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St Ignatius Loyola and the midlife journey

  • 20 May 2021
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.

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