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St. Ignatius of Loyola: A Theo-Dramatic Life

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts…

Shakespeare, Monologue of Jaques, As You Like It, act 2, scene 7.139-142

These are the famous opening lines of Jaques’ monologue in Shakespeare’s, As You Like It. From here, Jaques goes on to portray the life of an individual in seven ages from infancy to old age, “Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” (As You Like It, act 2, scene 7.163-166). Lines at once menacing in their frankness yet simultaneously beautiful. They reveal, as so many famous lines penned by the Bard, his firm grasp on the truth underlying human life, and invites us to consider our existence in a way perhaps not thought of before. This may seem contrary to our lived experience in a world where we all carry video cameras and recording devices in our pockets, which many (myself included), would say tends to blunt and distort the truth of our lives, everyone posing for the perfect picture in an ideal setting be it in nature or amongst family and friends that captures little of the authenticity of human life. In short, we’ve all become directors hoping to cast ourselves in a role that gives us the spotlight, if only momentarily. But herein lies the problem.

However desperately we may like it to be the case, we simply do not have the skill set to be the director of our life or any life for that matter, much less all of human history. Our purview and no less our capabilities are far too limited for that, as the opening lines of Jaques’ monologue suggests: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women are merely players.” The analogy may appear to undermine the dignity of human life and human freedom when we highlight the qualifier “merely.” However, Shakespeare has hit the proverbial nail on the head here, and in doing so pierced the heart of the meaning of human existence. For, the Director of human life must have the ability to see history as a whole, to allow the actors to take on the role assigned to them and make it their own, freely expressing the talent given them in order to express the truth of the script with their whole being. Moreover, the Director of human life must possess the magnanimity and patience to endure the shortcomings of the actors and ensure the beauty of the truth being displayed is not overshadowed by the actors losing their way on the stage and forgetting where they are in the script. In short, the Director of human life can be no less than Divine, making of human history something much more than merely human drama and nothing less than a Theo-Drama.

Theo-Drama is the title given by Hans Urs von Balthasar to the second section of his fifteen volume theological trilogy wherein he takes up the nature of soteriology and ethics and applies dramatic theory as an analogy to describe them. Von Balthasar was quite aware that dramatic theory could only provide analogous language to describe human and divine interaction, he writes it is clear that “while the conceptual categories of secular drama provide us with a preliminary understanding, they cannot offer anything like a complete grasp. They remain at the level of image and metaphor…the greater dissimilarity in the analogy prevents us from using any terms univocally” (Theo-Drama, Vol. 1: Prologomena, 18). Nevertheless, the analogy if properly applied does reveal a truth. Thus, Von Balthasar explains that in the Theo-Drama, “it is God’s stage; the decisive content of the actions is what He does: God and man will never appear as equal partners. It is God who acts, on man, for man and then together with man; the involvement of man in the divine action is part of God’s action, not a precondition of it” (Ibid.). Nevertheless, the human person is not meant to be a merely a member of the audience, but has some real agency, for “man is spectator only insofar as he is a player: he does not merely see himself on the stage, he really acts on it” (Ibid.). The truth being laid out by von Balthasar here, I would suggest, is something that all the saints come to grasp in a very deep and profound way. They recognized that God’s calling them into existence is a summons on stage to play a unique part in the unfolding of the Theo-Drama of salvation history.

Enter Iñigo Lopez de Loyola, stage left. Born “in 1491 of a noble Basque family in the province of Guipuzcoa the old kingdom of Castile” and upon his family property known as Loyola, Iñigo was the youngest of thirteen children (John C. Olin, Introduction to The Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 4). Iñigo was bound and determined to play a leading role in a life he thought of for many years as an ego-drama, a life directed by and starring oneself. Recounting his story to the young Portuguese Jesuit, Luis Gonçalves de Câmara, he tells us that he was enraptured by the tales of knights and their ladies, recounting that reading these stories “he imagined what he would do in the service of a certain lady, the means he would take so he could go to the country where she lived, the verses, the words he would say to her, the deeds of arms he would do in her service” (The Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 23). Compelled by these dreams, Iñigo became a “swaggering caballero, and a soldier in the service of the Spanish king” (John C. Olin, Introduction to The Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 4). He occupied a couple of different stations until the event happened that would bring his ego-drama and its script comprised of “a great and vain desire to win fame” to an abrupt end and forever change his life (The Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 21).

In the spring of 1521, the French attacked the region along the Pyrenees in northern Spain and eventually “occupied the city of Pamplona in Navarre, but the Spanish garrison in the citadel stubbornly held out” (John C. Olin, Introduction to The Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 4-5). Although his fellow knights saw the cause had become futile, Iñigo persuaded the commander to hold out and stirred up his comrades. Days later, the French attacked and Iñigo was entrenched in a long and hard fought battle. He tells us, “After the bombardment has lasted a good while, a shot hit him in the leg, breaking it completely; since the ball passed through both legs, the other one was also badly damaged” (The Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 21). The French recovered the injured knight and eventually brought him to the family castle in Loyola. There, the doctors decided “that the leg ought to be broken again and the bones reset because they had been badly set the first time or had been broken on the road and were out of place and could not heal” (The Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 22). The grueling procedure was done, but as his bones began to heal, “one bone below the knee remained on top of another, shortening his leg. The bone protruded so much that it was an ugly sight” (Ibid.). This the young Iñigo could not abide, still motivated as he was to pursue worldly fame, and so he asked the surgeons to cut it away (Ibid). This they did, yet much time was to pass before Iñigo was back to full health.

Ignatius recounts the days of his convalescence to us in his autobiography, giving main stage, not to himself, but a vast array of characters. As mentioned above, it had been a favorite leisure activity of his to read “books of chivalry,” and so, when he began to feel better he asked that some of these books be brought to him to pass the time. “But in that house none of those that he usually read could be found, so they gave him a Life of Christ and a book of the lives of the saints” (The Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 23). Suddenly a whole different life was laid before Iñigo’s eyes, and now the saints vied for his admiration alongside the knights he once hoped to become. He tells us, “While reading the life of Our Lord and of the saints, he stopped to think, reasoning within himself, ‘What if I should do what St. Francis did, what St. Dominic did?’…his every thought was to say to himself, ‘St. Dominic did this, therefore, I have to do it. St. Francis did this, therefore, I have to do it’” (Ibid.).

In this way passed the pivotal days of Iñigo’s conversion, reading of Christ and the saints and spending his time in conversation with those around him about the same (Ibid., 25). Doing so led Iñigo to develop a new desire in his heart. Now he no longer desired to obtain worldly fame or honor by serving the king of Spain. Instead, he longed to serve the King of Heaven. Later known as Ignatius, the once pompous caballero set out to take on the world to serve souls by drawing them under the reign of Christ the King, writing his Spiritual Exercises and forming the Jesuit Order all to this end. It would be hard to overestimate the influence St. Ignatius has had down through the centuries, impossible to quantify the amount of glory this sinner turned saint has given to his King, impossible to calculate the number of souls God has touched through his life and work. Yet, this much is clear: the dreams of greatness he once aspired to when he had written the script of his ego-drama were far surpassed when he handed over the script to the Heavenly King and sought to play his role in the Theo-Drama. In short, as in the case of all the saints, we are dealing with a life of excess, as was explained in our post on St. Catherine of Siena. And as such, it would be impossible here to do justice to all the meaning his life holds for us. However, I want to suggest three important points for our consideration today within the analogy of the Theo-Drama.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1600

1) Perfect freedom is playing the role God created us for. Stated differently, your life is not about you, and thus will not make sense apart from God’s purpose for you. This lesson is taught by St. Ignatius in many ways, but we might point out three from his Autobiography and the Spiritual Exercises. It is precisely this lesson that Ignatius teaches us in the First Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises: “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created…Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things. Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created” (The Spiritual Exercises, 23).

We are created to worship God, to live, as the motto of the Jesuit order has it, for the greater glory of God (AMDG). Ignatius had so fully placed this purpose at the very core of his soul and so adamant was he that nothing detract from this purpose the he was at first hesitant to even write his autobiography. We know that he was repeatedly asked to do so by those close to him, and for a time, he just as often found a reason not to. Drawing from Ignatius’ self-professed preoccupation with worldly fame together with the preface written by Fr. Câmara to the autobiography leads me to this conclusion. There, Fr. Câmara confesses to St. Ignatius of his struggle with vainglory. As a remedy, St. Ignatius told him “to refer all my affairs frequently to God, striving to offer Him all the good I found in myself, recognizing it as His and giving Him thanks for it,” before adding that he himself had struggled with this vice previously (Preface of Father Luis Gonçalves de Câmara). Eventually, Ignatius would be convinced that writing his story could be good for others, and thus he relented. However, even then the language he uses to speak of himself demonstrates the desire to defer attention as much as possible from himself by consistently referring to himself in the third person (“he” as in the quotes above), or simply as “the pilgrim” (e.g. The Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 49, 55, 59, 62, etc.). So consistent is Ignatius in this practice, that if one picked up an untitled copy of the Autobiography, one would not know who exactly one was reading about, other than that it was a life profoundly transformed by and devoted to God.

For the contemporary world, so thoroughly characterized by self-aggrandizement and self-flattery, this is unthinkable, for it is we who give meaning to our own lives. In contrast, Ignatius sought to teach as many people as he could that to live in such a way is to relegate one’s life to incoherence. Thus, the aim of his Spiritual Exercises is to prepare “the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul” (Spiritual Exercises, 1). If we are to live in true freedom, we too must strive to live completely out of love for God and neighbor.

2) Find the best actors in the play and seek to imitate them. Seeking out and pursuing the role God has called us to, however, is not to be done alone. A quick glance at the text of the Spiritual Exercises demonstrates this, as it doesn’t read as a theological text, but rather as a manual for leading people through the process of discerning their vocation. Thus, it is clear that Ignatius is of the opinion that seeking God’s will for our lives is done with the help of others.

No one’s influence, however, ought to outweigh the influence of God’s grace in making the choice of vocation or any other choice for that matter. Ignatius makes this clear in his Introductory Observations to the Exercises that the director of the Exercises ought not urge the exercitant in one direction or another, “it is more suitable and much better that the Creator and Lord in person communicate Himself to the devout soul in quest of the divine will, that He inflame it with His love and praise, and dispose it for the way in which it could better serve God in the future” (Spiritual Exercises, 15). One of the principle ways the Exercises seek to do this is by having the exercitant engage in the reading of the Gospels and much prayer, drawing them into a dynamic where one reads and listens to God.

Nevertheless, Ignatius’ life is filled with the importance of the exemplarity of the saints and friendship. Many of the prayers directed by the Exercises seek out the intercession of Mary, the Mother of God, for example. Moreover, as we saw above, the lives of the saints, specifically understood in relationship to Christ, were profoundly influential in Ignatius’ own conversion. Finally, very early on as he began carrying out the purpose for which God had created him, Ignatius drew to himself a group of friends who would eventually form the Jesuit order, including St. Peter Faber and St. Francis Xavier. The love these men had for each other is impossible to ignore if one reads the letters exchanged between them, however, no less impossible to ignore is the fact that their love for one another sprang from their mutual dedication of working for “the greater glory of God and the service of souls” (The Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 81).

O, my true Father! I have just received at Malacca, on my return from Japan, the letter of your holy charity. The news that I hoped for, and that it has given me, of the life and good health of one so dear and so venerated, have filled my soul with a joy known to God alone. I read there many words breathing all your sweetness and piety; I have reread them many times for the comfort and the good of my soul…especially those last words that are, as it were, the seal of charity, and that conclude your letter, ‘Yours entirely, so that no length of time will ever be able to make me forget you, Ignatius.’ I have read these words with tears of delight, and as I write them weep at the blessed remembrance of past days, and of the sincere and holy love with which you have always enfolded me, and which still follows me. I consider that God was pleased to deliver me from all those great toils and dangers in Japan, chiefly because your prayers and fatherly intercession on my behalf induced him to favor me (Letter, Jan. 29, 1552 from St. Francis Xavier to St. Ignatius).

In short, saints help make saints, and thus it is indispensable that we do as these men did, and surround ourselves with those running towards God (through books no less than those whom we live amongst here and now) and spur one another on in the race.

3) No performance will be without its flaws. The life of the actor is filled with misreadings and missteps, and it is here that we encounter God most acutely. One cannot read The Autobiography of St. Ignatius and fail to recognize that what Ignatius wants to communicate to us most of all is that it is through the messiness of life and amidst our brokenness that we encounter God. More to it, this side of eternity, we will not encounter God any other way. There will be no time when we are perfect, and thus no time when we are so perfectly attuned to God’s will that we play our roles in the Theo-Drama flawlessly. The Autobiography begins with Iñigo pursuing a worldly life followed by a devastating and life-threatening injury, and it is here that he intimately meets Christ. However, with this the struggle just begins. On his way to becoming a great saint for the life of the Church, Ignatius will wrestle with leaving his former desires behind (The Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 23-24), make up his mind to serve God in the Holy Land only to be sternly sent back to Europe (Ibid., 50), be investigated by the Inquisition for heresy (Ibid., 62), and even imprisoned for what others wrongly read as suspicious activity involving two women, who, as it turned out after being in the company of Ignatius had decided to set about the world serving the poor for love of Christ (Ibid., 63-64). 

In short, the life of holiness is not for the faint of heart, nor is our conversion ever complete this side of eternity. It is for this reason that St. Ignatius places such high importance in the Spiritual Exercises on the discernment of spirits so that we might not be misled by impure motives (Spiritual Exercises, 313-336), and on making an examination of conscience twice daily in order to discern where it is that we have fallen short, and of rising every morning, making the firm resolution not to fall into the same sins and of correcting and improving oneself (Spiritual Exercises, 24-26). The life Ignatius sets before us is, indeed, demanding. However, it is not slavish. What matters most is to pursue God’s loving will through our brokenness, persisting even when we have made a mistake and offering the whole of ourselves repeatedly to the service of God’s Kingdom, for His greater glory. In this is true freedom, the freedom of abandoning ourselves to the heart of Divine Mercy, who alone knows the purpose for which we have been created. A life lived in this way, as in the case of St. Ignatius is profoundly counter cultural, and thus both bound to attract attention (for good or ill), and difficult to carry out. Thus, we do well to allow the words of the Suscipe (take and receive), found near the end of the Exercises to penetrate and form our souls:   

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

Your servant in Christ,


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2 years ago

Very well done! I love the excerpt from St. Francis’ letter to St. Ignatius. What a holy friendship! Thank you. Happy Feast Day!