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Christian History Home > 131 Christians > Movers and Shakers > Ignatius of Loyola


Ignatius of Loyola
Founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits)
posted 8/08/2008 12:56PM

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"Without seeing any vision, he understood and knew many things, as well spiritual things as things of the faith."
—Ignatius of Loyola, writing of himself

"Soul of Christ, make me holy."

So says the first line of a prayer that Ignatius of Loyola recommends to those who take up his Spiritual Exercises, one of the most influential devotional books in the church's history—it's still being published, and followed, some 460 years after he first conceived it.

Timeline

1453

Constantinople falls; end of Eastern Roman Empire

1456

Gutenberg produces first printed Bible

1479

Establishment of Spanish Inquisition

1491

Ignatius of Loyola born

1556

Ignatius of Loyola dies

1565

Teresa of Avila writes The Way of Perfection

In fact, whatever Ignatius touched seemed to be set apart as something special: the order he founded, the Society of Jesus, became one of the most influential of Catholic orders.

Yet Ignatius' little prayer sums up not only his legacy but also his person.

Given to vanities

He was born Iñigo Lopez de Loyola, to a noble and wecaptionhy Basque family, and sent to the Spanish court to become a page. He embraced court life with enthusiasm, learning weapons, gambling, and courtly love—he was "a man given to the vanities of the world," he later wrote in his autobiography, "whose chief delight consisted in martial exercises, with a great and vain desire to win renown."

In a battle with the French for the town of Pamplona, Spain, he was hit by a cannon ball the size of a fist. The five-foot-two-inch Iñigo was helped back to Loyola by French soldiers (who admired his courage). He underwent surgeries to reset his right knee and remove a protruding bone. For seven weeks he lay in bed recuperating.

During this time, he began reading spiritual books and accounts of the exploits of Dominic and Francis. In one book by a Cistercian monk, the spiritual life was conceived as one of holy chivalry; the idea fascinated Iñigo. During his convalescence he received spiritual visions, so that by the time he recuperated, he had resolved to live a life of austerity to do penance for his sins.

In February 1522, Iñigo bade farewell to his family and went to Montserrat, a pilgrimage site in northeastern Spain. He spent three days confessing his life sins, then hung his sword and dagger near the statue of the Virgin Mary to symbolize his break with his old life. He donned sack cloth and walked to Manresa, a town 30 miles from Barcelona, to pass the decisive months of his career (from March 1522 to mid-February 1523). He lived as a beggar, ate and drank sparingly, scourged himself, and for a time neither trimmed his tangled hair nor cut his nails. He attended Mass daily and spent seven hours a day in prayer, often in a cave outside Manresa.

While sitting one day by the Cardoner River, "the eyes of his understanding began to open," he later wrote, referring to himself in the third person, "and, without seeing any vision, he understood and knew many things, as well spiritual things as things of the faith." At Manresa, he sketched the fundamentals of his little book Spiritual Exercises.

After a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he headed back to Europe: "After the pilgrim he learned that it was God's will that he should not stay in Jerusalem," he wrote, "he pondered in his heart what he should do and finally decided to study for a time in order to be able to help souls."

He chose to defer priesthood, which would have taken but a few years of study, for a more intense and lasting 12 years of education. Iñigo studied at Barcelona, then Alcala, where he acquired followers. But Iñigo soon fell under suspicion of heresy (as a non-ordained person encouraging others to reflect on their spiritual experiences, he was distrusted by the church hierarchy), was imprisoned and tried by the Spanish Inquisition—the first of many such encounters with the Inquisition. He was found innocent, left for Salamanca, where he was imprisoned (and acquitted) again. With this, he and his companions left Spain for study at Paris.




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