Every year when Lent approaches, my thoughts turn to St. Ignatius Loyola. He’s one of the great saints: founder of the Jesuits, author of the Spiritual Exercises, a giant of religious and secular history.
But what interests me most about Ignatius is his skill at discernment. He offers many insights about the subtleties of the spiritual life—wise counsel for anyone seeking spiritual renewal.
That’s why he’s a good Lenten guide. He shows me how to find God in the inner movements of my heart. And there’s another reason why I like to read about Ignatius: his story is fascinating.
Ignatius: An Unlikely Saint. Ignatius was born in 1491, the youngest of thirteen children in a family of minor nobility in the Basque region of what is now northern Spain. At the age of thirteen, he was sent to the royal court of the Kingdom of Castile to serve his father’s friend, who was the chief treasurer of King Ferdinand. No one considered him a future saint. He was proud, conceited, and ambitious for worldly glory. Years later, even he described himself as “a man given over to the vanities of the world; with a great and vain desire to win fame, he delighted especially in the exercise of arms.” He added the tantalizing detail that he was “fairly free in the love of women.” He had a temper. Once he was arrested for brawling in the street, making him one of the few saints with a police record.
The turning point in Ignatius’ life came in May 1521, when he was badly wounded defending the city of Pamplona against an attack by French troops. His wounds were so extensive that he had to be carried home. There he survived two horrific surgeries without anesthetics to repair his shattered legs and spent a year recovering. To pass the time, he read the only two books in the house—a life of the saints and a life of Christ. As he lay on his bed, he fell into reverie. Sometimes he would daydream about his past exploits as a courtier, ladies’ man, and warrior; then he would daydream about living like Christ and the saints.
God Leads with the Heart. Eventually, Ignatius noticed something: his feelings about the two different daydreams were markedly different. Referring to himself in the third person, he later wrote this:
When he was thinking of those things of the world he took much delight in them, but afterwards, when he was tired and put them aside, he found himself dry and dissatisfied. But when he thought of going to Jerusalem barefoot, and of eating nothing but plain vegetables and of practicing all the other rigors that he saw in the saints, not only was he consoled . . . but even after putting [the thoughts] aside he remained satisfied and joyful.
It was a paradox: daydreams of a life of fun left him feeling sad; thoughts of a life of hard work and deprivation as a disciple of Christ left him feeling happy. Why was this? Ignatius realized that God was speaking to him through his feelings. The joy he felt when he imagined being a follower of Jesus meant that this was the life that would bring him greatest satisfaction. Ignatius acted on this insight; he put his old life behind him and became a zealous servant of the Lord. He called himself “the pilgrim.” He walked throughout Europe and travelled as far east as the Holy Land, making friends and talking about Christ. All the while, he developed the insight he’d had on his sickbed: that God’s voice can be heard in the shifting moods and intuitions and leadings and feelings of our affective lives.
One of the most important tools Ignatius left for the world was a way of paying attention to these subtle movements of the inner life. He called his method the Daily Examen, a systematic review of the events of the day to see where God has been present and where he is leading us. The Examen has become the most popular form of Ignatian prayer.
A Loving, Active God. Shortly after his conversion, Ignatius travelled to the village of Manresa in eastern Spain, where he had planned a short rest. He wound up spending a year there in prayer and reflection. His conception of God changed radically. Previously he had known God as a judge and lawgiver, remote and harsh. Now he perceived God as a loving Creator, present in all things, active in the world, engaged with each of us personally, showering us with blessings and gifts.
He read the Scriptures intently, especially the Gospels, paying special attention to passages depicting Jesus doing things—healing, speaking, travelling, and proclaiming the kingdom. This image of the active Jesus inspired him. His whole outlook was suffused by a sense of immense gratitude. He saw himself as a prideful man of no special merit, absorbed in vain worldly pursuits. Yet God had reached out and drawn him into an embrace of love.
Gradually, Ignatius’ sense of his mission took shape: he would minister to people as Christ did. He would help people see God’s immense love for them and help them find their place in Christ’s continuing work of saving and healing the world.
Learning to Discern. To do this well, Ignatius had to be academically qualified—something the Church insisted on. So he set about getting a degree. His first course was a year of remedial Latin, taken in a classroom with high school students. After that, he studied at three universities. He eventually obtained a degree in theology from the Sorbonne in Paris.
At one point during these years of study, Ignatius found himself mesmerized by beautiful visions that came to him in prayer, so much so that he fell behind in his studies. He eventually realized that the visions were not from God at all. They were fabricated by the “evil spirit” to distract him from study—the most important work in his life at the time. This was a crucial insight: the devil often comes to us cloaked in attractive garb. Even our most generous impulses and most zealous urges can be manipulated by the evil one to lead us astray.
This was one of Ignatius’ many insights into the operation of the spiritual realm, gained through painstaking observation and reflection. He eventually codified them in rules for discernment of spirits.
Ignatius deepened his understanding of spiritual realities as he worked with people who came to him for counsel. He developed what he called “spiritual exercises” to help people renew their dedication to Christ and make wise decisions about how to serve him. This grew into the famous Spiritual Exercises, an intensive prayer-retreat experience that millions of people have taken up over the past five centuries.
Ignatius: Our Friend in Lent. You may have already started thinking about your resolutions for Lent. As you do, consider taking a page or two from Ignatius and focusing a bit on inward spiritual renewal this year. Imagine that you’re talking to Ignatius one-on-one. You’re asking what to do for Lent. What might he say?
I’m certain he would say, “Spend time with Jesus.” Wherever and however you best encounter Jesus, try to make a point this Lent to do it. Ignatius once wrote to a group of Jesuits, “More than anything else I should wish to awaken in you the pure love of Jesus Christ.”
Ignatius might also suggest that you try some different ways of praying. He teaches several methods in the Exercises in addition to the Examen. One of the most powerful is imaginative prayer, in which you immerse yourself in a Gospel scene as an onlooker-participant. Another method is prayer in the form of a heartfelt, free-flowing conversation, something Ignatius called colloquy. In the Exercises Ignatius urges you to talk to Jesus “as one friend to another, making known your affairs to him and seeking advice in them.”
Finally, Ignatius might suggest that, like him, you model your life on Jesus: the man of action. You can start by asking the questions at the heart of the Spiritual Exercises. What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I do for Christ? Christ is inviting you to join him by doing the work he does in the circumstances you find yourself in, with the people he has put in your life. He is inviting you to search your deepest desires and respond to his leading with gratitude and generosity.
Spiritual renewal is serious work, but Ignatius would probably tell you not to get anxious about it. If you sincerely desire God, he will find you. As Ignatius wrote to an anxious friend, “There is no need to wear yourself out, but make a competent and sufficient effort, and leave the rest to him.”
Jim Manney is the author of Ignatian Spirituality A to Z (Loyola Press) and six other popular books on Ignatian spirituality. You can find more information at IgnatianSpirituality.com.