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Formative years

30 November, 1999

Ignatius was the youngest of thirteen children – eight brother and four sisters. His mother died when he was a child and his father when he was about sixteen. This lack of a protective maternal presence may explain why he was a wandering adventurer during most of his life. He was basically always a solitary man. Brian Grogan continues the series “Pilgrim Saint: Ignatius of Loyola, the Pilgrim Saint”.

Above the front door of Ignatius’s home was a stone upon which the ancient coat of arms of the Onaz and the Loyola families was chiselled; wolves that spoke of dominion, daring and greed, and a cauldron that seemed to be making a stock from past generations but never knew what it would cook up for the future. Along with the stones of the house were the fighting arms – well-kept and polished; the casks, the farm implements, the clothes; and the utensils that contributed to making the family’s inventories grow in importance. All of these were duly catalogued in various last wills and testaments.

The manor house of Loyola nestles in the middle of a wide and slightly curved valley through which flows a small river. The word Loyola itself means ‘a bog’. This valley, like so many others in the region, is lost in a maze of mountains. The landscape is brilliantly green in spring and summertime. In autumn, this verdant appearance takes on a golden hue mixed with the warm shades of oncoming autumn, and when winter comes, all becomes muted violet and rust.

Small hills rise up on one side of the Loyola manor. They are blanketed with thick groves of chestnut, beech, and oak. On the other side stands the imposing limestone mountain, Mount Izarraitz. The summit offers a spectacular panorama of innumerable surrounding mountains and the immense expanse of the sea. In stormy weather, rain clouds charge in from the bay of Biscay; then the mountain, appearing like a majestic wall, seems to take on a dark and sombre aspect that borders on the ominous. The mountain is at once heartless, magnificent, inhuman, tremendous – and almost bewitching. It is mysterious, magical, and behind it each day the sun goes to hide its rays.

Within this setting, Ignatius was reared. He was basically always a solitary man. The hunger he later demonstrated for the hermitic life was not some passing fancy. He was a man with a capacity to live alone by himself. Within the depths of his soul, he longed for solitude, a solitude that came from his very nature and from those interior spaces steeped with sadness. How else could a child turn out, who had been born in a lonesome, isolated house, surrounded by a dense grove?

The house stood cautiously aloof from two nearby towns, Azpeitia and Azcoitia. Ignatius, then, was born and lived in a world isolated from urban culture: cut off both by physical space and by the distance his ancestors had imposed upon the world outside. It is for this reason that his family background takes on something more than just ordinary importance.

His parents had been married twenty-four years when he was born in 1491. He was thirty – not twenty-six as he himself thought – when his life was changed by a cannon ball at Pamplona. The youngest of thirteen, he had eight brothers and four sisters, and although the Basques are considered the tallest of the Spanish people, Ignatius in contrast was very small. He was only seven years old in 1498 when Martin, his next to oldest brother and heir to the family estate, married Magdalena, and she took charge of the house of Loyola. This indicates that Ignatius’s mother was already dead.

Ignatius grew up side by side with his brother’s children, identifying with the adults, before whom he felt small, while distancing himself from his nephews and nieces, before whom he felt older. He also grew up among the house servants, and the tenants and leasees of lands, iron works, and mills.

Ignatius had no grandparents alive to smother him with affection, to tell him stories, to help him to get through his early life experiences, and to show more tolerance toward him than did the authority figures in the household. His father died in 1507 when he was about sixteen, and shortly after he had left the manor house. And of his mother, nothing is known for sure except her name. We do not know when she was born or died; we know only her name, Dona Marina. Strangely, we do not find Ignatius making the slightest allusion anywhere to her. Did he ever have the opportunity to know her or did she always remain simply a faceless name for him?

Surely the death of his mother during his childhood days must have left its indelible mark on the deepest part of his psyche, on the affective personality, that area that defines what is fundamentally human in us. He lacked, then, the protective, liberating, fostering maternal presence that would have given him early direction, basic confidence, and would have opened up new objectives for him.

The lack of nurturing by a mother engenders habits of depression later in life; it affects the way one reacts to and relates with others; it incites vague feelings of guilt. It has been argued that every wandering adventurer is responding to the hidden and irresolvable need to compensate for the lack of maternal nurturing, whose function is to provide a child with affective parameters. Could this be the key to explaining why Ignatius was a wandering adventurer during the greater part of his life?

Then there is the mysterious figure of the lady who occupied his thoughts during his convalescence. Was she a mother image, betraying a lack of affective development in the dreamer? In Ignatius’s affections, his mother was substituted for either by his wet nurse, or his sister-in-law, or by the good women who later acted as his benefactors. The wet nurse, Maria Garin, wife of the local blacksmith, must have played an important role in his early psychological development, and it is in her face, arms and breasts that are forever hidden those ultimate secrets that researchers seek in vain to find in historical documents.

For Pondering:
What are some key elements in my own upbringing that shape my views on life?

This article first appeared in The Messenger (March 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.