Saint Ignatius of Loyola and the Spiritual Exercises

by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

Saint of the Day, July 31, 1964

“A Roman and Apostolic Catholic, the author of this text submits himself with filial devotion to the traditional teaching of Holy Church. However, if by an oversight anything is found in it at variance with that teaching, he immediately and categorically rejects it.”

 The words “Revolution” and “Counter-Revolution” are employed here in the sense given to them by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution, the first edition of which was published in the monthly Catolicismo, Nº 100, April 1959.



Today is the feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Confessor, founder of the Society of Jesus, and author of the Spiritual Exercises. He lived in the 16th Century.

There are so many things to say about Saint Ignatius of Loyola that I don’t know where to start. He must be praised so much and was notable in so many things. His life clearly constitutes an architectural ensemble that one is almost at a loss for words to talk about. It would be necessary to go through it all and that would exceed the limits of this necessarily quick commentary.

However, it seems to me that two things shine in Saint Ignatius of Loyola and define him. Of course, they have to shine in all saints, but in him, they shine in a special way. The first is this: There was a holy radicality throughout Saint Ignatius’s life. He never took a position, attitude, or did anything that was not completely radical in its genre.

On the other hand, all of his radical positions, because they are radical, aim at an ultimate end. They do not become watered down halfway but reach their final end. In my view, this kind of vision of the final end is the most beautiful note in the life of Saint Ignatius.

Again, I say that this exists in the life of every saint, but some saints have virtues greater than other saints and each saint shines particularly in a given virtue. This is where I see Saint Ignatius’s shine. For example, in his conversion: it was a tremendous conversion because he was a real sinner, a grimy sinner, a worldly, impure man, completely oblivious to the things of heaven; a vain military man whose courage was made of blustering; one who, because of that, put up with a lot of things, but was only concerned about earthly things. Now, along that line, what he wanted, he really wanted. And from this standpoint, beneath his capital sin that dominated his actions, one could see something of his primordial light.

Can you imagine something more tremendous than a man at the age of thirty, who took worldliness to the point that when his leg was broken by a cannonball in the siege of Pamplona, he had it broken and reset three times so that he would not limp? For according to the rules of elegance of that time, a nobleman who appeared limping at the court would be frowned upon, and that would greatly impair his worldly and therefore political and military career.

Now imagine a surgeon using the methods from the 1520s, and with all of that Spanish determination, striking the bone that just healed and breaking it again so Saint Ignatius would not limp. As he convalesced, he would then spend hours and hours in bed terrified by inertia, because he was a super-active man. In that kind of man, inertia produces a kind of shortness of breath. Lying motionless in the castle, with a weight on his feet to keep the leg from healing in the wrong position so as to prevent him from going through all of that again so he would not limp anymore!

You can see that he reasons like this: “If I don’t want to limp and be lame my whole life, I need to make this sacrifice now, however horrendous it may be. No matter what, I am looking to the future. To avoid being lame for the rest of my life, I will now go through the worst sufferings.” In this reasoning there is a kind of notion of the preeminence of the definitive over the ephemeral, of a great pain lasting a lifetime compared to the glaring but fleeting pain of some truly excruciating episodes. This shows a truly dazzling sense of hierarchy and a soul with fiber to face what has to be faced head-on, and reveals a primordial light hidden under a multitude of wrongful and sinful acts.

What would happen to most people in the situation Saint Ignatius encountered? They would not face the problem head-on as he did. He saw his circumstances in their most raw form: “This makes me lame, but I want to live at the court and be in the military. Now, a lame person in the court does not dance; a man who does not dance at the court is worthless. A lame man at court has no military career; a nobleman without a military career is worthless. I am a nobleman, and so I must live at the court; therefore, I face this problem head-on. If I do not cure myself of this physical defect, I will accomplish nothing, and my life is over.” So he faces the problem head-on.

“What would my life be if I remain lame? I will be despised, have nothing to do, no career, no money and will be bored to death. This, on one side of the scale, and on the other side: What a torture to break my leg multiple times. Many people would rather limp to the end of their life. As I realize my options, I come to this conclusion: It is necessary to break my leg to achieve my goals, so I break it.”

As you know, most people would not face this dilemma head-on and would become very upset with a friend who was to sit next to the bead and say: “Frankly, Ignatius…” and then tell him the truth. He would think that his friend had ill will toward him: “He is my enemy, he came to delight in my misfortune.” This is how the Brazilian temperament would consider this treatment.

Once Saint Ignatius converted, he remained radical and again looked head-on at the problems of heaven, hell, salvation, etc.: “I received graces and understood what it means to be a Catholic, because being Catholic means to have eternal happiness, to love God, and to live in His service. Being anti-Catholic means earthly happiness but also eternal misfortune and an offense to God. This is the truth, and I have to see it head-on. And from this, I will draw all the consequences that follow.”

“And the consequences that follow for me, Ignatius of Loyola, consist of following the voice of grace. This voice asks me that I change my life completely, dedicate myself entirely while being consistent to these principles. It also requires that I reform my whole life contrary to the way I had lived in view of these considerations on heaven and hell, the glory of God and the perdition of souls, and build for myself an existence made of self-denial, humility, but above all, coherence.

“I must be consistent with the truth that I have adopted. I see it head-on, I look at it head-on, assume it entirely, and will be consistent to the end.”

This is Saint Ignatius’ magnificent rule for the life he went on to live. He did not back away from anything. He did whatever was needed to take that consistency to its ultimate limits.

Imagine a nobleman from that time who decides to become a beggar and put yourselves in his shoes. Imagine that one of you dresses as a beggar, with a torn shoe, a dirty and tattered suit, long hair, all filthy, eating awfully, and goes out begging on the streets of São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Rio or any other city where you live.

Imagine those who run into him: “What’s happened to you, Ignatius?” He would answer: “I am doing this for the love of God.” The other person would laugh and leave. Picture each one of you in the center of this scene. I have to imagine myself, Plinio, at the entrance of Viaduto do Chá, at the foot of the Light office building, asking for alms. My friend so-and-so, who pontificates there in the glory of his office, passes by and says: “Come on, where is the Plinio from the old times? I don’t recognize him.” I start begging, and people say; get a life loser! Friar so-and-so passes by, I ask for alms, and he throws me out. I get contaminated food, nondescript bones from the garbage, which I will gnaw in a corner somewhere. Everyone who knows me comments around the city: “See what Plinio did? I knew that was going to happen…”

This is perhaps little compared to another humiliation. Like many gentlemen of that time, he was semi-illiterate. I maintain that those semi-illiterate noblemen had more culture than the entire Brazilian Academy of Letters. In any case, to be ordained a priest, he needed to learn to read and write. He, an adult man, entered a primary school in the middle of children. The teacher and the children played games with him, an old man who wanted to learn to read and write. After that, he found another way and ended up attending the University of Paris.

As a former nobleman, what method did he employ to do apostolate? As you could imagine, he enters the University with a good presentation, a sharp tongue, good argumentation, looks for this or that young man, starts to talk, discusses, and shines a bit. How consoling that must have been after having been a beggar, to put your head out of the water the first time.

Saint Francis Xavier is a brilliant student at the University. Ignatius dresses up like a dirty beggar, stands at the school entrance, and asks; “Francisco, what good is all that glory to you if you lose your soul?” Francis makes a face of contempt, but after a while, realizes the truth and joins Ignatius.

Then he goes on to found the tiny Society of Jesus, with a handful of priests, to stop the avalanche of the Revolution, which at the time was the Protestant Revolution. As a consequence, we have popes, cardinals, bishops, kings, emperors, princes, and all of Catholic Christendom struggling against Protestantism and suffering setbacks all the time. So he decides to do an extraordinary thing; to build a military order, in the highest sense of the word, to raise dikes against the Revolution. Someone had to do it; nobody did, so he was going to do it. It is his longstanding coherence carried to its ultimate consequences, so he does it alone.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola founds the Society of Jesus, sets dikes against the Revolution, and at the end of the day and saves much of the Church and Christian Civilization on the face of the earth. Many great things were preserved for other occasions because of the action that he carried out. At the end of his life, Saint Ignatius asks to be buried with his knight’s sword because his life was like a huge movement that returned to its departure point.

He brought together all aspects of his life in a synthesis because he was the General of the Society of Jesus. He was a General because he was the head of a spiritual militia whose members die with the sword. This sword is a symbol of the physical militia affirming that he died fighting in combat. Why? Once again we must see his profound consistency. What is that consistency? There is an enemy; the enemy wants the extermination of the Church, so Saint Ignatius wants the extermination of that enemy. The best way to build is to have the sword in hand destroying the evil while building the good. To build, nothing is better than fighting.

The Spiritual Exercises are a treatise on human coherence with the spirit of coherence carried out to the last consequence where one can see the admirably positive work of this saint. From its main foundation to the last line of the Spiritual Exercises, the whole thing is about seeing problems head-on, without any cowardly mitigation, ignominiousness, or lies to oneself, but seeing reality as it is.

Two Ranges of Coherence in the Exercises

The first principle is the axis upon which all logical arguments are based; it is the sovereign right of God, Our Lord, and of Our Lord Jesus Christ as Redeemer of humanity and of the Holy Catholic Church as Christ’s Church on earth.

The second principle is the objective reality of human malice, lack of loyalty to himself, and lack of honesty in his good purposes; this is also seen until the final consequence.

In his Exercises, Saint Ignatius is as suspicious of man as he can be. He exposes in the exercises all the ordinary scams with which a man eludes his conscience. For example, how well he expounds the case of a man who has money and faces a problem of conscience on whether to leave the money with someone else because if he keeps the money in his possession, he can be tempted by many foolish attachments, but if I hand over my wallet to my friend, I will make the retreat and later he will examine the case tell me what he thinks: “I think it should be this way, but judge for yourself and whatever you decide is fine.”

Look how he is always suspicious of man, who constantly faces himself and recognizes that he can be evil. In this, there is an epic of probity, honesty and a straight and continuous tendency of the will towards its own end, which is one of the highest and most beautiful affirmations of sanctity in the history of the Church.

Seen as an ensemble, the Exercises of Saint Ignatius are typical of his spirit and the fact they are the characteristic work of a great saint glorifies the Exercises. However, as you know from good traditions, Saint Ignatius is not the author of the Exercises but they were dictated to him by Our Lady in the cave of Manresa, Spain. In them, you see the spirit of Our Lady. Here there is much more than the spirit of Saint Ignatius; it is the very substance of the most holy, unfathomably holy soul of Our Lady. Here there is a super-coherence that only truly virgin souls can have. For us, it is a model of purity of intention combined with the purity of the body. There are really no words that can express it.

We must ask Saint Ignatius to give us this twofold grace: The first is to see things head-on, as they are, however bad and unpleasant they may be, and to remove this horrible addiction that exists in the soul of so many Brazilians, which is to look at things sideways. A Brazilian sees things in his own way, does things as he sees fit, and when they do not work out, he is upset with God. Let us look at this head on. We must see the whole truth head-on, inexorably. Without this, our souls cannot find peace.

The second is, upon seeing the whole truth, to see the truth about ourselves. We are false; we are cowards, we are selfish, we are obstinate to all forms of sacrifice, we are bad. And without much prayer asking Our Lady to give us the grace to overcome our evil, we will not overcome it. We need to watch over ourselves, to be suspicious about ourselves just as we would be suspicious about the worst scoundrel. This is what we are because of original sin. By practicing piety in this way, we will truly have the spirit of Our Lady. The spirit of the Spiritual Exercises is the spirit of Our Lady; the spirit of Saint Ignatius is the spirit of Our Lady.

Now, this is so hard on the cowardice of the human soul that, as I utter these words, I myself hesitate to say them because I do not know if they discourage more than they encourage. I need to remember that what seems inaccessible to our weakness, becomes perfectly accessible by the grace of God. We achieve this by praying, praying and praying more, however great our defects and weaknesses. Saint Alphonsus of Liguori said that whoever prays is saved; whoever does not pray is not saved. By praying, we will obtain this, however difficult it may be for us.

Let me recall an indisputable point of Catholic doctrine that I believe is even a dogma: Without the grace of God, no one is able to practice all the commandments for long. He falls into sin and violates one or other commandment seriously. This proves how indispensable the grace of God is and how miraculous it is for a man to put himself in the position of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. But we must ask for this miracle because it was promised to all men. All men were promised the graces necessary to reach that level of holiness. That is what I suggest that we ask Saint Ignatius of Loyola tonight.