in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Thursday, 31 July 2014

'Taste and See That the Lord is Good' - Happy Feast Day of St Ignatius Loyola

Dear All,

Apologies for not writing a post for a couple of weeks but I have been working on my latest book. I shall post some of it in the next few days. Recent events in the Middle East and Ukraine have been horrific and I continue to pray for all who are affected. Today we celebrate someone who was no stranger to the military but was able to extricate himself from the coils of military passion that grasped him. The reading for Mass today cites Psalm 33 - 'taste and see that the Lord is good' - a motto, as it were, for Ignatius, as I write about in this extract below from 'Picturing the Soul'.
Happy Feast Day! - Especially to all my Jesuit friends and orders inspired by his followers and companions, and of course to Pope Francis who so passionately appealed for peace last week.

Best wishes

Born around 1491 in the ancestral castle of the Loyola family near the village of Azpeitia in Guipúzcoa in the Basque Country (Northern Spain, near the French border). The Basque territories being north of Navarre and Castille, with which they had friendly relations. He was baptised with the name Iñigo and from an early age, like his fellow Basques, was fond of dance, music and song.[1]

          Around 1506, when he was 15, he was sent to the house of Juan Velázquez de Cuéllar, High Treasurer of the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ Ferdinand and Isaballa, to be trained and prepared for courtly life. Here he became acquainted with the learning of the Spanish Renaissance: a spirit, and spirituality, which would imbue all his future work. At this time, however, this spirit dominated his attitudes to reading, food, clothes and military prowess. The latter he was particularly fond of and early on developed a skill and love of the military arts. He tells us in his autobiography that up to the age of 26 he was ‘a man given to the follies of the world, and what he enjoyed most was warlike sport with a great and foolish desire to win fame’ (R.1). He loved gambling, affairs with women and generally misbehaving. Indeed we have a record that at age 24 he was prosecuted by a magistrate at Azpeitia for ‘misdemenours which were outrageous, committed in carnival time, at night’.[2]

          Yet his first love definitely remained the practice of military arms and in 1521 the young Iñigo had an opportunity to display his skills in this arena when a large French army besieged the town of Pamplona.[3] Despite unwillingness amongst his confreres, Iñigo urged a resistance to the French which was to prove futile. In the battle of 17th May a cannonball shattered one of his legs as it passed between them. He retired wounded from the battle and was taken back to the family castle, arriving in June 1521, aged 30.

          From hereon, by the action of the Holy Spirit, young Iñigo’s life was to change dramatically. In the Reminiscences he tells us that in his boredom of convalescence he asked for romantic books of chivalry to while away the time. Instead, the only books available in the house were a Life of Christ/Vita Christi  by the Carthusian, Ludolf of Saxony and a collection of Lives of the Saints: The Golden Legend by the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine (d. 1298), translated into Castillian in a 1511 Toledan edition called Flos Sanctorum/The Flowers of the Saints.[4] In his preface to this book the Cistercian Gauberto Vagad wrote that the saints were ‘the knights of God’ who did resplendent deeds ‘in the service of the eternal Prince, Christ Jesus’ under whose ‘victorious banner’ they assembled. We can see already how these military metaphors would have appealed to the young hothead Iñigo and the idea of embarking upon military service to Christ under the Banner of the King would stay with him for the rest of his life. From now on he resolved rather than following the chivalrous service of high born ladies he would dedicate his energies to become a ‘knight of Christ’.

          If this were all then Iñigo would probably have become another footnote of the great outpouring of early sixteenth century Spanish piety. Yet, this young man was more complicated, and ultimately more interesting, than a young military and ladies man who repents and decides on a life of contrition and piety. After spending days planning his new career as a soldier of Christ, in the Reminiscences Iñigo tells us that he subsequently returned to his previous thoughts of pursuing and charming  a certain noble lady whose identity has still not been worked out (R 5.6). But this is now where the interesting thing happens, which will eventually lead in a straight line to the later ‘Rules for the Discernment of Spirits’ in the ‘Spiritual Exercises.’  For he noticed that his sexual thoughts of pursuing the lady in question would initially delight and stimulate him but would ultimately leave him feeling dry and dissatisfied whereas his earlier thoughts of leading a life dedicated to Christ retained their joy long after he has thought about them. Thus, as he writes in the Reminiscences  ‘little by little he came to recognise the difference between the spirits that were stirring him, one from the devil and the other from God’ (R 8). This is what he would later call the ‘Discernment of Spirits’. What is probably most striking to the contemporary reader is the importance of feeling and affect in Ignatius’ notion of ‘discernment’. In his summary of these events later published as the Spiritual Exercises he returns frequently to the Spanish words sentir and gustar: literally to ‘sense/feel’ and ‘enjoy/savour/taste’[5] the action of the Spirit of God in our lives. See, for example, Exx 2.3:


Whether this comes from ones own reasoning or because the understanding is enlightened by the divine power, (the retreatant) will get more spiritual relish and fruit, than if the one who is giving the Exercises had much explained and amplified the meaning of the events. For it is not knowing much but deep down feeling and relishing things interiorly that contents and satisfies the soul./ Quier sea en cuanto el entendimiento es ilucidado por la virtud divina, es de más gusto y fruto spiritual que sí el que da los ejercicios hubiese mucho declarado y ampliado el sentido de la historia, porque no el mucho saber harta y satisface al anima, mas el sentir y gustar de las cosas internamente. [6]


Like his later Spanish contemporaries, Teresa of Avila (1515 – 1582) and John of the Cross, Ignatius presents a ‘full bodied’ spirituality that wants to take in all aspects of the self, not just what we might call ‘pious’ or ‘holy’ feelings or sensations. His spirituality, then, must find ‘God in all things’. For Ignatius nothing is not worthy of study or investigation, especially in the human psyche, for nothing is beyond the reach of God’s grace. This, I think, is where his contemporary relevance lies as a fellow traveller to the later twentieth century psychoanalytic movement.


[1] Much of our knowledge of Ignatius comes from Reminiscences (Autobiography), see Endean and Munitiz, 1996. Hereafter R.
[2] See de Dalmases 1985:33 and Ganss 1991:15.
[3] France, in allegiance with the Papacy, being at war with Charles V’s Spanish empire.
[4] For more on the early 16th century publication of spiritual books instigated by the Franciscan Cardinal Cisneros see Tyler 2011.
[5] For more on this term see my discussion in Tyler 2013.
[6] Gustar was also a favourite word of St Teresa of Avila in her writing. In my Return to the Mystical (2011) I argue that upon it we find in her writing a whole ‘epistemology of delight’. It would not be far-fetched to make a similar claim for Ignatius’ ‘Spiritual Exercises’.

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