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The Way of Ignatius: A Spiritual Portrait of Dialectical Oppositions

Maurice Giuliani, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Sat, Jul 31st 2021

Ignatius is born in 1491: Catholic Spain is completing the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula and consolidating its unity and the triumph of its faith; monarchs (and Christopher Columbus too) see themselves as invested with a divine mission.

Ignatius dies in 1556 at the height of the Renaissance, which has succeeded in developing a new conception of humanity and its relationship with God. Between these two dates, we see the slow evolution of a person who discovers little by little the form of life to which he is being gently led; his inspiration comes from above and leads him from service of a king to the service of God, from Jerusalem to Rome, from local interests to universal tasks. Ignatius himself reveals the secret of this interior power: the name of “Jesus, Savior of Humanity,” expressed with the three letters IHS.

The personality of Ignatius is made up of contrasts, whose unity comes from an equilibrium of action: rigor in his reasoning and a taste for “great things”; firmness and tenderness; “a fixed and immovable determination like a nail securely hammered in place” and extreme flexibility before situations and persons; a gaze always turned toward what is most universal and an almost scrupulous passion for the apparently smallest detail. Jesuit theologian Hugo Rahner affirmed that “we can never correctly speak of Ignatius without using dialectical oppositions.”[1]

Trust in the present time

A number of significant features nonetheless seem to indicate unity within the life of Ignatius. They contain a message that our time is particularly capable of understanding.

After his conversion, during the long months of convalescence[2] in his father’s house at Loyola, Ignatius discovers “the diversity of the spirits that move him.” He seeks out their meaning and draws conclusions from them for the reform of his life and, above all, for the definitive undertaking of the service of God alone. Next he learns progressively not only to practice the virtues, but also “the discernment to regulate and measure them.”

Considering events, situations and persons, he becomes ever more aware of their “circumstances,” that is, of everything that explains the origins of choices, their evolution, and their conflict in the reactions of his entire being, and he becomes aware of the fidelity to which he is called. The gaze of Ignatius interiorizes continually the event he is experiencing: In what way, under what “spirit” and with which variations are these events unfolding?

When in 1539 he wants to give a title to the document that renders an account of the deliberations in common from which had come the decision of the first group of companions united around him to make a vow of obedience and thus seal the birth of a new religious order, Ignatius uses a word that he would make his own: “the way in which the Society was instituted.” What is important is not that the Society was founded, but that it was founded in such a way that it could be sure that it was an authentic fruit of the Spirit. In a sense, it is a matter of a second reading of the event, to recognize the stability of the choice and then to be able to cope with all the consequences.

The importance of the “way” is evident most of all in the fragments of his Diary that have survived. Ignatius never tried to write a “spiritual diary.” But he does want to make note every day and almost every hour of the “movements” that he experiences, in one sense or another, until he discovers with certainty how God is leading him. He searches unceasingly in order to recognize the smallest and most hidden “movement,” which underlies what subsequently becomes clearer or more complex.

This subtlety of analysis carries with it certain limitations and Ignatius lets himself sometimes be drawn into a seemingly obsessive quest. This also is a feature of his temperament, which leads him toward the interiority of each and every thing, and toward silence, rather than toward expression. But this is the secret of his power: where the action of the Spirit has been recognized, human action can proceed with assurance and – to use a formula Ignatius uses often – he “would not have the audacity to doubt it.”

In order to facilitate clear and firm decisions, and to receive the grace of God that works in the heart of the person, Ignatius proposes his Exercises. The word is not his own; he borrows it from a spiritual tradition that dates back to the origins of monasticism, to the Desert Fathers and to Greek culture; but the pedagogy that gives value to the exercises is completely his own.

The exercise, clearly unfolding freely throughout the course of the day, has a beginning and an end; it gradually uncovers more and more the way in which the conscience is moved, agitated and oriented; it creates interior time; it is a generator of motions, cycles and alternations. Exterior time, which supports the exercise, certainly continues to exist, but reveals the time of the conscience, which, through a progressive interiorization, leads out into the light what was in the shadows, to formulate the unexpressed, to receive unconscious powers that create a new being.

With each exercise, the interior times appear one after another, in their insistence, in their alternations. Each moment is situated in a story, which is made up of “passages” from one spiritual situation to another, from a “consolation” to a “desolation” or, on the contrary, from a certainty that is born, vanishes and is reborn to a certainty that in the end asserts itself and opens itself to a decision completely established “in God.”

The exercise makes for an entrance into a fullness of life, because, with the experience of these interior movements and of their alternations having been received and recognized, everything comes together and becomes a source of power. Thus Ignatius comes very close to the movement that passes through his time. The Renaissance had accomplished a revolution, introducing time to domestic life itself, and multiplying the technical ways of measuring it, putting it at the service of navigators, with devices that made them more independent of the stars. Ignatius applies this revolution to the way we listen to God.

In fact, his reference is not the monastic succession of the canonical hours, which spells out the rhythm of nature and the cosmos, but the succession of interior moments of the history of a conscience. The life of the exercise not only does not draw away from concrete and immediate existence, but presupposes that it be entered into fully, with an ardent trust in the present time that is to be received and lived.

This trust in the present time is one of the clearest strengths of the temperament of Ignatius. He gazes on the world and persons with attention, usually in silence, without judging, but trying to go beyond what is said and what appears. Mirar is the Spanish word that Ignatius prefers to use. Looking at the present, and in the present recognizing the future possible: looking, but with the nuance that the etymology of the word proposes and that fills the gaze with a controlled “admiration.”

Looking, for him, is to perceive what is present, but also to reflect, evaluate and let himself be questioned by it; and, still more, pray. The word returns above all when it is a matter of preparing oneself for a decision, of evaluating the pros and cons, of discerning the times and the passages that we have indicated. Looking at what is real without fear, but also without illusions: looking at it as God looks at it, but also, and at the same time, as people look at it.

In this way Ignatius is fully open to life and the adaptations that it imposes. In the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus he repeats continually that something is more “fitting,” more “useful,” more “opportune” to do, unless circumstances lead to a preference for something else: the decision remains open to consider any other urges and any new appeal, on the condition that the heart be free from any “disorder” and any “attachment” that does not have as its rule and measure the exclusive love of God.

This complete openness to life is clearly seen in Ignatius in an experience that gives him an extraordinary depth of reflection: the experience of death. At Loyola, while physicians and surgeons attend to his wounds, Ignatius, as he would confide later, found himself very close to that moment in which “he could be considered dead.” He recounts also that many times, during a storm or in the course of a “very grave illness” he was at the point of death. “Thinking about death at this time he had such great joy and such great spiritual consolation at being due to die, that he was melting totally into tears. And this came to be such a recurring thing that he often used to refrain from thinking about death so as not to have so much of that consolation” (Autobiography [A], No. 33).[3]

Death is not an experience of rupture or a shadow thrown across daily existence, but a light that illuminates the present moment and confers on it a kind of absoluteness: “Considering how I might find myself on the day of judgment, the way of proceeding and the norm that I would wish to have followed in the manner of making the present election” (Spiritual Exercises [SE], No. 187). Let us examine well each of these words: “way of proceeding,” “norm,” “manner.” At this level of truth death is a companion of life, as the arbiter of the movement with which freedom asserts itself within human choices to be made or confirmed.

Therefore, one does not marvel therefore that, in the gaze that Ignatius turns to events and persons, there is at the same time an acceptance and a distance, communion along with alienation. He is present, but distant. When he speaks, one cannot be sure that he has yet said everything, and not even that he has said what is essential. Sometimes he is looking for the word to write; he finds it, but suddenly he crosses it out. He knows he is being listened to, but in what he says there is always what is not said, which will later give birth to another discourse, and that, already in the moment itself, provokes in those who are listening to him the sensation that “the Father” is beyond reach.

In this case, the experience of death is continuous. Not physical death; or rather not this physical death, but as death that is already present in its permanent sign, which is “mortification”: the rejection of all that, though in order, is still disorder; mastery of all the senses; an offer constantly renewed of the “more” that assures the permanence of the urge toward the better. Ignatius lives this “continuous mortification” that should be practiced “in all things possible” to the point of “loving God in all creatures and loving all creatures in God,” “removing from themselves as far as possible love of all creatures in order to place it in the Creator of them” (Constitutions 288).[4] It is this gesture of “distancing” that gives Ignatius his true insight: love for God does not diminish love for created things, but purifies it from any merely human satisfaction; death continually makes life manifest, in every decision, in every gift of oneself, in every word as well as in every silence.


God and creatures: will the heart remain thus divided between these two attractions, between two loves? The response of Ignatius is dazzling: God alone, and all things in God. Love for God admits no compromise, nor does it abolish “the other things on the face of the earth”: it integrates them in the movement of love that comes from God and that returns to God. This is the attitude, writes Ignatius, of those who “are not divided, and who have their eyes fixed on heaven,” at the very time that they are involved in human labors requiring all their strength.

“It is our duty toward him who is our ultimate end and highest and infinite good to return to him alone all our love and to love him in all creatures.”[5] The essential message that Ignatius intends for our time is found perhaps in the union between “creatures” and “him alone.” “Creatures” are the entire created universe, in its complexity and in its power of seduction; but “him alone” is an absolute, who does not allow us “to rob him of any part of ourselves.”[6]

We know that this is the way followed by Ignatius in the course of his life. Fr. Jerome Nadal, a close collaborator and companion of the saint, has testified to this with a formula that, although not in Ignatius’ words, clearly expresses his ideal: “In all things, actions and conversations, he experienced and contemplated the presence of God, and had a refined sensibility for spiritual realities, being contemplative in his very actions [simul in actione contemplativus].

His preferred way of expressing this was: one must find God in all things.”[7] This spiritual life was evidently the expression of his temperament. Ignatius, who was inclined to extremes, could not love God unless absolutely, but he was also led toward “great things,” toward “conversation” with persons, toward relationships with others (which he called by the term tratar). He had been confirmed in this way by the experience at Manresa when he was still searching for his own interior way after many months of prayer and suffering.

We read in his Autobiography dictated to Luís Gonçalves de Câmara[8]: “Going along thus in his devotions, he sat down for a little with his face toward the river, which was running deep below. And as he was seated there, the eyes of his understanding began to be opened: not that he saw some vision, but understanding and knowing many things, spiritual things just as much as matters of faith and learning, and this with an enlightenment so strong that all things seemed new to him” (A 30). A marginal note, added later by Fr. Luís Gonçalves, specifies that: “It seemed to him as if he were a different person, and he had another mind, different from that which he had before.”

The light that then opens his eyes produces diverse effects, to which the testimonies of Ignatius and his acquaintances return significantly. First of all, this permits him to unite his previous experiences. His “great will to progress in the service of God” is no longer blind: Ignatius abandons the “excesses” of his past; instead of being frightened by the “alternations” through which he had to pass, they open a way for the Spirit to work in him. All the variety of past experiences are found transported in a new stream. This illumination transforms a man passionate for God, but violent and scattered, into a “modest and humble” servant. Nadal, who was very close to him, says: “From that time on his face began to shine with eagerness and light. He had acquired a notable experience of spiritual things and the discernment of spirits, a habitual familiarity with God, with Christ, with the Virgin Mary and the saints.”

Nadal expresses in an even more insistent manner a second effect of the grace received that day: “In that light he understood and contemplated the mysteries of the faith and spiritual things, as well as things relative to the sciences (ciencias) and the truth of everything seemed to him to be new and clearly understandable.” The light received extends to all human knowledge, in a vision that Nadal defines with a strange, but evocative term: “as if he had then received everything from the Lord, in a sort of architectonic spirit of wisdom.” This vision that constructs and organizes the world starting from fundamental causes is similar to what Ignatius lays down in the “Principle and Foundation” of the Exercises: the understanding of things at their source, in their origin, in their exact value, with a faith that in every human reality recognizes the divine order.

Finally, it is at this point in time that Ignatius begins resolutely “to communicate to his neighbor the things of the Lord […] as he had received them from God.” He gradually came to this transformation through “finding by experience that, when he communicated to his neighbor the things that God was giving him, these things did not decrease in him, but rather grew even more.” A fundamental discovery. The “apostolic” vocation of Ignatius is imposed on him with the force of an interior impulse that has in itself its own validation: communicating to one’s neighbor “the things of God” is to open oneself even more to God himself.

Ignatius has by now discovered who he is. He is a man of action whose strong dynamism is solidly united to the fact that love and works are one: love manifests itself through works, and works inspire unceasing purification that intensifies love. In this regard Nadal speaks of a circle between action and prayer. Ignatius says this more simply with a beautiful word that is out of favor today but to which we can restore its proper value: “he was growing always in devotion” or, as he explains, in the “ease at finding God.” Human action is no longer an obstacle but has become the way to make progress in fidelity to the Spirit of God, who leads in every moment to the precise choice that is undoubtedly the choice to act according to God and takes into account the entire human situation.

We first tried to differentiate, in the gaze of Ignatius, his acceptance at a distance, his communion along with alienation. Now we ought to add that all this is the fruit of a twofold depth. Every “created thing” is appreciated at the same time in itself and in its cause, in its full immediate truth and in the divine power that has conferred being upon it. After the illumination of Manresa and the awareness of what it had provoked in him, Ignatius comprehends with one gaze both the God who is the source of every good and the world that comes from God’s creative hands. With the years, he grows in this unifying vision, contemplating “how all our eternal good is in all created things.” The same experience of faith leads him to love God, radically and alone, and at the same time, he has the same love for the world in which the glory of God is present and is acting.

Of the grace received from Ignatius “to find God in all things,” Nadal says: “We felt somehow the flow of this grace into us.” It is true that the Society founded by Ignatius carries in itself, even in its fundamental structure, the sign of this grace: the work to be accomplished at the service of humanity is seen directly as the end that is proposed to us, and it is this same work that guarantees the “glory of God.” But Ignatius has opened up much more fully a spiritual way to which not only every Christian but any person desiring to give meaning to the world can be dedicated without risk of taking away its truth.

The Church, the universal

Nadal himself adds that at Manresa Ignatius had received “a great understanding and very lively feelings for the divine mysteries and for the Church.”

Hugo Rahner has placed the accent on the transformation made by Ignatius in his behavior: “Iñigo, therefore, from being a purely interior man becomes an apostolic man. […] The Imitation of Jesus […] is transformed into a ‘following’ of Christ present in the Church Militant. The Kingdom of Christ is the Church in which are gathered all the other mysteries.”[9] Christ becomes for him “the living and active King, who has not yet finished the mission entrusted to him by the Father to conquer the entire world.”

But even if he has received a better understanding of the mystery of the Church, Ignatius does not discover the reality of the Church. He has known it, as it were, forever. Through his birth, his education, the convictions expressed in his social and political environment, Ignatius belongs to the Catholic and Roman Church in an institutional way. Neither its hierarchical character, with the obedience that derives from it, nor the temporal power that it exercises before kings and princes, often in competition with them, is subject to discussion. He can affirm without contradicting himself that every choice of life or state is made “within the limits approved by the Church.”

Why do Ignatius and his companions, on the occasion of the vows at Montmartre in 1534, resolve to turn to the pope to decide on their apostolic mission, if events prevent them from accomplishing their own projects? No document informs us with precision about the reasons for this appeal to the authority of the pope, which is even more surprising in those years when the papacy did not enjoy great credit, compromised as it was by much trickery and scandals and still weakened by the recent sack of Rome. But we know that in 1538, when Ignatius and his companions, to fulfill the vows pronounced at Montmartre, effectively make the “oblation” of themselves to the pope, they indicate clearly the motive that animates them: the pope is “the lord of all the harvest of Christ” and it is he who has “the best understanding of what is best for the Christian universe.”

This is the decisive word: “universe.” Ignatius, in his faith, recognizes the plan of God who wants “to save the human race.” The Church is for him the spiritual place in which the universal Kingdom of Jesus Christ is progressively realized, and it alone can define and guarantee a mission that avoids particular interests. The meeting of the “companions” is itself a living sign that expresses and confirms the desire that Ignatius has of going “to every country of the world.” The companions form an international group by reason of their origins and their cultures: even if the Spanish are the most numerous – and they will be for a long time – a will prevails among them to agree in spite of differences and for openness beyond any frontiers, as the sign of the Spirit that leads them. If these companions gradually specify their will to make a vow that ties them to the pope, it is first of all in order to be faithful to that universal desire which, through every particular task, remains alive and working in them in their common passion for the universal Kingdom of God, which is realized in human kingdoms.

Ignatius is perfectly at his ease in this permanent vision of the universal, as the new-found worlds offered by the explorers expand year by year. His former dream of being a “pilgrim” to Jerusalem, but also through all the roads of Europe, is realized through the work that he is driven to accomplish.

With his will to conserve resolutely this universal character of the Society that he founds and directs, Ignatius affirms the originality of the service that he intends to lend to the Church. No task is excluded, except whatever would limit the effort, reducing its scope to local or particular interests. But he is more and more open to the privileged task of human, spiritual and doctrinal formation of those who would subsequently work for the reform of the Church.

The “illumination” of Manresa continues here to light up his path. “Faith and letters” are held together in a single gaze, and in the guidelines that he gives to his nascent Order, the unity of its members is to be conserved more than ever: preaching the word of God, the teaching of theology, but also the integration of the disciplines that then formed the basis of a healthy human culture. When he obtains the approval, only a short time before his death and after years of continuous petitions, that the Roman College founded by him could confer academic degrees in philosophy and theology, and that it would join the ranks of the universities, or when he supports the plan to create in that Roman College a printing office, Ignatius has not at all abandoned his love for the Kingdom of God, but holds ever present the world of humanity: No value of the spirit can be foreign to him.

The most radical change accomplished by Ignatius

The Society of Jesus is born in a period when strong currents of internal Church reform are asserting themselves. These take shape with the creation of new religious orders around men who are known for their moral authority and their ability to get things done: Gaetano da Thiene and Gian Pietro Carafa found the Theatines, Matteo da Bascio the Capuchins, Antonio Maria Zaccaria the Barnabites, Girolamo Mani the Somaschi, Philip Neri the Oratory. The list could go on. All are animated by the same desire to reform a Church whose decadence had been analyzed unsparingly by Carafa in his 1532 Memoria sullo stato religioso di Venezia (Memorial on the Religious State of Venice). All of these reformers foresaw the reform of the Church coming from personal conversion, the restoration of Religious Institutes that had become decadent, the service of the poor and the sick, faithfulness to preaching, the renewal of the sacramental life. These initiatives rose up independently of the stimulus of the Protestant crisis and unrelated to it.

The Society of Jesus inserts itself wholeheartedly in this stream, which leads to the creation of associations of clerks regular or of reformed priests. It is the fruit of its time and participates in the same effort of spiritual renewal of the Church.

But Ignatius achieves an even more radical change, one that the founders of these other new Institutes do not dare to make. He introduces for his religious a form of life that breaks with an age-old tradition, eliminating every observance of monastic origin: a stable residence around an “abbot,” community life marked by office in choir, penances by rule, distinctive habit. The Society, for which Ignatius in 1539 established firmly the institutional foundations, is an order of priests, not of monks, nor of brothers; its “parish” is the world, as Fr. Nadal will say later; the exterior form of life is indistinguishable from that of other priests; the choice of activities at the service of the neighbor is determined by diverse criteria of universality and urgencies that the Constitutions spell out at length.

This ideal of a religious consecration outside any monastic form creates surprise and opposition. This will continue after Ignatius, and traces can still be found in our time. But Ignatius never stepped back on this point. In his opinion it could not be touched without destroying the Society, and he understood it as the foundational intuition revealing the fruitfulness of the Society. The Society, instituted for the “propagation of the faith,” spontaneously amplifies its action in “defense of the faith” when faced with the advance of Lutheran ideas. The urgency of the tasks of formation and education give rise to the creation of colleges, something that had not been foreseen. The expeditions of the explorers and navigators open up unknown fields, and those who are anxious to carry the faith to the ends of the world set out on this mission. Alongside the monastic forms of the “work of God” there now stands a “missionary” form. In the Church this becomes a means by which to open oneself up completely to the world, with a movement that also seeks to consecrate oneself to God alone.

A community of companions

Finally, in the life of Ignatius one can perceive continually a presence that, without confusing itself with him, accompanies him closely and helps him affirm his work: “companions” who are intimately associated with his enterprise. The first companions of Ignatius said: “All of us had the same mind, the same will, that is: to seek with perfection the will and the good pleasure of God, as our vocation requires […] We should not break that union and community willed by God; we should rather maintain it and strengthen it, uniting ourselves in a single body.”[10] Ignatius would not have realized his design without them and without the link that unites them in their common experience of God for the universal mission.

Ignatius is indisputably the one who “generates” his companions in the life of the Spirit. “My one father in the heart of Christ,” Xavier wrote to him. “We have come to have only one desire and only one will,” confided Peter Faber in his Memoriale, as he remembers his relationship with the saint, beginning in the time in Paris. But Ignatius, for his part, respects the originality of each individual; for every single one of “those who had signed” he has an attention that is a true obedience to the Holy Spirit. Beyond the group of the “founders,” all of his companions become for him “friends in the Lord.” He wants to commit himself to them with complete trust. This is an essential characteristic, to such an extent that in all things, even in the editing of the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius leaves to others the task of bringing to its conclusion an initiative he had taken.

Even this incompleteness is one of the characteristics of Ignatius. The work that he accomplishes always seems to him to be incomplete, and he desires it to remain so, because, if complete, this might interrupt the movement that had given it birth. There is some irony but also much truth in some words that, according to his first biographers, Ignatius would often repeat: “Those who come after the first companions will be better and will do more. As for us, we have done what we could.”

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 3, article 8, March. 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1903.8

[1] H. Rahner, “Die Grabschrift des Loyola” in Stimmen der Zeit 72 (1947) 335, Cf. Id. Come sono nati gli Esercizi. Il cammino spirituale di sant’Ignazio di Loyola. Rome AdP, 2004.

[2] Ignatius had been wounded by a cannonball in the siege of Pamplona in 1521 involving the Spanish army and that of the Kingdom of Navarre, supported by France.

[3] English translation from “Reminiscences (Autobiography)” in A. Munitiz and P. Endean, Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, London, Penguin Books 1996, 28.

[4] English translation taken from The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus and Their Complementary Norms, St. Louis, The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996, 124.

[5] Ignatius of Loyola, “Letter to Emmanuele Sanches,” Rome, May 18, 1547, in Ibid. Gli scritti¸ Rome, AdP, 2007, 1048.

[6] Ibid.

[7] J. Nadal, “In Examen annotationes,” in Ibid., Commentarii de Instituto, Rome, MHSI, 1962, 162.

[8] Luís Gonçalves de Câmara (1519-75) was the Jesuit to whom Ignatius chose to dictate his Autobiography because of his gifts of precision and memory.

[9] H. Rahner. Come sono nati gli Esercizi…, op. cit. 81f.

[10] “Deliberations of the First Fathers,” in Sant’Ignazio di Loyola, Gli Scritti, [The Writings] op. cit 483f.

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