500 Years Later, The Journey Remains the Same

By David J.W. Inczauskis, S.J., Contributor for The Jesuit Post

The bus from Bilbao rolled into the quiet Basque town of Loyola as I listened to the second movement of Franz Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. Like the mood of the music, it was cloudy, misty and dreary, yet immensely full of life. I was thousands of miles away from my academic home, Loyola Chicago, but I immediately felt that Loyola, Spain was my home. After all, I’d discovered my Jesuit vocation in Europe, and now I was returning to rediscover it in the place where everything Ignatian began more than 500 years ago.

In the otherwise humble, timid village, the baroque Basilica of Loyola towers toward the heavens. It’s a massive structure that inspires awe in the power of God’s work in one man, Iñigo López. Hundreds of academic institutions, dozens of canonized saints, and countless changed lives depend on the events that transformed Ignatius at this place. To me, the Basilica was a reminder of the divine glory that poured upon the earth due to the “yes” that Ignatius uttered when he was recovering from a battle injury at Loyola in 1521.

It was in that room of Ignatius’ convalescence, now called the Chapel of the Conversion, that I experienced my deepest moments of communication with God and St. Ignatius. On the very first night of my 8-day silent retreat at Loyola, Jesuit novices from Spain and Portugal were visiting, and we celebrated Mass together in the chapel. They were preparing for their perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience—the same vows I took two years earlier. There’s a plaque in the chapel that reads, “Here Ignatius of Loyola gave himself to God.” Something similar happens at vows. We profess a total commitment of ourselves that will last forever. After the Mass with the novices, I knelt and said to God, “Here, today, as Ignatius once did, and, as these novices soon will do, I give myself to you.” This theme of self-offering to God marked the trajectory of my retreat.

The days at Loyola were rosy. Literally, every evening before the sunset, I roamed the gardens behind the Basilica, silently prayed a rosary, and stopped to smell multicolored roses. Frequent rains kept the flora fresh. Each afternoon, I’d hike for miles along the stream that runs through town. While walking, I recounted the story of my life to God. I like to talk to God, and he is a stupendous listener. The mornings and late evenings were times to listen. During the Spiritual Exercises’ contemplations, Jesus spoke to me. When reading the Gospels, I imagined myself as Jesus’ younger brother, eager to learn about life and love from my older sibling. The Scriptures revealed to me something new about the identity of the big brother I sought to emulate. The retreat was a conversation with God, at times speaking and at times listening.

After Loyola, I went to Manresa, where Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises and experienced a moment of divine illumination that surpassed all knowledge he had formerly received and would later receive.

My first encounter with Manresa was not so sunny. As I stepped off the train onto the platform, a light rain suddenly turned into a downpour. Soaked from the short walk into the station, I contrasted Manresa’s cold greeting with the paradisiacal entrance into Loyola. Compare and despair.

When the rain let up, I walked across the ancient bridge that spans the River Cardoner. I later found out that it was the same bridge that Ignatius had crossed five centuries earlier. Above it, there now rests a stately retreat house and conference center embedded into the Catalonian mountains. Its basement is the chapel where Ignatius penned his spiritual classic. On an adjacent hill sits the Romanesque-Gothic Basilica of the Seu, where Ignatius would have regularly attended Mass. Far in the distance, I could see Montserrat rapt in clouds that clothed its peaks in a sense of mystery—a mystery about which Ignatius likely read in the fanciful chivalric novels he once adored.

Ignatius journeyed from Monserrat to Manresa, but I did the reverse, tagging along with two European Jesuits who were going to make the trek the day after I’d arrived. The hike’s first half is moderate. We walked next to highways and through sleepy neighborhoods. The hike’s second half is more demanding. Smaller hills turn into bigger hills. Sidewalks yield to winding trails. The finale is grand. Emerging from the forest, I looked up from the base of the mountain at the street that serpentines its way to the top.

Nine hours after beginning the pilgrimage to the Benedictine monastery near the peak of Monserrat, we arrived toasty and dehydrated. There was a line to visit the statue of the Black Madonna, whose length paralleled that of the road up the mountain. We shared stories about our first few years in the Jesuits as we waited. When my turn with Mary finally came, I took out the images of the Sacred Heart and Ignatius that I carry in my wallet and touched them to the statue. I said a simple prayer. I asked Mary to “place me with her Son.” I said this prayer in the same chapel where Ignatius put down his sword at the foot of Mary and converted from a soldier of war to a soldier of God.

Later that day—having happily returned to Manresa by train—we celebrated Mass in the cave that had been inhabited by Ignatius. We were three companions who had just walked in the footsteps of our founder. Ignatius was with us on the way, and he was with us at that Eucharist. Reflecting, I found that my Ignatian pilgrimage ended with Mass at Manresa just as it began with Mass with the Spanish and Portuguese novices at Loyola. The following morning, I boarded another train at sunrise and parted ways with Ignatius’ earthly path. However, our destination really remained the same: heaven, that is, to live in love with God forever.

David J.W. Inczauskis, S.J. is a Jesuit Scholastic in formation at Loyola University Chicago. This essay was adapted from a post for The Jesuit Post.