Enter Magdalena: Ignatian Spirituality and Mental Health

By John J. Cecero, S.J.

Headlines about media stars who overdose on opioid drugs or commit suicide seize immediate popular attention and concern. However, in relatively short order, our focus turns toward other newsworthy items, and the mental anguish and desperate behaviors of those many less well recognized men and women recede into the background. Nevertheless, the problem of mental illness persists in every demographic and locale in this country, and college campuses are certainly no exception. In a recent report submitted to President Trump by the National Council on Disability (July 2017), entitled “Mental Health on College Campuses: Investments, Accommodations Needed to Address Student Needs,” the authors emphasize that the “percentage of students seeking support for mental health disabilities, including those of a severe degree, while attending institutions of higher education has increased even within the last three years.” The demands of independent living, academic achievement, and a new social environment arouse in most some degree of anxiety and dysphoria, and in more than a few clinical levels of anxiety and depression, poor academic performance, substance abuse, and most tragically in some cases lead to suicide.

From a psychological perspective, this transition to college threatens a sense of secure attachment to familiar persons and places, heightening a sense of abandonment for some and isolation for many. Likewise, the expectation to adapt to the culture of the college campus, new roommates and peers, and a diverse faculty can be perceived as a threat to a familiar value system. All of this at a time when the student is trying to negotiate anxieties related to imagining a meaningful direction and purpose for his or her life.

St. Ignatius’ Challenges and Conversion   

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Given these mental health challenges to a secure attachment and purpose in life, what can we learn about St. Ignatius’ own spiritual conversion from noble warrior to saintly pilgrim, and especially how he recovered from a traumatic sense of loss and disorientation, only to flourish with a radically new value system?    

 The events of Ignatius’ conversion are familiar. Struck by a cannonball in battle at Pamplona, he was transported to his native castle in Loyola, where he lay recovering from painful surgeries on his leg. The trauma of this injury reduced this valiant nobleman to a wounded, disfigured shadow of himself, and he was defeated in body and spirit.

 Enter Magdalena, his sister-in-law who cared for him since he was seven years old, having lost his mother soon after his birth. She brought him the Life of Jesus Christ and a volume of the Lives of the Saints. Magdalena was a significant maternal figure for Ignatius, and while his conversion has been largely attributed to the inspiration that he derived from reading about the saints, especially Dominic and Francis, and how he identified with their greatness in service of the Lord, it may be argued that her role in his conversion has not been properly understood or appreciated.

Many years after his conversion, Ignatius confessed to a novice that an image of Our Lady in his prayer book reminded him so much of Magdalena’s beauty that he had to cover the picture to stave off his intense affection and passion for her. From a psychoanalytic perspective, it may be conjectured that Magdalena was the object of his pre-oedipal attachment, and that her nurturance at such an important early time in his life aroused a primitive erotic attraction with concomitant desires to win her love. Later, during his convalescence, this same Magdalena returns to his bedside and ministers to him, likely reawakening these primitive feelings and desires that are defensively transformed into a more pure, chaste love for the Blessed Mother.  We know that during this time of convalescence, he had a vision of Our Lady holding the Christ Child, and he was both deeply consoled and at the same time profoundly sorrowful for his past life, and especially for his carnal temptations and immoral behaviors. At this point, he wanted nothing more than to live for Christ in imitation of the saints. The role of Mary would continue to exercise a prominent place in Ignatius’ spiritual journey, as in a subsequent vigil at Montserrat where he laid down his sword and assumed the identity of pilgrim, and in frequent prayer before his favorite icon of Our Lady of the Way. In the Spiritual Exercises, immediately after the Resurrection, Ignatius has Jesus appearing first to his Mother, even though this is not in the Scriptures, to emphasize her pride of place in Jesus’ (and his own) life.

 "Convalescing at Loyola" by Peter Paul Rubins. Photo featured courtesy of the  Jesuit Institute .

"Convalescing at Loyola" by Peter Paul Rubins. Photo featured courtesy of the Jesuit Institute.

Early in Ignatius’ life, Magdalena afforded him the secure attachment that he so needed in the wake of such a premature loss of his own mother. This attachment becomes even more salient, when considering that his powerful, authoritarian, and emotionally unavailable father afforded few occasions for praise and healthy self-esteem development. Instead, Ignatius defensively adopted a narcissistic personality style. His overriding focus was on exhibiting prowess in military conquests and winning glory, as a defense against a pervasive sense of insufficiency and imperfection in the eyes of his father. It was in this psychological context that the battle wound at Pamplona, leaving him disfigured and emasculated, occasioned a trauma that extended far deeper than his physical wound.

Now again back at Loyola, Magdalena offered the affection and care that helped him through this trauma and occasioned his new and lasting attachment to Our Lady, enabling his conversion from worldly ambitions to a life of purposeful service to the Lord. 

Ignatian Spirituality

We can derive at least three lessons from Ignatius’ experience, with implications for how to foster and sustain mental health in our campus communities. First, Ignatian spirituality is fundamentally relational, that is, a secure attachment to God is the necessary condition for reordering one’s life priorities and pursuing a purposeful life. Even though his natural father was emotionally unavailable, Ignatius learned from his relationship to Jesus that he was loved by God, despite or perhaps even because of his imperfections, and this affective knowledge allowed him to shed his narcissistic ambitions and instead risk everything in pursuit of the divine will.

Second, this secure relationship to God is mediated by human instruments. Were it not for Magdalena, Ignatius would not have been able to understand or appreciate the affection of Our Lady for her Son nor desire it for himself personally. Magdalena not only brought him to the texts that would alter his life vision and purpose, but she gave him the emotional grounding to put them into practice.

Finally, a secure attachment to God is essentially supported by, and expressed within, a believing community. Ignatius would insist in the Exercises’ “Rules for Thinking with the Church” that any legitimate discernment of God’s will would need to be validated by the ecclesial community, and never assumed to be solely between the individual and God.

These lessons from Ignatius’ spiritual conversion that are embedded in Ignatian spirituality may be considered tonic antidotes to the attachment insecurities that lie at the core of so many mental health problems on campus and elsewhere.

Fr. John J. Cecero, S.J., provincial of the USA Northeast Province, is a clinical psychologist and was previously professor of psychology at Fordham University.  He is the author of several studies on spirituality and mental health, and he wrote Praying through Our Lifetraps: A Psycho-Spiritual Path to Freedom.