The Mysticism of St. Ignatius of Antioch

Some time around 117 AD, if you had been able to survey the hundreds of miles of Roman roads leading from Syrian Antioch (in what is now southeast Turkey) to Rome, many strange sights would have greeted you. But one of the strangest would have been a detail of ten sullen guards leading an aged prisoner.

Redemptive Sacrifice

By willingly facing and even desiring martyrdom, Ignatius revealed that his spirituality was marked by the notion of sacrificial offering. Ignatius saw his impending martyrdom as united to Christ’s offering on Calvary and hence as participating in the redemptive efficacy of the Cross. Jesus’ Passion certainly bore sufficient fruit for the redemption of the whole world. Yet in raising Christians to the dignity of sons and daughters, the Father has granted them the privilege of sharing in His work by applying these fruits toward their own salvation and the salvation of others. Participation in Christ’s sacrifice is wholly by grace and is itself a fruit of the Passion, so that there remains an infinite gulf between the work of Christ and those who share in it. Nevertheless, their participation is real and mysteriously efficacious.

Referring to the vine and the branches, Ignatius proposed the image of the tree of the Cross and its branches. He considered those who are planted by the Father as “branches of the Cross, and their fruit [as] imperishable — the same Cross by which He, through His suffering, calls you who are His members” (Trallians 11.2). Not only can we bear fruit in others’ lives by our material assistance, evangelism, and prayers, but our sufferings can also be offered in union with Christ for the sake of others. Ignatius wrote to the Ephesians, “I am a humble sacrifice for you and I dedicate myself to you Ephesians” (8.1).

Once again, the Eucharist was at the heart of Ignatius’s thinking. He implored the Church of Rome: “Grant me nothing more than to be poured out as an offering to God while there is still an altar ready, so that in love you may form a chorus and sing to the Father in Jesus Christ” (2.2). The reference to the altar and singing chorus seems to be a conscious allusion to the early Mass. Because the Mass truly makes Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar under the appearance of bread and wine, the Christian can unite his own sufferings to Christ’s in the offering of the Mass. Ignatius encouraged the Church of Rome to see his death as a sacrifice of praise to the Father in Jesus: like the offering of the Mass, they ought to respond with song.

Christ’s Indwelling

Watching for a while, you would have observed that the old man was kind in his manner toward the guards while they were cruel, and that they became more cruel the more he was kind, resisting any impulse to sympathize with or even to acknowledge the humanity of the man in their charge.

You would have seen in every town through which they passed people thronged about this group, many weeping, some kneeling as he passed them, while others called to the old man for blessings and prayers. You would have seen people offering food and drink and every comfort possible to the resentful guards, who took what they needed or wanted, but who seemed most anxious to get this trip over with. And when the strange group halted in a town for the night, you would have seen that the weary old man did not make sleep his first concern; instead, for as long as the guards would let him, he dictated letters to any trusted secretary that could get close to him.

The old man was Saint Ignatius and the road he was traveling was his last, for his destination was not merely Rome, but the arena, and the claws and jaws of lions. The fruit of Ignatius’s life blossomed from his mysticism. Communion with the indwelling Christ generated his insight as an apologist. Participation in Christ’s Passion inflamed his zeal as a martyr. Imitation of God’s silent redemptive deeds made him a model bishop.

As Ignatius traveled toward his martyrdom, he wrote seven inspiring letters to various churches. In them, Ignatius defended Christ’s divinity, Christ’s humanity (against the Docetists), the Eucharist as the true Flesh and Blood of Christ, the God-given authority of the bishop, and the necessity of the visible unity of the Church. Ignatius’s apology was anchored in the presence of Christ dwelling within him. In referring to the mysteries of Christ, he noted that he hoped the Lord Himself would reveal more to him (Letter to the Ephesians 20.2; cf. Letter to Polycarp 2.2).

Through an interior mystical dialogue, Ignatius received a deeper insight into the Faith, though this is no reason to boast: “I have many deep thoughts in God, but I take my own measure, lest I perish by boasting…. For I myself, though I am in chains and can comprehend heavenly things, the ranks of the angels and the hierarchy of principalities, things visible and invisible, for all this I am not yet a disciple” (Trallians 4.1, 5.2). This interior dialogue was so significant for Ignatius that he began every letter by identifying himself as “Theophorus,” meaning both “God-bearer” and “God-inspired.” Ignatius’s inspiration followed from bearing God within. He wrote of the “living water in me, which speaks and says inside me, ‘Come to the Father’” (Romans 7.2).

Ignatius proposed what is commonly called “the practice of the presence of God.” He encouraged the Church of Ephesus to “do everything with the knowledge that He dwells in us, in order that we may be His temples, and He may be in us as our God — as, in fact, He really is” (15.3). Christ constantly dwells within every baptized believer who is in a state of grace, whether or not one happens to be aware of it at a given moment. Yet it is the frequent and even habitual recognition of this reality that results in growing intimacy with Christ and immersion in His mysteries. This communion with Christ is what gave Ignatius the desire and strength to face the lions in martyrdom. He wrote to the Smyrnaeans: “‘with the beasts’ means ‘with God.’ Only let it be in the name of Jesus Christ, that I may suffer together with Him! I endure everything because He Himself, Who is perfect man, empowers me” (4.2).

Such profound communion based on continual prayer is no easy endeavor. However, Ignatius alluded to two aids to this practice. First, in the frequent reception of the Eucharist, Jesus’ substantial presence renews and invigorates His constant spiritual presence within. So Ignatius encouraged the Ephesians to “abide in Christ Jesus physically and spiritually” (10.3). The physical Eucharist ensures the spiritual communion that can be recalled throughout the day. Second, praying the name of Jesus throughout the day can trigger a keen awareness of His presence within one’s heart. A legend concerning Ignatius arose by the Middle Ages that perhaps reveals how committed he was to the invocation of the Name. In the midst of being torn to pieces by the lions, Ignatius continued to cry out, “Jesus!” Onlookers asked why he kept doing this. Ignatius replied that “Jesus” was inscribed in his heart. After his death, the executioners cut open his heart, and looking within found inscribed in gold everywhere: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”

The Silent Deeds of God and Man

Ignatius’s service and example to his flock as bishop flowed from his familiarity with God’s own solicitude for His people and the mystery of God’s silent deeds. After all, God is the true bishop of all (Magnesians 3.1). Ignatius praised the bishop of Philadelphia who “accomplishe[d] more through silence than others do by talking” (Philippians 1.1). Ignatius insisted that “the more anyone observes that the bishop is silent, the more one should fear him. For everyone whom the Master of the house sends to manage his own house we must welcome as we would the one who sent him” (Ephesians 6.1). The bishop’s silence should be received as one would receive the Master’s own silence. What is it about this silence that is so valuable?

Actions speak louder than words. For Ignatius, words had an illusory character while deeds really existed. He recognized the tendency of fallen human nature to speak lofty words or to think more highly of oneself than is warranted. Ignatius found the same tendency even in himself. So he spoke of a desire for martyrdom, but at the same time he was not entirely confident of his own words. Of course, as he was writing, he seemed to be resolute in enduring martyrdom, but how would he act when he was in the arena and felt the warm breath of the lions pulsating over him, their next meal? He often asked whether he would prove to be a disciple in reality or just call himself one. Hence, “it is better to be silent and to be, than to talk and not be” (Ephesians 15.1). Words often have a fleeting character, while deeds accomplished in Jesus’ name bear something of an everlasting quality. Ignatius urged his fellow bishop, Polycarp, to perform a charitable deed so “that [he, Polycarp] may be glorified by an eternal deed” (Polycarp 8.1). Deeds of love, even when done in the hiddenness of silence, have an everlasting effect.

Ignatius wished to speak a true word with his whole existence by accomplishing a deed in silence. He pleaded with the Christians of Rome not to impede his approaching martyrdom, “for if you remain silent and leave me alone, I will be a word of God, but if you love my flesh, then I will again be a mere voice” (2.1). When the words of the Christian witness are snuffed out in the silence of martyrdom, then the Word Himself shines through brilliantly. The fruitfulness of the martyr’s silence blossoms from the Word’s own silence. Ignatius noted: “The one who truly possesses the word of Jesus is also able to hear His silence, that he may be perfect, that he may act through what he says and be known through his silence” (Ephesians 15.2). As the revelation of the Father, the Word-Made-Flesh has more to say than can be expressed in words. Yet one must “listen” carefully in order to perceive God’s word of love in the apparent godlessness of the Cross. Although Jesus does reveal the Father in His vocal preaching, His greatest message is proclaimed in the silence of the Cross. Jesus Himself, as the Word, is the very message of God, and His self-gift in silence gets at the heart of Revelation since it gets at the very heart of God.

There are, Ignatius claimed, “three mysteries to be loudly proclaimed, yet which were accomplished in the silence of God” (19.1). These are events which are not flashy enough for the world’s taste and hence, in this sense, are hidden from the world’s eyes. They are Mary’s virginity, Jesus’ birth, and the Cross. God’s preparation and actualization of His mother, His taking on flesh, and His death on the Cross — all of which are hidden from the world in the silence of God — are crucial actions for God’s redemption of the world. Ignatius, then, in the silence of his martyrdom, echoed this silence of God. He most effectively bore witness to the ultimate Love that knows no limit and shares in His fecundity for the sake of others. In this he fulfilled his task as bishop in imitation of the Chief Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep. Martyrdom is the epitome of the silent deeds which Ignatius extolled in his fellow bishops and encouraged in all Christians. However, all acts of love, even when hidden from others, can be fruitful for others because they share in God’s own silent deeds of redemption.

Ignatius’s mysticism sustained him to the end. When the Roman populace gathered for a thrilling show in the Coliseum, among the many other spectacles they saw an odd figure embrace the lions as a man might embrace his beloved at a ballroom dance. Amidst the deep bass roars of the lions and the horrible, yet graceful, choreography of predator and prey, all that could be heard was the name “Jesus!” None of the rabble noticed the man’s blood silently soaking into the earth: the seed of the Church.

Originally appeared on Catholic Exchange on Oct. 17, 2006

Image: Ikon of St. Ignatius/Wikimedia Commons



Brother Ignatius Schweitzer, OP, is a Dominican Friar of the St. Joseph Province (Eastern Province, USA) in formation for the priesthood at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Please check out the vocations website and blog at

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage