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St Ignatius Loyola and the midlife journey



Just 500 years ago, on 20 May 1521, a cannonball fired by the French forces storming a fortress in Pamplona ricocheted off a nearby wall and shattered the right leg of Ignatius of Loyola. The injury put an end to his career as soldier and diplomat.

Silhouette of man walking on road holding stick (Autthaporn Pradidpong/Unsplash)

After surviving several operations and a long convalescence, Ignatius left home for seventeen years of travel  to his final home in Rome as superior general of a new religious order, the Society of Jesus or Jesuits. Often described as the time of his religious conversion and spiritual growth, these years make up the midlife journey of a saint who throughout his autobiography calls himself ‘the pilgrim’.

Over forty years ago I drew on the doctoral work of Bridget Puzon to produce The Second Journey and reflect on midlife journeys. Human history, as I realized then and later, throws up everywhere examples of such journeys: from Abraham and Sarah to Moses, from Paul of Tarsus to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, from Dante Alighieri to Eleanor Roosevelt, from John Wesley to Jimmy Carter, from John Henry Newman to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Western literature also enshrines numerous instances of such journeys in the ‘middle years’. Works like Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress present heroes driven in midlife to leave their familiar environment, attempt new projects, and travel strange roads. This is being ‘in the middle way’, as T. S. Eliot put it in East Coker. He takes us back to the picture of the midlife journey with which Dante opens the Divine Comedy: ‘In the middle of life’s road, I found myself in a dark wood—the straight way ahead lost.’

The image of the midlife journey derives from our literary imagination, as well as from undoubted history. The ‘real’ world of midlife journeys has created its make-believe counterpart which reflects and illuminates these journeys.

Mapping the characteristic pattern of such journeys will allow readers to recognize Ignatius as a case in point. At least six factors create the basic pattern.


'Midlife journeys terminate with the arrival of the wisdom of a true adult. It is the wisdom of those who have regained equilibrium, stabilized, and found fresh purposes and new dreams.'


First, a midlife journey happens to people. They do not voluntarily enter upon it. They can be swept into it by different factors. We might classify their stories into two classes, according to whether the cause is some observable phenomenon or is something inward and less publicly obvious.

Very often the catalyst looks obviously ‘negative’. A traffic accident, a serious illness, the death or infidelity of a spouse, the unexpected loss of a job, or disillusionment over what public success has brought them can plunge people into a unexpected crisis. Left to themselves, they would never have chosen the pain of such a situation. It simply happened to them.

The battle of Pamplona and a long convalescence initiated a midlife journey for Ignatius. His brush with death caused his world of chivalry and diplomacy to disintegrate. Without his wanting or planning it, Ignatius suffered that profound upheaval which he records in his autobiography, and his midlife journey got under way. Many deliberate choices feature in the later stages of his story. But the start of the pilgrimage was thrust upon him.

Second, a midlife journey characteristically includes an outer component — some specific journey or a physical restlessness that keeps a person travelling in the hope: ‘If I relocate, I will find the solution.’

The outer journey may prove like a real Odyssey or Aeneid. But it may be no more than a shift from the suburbs to the city, or something a little longer like Mother Teresa’s 1946 train ride out of Calcutta. Of course, it is the inner component that brings about a genuine midlife journey. The external travelling has only a subordinate function. All the same time, some shift from place to place seems to be a steady feature of authentic midlife journeys.

Wesley’s voyage to Georgia, Bonhoeffer’s second visit to New York on the eve of the Second World War, Newman’s Mediterranean tour, and Ignatius’s wanderings belong here. He travelled from Loyola to the Holy Land, back to Spain, north to Paris, back again to Spain, and eventually found journey’s end at the Jesuit head quarters in Rome.

Third, midlife journeys entail a crisis of feelings, symbolized by Dante’s terror at being lost in a forest. Such a crisis may arise primarily from some current personal failure (Wesley and Carter), unresolved conflicts from the past (St Paul), or fears for the future (Bonhoeffer). Whatever particular way it goes, a powerful crisis of feelings always seems to blaze up as one is swept into a midlife journey.

Through the months of recovery from his wounds, Ignatius experienced emotions of comfort and distress — ‘sad and happy thoughts’, as he called them. Learning to interpret and handle these fluctuating feelings constituted a vital stage in his journey. The Rules for the Discernment of Spirits (found in the Spiritual Exercises) pass on to others what Ignatius had painfully found out for himself.

The afternoon of life, according to Carl Gustav Jung, brings ‘the reversal of all the ideals and values that were cherished in the morning’ (Psychological Reflections, italics mine). These are strong words. Whether we stress this fourth point strongly or make it more gently, midlife journeys bring a search for new meanings, fresh values, and different goals.

The roles by which people have identified themselves no longer seem important. The old purposes fade. The values and goals which gave meaning to life lose their grip. The wounds that Ignatius suffered during the battle at Pamplona healed but left some bone sticking out an ugly fashion. He was so anxious to retain his role as an elegant officer he persuaded the surgeons to cut away the protruding piece of bone. Without a murmur he endured the primitive surgery — driven on by a fear that he would lose an identity by which he had defined his existence. But then a midlife journey led Ignatius to treasure other values and find a different identity.

In the language of the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius asked himself: ‘What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ?’


'Eventually, the person who has passed through a midlife journey may shape or even transform their community.'


Fifth, people on midlife journeys repeatedly betray a deep sense of loneliness. This loneliness should eventually turn into the aloneness of a quiet and integrated self-possession. But before that happens, they will find themselves in Dante’s ‘dark wood’. They can suffer deeply at the hands of society; in the case of Ignatius that began with imprisonment by the inquisition in Spain and during his solitary pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Eventually, the person who has passed through a midlife journey may shape or even transform their community. They may even resemble Aeneas in fashioning a whole new group of people. The followers Ignatius gathered around him became ‘the school masters of Europe’ and missionaries to the human race.

The sixth and last feature in the pattern of midlife journeys concerns the journey’s end. Ideally such journeys end quietly, with a new wisdom and a coming to oneself that releases great power. Midlife journeys typically begin dramatically: a cannonball sweeps over the ramparts of a Spanish fortress (Ignatius); a severe illness nearly ends the life of Newman when travelling in Sicily without his friends; Hitler plunges the world into war (Bonhoeffer). The ending of such journeys tends to be quiet and undramatic. Ignatius limps into Rome after seventeen years on the road. Newman heads home, sensing that he has ‘a work to do in England’.

Midlife journeys terminate with the arrival of the wisdom of a true adult. It is the wisdom of those who have regained equilibrium, stabilized, and found fresh purposes and new dreams. They have come to themselves in an self-discovery and final self-identification, which allows them to reach out to others and prove astonishingly productive for the world. Their midlife journeys end with new dreams in which fresh responsibilities begin. Through his Spiritual Exercises and the founding of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius lived out for the benefit of others what he had experienced for himself.

Such then are six characteristics of midlife journey, exemplified by the story of Ignatius. Eliot’s Little Gidding interprets such journeys as odysseys which eventually bring us home to the place where we started: ‘We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.’

What of Ignatius? Rather than proving like an Odyssey, his midlife journey took the shape of an Aeneid. His exploring finally took him to a new place and the unexpected task of founding a worldwide family of followers. In our days one of them leads the Catholic Church as Pope Francis.

There are, of course, other ways of reading the story of St Ignatius Loyola after he was severely wounded on 20 May 1521. But reflecting on his midlife journey also sheds much light on what happened.



Gerald O’Collins, SJ, is professor emeritus of the Gregorian University Rome, founded by St Ignatius in 1551.

Main image: Silhouette of man walking on road holding stick (Autthaporn Pradidpong/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Gerald O'Collins, St Ignatius Loyola, midlife



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Existing comments

Gerry, the reaction to your piece that I was working on just disappeared from my screen! I hope nevertheless it got to you in its truncated form and with all the admiration and affection I send you after such a long time. Joe

Joseph Castley | 20 May 2021  

I'm confident many who read this fine article will feel as I do: you are telling me my story. My life changed most significantly. A kind of shattering which involved the psyche as well as the physical. Then an uneven journey where the destination was not clear. However, a depth was added to my life where a new experience of the presence of joy and insight breaks through. And part of that breakthrough is reaching out to others in small and sometimes significant ways.

Pam | 20 May 2021  

As a Georgetown University alum C '68, descendent of John and Charles Carroll and a psychiatrist/therapist I see the value of exploring St.Ignatius Loyola's developmental history. His early losses and subsequent violent antisocial behavior as a soldier might provide a window of insight into the complexities of spiritual growth.

john russell | 21 May 2021  

'His exploring finally took him to a new place. . . ' Indeed it did, Gerry. Thanks for the reminding. " . . . And out of the sunken hulk/of your own dreams/there begins to emerge and surface/God's more extravagant dream." (from "Frames of Providence").

John Kelly | 21 May 2021  

Thanks for the article. It made me think a bit about how the "journey" is change but can be manifest in different ways. Perhaps it's a bit like the Hollywood road movie where symbolically the traveller(s) leave behind worldly goods and comforts on some voyage and become exposed to others whom they are either bonded or exploited by along the way, finally ending up somewhere else or returning home... changed but more aware of themselves, perhaps with a different appreciation of values. Not everyone will travel afar to discover their appreciation and yet some may be on the move all their lives and not ever find a place.

ray | 21 May 2021  

It is interesting that the godfather of the hero's journey theme in the secular West was Joseph Campbell, an ex-Catholic with angst. One of the things about the hero's journey is that many don't make it and remain shattered and incomplete. Most people, Ignatius being the exception to the rule, need a mentor. A mentor should be one who has completed the journey and returned home, like Bilbo Baggins. Inigo also did it in company: the Catholic Church. He was not a tragic Existentialist.

Edward Fido | 21 May 2021  

My acquaintance with Gerald O'Collins began with the extraordinary essay on St Mark's Gospel that he wrote for New Blackfriars called 'Jesus the Martyr'. At the time I did not know of his Jesuitry, nor even - how, indeed, could I? - of his illustrious career-to-be at the Gregorian. Upon arrival in Australia I discovered that 'he' was one of 'us', which to my way of thinking makes this special space that we share particularly worthy of the accolade, 'Great Southland of the Holy Spirit', (named by the Iberians, who had brought Catholicism to the place of my birth, India, which sports, if that's the word, the greatest efflorescence in terms of vocations of Jesuit priests on the globe). As with a single life's journey, it may also be that the Society as a whole has a collective life journey, which enables it to shift gear through suppression, crises, resuscitation, adaptation and leadership change that has generated phenomenal contributions to Catholicism as well as to the world. At the last count the Order included a glittering constellation of anthropologists, astronomers, biologists, botanists, chemists, doctors of every discipline, theologians, evolutionary scientists and poets, not to mention Pope Francis himself. Nihil Ultra!

Michael Furtado | 22 May 2021  

Gerry you write beautiful articles, thank you for sharing this one on the midlife journey.

Trish Martin | 22 May 2021  

While the historical future of no religious order is assured, the Church on its earthly pilgrimage does, as we know on the word of Christ whose Spirit abides and renews it in every age, enacting the continuous motif of the grain of wheat that, paradoxically, dying - without becoming something other than its nature - yields new life abundantly.

John RD | 23 May 2021  

I regard the coming of Jesus Christ, the foretold Son of God, as being the spiritual equivalent of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, John RD, because it broke the power of the Old Enemy, Satan, then and forever. Everything changed irretrievably. Paganism, even Satanism, and they are not the same thing, are supposed to be making a comeback. In many ways 'Nordic Paganism' is a worry, because it reminds me how closely some of the top Nazis were involved 'in that sort of thing'. The late Fr Gabriele Amorth, the official former exorcist of the Rome diocese and a decorated Italian Resistance hero, believed both Hitler and Stalin were possessed. One wonders about Mao and other modern horrors, responsible for the deaths of millions. These days you can have a Satanic funeral with an official guard of honour in both the Royal and US Navy. My feeling is that these challenges will bring forth new heros like Inigo. I do not know if the present crisis will result in the formation of new religious orders. Loyola and Xavier and companions were 'something else'. The times are different. There is no doubt Christianity will be victorious, possibly at some cost. Europe was Christianised at great cost. The Martyrs of the Catacomb Church saved Russia. They were glad to do it.

Edward Fido | 24 May 2021  

As you know, Edward, times of crisis are an opportunity for the Church to renew her mission, and for the vanguard of this enterprise God often raises leaders - men and women, lay and religious - on whom he bestows specific charisms geared specifically to the needs of the times and the relevant presentation of Christ's good news in word and action. Some religious orders have disappeared, as have some lay institutes; others are in decline, not necessarily for any fault of their own but simply because they have completed the task for which they were called into being. The Christian conviction on faith and hope, not without grounded precedent, is that God will provide, and that new leaders and groups will be generously responsive. By their fruits we'll know them; and while there may be novel aspects to their ministries, their authenticity will be discernible within the Church's apostolic tradition, which also manifests, as you say, the cost. However, if it is of God, as Edmund Campion SJ said, it will not be withstood.

John RD | 26 May 2021  

It's true but also a tragedy that St Edmund Campion's name in Australia is associated with two institutions which in recent years have been tarnished by those who share John RD's unrelentingly conservative and irredentist views, as evidenced in these columns. While controversy and steadfast commitment to the Catholic cause in Reformation England were Edmund's extraordinary metier, to the point that he was gruesomely executed, it it important to note that the Society chose him to accompany his superior, Robert Parsons, a well-known hot-head and agent-provocateur, to explicitly temper Parsons' politicism in the interests of serving the needs of England's very many harried Catholics of the Reformation era. Tragically, the excesses of both sides in a conflict that cannot now be resuscitated because of the many years and calming of passions and prejudices, long since ceased and which hold no significance for contemporary Christians facing new and more pressing challenges of faith and conscience, led to Campion being caught, tried and executed. For English and some Irish Catholics, in a highly-sectarian Australian context, Campion's name was invoked as a rallying cry that has lost its significance in today's context in comparison with the contemporary witness of, say, St Oscar Romero.

Michael Furtado | 27 May 2021  

M.F.: Evidently I don't share your rather sanitised view of the Henrican-Elizabethan reigns, nor your defining view of Edmund Campion as a diplomat - his "Decem Rationes", or "Brag", is not governed by the tact usually associated with diplomacy. But then, I suppose the certain prospect of starvation, torture, hurdle, hanging, and ritual dismemberment at Tyburn does not conduce to tactful declamation. I still find students (relatively few of them these days with English or Irish Catholic backgrounds) responsive to the courage and what motivated it of martyrs, past and contemporary - of whom, I agree, Oscar Romero is highly relevant. What Campion and Romero basically have in common is that they died for their common faith and its practical implications. Maybe we in the affluent and increasingly God-forgetful West have yet to learn how "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."

John RD | 28 May 2021  

JohnRD does well to remind one of Campion's Brag and especially his fourth deposition which reads: 'I never had mind, and am strictly forbidden by our Father that sent me, to deal in any respect with matter of state or policy of this realm, as things which appertain not to my vocation, and from which I gladly restrain and sequester my thoughts'. Would that those who currently take Campion's name as justification for their unrelenting opposition to the directions in which Pope Francis leads the Church had the integrity to admit this. The same has to be said of the various Newman Societies in Australia who have long prohibited the conduct of open discussion on contemporary issues faced by Catholics. While John rightly points to the martyrdom shared by Oscar Romero and Edmund Campion, both of them in different eras Jesuit, their contexts were extraordinarily different: Edmund after the Marian restoration that in five short years imposed a persecution every bit as brutal and retaliative as the Henrician, Romero a target of right-wing Latin American dictators. The executions of Ridley, Latimer & Cranmer teach John and his students, as Jesus did, that martyrdom backfires as a tool of ensuring compliance.

Michael Furtado | 30 May 2021  

M.F. : It seems to me that what is at stake in our many "Eureka Street" exchanges over several years is the nature of what constitutes the Catholic Church and her faith. Whilst I see different accentuation - responsive to contemporary affairs in the Church and the world of this new millennium - in Pope Francis's pontificate, I see no divergence from what the Church and his papal predecessors have taught on the issues of our disagreement such as same-sex marriage, the hierarchical structure of the Church, the hermeneutic of continuity before and after Vatican Council, the relevance of the apostolic tradition,and the ecclesial status and role of magisterial teaching. These I regard as matters of abiding relevance and consequence for the identity and mission of the Catholic Church.

John RD | 31 May 2021  

John, I'm delighted you see it as a hermeneutic of continuity and not of disruption that you constantly allude to in your posts. There is therefore some hope for us, not just the two of us in the carefully-mapped struggle for territoriality that we have made of Eureka Street, but for the Church, which is torn asunder by those, like you, who never fail to dot an 'i' and cross a 't'. Wing-clipping or 'one-step-forward-and-two-in-reverse,' as I often picture you goose-stepping to it. Its time you learnt to charleston with me; no? Live, and Let Live, John! Loosen up those lovely lithe limbs.

Michael Furtado | 01 June 2021  

M.F.: Nowhere have I referred to Pope Francis's papacy as manifesting a hermeneutic of "disruption": this description I reserve for those who would sever the magisterial connection between Pope Francis and his Petrine predecessors and for those who seek to change definitive Catholic teachings. And for those who imbibe the nihilistic spirit of the Roaring 20s in America that F Scott-Fitzgerald tellingly described as "meretricious" and characterised as "a rotten softness." (Besides, I'm not pigeon-toed).

John RD | 02 June 2021  

Ach! Is it the Argentine tango, which you prefer, Johnno? Such bawdy pelvic persiflage associated with violence, illicit sex, and the lower classes. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, boyo!

Michael Furtado | 03 June 2021  

I'm afraid learning the requirements and movements of perichoresis doesn't permit of your preferred dance diversions, M.F. - never mind, I'm sure there are plenty of willing partners who know the steps.

John RD | 04 June 2021  

Michael Furtado ‘tango….persiflage’ Even toned down, the tango is no fit national product to showcase for an Argentine head of state who happens to be a woman. It wasn’t thought fit for the wife of a visiting male head of state. If it is not fit for an Argentine woman head of state or the wife of a visiting male head of state, it is not fit for an Argentine woman. It being thought to be naughty to compare cultures, one has to be grateful quietly that the Northern European culture that was imbibed by Australia developed, in some respects, just the way it did: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JBXcrpP5Xw. Perhaps tango should have stayed as a fight ballet between two men of low strata on a men’s night out at a time when, unlike now, the poor had no technological means to engage in uplifting recreation.

roy chen yee | 04 June 2021  

Mein Gott! The Argentine tango has been the dance-craze-du-jour throughout Europe, since gorgeous Diana danced the evening away with Giovanni Revolta aeons ago. I'd love to see JohnRD and Roy doing it on these pages, as they already do in metaphorical mode. Perchance Fiona Katauskas would draw us a cartoon of it for our badly needed amusement. It would revive our spirits in a way that nothing else they offer us does.

Michael Furtado | 08 June 2021  

Sorry, MF, but I imagine the June 8 Passauer Bistumblatt interview with Cardinal Kasper will do little to lift those deflated spirits or give you little to dance about.

John RD | 11 June 2021  

I think you underestimate +Kaspar, John. He has a human side, looks terrifically fetching in Bavarian regalia ('crushed cardinal' trimmed with ermine for the Alpine winter) and would love to give you the occasional Strauss waltz if you scribbled your name on the palm of his hand.

Michael Furtado | 24 June 2021  

I think, John RD, that much the more important point is that, when Cardinal Marx (President of the German Bishops Conference) delivered the outspoken decisions of the German Synod to the Vatican, much to the chagrin of the Curia, Cardinal Marx offered his resignation to the Pope as a measure of his position and in case of Pope Francis' disapproval. Of course, you should know that the Holy Father immediately rejected the resignation and insisted that Cardinal Marx continue to hold office as leader of the German Church. I hope Archbishop Coleridge takes note, because Brisbane deserves its first Red Hat, and that will absolutely depend, in Pope Francis' estimation, on the conduct and outcomes of the equivalent Australian Synod.

Michael Furtado | 07 July 2021  

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