Don Iñigo de Oñez y Loyola was born in the castle of Loyola in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa in 1491. He was one of eight sons and five daughters begotten by Don Beltran de Oñez y Loyola, a member of the higher Spanish nobility. Brought up to be a soldier, Iñigo received little schooling, and showed no interest in religion. His reading was confined to Amadis of Gaul and like romances of chivalry. At seven he was sent to serve as a page to Don Juan Velásquez de Cuellar, through whom he had some access to the royal court. At fourteen he fell in love with Ferdinand the Catholic’s new queen, Germaine de Foix; and when, in due course, he was knighted, he chose her as his “Queen of Hearts,” wore her colors, and dreamed of winning a lace handkerchief from her hand as prize in a tournament.27 This did not prevent him from engaging in the casual amours and brawls that were half a soldier’s life. In the simple and honest autobiography that he dictated in 1553-56, he made no effort to conceal these natural escapades.
His carefree youth came to an end when he was assigned to active military service at Pamplona, capital of Navarre. Four years he spent there, dreaming of glory and waking to routine. A chance came to distinguish himself: the French attacked Pamplona, Iñigo heartened the defense with his bravery; the enemy captured the citadel nevertheless, and Iñigo’s right leg was fractured by a cannon ball (May 20, 1521). The victors treated him kindly, set his bones, and sent him on a stretcher to his ancestral castle. But the bones had been wrongly set; they had to be rebroken and reset. The second operation proved more incompetent than the first, for a stump of bone stuck out from the leg; a third operation set the bones straight, but the leg was now too short; and for weeks Iñigo bore the torture of an orthopedic stretcher that kept him helpless and weak and in constant pain.
During the weary months of convalescence he asked for books, preferably for some exciting tale of knighthood and imperiled princesses. But the castle library was composed of two books only: Ludolfus’s Life of Christ, and Flos sanctorum, recounting the lives of the saints. At first the soldier was bored by these volumes; then the figures of Christ and Mary grew upon him, and the legends of the saints proved as wonderful as the epics of courtly love and war; these cavaliers of Christ were every bit as heroic as thecaballeros of Castile. Gradually the thought formed in his mind that the noblest war of all was that of Christianity against Islam. In him, as in Dominic, the intensity of Spanish faith made religion no quiet devotion as in Thomas à Kempis, but a passion of conflict, a holy war. He resolved to go to Jerusalem and free the sacred places from infidel control. One night he had a vision of the Virgin and her Child; thereafter (he later told Father Gonzalez) no temptation to concupiscence ever assailed him.28 He rose from his bed, knelt, and vowed to be a soldier of Christ and Mary till his death.
He had read that the Holy Grail had once been hidden in a castle at Montserrat in the province of Barcelona. There, said the most famous of all romances, Amadis had kept a full night’s vigil before an image of the Virgin to prepare himself for knighthood. As soon as Iñigo could travel he mounted a mule, and set out for the distant shrine. For a while he still thought of himself as a soldier accoutered for physical combat. But the saints he had read about had had no weapons, no armor, only the poorest clothes and the firmest faith. Arrived in Montserrat, he cleansed his soul with three days of confession and penance; he gave his costly raiment to a beggar, and donned a pilgrim’s robe of coarse cloth. All the night of March 24-25, 1522, he spent alone in the chapel of a Benedictine monastery, kneeling or standing before the altar of the Mother of God. He pledged himself to perpetual chastity and poverty. The next morning he received the Eucharist, gave his mule to the monks, and set out on limping foot for Jerusalem.
The nearest port was Barcelona. On the way he stopped at the hamlet of Manresa. An old woman directed him to a cave for shelter. For some days he made this his home; and there, eager to surpass the saints in asceticism, he practiced austerities that brought him close to death. Repenting the proud care that he had once taken of his appearance, he ceased to cleanse, cut, or comb his hair—which soon fell out; he would not trim his nails or bathe his body or wash his hands or face or feet;29 he lived on such food as he could beg, but never meat; he fasted for days at a time; he scourged himself thrice daily, and each day spent hours in prayer. A pious woman, fearful that his austerities would kill him, had him taken to her home, where she nursed him back to health. But when he was removed to a cell in a Dominican monastery at Manresa he resumed his self-flagellation. His remembrance of past sins terrified him; he waged war against his body as the agent of his sins; he was resolved to beat all thought of sin out of his flesh. At times the struggle seemed hopeless, and he thought of suicide. Then visions came and strengthened him; at communion he believed that he saw not a wafer of bread but the living Christ; at another time Christ and His Mother appeared to him; once he saw the Trinity, and understood by a flash of insight, beyond words or reason, the mystery of three persons in one God; and “at another time,” he tells us, “God permitted him to understand how He had created the world.”30 These visions healed the spiritual conflict that had produced them; he put behind him all worry about his youthful follies; he relaxed his asceticism; and having conquered his body he could now cleanse it without vanity. From the experience of this struggle, almost a year long, he designed the Spiritual Exercises by which the heathen flesh could be subdued to the Christian will. Now he might present himself before the sacred shrines at Jerusalem.
He set sail from Barcelona in February 15 2 3. En route he stayed two weeks in Rome, escaping before its pagan spirit could bend him from sanctity. On July 14 he took ship from Venice for Jaffa. He suffered a host of calamities before reaching Palestine, but his continuing visions sustained him. Jerusalem itself was a tribulation: the Turks who controlled it allowed Christian visitors, but no proselytizing; and when Iñigo proposed to convert the Moslems nevertheless, the Franciscan provincial who had been charged by the Pope to keep the peace bade the saint return to Europe. In March 1524, he was back in Barcelona.
Perhaps he felt now that though he was master of his body he was subject to his imaginations. He determined to chasten his mind with education. Though now thirty-three, he joined schoolboys in studying Latin. But the itch to teach is stronger than the will to learn. Soon Ignatius, as he was scholastically called, began to preach to a circle of pious but charming women. Their lovers denounced him as a spoil-sport, and beat him brutally. He moved to Alcalá (1526), and took up philosophy and theology. Here too he taught a little private group, chiefly of poor women, some of them prostitutes hungering for redemption. He tried to exorcise their sinful propensities by spiritual exercises, but some of his pupils fell into fits or trances, and the Inquisition summoned him. He was imprisoned for two months,31 but he finally convinced the inquisitors of his orthodoxy, and was released; however, he was forbidden to teach. He passed on to Salamanca (1527), and went through a similar sequence of teaching, trial before the Inquisition, imprisonment, acquittal, and prohibition of further teaching. Disappointed with Spain, he set out for Paris, always on foot and in pilgrim garb, but now driving before him a donkey loaded with books.
At Paris he lived in the poorhouse, and begged in the streets for his food and tuition. He entered the Collège de Montaigu, where his sallow, haggard face, starved body, unkempt beard, and aged clothing made him a cynosure of unsympathetic eyes; but he pursued his purposes with such absorbed intensity that some students began to reverence him as a saint. Under his lead they engaged in spiritual exercises of prayer, penance, and contemplation. In 1529 he transferred to the Collège Ste.-Barbe, and there too he gathered disciples. His two roommates came by different routes to believe in his sanctity. Pierre Favre—Peter Faber—as a shepherd in the Savoyard Alps, had suffered deeply from fears superstitious or real, and under their influence he had vowed perpetual chastity. Now, aged twenty, he concealed under his disciplined manners a soul struggling feverishly against temptations of the flesh. Ignatius, though making no pretensions to intellect, had the power of sensing the interior life of others through the intensity of his own. He surmised the problem of his younger friend, and assured him that the impulses of the body could be controlled by a trained will. How train the will? By spiritual exercises, answered Ignatius. Together they practiced them.
The other roommate, Francis Xavier, came from Pamplona, where Loyola had soldiered. He had a long line of distinguished ancestors; he was handsome, rich, proud, a gay blade who knew the taverns of Paris and their girls.32 He laughed at the two ascetics, and boasted of his successes with women. Yet he was clever in his studies; he already had the master’s degree, and was aiming at a doctorate. One day he saw a man whose face was pocked with syphilis; it gave him pause. Once, when he was expounding his ambition to shine in the world, Ignatius quietly quoted the Gospel to him: “What is a man profited if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” Xavier resented the query, but he could not forget it. He began to join Loyola and Faber in their spiritual exercises; perhaps his pride stirred him to equal the other two in power to bear deprivation, cold, and pain. They scourged themselves, fasted, slept in thin shirts on the floor of an unheated room; they stood barefoot and almost naked in the snow, to harden and yet subdue their bodies.
The spiritual exercises that had first taken shape at Manresa now reached a more definite form. Ignatius modeled them on the Exercitatorio de la vida espiritual (1500) of Don Garcia de Cisneros, Benedictine abbot at Montserrat; 33 but he poured into that mold a fervor of feeling and imagination that made his little book a moving force in modern history. Loyola took as his starting point the infallibility of the Bible and the Church; individual judgment in religion, he held, was the vain and chaos-breeding pretense of proud, weak minds. “We ought always to be ready to believe that what seems to us white is black if the hierarchical Church so defines it.”34 To avoid damnation we must train ourselves to be unquestioning servants of God, and of God’s vicar on earth, the Church.
As the first spiritual exercise we should recall our many sins, and consider how much punishment they deserve. Lucifer was condemned to hell for one sin; and is not our every sin a like rebellion against God? Let us keep a daily count of our sins by marks on lines that represent the days, and let us strive each day to reduce the marks. Kneeling in our darkened room or cell, let us picture hell to ourselves as vividly as we can; we must conjure up all the horrors of that undying fire; we must vision the torments of the damned, hear their shrieks of pain and their cries of despair; we must smell the stinking fumes of burning sulfur and flesh; we must try to feel those tongues of flame scorching our own bodies; and then we must ask ourselves, How can we escape that everlasting agony? Only through the redeeming sacrifice which God Himself, as Christ, offered on the cross.* Let us then contemplate the life of Christ, and in every detail; we must make ourselves present in imagination at those profoundest events in the history of the world. We must in fancy kneel before the holy figures in that divine epic, and kiss the hem of their garments. After two weeks of such meditations we must accompany Christ through every step in His Passion, every station of the cross; we must pray with Him in Gethsemane, feel ourselves scourged with Him, spat upon, nailed to the cross; we must suffer every moment of His agony, must die with Him, lie with Him in the tomb. And in the fourth week we must picture ourselves rising triumphantly from the grave, rising at last with Him into heaven. Strengthened by that blessed vision, we shall be ready to join as dedicated soldiers in the battle to defeat Satan and win men to Christ; and in that holy war we shall gladly bear every hardship and joyfully spend our lives.
This call to lifelong devotion found nine students at Paris ready to accept it. Earnest young men feeling for the first time the unintelligibility of the world, and longing for some anchor of belief and hope in a sea of doubts and fears, may have been moved, by the very extent of the demands made upon them, to put their fate, their lives and salvation, in Loyola’s plan. He proposed that in due time they should go together to Palestine, and live there a life as nearly as possible like Christ’s. On August 15, 1534, Loyola, Faber, Xavier, Diego Laynez, Alonso Salmerón, Nicolas Bobadilla, Simon Rodriguez, Claude Le Jay, Jean Codure, and Paschase Broet, in a little chapel in Montmartre, took the vows of chastity and poverty, and pledged themselves, after two years of further study, to go and live in the Holy Land. They had as yet no apparent notion of combating Protestantism; Islam seemed to them the greater challenge. They had no interest in theological disputes; their aim was sanctity; their movement was rooted in Spanish mysticism rather than in the intellectual conflicts of the time. The best argument would be a holy life.
In the winter of 1536-37 they walked through France, over the Alps, and across Italy to Venice, where they hoped to find passage to Jaffa. But Venice was at war with the Turks; the trip was impossible. During the delay Ignatius met Caraffa, and for a time joined the Theatines. His experience with these devoted priests had some influence in changing his plan from life in Palestine to service of the Church in Europe. He and his disciples agreed that if, after a year of waiting, Palestine should still be closed to them, they would offer themselves to the Pope for any service that he might assign to them. Faber secured permission for all of them to be ordained priests.
By this time Loyola was forty-six. He was bald, and still limped slightly from his wound. His five feet and two inches would have left him quite unimpressive had it not been for an aristocratic refinement of features, the sharp nose and chin, the somber, deep-set, piercing black eyes, the grave, intent countenance; he was already the absorbed and almost humorless saint. He was no persecutor; though he approved of the Inquisition,35 he was rather its victim than its agent. He was stern but kind; he willingly served the sick in hospitals and plague. His dream was to win converts not by the pyre or the sword but by catching character in malleable youth and forming it immovably to faith. Founder of the most successful educational order in history, he laid little emphasis on learning or intellect. He was not a theologian, took no part in the arguments and refinements of the Scholastics; he preferred direct perception to rational understanding. He did not have to argue about the existence of God, of Mary and the saints; he was convinced that he had seen them; he felt them closer to him than any object or person in his surroundings; in his own way he was a God-intoxicated man. Yet his mystical experiences did not make him impractical. He could combine pliancy of means with inflexibility of ends. He would not justify any means for an end that he held good, but he could bide his time, moderate his hopes and demands, adjust his methods to characters and conditions, use diplomacy where needed, judge men shrewdly, choose fit aides and agents, and manage men as if he were—as he actually thought himself—a general leading a martial company. He called his little band by a military term, Compañía de Jesú; they were soldiers enlisted for life in the war against unbelief and the dissolution of the Church. For their part, as a matter of course and necessity, they accepted the military discipline of co-ordinated action under absolute command.
In the fall of 1537 Loyola, Faber, and Laynez set out from Venice to Rome to ask papal approval of their plans. They walked all the way, begged their food, and lived mostly on bread and water. But they sang psalms happily as they went along, as if they knew that out of their small number would grow a powerful and brilliant organization.