Iñigo de Loyola was born in the Basque region of northern Spain in 1491, and spent much of his young adult life preparing to be a courtier and soldier. The young Basque was something of a ladies' man and, according to some sources, a real hothead. The first sentence of his autobiography tells us that he was "given over the vanities of the world" and primarily concerned with "a great and foolish desire to win fame."
In other words, he was a vain fellow mainly interested in worldly success. "He is in the habit of going around in cuirass and coat of mail," a contemporary wrote about the twentyish Ignatius, "wears his hair long to the shoulder, and walks around in a two-colored, slashed doublet with a bright cap." Like many of the saints, Iñigo (he switched to the Latin-sounding Ignatius later on) was not always "saintly." John Padberg, a Jesuit historian, recently told me that Ignatius may be the only saint with a notarized police record: for nighttime brawling with an intent to inflict serious harm.
During a battle in Pamplona in 1521, the aspiring soldier's leg was struck and shattered by a cannonball, which led to several months of painful recuperation. The initial operation on the leg was botched, and Iñigo, who wanted his leg to look good in the fashionable tights of the day, submitted to a series of gruesome operations. The surgery would leave him with a lifelong limp.
While he was convalescing at his family castle, in Loyola, his brother’s wife gave him a book on the life of Jesus, and another one on the lives of the saints. These were about the last things he wanted to read. The budding soldier preferred stirring tales of chivalry, of knights doing gallant deeds to impress noble women. "But in that house none of those he usually read could be found," he wrote in his Autobiography. (In his autobiography, dictated late in life to one of his Jesuit friends, Ignatius, probably out of modesty, refers to himself as "he" or "the pilgrim.")
As he idly leafed through the seemingly dull lives of the saints, something surprising happened. Iñigo began to wonder if he could emulate them. He thought, "If Saint Francis or Saint Dominic could do such and such, maybe I could do great things."
Within him stirred a strange desire--to become like the saints and serve God. He wrote, "What if I should do this, which Saint Francis did, or this, which Saint Dominic did?" In other words, "I could do that!"
Here was an average man without much prior interest in religious observance, assuming that he could emulate two of the greatest saints in the Christian tradition.
Did Ignatius trade ambition in the military life for ambition in the spiritual life? David, my spiritual director in the Jesuit novitiate, put it more bluntly: God used even Ignatius's overweening pride for the good. For no part of lives cannot be transformed by God's love. Even the aspects of ourselves that we consider worthless, or even sinful, can be made worthwhile and holy. As the proverb has it, God writes straight with crooked lines.
This began Iñigo's transformation. Rather than wanting to chalk up heroic military exploits to impress "a certain lady," he felt an ardent desire to serve God, just as his new heroes, the saints, had done.
Today in Loyola, the family castle is a few yards from a colossal church that commemorates the saint's conversion. Despite those additions, the castle itself looks much as it did in the 16th century, with its two-meters-thick defensive stone walls on the lower floors and graceful red brickwork on the upper floors, which served as the family's living quarters.
On the fourth floor is the bedroom where Ignatius convalesced: a spacious room with whitewashed walls and a ceiling supported by massive wooden beams. A dusty brocaded canopy hangs over Iñigo's sickbed. Underneath the canopy is a polychromed wooden statue of the bedridden saint, holding a book in his left hand and gazing heavenward. Painted in gold on a beam overhead is a legend: "Aquí Se Entrego à Dios Iñigo de Loyola." Here Ignatius of Loyola surrendered to God.
After recuperating, Iñigo considered the insights he had received, and, despite his family's protests, decided to relinquish the soldier's life and devote himself entirely to God. So in 1522, at the age of 31, he made a pilgrimage to the Benedictine abbey in Montserrat, Spain, and, with a dramatic gesture right out of his beloved books on chivalry, he stripped off "all his garments and gave them to a beggar." Then he laid his armor and sword before a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Afterwards he spent almost a year living in a small town nearby, called Manresa, and embarked on a series of austere practices: fasting, praying for hours on end, and allowing his hair and fingernails to grow, as a way of surrendering his previous desire for a pleasing appearance. It was a dark period in his life, during which he experienced a great spiritual dryness, worried obsessively about his sins, and was even tempted to suicide.
The difficulty of what he was about to do tempted him to despair. How could he ever change his life so dramatically? “How will you be able to endure this [new] life for the seventy years you have to live?” a voice within him seemed to say. But he rejected those thoughts as not coming from God. With God’s help, he decided, he could change. So he moved away from despair.
Gradually he moderated his extreme practices and regained a sense of equilibrium. Later in Manresa, he underwent a series of mystical experiences in prayer that convinced him that he was being called to a deeper relationship with God.
For Iñigo this was a time of learning and growth in his understanding about the spiritual life. In a touching analogy he wrote, "God treated him at the time as a schoolmaster treats a child whom he is teaching."
One day, walking on the banks of the nearby Cardoner River, deep in prayer, Iñigo experienced a mystical sense of union with God. The passage in his autobiography describing this pivotal experience deserves to be quoted in full.
As he went along, occupied with his devotions, he sat down for a little while with his face toward the river which was running deep. While he was seated there, the eyes of his understanding began to be opened; though he did not see any vision, he understood and knew many things, both spiritual things and matters of faith and of learning, and this was with so great an enlightenment that everything seemed new to him. Though there were many, he cannot set forth the details that he understood then, except that he experienced a great clarity in his understanding.
The time in Manresa formed him anew. It also helped to form the ideas that would one day be collected in The Spiritual Exercises. He began to "note some things in his book; this he carried along carefully, and he was greatly consoled by it."
After several false starts, including a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (where he found it impossible to receive official permission to work) Iñigo decided that he could best serve the church with an education, and by being an ordained priest. So the proud swashbuckler recommenced his education at two Spanish universities, after dutifully enrolling in lower-level classes with young boys, doing remedial Latin. Eventually, he made his way to the University of Paris, where he begged alms to support himself.
While in Paris he gathered around him several new friends who would become the original "companions," or first Jesuits. These included men like Francisco Javier, later known as the great missionary St. Francis Xavier. In 1534 Iñigo and six friends bound themselves together with a communal vow of poverty and chastity.
In time, Ignatius (as he now called himself, mistakenly thinking that Iñigo was a variant of this Latin name) decided that his little group could do more good if they received approval from the pope. Already they were showing their "detachment." They would do whatever the pope felt was best, since he presumably had a better idea of where they could do the most good.
Ultimately, Ignatius and his companions asked the pope for formal approval to start a new religious order, the Compañia de Jesus, or the Society of Jesus. They had a tough time winning approval. As early as 1526, when Ignatius was studying in the town of Alcalá, his new ideas on prayer attracted suspicion. He was thrown in jail by the Inquisition. "He was in prison for seventeen days without being examined or knowing the reason for it," he wrote.
The notion of being a "contemplatives in action" also struck many in the Vatican as nearly heretical. Some prominent clerics believed that members of religious orders should be cloistered behind monastery walls, like the Cistercians or Carmelites, or at least living a life removed from the “follies of the world," like the Franciscans. That a member of a religious order would be "in the world," without gathering for prayer every few hours, was shocking. Ignatius stood firm: his men were to be contemplatives in action, leading others to find God in all things.
Some found even their name arrogant. Who were these unknown men to claim that they were the Society of Jesus? The name "Jesuit" was initially applied derisively soon after the founding of the order but it was eventually taken up as a badge of honor. Today we use it proudly. (Some say too proudly!)
In 1537, Ignatius and several other companions were ordained. The newly humble man postponed celebrating his first Mass for over a year, to prepare himself spiritually for this signal event and perhaps, he hoped, to celebrate it in Bethlehem. When that proved impossible, he settled on a Mass at St. Mary Major Church in Rome, which was believed to contain the "true crib" of Jesus.
In time, Ignatius won over his critics by carefully explaining the aims of his group, and, also, by leading a few of his detractors through the Spiritual Exercises. In 1540, the Society of Jesus was officially approved by Pope Paul III. The goal of the Jesuits was both simple and ambitious: not, as is usually thought, to "counter" the Protestant Reformation, but, rather, to "help souls." This is the phrase that appears the most often in the early documents of the Society of Jesus.
Ignatius spent the rest of his life in Rome as the superior of the Jesuits, writing the Jesuit Constitutions, sending men to all corners of the globe, corresponding with the Jesuit communities, continuing his spiritual counseling, starting Rome’s first orphanage, opening the Collegio Romano (a school for boys that soon developed into a university), and even founding a house for reformed prostitutes called the Casa Santa Marta. Ignatius continued his work on the Constitutions, and his management of the increasingly large religious order, until his death.
By the end, years of asceticism had taken a toll. In the last year of his life he suffered from liver problems, high fevers and physical exhaustion, in addition to the stomach problems that had plagued him all his life. Eventually he was confined to his room. In his final days, the Jesuit infirmarian, the one in charge of those who were ill, reported hearing "Father Ignatius" sighing during his prayer and calling out softly, "Ay, Dios!" He died on July 31, 1556.
Today St. Ignatius Loyola does not elicit the kind of warm affection that many other saints do--like, say, Francis of Assisi or Thérèse of Lisieux, the "Little Flower." Perhaps this is a result of the austere tone of his autobiography. Perhaps it is because his letters are often concerned with practical matters, including begging money for the new Jesuit schools. Perhaps it is because some portraiture shows him not as a lighthearted young man but as a grim-faced administrator seated at his desk--though Peter Paul Rubens' painting, now in the Norton Simon Museum in California, depicts him gazing heavenward, wearing richly brocaded red vestments, his face streaming with tears of joy. Rubens had better insight into Ignatius than most artists: he belonged to a group of lay Catholics organized by the Jesuits.
Contemporary accounts portray Ignatius as an affectionate man, given to laughter and frequently moved to tears during Mass or while in prayer. Still, some contemporary Jesuits persist in envisioning him as a stern father. An elderly Jesuit once said to me about the prospect of heaven, "I have no problem with Jesus judging me. It's Ignatius who worries me!"
But when you recall his ability to gather devoted followers, you realize that there must have been a tremendous warmth to the man. His deep compassion also enabled him to bear with some difficult personalities in the Society of Jesus. One of his contemporaries wrote, "He is mild, friendly, and amiable so that he speaks with the learned and unlearned, with important and with little people, all in the same way: a man worthy of all praise and reverence."
The founder of the Society of Jesus was ambitious, hardworking and practical. At every juncture he fought for the Society of Jesus. But he was also flexible. Thanks to his spiritual practices, he enjoyed remarkable interior freedom: he considered himself "detached" about even the Jesuit Order. Ignatius once said that if the pope ever ordered the Jesuits to disband he would need only 15 minutes in prayer to compose himself and be on his way.
Still, it was probably a good thing that he wasn't around in 1773, when the Holy See did disband the Jesuits. A welter of European political powers forced the pope to suppress the Society, mainly because they thought its universality and devotion to the papacy impinged upon their own sovereignty. Pope Clement XIV formally issued a document of "suppression," abolishing the Society of Jesus. (The Empress Catherine the Great, no fan of Clement, refused to promulgate the decree in Russia, thus, legally, keeping the Jesuits alive.)
After four decades, the political winds changed and the Jesuits, many of whom had kept in close touch with one another in the intervening years, were officially "restored" in 1814. Not everyone was happy about the restoration. Two years later, John Adams wrote breathlessly to Thomas Jefferson. "I do not like the late resurrection of the Jesuits," he wrote, "shall we not have swarms of them here, in as many shapes and disguises as ever a king of gypsies...himself assumed?"
From The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. Image: St. Ignatius Loyola at Pamplona, from Seattle University's Chapel of St. Ignatius, artist: Dora Nikolova Bittau.