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Ignatian Spirituality – Fr Brian O’Leary SJ

30 August, 2011


ignatianspiritualityThis attractive and illustrated booklet by Fr Brian O’Leary SJ is a useful and clear introduction to the insights of both the contemplative and apostolic dimensions of Ignatian spirituality. It also give just enough context to situate Ignatian spirituality in relation to the life of the saint and the founding of the Jesuit order. Many of the articles referred to under the section Windows into Ignatian Spirituality can also be found on this website .


  • Introduction
  • Jesuit Spirituality/Ignatian Spirituality: the same or different?
  • The Manresa Experience: Mystical Gifts
  • Jesuit Mission: Corporate & Global
  • Collage: Ignatian and Jesuit spirituality in action
  • Key to Collage pictures
  • Windows into Ignatian Spirituality: a selection of articles, by Brian O’Leary

– Ignatius the Pilgrim
– Learning from Daydreams
– Three Things I Pray
– Light and Darkness
– Freedom for Discernment
– To the Greater Glory
– The Call to Interiority

  • Some Characteristics of Ignatian Spirituality and testimonies to their impact in daily life

– True self-worth
– God labouring within us
– A compassionate and merciful God
– Sharing in Christ’s mission
– Finding God in all things

  • Spiritual Exercises, Spiritual Direction & Further Information

48 pp. Messenger Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.messenger.ie



Ignatian Spirituality: Its Roots in a Historical Person Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556)

Is there one Christian spirituality or many? There is only one Christian spirituality, yet it expresses itself in a variety of ways. We look for our spirituality first of all in the Scriptures, particularly in the Gospels. But people respond differently to what they read in these sources. We might speak of resonance. Different biblical stories, or images, or personalities resonate more strongly in one person than in another.

I may be so moved by the compassion that I see in the person and ministry of Jesus that compassion becomes the lynchpin of my spirituality. You, on the other hand, may be captivated by the story of the rich young man. Because of this resonance you embrace a spirituality of radical simplicity. The fact that we have different responses does not mean that either of us is departing from the one Christian spirituality. However, each of us is choosing to live it out in a particular way and with a distinctive emphasis.

Over the centuries certain specially gifted women and men have experienced and responded to God in such profound ways that others have looked to them for inspiration. In some cases they have become founders of a school of spirituality, or a tradition that proves its worth simply by surviving (especially if it manages to cross geographical and cultural boundaries). Such survival, however, only happens when there is also development and growth. Tradition is never static. Each succeeding generation contributes to and enriches the tradition through its own experience. Nevertheless, the tradition remains rooted in and identified with a historical person.

Ignatius of Loyola was one of these specially gifted friends God. It is to him that many still look today as embodying a particular and attractive way of living the Christian faith. His life experiences speak to ours. His vision engages us. His wisdom guides us. The combination is what we call Ignatian spirituality.


Born in 1491 into a Basque family of the lower nobility Ignatius was the youngest of thirteen children. At sixteen he was well on his way to becoming a courtier, immersing himself in the culture and values of chivalry. He also involved himself in various youthful escapades. Determined to achieve the same chivalric glory he had read about in popular romances, he enthusiastically defended Pamplona against a numerically superior French army in 1521. This daring but foolhardy enterprise did not save the town and led to his being hit by a cannonball that smashed one of his legs and wounded the other.

Ignatius was brought back to his family’s castle in Loyola where his recovery was long and arduous. During this time he was unexpectedly drawn to God through the only books that were available for him to read: a life of Christ, and lives of the saints. Through this reading, and by reflecting on the feelings that it aroused, he experienced a deep change within himself – a conversion. A strong desire arose in him to serve Jesus Christ. This lead to a complete reversal of values, the worldly ones giving way to those of the Gospel. From then on desires played a central role in his evolving spirituality. He realised that desires determine the choices we make and how we act.

His new-found fascination with Jesus led to a decision to visit the Holy Land as a poor pilgrim and to pray in those places where Jesus had lived and worked. While preparing for this journey he spent almost a year as a hermit in a town called Manresa practising rigorous fasting and self-denial. He tells us in his Autobiography that here God was teaching him as a schoolmaster teaches a child. He had to learn that the spiritual life does not consist in performing great feats of asceticism (like the mighty deeds performed by knights in the romances of chivalry) but in a discerning love. Alongside desires, discerning love becomes another foundation stone for what was to come.

Also at Manresa Ignatius sought out people who were willing to speak with him about God. Initially he was seeking help for himself, but he soon discovered that these conversations were also helpful to others. They became the basis of the Spiritual Exercises that he began to write down at this time. He experienced a growing desire aiudor a las almos (to help souls) and the Exercises became his main way of fulfilling this desire. Now he had added an apostolic dimension to his spirituality: to help souls becomes a core value (today we speak of helping the person). All this was happening while Ignatius was still a layman.

After returning from the Holy Land he began formal studies at the age of thirty-three. Beginning in Barcelona, and continuing in the Universities of Alcala and Salamanca, he moved eventually to the University of Paris in 1528. Here for eight years he gave himself to philosophy and theology. Although never an academic he performed well in his studies. But his motivation was always pastoral. His studies were a means of enabling him to be more effective in his dealings with people.

In Paris he won over to his dreams a small group of young men, the best known being Francis Xavier and Pierre Favre. In 1535, during a Mass celebrated in Montmartre, they pledged themselves to live in chastity and poverty, and together to travel to the Holy Land. When their plans to sail across the Mediterranean were frustrated by war between Venice and the Turks, the companions went to Rome to place themselves at the disposal of the Pope. By now they were ordained priests. Discerning that they should form a new religious order they presented a formal petition to Pope Paul III who approved the foundation of the Society of Jesus (later known as Jesuits) in 1540. Ignatius was elected as the Society’s first Superior General.

After so many journeys Ignatius spent his last sixteen years in Rome. From there he guided the development of the rapidly growing order, overseeing missions in Europe, Asia and South America. Much of his time was given to a voluminous correspondence (nearly 7000 letters are extant) that testifies to his dedication, flexibility and moral strength. Although no longer a traveller he continued the most important journey of all, his inner journey that centred on his search for God and God’s will.

During this time he was graced with a profound mystical prayer. All of this was accompanied by increasingly bad health. He died on the morning of 31 July 1556. The Society had by then grown to about 1,000 members.

There have been many images of Ignatius over the centuries since his death. The four most significant are the following:

Soldier-saint. This originates from his early involvement in the culture of chivalry and his military exploits at Pamplona. Along with the image of the Society of Jesus as the “light cavalry” or the “shock troops” of the Roman Catholic Church, it suited the militant spirit of the Counter-Reformation.

Skilled organiser. This image stems mostly from an appreciation of the Constitutions that Ignatius wrote for the Jesuit order. These are widely regarded as a managerial masterpiece. Whether one regards Ignatius as Spirit-filled or Machiavellian in their composition depends on one’s point of view!

Mystic. This is a favoured image of Ignatius among his followers today. It derives from his mystical experiences, especially those in Manresa and in Rome. It stresses that his relationship with God is the core of what makes him admirable, as well as being the source of his teaching and other achievements.

Pilgrim. However, Ignatius’ own self-image remained that of the pilgrim. This is how he referred to himself in the Autobiography that he dictated near the end of his life.

In the following pages we shall be exploring more deeply the life here outlined so as to distil from it a spirituality relevant for people of our time.

Jesuit spirituality – Ignatian spirituality: the same or different?

This book is entitled Ignatian Spirituality, Is this simply another name for Jesuit spirituality? Are the terms Jesuit and Ignatian synonymous? Or can we distinguish between the two? And if we can, does the distinction matter?

To answer these questions it will help to revisit Ignatius’ life. We have seen that up to their priestly ordination in 1537, he and his companions were laymen. As students in Paris they were living a spirituality that was rooted in the Scriptures and moulded by the experience of the Spiritual Exercises. During this period they continually sought to discover the will of God regarding their future orientation and work. In this discernment they engaged in fervent prayer, called on all their human resources, and waited on God. By the Feast of Our Lady’s Assumption in 1534 they felt ready to commit themselves to the service of God by making vows of poverty and chastity. They also vowed to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land where Christ had lived and died. But, knowing the threat to Christendom from the Turks, they added a rider: If they were unable to get to the Holy Land they would journey instead to Rome and make themselves available to the Pope, Christ’s Vicar on earth.

Their foresight proved to be prudent, but also providential. When the time came for their intended voyage across the Mediterranean, war between Venice and the Turks prevented all pilgrim ships from sailing. So the rider came into effect and the companions, all now ordained, headed for Rome. The Pope gladly accepted their offer of availability and soon made it clear that he intended to act on it – by beginning to send them on missions. The first few were within Italy but the companions knew that eventually they would be dispersed far and wide. They realised that they would have to deal with this new situation. So they entered into a further period of discernment, known as the “Deliberation of the First Fathers”, at the end of which they decided to strengthen their already existing union by forming a new religious order.

In this way the “Friends in the Lord” became the Company or Society of Jesus, and were soon known as Jesuits, This name originated as a term of abuse but eventually gained acceptance even among Jesuits themselves. Ignatius was elected the first Superior General and was commissioned to write the Constitutions of the order. These give expression to a specifically Jesuit spirituality which leads men to live under vows in the service of God and the Church. Jesuits make the promise or vow
of a special obedience to the Pope “concerning missions” (a replication of the offering of the First Companions in 1538). It is worth quoting the Constitutions on this point.

To avoid erring in the path of the Lord, they (the First Companions) made that promise or vow in order that His Holiness might distribute them for greater glory to God. They did this in conformity with their intention to travel throughout the world and, when they could not find the desired spiritual fruit in one region, to pass on to another and another, ever intent on seeking the greater glory of God our Lord and the greater aid of souls (Cont. 605).

Is the distinction between Ignatian and Jesuit spirituality becoming clearer? The First Companions lived Ignatian spirituality up to the time when they became a religious order. We might say that they were living out of the Spiritual Exercises. For most of that time they were laymen, for a short period they were secular priests. However, once they made religious vows in the Society of Jesus they began to live Jesuit spirituality. They did not cease to live out of the Spiritual Exercises but these were now supplemented by the Jesuit Constitutions. Neither did they cease to be Ignatian, but they were now Ignatian in a manner that was appropriate for vowed, apostolic religious.

What of today? The Second Vatican Council spoke of the universal call to holiness, of how everyone is called into union with God in Christ. Ignatian spirituality is at the service of this teaching, this reality. All who desire to do so may live and grow in holiness through the practice of Ignatian spirituality. Whether you are male or female, young or old, healthy or ill, married or single, working or unemployed, Ignatian spirituality enables you to find God in the concrete circumstances of your life. All Christians hear this universal call to holiness, but every individual also hears a uniquely personal call. Each then will discover how Ignatian spirituality “fits” their particular lifestyle, or using a different metaphor, how Ignatian spirituality moulds itself to the shape of that lifestyle.

Finally, it is tempting to look for the distinction between Ignatian and Jesuit spirituality by reference to Jesuit mission. While there is some value in this approach, it is no longer fully satisfactory since so many other priests, religious and lay people are now associated with that mission. Jesuits are not alone in being involved in many so-called “Jesuit ministries”. (Looking to differences of lifestyle, as above, leads to a better understanding of the distinction). We now use a variety of different terms in referring to those who share the apostolic task with us Jesuits: e.g. partners in mission, co-workers, collaborators, associates, and so forth. These terms affirm that now we all share in the one mission. I end with an apt quotation from GC35:

As the Holy Father affirmed our ministry and mission, saying to us “The Church needs you”, we must turn to our collaborators in mission and say, with gratitude and affection, that the call we have received is a call shared by us together (Decree 6, 3).


The Manresa Experience: Mystical Gifts

Fresh from his initial conversion at Loyola, Ignatius, as we have already seen, spent eleven months in Manresa (1522-1523). He was on his way to the Holy Land as a pilgrim and initially intended to spend no more than a couple of days in the town. But something held him there and his stay turned out to be transformative in his life. From his Autobiography we can distinguish three different phases of contrasting experiences:

1. “Days of light” (April to May) during which he was gifted with peace and joy. This was a kind of honeymoon period, often associated with the immediate aftermath of a conversion. In his naivety hethought that it would last forever!
2. “Days of darkness” (May to end of July) during which he struggled with doubts and other kinds of desolation, culminating in a devastating battle with scruples. These were so severe that he even considered suicide. He was being brought down to earth.
3. “Days of glory” (August to mid-February) during which God enlightened him in a series of mystical experiences. These were so profound that he would often refer back to them in later life, especially at times of serious decision-making.

What were these mystical experiences through which Ignatius was enlightened? He speaks initially of five: an understanding of the Trinity, of how God created the world, of how Christ is present in the Eucharist, a vision of the humanity of Christ, and a vision of Our Lady. We notice immediately that these experiences are deeply theological. He is being “given to understand” the basics of Christian faith. He ends his account with these striking words:

These things that he saw at that time fortified him and gave such great support to his faith that many times he thought to himself: 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 (Aut. 29).

It is important to recognise that his enlightenment was not about abstract truths but about a personal God who is in relationship with us. God was revealing himself through these “visions”, enabling Ignatius to enter into the mystery of the divine: The Trinity (God is a community), Creation (all that God made is good), Eucharist (God shares his life with us), Christ’s humanity (Jesus, although God, is like us in all things except sin), Our Lady (Mary models our relationship with her Son and with the Father).

However, these experiences were surpassed by another known as the “great enlightenment”. It took place on the banks of the river Cardoner that flows through Manresa, In his own words:

He was once on his way, out of devotion, to a church a little more than a mile from Manresa, which I think was called Saint Paul. The road followed the path of the river and he was taken up with his devotions; he sat down for a while facing the river flowing far below him. As he sat there the eyes of his understanding were opened and though he saw no vision he understood and perceived many things, numerous spiritual things as well as matters touching on faith and learning, and this was with an elucidation so bright that all these things seemed new to him. He cannot expound in detail what he  then understood, for they were many things, but he can state that he received such a lucidity in understanding that during the course of his entire life – now having passed his sixty-second year – if he were to gather all the helps he received from God and everything he knew, and add them together, he does not think they would add up to all that he received on that one occasion (Aut. 30).

Like his comment after describing the five earlier experiences, this account ends with a similarly remarkable claim. The Cardoner experience was without doubt the highpoint of his enlightenment by God. The content of this enlightenment is more difficult to identify. He speaks of understanding “numerous spiritual things as well as matters touching on faith and learning”. But what were they? He does not specify. Probably (though by no means certainly) he was not being taught new truths but was seeing familiar ones in a more penetrating light (they seemed new to him). And since he speaks of the Cardoner experience immediately after his description of the earlier visions, it is at least conceivable that he received inter alia a still deeper understanding of the Trinity, Creation, Eucharist, humanity of Christ, and Our Lady. But there was another crucial aspect to this experience by the Cardoner.

Unusual, if not unique, in this portrayal of a mystical experience is the incorporation of “learning” in its content (from the word he uses it is clear that this refers to secular learning). Its inclusion indicates that he grasped within the experience the inter-relatedness of truth – bringing together matters of the spirit, of faith, and of secular learning. One of the early Jesuits wrote that at the Cardoner Ignatius saw “the guiding principles and causes of all things”. He saw how all things, secular as well as sacred, human as well as divine, had their source and origin in the creator God. All this is implied by the word “inter-relatedness”, This reading of the Autobiography helps us to understand, however obscurely, how the Cardoner experience bore fruit in Ignatius as the gift of discernment. It became for him the touchstone for all his future decision-making.

Grasping the inter-relatedness of truth also allowed Ignatius to develop a spirituality that may broadly be called humanistic. I say broadly because the words “humanism” or “humanistic” are problematical when applied to Ignatius. He was certainly not a humanist in the modern sense where the term has been hijacked by atheistic secular humanism. But neither was he a humanist in any way that would place the human person rather than God at the centre of the universe. For Ignatius God is always the ultimate reference point for all of reality. So I use the word “humanism” of Ignatius simply to indicate his reverence for the whole of creation, his valuing of the human person with all his or her gifts, talents, and creativity, his conviction that there is a need to foster the human as well as being open to the divine. This led eventually to the emergence of the apostolate of education within the early Society of Jesus.

The image of Ignatius the mystic may never be as concrete or tangible as that of the soldier-saint, or the skilled organiser, or even the pilgrim. Yet our reflections on what happened at the Cardoner clearly show his mystical experience as anything but ethereal or otherworldly. Ignatius is far from being some blithe spirit floating above the drama of life. While he was certainly drawn into the mystery of the divine his Cardoner experience also engaged him more deeply in the mystery of the human. From then on his thinking and decision-making always sought to bring together these two polarities – the divine and the human, all to the greater glory of God.


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