Íñigo López de Oñaz y Loyola (who later began using the name Ignatius) was born at the Castle of Loyola in the municipality of Azpeitia (current day Gipuzkoa, Spain) on October 23, 1491. In his youth, Ignatius was an enthusiastic man who had dreams of being a great military officer. But that all changed when he had a profound encounter with Christ. After being wounded in battle, Ignatius was bedridden for months as his wounded leg healed. In his boredom, in order to pass the time, he asked for some books to read. He had hoped to receive some books on chivalry and romance for entertainment, but none such books were in the house where he was recovering. Instead, he was given two books: The Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony, a Carthusian monk; and the Flowers of the Saints. As he read and re-read these books, he began to be inspired and began to imagine himself living a saintly life.
Ignatius, however, also spent much time daydreaming about romance, chivalry and other worldly endeavors. But since he was only in possession of these two books, his imagination would wander between the two: Christ and the saints, then romance and chivalry. But there was a difference. Ignatius eventually noticed that even though both of these trains of thought left him excited while thinking about them, the worldly thoughts eventually left him feeling dry and sad, whereas the thoughts about Christ and the saints left him inspired and enthused long after he had ended his daydream. It was this realization that first compelled him to intensify his conversion, and it was this insight that led to much of the wisdom contained in The Spiritual Exercises.
After his recovery, Ignatius desired to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. However, before completing that trip, he first made a journey to the town of Montserrat. Two powerful influences on him during that time were his penitential practices and his thorough confession. For penance, he wore clothing that was rough and uncomfortable, tied a cord below his knee and only wore one shoe. He spent much time in prayer and spoke to our Lord and our Blessed Mother while kneeling and standing for long periods. While in Montserrat, he spent three days preparing for a general confession of the sins of his whole life. During his confession, Ignatius also revealed to his confessor, for the first time, his intention to devote his entire life to the service of God. After his confession, he consecrated himself to our Lord and our Blessed Mother and spent the entire night in prayer. Thus, Ignatius had begun a very radical journey toward a life of sainthood.
After his short stay in Montserrat, Ignatius journeyed to the town of Manresa and stayed there from March 25, 1522, until mid-February 1523. His months in Manresa were months of deep conversion. He spent many long hours in prayer, attended daily Mass, engaged in severe penances, sought out spiritual counsel and studied the Gospels. He spent much time in silence and solitude, especially in a cave that he frequented. Ignatius neglected his physical appearance and sought only to beautify his soul.
This period of interior formation had a profound impact on Ignatius, and he began to experience deep spiritual insights and consolations from God. However, soon after these consolations arrived, he also began to experience severe interior trials that left him agitated and struggling. These struggles began when he sensed the evil one say to him that he could never keep up this life of vigor, zeal and penance for the rest of his life. The evil one tried to lead him to doubt and despair. But Ignatius ultimately discerned the voice of the evil one and rebuked his lies, reminding the evil spirit that he could offer him nothing of value. In the end, these trials were a gift in that they allowed Ignatius to grow deeper and deeper in his resolve to seek out and follow the will of God for his life while continuing to reject the lies of the evil one.
At this time, Ignatius also suffered with severe scruples. He regularly recollected various sins he had committed that he feared he had never confessed. This struggle with scrupulosity caused much interior suffering. In fact, at one point the scrupples were so severe that he briefly considered suicide. But in the end, God broke Ignatius free once he was able to discern that his irrational thinking was not from God but from the evil one. Once he understood this, Ignatius rebuked and rejected these scrupulous and erroneous thoughts, and God freed him from this burden.
While in Manresa, Ignatius continued to engage in severe fasts (at one point he neither ate nor drank for seven days), daily scourged himself three times and spent seven hours a day in prayer. Our Blessed Mother and Jesus regularly communicated with him, revealing deep spiritual truths to his soul. It was there in Manresa that Ignatius began to write The Spiritual Exercises. Though much more could be said about the life of Saint Ignatius, these initial conversion experiences present us with foundational insights to better understand the wisdom contained within his Spiritual Exercises.