Ignatius was born in Loyola in 1491, and as a young man became a royal courtier. He learnt the meaning of chivalry, yet also lived a dissolute life, fighting and gambling and wanting to impress the ladies. A severe battle wound resulted in months of convalescence, during which boredom led to his request for books – the only ones available were about the life of Christ and the lives of the saints. He became fascinated by Christ, and had a desire to follow the saints in their heroic deeds. Once recovered, therefore, he was determined to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His journey took him to Manresa in Northern Spain, where he received from God a series of spiritual experiences which shaped the rest of his life and thinking. Ignatian spirituality is best known for ‘Finding God in all things’. Ignatius realised that all of creation comes from God and he grasped the inter-relatedness of truth, bringing together matters of the spirit, faith and secular learning. There is no distinction between the sacred and the secular: God is present in the whole of his creation. The consequence of his spirituality is that it takes us deeply into the heart of the world. Christ was sent by the Father and in turn calls all people to share in his mission: to bring about the Reign of God in our world. Ignatius pioneered a new and radical ‘pathway to God’, not monastic, but another way, suitable for lay people as well as apostolic religious, who feel called to a life of ‘contemplation in action’.
Of course, not all that is considered ‘secular’ (or for that matter, ‘sacred’!) is of God or leads to God, and Ignatius was well aware of that. His reflection on his own experiences, as well as the learning he received, led to his writing of the Spiritual Exercises, the first version of these being drawn up while in Manresa. In these, he passes on what he learnt himself about ‘discernment of spirits’ or movements within the heart, and the necessity to stand in freedom and balance before all created things, so as to be able to make good choices that lead us to living the life for which we were created: a life of love and service to God and the world.
When his planned pilgrimage to Jerusalem did not work out as he had hoped, Ignatius returned to Spain and began to study, so as to be able to ‘help souls’. He came to realise that he would encounter God wherever he was present and labouring in his creation. Companions joined Ignatius in his venture, still desirous to make the Jerusalem pilgrimage, but when this became impossible, they travelled together to Rome to put themselves at the service of the Pope. The reason for this was that they recognised that he had a wider vision of the needs of the Church, and so would be better able to send them where the need was greatest. Ignatius was persuaded by Pope Paul III that the wider world was a ‘true and good Jerusalem’- his self-image as ‘pilgrim’ was thus expanded beyond the limits of his original desire. In this way, the Society of Jesus was founded in 1540. The fledgling Society soon grew in numbers, and sent on mission throughout the world. They remained united through their Vow of Obedience to their Superior General, the first of whom was Ignatius himself. Ironically, Ignatius himself spent the last years of his life largely at his desk in Rome, writing the Constitutions of the Society, and keeping in touch with those whom he sent out on mission.