Saint Ignatius in nature’s embrace: A 3-D view, Retrospective-Perspective-Reflective

Saint Ignatius in nature’s embrace: A 3-D view, Retrospective-Perspective-Reflective

Loyola landscape, 2011. Photo credit: P Walpole

Hedwig Lewis, SJ

Retrospective: Loyola Valley

Guipúzcoa, Spain, in the 16th century, was one of three Basque Provinces (with Alava and Vizcaya) beyond the Pyrenees.1 At the end of the 15th century, the kingdom of Castile and Leon, of central and northern Spain claimed jurisdiction over the Basque province of Guipúzcoa where the house of Loyola was located. The reigning monarchs were Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand (Reyes Catolicos).2

The Loyola valley (called Iraurgi in ancient times)3, one of the widest and most beautiful in the country, was nestled in the Ernio mountain range.4 It occupied a gently-rising eminence commanding the flat of the valley.5 The hills on one side of the Loyola manor house were densely carpeted with beech and oak trees; there were apple orchards and chestnut groves, too.6

“On the other side stands the imposing, limestone Mount Izarraitz. On those days when the sun beats upon it, its bald, bare dome takes on a pinkish shade and gives the impression of being under siege by the vegetation that has won a stronghold along its shapes… Izarraitz is at once heartless, magnificent, inhuman, tremendous – and almost bewitching. It is mysterious, mystical, and behind it each day the sun goes to hide his rays.”7

Etymologically, in Basque loi means mud, while ola may be interpreted either as a simple locative suffix, or as a compound of ol meaning abundance plus the article a. In either case, the meaning suits the primitive agricultural character of the lowlands or alluvial flats of the area: muddy site, abundance of mud or of mud flats.8 Flats refer to the alluvial soil that was rich and fruitful, producing luxuriant undergrowth and forest.9

A Jesuit, Fr Pedro de Tablares, who visited Loyola in 1550, in the lifetime of Ignatius, described in a letter how Loyola was “completely surrounded by a forest and by trees of many kinds of fruits, so thick that one almost does not see the house until he is at the door.”10 One of the illustrious sons of Azpeitia, Jose de Arteche, remarked, “in God’s design, the valley seems to be destined to speak to the soul gently and peacefully.” And the biggest landscape collector, the marquis of Santa Maria del Villar, commented on the landscape of Loyola: “the more one looks at it, the more beautiful one finds it.”11

The fast-flowing River Urola, sweeps through a gap in the foothills to course through the plain known as Olatz-Iraugi, its waters still bearing the icy touch of the Pyrenean springs and cataracts that nurture it.12 Ur is the Basque for “water” (and ol for abundance). Urola meant “abundance of water.”13

On the crest of the hill where the river enters this expanse of rich, well-cultivated land is a small town named Azcoitia; in the heart of the valley stands a sister-village, Azpeitia. Between the two, somewhat nearer Azpeitia – about two miles distant, stands the Casa-Torre (Tower-House) of Loyola,14 as the manor-house of the Loyola nobility was known in those parts then, but referred to as Santa Casa today. It was restored in 1990.

Perspective: Poetic streaks

Having been brought up in the lap of Nature, Ignatius cultivated a great fondness for the beauties and marvels of God’s creation. At Loyola during his convalescence, Iñigo would sit by the window at night and watch the stars. As he himself recalls: “It was my greatest consolation to gaze upon the heavens and the stars, which I often did, and for long stretches at a time, because when doing so I felt within myself a powerful urge to be serving our Lord.”15

“Only an exceptional poet like the Bengali mystic, Rabindranath Tagore, can help us understand this deeply personal inspiration of Iñigo’s. He observed that when Nature speaks, words are hushed in our hearts as she asks us, in exchange for a response, for music that suggests the unutterable, and he said that at that moment thought arises – or has already risen – beyond thought itself.”16

“By the end of his days, Ignatius, who had been so reticent when it came to expressing mystical feelings, would allow…fleeting outbursts of… emotion to escape from his heart, such as the famous, “How sordid is the earth when I contemplate the heavens!” or when he spoke about contemplating ordinary flowers… Ignatius was now seeing things from another point of view, and that is why he was contemplating nature in a way he had never imagined he would. Like Francis of Assisi, whom he admired so much, he let himself be open to an invasion of cosmic feelings. But with him these sentiments were transformed into a dynamic force geared toward action.”17

“He began to seek God according to his ability and will but also with his heart. He would remain late beneath the stars, letting his eyes range over their shining forms, the work of God… His glance would stray from star to star, from one bright constellation to another even brighter, even more plunged into the heights of the cosmos and he was moved by the contemplation of the lines which one day he hand of God had traced in space. For the first time the firmament appeared to him as an immense act of love, and he thought of the divine sower who had scattered those mysterious points of light as the hand of man scatters the seeds of grain. The thought of God the Creator and Comforter must have been of enormous consolation to him, engaged as he was in a most difficult and painful uprooting of himself.”18

Close to nature

All through his life Ignatius appreciated the countryside and nature. He felt spiritually refreshed and elevated in their midst. The residences acquired by the Society of Jesus in Rome, it must be noted, were framed by gardens or vineyards. When Ignatius and his companions first entered Rome, after La Storta, they were offered the use of an empty house “surrounded by vineyards” on the estate of Quirino Garzoni, near the Church of Trinita dei Monti, overlooking the Spanish Steps. Ignatius recalled this fact in his autobiography saying that on returning to Rome from Monte Cassino, where he had gone to give the Exercises to Dr Ortiz, “they were still living at the vineyard.”19 It was a small country house, informally called “The Vineyard,” situated near the Antonine baths and belonging to the Roman College.

On occasion he would take a visitor into the small garden or orchard belonging to the house, either to talk business or for counseling. It is said that he would often stop to look meditatively at the blue sky. Nadal says that Ignatius was able to see the Trinity in the leaf of an orange tree. Ribadeneira reports of the early companions’ observations of Ignatius: We often saw how little things became an occasion for him to lift his spirit to God, and this – even the littlest things – is admirable. The sight of a plant, flower, leaf, shrub or fruit, even a small insect, would set him off in contemplation.20 “He would rise up above the heavens and enter the innermost and remotest of the senses; and out of each of these things he drew advice and teaching useful for instructing the spiritual life.”21

In the last decades of his life (1537-56), caught up with administration and writing the Constitutions, Ignatius’ headquarters in Rome were cramped. However his office opened onto a balcony, and from there he would gaze at the star-studded sky, taking great delight. He would spend as much time in the gardens and orchards of the Holy City as his occupations allowed. Father Coudret, who attended him for seven months before 1548, observed: “When he was writing the Constitutions… in order to be more at ease he would retire on pleasant days to a friend’s house, and there would write on a table in the garden.”22

Gonçalves da Câmara reiterates: “Ignatius wrote a great part of the Constitutions seated at a small table in the garden.”


“Ignatius was basically always a solitary man. The hunger he once demonstrated for the eremetical life was not some passing fancy. He was a man with a capacity to live by himself, alone. Within the depths of his soul he longed for solitude, a solitude that came from his very nature and from those interior spaces stocked with sadness. How else could a child turn out, who had been born in a lonesome, isolated house, standing cautiously aloof from two nearby towns, Azpeitia and Azcoitia, and, as a finishing touch, in a house surrounded by a dense grove? ‘Completely surrounded by a forest and by trees of many kinds of fruits, so thick that one almost does not see the house until he is at the door…’ Iñigo, then, was born and lived in a world isolated from urban culture: cut off both by physical space and by the distance his ancestors had imposed upon the world outside.”23

Reflective: At home with God24

The word ‘ecology’ comes from two Greek roots: oikos, meaning ‘house’, and logos, meaning ‘reason’ or ‘discourse.’ When we shift from speaking of the environment (that which is around us but does not include us) to speaking of ecology, then, we are thinking in a new way: not about a distanced object, but rather about the network of relationships within which we live: our own house, our home.

Why should someone interested in Ignatian spirituality care about its intersections with ecology and ecological awareness? Creation is God’s gift to us of home and context. It is one of the oldest of God’s gifts, predating even our own existence according to both Genesis and modern science, and the largest in size and scope. Ecology (the science) and ecological awareness (our personal understanding of the roles of creation in our own lives) are two important ways of coming to understand the nature of this gift.

Many of us feel God’s presence especially strongly through nature. We may sit under a tree for prayer; we may go for a walk to reflect on a problem; we may watch a sunset for inspiration; we may go to the beach to grieve. For spiritual directors, understanding the various potential dimensions of a retreatant’s relationship with creation may provide fruitful insights and suggest new paths for spiritual movement.

God tells us over and over again in Genesis, that as God shaped creation, God saw that it was good. Our oikos, our house, is good from its creation: not because it is useful, not because it is the stage for the human drama, but simply because God made it.

Ignatius recognized, and entreats us to recognize, how profoundly loved we are by God through God’s creation, that both teaches and sustains us. This understanding is amplified during the first day of the Second Week, when we are called to contemplate ‘the great capacity and circuit of the world, in which are so many and such different people,’ and, … the various persons: and first those on the surface of the earth, in such variety, in dress as in actions: some white and others black; some in peace and others in war; some weeping and others laughing; some well, others ill; some being born and others dying, and so on.25

In the First Week, Ignatius calls us, “to bring to memory all the sins of life, looking from year to year, or from period to period. For this three things are helpful: first, to look at the place and the house where I have lived; second, the relations I have had with others; third, the occupations in which I have lived.’”26

Later in the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius places significant emphasis on thoughtfulness in food choices.27 It is in our relationship with food that our connectedness with creation, and with each other through creation, becomes most powerfully clear.

Rooted in experience

Ignatius’ understanding of Creation was rooted in his experience. Ignatius affirms a “three-fold relationship of subjects” from the beginning of time between God, humans and the rest of Creation. Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach points out28 that “these three relationships are, for Ignatius, so closely united that a person cannot find God unless he finds him through the environment, and conversely, that his relationship to the environment will be out of balance unless he also relates to God.” The “three-fold relationship of subjects” is particularly evident in the Principle and Foundation and the Contemplation to obtain Love, the two bookends of the Exercises. Kolvenbach insists that the moral demands of the Principle and Foundation include this relationship.

Ignatius understands clearly that if God and the human person are not in a proper relationship this will have serious consequences in the biosphere. He invites the retreatant to ‘…an exclamation of wonder and surging emotion, uttered as I reflect on all creatures – the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the elements, the fruits, the birds, fishes and animals – on how they have allowed me to live and have preserved me in life.’29

In the Third Rule of Discernment, Ignatius affirms again that we cannot have knowledge of God apart from the created world.30 He says that consolation is “… an interior movement… aroused in the soul, by which it is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and as a consequence, can love no created thing on the face of the earth for its own sake, but only the Creator of them all.”31

The Contemplation to Attain Love concludes the traditional Ignatian Spirituality, and leaves room for much greater reflection on the unique Christo-centrality of our faith and redemption of Creation. The grandeur and beauty in the world and the power of the Resurrection for all in Christ are critical in sustaining daily action over the long term in the face of much of our urban environment, rural hunger, exploited resources and loss of biodiversity.

The Cosmic Christ32

In the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises we can also seek intimacy with the Cosmic Christ as was expressed by the historical Jesus. Meditating on the incarnation may be helpful. In the incarnation, we find the fullest expression of the Cosmic Christ’s personal relationship with creation. Our prayer consists in paying attention to the gift of the Cosmic Christ becoming a creature of the Earth.

We also pray with Jesus, who experienced the beauty of the lilies of the field, had mystical experiences in the desert and on the mountaintops, prayed in the garden and in ‘quiet places’, and used the soil from the Earth to heal the blind man.

Taken from Saint Ignatius Loyola, Retrospective-Perspective- Reflective, Chapter One: Heritage – 1. Nature’s Embrace by Hedwig Lewis, SJ (2006) and published by Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, India.


1. Philip Caraman SJ, (1990), Ignatius Loyola, A Biography of the Founder of the Jesuits, Harper & Row, San Francisco
2. Richard J. Blinn SJ, (2002), Gutkowski, Fr Michal, SJ, Wawer, Robert, SJ, The World of Ignatius of Loyola (
3. Andoni Urrutia (1985), Loyola, The Department of Tourism, Basque Government, San Sebastian, Undated. And Dalmases, Candido de, SJ, Ignatius of Loyola, translated by Jerome Aixalá, SJ, GSP, India, p 15
4. Idígoras, Tellechea José Ignacio, Ignatius of Loyola, the Pilgrim Saint, translated, edited and with a preface by Cornelius M. Buckley, Loyola University Press, Chicago, 1994, p 37
5. Father Genelli (1923), The Life of St. Ignatius of Loyola (
6. Dealmases, Candido de, SJ, Ignatius of Loyola, translated by Jerome Aixalá, SJ, GSP, 1985, p 15
7. Idígoras, 38
8. Leturia, Pedro; Owen, Aloysius J. (translator). Inigo De Loyola. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1965
9. Jacob, Pierre, SJ, Ignatian Discernment, GSP, 2001
10. Dalmases 15, Idígoras 38
11. Urrutia 4-5
12. Purcell, Mary, The First Jesuit, St Ignatius Loyola, M.H. Gill and Son Ltd, Dublin, 1956, p 4
13. Jacob 150
14. Purcell 4
15. Autobiography, 11, [Note: first person]
16. Idígoras 146
17. Idígoras, ibid
18. Papasogli Giorgio, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Translated from the Italian by Paul Garvin, Society of St Paul, New York, 1957
19. Autobiography 98
20. Caraman 59
21. Profit, Jim, SJ, “Spiritual Exercises and Ecology, Promotio Justitiae, # 82, 2004/1, pp 8-9, Rahner, 22
22. Genelli 189
23. Idígoras 38-39
24. Coleman, Gerald, SJ, Walking With Iñigo, GSP, 2001
25. Tucker, Trileigh, Ecology and the Spiritual Exercises, The Way, January 2004
26. Spiritual Exercises 103.1; 106.1
27. Spiritual Exercises 103, 210-217
28. Kolvenbach, Fr Peter-Hans SJ, Address at Opening of Arrupe College, Jesuit School of Philosophy and Humanities, Harare, Zimbabwe, 22 August 1998
29. Spiritual Exercises 103 60, cfr also, Profit 6-11
30. Walpole Peter, SJ, Director, Institute of Environmental Science for Social Change, Philippines, We Live In A Broken World – Reflections on Ecology
31. Spiritual Exercises 103 316
32. Profit 8-9

Hedwig Lewis SJ is with Gujarat Province, India and is the author of “Profiles in Holiness – Brief Biographies of Jesuit Saints” (2003), Saint Ignatius Loyola (2006), and over 30 books on biographical, psycho-spiritual, and professional subjects. He can be reached through his email at: hedwiglewis(at) and for his biodata and work, please check his website.


2 thoughts on “Saint Ignatius in nature’s embrace: A 3-D view, Retrospective-Perspective-Reflective

  1. Dear Hedwig, thank you for this article it illustrates well the time Ignatius spent in reflection brought on by the natural world around him through out his life. Your comments on “ecology (the science) and ecological awareness (our personal understanding of the roles of creation in our own lives) are two important ways of coming to understand the nature of this gift” address the concerns of many who experience the depth of the human spirit as they relate the natural world.

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