“Long before he instructed his followers to, “go forth and set the world on fire,” Ignatius was under his own fire of spiritual and physical combat. His leg was broken, as was his spirit. Legs take us to our destination, but Ignatius no longer knew where that destination was. His whole life he had perfected the profession of a soldier: exercise, training, wielding armor and weapons, imagining the enemy and visualizing victory.
Because he would never be a soldier again, he was convinced that his twenty-three years of life were useless, and that the rest of his life would be spend in the humiliation of defeat and the embarrassment of not being able to resurrect his former skills. On that same bed where he wished for death more than once, he would consider a different sort of death: a death to self.
His physical exercises were about to become his famed Spiritual Exercises; he would put on the full armor of God (Eph. 6:11), wield his word as a sword (Eph. 6:17), and use his imagination to envision himself in victory for heaven.
In order to become this person God created him to be, he knew he must reform himself first, and in a saying often ascribed to him he instructs the same of us: “He who goes about to reform the world must begin with himself, or he loses his labor.”
His Counter-Reformation labors started with himself, and although he accomplished much and his life can teach us copious lessons of Christian charity and virtue, he dominates in two principle areas: education and spirituality.
“The [Second Vatican Council] has considered with care how extremely important education is in the life of man and how its influence ever grows in the social progress of this age.” —Gravissimum Educationis
Sacred art depicting Ignatius usually depicts him studying, reading, writing. It might surprise some to learn, then, that for the first half of his life Ignatius was not an educated man. Though his intellect was strong and aptitude was high, our saint had less than grammar-level education at the age of twenty-three, just a few years before he formed the Society of Jesus and founded colleges. He placed little emphasis on structured learning, perhaps because he was a soldier, yet still came to be one of the most respected educators of his time.
What caused such a change?
The answer is not so simple. To understand what he did, we need to understand his story.
After his leg was shattered in a cannon-ball blast, Ignatius’s dreams of soldiery were gone. But as he said of himself in his autobiography, “his special delight was in the military life,” so if he could not do these things he at least wanted to fill his mind with the thoughts of others doing them. So Ignatius requested books about valiant knights and heroes of war, but there were none.
Instead he was handed The Life of Christ by Ludolph the Carthusian and a book about the lives of the saints. At first he was reluctant to read either but soon found himself engrossed in stories of the heroic virtue, if not quite of the kind he had sought.
After he was healed he continued to study and grow in devotion. He became a gifted street-teacher and built a small following. This drew the attention of the clergy. Around this time the Inquisition was rooting out any potential heresy or corrupted preaching, and without a degree or formal training Ignatius was looked at suspiciously. He was examined briefly by the Inquisition but they found no error in his interview and let him go—but did instruct him not to dress as if he were clergy. He was later summoned again, and again they found no error.
A last time he was examined by the Inquisition, whose verdict resulted in an interesting action by Ignatius. Each time prior, he had explained that he was not preaching or teaching novelties, but was simply conversing with small groups about holy and divine things, occasionally introducing his “exercises” still in development.
This time, he was questioned about his advice to others on faith and morals. In his own autobiographical words:
“So clear and exact was his explanation that his examiners could not find the least flaw in his doctrine. He was equally correct in the answer to the friar who proposed a difficulty in canon law. In every case he said that he did not know the decision of the professors.”
The tribunal’s final verdict was that Ignatius would be free to teach on matters of Christian doctrine, but not on sin or canon law. Not until the tribunal said, he completed four years of study.
Love & Ignatian joy,