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The Ignatian Spiritual Journey

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For those who desire to learn more about St. Ignatius of Loyola, the first thought might be to read his Autobiography, which he dictated later in life. Yet the Autobiography of Ignatius is not a rich narrative full of stories, events, and insights. Those reading it for the first time may find the style terse, abrupt, and lacking details that would seem to bring the narrative to life. More than just a story of his life, the Autobiography reflects Ignatius’ understanding of the way God works with him, a pedagogy that Ignatius adopts in his Spiritual Exercises to assist others in their own journey with God. It is through experiencing the Spiritual Exercises that one comes to a fuller understanding of Ignatius and his spiritual journey.

Following his injury and convalescence at Loyola, Ignatius experiences a profound conversion. Striving to free himself from the vainglory that dominated his first thirty years of life, Ignatius begins his new life with his confession and vigil at Montserrat. As his passion to serve the court as a knight transforms into a desire to serve Christ, Ignatius embarks on a physical and spiritual journey to do great things for Christ. After making his vigil at Montserrat, Ignatius intends to stop for a few days to reflect at Manresa. His time there extends for many months and is marked by extreme experiences of self-mortification, scruples, and despair, along with moments of grace, consolation, and illumination.

While his conversion began during his convalescence at Loyola, it is during his time at Manresa—in particular on the banks of the Cardoner River—that Ignatius’ newfound desire finds its proper focus. His conviction that ‘I’m doing great things for Christ’ changes to ‘God is doing great things in and through me.’ “During this period God was dealing with him in the same way a schoolteacher deals with a child while instructing him.”[1] As a little child in the spiritual life, Ignatius needs clear and powerful experiences of God’s grace to learn what God is trying to teach him. At the Cardoner River, Ignatius receives the grace to see how his past actions that appeared to be his desire and choice (to become a pilgrim, keep vigil at Montserrat, and go to Jerusalem) were in fact God working in his life to guide him. Through prayer and penance, a desire to discern God’s will in his life replaces his disordered attachment to pride and glory. Out of this intensely introspective time, he begins to compose the Spiritual Exercises by recording the reflections and practices that allowed him to acknowledge his disordered attachments and realize interior freedom. With a clearer sense of purpose Ignatius continues on his journey to Jerusalem to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

Upon his return from Jerusalem, Ignatius begins his studies and enters into a period of intellectual formation, ministry to others, and community building with like-minded people. He continues in guiding others in the Spiritual Exercises and encounters opposition from the Inquisition. As he finds close companions in mission, they embark together on a journey that leads them to Rome and the establishment of the Society of Jesus. On the way to Rome, he stops at the village of La Storta where he receives a great vision.

One day, a few miles before reaching Rome, while praying in a church, he felt a great change in his soul, and so clearly did he see God the Father place him with Christ, His Son, that he had no doubts that God the Father did place him with His Son.[2] 

He does not describe this event in much detail in the Autobiography, but from the writings of his companions we learn of the power of this vision. This experience illuminates, transforms, and confirms Ignatius in ways comparable to that of Manresa and Jerusalem. Ignatius’ spiritual journey from vain young courtier to generous pilgrim begins its third phase as he surrenders fully to God. The Suscipe Prayer found at the end of the Spiritual Exercises conveys how Ignatius learns to set aside his desires and surrender to the will of God acting in his life.

‘Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and all my will—all that I have and possess. You, Lord, have given all that to me. I now give it back to you, O Lord. All of it is yours. Dispose of it according to your will. Give me love of yourself along with your grace, for that is enough for me. [3]

The spiritual journey of Ignatius of Loyola moves from acting out of his desires to do great things for Christ to recognizing that God is doing great things in and through him. Ignatius dictates his Autobiography from this perspective of God’s ever-present action. In his Autobiography, Ignatius shares with the world how God transformed him from a vain young solider into a companion in mission surrendering in love. He understands how God works directly with each one of us, guiding our spiritual growth. As Ignatius experiences this path in his own life, he creates the Spiritual Exercises first as a guide for his own “spiritual conversations” and later as a tool to assist other directors in sharing the Exercises. Ignatius provides the Spiritual Exercises as a way for us to become more sensitive to God’s action in our lives, discover our deepest desires, make decisions from a place of inner freedom, and join our lives with the mission of Jesus. As those who complete the Spiritual Exercises offer their gifts to God for service in the world, the spirit of Ignatius lives on.

Featured Photo: Loyola House, Ignatius Jesuit Centre (Guelph, Ontario, Canada) by Randy OHC; CC-BY-SA-2.0.

[1] Joseph Tylenda, SJ, A Pilgrim’s Journey: The Autobiography of Ignatius of Loyola, with introduction and commentary (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001), no. 27. All future citations of the Autobiography will be done within the text abbreviated as Auto followed by the paragraph numbering.

[2] Ibid., 96.

[3] George E. Ganass, SJ, The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius: Translation and Commentary (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1992), no. 234.

Megan Shepherd

Megan Shepherd is the associate director of Notre Dame Vision and coordinator of Notre Dame Vision for Campus and Youth Ministers.