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Even if someone were to express everything that is ‘within him’, we wouldn’t necessarily understand him.


The Spiritual Diary of Ignatius Loyola is one of the very few of his works that survive in their original hand-written form. One might have expected it to provide immediate access to his mind and spirituality. Instead many readers, even those who have some acquaintance with the life and work of Ignatius, find that the Diary remains a remote and impenetrable work. This is due partly to the style – elliptic and idiosyncratic,2 and partly to the content – mystical experiences to which few people have access. However, some light can be thrown on these pages when they are replaced in their historical context.

These pages are clearly the work of a man devoted to God, living an intense interior life, endowed with special gifts. It is not quite so easy to believe that they were written by the man who had recently founded the Society of Jesus, at a time when he was extraordinarily active, both with personal apostolic work in Rome and with the taxing occupation of governing the young Society. Further, the impression conveyed by the Diary is that the writer is a man subject to more than the ordinary psychological tensions – a person tossed between ‘great tranquillity’ and the sort of experience recorded for 8 February:

I felt within me that I approached, or was taken before, the Father, and with this movement my hair rose and I felt what seemed a very remarkable burning in every part of my body, followed by tears and the most intense devotion.

With the opening of the year 1544 (the Diary begins in February of this year) it seems that the first great wave of activity that had been carrying Ignatius forward ever since his arrival in Rome suddenly diminished. The house of St Martha for the reform of prostitutes was founded in January, but then four months of extremely bad health crippled Ignatius’s movements. In any case it must have been clear that a period of consolidation, and above all of intense organization and planning, was becoming increasingly necessary. The Society of Jesus was expanding rapidly in numbers and in the diverse directions of its personnel and their occupations. Attached though Ignatius was to the ‘inner law of divine love’,3 as the guiding principle for himself and his subjects, mounting pressure from his companions and from the papacy, together with the evident dangers of dissipated energy, impelled him to begin the unwelcome task of composing the Constitutions.

The problem became crucial with the need for a decision concerning poverty: Ignatius realized that the principles involved were of radical importance. First, there was the complex question of poverty itself: he was sufficiently aware of life’s reality to appreciate that absolute poverty might spell the end of the new order by any normal calculus of human probability. Secondly, his own authority would be particularly tested: for the first time he would have to exercise on a grand scale the power so gladly entrusted to him and so reluctantly accepted. And by a cruel twist of fate, the first point appeared to be one in which he would have to revoke a decision already approved by the early companions. In the spring of 1541 a commission (consisting of Ignatius himself and Codure) had examined whether the sacristies of churches should be allowed to possess income; this was normal even in orders of strict observance, like the Franciscans. Guided by the commission, all had agreed. But now Ignatius was asking if this decision should be set aside because it seemed to lessen the complete poverty to which they were committed. Only if the Diary is seen against this background can one understand the apparently excessive hesitation over such a relatively minor matter, one incidentally on which Ignatius would subsequently be overruled. The title given to these sheets of paper4 is somewhat misleading: they are not a ‘diary’ in the normal sense of the term. Ignatius is keeping note of progress made during the process of making up his mind: he is making a choice or ‘election’, in the terminology of the Spiritual Exercises. The latter provide the best key to what is happening.

The Spiritual Exercises revolve around the central axis of reform. At the heart of the second week (the second of four) the exercitant is provided with a series of considerations and methods that will help a person to see what changes are required and how to choose them. Ignatius outlines three possible scenarios, which he had discovered by personal trial and error. The first is when one receives the sort of illumination that admits of no doubt (the conversion of St Paul is a good example). The second and third are much more protracted and complicated. The third, which is explained most fully, is dominated by the notion of the ‘reasonable’. Here there are two possibilities: first, one can draw up a list of pros and cons that concern the matter at issue; secondly, by imagining different situations one can try to gain some distance from the problem, and thus study it more objectively (e.g. by pretending that one is making the decision on behalf of somebody else, or that one is on one’s deathbed). There is clear proof that Ignatius was using the first of these techniques to help him: we have the list of Pros and Cons that he drew up (in this edition placed at the head of the Diary) and mentioned at several points in his reflections.5

However the second of the three scenarios mentioned is the most distinctively Ignatian. He describes it as

A time when sufficient light and knowledge is received through experience of consolations and desolations, and through experience of the discernment (discreción) of different spirits (Exx. 176).

It is clear that the Spiritual Diary is the record of such a time of ‘discernment’, with the ‘consolations and desolations’ (feelings of peace and joy as opposed to those of tension and unhappiness) duly noted: a descriptive title would be ‘A Discernment Logbook’. It is an exceptional document in the fullness and in the sensitivity of its entries, and must be one of the finest accounts in the world’s spiritual writings of one process of discernment.


1 Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology, 1, No. 191, Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1982, p. 28.

2 A note from a graphological study has its interest: the handwriting is said to reveal ‘a need for clarity, for precision and for exactness; there is an exigence in the very form of expression. He constantly corrects himself, and starts anew. The rhythm remains full of life throughout these pages, where each trait has its particular value’. Carmen M. Affholder, ‘Saint Ignace dans son écriture’, AHSI, 29 (1960), p. 391.

3 As he says in the Preamble to the Constitutions: ‘what helps most on our part towards this end must be, more than any exterior constitution, the interior law of charity and love which the Holy Spirit writes and engraves upon hearts’.

4 The twenty-eight pages that contain the Diary are the result of Ignatius taking four or six pages at a time and folding them down the middle; he was not working with a ready-made notebook.

5 8, 10, 11, 16 February.

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