Was Ignatius a Trauma Survivor?

Every time the story of Ignatius Loyola is told, the teller of the tale mentions that he was a soldier and that he was wounded in battle.  But then the speaker hurries on to what happens next–his conversion during his year-long recovery from terrible battle wounds.

Writer Dawn Eden thinks we should pause a moment and reflect on what Ignatius experienced as a soldier.  She suggests that he was a trauma survivor. Fighting was often hand-to-hand.  Men killed other men with swords, pikes, axes, and knives.  Ignatius must have experienced intense terror and witnessed horrific carnage. Such things cause deep emotional and spiritual wounds.  This is something that was always known but seldom talked about, and to our knowledge, Ignatius never talked about it.

I wonder how Ignatius’s battle experiences affected him.  Trauma survivors often feel responsible for the horrific things they experienced.  Could this be a factor in the bouts of morbid scrupulosity Ignatius suffered?  Survivors are often tormented by memories.  Ignatius was careful to include his memories in the things he gave back to God (“Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my whole will.”)  Those who heal from trauma have a profound sense of having come a long way from a very dark place.  Can we detect this in Ignatius’s deep sense of gratitude to God?

Possibly so.  In the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius strives to help us understand that we are sinners who are redeemed and loved by God.  He may have been able to do this because he experienced it in a place where most of us don’t go.

Image by Arutemu under Creative Commons License.

About Jim Manney 761 Articles
Jim Manney is the author of highly praised popular books on Ignatian spirituality, including A Simple, Life-Changing Prayer (about the Daily Examen) and God Finds Us (about the Spiritual Exercises). He is the compiler/editor of An Ignatian Book of Days. His latest book is Ignatian Spirituality A to Z. He and his wife live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

10 Comments on Was Ignatius a Trauma Survivor?

  1. Thank you for this article. I just found it by chance – I got complex PTSD (DESNOS) and after three years I’m finally stable enough again this summer to do an ignatian retreat again (well, hopefully I’ll stay this way). I find that religious people (including ignatian ones) often only see me as someone to care for, someone weak, someone who is not “equal” to them. But while it is true that I come from a place where most people don’t go it is also important to see how much healing is possible. Maybe Ignatius himself can show that we can become active, responsible community members…

    • You are right on. That is known as helicoptering or as I put it hovercrafting. They want to do as much for a person as possible in order to enable to be dependent on them forever. Makes me mad. The antidote: show em! Do NOT worry what they think as some folks don’t know how to. Sounds to me that you are already on the way to “become active, responsible community member.”

  2. Really interesting… as a Marine in Vietnam, Desert Storm and Somalia, I never considered this, but certainly agree. Certainly, it had to have an effect on him and his ability to look very deep inside himself. What he found there… only increases my respect for him.

  3. Yes a lot of things don’t mention God, even Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs leaves God (spiritual need) off some of its models but he is there nonetheless. As well, in this country (Canada) the terminology for a thing or another changes with the seasons sometimes. Nobody wants to call a spade a spade I guess.

  4. Thank you. I work with traumatized children and adults in Cambodia. I teach a course on trauma treatment. While there are many psychological “ingredients” that make up good trauma treatment Ignatian spirituality seems to mirror many of the modern techniques. e.g. mindfulness is a technique that we teach our clients but this sounds similar to the Ignatian examen except for the mention of a God. Ignatiius was doing daily trauma recovery techniques and never called them this.

  5. I have wondered a lot about the thesis that Ignatius was a war survivor with possibly PTSD (as we call it today). After reading Jonathan Shay MD’s two books about PTSD Odysseus in America and Achilles in Vietnam, I was convinced this PTSD aspect of St. Ignatius was likely omitted. Think about how God helped Ignatius overcome the PTSD through a huge commitment going forward, channeling all the power and spirituality that was ‘tapped” through his experiences.

    • I believe this is the reason that the Spiritual Exercises are so helpful to so many as we are able to receive healing through walking this path that Ignatius walked and recorded for our benefit. God is present with us.

  6. Thank you Jim, and assuredly Ignatius ” may have been able to do this because he experienced it in a place where most of us don’t go” (Manney). It takes experience to be able to understand what someone else is going through, in order for us to be able to reach out and help them. Ignatius found out that God works us from the inside out.

  7. Our experiences shape the persons we become and, no doubt, this is true when our experiences are as traumatic as those that are a result of war. I read the link at Dawn Eden’s website and really appreciate her line of thinking. Thank you.

  8. A very interesting thought. I’m a Vietnam veteran and there’s no question that experience had an affect on me. Certainly must have been true for St. Ignatius as well.

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