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Chivalry inspired a courtier saint

One of the great mystics of 16th-century Spain, Inigo de Loyola was born in 1491 to a wealthy family in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa. The youngest son of 13 children, at age 16 he became a page to the treasurer of the kingdom of Castile and later transferred his service to the viceroy of Navarre. By then, Ignatius had become a courtier fond of gambling, swordplay and tales of chivalry. In his account of his early life, he mentions being “fairly free in the love of women” and, later, that he was much enamored of a certain lady and the deeds of gallantry he would do in her service.

“He was so enamored with all this that he did not see how impossible it would all be, because the lady was of no ordinary rank,” he wrote, describing himself in the third person. It’s speculated that the lady in question was Dona Catalina, the sister of Emperor Charles V who became the wife of John III of Portugal.

Wounded defending the fortress at Pamplona in a battle between the Spanish and the French in 1521, Inigo convalesced at home in the castle of Loyola where he underwent several grueling operations. A broken leg had to be reset when it didn’t heal properly. When it finally did heal, the bone protruded below the knee, making that leg shorter than the other. Still very much the courtier aware of the importance of a fine leg in hose and tight-fitting boots, Ignatius made himself a martyr to fashion and ordered the doctors to shave off the offending knob of bone and stretch the leg till it was as long as his other. All of these operations were performed without anesthetic.

Laid up in bed, Ignatius asked for the chivalric romances he enjoyed reading, but the only books in the castle were a four-volume life of Christ and a book on the saints. He read these and began to mull over what was in them as well as his own responses to what he read. He noticed that thoughts of the world and the great deeds he would perform to win honor initially delighted him but afterward made him dissatisfied, while thoughts of the saints and their experiences kept him contented. Thus began, at the age of 30, his spiritual conversion.

Inspired by his readings and eager to do penance for his sins, Ignatius resolved to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Dressed as a knight errant, he set out from Loyola in 1522 and traveled east to the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat in Catalonia. There, after a full confession of his past in writing that took him three days to complete, he traded his clothes for a sackcloth tunic and sandals and observed a vigil at arms at the feet of the Black Madonna. He laid his sword and dagger at the foot of the Madonna and vowed perpetual chastity.

Continuing his journey toward Barcelona, the point of embarkation for Rome, where pilgrims went to seek permission to visit the Holy Land from the pope, Ignatius stopped at the town of Manressa. Though he had planned to stay just a few days, he stayed 10 months, working in a hospice and praying sometimes seven hours a day. Initially content, Ignatius became tortured by scruples and his asceticism became more extreme. He fasted and scourged himself, eventually suffering not only from the effects of fasting and sleeplessness, but from depression as well. He was tempted to end his life.

His scruples were eventually put to rest by a spiritual vision, one he accounted the most significant of his life. It was these experiences in Manressa that Ignatius would draw on in writing his spiritual exercises, the outline of which was already prepared by the time he left Manressa and which would furnish him his apostolic mission.

Though he never was able to describe exactly the spiritual illumination he received, Ignatius said it provided him with a new understanding of the Trinity, which he compared to three harmonious notes in a musical chord, and it seems to have furnished him with what has been called the essence of Ignatian spirituality: a belief that God communicates directly to people and can be found in all things.

After his return to Europe from the Holy Land, Ignatius embarked on an ambitious program of theological and philosophical studies. Almost continually he was preaching and giving his spiritual exercises to people. Twice he was investigated by the Spanish Inquisition and thrown into jail. After stints at the University of Alcala and the University of Salamanca, he moved to Paris where he studied at the University of Paris and drew to himself such men as Francis Xavier and Peter Favre, who would later become some of the original members of the Society of Jesus.

In 1537, at the age of 45, Ignatius was ordained. Two years later the Society of Jesus was founded. In 1540 the society won formal approval from the pope.

For centuries, Ignatius was viewed as a soldier and bureaucrat, but the founder of a religious congregation sometimes called “the shock troops of the pope” seems to have volunteered his and his society’s services to the Holy See as an after-thought. From the outset Ignatius believed his mission was to return to the Holy Land and convert the Muslims there. It was only when this journey was frustrated that he and his disappointed companions returned to Rome and pledged their services to Pope Paul III.

Although Calvin and Luther were his contemporaries, Ignatius did not form the Society of Jesus to battle the Reformation, as is widely believed, but was much more conscious of the danger posed by the Turks, who were advancing into Europe. Far from being a ruthless, steely-eyed chessman who moved his men around Europe as if they were so many pawns to be manipulated, a depiction of Ignatius of Loyola suggested by enemies of the Jesuit order as well as some within the order itself, recent biographers say Ignatius appears to have been a concerned friend, a kindly confessor, a selfless leader, and a person who combined remarkable spiritual capabilities with practicality, common sense, and flexibility.

-- Margot Patterson

National Catholic Reporter, April 13, 2001