Ignatian Year - The Military Character of Ignatius's Spirituality

Source: District of Asia

“As those who live as good soldiers in the service of a temporal prince desire to train and exercise themselves in the skilful handling of the necessary weapons, so also must those who wish to serve. Christ our Lord in spiritual service acquire skill with spiritual weapons, which the Society employs to help men to a good life and a holy death”

1. Christian Life seen as a Great Battle

The Spiritual Exercises are Ignatius's oldest writings. In them he expressed —often in rough, unpolished language— the inner movements experienced by his soul under the immediate direction of God in the solitude of Manresa. On several pages of them we find Christian life conceived as a battle between Christ and Satan. Take the leading meditation - “ The Call of the Temporal King “, or again— the “ Meditation on Two Standards “: Commander Christ wants to conquer the whole world; He appeals to the men in His camp, to march with Him, to fight under His banner; they are to labour and mount guard; but after pain and toil victory will be theirs; in the other camp Satan, chief of the enemy troops, incites his henchmen. The fight between the two forces is to be a global one. Yet, it will be very specified as well, for Satan follows “the tactics of a leader intent upon seizing and plundering a position he desires. A commander and leader of an army will encamp, explore the fortifications and de-fences of the stronghold, and attack at the weakest point. In the same way, the enemy of our human nature investigates from every side all our virtues . . . Where he finds the defences weakest and most deficient, there he attacks and tries to take us by storm”.

Only cowardly knights refuse the invitation of the king:  To help a sinner rouse himself to shame for his sins, Ignatius advises him to consider himself “a knight brought before his king and the whole court, filled with shame and confusion for having grievously offended his lord from whom he had formerly received many gifts and favours”.

Conclusion:  All the above expressions come so easily and so naturally to the mind of Ignatius, that there is no doubt he considered Christian life to be a spiritual fight against evil, a fight that must be fought at the side of the Divine Commander. Ignatius still speaks the language of the knight: loyalty and prowess, with these ideals he hopes to bring generous souls to want to share with Christ the cross of actual poverty, insults, etc., thus, to redeem the world; but the ideals he will propose to his Company will go far beyond the figures of speech that he keeps of pre-con-version days.

2. Jesuit Life viewed as a Relentless Fight

In countless letters Ignatius speaks of the Company as of a military corps fighting for a Church in danger.

a) In Germany, Lutheranism is the danger, but thanks be to God, many new men are joining the ranks: “The Lord seems to prepare soldiers with spiritual weapons against Germany, for many promising youths are entering the Society”. When another ten Germans and one Bohemian have entered, he writes: “God seems to send these new soldiers to the Society where they can exercise, prepare and train themselves, the better to fight the heresy of their country”. Again, “God then is planning something good, since He prepares so many soldiers against the devil”. He has only one wish: “to throw up a front against the heretics, to undertake great things for Christ - which requires many good soldiers”.

When it becomes clear that the Society alone is unable to win the battle against protestantism, Ignatius starts the Germanicum. It soon has dozens of seminarists whom: after a solid training, the Church will be able to send into the fight. Repeatedly Ignatius describes this German College as an army in training, v.g.: “The Lord is preparing soldiers for some extraordinary expedition, apparently intending to produce from this College some great fruit for His Church”.

b) Sending out his subjects, Ignatius acts like a general of an army; this impression is given, not by any snap orders or harsh discipline, but because of his strategic insight: “Though the said Fathers were doing excellent work in Rome by their literary endeavours and the handling of spiritual weapons, yet, as they have grown in spirit, learning and prudence, they will be sent to the provinces of the King, there to fight for the faith, and help souls”.

c) The years of formation in the Society are the time of training, when the soldier learns to handle spiritual weapons: “When soldiers are engaged in providing themselves with weapons and ammunition for the coming expedition, can anybody maintain that their labour is not in the service of their Prince?”.

In the first draft of the Constitutions, we read the following: “As those who live as good soldiers in the service of a temporal prince desire to train and exercise themselves in the skilful handling of the necessary weapons, so also must those who wish to serve. Christ our Lord in spiritual service acquire skill with spiritual weapons, which the Society employs to help men to a good life and a holy death”.

The formation must be thorough, lest the men be unable to bear the brunt of the fight. The Rector of Vienna is given the following directive from Rome: “If the Father in question has not studied sufficiently and has not enough practice in the hand-ling of the spiritual weapons to be used in Austria, then Ignatius neither will nor can expose him to such danger”.

d) Life in the Society is seen by Ignatius as a long-drawn-out battle under the banner of Jesus. The following quotations from his letters need no comment. “Many young men”, he writes to Mary of Austria, “have embraced the discipline of this Society in which they want, spiritually, to be soldiers under the standard of Jesus.” To Fr Coudrey he writes: “May it please God our Lord ever to increase the courage of those who battle under His banner, even unto the end.” To sorely tried Fr Broet, first Provincial of France, he offers consolation: “It would seem that our Lord treats you and your sons as good soldiers already hardened in the army at His service.” In those early days to become a soldier of Christ ' and to enlist in the army of Christ ' always meant to enter the Society '. To clinch the argument, here is what Polanco says: “Not in this way was it called Societas Jesu, as if Ours would presume to be socii of Jesus Himself, but rather in a military way of speaking, as when a group receives the name of him under whom it fights”.

e) The means of the apostolate are called “spiritual weapons “. All members of the Society are to make themselves proficient in their use. They are: “Good example, spiritual conversations, preaching, catechizing - especially exhortations to Confession' and Holy Communion, giving the Spiritual Exercises.” In other letters Ignatius affirms the same. “You know that the Spiritual Exercises are by far the most important means to help men really interiorly; I therefore ask you again to use those weapons that are proper to the Society.” The faculties, privileges, powers, etc., granted by Rome are always called the “weapons handed on to us by the Vicar of Christ as needed for those parts”. Ignatius repeatedly remarks that it is important, to achieve what we want, to use weapons that are appropriate to the different circumstances.

f) The pay given to the soldiers in the Society, for faithful Service, is so extraordinary and sublime that Ignatius can scarcely control his emotion: “We the soldiers of His Company, with special title and special pay. I say special, because there are many general motives...

His pay? All that you are and have . . .
His pay? All the graces He bestowed on you.
His pay? The inestimable treasures of His happiness.
His pay, finally? The whole world and its fulness . . .
And as if all this were not enough, He made Himself our pay…
O what an ungrateful soldier is he for whom such pay does not suffice to work for the honour of such a Prince!”

3. Ignatius, the Genial Strategist of Christ

For days on end the knight, Inigo of Loyola, with a mere handful of exhausted soldiers, held Pampeluna against an over-powering enemy. This was proof enough of his power over men, excellent tactics and strategic insight. And these gifts he did not lose at his conversion: hardly has he become a priest —we are in the year 1537— when he despatches his first companions from Venice to the Italian university towns; Broet and Rodrigues are to concentrate on Siena, Xavier and Salmeron on Bologna, Lejay and Bobadilla on Ferrara, Codure and Hoces on Padua. He himself, with Laynez and Favre, is heading for Rome. Thus, the strategist has posted his men in the centres that influence Europe. These are the very towns where he would later erect his colleges.

As General of the young Society, he sends his best forces to the courts of Europe, reckoning that, if kings and princes be made thoroughly Christian, the people would be sure to follow. We find Jesuits at the courts of the Duke of Gandia, of the German Ferdinand I, of the Viceroy of Sicily Juan de Vega, of the Duke of Najera, of Portugal's Juan III, etc. His basic principle in this, Ignatius wrote it into his Constitutions: work where there is hope of more fruit and greater spiritual profit.


Since the days of Paul, army terms have been in common use throughout all Christian literature: they can be found in letters of the Popes, in Augustine, in Benedict, etc. At first sight, one might be inclined to say that Ignatius has borrowed the terminology of Paul. Indeed, the following “Ignatian” figures are found in the Letters of Paul: Soldier of Jesus Christ, Camps, Armour of Justice, Pay, Night watch, etc.; even the student as a fighting soldier is not absent in St Paul.

But further scrutiny reveals that Paul and Ignatius use these same terms with somewhat different connotations. For both, life with Christ is a stern struggle against the devil and evil forces. Where Paul, however, insists that the fighting be with the weapons God Himself provides in the all-embracing service of Christ the Son of God, Ignatius stresses more the aspect of conquest and the personal consecration and attachment to the Divine King, Christ. Paul draws his figures from the enmity between Jew and Roman, Jew and other Gentiles. Ignatius's figures are from the mediaeval heritage of a vassal's personal loyalty to his Lord, of the knight's personal attachment to his Prince.

Still, we may ask ourselves whether Ignatian battle-terms are not cliches borrowed from Christian tradition. Though this must not be entirely ruled out, we must remember that they doubtlessly represent as well the influence of his earlier court and camp life.

A deeper understanding of Ignatian spirituality makes it clear that it cannot be synthesized under the phrase “a soldier's spirituality”, as if God's service demanded a rigid, severe, stiff sort of discipline. Does Ignatius not refer his sons to the High Command of the Holy Ghost for concrete forms of apostolate and for intimate guidance in the spiritual life? Ignatius's Company is a band of spiritual knights, not of soldiers. In an army, men are mere units; in the Society, each individual is a person.

Some 50 years ago it was the fashion to foist on the Society a mentality of militarism, or at least an outspoken preference for difficult enterprises. But we are no longer being misled. Ignatius, as is clear for anyone who reads his letters and the context of the quotations used in this article, intends only to further the honour and glory of God. Whether this be obtained by a hidden life, sickness, and misfortune, by difficult mission work, brilliant preaching, or through one's presence at the houses of kings and influential people, is to him altogether accidental. There is no desire for the hard thing just because it is hard; no paratrooper mentality; just the silent preference for suffering because the Lord Jesus has chosen the road of the cross.

Ignatius uses military terms only to signify that the heart of every Jesuit, who is a contemplative and an apostle at once, must ever be energetic and dynamic, ready at a moment's notice to execute the assignment allotted to him. The military terminology is only a figure of speech to signify our mobility, alertness and Unwavering loyalty to Christ. It is a manner of representation the fruit, no doubt, of Ignatius's historic situation — in no way belonging to the essence of the Society. It characterizes only the 'fringe of our spirituality, at heart so different from that of a soldier.

(Condensed from “Het militaire bij Ignatius Van Loyola”, in De Pilgrim, 18 Jan. 1955, Leuven, by Edmund Van Iseghem S. J.)