Life of Ignatius and 21 Things You Didn’t Know About Ignatius

21 Things You Didn’t Know About Ignatius by Tom Powers

So you aren’t a saint. Well, neither was Ignatius, until God did some extraordinary things to him. And he returned the favor.

Ignatius’ secretary wrote of the saint: “Although attached to his faith, he did not live his life in conformity with it, nor did he avoid sin in his early years. He was particularly given to gambling, female matters, as well as to brawling and the exercise of arms.”

Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, was a remarkably complex man, and the quote reaffirms what we have always known: that saints are first and foremost human. Although parts of Ignatius’ story are well known — his conversion, imitation of Christ and asceticism, to name a few — so much more remains hidden.

Some say his character was Basque to the core: namely, passionate, determined, stern and taciturn, as well as charming and playful.

But he was much more.

1. He Was a Nobleman


Iñigo de Loyola (he would not take the name “Ignatius” until after his studies in Paris) came into a Basque world dominated by staunch family traditions and loyalties and isolated by mountains. He came from a noble and ancient family; of that family, a chronicler would later write, “The Loyolas were one of the most disastrous families our country had to endure, one of those Basque families that bore a coat of arms over its main doorway, the better to justify the misdeeds that were the tissue and pattern of its life.”


2. He Was, Well, a “Bon Vivant”
Ignatius, the young nobleman, certainly lived the life expected of him; existence in feudal 16th-century Basque country in the westernmost part of the Pyrenees Mountains was violent. Any nobleman worth his salt was prepared to leap for his sword at any provocation. Violence was ever prepared to meet violence, and the very stamp of a man’s masculinity and reputation lie in both his sword and his sexuality. The future saint met both expectations exceedingly well. He was neither a pacifist nor a celibate, to say the least.

3. He Grew Up Without His Mother
Ignatius’ mother died shortly after his birth. He spent his first few years of life living at the home of a nurse, María de Garin, a few miles from the family manor; María taught the young boy to pray. He was returned to the homestead shortly after his brother married. Ignatius’ new sister-in-law, Magdalena de Araoz, became a third mother figure; she nursed him back to health after his encounter with the cannonball (see number five). She also was instrumental in his new discovery of God in his life.

4. He Had Great In-Laws
When Magdalena married Ignatius’ brother, Queen Isabella of Spain gave her a painting of the Annunciation. This painting, installed in the chapel at the manor house, and the religious books Magdalena brought with her to her marriage, played a pivotal role in Ignatius’ conversion. Although the future saint had asked for books of adventure and romance to distract him during his convalescence, Magdalena instead delivered the Life of Christ and the Legends of the Saints to his bedside.

5. He Almost Died in Battle

In 1519, at 28, Ignatius demanded that his small band of soldiers battle an undefeatable force of 12,000 French troops at Pamplona, Spain. His courage (or perhaps, more accurately, his obstinacy) earned him a cannonball to the legs, which shattered one and seriously damaged the other. The chivalric values he held so highly resulted in a long period of convalescence at the family manor house in Loyola. This period changed his life, and the world, forever.

6. At 28, He Was Given Last Rites
Told that he would die of the cannonball injuries to his legs, Ignatius was given last rites. And then he made an astounding recovery.

7. He Had Cosmetic Surgery
Don’t think that Ignatius renounced his courtier ways overnight. Even after being given Last Rites and experiencing an exceptional recovery, he demanded the 16th-century equivalent of plastic surgery. Since close-fitting boots were all the fashion at the time, he was ashamed of the bone protuberance on his leg and demanded that the protuberance be sawed off. Recall that this was several centuries before the introduction of surgical anesthesia. (The surgery cost 15 ducats, but his brother refused to pay more than 10. The in-laws might have been great, but the siblings were a bit cheap.)

When Ignatius set a goal, he would endure almost anything to attain it; his determination shown here is a precursor to what he achieved later in his life.

8. He Was an Early Proponent of Highlighters
Ignatius’ desire for spiritual reading during his recovery soon became insatiable. Well before the invention of highlighters, he copied passages from the lives of Christ and those of the saints; the words of Jesus were inscribed in red and those of the Blessed Mother in blue.
9. He Was a Dreamer
His desire to imitate Christ and the saints resulted in his active use of what would become an integral part of Ignatian spirituality – the imagination. While early in his life he dreamed of chivalric acts that would win the admiration of men and the affection of women, he used that same imagination to dream instead of how he would lead his new life. The life, that is, he would lead when he could finally get out of bed.

10. He Became a Beggar
Ignatius thought long and hard about the “spirits” in his life — the spirits that lead to God, and the spirits born of the devil. This spurred him to live in a manner that historians have called his pilgrim period. During this time, he was resolute in renouncing worldly pleasures. He donned a sackcloth and one rope-soled shoe (the other leg was still tied up with bandages) and set his sights on the Holy Land.

11. A Donkey Helped Lead Him to God
In his peripatetic post-recovery years, Ignatius encountered a Moor upon the road and engaged him in conversation about the Blessed Mother. The Moor, who had chosen to convert to Christianity rather than face the Inquisition, could not admit that he believed in the life-long virginity of Mary. Frightened by the imperious manner of Ignatius, the Moor hurried his mule ahead. Ignatius however, was torn between killing the man who doubted Our Lady’s virginity or letting him go; of reverting to or renouncing the violence of his past. In the end, he decided to allow the donkey upon which he rode to make the decision for him. The creature of burden turned and went the other way.

12. He Was Kicked Out of Israel
One of Ignatius’ most impassioned desires was to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in the Holy Land. A woman friend provided him the means to travel to Jerusalem, and he resolved to remain there for the rest of his life. The superior of the Franciscans, who was granted the supervision of Jerusalem by the pope, had other ideas. He considered Ignatius a madman and ordered him out of Jerusalem under penalty of excommunication.

13. Women Were Crucial, and He Knew It
María de Garin and Magdalena de Loyola (née Araoz) were the first of many women who played a crucial role in his spiritual and physical health. In fact, the Society of Jesus might have been very different if not for the assistance of important women in critical periods in his life.
And what he got, he gave back. After Ignatius’ conversion, during his pilgrim years, he often devoted himself to spiritual direction for women. These experiences would have a profound influence on him.

14. He Ministered to Prostitutes
Even before the official founding of the Society of Jesus in 1540, Pope Paul III charged Ignatius and his companions to do missionary work in Rome. Perhaps the most telling of the Roman endeavors was their work with prostitutes. Rome had become the capital of European prostitution, and there were few alternatives for these women even if they could “change professions.” The opportunities for a woman without a dowry or property were negligible. Even shelter at a local convent required entrance into a religious order. Therefore, Ignatius and his companions established the house of St. Martha, where a woman could receive care, food, and shelter without anything demanded in return.

So intent was Ignatius on the success of the house that he ordered some of the group’s resources — ancient Roman marble and a hundred gold pieces — to be donated at a time when the young Society was financially strapped.

15. His Companions Were Called Devils
The early companions were described as the Seven Spanish Devils — not at the time, but in the 19th century, by an English historian. The companions (there were actually six of them and not all of them were Spanish) had met Ignatius during their studies in Paris, and they gathered in Rome to become the nucleus of the future Society. In less than a century, Ignatius and Francis Xavier would be canonized.

16. He Looked Terrible
Ignatius’ health and appearance were a problem from the time of his rendezvous with the cannonball to the end of his life. Shortly after his conversion experience, during his pilgrim years, he began severe and intensive penances. He gave up meat and wine, staples of the Basque diet, and stopped taking care of his appearance, of which he had been so proud. (One cannot help but wonder whether he regretted his pride in sawing off that bone from his leg.)

17. He Felt Terrible, and He Felt Terrible About It
Ignatius lived an impoverished existence for many years, and he was severely troubled by abdominal pains throughout his life. The self-mortification, fasting and improper diet he followed had an increasingly deleterious effect on his health. In truth, he had ravaged his body so extensively through his fanatical extremism that he realized it left him ill prepared for God’s work.

So when it came time to write the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, which guides the governance of the Jesuits, he included norms and prescriptions forbidding future Jesuits from doing just what he had done.

Upon his death in 1556, a renowned surgeon performed the autopsy and he reported “almost innumerable gallstones of various colors, found in the kidneys, the lungs, the liver and the portal vein.” Contemporary science would diagnose his ailment as biliary colic; the pain from that malady has crippled many a good soul.

18. There Were Women Jesuits
Yes, you read that right. As mentioned previously, the women in Ignatius’ life often came to his rescue. During his pilgrim years, his spiritual conversations with women were assuredly fruitful for all concerned. However, this activity, as well-intentioned as it was, roused suspicions and slanderous accusations.

Yet Ignatius’ mystical appeal continued to draw many women to his side. Among these was Isabel Roser, who befriended the poor beggar Ignatius when he was on the streets of Barcelona. (She paid for his ill-fated trip to the Holy Land.)

Isabel was also the leader of a group of Spanish noblewomen who participated in that most noble of Jesuit activities — fund raising. The generosity of Isabel and her friends became increasingly important as the first companions (who would later be the first Jesuits) came together to study theology in Paris.

Isabel Roser was also one of the first female Jesuits. After her husband died in 1541, she returned to spiritual matters with increased enthusiasm. She initially focused her energies on monastic reform in Barcelona and throughout Catalonia. This did not satisfy her. She quickly settled her affairs and made plans to embark for Rome, accompanied by two Jesuits living in Barcelona. She was intent on becoming a Jesuit and wouldn’t let anything stop her. When Ignatius caught wind of all this, he quickly moved to prevent those two Barcelona Jesuits from accompanying her.

Isabel was not to be outmaneuvered. With the helpful intervention of Emperor Charles V of Spain (Jesuits not being the only ones with friends in high places), she set sail for Rome with her lady-in-waiting and a friend. For two years after reaching Rome, she begged Ignatius to let her take the vows of a Jesuit. While Ignatius was able to stall for a time, Isabel eventually took the most expedient path — she wrote Pope Paul III (the same pope who had approved the founding of the Society a few years earlier), asking for permission to enter the Society of Jesus and for a papal order forcing Ignatius’ hand.

By Christmas 1545, she had bequeathed her entire estate to the Society. Ignatius attempted to refuse it, but he quickly understood that he was on the losing side. Thus, on Christmas Day 1545, three women — Isabel, her lady-in-waiting Francisca Cruyllas, and her friend Lucrezia di Bradine — knelt before Ignatius and professed the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience that he had formulated for them.

The trial run was short-lived. Ignatius soon realized that Isabel was not suited for communal life, with or without a vow of obedience. The pope was more involved in the everyday operations of the young Society at that time. Isabel had asked for Paul III’s permission to enter the Jesuits, so Ignatius then requested of the pope that Isabel’s vows be rescinded. Ignatius prevailed — this time.

After the dust settled, Isabel returned to Barcelona and continued to do good works. Eventually she entered a Franciscan convent in Jerusalem where she lived until her death.

19. The Women Jesuits, Part II
There was one permanent woman Jesuit. She was Princess Juana of Spain. Juana was the daughter of Emperor Charles V and wife of the royal heir of Portugal. Her husband died shortly after their wedding, and she was then appointed Regent of Spain, replacing her brother Philip (who had moved on to an ill-fated marriage with Mary Tudor).

Princess Juana had strong contacts with the Society, and she lived an almost monastic life as Regent of Spain. An able and intelligent ruler, Juana also discerned a vocation as a Jesuit. Ignatius wrestled with this proposition. “How do you refuse the request of one of the most powerful women in the world?,” he must have been thinking. Ignatius was also wary from his previous experience as well as concerned about the future marriage prospects of a Hapsburg princess.

Nevertheless, she was admitted to the Society with the vows of a scholastic, a form devised by Ignatius by which a person (up to then, only men) would bind him- or herself, but the Society retained the right to release her or him from the vows. She was never released from her vows and was deeply involved in many of the Society’s projects. She remained a Jesuit until her death.

20. When He Died There Were a Thousand Jesuits
Ignatius, a tiny (barely more than five feet tall), wiry, bilious-hued, sparsely bearded, limping figure, lived his final years in a small room in Rome. From there, he governed the Society of Jesus and witnessed its growth from the original six companions in 1541 to a thousand at his death in 1556. Jesuits were dispersed throughout Europe, India and Brazil during those years.

Despite the great distances and time involved, he kept in close contact with his brothers throughout the world. His almost 7,000 letters (most of them written after 1547) attest to this fact. The Society opened 33 colleges in his lifetime.

21. One Cannonball and Lots of Grace Equals Glory to God
All of this success, however, would mean nothing to Ignatius if it did not function as a means to bring people and give glory to God.
Ignatius was the founder of a school of spirituality that grew over the next four-and-a-half centuries. This spirituality might well be his greatest legacy.

His emphasis on a personal spiritual growth that creates a desire to bring greater glory to God has propagated a clear message of service through love and discernment.

Each of us might dismiss the saintliness of our own particular nature. Yet we all possess the ability to “find God in all things,” as Ignatius encouraged us to do. And our personal relationship with God can lead to peace and commitment — peace with ourselves and magnanimous commitment to others.

Maybe we aren’t saints.

But peace and commitment sound strikingly holy, don’t they?