The Franciscan Sanctuary of Our Lady of Arantzazu is located in Oñati, in the province of Guipuzcoa, Basque Country, Spain. The people of Gipuzkoa are devoted to this shrine and its image of the Virgin Mary. Under this title she is a patron of the province, as is also St. Ignatius. The location enjoys the peaceful atmosphere of the Aizkorri mountain range along with good roads, so the shrine receives frequent visits from local devotees and foreign tourists. At this site, according to very old legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to a shepherd, Rodrigo de Balanzategui, in 1468. According to this legend, the figure of Mary was in a thorn bush, and Rodrigo cried out, “Arantzan zu?!” (Thou, among the thorns?!). This gave rise to the place’s name. An explanation of the word origin is that it stems from a combination of arantza and zu, ‘place abounding in hawthorn.’ Thus Mary is often referred to here as Our Lady of the Thorns. Ignatius, resolved to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, set out from Loyola with his brother Pero Lopez, who was a companion of his youthful misadventures; Pero, now a priest, was going to visit their sister in Oñate. Ignatius persuaded him to spend the night in vigil at the shrine. They would never be together again. Ignatius had been deeply affected with devotion to Mary during his convalescence; either during his vigil at the shrine here or soon after, along the road to Montserrat, he made a vow of chastity. In a letter to Francis Borgia 1554, Ignatius referred to this night vigil as a time of great grace for strengthening his resolve on this journey.  — Ed Schmidt, S.J.

From the “Autobiography” of St. Ignatius

Ignatius, starting from his father’s house, set out upon his journey on horseback. About this time he began his habit of taking the discipline every night. His brother desired to accompany him as far as Ogna [Oñate] and during the journey was persuaded by the Saint to pass one night of watching at the shrine of Our Blessed Lady at Aruncuz [Aranzazu]. Having prayed some time at the shrine for new strength for his journey, leaving his brother at Ogna at the house of their sister, to whom he paid a short visit, he journeyed on to Navarre. Remembering that an official in the Duke s palace owed him some money, he collected it by sending in a ritten account to the treasurer, and distributed it among persons to whom he felt indebted. A portion of the money he devoted to the restoration of a picture of the Blessed Virgin. Then dismissing his two remaining servants, he rode forth alone from Navarre in the direction of Montserrat, a mountain town of Catalonia in the northern part of Spain.

Reflection by pilgrim Ami Conlan

As I began the Ignatian journey this week my hope was to remain open and to expect the unexpected. Today our visit was to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Arantzazu.

amiAfter our first two days, I knew I would relate to the unscripted terrain that would bring to mind the physical travels of Ignatius and the challenges of his interior life that so closely resembled the climb, the valleys and the peaks of the Aizkorri mountain range.

Knowing that this visit would encompass a definitive moment for Ignatius, I openly admit that I approached the day with an underlying preconception that I would not connect with Ignatius´s devotional experience of the Basque culture, where it was said that Our Lady appeared to a shepherd among the thorns. While this marked a definitive conversion experience in the early part of pilgrims journey, I didn’t expect that this would also happen for me at the start of mine.

I have never connected with Marian spirituality. While I deeply revere the Blessed Mother in the life of Christ, the devotional aspects and stories of appearances have never resonated with me. This is not to criticize those who have been blessed with great devotion and faith due to the prayers, rituals and pilgrimages to Marian shrines; but in my faith life, they do not hold a place of conversion or interest.

As I entered the interior of the sacred space, almost instantly, God entered mine. This is the most beautiful sanctuary space I have ever seen. I was brought to tears as I took in the contemporary construction and artistry that so courageously and appropriately incorporated the natural elements of stone, wood, iron and craftsmanship of the Basque culture.

The center of the vast 600-square meter altar space contains a small alcove with a folk art statue of Our Lady of Arantzazu holding the child Jesus, situated among a base of thorns. Lit with natural light from a sky light above, I took in this image as if it were contained in the heart of God. I thought, God chose to enter humanity through a woman. God entered Ignatius’s life at that time through a woman. God entered my life today through a woman in a way that allowed me to experience our God´s presence in a way that I decided our Blessed Mother could not.

A faith journey is never defined by a single experience, not in St. Ignatius’s story, nor in mine, but walking in his experience today has affirmed that when it comes to knowing God, expect the unexpected.

Reflection by pilgrim Elaine Bird

Believe me, I never expected to change so much in such a short time. And never intended to open my deepest feelings up to the group—and certainly not the website. But this trip has become: expect the unexpected and get the unexpected.


Elaine Bird (left)

I guess I’ve become a pilgrim, and that was completely unexpected. Fr. Ed mentioned in his talk today that St. Ignatius referred to himself as a pilgrim. He said the mystery of setting out on a journey or pilgrimage is that we set out to be different and we need to be ready for the surprise. I didn’t think I set out on this trip to be different than I was. However, this trip is reflective, eye opening and awe inspiring. Traveling with so many faith-filled people is a gift. We’re referred to as pilgrims, which I didn’t consider myself to be. I’m a tourist, a traveler, an observer. Isn’t that what tourist do: they observe, they don’t participate?

But the first day here in Spain I realized I needed to allow God to open my heart to this experience. I knew I was incapable of that on my own. God opened my heart and allowed me to stop being a tourist and to start being a pilgrim, even though I didn’t know I was becoming a pilgrim.

What was the surprise? An awe inspiring gift. The gift of being able to forgive. I hadn’t been able to forgive someone for a long time. I let go of the controls and God took care of the rest. I remember what happened and why it hurt so much, but now it’s ancient history, there is no hurt, only forgiveness and prayers.

My real challenge will be returning home. Can I remain the pilgrim like St. Ignatius? Can I be different? Will I be willing to let the surprises happen? Or will I want to take the controls again? I think the key is can I continue to trust God with my life and can I continue to ask St Ignatius to help me on this pilgrimage? I sure hope so.


Pray: Setting out! Questions, fears, hopes, excitement. At this point in his pilgrimage, Ignatius still rode a mule (or a horse), still wore his fine clothes; and his older brother’s servants still tended to his needs. But not for long. Here he dismissed the servants and soon would leave his mount and his fancy clothes behind. Setting out meant trusting in God and relying on the kindness of strangers as a later writer would put it. Why did I set out on this journey? Why am I here?


Further Reading

Chris Lowney describes inaugurating “the Camino Ignaciano”—the Ignatian Way, a new walking and cycling trail from Loyola to Montserrat and Manresa.
Ignatius’ pilgrimage, then, was a walk that changed history, his own and that of the church and of humanity. Although the story of his pilgrimage may be well-known, the route he trekked has languished in obscurity. “Ignatian pilgrimages” sometimes visit highlights along the route by bus. But virtually no one attempts to trace Ignatius’ complete route. Keep reading here.