Ignatius Loyola was born in in northern Spain the youngest of thirteen children. His family was wealthy, and his father was a nobleman. As a boy, Ignatius, called Inigo, dreamed of becoming a famous soldier. At sixteen he became a page and eventually a soldier in the Spanish army. But he was badly wounded while fighting against the French.
During his long and painful recovery, Ignatius was given books. Two of the books he read were about the life of Jesus Christ and lives of the saints. These books inspired him to adjust the direction of his life and change his goals.
Instead of fighting in the army, Ignatius now wanted to dedicate his life to Jesus. He went to live as a hermit where he devoted long hours to prayer and to caring for the sick. He wrote a book called The Spiritual Exercises to help people become more like Christ.
After making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Ignatius decided to study for the priesthood. While Ignatius was studying for the priesthood, his life of prayer and simplicity influenced several of his fellow students. Six of them decided to become priests as well. After they were ordained priests, they all made a special vow of obedience to the pope. This meant that they would carry out any work the pope asked them to do.
Saint Ignatius Loyola worked to strengthen the Kingdom of God on earth by trying to be like Christ in everything he did.
These men called themselves the Society of Jesus and received formal recognition as a religious order from Pope Paul III. The Society of Jesus soon came to be known as the Jesuits.
Ignatius was elected as the Jesuits' first general, or leader. He carried out this role until his death at the age of 65. He saw Jesuits start schools, lead retreats based on The Spiritual Exercises, and sail off to far away countries as missionaries.
Today the Jesuits form the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church and are present in almost every country in the world. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit to be elected pope.
Saint Ignatius Loyola wrote The Spiritual Exercises to help people become more like Christ.
One way to do this is by using our imaginations and senses to read the Gospels. You might call it “Ignatian Imagination” – the meditative exercise developed by Saint Ignatius Loyola that draws us into a Scripture passage through our five senses.
The process involves immersion into a biblical account by placing ourselves in the scene.
We pay attention to the sights and sounds, the smells and sensations, the people present and the environment in which the account took place. Next, we take note of the feelings that arise within us.
Imagine being part of the multitudes being fed from a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Or standing on the periphery of a mob howling for Jesus’ execution. The feelings in those two instances range from excitement and joy to fear and dread.
Author J.K. Rowling in her 2017 commencement speech at Harvard University spoke eloquently about the power of imagination to not only form creative ideas and images but also to expand our capacity to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
How might this work through the practice of Ignatian meditation?
I find myself drawn towards this in unconscious fashion when I enter into the Gospel accounts of those seeking Jesus’ healing touch. The woman with the hemorrhage (Matthew 9:20-22), blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), and the woman about to be stoned to death (John 8:1-11) all evoke a sense of the shame, isolation, and fear that enveloped each character.
As I place myself in each scene I develop a deeper understanding of their complex need for comfort, compassion, and mercy.
Such meditative practice follows us into the rest of our lives when encountering someone face-to-face or in the news whose needs reflect those of the Gospel characters.
Pope Francis, a Jesuit himself, embodies the kind of empathy that Rowling described in her commencement address. His call for mercy in a merciless world is rooted in a deep recognition of the need for Ignatian imagination. In his 2014 address to the bishops of Asia he said, "[The] capacity for empathy leads to a genuine encounter—we have to progress toward this culture of encounter—in which heart speaks to heart." One way to do so is by not only taking the Bible to heart but also by placing ourselves within its very heart, Ignatian-style. From there our imaginations will not only open up greater insights into the sacred texts but also expand our capacity for those heart-to-heart encounters that form the basis for true faith and authentic discipleship.
Invite children in the intermediate grades to use their imaginations and senses as they read the Gospels. They will try to think about what they would do or say if they were part of the story. Download and share an intermediate activity with children in your religious education program as you celebrate the Feast Day of Saint Ignatius Loyola.