Today is a special day for Jesuits and friends all over the world. It is the feast day of St Ignatius of Loyola. It will be celebrated in thousands of schools, universities, parishes, retreat houses, refugee camps, radio stations, tv studios, publishing houses, blogs …… Ignatius of course was the founder of the Society of Jesus. He wrote more letters than anyone in the sixteenth century, we still have over 7000 of them, so we know a lot about him. In an age when hagiographys were written about saints, often distancing us from a frank history of religious figures by the desire to create pious and edifying stories, Ignatius’ autobiography, reluctantly dictated as his life was ebbing away, is refreshing for its simplicity, honesty and desire to show how had grown through mistakes and failures. Last year, whilst I was in Manila on ‘tertianship’ which is like a renewal year for us Jesuits – I took the opportunity to read what I consider to be the best book about him I have read. Written by a Basque Historian, Jose Ignacio Tellechea Idigoras and called ‘The Pilgrim Saint‘. Idigoras, not a Jesuit but an award winning Historian, has an incredible amount of detail to hand and weaves it in with the background information to create a warm and compelling portrait of this great man.
If I was to be asked to sum up what Ignatius could teach us normal folk, struggling with faith or even outside the church, it would be by looking at the contrast between his early life and his later life. Ignatius as a young man was very unpleasant – arrogant, vain, promiscuous and violent, being brought up in the spiritually toxic climate of the ambitious courtier desiring power, influence and conquests (political and sexual). A little bit like our cult of celebrity today. When his life was shattered along with his leg at the Battle of Pamplona, the lengthy convalescence forced a period of extensive introspection. He didn’t like what he saw and opened his heart to God. So as Idigoras masterfully put it – as well as reconstructing his disjointed leg, he began to reconstruct his disjointed soul. In order to reconstruct we need something to build on. From the chaos of Ignatius’s life of excess and disorder there were three things he could cling on to. 1)When he looked at his hands he could take comfort that he never engaged in pillaging as a soldier when the opportunity arose, a fact that was well known and respected. 2) When he considered his mouth, he never once blasphemed even in the extreme pain after Pamplona. 3) Although he had enemies who had pursued him through the courts and sought his arrest after some of his outrageous actions, he didn’t carry any hatred in his heart. Perhaps this was the most important thing he could cling on to, as it is the heart where God slowly and silently can change us. And so began the long. slow journey back into God’s grace which bore has born so much fruit down the centuries. By the end of his life God had achieved much through him, at the time of his death there were 1036 Jesuits, 11 provinces, 92 houses, 33 colleges at his death. Idigoras leaves us with this beautiful portrait of the elderly Ignatius.
He wore a simple austere cassock and fought off the cold with a large cloak. When he left the house he wore a voluminous cape and a broad brimmed hat with attached chords that he tied to his chin. It was impressive to see him walking in the street. He was always going, because of some business, to some specific place or to see some particular person. At this period in his life his fair hair had disappeared, he was bald and wore a short beard from which loomed an aquiline nose and high cheekbones. His complexion had become darker, weather-beaten, perhaps even yellowish because of his liver ailment? His countenance, serious and peaceful, was the image of circumspection and a life lived interiorly. Some found it particularly luminous and expressive. His eyes which at one time had been sparkling and bright were now blurred by work, old age and copious tears. They had lost their gaiety but not their penetrating force. He seldom looked at people straight on. When he did, however, people said he took in the person from head to toe. His gaze seemed to have the power of seeing straight through a person right into his heart.