Issue 28 - 27 July

Why is it that 465 years after his death Ignatian Spirituality still works?

You may not know it, but we are in an “Ignatian Year”. It began on 20 May, which marked the 500th anniversary of St Ignatius Loyola’s conversion, and runs until his feast day next year, 31 July. So it’s not really a year, but an “Ignatian 14 months”. The centerpiece of the celebrations will come on 12 March 2022, the 400th anniversary of the canonizations of Ignatius, Francis Xavier, Teresa of Avila and Philip Neri. That was a big day for the Church. 

I may be the only Jesuit who will ever tell you this, but St Ignatius was an obsessive, compulsive, neurotic nut. He was also a person of great holiness, a mystical genius and one of the most brilliant men of his time. But some of his behaviour reveals that my first observation is neither facetious nor unwarranted. One of the most important chapters in his life gives the key to why Ignatian Spirituality has been so enduring and adaptable.

For almost the whole of 1522, Ignatius lived in a cave alongside the River Cardoner at Manresa in Spain. From his autobiography as well as some of his letters, we know that this cave was the scene of some of his best and his worst days. That cave saw the genesis of what would later become spiritual masterpieces: the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits; his version of the Examen; and the Spiritual Exercises. But that cave was also the scene of some very dangerous behaviour.

Ignatius-the-penitent whipped himself three times a day, wore an iron girdle which he kept retracting until it broke his flesh, fasted on bread and water which he had begged, slept very little and then only on the ground, spent up to seven hours a day on his knees in prayer, covered his face with dirt, grew his hair and beard rough, and allowed his dirty nails to grow to a grotesque length. Ignatius suffered so badly from religious scruples he considered throwing himself into the river.

These days the 1522 Ignatius might be diagnosed as an at-risk self-harmer, suffering from a chronic depressive disorder and exhibiting a suicidal ideation. In the contemporary vernacular, he’d be known as a “cutter.” Two things saved him. Because he had been a soldier, he was used to taking orders from legitimate authorities and obeying them. On seeing how far Ignatius was mentally and spiritually deteriorating, his confessor at Manresa ordered him, under holy obedience, to eat, to wash, to cut his hair and nails, to stop all the penances, and to take care of himself. Ignatius did as he was told. He turned a corner.  He was to emerge from that cave a wiser and holier man.

Second, Ignatius reflected carefully on how even good things, done in the name of God, - such as prayer, penance and fasting - can quickly became instruments of self-abasement. Ignatius believed that those brutal penances would lead him to God, whereas instead they led him to isolation, despair and destruction. By looking after himself he had a “flooding of the heart”, wherein he encountered God’s love so powerfully he discovered that although he was a sinner he was a “loved sinner”. This was a breakthrough in the way we think about holiness and spirituality.   

The life experiences and insights of St Ignatius still resonate with many of us who have glimpsed a dark place and need to find a way back from the abyss. From 1521 until he died in 1556, Ignatius Loyola went from soldier to saint, from masochist to mystic, and from philanderer to the founder of a religious order that still flourishes today. 

For the last 34 years of his life, Ignatius moved away from trying to find the easy side of easy to embodying Jesus’ call to love God, his neighbour and himself. His hard-won lessons in that cave gave the foundation to the spiritual school that now bears his name. It teaches that we have to embrace suffering as an inescapable and essential part of coming to grips with our human condition.

Ignatius knew we should never embark on this journey on our own, that we need each other, “friends in the Lord”, and that God was to be found in the midst of this companionship. His conversion is enshrined in his famous Prayer for Generosity, here masterfully translated and reworked by Daniel Madigan SJ:

 Lord, teach me to be generous,

to serve you as you deserve,

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 look for any reward,

save that of knowing that I do your holy will.

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of ten books. His most recent one is The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom (Paulist).