In the Footsteps of Ignatius: Following a saint through Spain

After an awful night’s flight from Boston to Madrid, during which dozens of teenagers roamed the airplane aisles joking in Spanish, my wife, Eileen, and I land. We are greeted by a representative of Washington Theological Union, the sponsor of our retreat. Professor Edward McCormack has, for the past 20 years, offered retreats based on the Spiritual Exercises for high school and college students. Like our other retreat leaders, he has been preparing for this journey for a long time.

So begins an eight-day trip through Spain’s Basque country in the footsteps of St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuits. There are 26 of us, divided evenly between men and women. There are six couples, five priests, several single women and some half-dozen other people who are all taking the trip as the culmination of a course in the Spiritual Exercises under the guidance of Professor McCormack and Joan Knetemann, director of the department of institutional advancement at W.T.U.


As with any pilgrims, in any era, we all have our own reasons for being here. There are the more civilized reasons: history, culture, prayer, good tapas and Spanish wine, a generous dose of curiosity. Then there is the deeper reason, unarticulated but necessary, that is seldom clear to any of us until we have made the journey and that may not show itself for weeks or even months to come.

On This Spot

With cameras and journals we hit the ground recording what seems obvious by its grandeur or its hints of the sublime: the grand edifices of Madrid, the medieval splendors of Burgos, St. Francis Xavier’s fortress-like dwelling, and the marble and stone piles of the Sanctuary of St. Ignatius in Loyola, enfolded within the fortress-like structure where Ignatius grew up, the building itself enclosed within the great baroque church.

Accommodations range from the modest, comfortable meals and dormitory rooms at Centro Arrupe to a sumptuous dinner and a room at the Parador in Cardona. There are tapas bars in Pamplona that are, as they say, to die for. And an ascetic-looking guide there speaks of his distaste for Ernest Hemingway, with his incessant talking of the running of the bulls. So wrapped up is our guide in these canned remarks that we barely notice the sidewalk plaque with embossed chain links and the familiar IHS at the top, followed by the words: Aqui Cayo Herido San Ignacio de Loyola 20 de Mayo de 1521 A.M.D.G. (“On this spot St. Ignatius Loyola was seriously wounded on May 20, 1521”). A French cannonball ricocheted off a stone wall and struck Ignatius, shattering both his legs. The fortress he was protecting against an overwhelming French enemy had to be surrendered, because no one else was willing to carry on the fight besides this crazy Basque.

In San Sebastián, we peered down at the coastal waters from above the striated rocks; it was as if the wind itself had carved these lines into the hillside. The image of a 16th-century double-masted ship, uncovered on one of the walls in Loyola’s house, is a reminder of his family’s connection to the sea.

From miles away the serrated edges of Montserrat are visible, and nearby Manresa, where Ignatius lived in a cave for a year. There, amid the now-baroque splendors of the little chapel, I touch the cold exposed rock he must have touched. I realize that in terms of geological formation, a nanosecond separates me from the man who lived and shaped the spiritual exercises that have shaped me, my wife and my sons.

In Barcelona I find Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia Basilica, begun in 1882 but still unfinished. The architect died in 1926, but work on this neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau edifice is expected to go on until the late 2020s. (The building made me think of a Disney castle.) It is magnificent, breathtaking, even sublime, and captures something of Barcelona’s audacious spirit. George Orwell called this incarnation of Catalonian Mo-dernism one of the most hideous buildings in the world. To others it is the masterwork of one of the most original architects of the last 200 years.

Approaching the Meaning

Several priests in our group concelebrate Mass in the crypt of Barcelona’s cathedral, dedicated to St. Eulalia, martyred at 13 in the fourth century. Afterward, I stare into the marble faces of the indifferent Roman authorities surrounding her sepulcher, then into the faces of her torturers. After several attempts to kill her failed, on Feb. 12, 303, she was stripped and crucified. But a heavy snow fell and covered her nakedness. As a sign, legend has it, never once has it snowed in Barcelona on that day.

I grew up with legends like these, at which the mind balks. Yet no matter how many times Eulalia’s story has been replayed, the pride and stupidity that violated her youthful innocence end up damning themselves, as the faces of stupidity and hatred are held up to the flickering candlelight in the crypt beside this young girl, who has set her eyes on something many refuse to see. “We had the experience but missed the meaning,” T. S. Eliot wrote as he approached his own omega point in life. He saw that the “approach to the meaning restores the experience/ In a different form….”

An Old Friend

I remember a time, when I was half my present age—nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita—driving a rented car through the Tuscan hills with Eileen beside me and Allen Mandelbaum, my mentor and Dante’s translator, and his girlfriend trying to relax in the back seat. The roads zigzaged through ancient towns as stone buildings loomed up on either side, until Eileen became ill with motion sickness and I had to pull over. That is where Allen spotted a lead pipe channeling cold mountain water. He covered her forehead with a handkerchief soaked in those refreshing waters, while I paced back and forth, eager to push on to the next church murals and paintings.

Now, 35 years later, with the news that my old teacher and friend has just died, I realize what the heart of this pilgrimage in the footsteps of Ignatius comes down to, as an experience is replayed for me with a clarity that haunts and astounds.

One morning we are on our bus riding up the precipitous mountain road that clings to the edge of the Aiskorri Range, en route to the Franciscan sanctuary of Our Lady at Aránzazu in the Basque country of Oñati. There is a shrine to the Virgin at the summit, on the site where Mary is believed to have appeared to a shepherd a generation before Ignatius was born. He said he saw her among the thorn bushes and exclaimed, “Arantzan zu?!” (“Is that you, among the thorns?”). Linguistically the phrase means simply “place of the hawthorns.” Thus the rugged mountain landscape itself announces the Franciscan sanctuary of Our Lady of Aránzazu. The bus swerves back and forth, yawning over the indifferent crevasses below.

Eileen is doing fine. She has a view of the hillside and has taken her Dramamine. But just behind us, on the other side of the bus, one of our group, nauseous from motion sickness, begins to vomit. There is a clamor to the young Peruvian bus driver to get the bus off this narrow road as soon as possible. Our fellow pilgrim, stricken, wobbles down the rear steps of the bus with the help of Joan and some others. I watch him, as if this were some movie: an old man—like myself—dizzy and helpless. Suddenly I am descending quickly down those same steps, daring myself to do what I am about to do, as I begin wiping the vomit from his shirt and pants, comforting him as I can.

I will later remember looking into his eyes, which have grown suddenly deep, to see what? The eyes of Ignatius and Francis of Assisi and the eyes of Eulalia, and then, yes, Christ’s eyes looking back at me.

Soon, with cars speeding past me in both directions, Joan asks me to get back on the bus, where it’s safer. An odd sense of peace has come over me as I sit down beside my wife. Then it comes to me, as it has to many other pilgrims, that this is why I have come these thousands of miles: to find Christ here, now, at this junction, even as I learn to find myself.

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Monica Lavia
5 years 10 months ago
I have read this piece several times, each time more slowly than the last, savoring the details, experiences and impressions, and finally allowing myself to accompany these pilgrims through the touching words and memories of the author. Once again I am in Montserrat, my son at my side urging me to hurry, and myself wanting to savor and store in memory each sight and sound, every thought and sensation. Many times have I been in the beautiful Cathedral of Barcelona, and each time I stand in front of the little chapels and think of those who have placed their feet in the same spot as mine over hundreds of years. It is mind boggling to sense such a connectedness to all who have gone before me in that exact same space. I have attended Mass in the Cathedral, but to be able to attend in the crypt must have been such an incredible experience. I have to say I had a small twinge of jealousy when reading this. I decided I would just join you in the crypt, and was able to do so from your description of the expressions etched into the faces of marble. I was hoping that perhaps you would have visited and written about the church of Santa Maria del Mar. That is the place in Spain where I felt the closest to Ignatius. Maybe because it is a place where he went to pray and meet with his teacher when he was in a state of temptation, confusion, and inner conflict. I felt he was just so human there. I could walk around in that church in silence and in awe I would wonder if I was possibly in the exact spot when he had prayed for peace and guidance.
Thank you for sharing your trip and your insights in this beautifully written article.


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