Almost five hundred years ago, Ignatius Loyola, a Basque courtier-soldier lay on his sickbed recovering from wounds that had almost ended his life. Looking for something to help pass the time, he began to read: not the romantic novels he desired, but the only books available – a life of Christ and the lives of the saints. From time to time, he set aside his book and allowed his thoughts to wander – imagining himself a valiant knight in the service of a great lady. His thoughts also turned to what he had read, and he imagined himself imitating the heroic deeds of the saints in serving God.
He began to notice, however, that his thoughts evoked different reactions in him. Thoughts of himself as a valiant knight, though delightful while they lasted, ultimately left him feeling empty and sad. On the other hand, thoughts of imitating the heroic deeds of the saints brought him a joy that lasted even after these thoughts had ended. Then, as he later described it, ‘one day his eyes opened a little, and he began to wonder at this difference and reflect upon it.’ It dawned on him that one set of thoughts was directed toward God and presumably had its origin in God, whereas the other was not. Two contrary spirits, he sensed, were actively at work in him: the Spirit of God and the spirit of evil. He realized that God was communicating not in mountaintop experiences, but in his affective responses to the ordinary events of his life.
During the long months of his recuperation, Ignatius read and re-read the two books, reflected on Jesus’ life and the examples of the saints, and made more than a few resolutions. What was ultimately pivotal, however, was not anything that he did during this time but rather something that was happening to him. God, he realized, was actively at work in him – inviting, directing, guiding and actively disposing him for the way in which he might best serve him.
In late February 1522 Ignatius left Loyola. Although his wounds were not completely healed, he had grown increasingly eager to be on the road. An unfocused desire beckoned him to Jerusalem where he envisioned spending his life doing penance. He made his way across Spain to the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat, where he made a general confession and then an all-night vigil before the image of the Black Madonna. Sensing a desire to spend a few days in a hospice recording some reflections, he then made his way to a nearby town called Manresa. He would remain there almost eleven months.
In his exuberance he quickly surrendered himself to hours of prayer and intense bodily penance. Although his spirituality was well-meaning and generous, it was largely self-centered and superficial. Yet for about four months he basked in a tranquility of unceasing joy. In time, however, he began to experience great changes in his soul. His tranquility and joy gave way to aridity and sadness, and he began to question his new way of life. Ongoing anxiety about sins he may have failed to confess troubled him greatly. His penchant for reflection, however, served only to push him into even deeper introspection, making him a prisoner of his own self-absorption. He sought for help everywhere but could find no relief. Weeks flowed into months, but his anguish continued unabated.
Suddenly, and in a manner completely unexpected, he awoke as from a dream. In but the briefest of moments, he saw his scruples for what they were – simply lies and falsehood: he was freed from their power. He had been brought face-to-face with his own poverty and inability to achieve his own healing and wholeness. Many years later he observed that during this time ‘God dealt with him just as a schoolmaster deals with a child.’ God had revealed to him his human frailty so that ‘the all-surpassing power’ (2 Cor. 4:7) could be seen as residing in God alone.
His spiritual tranquility returned, and he enjoyed many spiritual consolations. He received great illuminations as well – of the Trinity, the creation of the world, Eucharistic sacramental presence and Christ’s humanity – but these illuminations seem almost negligible to one that occurred on the banks of the river Cardoner.
In a few tersely-written sentences Ignatius described a spiritual illumination so overwhelming that he seemed ‘a new man with a new intellect.’ Although his writing may rarely have projected style or polish, his precision and clarity of thought were always in evidence. On the topic of his illumination, however, he seemed at a genuine loss to communicate his experience in any detail. He could find no words to describe what was clearly indescribable. The illumination was not simply an experience of ‘spiritual matters as well as those of faith and learning.’ It was an experience of God, one that he could never speak of without overwhelming emotion.
He sat for a while facing the river which there ran deep. As he sat, the eyes of his understanding began to be opened. He saw no vision, but was brought to understand and know many things, spiritual matters as well as those of faith and learning, and this with so great an enlightenment that everything seemed new to him.
Like Paul on the road to Damascus, Ignatius at the Cardoner experienced himself ‘grasped by Christ Jesus.’ (Phil. 3:12) He had been graced to discover in God
the mystery of his purpose, the hidden plan he so kindly made in Christ from the beginning, to act upon when the times had run their course to the end: that he would bring everything together under Christ as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth (Eph. 1:9-10).The illumination spoke not only of God’s plan; in one manner or another, it spoke also of God himself. God’s continued action in his life revealed the very nature of the Trinitarian God, and of how God wished to act with all his creation. God, he had been brought to understand, is a movement beyond itself, goodness overflowing itself. In experiencing the unity, beauty and all-pervasive love of the Trinitarian God – Father, Son and Spirit – Ignatius discovered the source and principle to guide all his future action.
It is difficult in this to separate the man from the mystic, nature from grace, Ignatius himself from God’s power working in him. Yet Ignatius was not simply a passive recipient of God’s grace. Without overstating the matter, he fell totally and irrevocably in love with God, and he would direct everything toward responding to that love. But we might well ask ourselves: Was there some particular quality of his that stood out, one that melded perfectly with God’s grace, which shaped his response to God? Some might point to his great strength of soul, his personal courage, his iron-willed determination. Without denying the importance of his innate qualities, it seemed that Ignatius responded generously to God because he developed the interior freedom that allowed God to teach him and lead him in his service. This interior freedom, forged in humility, lay at the root of what he would call indifference. This was an openness to God, a courage that was to be found in God alone, a conscious choice for God in all things that became a seeking for God in all things. Ignatius would begin his Spiritual Exercises on the theme of indifference, and conclude it with an offering of oneself based on this same interior freedom. It was this humble openness to God that determined his manner of prayer, gave rise to his frequent examinations of conscience, and was ultimately the source of his utter confidence in God, his universal availability, and his generous responsiveness to God’s direction and guidance.