Íñigo López de Loyola (sometimes erroneously called Íñigo López de Recalde) was born in the municipality of Azpeitia at the castle of Loyola in today's Gipuzkoa, Basque Country, Spain. He was baptized Íñigo, after St. Enecus (Innicus) (Basque: Eneko; Spanish: Íñigo) Abbot of Oña, a Basque medieval, affectionate name meaning "My little one". It is not clear when he began using the Latin name "Ignatius" instead of his baptismal name "Íñigo". It seems he did not intend to change his name, but rather adopted a name which he believed was a simple variant of his own, for use in France and Italy where it was better understood.
Íñigo was the youngest of thirteen children. His mother died soon after his birth, and he was then brought up by María de Garín, the local blacksmith's wife. Íñigo adopted the surname "de Loyola" in reference to the Basque village of Loyola where he was born.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola's Vision of Christ and God the Father at La Storta
As a boy Íñigo became a page in the service of a relative, Juan Velázquez de Cuéllar, treasurer (contador mayor) of the kingdom of Castile.
As a young man Íñigo had a great love for military exercises as well as a tremendous desire for fame. He framed his life around the stories of El Cid, the knights of Camelot, and the Song of Roland. He joined the army at seventeen, and according to one biographer, he strutted about "with his cape slinging open to reveal his tight-fitting hose and boots; a sword and dagger at his waist". According to another he was "a fancy dresser, an expert dancer, a womanizer, sensitive to insult, and a rough punkish swordsman who used his privileged status to escape prosecution for violent crimes committed with his priest brother at carnival time." Upon encountering a Moor who denied the divinity of Jesus, he challenged him to a duel to the death, and ran him through with his sword. He dueled many other men as well.
In 1509, at the age of 18, Íñigo took up arms for Antonio Manrique de Lara, 2nd Duke of Nájera. His diplomacy and leadership qualities earned him the title "servant of the court", which made him very useful to the Duke.
Under the Duke's leadership, Íñigo participated in many battles without injury. But at the Battle of Pamplona in 1521 he was gravely injured when a French-Navarrese expedition force stormed the fortress of Pamplona on 20 May 1521. A cannonball hit him in the legs, wounding his right leg and fracturing the left in multiple places.
Íñigo was returned to his father's castle in Loyola, where, in an era that knew nothing of anesthetics, he underwent several surgical operations to repair his legs, having the bones set and then rebroken. In the end these operations left one leg shorter than the other: Íñigo would limp for the rest of his life, and his military career was over.
Religious conversion and visions
While recovering from surgery, Íñigo underwent a spiritual conversion which led to his experiencing a call to religious life. Hospitals in those days were run by religious orders, and the reading material available to bedridden patients tended to be selected from scripture or devotional literature. This is how Íñigo came to read a series of religious texts on the life of Jesus and on the lives of the saints, since the "romances of chivalry" he loved to read were not available to him in the castle.
The religious work which most particularly struck him was the De Vita Christi of Ludolph of Saxony. This book would influence his whole life, inspiring him to devote himself to God and follow the example of Francis of Assisi and other great monks. It also inspired his method of meditation, since Ludolph proposes that the reader place himself mentally at the scene of the Gospel story, visualising the crib at the Nativity, etc. This type of meditation, known as Simple Contemplation, was the basis for the method that St. Ignatius would promote in his Spiritual Exercises.
Aside from dreaming about imitating the saints in his readings, Íñigo was still wandering off in his mind about what "he would do in service to his king and in honor of the royal lady he was in love with". Cautiously he came to realize the after-effect of both kinds of his dreams. He experienced a desolation and dissatisfaction when the romantic heroism dream was over, but, the saintly dream ended with much joy and peace. It was the first time he learned about discernment.
After he had recovered sufficiently to walk again, Íñigo resolved to begin a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to "kiss the earth where our Lord had walked", and to do stricter penances. He thought that his plan was confirmed by a vision of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus he experienced one night, which resulted in much consolation to him. In March 1522, he visited the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat. There, he carefully examined his past sins, confessed, gave his fine clothes to the poor he met, wore a "garment of sack-cloth", then hung his sword and dagger at the Virgin's altar during an overnight vigil at the shrine.
From Montserrat he walked on to the nearby town of Manresa (Catalonia), where he lived for about a year, begging for his keep, and then eventually doing chores at a local hospital in exchange for food and lodging. For several months he spent much of his time praying in a cave nearby where he practiced rigorous asceticism, praying for seven hours a day, and formulating the fundamentals of his Spiritual Exercises.
Íñigo also experienced a series of visions in full daylight while at the hospital. These repetitive visions appeared as "a form in the air near him and this form gave him much consolation because it was exceedingly beautiful ... it somehow seemed to have the shape of a serpent and had many things that shone like eyes, but were not eyes. He received much delight and consolation from gazing upon this object ... but when the object vanished he became disconsolate". He came to interpret this vision as diabolical in nature.