As the Jesuit high school where I work began to wind down for the year, I reached a point where I needed clarity, something to bring calm to the chaos of the closing weeks and to center me in a reality more timeless than the NBA playoffs. So I decided to return, as I do often, to the life and thought of the man whose feast day we celebrate today, and every July 31: St. Ignatius of Loyola.
With the exception of Christ’s mother, there may be no saint that has shaped the contemporary Catholic world more than the bold and passionate nobleman born in 1491. His influence is everywhere: in the dozens of institutions throughout the world that bear “Ignatius” or “Loyola” in their names; in the hundreds of other schools, colleges, and retreat centers founded by the Society of Jesus; in the lives of the thousands of Jesuit priests who teach and provide spiritual healing worldwide; in contemporary Catholic life, where the word “Ignatian” describes a method of prayer, pedagogy, educator, and “way of proceeding”; and in publishing, an industry that continues to offer fresh expositions of Ignatian spirituality.
St. Ignatius is something like the Abraham Lincoln of Catholic hagiography. Others have come before him, but in the extent to which his life inspires, in the extent to which his words turn our heads and train our eyes, Ignatius stands apart.
For me, it is no different. Eight of my nineteen years of Catholic schooling came at Jesuit institutions, and I am forever indebted to the Jesuit priests who helped form my intellect and faith. Moreover, so thoroughly have I been immersed in the Ignatian biography, the key moments in his journey—the clash with the cannonball, the conversion, the gathering of his companions, the founding of the Society of Jesus—have assumed a kind of canonical status, a “Stations of St. Ignatius” I visit frequently in my head.
Anticipating his feast day, I want to draw attention to one “station” in particular. It could be titled, “Ignatius encounters his brother.” It offers wisdom, and an example of courage, to anyone who faces decisions on the path of discipleship that require them to leave behind the comfortable or “forsake father and mother” to follow Christ.
While recovering from a leg injury, sustained at the Battle of Pamplona in 1521, Ignatius had a conversion experience. An unsettled soul and (now ex-) soldier stranded in bed all day, he unhappily began reading biographies of saints to pass the time. By the time he had healed, he was resolved to engage in “all the acts of discipline and all the acts of self-denial that a generous spirit, fired with God, generally wants to do.” To begin living that resolution, Ignatius decided to travel to the Holy Land.
This decision alarmed his family. According to Ignatius’s autobiography (written in the third-person), his brother “took him to one room and then to another, and with many warnings began to beg [Ignatius] not to throw himself away: He should have regard for all the hopes people had of him and how much he could count for, and similar words, all with the purpose of detaching him from the good desire he had.”
Despite his brother’s insistence, Ignatius didn’t waver. He resolved to leave for Jerusalem.
As this encounter makes clear, Ignatius’s brother expected him to enter, as it were, the family business. Ignatius was being groomed for the court and the military, for a life of supposedly finer things. The rooms his brother led him through probably had beautiful art and other heirlooms of wealth and prestige. Don't do anything rash, his brother was likely saying. You’re just overreacting. The thought that Ignatius would turn away from those rooms, that he would depart a beggar, was absurd.
Ignatius’s example, like the example of every saint, challenges us to act similarly: to have the right kind of recklessness. When I read of Ignatius’s encounter with his brother, I’m encouraged to let my life be a language the world cannot translate; to be willing to dash hopes and confound dreams—even dreams that seem grand and beneficent—ad maiorem Dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God (as the Jesuit motto has it). This is what makes Ignatian spirituality so demanding, but also so potentially rewarding: It makes a kind of totalizing claim, asking a person to surrender everything from mundane occurrences to elaborate, “best laid” plans to the will of God.
Put another way, Ignatius’s life challenges me to fulfill what Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard once wrote: “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery: It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”
St. Ignatius’s feast day arrives in late summer, a time when classrooms are empty and there are few opportunities to publicly honor the day. However, the timing doesn’t matter. What was said of the lawyer from London could be equally said of the soldier from Loyola: vir omnium horarum, a man for all seasons.
Matt Emerson teaches theology and directs admissions at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, CA.
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