The Autobiography of St. Ignatius

Ignatius_of_Loyola_(militant)Author

This Autobiography or rather ‘The Acts of St. Ignatius’ as it was originally called was recorded by Father Louis Gonzales, S.J., (‘SJ’ stands for ‘Society of Jesus’) based on St. Ignatius’ oral narration. St. Ignatius of Loyola is one of the most famous Catholic Reformation figures. A contemporary of Luther, Calvin and Erasmus, he pursued a path very different to those men. Where they were each, in their own way, looking to change something about the medieval Church, Ignatius created a religious order that took a special oath of loyalty to the Pope – the Society of Jesus. This order, commonly nicknamed the ‘Jesuits’ or ‘God’s soldiers’ for their dedication to Christ and to the Church, plays an incredibly important role in history. They become so powerful that only two centuries later, they are suppressed. One gets a sense of their dedication in this famous quote, not from his autobiography, but from his Spiritual Exercises:

To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it, believing that between Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride, there is the same Spirit which governs and directs us for the salvation of our souls. Because by the same Spirit and our Lord Who gave the ten Commandments, our holy Mother the Church is directed and governed.

Spiritual Exercises, Thirteenth Rule

His Spiritual Exercises (a sort of spiritual self-help manual) and religious order came to play an important role in the history of the Church.

Summary

This is a great read, provided you understand that this is closer to Augustine’s Confessions and not so much a modern autobiography. The story starts with Ignatius’ conversion; after an injury sustained in the heroic defence of a citadel (a defence gallantly acknowledged by the French enemy) Ignatius is bedridden and needs something to occupy himself. He asks for romances, but instead is given The Life of Christ by Rudolph the Carthusian and Flowers of the Saints. Ignatius reads these books, and is struck by the vanity and uselessness of his ‘noble’ life and is prompted by divine mercy to make the resolution to try to imitate Dominic, Francis and all the saints.

From these humble beginnings, Ignatius goes on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the way, he has a few adventures. These include a darkly humorous encounter with a Saracen whom he considers killing for insulting Mary by suggesting that she did not remain a virgin after Jesus was born; and also a voyage aboard a ship where Ignatius’ lectures on proper moral conduct have the sailors plotting to maroon him on an island somewhere. He appears to be deeply affected by the experience of being in Jerusalem, but is asked to move on.

From here Ignatius goes to Barcelona, Venice, Genoa and Ferrara. He pursues studies in Barcelona, thanks to a wealthy patron named Isabel Roser and a generous teacher named Ardebal. After completing his studies in Barcelona, he traveled to Alcala to study philosophy.  Here he gathers friends and begins to serve the poor, though he has some trouble with the Inquisition. His theology and Spiritual Exercises, a sort of guide to the spiritual life, are thoroughly examined for heresy. He goes on to Paris to study. It is here that his Spiritual Exercises begin to be appreciated by others, starting with three acquaintances of Ignatius’.  Ignatius becomes sick while in Paris, and is advised to return to Spain for his health, which he does.

Later, in Venice, he continues to spread his Spiritual Exercises while awaiting a chance to make another pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He and his companions travel to Rome. The autobiography ends here, but an appendix in the free Kindle version provides additional information about his life and impact, including the date of his death, July 31, 1556.

Reactions

This account is primarily concerned with the spiritual development of St. Ignatius and the beginnings of what will become the Jesuit order. As such, we don’t get more than a glimpse at the setting. It is also unconcerned with what Ignatius actually taught; that is saved for the Exercises. Ignatius’ character comes through strongly. I enjoyed reading it – it’s pretty short and a light read. It doesn’t compare favorably to Augustine’s Confessions, though; for one, this feels a good deal less heartfelt and though an ‘autobiography’ it is mediated through a scribe. Sometimes it can feel a bit scattered as St. Ignatius will jump back and forth in the chronology of his narration, and it begins midway through his life and ends rather suddenly, but it’s an interesting peek into the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. Ad majorem Dei gloriam!

Verdict: Read if you have an interest in Jesuits or St. Ignatius, otherwise give it a pass.

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