5 Things St. Ignatius Taught Me About Myself

St. Ignatius of Loyola’s greatest achievement, to my mind, is making deep spirituality available to ordinary people like you and me. Looking back, I can see that my entire Catholic life was influenced by him — most especially in recent years. Here are five master insights of his that helped me understand myself.

First: I learned that my feelings matter — but only to a point.

A traumatic event in the life of St. Ignatius — a battle injury that left the Spanish nobleman bedridden — led him to pay sustained attention to his feelings. Some 500 years later, I benefited from what he discovered.

I had always been confused by the word “affectivity” when I read it in spiritual books. But basically, it’s an old word for “feelings” — and while spiritual authors had seen the place of feelings in the spiritual life, it was St. Ignatius who put them under a microscope.

In his autobiography, which he wrote in the third person, as if he were describing another person, he wrote of himself: “He learned by experience that one train of thought left him sad, the other joyful. This was his first reasoning on spiritual matters.”

I was introduced more deeply to Ignatian spirituality by the work of Father William Watson, whose Forty Weeks book guides a penitent on a journey to understand themselves better and observe what their feelings were doing to them.

Second: I learned to track my consolations and desolations.

Two feelings Ignatius especially looks at are “consolation” and “desolation.”

“I call it consolation when some interior movement in the soul is caused, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord,” he wrote. “I call desolation all the contrary … such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, [and] movement to things low and earthly,” he wrote.

I learned to pay attention to the habits and interactions in my life that brought me joy and faith and energy — and those that drain both. Father Watson has a great way of helping you identifying these throughout your life story. Some things turned you away from faith in fundamental ways in your childhood, and still have a hold on you. Others are sources of grace that you should seek out and encourage.

Identifying the ones from the past and tracking the ones in the present help you keep watch over your heart.

Third: I learned that I can use my imagination in prayer. 

In St. Ignatius’s method of prayer, you begin with “the composition of place.” You enter into a Gospel passage and try to stand there alongside Jesus and those he is reaching through “a mental representation … seeing it in imagination.”

Ignatius was so well known for this that some claim the Spanish author Cervantes meant to parody Ignatius with his comic hero Don Quixote, an old man who imagined he was a great knight.

But Ignatius’ method wants you to use your imagination to see what is true but hidden, not to deny what is in front of you. Observing Jesus as he goes about his life, and even sitting and speaking with me, has helped me enormously in moving spiritual thoughts from abstract musings to compelling truths in my life.

Fourth: He changed the way I examine my conscience.

“To conquer himself is the greatest victory that man can gain,” wrote St. Ignatius, in one of the “inspirational quotes” attributed to him.

Two others are: “Whatever you are doing, that which makes you feel the most alive … that is where God is,” and “He who is not getting better is getting worse.”

Both of those concepts help guide my examination of conscience now. I used to pray using the steps A.C.T.S. — Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, Supplication. Now I pray the ABCS of prayer — Adoration, Blessings, Contrition and Supplication. The main difference is the order. I review the way God blessed me and the consolations my right actions brought, and then I look at how I followed up on the blessings of God or dropped the ball, identifying what to be contrite about.

Fifth: Ignatius’s stress on the presence of God in eternity, visible in all creation, increased my trust and gratitude for God.

The greatest gift I got from St. Ignatius via Father William Watson was a more sustained attention to something that I heard first from other priests influenced by Ignatius: attention to the way God’s omnipresence in eternity means that we are surrounded by his love and care at all times.

St. Ignatius helped me find God’s radiant smile in my life. And for that I’m eternally grateful.


Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.