Saint Ignatius of Loyola - John Pollen

Manresa and the Spiritual Novitiate

When Ignatius left home, his plans for the distant future were very vague indeed. The pilgrimage to the Holy Land was resolved upon, but he did not talk of it, for fear of being moved to vanity. The first thing, however, was to do ample penance for his sins, prefacing it by a full and sincere confession. For this purpose he went in pilgrimage to the famous sanctuary of Our Lady at Montserrat and here, after three days of careful self-examination, and having noted down in writing what he meant to say, he confessed all the sins that were past and prepared to enter the life of a penitent. This he would do with a rite reminiscent of the solemnity with which in those days a young soldier passed into the estate of knighthood. He would stand sentinel at the shrine all through the hours of darkness. So he gave away his old uniform, the rich suit in which he had come, and exchanged it for a beggar's clothes. He put on the uniform of penitence, a garment of sackcloth. His sword and dagger he hung up at Our Lady's altar, and passed the night in vigil before them. Next morning, the feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1522, he received Holy Communion; and then he left the sanctuary, not knowing whither he went.

But Providence arranged for him to fall in before long with a kindly woman, Ines Pascual, who soon appreciated the sort of man with whom she was dealing. She admired his spirit, and became his friend for life. She showed him a cavern in the hill-side, above her native town of Manresa, whither he might retire to pray and practise austerities, while he might come to church in town for services, and for the necessities of life he might visit the hospice for the poor, or her own table, of which she made him free. In these circumstances he passed nearly a year. He lived upon alms and was still intent primarily on penance; but he learned also by personal experience, as he went on, what were the guiding principles and duties that should rule his new mode of life.

Whilst for the first few months he was full of consolation, he was then beset by the most trying scruples. Had he remembered to confess this or that sin? Was he certain about his duty in such and such circumstances? And how could he ensure perseverance? Again, even if there was no doubt about the greater sins, how could he count up the smaller ones? Unfortunately the good country clergy of the place were unable to remove the difficulties, which arose from a delicacy of conscience more refined than any with which they were familiar. Still Ignatius always sought their advice, and benefited by it to some extent, though not much, nor for long. At one time he was attacked by an impulse to suicide; and not knowing how to deal with it, he resolved (while continuing all his practices of severe penance) neither to eat nor to drink until the trial should come to an end, and he persevered a full week in this most drastic discipline. At the week end he informed his father confessor about it, as about all else, and then the fast was promptly stopped. It left no permanent evil effects, though the suffering from thirst had been extremely severe. At last, partly through guidance, partly through heroism, partly through prudence, he triumphed over all such obstacles and began to abound in graces, in clear spiritual lights and absorbing consolations. At one time he lay for eight days and nights in a trance, without movement and in appearance dead, save for a tremor in the pulse.

He was also visited by severe sickness, during which he was tended in the hospice by various good persons, with whom he used to converse on spiritual subjects. For, though to some extent a recluse, he also from an early date felt the apostolic call to help others and to communicate to them the spiritual lessons which he had learned at the cost of so much pain And suffering.

Besides his book of extracts from the words and deeds of Christ and of His Saints, which he kept with him, reading the Passion every day at Mass, he now began to make notes for a new book called The Spiritual Exercises, to which we shall return later. Meantime we may note the steps along which the Saint's remarkable training had proceeded, and sum up its lessons.

1. He begins like a good knight by the courageous acceptance of prolonged pains, and this imperceptibly weans him, to a large extent, from the lust of corporal pleasure and indulgence. Then by a seeming accident, he starts reading the lives of Christ and His Saints. At first he treats these new acquaintances with a sort of school-boy emulation. He would do as they do, and compete with them in courage and endurance.

2. Then he discovers that to live with the Saints, even in the most boyish way, is salutary, spiritual, helpful towards the life eternal. At this he redoubles his fervid realization of the God-man. His soul goes out with all its loyalty, strength and longing towards Christ. He gazes at Him and is strangely changed. The old lustings die down, he is bitterly chagrined to find how grossly he has transgressed against Him Whom he now loves more than all beside. Hence a passion for penance, emphasized by knowing nothing, or very little, about other virtues.

3. Leaving home and the world, and hanging up his sword before the altar, he breaks forever with his past life and by humble and contrite confession dedicates himself to a new career with night-long prayer and communion. Going forth among strangers, barefoot, clothed in canvas, and leaving all guidance to the heavenly Leader, he is casually befriended by a kindly woman, who shows him where he may practise, in solitude, the sternest austerities, live upon alms and yet have at hand the consolations of religion.

4. In his cave he passes a sort of novitiate, learning by daily meditation on the deeds of God made man how to study the New Testament as a practical guide of life. Amid the painful worries of scruples, doubts and hesitations, he learns to distinguish the subtle, almost imperceptible rise of temptations out of ideas that are blameless, perhaps immediately after suggestions that are good. He becomes a master in the spiritual life, and he begins to be a teacher of its secrets.

5. The apostolic spirit is slowly growing. From the first his conversation was predominantly about the things of the spirit. He found and kept friends and even followers among those inclined to piety. He showed them how to cultivate the habit of prayer, how to live for the world-to-come. For the present, however, his main business is still penance for the past, and the acquiring of complete familiarity with the daily occurrences in a life of prayer. Health, too, was not yet fully reinstated, and with the immense strains, which he (perhaps unawares) put upon his vitality (as very strong men often do before they discover their weaknesses), there is no wonder that it took him longer than he foresaw to prepare for the pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

6. Thus he had entered the cave a spiritual tyro, having hitherto known only one virtue, penance. He left it a master of the spiritual life, having written in its essential lines his master-work, The Spiritual Exercises. Of the external life before him he as yet knew nothing in detail.

St. Ignatius Loyola


For each of these grades—penitent, learner, proficient—it would be easy to find some parallel in the Imitation of Christ, with which in some degree it corresponded; though, of course, there was nothing in the God-man crude or boyish in the sense of a deficiency. The parallel will never be absolute. Christ took his place with the sinners who were baptized by John in the Jordan; Christ retired to the desert and there fasted for forty days and forty nights, and there He also wrestled repeatedly against all the subtleties of the diabolic foe. But Ignatius, passing from the camp of the world to that of Christ, must, humanly speaking, have time to pass through the awkward squad, before he is familiar with the new drill. With this deficiency, this sequela of previous sin, there cannot be anything strictly parallel in the life of Christ. Father Polanco, one of the Saint's contemporaries, says, "In this affair as well as in others Ignatius would say that by making mistakes he learned how to avoid them."

The chief testimony to Ignatius's study of Christ, to his self-moulding according to the Christian model, is his little book of Spiritual Exercises, which may be called a hand-book, for living like Christ. It was during this period that the outline, the skeleton, the essentials, were put upon paper, but it will be more convenient to put off our discussion of them for a later period, when they were discussed and debated in public.