A Pilgrimage: Following the footsteps of St. Ignatius

Posted by Caitlin Joyce, '11, '18 on Wednesday, August 31, 2016 at 4:12 PM PDT

The story of St. Ignatius of Loyola is well known to Seattle University alumni. He began his life as one of 13 children and was infatuated with the ideals of courtly love, knights and honorable quests. After being injured in battle, he experienced a conversion while reading “The Life of Christ,” which contained heroic stories of the saints, during his recovery. At this time St. Ignatius reflected on the experiences of God in his life, which he would apply to develop components of the “Spiritual Exercises.”  From his discernment he founded the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. (IgnatianSpirituality.com)

For some, simply learning about the “Spiritual Exercises” and reading about the life of St. Ignatius is not enough—they feel called to be pilgrims and follow in the footsteps of Ignatius himself.

In June, and every other year for the past twenty years, Pat O’Leary, S.J. and joined by Natch Ohno, S.J. [ten years later] have led a pilgrimage retreat to Spain. The retreat was formed out of Fr. Pat’s desire to be a spiritual pilgrim and travel in Ignatius’ footsteps. “This is not a vacation.” Fr. Natch made sure to clarify when we talked about the retreat. “It is a pilgrimage; you are not a tourist.” He went on to describe the daily mass and reflections each pilgrim participates in.

The 40 pilgrims began their retreat at a convent in Loyola, then moved on to San Sabastian, Xavier, Montserrat, Manresa and finally Barcelona.  “As you participate in the retreat you start to have the same experiences as St. Ignatius,” Fr. Natch said, sharing that as a presenter he is able to see the effect the journey has on the pilgrims. “There’s a sense of grace as they go through the rhythm and they begin to imagine this is where Ignatius was. It’s important that they are able to see Ignatius growing up and not as a finished product. You see the transformation people are going through – you see the beauty taking place.”

This trip is open to all alumni and friends of Seattle University and attracts a variety of people, but especially those who have participated in the Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life (SEEL) program. SEEL Puget Sound co-sponsors this pilgrimage.

We spoke to Lisa Dennison, Executive Director of SEEL and 2012 Pastoral Leadership alumna, who co-led this year’s pilgrimage. “Two places are seared into my memory from the pilgrimage. The first is Loyola where St. Ignatius was born, convalesced and began his spiritual transformation. When visiting the conversion chapel, I began to understand things in a brand new way. There is a palpable energy there that is spiritually fulfilling and enriching.” Lisa continued, “The second place was Montserrat, an hour outside of Barcelona. It’s where St. Ignatius held a vigil all night and gave up his sword and the trappings of his former life at the foot of the Black Madonna. For those of us captivated by St. Ignatius *and the gift of the Spiritual Exercises, it is very powerful.”

Lisa said that the pilgrimage gave her greater appreciation for the challenges, difficulties and joys St. Ignatius experienced along his spiritual path. She was able to more fully understand the human aspect of his journey and how it connects so profoundly in a relevant way to us.

Another pilgrim, Jennifer Tilghman-Havens, said, “Being in the places that were so transformative in Ignatius' life—the Loyola home where he healed from his war wound, the chapel of the Black Madonna, the cave in Manresa—allowed me to understand more fully the person whose spiritual tradition has so deeply formed and shaped our university and me personally.  It was a gift to have the opportunity to reflect and pray in the places where Ignatius prayed, and to be accompanied by Fr. Pat O'Leary who is the closest living version of St. Ignatius himself.  I came to new understandings about how much Ignatius's insights were countercultural for his time—and continue to be so, even today.”

Let us leave you with some food for thought. When Lisa Dennison visited Montserrat, where St. Ignatius laid down his sword, she contemplated all that signified, “He was laying down his entire identity, everything he fought for and everything he thought he was going to become, to embrace the unknown and God’s plan for him.”

 If you were going to lay down your own symbolic “sword” and identity to embrace the unknown what would that look like for you?