The Basilica of Loyola, Spain is a massive pile of grey stone. But if one persists into the castle, a refreshing simplicity marks the birthplace of St. Ignatius. A simple wooden column stands on the second floor, marked “Inigo, 1491” –his Basque name, the year of his birth. A stunning plaque says simply, “Aqui nacio.” On a literal level, it means St. Ignatius was born here. Symbolically, it reaches vaster regions. Here began an alternate narrative to the sad, centuries-old history of church power and clerical control.
Both Ignatius and Teresa of Avila lived at a time when the clergy were the only intermediaries between ordinary people and God. They begged to differ. What graces they brought to the spiritual life, he saying to regular shmucks: “God has a dream for you,” and she: “the soul’s amplitude cannot be exaggerated.”
Ignatius would later be carried into Loyola castle with a war wound so serious he was given the last rites. But he recovered there, looking out at green mountains, reading the lives of the saints. In nine months of convalescence, some new seed took root. Then Ignatius crossed the worn, mossy stones at the front entrance of his family’s residence. He left behind the fortress mentality, and began a long journey, eventually exchanging his sword for a walking stick. The violence that once constituted the macho drama of a knight’s life, traded in for a mysterious process—he had no idea where it would end, but limped into it trustingly. He made false starts; his dream of Jerusalem didn’t work out. But instead of despairing, Ignatius asked God, “Where else are you? Where are you leading next?”
That journey would take him to the mountaintop of Montserrat, the cave of Manressa, the port of Barcelona, and eventually, to Rome. With genius and craziness, Ignatius realized he wanted his followers in the swirl of cities, where plazas and squares offered places to preach and exchange new ideas—not isolated and distant in monasteries. (Most Jesuit universities are still planted squarely in the midst of cities.)
His directions for Jesuit life are remarkably flexible: no office, no habit, no required fasts or penances. After every directive came the realistic qualifier to fit the circumstances: “or whatever’s best.” At Ignatius’ death, there were 1000 Jesuits. Indicating their perpetual differences with the powers-that-be, they’ve spent more time in jail than any other religious order. Their alternate view of Christianity didn’t emphasize external rules, but the long interior process of the Spiritual Exercises, hence not a what? but a who? Called into “conscious living relationship with the person of Christ,” they have achieved greatly, or like St. Alphonsus Rodriguez in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, faithfully watched the door in Majorca.
Perhaps the most famous Jesuit today is Pope Francis. He reflected the Ignatian tradition when he said, “the whole purpose of the church is to create conditions in which anyone can have a relationship with Christ.” Rejecting the usual palatial residence, his words sprang from a long habit of discernment: “I felt in the depths of my being a ‘no’ to the papal palace.” Ignatius points us not to airy realms beyond but to our current reality, bracing, frustrating and ambiguous as it may seem: “Now. Here. This.”
I’m grateful to Matt Malone, SJ, editor of America Magazine for his insights on Ignatius, shared as he led a pilgrimage through Spain, October, 2018.