St. Ignatius: the mystic, the pilgrim, and his spiritual exercises



When I was a senior in college, I read an article in the Saturday Evening Post entitled, ‘The Jesuits, the Pope’s Commandos.’ Beneath the full-page photo of a scowling Father John Baptist Janssens, then superior general of the society of Jesus, was the caption The Black Pope. He owes obedience to no man on earth, save the pope — despite the sensationalism and half-truths that filled the article, the author made one fascinating observation: Ignatius and his companions were men obsessed with God, but they used the entire world as their prie-dieu. Nothing secular was foreign to them in their praise and service of God.” … so writes Jesuit Father Harvey D. Egan in his Ignatius Loyola the Mystic.

What was Ignatius really like? Born in 1491, he died in 1556. He was a converted courtier and soldier. Pamplona shattered his military ambitions in 1521; Manresa ushered in his mystical life a year later. In 1540 he got Pope Paul III’s approval for the Jesuit Order, the Society of Jesus. Ignatius is often portrayed as the soldier saint, disciplined and dedicated, his chivalrous and burning ambition focused on Jesus. In his autobiography he humbly describes himself, the pilgrim. There you have the strange combination in the true mystic of deep absorption in God with great practicality in human problems. The Carmelite nuns rejoiced when it was St. Teresa’s turn to act as cook. She excelled in the kitchen when she emerged from mystical raptures in her cell. The popular notion of Jesuits is that of men highly educated, disciplined and dedicated to God’s cause anywhere in the world. They are pictured as Vatican shock-troops, ready to bend any means for the greater glory of God. Some accuse them of ruthlessness.

What is their secret? The little book of spiritual notes of St. Ignatius growing from his mystical experiences in the cave of Manresa is the answer. Ignatius used these experiences to give what we call retreats or courses in spiritual exercises. The Jesuit spiritual training is based on these exercises. Father A. Poulain describes them in his masterpiece The Graces of Interior Prayer: “spiritual exercises that lead to highest sanctity by the Gospel way of renunciation in the spirit of humility … gazing upon our divine master and model.” Some criticized the exercises as very mechanical and detailed in teaching meditation techniques — oh for the beauties of nature and free contemplation. Actually, actually, I have been amazed how deeply people can get into contemplation when only halfway through the 30-week course of the spiritual exercises. In the past seven years, I have directed more than 70 people, all married, in these exercises in their daily life. They commit themselves to 90 minutes of prayer daily, irrespective of Mass and other devotions. We meet together once weekly. The fruit is a life centered on Christ and his service. It is a mysticism of service “finding God in all things,” resulting in amar y servir with one’s whole being. Ignatius was asked, “If you had the choice now to die and go to heaven or stay on earth working for God with no guarantee of salvation, which would you choose? Unhesitating he answered, “I would stay on to work for souls. My salvation is safe in the hands of Jesus.” In the last nine years of his life Ignatius wrote almost 7,000 letters from a small room in Rome — not bad for a mystic.

Jesuit Father John O’Holohan is in residence at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Simpsonville.