Igrew up Catholic but had never heard of the Jesuits until I was well into my 30s. That was when they hired me to work for them at a textbook publishing company. The Society of Jesus — Jesuits, for short — is an international order of priests. The Society was founded six centuries ago by a Spaniard named Ignatius.
Who Was Ignatius?
Formally known as Iñigo López de Loyola y Oñaz, Ignatius was born in 1491. He was raised in the Basque town of Loyola, where his family enjoyed the status and wealth of the Spanish noble class. As a young adult, Ignatius harbored a romantic outlook on life. He set his sights on a career at court, and climbed the military ladder to become a knight. His was a world of duels, military crusades, noble ladies, and fashionable clothing.
In 1521, the French army attacked Pamplona in northern Spain. Ignatius eagerly set off with other soldiers to aid in the town’s defense. But, they were badly outnumbered and suffered a crushing defeat. Ignatius fought courageously in the battle and was struck by a cannonball, which seriously wounded his legs.
Also wounded was Ignatius’ pride. Doctors re-broke and set his limbs, but the surgery left one leg shorter than the other and also resulted in an unsightly bone protrusion. In his vanity, Ignatius asked the doctors to break and set his leg again, and to administer painful cosmetic procedures.
Ignatius convalesced at his family’s home. This period of quiet stillness was difficult for the outgoing man who enjoyed a robust lifestyle. He was bored and restless. There was nothing to entertain him. So, he turned to reading, although his family owned just two books: an account of the life of Christ and a collection of saints’ stories.
Ignatius’ legs healed, but he was left with a permanent limp, and this prevented him from returning to court as a knight. With only religious books to console him, his thoughts turned to the meaning of life. Thus began an unlikely spiritual conversion.
When Ignatius was strong enough to walk again, he left his family’s home and headed off for a solo pilgrimage across Spain. Carrying his knight’s sword with him, he arrived at the foot of the mountains of Montserrat, near Barcelona. Slowly, he climbed the steep terrain, using a walking stick to support his bad leg. Near the top was an ancient monastery, where he paid a visit to its most famous resident, a small statue of the Virgin Mary. Bowing before her, Ignatius presented his sword, then laid it at the statue’s feet, and left his old life behind.
Ignatius descended the mountains and found himself in the small town of Manresa, where he retreated to a cave. There, he meditated on his vocation and the existence of God. He wrote his thoughts down as an organized system for self-discernment, and called this system the Spiritual Exercises.
The Exercises cast the Divine in a new light for that era. Most Catholics were afraid of God, a deity who, in their view, judged them harshly from a faraway home. But, Ignatius’ idea was different: he saw God as a loving companion who is with us all of the time. Ignatius aimed to find God in all things — in plants and animals; in land and sky; and in the hearts, thoughts, and actions of human beings.
Still unsure of his vocation, Ignatius left the cave, continued his travels, and decided to get an education. During his university studies, he made friends with men who were intrigued by his spiritual ideas. The group formed a new community of priests based in Rome. Pope Paul III approved the charter for the Society of Jesus in 1540.
As the first Superior General of the Jesuits, Ignatius directed his companions away from a monastic lifestyle and towards a public mission, one that included serving others by founding schools, colleges, and seminaries. In 1548, he published the first edition of the Spiritual Exercises, and the Jesuits shared this new theology with others.
Ignatius’ final days were filled with administrative duties as the quickly-growing Jesuit order expanded its operations across many lands. In 1556, he died in Rome at age 64.
As part of their goal to “set the world on fire,” as Ignatius once said, today’s Jesuits are active on six continents, primarily in education-related fields, including publishing. Jesuit colleges and secondary schools operate in dozens of countries.
Underpinning this work is Ignatius’ belief that the Divine is all around us, and inside of us, too. The Spiritual Exercises suggest that joy and gratitude are important expressions of divinity, and that God’s gifts to humans must be balanced, in turn, with our own gifts to the world.
My Ignatian Pilgrimage Song
In 2013, I had the opportunity to travel to Spain and Rome with colleagues from my Jesuit employer. We visited the places where Ignatius lived and worked, and one of my favorite destinations was Montserrat. I took a short hike around the nature trails near the monastery, then returned to my room, feeling thankful for the beauty of the mountains and the experiences of the pilgrimage. I opened the window and could hear bells ringing in the basilica and children laughing and playing below my room. I captured those sounds on a handheld recorder, pulled out my guitar, and wrote the song From My Window. ∗