A Courtier’s Conversion
TO PRAY ON AND PONDER: Ignatius' moment of metanoia and contemplating the way God called him to radical conversion. I may reflect on my own experience of God also calling me out of an old life into a new one where God is the foundational value of my life.
The Battlefield at Pamplona and the Bed of Convalescence in the Castle of Loyola are the first two iconic and sacred spaces in Ignatius’ journey. They represent an important foundational experience in Ignatius’ life and the life of any disciple for that matter, i.e., conversion. But first, a look into "pre-conversion" Ignatius.
When our saint first looked back at his life in order to recount it to an appointed companion scribe, a young Jesuit named Luis Gonçalves da Câmara, Ignatius described his younger self in these words: "Until the age of twenty-six, he was a man given over to vanities of the world; with a great and vain desire to win fame, he delighted especially in the exercise of arms" [Autobiography, 1].
One author even described him this way: "Though he had the faith, he was not exactly virtuous. We will never know what precisely happened in Azpeitia during the Carnival of 1515, when an accusation was brought against
against him which mentioned 'terrible crimes, perpetrated at night, with premeditation, cunning and treachery…' except that he got off scot-free" [Dhotel, "Who are you, Ignatius of Loyola?" Progressio,Supplement no.27].
Ignatius would summarily describe the personal sinfulness that he had himself experienced in terms of "sensual love, carnal love, and worldly love" [SpEx 97] and he traced the root and fruit of such sinfulness in what he portrayed as the strategy of Satan in ensnaring humans: tempt them to covet riches so that they may the more easily attain the empty honors of the world, and then come to overweening pride" [SpEx 142].
In a sense, what Ignatius experienced and later described in his Spiritual Exercises and Autobiography are experiences all too familiar to us. Contemporary descriptions of this dynamic of sinfulness can perhaps bring home to us Ignatius' points a little more strongly. Contemporary moralists and theologians would say that, at its core, sin is a breaking away from covenant relationship with God. It seems to be a consistent dynamic that sinful patterns emerge and evolve from a deep sense of insecurity and fear within each person, which push us to create security mechanisms that evolve into absolutized idols within each of us and
further elaborate themselves into behavior patterns of lack or excess which are ultimately destructive of self, neighbor, and the world.
When these selfish patterns harden in a person's character core, sinful habits form and a core orientation develops which sucks away the person's life and energy as well as his/her power to love, and these begin to possess the person, feeding the sinful dynamic with further perversions, deceptions, and outright violence against others. This is a vicious cycle that only be broken by a genuine experience of God reaching out to the person with unconditional love and mercy.
We can discover only in wonder and awe that the greater the sinfulness we bring to God in repentance, the great love God pours out to lure us and win us back. The more we take responsibility for our sinfulness and bring our sins into God's light, the more healing and freedom will grow back in us.
Pamplona. In Ignatius we see several stages in his experience of call and conversion. His cannonball experience in Pamplona was a deeper shattering than simply the shattering of his leg. That cannonball experience was a wake-up call for Ignatius. More than simply his leg, his dreams of what his life could be and where life could be leading him were all shattered. His old envisioned world was, as it were, deconstructed
Especially when the past dreams to which he had passionately applied to himself brought him defeat, failure, betrayal, disillusionment and then a realization of their emptiness and futility--all these could have laid to question the past world he allowed himself to inhabit and nurture ideals and hopes in. The long travel back to their family home in Loyola, carried in a litter by his very enemies while he was grimacing in pain, all these must have been an effective trigger of sorts for a radical shattering of his life world and life's dreams. The two surgeries he experienced (and without anesthesia!) and the long period of convalescence that followed must have been the first moment of death and life for Ignatius: death to an old life's dream so that another might be reborn.
Ignatius' shattering may have been too cathartic and dramatic for comfort, but I suspect all of us have such moments in our lives. When an old envisioned world and an old comprehensive dream of what we wanted to become and how we wanted to bring it to fruition all fell into foundational doubt and were brought to question, we must have had our own moments of shattering.
Reflection: In which of life's battlefields did these happen? What were your triggers? What values and ideals came to question? How did you receive your experience of shattering? What helped you pause, take stock of things and count your real losses? In brief, what was your own Battlefront and Pamplona?
Loyola. And then there was the bed of recovery at the Castle of Loyola. Surely, God will never leave us shattered, broken, or undefined. "There is time to destroy and a time to rebuild," says the wise one of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth). For Ignatius, it was alternating visions and alternating moods that helped him rebuild and come out a new man. While convalescing, Ignatius asked for some books in the castle so that he might read and perhaps cope with boredom. Boredom, in fact, is a sign that something is beginning to stir. For in a sense, when one begins to feel boredom, it is because one has been cut off from the usual external stimuli which prevents one from looking squarely at oneself. Ignatius is limited to his bed. He is forced into isolation and solitude. This is perhaps why we have to pause and explore more deeply the boredom and even depression triggered in us during this pandemic, for they might be ushering us into a necessary deconstruction of our lives and our persons.
In his isolation and boredom, Ignatius was ripe for an alternate view of his life world and person and thanked God for the books. These two books that were handed to him eventually gained his focused attention because he must have wanted to while away his boredom. But lo and behold, God had other plans. All through the castle only two books could be found for Ignatius' entertainment and these were the Vita Christi (Life of Christ) and the Flos Sanctorum (Lives of Saints). Reading these books, Ignatius began to reimagine his world and himself. He found that he felt great and enduring joy imagining himself as a soldier not of the Spanish King but of Christ, the heavenly and Eternal King. He imagined himself as one of the saints serving the Lord. And he found the great ideals lived by the saints as challenges to his own honor and pride: "If Francis did it, I can do it, If Dominic did it, I can do it…"
Not only did he imagine new worlds for himself and new deeds, he also found that, when the old and new alternated, it was in the new dreams that he found his heart really fired up with passion, filled with joy and life, and a longer lasting joy at that. By the time he had fully recovered and could walk, albeit with a limp, Ignatius already knew what he wanted to do next. He wanted to become the best soldier for this Christ, his newfound King. He would go to the Holy Land to walk in his path, still quite literally. The shattered old dreams were now a thing of the past. This new life world and life's dreams had emerged.
Reflection on Loyola. And so you have your turn to reflect again: How does God call your attention when he wants to communicate a new call and new dream to you? How does God use your own language so he may draw you close and attract you to a positive and generous response? When did you experience God opening a new path for you and gifting you with a radically new self-description—one that honors your giftedness to the hilt and connects you with people in great need?
As we continue to celebrate the gift of St. Ignatius of Loyola, may we awaken to the great gift of call and conversion that sets us forth on our own pilgrimage toward our loving God. God Bless!
Fr. Victor Baltazar, SJ