So far (if you’ve been following along) we’ve discovered that some of the greatest movements of Christianity – Calvinism, Pentecostalism, the Great Century of missions, the Jesus Revolution, and the Australian Baptist church – were all launched by broken men.
Welcome to the sixth of our 7 Broken Men, at the raffish Spanish courtier, Iñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola, better known as St Ignatius of Loyola.
Iñigo de Loyola was actually physically broken. A French cannonball had shattered his leg while he was defending the fortress town of Pamplona in 1521. The broken leg was not properly set, leaving the protruding bone to create an ugly lump under the skin.
Iñigo was vain. He was also quite the ladies’ man. So he insisted on having the leg re-broken and re-set. Without anesthetic, of course. The injured leg ended up shorter than the other, so the once-dashing Iñigo limped for the rest of his life.
That was no small thing for Iñigo.
He had grown up in the castle of Loyola, the 13th child of Don Beltrán Yañez de Oñaz y Loyola, a brash, free-spirited womanizer who had fathered several children by other women. Iñigo’s grandfather was an even more shadowy character, regularly in conflict with the crown.
Nonetheless, they were landed gentry and could get away with bad behavior.
So Iñigo figured that being a courtier of Loyola allowed him to flout convention and behave any way he liked. And he did.
He paid more attention at dancing and fencing classes than academic ones. Like his father he became a dandy, a womanizer, sensitive to insult, and, well, frankly, a jerk.
Once, during carnival time, while accompanied by his brother, a priest, he struck up a conversation with a Moor, and subsequently discovered he didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus (most North African Muslims don’t!). Iñigo feigned offense on behalf of his brother and boorishly challenged the poor guy to a duel to the death, and then dispatched him easily with his superior swordsmanship. He then used his privileged status to escape prosecution.
Like I said, he was a jerk.
But things changed after the siege of Pamplona. While recovering in his castle after the resetting of his broken leg, he began to experience visions and moments of spiritual euphoria. This was extremely out of character. Normally he fantasized about beautiful women or personal glory. Now St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic visited his dreams.
He started reading an illustrated Life of Christ and a book of saints’ legends.
Everyone agreed. Something very strange was happening. Iñigo the jerk was being converted.
At 30 years of age, having showed no prior interest in spiritual matters, Iñigo began to devote himself to serving Christ, a process that took nearly two decades and included intensive study, pilgrimages and submission to a rigorous system of what he called “spiritual exercises”.
It was a vocation to which he felt himself eminently unqualified. Due to his disinterest in formal education as a child, he was barely literate. He was effectively forced to start his education all over, sitting in classes with people much younger than him. Iñigo was a plodder. The dashing, arrogant courtier had turned into a humble, limping monk.
He joked that he had turned from a beautiful butterfly into an ugly caterpillar.
While a student at the University of Paris, he developed a close bond with several other devout men, all much younger than he (Iñigo was in his 40s by this stage). They included Peter Faber and Francis Xavier, a fellow Spanish nobleman. It was at this time that Iñigo abandoned his given name and began calling himself Ignatius.
The group acknowledged him as their leader and embraced his spiritual exercises as their collective rule. Together they were to form the nucleus of what would later become a religious order known as the Society of Jesus, or more popularly, the Jesuits.
Approved as an official religious order by Pope Paul III in 1540 the Jesuits wanted to elect Ignatius as their first leader. He declined after the first vote believing his vanity and the licentiousness of his earlier life disqualified him. He also knew most of his companions were far more theologically knowledgeable than him.
They insisted, and eventually he accepted the position and served until his death sixteen years later.
I can’t begin to recount the enormous influence the Jesuits have had on global Christianity. From Francis Xavier, one of the world’s greatest evangelists, to theologians like Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, as well as philosophers (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin), writers (Gerard Manley Hopkins), martyrs and missionaries. And even the current Pope, Francis.
Today the Ignatian Exercises still offer many a means of finding freedom through the recognition that God loves us, wherever we are and whatever we have done. Ignatian spirituality aims to help people overcome any preoccupation with self and turn their energies to serving others.
At one point the Jesuits were threatened with being disbanded, and Ignatius was asked how he would feel to see his life’s work snuffed out. He thought a while and said, “Well, I think I would need a good half day of prayer to be able to come to terms with it.”
Just half a day! His sense of personal worth was anchored in Christ, not his vainglorious achievements.
That’s not something Iñigo the jerk could ever have said.