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Growing up

30 November, 1999

How do the choices we make in adolescence affect the direction of our future life? This is the theme implicit in Fr Brian Grogan’s account of the adolescence of Ignatius Loyola.

Perhaps Ignatius would have had the opportunity as a growing child to hold in his hand the venerable house documents, which included a bull from Benedict XIII, signed in 1415, referring to the Loyola patronage of the local village church at Azpeitia, and another from the Spanish monarch which spoke of his father and his ‘many good and loyal services’ and how he had placed his person ‘in danger and peril’ at the service of the Crown.

Ignatius acquired in his own home and from his earliest days, a deep devotion to Mary that he never lost. Besides the liturgical cycle, the many feast days and the local pilgrimages became part of his upbringing. A Franciscan influence was also implanted in his soul, due to the presence of Franciscan convents in the area. Like a seed, the name of Saint Francis of Assisi was sown in Ignatius’s mind at an early age and the day would come when it would blossom forth to enlighten his spirit.

But despite these honourable deeds and the Christian culture of the times, feuds and discords were at the very heart of the Loyola family heritage. Sin, as well as faith, was part of the legacy bequeathed to Ignatius. Fathering illegitimate children was a family pastime, and there were two within Ignatius’s own family.

In the last wills and testaments of his ancestors there is not a trace of sorrow for what came as a result of their ferocious hatreds and terrible vendettas, but there is evidence enough of their ardent desire to make up for lost time, to look for penitential atonement for whatever was incompatible with personal responsibility. The ‘protection and salvation of my soul’ was an obsession with them, and this was long before Ignatius would write his famous phrase in the Spiritual Exercises ‘and by this manner save one’s soul’. His brother Martin, the heir of Loyola, conscious of his ‘enormous sins’, would seek help at his death from ‘the immaculate Queen of the angels’ and would bequeath much to her hermitages.

The world of Ignatius’s adolescence was peopled with foreign names, far-away monarchs, and wars. Europe and the discoveries of the New World became familiar to him through his kinsfolk and countrymen. It was a Basque who would be the first to circumnavigate the world in 1522. His sister-in-law, Magdalena, would have told him about Queen Isabella, in whose service she had been and who had most certainly given her some very beautiful books, including perhaps The Life of Christ and The Flower of the Saints. Notions of courage and loyalty, of service, honour, and fame were beginning to take shape in his impressionable mind.

While Ignatius kept up at home his reading and writing lessons, he also visited the local blacksmith. He watched his nurse’s husband Martin as he stirred up the fire, laid the red-hot iron flat on the anvil, hammered it with swift, hard, well-aimed blows until it took the shape either of a hoe, a weapon, or a horseshoe. The blacksmith alone determined what the metal was going to be. ‘See that?’ Martin would ask laconically.

Seeing, knowing how to see, was enough for Ignatius to learn the power of action with its hard, resistant, lasting results. This was one lesson that remained imprinted on his soul, a lesson that appealed to him more than learning how to trace out letters with a goose quill. `We stay here,’ continued the blacksmith tersely, ‘but the iron is to go to England, Flanders… to soldiers too… perhaps to your brothers far away.’

By temperament, Ignatius was hungry for adventure and achievements. This factor, plus the force of necessity due to his low status in the household, compelled him to consider the alternatives of remaining in a dead end at Loyola or of seeking his fortune elsewhere.

His father was anxious to provide for his last son, and shortly before he died, brought it about that no less a person than the Chief Treasurer of the realm would open the doors of his home to Ignatius and receive him as a son. The treasurer’s wife was a relative of the Loyolas. In this household at Arevalo he would be educated, and from there it would not be difficult for him to obtain a position at court.

And so, on a certain day in the year 1506, when Ignatius was fifteen, he left Loyola’s green valley for Arevalo. He would have felt the reassuring hand of his father on his shoulder as he departed, and at the same time he would have lamented more than ever his mother’s absence. His father would go to his rest peacefully a year later, on 23 October 1507. Ignatius was then all alone, but he was well situated to take on whatever the future had in store for him.

As Ignatius made his way through Burgos toward Arevalo, around him were vast Castilian fields that resembled a sea of gold, making the Loyola holdings seem like small garden plots in comparison. His proud, well-built house stood humble and unassuming against the mansions of Castile’s leading families.

The Chief Treasurer, Velazquez, and his wife Maria, truly welcomed Ignatius as a son. His new home was in every respect a Royal Palace, and the family was then basking in dazzling prosperity and glory. The children would have told him that their father was a personal friend of King Ferdinand, that he had the King’s confidence, and that he had profited from his many favours. Queen Isabella had paid frequent visits to Arevalo, and their grandfather had served her for thirty years.

In this large family that numbered six sons and six daughters, Ignatius once again became number
thirteen. His insertion into the family circle posed no problem because the difference in ages among his peers was not great.

Although he fitted easily into the daily regime of studies and recreation, the process of adjusting to the level of a new and different kind of life would have been more difficult for him. For the next ten years until he was twenty-five, he breathed an atmosphere of luxury and sumptuous riches. This was the worst start imaginable for his future life, a fact that makes his adult choice of extreme poverty so much more praiseworthy.

For Pondering:
The choices you made in your adolescent years and how they shaped your future. ?

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