Contemplating Ignatian Lament

by | Jul 30, 2021

In March of 1592, outside of Barcelona, 31-year-old Iñigo de Loyola, our present-day St. Ignatius, made an all-night vigil before Our Lady of Montserrat. On his knees. Candlelit shrine. Black Madonna at the Benedictine Monastery. Can you see the young knight in his chivalric rite, dedicating himself before setting out on his pilgrimage? 

As we mark Saturday, July 31st, the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola in this historic Ignatian Year, I am moved to open up to more of our namesake’s prayer and conversion story. My study and time with this 16th century figure makes me wonder about that particular evening. Was it simply a chivalric code of conduct that informed this action?  What role did the prayerful practice of lamenting play in his conversion?

As a spiritual director in this 21st century, I am contemplating how lament informs our sense of Ignatius the man, then, and Ignatian prayer and spiritual practice for us, today.

Lament Defined

In a recent daily meditation from the Center for Contemplation and Action, faculty member Barbara Holmes writes about lament as a healing practice in the midst of crisis contemplation.[1]

Ms. Holmes characterizes lament as risky, as it challenges power structure — as well as communal, connecting us to one another in our despair and dissatisfaction with the way life currently is. She states,

“Lament calls for justice, and it makes demands on our relationships with the “powers that be,” one another, and God. Once lament is released, it cannot be recalled. Lament is risky because we never know until the act is done whether or not we have gone too far.”  She continues: “Lament allows the pain to escape and stitches us to our neighbors.”

This reading, combined with Loyola’s celebration and study of Ignatius, had me wondering: What is the intersection between Ignatius’ journey, his own spiritual crisis and conversion, and the larger healing practices that Ignatius inevitably laid out for us in his Spiritual Exercises –  and lament? 


In his book, “The Spiritual Work of Racial Justice: A Month of Meditations with Ignatius of Loyola” Patrick Saint-Jean, S.J. describes our namesake as an unhappy womanizer, whose cannonball moment was a final blow to his life of heart break. Saint-Jean’s biographical sketch takes us deeper into what he characterizes as the disordered priorities of Ignatius and points toward that invitation to lament.

 In reading through and praying with “Day 4: Our Disordered Hearts – Racism as a Barrier to God’s Love” I was struck by this passage regarding Ignatius at prayer. Saint-Jean writes:

“In an all-night vigil before the Black Madonna in a church in Monserrat, Ignatius hung up his sword and dagger. With these actions, he demonstrated that he was separating himself from his old priorities. He was allowing his desires and goals to be rearranged – reordered by Christ.”[2]

That re-ordering before Christ reminds me of the power of lament for us individually as well as communally. In my own journey, grappling with systemic issues of poverty, racism, public and private health issues in my then role as a high school teacher, my own spiritual director invited me to set aside time to lament, and experience that re-ordering of life through Christ.

It was 2001; I was mid-way through the academic school year and counted 60 new students on my English 9 and 10 class rosters. I had begun the year with 120 in the combined sections; and in four short months seen a 50% turnover in enrollment. My heart was broken; my capacity to engage and retain and teach, crippled by the social and economic realities in the larger community and world.  Recognizing the mental, emotional toll taken on my well-being, my spiritual director placed these issues inside a spiritual framework. I’ll never forget her invitation to me:  “Have you ever thought of lamenting these realities? Take time. Lay your body out. Feel and speak all that is moving through you in these circumstances. God can handle your heart break, despair, and anger. It has an important role in your prayer life and larger journey.”

I turn to my friend St. Ignatius, and imagine his spiritual experience in the face of his present-day circumstances.

Can you see him during that all-night vigil? Before the Black Madonna.  It’s this sliver of detail about Ignatius that captures my imagination and makes me wonder: What did that night consist of? What thoughts, feelings, and experiences did Ignatius bring before Mary? What was going through his body? Mind? How did he feel prostrate before the Madonna? Did he cry out? Wail? Beat his chest? Where were the memories of that failed warrior action outside Pamplona? Did the pain of removed shards of that cannonball radiate in a phantom like fashion? What about other emotional pain and memory? A childhood without a mother? His father’s passing at 16? His failed romances? What all did he bring to that vigil?  Do images of a quiet and contemplative man come to mind? Can you see him with his eyes closed?  Pensive? Was he armored? Perhaps he started to peel off the layers of his literal or figurative battle gear over the course of the evening — all part of that final act of relinquishing his sword?

Psalms of lament are powerful expressions of the experience of disorientation. 
They express the pain, grief, dismay, and anger that life is not good. They also refuse to settle for things as they are, and so they assert hope.

–Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms

As you consider the life of St. Ignatius, and weigh your own spiritual circumstances today, how does lament play a part in your practices? What crises of individual and collective nature call you to enter into Ignatian contemplation, or break into your own lamenting of present-day issues of injustice, death, destruction? 

Our spiritual directors are here to companion you in holding any of these kinds of questions.

For more information on Ignatian spiritual practice and lament:

[1] Barbara A. Holmes, Crisis Contemplation: Healing the Global Village (CAC Publishing: 2021), 95–96. 

[2] Patrick Saint-Jean, S.J., The Spiritual Work of Racial Justice: A Month of Meditations with Ignatius of Loyola (Anamchara Books: 2021) 63-68.