In his fifteen years leading the Society of Jesus since 1541, St. Ignatius Loyola had been ill fifteen times and been on the verge of death during some of those illnesses. Therefore, when he became sick the final time, nobody thought anything was unusual or life-threatening, but Ignatius was, in fact, gravely ill and died unexpectedly on 31 July 1556, which is now his feast day in the Church. By the time of his death, Ignatius had seen the growth of the religious order he created, originally called the Company of Jesus, start with only ten men to flourish into now over one thousand Jesuits who were placed in nine countries throughout Europe as well as in India and Brazil. Ignatius Loyola lived to see that his motto which he so often repeated, To the Greater Glory of God, was, indeed, well-chosen!
Ignatius Loyola was born in 1491 into a noble family of Basques, but they were of a lesser rank. Therefore, Ignatius, who was the youngest of eleven children and the last boy in his family, was expected to serve in the Spanish court, and he was determined to be a great soldier. Ignatius was a good military leader, but his career ended in 1521 when a cannon ball severely wounded him in the leg. While he was convalescing, Ignatius eventually passed his time by reading about the life of Christ and the saints. Prior to this episode, Ignatius was not a devout Catholic, and instead, he had spent his time thinking mostly about himself and the ladies of the Spanish court. However, now, Ignatius seriously considered his worldly, secular living and his future direction in life. Such thoughts left him wanting, to say the least. He noticed that when he thought of living a heroic life for the sake of Jesus Christ however, Ignatius was filled with a persevering spirit of wanting to accomplish great things for God and to dedicate his life to Christ.
In effect, Ignatius’ military background and training were now being put to use as a soldier for Christ. Ignatius resolved to live a life a penance for the sins he had committed and to travel to the Holy Land to convert the Muhammadans (otherwise known as Muslims) to Catholicism. He was resolved that he would die if necessary. However, in order to fulfill his mission, Ignatius knew that he needed to prepare himself properly. Therefore, he spent a year in a personal retreat, as it were, living in a cave so that he could live a solitary life of intense prayer and penance.
During that year, Ignatius experienced the most important death we must all experience: the death to ourselves. The interior spiritual battle for the will to become readily obedient to God is the work of all Christians, but some people, as we are aware, take that work more seriously than others. Very soon, the consolations that Ignatius experienced were replaced by fear, doubt, and scrupulosity (whereby a person obsessively fixates on his spiritual unworthiness because of the sins he has committed and cannot be assured of God’s forgiveness and mercy applied in his individual, particular circumstances). Ignatius found no consolation in prayer, fasting, the sacraments, or physical disciplines. Spiritually, Ignatius experienced a long period of sadness. Nonetheless, he persevered through these experiences by continuing to hold fast to his spiritual regimen, and most importantly for us today, he wrote his experiences down and began to analyze the spiritual significance of his various struggles and eventual consolations which returned once again. These notes later became the basis for Ignatius’ most lasting work to the Church, the Spiritual Exercises. Every Catholic ought to experience the Ignatian retreat using his Exercises led by an actual devout, holy, Catholic Jesuit at least once in his or her lifetime!
The importance of the Spiritual Exercises cannot be overstated, but especially in our day, the lessons contained in them are meant to change people’s spiritual character over the course of their life. In today’s culture within the Church, too often everyone hears about joy and happiness as if the spiritual life is reduced only to consolations we receive from God and good feelings that comfort us. How often we do hear that the only way we can attract people to come back to Mass—in effect, to beg them like a pathetic sycophant to do what they ought to be doing in the first place—is to promise them a superficial, comforting experience in which they are never going to hear anything from the pulpit that might dare to take away their false, immature sense of joy? Ignatius’ Exercises offer, instead, a superb insight psychologically and spiritually regarding what motivates us to do what is good and to avoid what is evil. The Exercises require a spiritual maturity to see things about ourselves that need to be changed by honestly admitting them and then having the humility to make the changes relying on God first and foremost. The fact is that our life will be filled with times of consolations and many (perhaps more) times of desolations when God appears to have withdrawn and nothing in our spiritual life gives us comfort—certainly not “joy” at the moment. If people are fed a steady, endless diet of pablum announcing “joy,” translated as “good feelings and entertainment” at Mass and from the Church in which the only things that are ever said are those things that only comfort people’s feelings, then how are they ever supposed to grow, and how will they handle the great number of times when they experience desolations? Will they abandon their life in God or persevere? We already have that answer from a majority of baptized Catholics today: they are not interested in remaining connected to Jesus Christ or His Church each Sunday and largely come to Mass only when it fits into their schedule.
Rather than pretending to carry a superficial and baseless joy, Ignatius instead emerged from his year-long experience with genuine joy—the kind that only the Holy Spirit gives us—after recognizing and assessing many aspects of himself, overcoming his scrupulosity, and preparing himself now for the direct work that God wanted to accomplish in him. Ignatius knew that his life dedicated to Christ would bring many hardships and difficulties along the way. However, Ignatius now had lasting joy knowing that God was never going to abandon him—even in desolations—and that He would accomplish great things through the crosses that Ignatius would encounter but would offer to Christ for his and his new religious order’s sanctification. This is the mature, substantial, and enduring joy that God actually provides.
Ignatius’ work met with great hostility in the early years from prelates who were suspicious of what he was teaching before he became ordained. He was imprisoned twice and was nearly flogged once. He endured the taunts of young boys as Ignatius had to sit in on their classes to learn Latin before he could be admitted to study at the university level. Nevertheless, along the way, Ignatius introduced a small band of men to his Spiritual Exercises, and more and more men who went through the retreat changed their lives and gave everything to God—two of the most important being Francis Xavier, Ignatius’ roommate at the university, and Francis Borgia, who would later become the second most influential superior general of the Jesuits, second only to Ignatius himself.
The lasting genuine legacy of the Society of Jesus lies in its motto: everything that we do ought to be accomplished For The Greater Glory of God throughout our day. In fact, in considering our daily words, thoughts, and actions, if we ask ourselves beforehand, “Does this give greater honor and glory to God, or am I trying to glorify only myself?”, we will often have the answer as to whether we are conforming ourselves to Christ or not. May we look to St. Ignatius Loyola as a great model and inspiration in our own life as we hope to reflect God’s greater glory each day!
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler
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