I wrote this essay in 2008, as part of a class that comprised my Catholic Studies Minor. It's a reflection on St. Ignatius' autobiography. We present it as part of the ongoing project to get to know the patron saint of our apostolate better.
The entire construction of The Autobiography of St. Ignatius Loyola is premised on the actions of a reluctant saint. Angry at himself for his own sins, unbelieving that God could forgive him, Ignatius manages to create a narrative that is at once narrative and reflective, taking us clearly into the heart of what would become the beating heart of his Spiritual Exercises: The Rules for the Discernment of Spirits. In understanding this work, the reader can see how radically Ignatius (then Inigo) would change from where he started, convalescing in a bed.
There are three episodes in particular that illustrate both Ignatius’ mindset at the time the events actually happened and his bird’s eye hindsight at the time of the relation of the story to Fr. da Camara. The first of these episodes features Ignatius, an ass, and a Muslim. Ignatius, conversing with a Muslim who accepted Mary’s Immaculate Conception (a dogma that would not be formally defined in the Church for centuries) but disputed her Virgin Birth, gets irritated and in the time after the Muslim leaves him, actually contemplates murder: “…he decided…to let the mule go…to the place where the road separated. If the mule took the village road, he would seek out the Moor and strike him, if the mule did not go toward the village but kept on the highway, he would let him be” (Loyola 31). He leaves the decision as to which direction an ass might take on a path ahead. This form of decision-making is both humorous and revealing. It’s humorous in a black way because a man’s life is left hanging on the decision of a donkey. It’s revealing because it shows that Ignatius is still very much within the milieu of chivalry. For him, Mary represents the lady he must love in a courtly manner, and he must fight to the death to defend her honor. Hence, within the atmosphere of his prior 30 years of existence, such a reaction is totally appropriate. At this point, Ignatius is a beginner in the spiritual life and has not yet realized that spiritual action is not simply an outgrowth of the physical self. He has yet to undergo a transformation that will in its own turn transform his actions. There is a clumsiness in Ignatius’ actions here – motivated for the right reasons, animated by the wrong spirit.
That same spirit would cause him to disobey those in charge in Jerusalem, and wander off to Mount Olivet. First, he states his intention to remain in Jerusalem even if he doesn’t have permission, and then he steals off to Mount Olivet when it is clear he will not be staying in Jerusalem. Here we continue to observe Ignatius’ development not only as a spiritual person, but as someone who has an eye to putting that spirituality at the service of a hierarchical organization. Ignatius is not called to be a hermit, but ultimately to be the leader of a huge missionary organization, so he is here learning the first lessons of obedience. As in the previous chapter, he relents to Divine Providence, but not completely. The willfulness that was obvious in the episode with the Moor – a willfulness with a mind to kill – has been mollified into a willfulness for spiritual things. It is, still, a willfulness, and that cannot be countenanced in the advanced stages of the religious life, which is where Ignatius is headed on a crash course.
The final episode which would bring this willful spirit into line was the series of events at Salamanca that involved trial and jail time. Here Ignatius dealt with the full might of Church bureaucracy, reflexively suspicious of new ideas and cults of personality. In retrospect this always seems absurd when applied to a saint, but the times were what they were, and truly, Ignatius needed the interrogation. The simplicity, sincerity, and resignation with which “the pilgrim” accepted this interrogation, jailing, and smearing of his reputation were not only admirable, but clearly showed a change from Ignatius the Moor-killer and Ignatius the Mount Olivet stowaway. No longer guided by his will or his emotions that would hound him into long nights of fasting and regret for his past sinful life, Ignatius had already begun to distill what would be written down many years later: “In a period of distress we are not to alter anything, but should remain firm and unyielding in our resolutions and the purpose of mind in which we found ourselves on the day preceding such distress…for in times of comfort, it is the good angel that guides us by his counsel…in distress, it is the evil spirit” (Barielle 16-17).
Ignatius, in this journey, much like St. Augustine, is the spiritual everyman. He has lived a wicked life. He has realized his errors. He wants to serve God. He finds that it’s much harder than he ever imagined and is quite unlike serving any earthly lord. In reflection many of us, at least I, can claim to having felt many of the same feelings. Ignatius does not give us the rhetorical “quotables” that we would get from St. Augustine (“O Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.”) as he is telling the story in a very detached fashion, but his mindset shines through. This mindset faces its greatest battle in “discerning the spirits.” Many of us have been buffeted by “good” or “bad” spirits whether we are Catholic or spiritual at all. What’s fascinating for the Catholic is that no Catholic who has lived since Trent has had any other so widely-available reference for guidance in periods of desolation than Ignatius’ Exercises – yet in reading his autobiography, it is frightfully clear that Ignatius himself had to figure this out. It wasn’t handed to him on tablets on top of a mountain. He had to live through terrible nights of doubt and agony. He talks about the “scruples” that so bothered him, but unlike Luther, a contemporary, he did not succumb to them.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Autobiography is the lesson of context. When Ignatius began his journey, all he had was a first, second, or third reading of The Imitation of Christ and some lives of saints. He took from a book the right intention and it took some months and years for that intention to transform the rivulets and furrows of his heart, so long rutted and caked with the ideas of worldly chivalry – ideas not in themselves harmful but not in themselves conducive to the humility and submission that Ignatius so desperately needed to start a congregation of religious. That reshaping, that metanoia, is sought by many of any spirituality, but Ignatius’ brief narrative is a clear distillation of hope.
Barielle, Ludovic-Marie. Rules for Discerning the Spirits in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Kansas City: Angelus Press, 1992.
Loyola, Ignatius. The Autobiography of St. Ignatius Loyola. Trans. Joseph F. O’Callaghan. New York: Fordham University Press, 1992.