A new society

Daily Reading for July 31 • Ignatius of Loyola, Priest and Monastic, 1556

One of the greatest forces for revival in the Roman Church [was] the Society of Jesus. Like Valdesianism, it was a movement which sprang from the Iberian peninsula. It was founded by a Basque gentleman who had been a courtier of Charles V and who, like Valdés, had to take refuge from the Spanish Inquisition. Iñigo López de Loyola has become known to history as Ignatius after making the most of a scribal error over his Christian name when he matriculated in the University of Paris.

Like Luther and Contarini, Iñigo had a crisis of faith, but his crisis, triggered by devotional reading during prolonged convalescence from a severe war wound, led in the opposite direction to Luther: not to rebellion against the Church, but to a courtier’s obedience. In medieval knightly style, in 1522 he spent a vigil night in dedication to his lady before departing on crusade to the Holy Land—the lady was God’s Mother, in the shape of the pilgrimage statue of the Black Madonna at Monserrat. In fact his departure for Jerusalem was to be much postponed, and Jerusalem proved not to be the goal of his life that he hoped. Amid many painful and poverty-stricken false starts, Loyola began to note down his changing spiritual exercises. This was raw material for a systematically organized guide to prayer, self-examination and surrender to divine power. He soon began using the system with other people. It was to reach a papally approved final form in print in 1548 as the Spiritual Exercises, one of the most influential books in Western Christianity, even though Ignatius did not design it for reading any more than one might a technical manual of engineering or computing. It is there to be used by clerical spiritual directors guiding others as Ignatius did himself, to be adapted at whatever level might be appropriate for those who sought to benefit from it, in what came to be known as “making the Exercises.

It was the Spanish Inquisition’s unfavourable interest in this devotional activity which led to Loyola’s hasty exit from Spain for the University of Paris in 1528, a year before Valdés’s own flight. Around the exiled Spaniard gathered a group of talented young men who were inspired by his vision for a new mission to the Holy Land. To their severe disappointment, the international situation in 1537 made it impossible for them to take ship, but the friends resolved to look positively on their setback and create yet another variant on the gild/confraternity/oratory model: not a religious order, but what they called a Compagnia or Society of Jesus.

From Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch (New York: Viking, 2009).

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