Loyola, the Mystic (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1987).  In his Introductory Themes, he writes:


In fact, some contend that the Exercises teach only highly discursive, image bound, and somewhat mechanical methods of prayer, suitable only for beginners, and an actual barrier to deeper, more mystical levels of prayer.      

     Yet, as Evelyn Underhill points out, “the concrete nature of St. Ignatius’ work, especially its later developments, has blinded historians to the fact that he was a true mystic”.  This book will contend that Ignatius was an incomparable mystic whose mystical and apostolic gifts are really two sides of the same coin.  (pages 18-19)


And where have we heard that before?  The “ore et labore” of St. Benedict, or taking the fruits of contemplation into action as of Catherine of Siena, or many other great saints and mystics all seem to have an uncanny ability to merge prayer and contemplation with activity while acknowledging their unworthiness and sinfulness.


For more information about Ignatius’ life, there are many texts available, including Father Egan’s text as well as the Ignatius of Loyola volume of the Classics of Western Spirituality (New Youk: Paulist Press, 1991).


Resuscipe - The Prayer of St. Ignatius


Take Lord,

and receive all my liberty,

my memory,

my understanding,

and my entire will,

all that I have and possess.

Thou hast given all to me.

To Thee, O lord, I return it.

All is Thine,

dispose of it wholly according to Thy will.

Give me Thy love and thy grace,

for this is sufficient for me.

Call to Prayer

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Pope Francis

Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, it that direct intuition or experience of God; a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centered not merely on accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge.                    

Evelyn Underhill