Reflections on the Mysticism of Saint Ignatius of Loyola

Photo courtesy of Lee Pellegrini
Photo courtesy of Lee Pellegrini

Harvey D. Egan, S.J.

Harvey D. Egan, S.J. is Professor Emeritus of Systematic and Mystical Theology, specializing in the work of Karl Rahner and Christian mysticism.  He was ordained a priest for the New England Province of the Society of Jesus in 1969 and joined the Boston College theology faculty in 1975.

 

 

 

 

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus ("Jesuits"), is one of the Christian tradition’s profoundest mystics and perhaps its greatest mystagogue. However, his apostolic successes, as well as those of the Society of Jesus from his time to the present, have overshadowed the importance of his mysticism.

Four foundational mystical events stamped Ignatius’ life. The first took place at Loyola during his long, boring recuperation from the shattering leg wounds received at the battle of Pamplona. Daydreaming for hours on end about the stories of courtly love he had previously found in the trashy literature of his day, he also pondered what he now read in the only literature at hand—the lives of the saints in The Golden Legend by Jacopo da Voragine and the Life of Christ by Ludolf of Saxony. Daydreaming about "worldly matters" quickly vanished and left him "dry and unhappy." Reveries about imitating the saints in their holy follies not only consoled him, "but even after they had left him he remained happy and joyful." The insight that some thoughts left him sad while others consoled him caused him to understand that joy is from God and sadness from the devil: "Little by little he came to perceive the different spirits that were moving him; one coming from the devil, the other coming from God." From this seed grew his famous rules for the discernment of spirits.

 

The second significant mystical experience also occurred during his recuperation at Loyola: a vision of the Virgin Mary holding the Child Jesus. This transformative vision instilled in Ignatius such a disgust for his past life—especially for sins of the flesh—that it seemed to erase all the images that had been previously imprinted on his mind. From that hour, he wrote, “he never again consented, not even in the least matter, to the motions of the flesh. Because of this effect in him he concluded that this had been God's doing." It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of Ignatius’ transformative visions for understanding his mysticism.

Recovering from his wounds, he went to Manresa where for almost a year he indulged his thirst for great penances and long hours of prayer. Severe depression, doubts, temptations, and scruples—alternating with great spiritual joys—filled his soul. So painful were the tortures from the scruples about his past sins that Ignatius almost committed suicide, and ill health from the severity of his penances brought him to the brink of death.

 

Ignatius later claimed that at Manresa God had treated him like a "schoolboy" in order to deepen his desire for selfless service of the “Divine Majesty.” It was here that indescribable and unforgettable mystical visions of the Trinity, Christ's humanity, Christ's presence in the Eucharist, and how the world was created indelibly penetrated his soul. These experiences contained such purity and certitude that Ignatius confessed: "if there were no Scriptures to teach us these matters of faith, he would still resolve to die for them on the basis of what he had seen."

 

The third—and most important—event in Ignatius’s life took place on the banks of the nearby river Cardoner, where “the eyes of his understanding began to open” and he was infused with a comprehension of many things pertaining to both faith and learning. His understanding was enlightened to such an extent “that he thought of himself as if he were another man and that he had an intellect different from the one he had before.” Ignatius would claim only a few years before his death that the clarity he received in his understanding on this one occasion surpassed the sum total of all the numerous and great mystical gifts he had received throughout his entire life.

 

The fourth salient mystical event took place several years later when Ignatius and several of his companions were on their way to Rome to place themselves at the Pope's disposal. In a small chapel at La Storta, some six miles north of Rome, Ignatius had a vision of the Eternal Father with his cross-bearing Son. Ignatius heard the Father speak interiorly to his heart saying: "I shall be favorable to you [plural] at Rome," and to the Son, "I want you, my Son, to take this man as your servant." Then Christ said to Ignatius: "I want you [singular] to serve us [Father and Son]." The graces at La Storta confirmed Ignatius’s trinitarian, Christ-centered, and ecclesial (a dimension of which has been called "hyperpapal" [Hugo Rahner]) mysticisms, all directed to the service of God and neighbor.

 

To be with the trinitarian Christ so as to serve in his Church with discreet love is a good summary statement of Ignatius’ spirituality and mysticism. Another can be found in one of Ignatius’ key exercises, the “Contemplation to Obtain Divine Love,” in which I “ask for what I desire. Here it will be to ask for interior knowledge of all the great goods I have received, in order that, stirred to profound gratitude, I may be able to love and serve the Divine Majesty in all things.”

 

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