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Understanding Saint Ignatius, Spiritual Father of Pope Francis



Deacon Edward McCormack - published on 02/23/15

The founder of the Jesuits, his mystical experiences, and his spirituality
For more than 450 years, men and women have been inspired by St. Ignatius of Loyola (d.1556) and the spirituality associated with the Jesuits. Ignatian spirituality emerged out of the spiritual awakening and mystical transformation Ignatius underwent at the Loyola family home and in the town of Manresa outside of Barcelona. These experiences led Ignatius to write his Spiritual Exercises. For centuries, Jesuits and lay people have found in the Spiritual Exercises a lifetransforming experience of God’s love.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about Ignatius and the Jesuits. During Ignatius’ lifetime he had many supporters, as well as detractors. Quite often these opinions about Ignatius and Ignatian spirituality are based on hearsay rather than an understanding of Ignatius’ writings or an experience of the Spiritual Exercises. Here are some points to consider when reflecting on Saint Ignatius and the spiritual legacy he has left the Church.

1. Ignatius of Loyola was a courtier before his conversion to Christ.

It is commonly assumed that Ignatius was a soldier or knight. This assumption is based on the opening line in his Autobiography where he mentions taking delight in the exercise of arms. The other passage people use to defend this claim is his description of defending a castle in Pamplona under attack by the French. Although Ignatius’ father and brothers all served the kings in different battles, Ignatius did not. He never fought as a soldier nor was he trained to be a soldier. At the age of 16, his father sent him to live in the household of Juan Velasquez de Cuellar, the Chief Treasurer of King Ferdinand, to be trained as page and courtier in the Spanish courts. As a courtier, he developed the skills of a diplomat, sportsman, officer, and gentleman.

In 1517, Velasquez died and Ignatius began to work for Antonio Manrique de Lara, the Duke of Najera, who was recently appointed by King Ferdinand to be governor of the former kingdom of Navarre. The city of Pamplona became the duke’s capitol where he built himself a castle from which he would rule the people of Navarre. In May 1521, while the duke was away from the castle with his army in the Castile region of Spain, the people of Navarre summoned the French to drive the duke out of their kingdom. Ignatius was at the Loyola manner house when he heard about the French forces amassing around Pamplona. He and his brother Martin rode by horseback to defend the castle. But after assessing the situation, Martin realized surrender was the only course of action. He returned to Loyola, but Ignatius stayed to rally those left behind to defend the castle. Not long afterwards, the French shot a cannonball over the castle wall, wounding Ignatius which caused everyone in the castle to surrender. This was the extent of his “military” service.

2. Ignatius was both the founder of the Society of Jesus and a mystic.

Ignatius is well known as the founder of the Society of Jesus known as the Jesuits, and as its first great leader. But how many people think of him as a mystic? The Spiritual Exercises and the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus provide ample evidence of Ignatius’ penetrating and ordered mind. His massive correspondence testifies to his ability to lead an international religious congregation by attending to countless details while promoting its vision. Yet, we would miss the deepest source of his energy and life vision, the real power behind his spirituality, especially the Spiritual Exercises, if we were to overlook his mystical experiences.

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.

The most important mystical experiences Ignatius received occurred while he stayed in the little town of Manresa just outside of Barcelona on his way to Jerusalem. After spending nine months recovering from the leg wound he received defending the castle in Pamplona, Ignatius abandoned his career in the Spanish courts. He left the Loyola manor house, intending to live in Jerusalem as a pilgrim. On the way to Barcelona in the town of Manresa, Ignatius underwent a series of life transforming mystical experiences of the Trinity at work in the world. He experienced the Triune God creating all things, often he experienced Christ present in the Eucharist, and he also received mystical experiences of the incarnation. These experiences culminate in the great illumination he received by the Cardoner River in Manresa. According to Ignatius, this last experience transformed him into a new man with a new mind and new eyes.

These mystical experiences transformed him in two ways that are fundamental to understanding Ignatian Spirituality. First, these mystical experiences transformed his understanding of God’s presence in the world. He discovered that all good things come from God who creates everything from moment to moment. He also realized that Christ is in all things laboring like a farmer in the field to liberate the world from sin and create all things anew. Ignatius came to experience in his own life the freedom and transformation that God offers all in Christ. Ignatius realized that all things come from God and through Christ are moving towards communion with God. Secondly, Ignatius felt summoned to live as part of this divine movement by cooperating with the mission of Christ. Christ was not an external model but the risen Lord who is in him and ahead of him, calling him to mission. His was a mysticism of service to God in which union with God comes through cooperation with Christ’s mission in the world.

3. The Spiritual Exercises are personal and adaptable.

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.

4. Ignatius spirituality brings together head and heart.

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.

5. Love is the purpose of the Spiritual Exercises.

Ignatian spirituality has often been associated with asceticism, self-denial, humility, and indifference, but not love. Yet I would maintain that 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.”

Deacon Edward McCormack
teaches theology at the Theological College, the national seminary of the Catholic University of America. He specializes in Ignatian spirituality. This article was originally published in the July 2013 edition of
Deacon Digest Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.

CatholicismPope FrancisSpiritual Life
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