The medieval ideal of a Christian life — that of a traveller who existed in the world without becoming a part of it, a viator or pilgrim whose thoughts and actions were constantly directed towards the afterlife — remained an essential part of the theological and cultural heritage of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and was one of many archetypes used to characterize or narrate the spiritual progress of converts.
Bonsignore Cacciaguerra , an Italian mystic whose teachings and writings influenced many of the most important figures in the Italian Counter-reformation, and the Spanish Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), both adopted the nickname ‘the Pilgrim’ and titled their biographies respectively the Life of the Penitent Pilgrim and the Story of the Pilgrim. Though neither of the two autobiographies were published during the period, they give detailed accounts of the extraordinary lives of both men and the conversions that drove them to abandon a life outside the church.
In Cacciaguerra’s case, the ‘world’ to be defeated was represented by his life as a rich merchant in Palermo, one of the most opulent and decadent port cities of the Mediterranean at the beginning of the sixteenth century. In the Life, he described himself as “young and rich and all given over to the world of delights with no restraint, as one who had no wife, nor any other person to whom he must show respect or deference. He dressed pompously in every season, wore gold chains on his neck and his arm, and used perfumes and scents.”
His household was filled with slaves, horses, musicians and performers, a “house of vanity and sin.” His conversion came after he narrowly escaped death during a storm at sea, an event which he took as a sign from God, and which came after an uninterrupted string of successes.
Loyola’s life of sin was that of a soldier and the occasion for his conversion was provided by an injury which kept him bedridden for many months. At first he entertained himself by reading chivalric romances, but when none were left in the castle where he was recovering, he began reading the lives of Christ and the saints, an experience which persuaded him to abandon his former life. In the years that followed, Ignatius made pilgrimage to Jerusalem his new objective.
Both men portrayed their conversions in the traditional language of Christian piety and redemption. Yet the solutions to their spiritual crises, which they proposed as models for others to follow (Cacciaguerra published his Treatise of Tribulation in 1559 and Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises came out in 1548), were something new: a call for believers, regardless of their religious status and station in life, to subject themselves more thoroughly to the discipline of a clerical supervisor who could guide them away from sin and towards perfection.
For both men, frequent confession and communion were cornerstones of this new spiritualism, a more frequent contact with God that — not by chance — lay under the firm control of the clergy, part of a more widespread attempt to re-assert the authority of priests. The pilgrimage continued, but under strict supervision.
For good modern editions of both accounts, see:
Vita del Pellegrino Penitente. Autobiografia di Bonsignore Cacciaguerra 1495-1566, ed. Raffaella Ragone (Naples: Vivarium, 2005).
Ignatius of Loyola, Autobiography, trans. Parmananda R. Divarkar, in St. Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, ed. George E. Ganss (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1991), 65-112.