The supernatural invasion of divine light and energy that transforms men into saints is like a mighty river that respects the human topography in its choice of route. Such was the case with Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Íñigo ’s Basque blood, education, military career and the entire personality that made him who he was, for better or for worse, were the rock that the divine sculptor had to work with. The two most important constituents of this rock were his quintessential Catholic identity and the ethos of medieval chivalry.
Firstly, Catholicism. His Basque heritage was thoroughly Catholic. As Nadal, one of Ignatius’s closest associates, wrote:
“Ignatius is a Spaniard, an offspring of the best nobility of Guipuzcoa, of a family in which stainless faith has ever been preserved intact. The zeal and constancy for their religion among the inhabitants was so great, and their adherence to it so stubborn that…from immemorial times, from the days when Christianity was first planted in that land, no one has ever been found who had incurred even the suspicion of heresy.”
To speak about the importance of Catholicism in shaping the mind of Ignatius might seem superfluous. Not so, however. This is because the Catholicism that was the oxygen of his soul has become somewhat unknown to many of our contemporaries. It was a faith untainted by the mentality of the contemporary Dictatorship of Relativism. For 15th century Catholics, the Catholic Faith was simply the truth about God and man, time and eternity. All other religions were false. God existed: the almighty Creator, sovereign Lord and ruler of the universe which depended on Him for its continued existence in every nano instant. The only serious business in life was to save one’s soul. The greatest evil was mortal sin and the only tragedy was to die in it for it meant eternal damnation. These truths never ceased to be present in the life of Ignatius; they were the foundation of his existence; on them the divine architect could build. It is enough to flick through the pages of his autobiography to see this never absent world vision.
This hardcore Catholicism prevented his soul from destruction during his wild teens and twenties. It was reinforced during his service in the household of Juan Velásquez de Cuellar, an important member of the entourage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. De Cuellar, who had come under the influence of the religious reforms introduced by the austere Cardinal de Cisneros, brought the young Íñigo with him to religious events. Also influential was the religious literature that he read starting with the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.
Second to this Catholic heritage in molding him was the ideal that dominated his youth: the mystique of chivalry. Since this mystique of chivalry colored all dimensions of Ignatius’s life and the Ignatian charism we will examine it in detail on other pages. Chivalry was the rich and fertile soil on which the supernatural seeds of the call of Christ fell in the case of Íñigo de Loyola. It is no exaggeration to say that the saintly Ignatius came from the chivalrous Íñigo.
This ethos of chivalry was the spirit that Íñigo breathed from birth in the castle of Loyola and which, during youth came to dominate his imagination, memory, intellect and heart. As a young apprentice at court Ignatius was imbued with the sense of service to the “royal majesty”, of loyalty to the royal house, of courage and self-sacrifice in pursuing the royal commands. But he also learned that chivalry did not only belong to men wielding swords. As a teenager he attended the liturgy at the Poor Clare convent of Arevalo where he listened to the song celebrating the chivalrous figure of St. Francis, the heroic youth who had flung aside all material possessions and as a brave caudillo [warrior-leader] had laid siege to the three fortresses of the corrupt world, the flesh, and Satan.
Even during his years of debauchery, this chivalric spirit saved him from spiraling to far lower moral depths. A chivalric sense of reverence and awe for the Divine Majesty led him never to blaspheme, to hate lies and to detest greed. Always generous. Ever he remained noble in his aspirations: he wanted to do great things in life and was willing to embrace the pain and suffering involved in their achievement. As a soldier, the chivalric ideal inspired him and many of those around him to bring Christian love into war. It made those you were fighting against only your military enemies but they remained your brothers in Christ. And that had practical, very practical consequences. Think for instance of how the French victors at the Battle of Pamplona carried the wounded Íñigo on a litter all the way to his home at Loyola and how he in turn, gratefully handed them his treasured armor, dagger, and shield.
Thus Íñigo’s chivalric soul was the good soil on which the seeds of divine grace fell and which remained throughout his existence the soil of his holiness. The natural chivalry of the soldier Íñigo was sublimated into the supernatural chivalry of the priest Ignatius. The sword of battle that he consecrated to Our Lady of Montserrat became the sword of the spirit with which he waged spiritual warfare on the “human nature’s deadly enemy” (Spiritual Exercises, n.136). The armor of physical warfare that he determined to lay at his Lady’s altar was replaced by the supernatural armor of asceticism, the protection of his mystical union with God.
Hence, chivalry meant continuity not rupture in his life: all that had inspired towards in his youth remained, acquiring a more deeply eternal significance and a sublime beauty. He would still strive to be a great knight; the desire to distinguish himself in the service of an earthly king was transformed into the desire for distinguished service to the Divine King; the warrior spirit channeled its fire to the conquest of self, of souls, and of society for the Kingdom of Christ and the civilization of love. Even if the sounds of the neighing of horses, the jangle of spurs, the clash of swords, and the night-fires of camp ceased, the warfare and the spirit of the fighter remained.