Inigo’s conversion

The Jesuit psychiatrist, William Meissner, has written a book entitled, To the Greater Glory: A Psychological Study of Ignatian SpiritualityMilwaukee, Wisconsin, USA: Marquette University (1999). Chapter 2 on the conversation of Ignatius is reproduced here.



Iñigo’s formative years led through the trials of early childhood, the shaping influences of early adolescence and the crisis of identity formation, into the consolidation of that identity in its adult realization. The boy gave way to the dashing and daring young hidalgo, and the young hidalgo became the skillful and courageous soldier and promising statesman. As we approach this period of religious crisis, we need to assess the inner balance of strengths and weaknesses of his personality to provide the foundation for a further inquiry of his evolution from the rough and ready soldier into the saint. There is no question that there is a direct line of continuity, and that the polarities of this evolution enable us to better understand the depth and meaning of the process that led from one to the other and provided the dynamic underpinnings of his emerging spirituality.

Since Iñigo was a product of his culture and his time, the features that stand out in his personality are those that were characteristically valued highly by the code of chivalry (Wickham 1954) and the culture of sixteenth century Spain — prowess in self-defense and in the arts of war; loyalty, generosity, courtesy, and the pursuit of glory; fierce pride and unquestionable courage. While these values permeated Iñigo’s culture and the romantic literature he absorbed, they only partially explain these aspects of his personality. Any culture, carries a multiplicity of values from which the individual selects a certain subset to internalize. Yet chivalric values, with their peculiar appeal and intensity for Iñigo, were not only ideals that defined his behavior tendencies, but wishes which dominated his inner life of fantasy and desire. He admits to us that, during the enforced idleness of his convalescence, his fantasies were taken up with matters of romantic chivalry and heroic deeds (Vita 6). In this fantasy world, Iñigo must have seen himself in the image of Amadís of Gaul, the hero of Montalvo’s popular book, which he had so eagerly devoured. The libidinal current in these romantic fantasies was marked and reflected a predominantly genital drive organization, with highly sexualized fantasies and behavior.

But there were other matters that loomed large in this intrepid hidalgo. In his summation of the first three decades of his life, Ignatius mentioned the exercise of arms and the desire to win glory as defining characteristics (Vita 1). Prowess in the use of dagger, sword, buckler, and crossbow, good horsemanship, and related skills were essential components of the young Loyola’s sense of identity. Of course, there was already an image born of chivalrous ideals and early identifications and nourished by youthful fantasy. Later prowess in arms served both to activate such fantasies and to progressively define an emergent identity. It is woven not only out of self-awareness but also out of perceptions of the self projected by others in the course of social interactions; in Erikson’s phrase, identity is compounded out of “self-realization coupled with a mutual recognition” (Erikson 1959, p. 114). Further, identity formation involves the fashioning of a role and function within the community. The development of such a competence and its reciprocal recognition by the community are significant parts of the process by which identity evolves.

If we look at the adolescent Iñigo in the court of Velasquez, we can presume an antecedent desire to translate his fantasies into reality. After all, the young pages at the court were more or less playing games in their jousts and bouts. But at the same time, these boyish enterprises were not idle. In Renaissance Spain a young gallant’s life might easily hang on his skill with the sword. Even in these training exercises, we can see the first interplay between prowess and recognition of prowess, between self-recognition and mutual recognition, which contributed to a growing structure that defined the emerging Loyola as a man of arms. In a sense, Iñigo was cut out to be a soldier, but his view of himself as a man of arms had to be fashioned out of countless events in which success in combat both gratified his existing wishes and shaped his concept of himself as a man possessing these skills. Along with this inner self-definition, he would have established his reputation among his fellows as a skillful swordsman, and this would have bolstered his perception of himself.


In Ignatius’ recollection of his “great and vain desire of winning glory” (Vita 1), the glory was spelled out in terms of the chivalric ideal: military glory won in the service of his king in great victories and valorous deeds. But beyond this, it expresses an ambition, a con-suming wish that mirrored Iñigo’s fantasy about himself, an idealized self-image cast in the mold of chivalrous heroics that was Iñigo’s ego ideal or ideal self. The chivalric code included fidelity — devotion to a lord to whom one had sworn fidelity was a primary quality of the soldier and nobleman ( Wickham 1954). In a sense, Iñigo’s loyalty was as much to his own ego ideal as it was to the persons and causes to which he pledged himself; that ideal would not allow him to abandon any cause to which he had pledged himself. By the same token, we cannot conceive of young Iñigo pledging himself to any enterprise that did not satisfy the requirements of his ideal. The fierce intensity with which he clung to his ideal gives us some sense of its importance both for the maintenance of his own narcissistic integrity and equilibrium and for reinforcement of his sense of self. We can also be impressed by Iñigo’s gallant generosity. His bestowal of all his worldly possessions, meager as they were, on his captors in return for their kindness to him was a chivalrous gesture. Such liberality bespeaks a certain freedom from attachment to objects. The chivalric code demanded generosity not only in giving one’s possessions but also in denying oneself profit at the expense of others.

Iñigo’s ego ideal serves as a point of conjunction for much of the psychology of his development. It ties together the early primary libidinal relations and identifications with his parents, especially with the virile figure of his father, the imaginative impact of the romantic literature that gave concrete shape to his fantasies, and the formative impact of cultural expectations and norms. We have by no means exhausted the elements represented in these fantasies, for the ideal image they project conveys a major portion of the complex psychology of Iñigo de Loyola. Yet, in some sense, this whole inquiry is an exploration of elements of this same ideal. The desire to win glory, a major theme in this ideal, is a motif forms one of the lines of continuity between the swashbuckling Iñigo and the saintly Ignatius. They will likewise underlie fundamental themes in the later spirituality of the saint.


Along with these chivalric values that contributed to the strength of Iñigo’s character, his ideal was also permeated with strains of pathological narcissism. If the heroic events of the siege of Pamplona demonstrate Iñigo’s unusual strengths of character, they also tell us much about his potential weakness. His refusal to capitulate, even in the face of overwhelming odds, seems foolhardy, if not suicidal. Death held no terrors for him. The impossible situation brought no ratio-nal acceptance of defeat, no compromise, but only stirred him to greater efforts. Such behavior can only be spurred by fantasies of invincibility that reflect underlying elements of grandiosity and omnipotence.

Coloring this complex identity was the impact of his noble family tradition on Iñigo’s psychology, undoubtedly mediated by his strong identification with his father, himself the embodiment of this heritage. The family’s refusal to have its rights or honor brought into question was unmistakable. These values were distilled into that precipitate of parental identifications within the ego, the ego ideal. Pride and vanity are the trappings of and accompany pathological narcissism, and Iñigo de Loyola, the strutting peacock with his gay colors and jaunty plume, presented a picture of all three: proud, vain, and narcissistic. Yet pride can exist on a continuum and, in fact, a moderate degree of displacement of libido is required for self-esteem and ultimately a positive sense of identity. But the very notion of pride carries with it the possibility of excess. The ego ideal can be too highly valued. A surfeit of pride places the self and its ideal above all other considerations, regardless of the rights and needs of others. It takes the form of egoism which erects a façade of self-sufficiency and pseudo-strength, so radically opposed to real ego-strength and identity. Such excessive “ego-interests” are usually preconscious and are often difficult to bring to consciousness because of their closeness to underlying wishes and instinctually motivated desires (Hartmann 1964).

In the developing personality, psychic potential is normally channeled into the synthetic construction of an identity. If these forces are diverted into the elaboration of an egoistic and hypertrophied ego ideal, the evolution of identity suffers. Pride becomes then a mechanism to compensate for an inadequate sense of identity; it becomes, then, a “lasting and characterologically significant aspect of a personality” (Hartmann and Loewenstein 1962). The pride of the Loyolas, often bridging into vanity, was an almost necessary complement and consequence of the ego ideal forming a central part of Iñigo’s personality. In this lay both his strength and his weakness.

All this reached a thunderous climax in the dramatic siege of Pamplona. The dazzling light that was Iñigo de Loyola was snuffed out, and the light was not to be rekindled. As the litter bore the wounded soldier on the painful miles to the Castle of Loyola, Iñigo was carried into a new and decisive phase of his life. Perhaps it is better to say that he was carried into a new life. It was somehow fitting that the very house that first gave him life, should be the place to give him the new life that lay before him.


The conversion experience that Iñigo de Loyola underwent at the castle of Loyola in 1521 was a pivotal event. The circumstances of this profound spiritual experience set the stage for the transformation of the fearless and flamboyant hidalgo and soldier into the humble pilgrim, the man of God, and finally the saint. In recasting these crucial events, the first task is to tell the story, and then reconstruct the elements entering into a psychoanalytic understanding of these events. First the story.

The dramatic events that brought the wounded Iñigo to Loyola set in motion a process that was to prove decisive for the life course of this broken hero. The bones of one leg had been severely fractured and the other leg injured as well. The defeated warrior was carried over the painful miles to Loyola, the broken bones having been hurriedly set by the French surgeon. Finally at Loyola, the agonizing recuperation began. The rigors of the journey had done his broken leg no good. The surgeons decided that the leg should be reoperated and the bones reset. Thirty years later, he recalled this surgery as a “butchery”, so severe must have been the pain: “Again he went through this butchery, in which as in all the others that he had suffered he uttered no word, nor gave any sign of pain other than clenching his fists” (Vita 2). This brutal and painful surgery was carried out several centuries before the introduction of surgical anesthesia and antiseptic technique.

His reaction to the surgical insult was not good. His condition grew worse, he lost appetite. He was told that if he showed no improvement, he could expect to die. He made his confession and received the last sacraments. But the hardy Basque was not finished yet. His condition improved on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and within a few days he was judged to be out of danger of death. But the ordeal had not yet ended. The heating of this second fracture was not very satisfactory. He recalled:

When the bones knit, one below the knee remained astride another which caused a shortening of the leg. The bones so raised caused a protuberance that was not pleasant to the sight. The sick man was not able to put up with this because he had made up his mind to seek his fortune in the world. He thought the protuberance was going to be unsightly and asked the surgeons whether it could not be cut away. They told him that it could be cut away, but that the pain would be greater than all he had already suffered, because it was now healed and it would take some time to cut it off. He determined, nevertheless, to undergo this martyrdom to gratify his own inclinations. (Vita 4)

We can imagine that the weeks of pain and immobility took their toll. But his health was otherwise good, and he looked for some means of diverting himself during the enforced idleness of his recuperation. He asked for some of the romances he loved to read, but none could be found. Instead Magdalena could only offer him the four volumes of theLife of Jesus Christ by the Carthusian Ludolph of Saxony and a volume of the lives of the saints, commonly called the Flos Sanctorum.

What follows is a crucial phase in the transformation that was to be wrought in Iñigo de Loyola. We can best follow his own account:

By the frequent reading of these books he conceived some affection for what he found there narrated. Pausing in his reading, he gave himself up to thinking over what he had read. At other times he dwelt on the things of the world which formerly had occupied his thoughts. . . . Nevertheless, our Lord came to his assistance, for He saw to it that these thoughts were succeeded by others which sprang from the things he was reading. In reading the Life of our Lord and the Lives of the Saints, he paused to think and reason with himself. “Suppose that I should do what St. Francis did, what St. Dominic did?” He thus let his thoughts run over many things that seemed good to him, always putting before himself things that were difficult and important which seemed to him easy to accomplish when he proposed them. But all his thought was to tell himself “St. Dominic did this, therefore, I must do it. St. Francis did this, therefore, I must do it”. These thoughts also lasted a good while. And then other things taking their place, the worldly thoughts above mentioned came upon him and remained a long time with him. This succession of diverse thoughts was of long duration, and they were either of worldly achievements which he desired to accomplish, or those of God which took hold of his imagination to such an extent, that worn out with the struggle, he turned them all aside and gave his attention to other things. . . . He acquired no little light from this reading and began to think more seriously of his past life and the great need he had of doing penance for it. It was during this reading that these desires of imitating the saints came to him, but with no further thought of circumstances than of promising to do with God’s grace what they had done. . . . (Vita 6-9)

At this juncture, the critical experience occurred that seems to have been the central event in Iñigo’s conversion experience, namely a vision of our Lady holding the Christ Child.

One night, as he lay awake, he saw clearly the likeness of our Lady with the Holy Child Jesus, at the sight of which he received most abundant consolation for a considerable interval of time. He felt so great a disgust with his past life, especially with its offenses of the flesh, that he thought all such images which had formerly occupied his mind were wiped out. And from that hour until August of 1553, when this is being written, he never again consented to the least suggestion of the flesh. (Vita 10)

This vision had a powerful psychic and emotional impact, and lead to the dramatic elimination of all temptations of the flesh. These experiences cry out for psychological understanding.

This brief autobiographical account is substantially all that is known about the series of events that resulted in the transformation of Iñigo de Loyola from the proud and gallant hidalgo into a man filled with the desire of serving God. His heart was inflamed with the desire to imitate the saintly warriors of God whose heroic deeds he had been reading about. He experienced intense desires to retreat to the desert and live on herbs like the holy hermits, to turn his back on the world and its pleasures and devote himself to fasting, flagellations and penances like God’s heroes. He first thought of devoting himself to a life of solitude, silence and prayer among the monks of Cuevas; but this was soon replaced by the urge to wander as a poor pilgrim through the world, begging for his bread and bearing the contempt of men after the model of St. Francis and St. Dominic. He had a strong desire to enter the Carthusian charterhouse at Seville, fired no doubt by reading Ludolph’s Life, and even dispatched a servant to Burgos to inquire about the Charterhouse of Miraflores (Clancy 1976).


The religious conversion experienced by Iñigo de Loyola on his bed of convalescence did not take place in a vacuum. A series of determinants played their part in influencing the course of that experience and its consequences. I will try to put in place some of the elements that lend themselves to a psychoanalytic hypothesis regarding his conversion. The points I will focus on are his family background and the family myth it conveyed, the issues surrounding his early maternal deprivation, and the narcissistic quality of his personality structure.

Iñigo de Loyola’s family traditions were rich with legends of valor, heroism, courage, ambition, power and strength. This constituted a kind of family mythology embodying a constellation of beliefs, values and expectations to which the young Loyola was exposed from the beginning and became part of the very fabric of his existence and sense of himself. This family myth provided the core elements of his preconversion ego-ideal. …..

But further events also played their part. The years Iñigo spent in the service of Juan Velasquez steeped him in courtly graces and developed his skill in the use of arms, but it also shaped his internalization of the ideals of courtly romance and knightly chivalry. These provided the substance of his preconversion ego-ideal. As he told us himself, “Up to his twenty-sixth year he was a man given over to the vanities of the world, and took a special delight in the exercise of arms, with a great and vain desire of winning glory” (Vita 1). The elements of this narcissistic personality configuration would include high ideals, the need for great and significant achievements, a sense of omnipotence and invulnerability, a willingness to take the greatest risks in the service of heroic ideals and the overcoming of seemingly impossible odds. ….. The ego-ideal of Iñigo de Loyola was cast in heroic terms that would accept no defeat, would yield to no odds no matter how overwhelming, and was dedicated to deeds of the highest valor and glory.


If we return to Iñigo’s conversion experience, it seems clear that the impact of the cannon ball at Pamplona set in motion a series of events that were to have immense consequences. The first effect of the French cannonball was to shatter not only his leg, but his romanticized and chivalric ego-ideal as well — that ideal based on his identification with phallic narcissistic model provided by his father. The convalescence consequently required not only physical repair of his wounds, but reconstitution of his shattered ego-ideal and the sense of self formed around it. In the castle of Loyola, Iñigo experienced the first movements of conversion which characteristically had the quality of sudden illumination or revelation. But these were only the first in a long series of events that would lead him, step by difficult step, away from the home of his ancestors and the tradition and loyalties of the house of Loyola to the cave of Manresa and its bitter spiritual and psychic struggle.

As William James (1902) and others have observed, the more or less acute and climactic experience of religious conversion is frequently accompanied by a long, arduous process that brings about a gradual restructuring of the individual’s personality. He described the symptoms — “a sense of incompleteness and imperfections; brooding, depression, morbid introspection, and sense of sin; anxiety about the hereafter; distress over doubts, and the like.” And he goes on to add: “And the result is the same — a happy relief and objectivity, as the confidence in self gets greater through the adjustment of the faculties to the wider outlook. In spontaneous religious awakening . . . we may also meet with mystical experiences, astonishing subjects by their suddenness, just as in revivalistic conversion” (p. 167). We can hear the echoes of these sentiments clearly in Iñigo’s shattered sense of self. The second element is the positive ideal for which the individual yearns and toward which he struggles. This element too emerges clearly in Iñigo’s imaginative stirrings and fantasies of doing great and heroic deeds in imitation of the great saints. In the ordinary run of cases, the sense of sinfulness dominates the picture, almost becoming an obsession. The process of conversion is thus at first dominated by the need to escape from sinfulness rather than to strive towards an ideal.

The conversion experience is also associated with certain more or less regressive phenomena — a loosening or relaxation of the synthetic capacity of the ego, resulting in a degree of internal dissociation and fragmentation connected with a sense of estrangement. The onset of the subjective experience of estrangement heralds the initial disintegration of the ego and is often associated with a sense of confusion regarding the self and its identity ( Conn 1986). The fragmented aspects of the self-organization, dissociated from their integration with the individual’s sense of self, are usually dealt with defensively, more often than not, by projection. We can conjecture that in some degree Iñigo must have experienced something like this state of internal self-disintegration.


Our first interest is in trying to understand what kind of psychological transformation was taking place in Iñigo. The first thing we notice in Iñigo’s case is that the values inherent in the lives of the saints were first assimilated to the ego-ideal. He saw the heroic deeds of the saints as projections of heroic chivalry to the level of the service of God rather than to the service of a human lord. He bears testimony to this assimilation when he tells that later, after his departure from Loyola,

“He continued his way to Montserrat, thinking as usual of the great deeds he was going to do for the love of God. As his mind was filled with the adventures of Amadis of Gaul and such books, thoughts corresponding to these adventures came to his mind” (Vita 17).

Plainly, then, the initial mechanism involved an ego-orientation and perception of an order of values, followed by an assimilation of these perceived values to a pre-existent internalized value-system. However, the impulses he felt stirring within him were still cast in the frame of the phallically narcissistic structure of his preconversion ego-ideal. It is immediately apparent that these fundamental sets of values are so radically different that they could not coexist in the same coherent value-system. The conflict had to come to light sooner or later, and the intensity of the conflict would be determined by the extent to which the respective values had been effectively internalized.

The significant point, then, is that the transformation that was taking place in Iñigo at this time did not consist in the substitution of one value system for another. The value system that had sustained Iñigo over the years and that had stirred him to noble and heroic deeds was too solidly established to collapse without a struggle. Iñigo hints at the beginnings of this conflict when he observes that he began to feel dry and dissatisfied with fantasies of worldly glory, but when he thought of the heroics of the saints he felt cheerful and satisfied. When he speaks of the difference between the two spirits moving him, we can see the conflict developing between the two value-systems. At first Iñigo sought to reconcile these divergent valuesystems by assimilating the newly perceived spiritual ones to the older and more familiar system. But as his understanding of the dimensions of the new value-system deepened, he was gradually compelled to face the impossibility of reconciliation. But this realization and understanding did not come in a moment. It took time, and during that time the only partially grasped values inherent in the spiritual orientation were more or less adherent to the older structure of values. With time, they would precipitate the crisis of Manresa and only in the resolution of that crisis would they achieve a degree of autonomy.

So it was that Iñigo de Loyola, as he lay on his bed of convalescence, began to experience the transformation of his own inner values. He found himself shifting from a narrower, narcissistic and even juvenile ideal and set of values, to a broader, higher, nobler and more spiritual orientation. The shift somehow implied that the order of spiritual realities, which his religion had always taught him, gradually entered into a new relation in which there was born in on him the actuality of its existence and the pertinence of its existence to himself. This realization and the process by which it became operative in him required the accepting and internalizing of this segment of reality. This implied a new awareness and a deepened understanding. It implied also an initial and possibly hesitant commitment of himself to the values that slowly became apparent to him.

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