From Profound Vulnerability into Vocation: Journeying with Ignatius the Soldier

“…being awake one night, he saw clearly a likeness of Our Lady with the Holy Child Jesus, at the sight of which, for an appreciable time, he received a very extraordinary consolation.”

Autobiography of Saint Ignatius of Loyola

Our Lady and the Holy Child Jesus Visit St. Ignatius the Convalescent in Loyola
Illustration by Father William Hart (Fr. Bill) McNichols

When I picture Ignatius in May of 1521, recovering from a shattered leg in his family’s castle at Loyola, I cannot help but also see him less than a year later, in the village of Montserrat, trading his fine clothing for a beggar’s tunic, and laying down his sword at the shrine of the Black Madonna. The image of the courtly soldier and romantic “superman” who exchanged his dreams of glory for a beggar’s bowl and pilgrim’s staff is a remarkable thing to behold. Yet it was only a beginning, a first step toward “overcoming oneself” and “ordering one’s life,” as he would later frame the Spiritual Exercises. He was beginning to measure himself by a new norm, a new love, who is Jesus, now bending all his desire toward the service of God and others.

The months of torment and consolation in the cave at Manresa were still to come. The gathering of newfound “companions in the Lord” at the University of Paris was 7 or 8 years in the future. But the initial opening of the heart came on that recovery bed at Loyola. “My life is a mess. My body is broken. Everything that I thought would bring me happiness has left me empty and unfulfilled. Why am I here? For what purpose am I called to live?”

Such questions mark the beginning of the shift from an inflated image of himself as fully in the driver’s seat to a vision of God and God’s love at the center all things. Ignatius would journey to Montserrat no longer thinking of the magnificent exploits he would perform for the king and ladies at court. He was imagining all those things he might do for the love and glory of God.

How ought we to live, to spend our lives, our talents, our freedom? Whom are we called to serve? The vulnerability that Ignatius experienced at Loyola was both physical (depending daily on the care of his sister-in-law and women servants who nursed him back to health) and spiritual (imbibing books on the saints and the life of Christ). It marked a radical turning in Ignatius’s life, we might say, from career to vocation, which means, “to be called from beyond oneself.” Notice the Child Jesus in Fr. Bill’s illustration above, tugging at Ignatius’s sleeve, as if to say, “Come on! Get better, and get up! I have things for you to do!” Ignatius was never alone in his vulnerability and yearning. The care and tenderness of others helped him turn the page on his old way of life and begin to imagine something new.

It seems to me that the global pandemic has exposed our human fragility in a similar way. As perhaps never before, we are experiencing the birth pangs of our own “cannonball moment.” Will we deny our brokenness, our radical need for others, for God, and for the earth, and seek only to return as quickly as we can to “the way things were” before? Or will we discern in this moment of social and planetary crisis the call to imagine and create together a new normal, a radically transformed future? We are not alone, and there is much indeed for us to do.

“The fragility of each one of us,” says Pope Francis, “is a theological place of encounter with the Lord.” Having faith, says Francis, means placing our trust in a God who “can work even through our fears, our frailties, our weaknesses.” One can picture the Jesuit pope, as he says these words, picturing Ignatius examining his life anew on his bed at Loyola.

It turns out that God is not terribly interested in human beings who present themselves to the world as superhuman, invulnerable, above and beyond the care of others. Just as Jesus himself dethrones all such pretensions—gathering companions, seeking out the lost, passing through the total human condition, including suffering, humiliation and death—so does Ignatius abandon such pretensions in his own way when he puts aside his sword and kneels before the altar of Our Lady, all through the night, “with his pilgrim’s staff in his hand.”

What begins to emerge in the journey between Loyola and Montserrat is a spirituality that is countercultural, collaborative, and revolutionary in a nonviolent way. (See the incident on the road with “the Moor,” for example, which nearly incited the headstrong Ignatius to commit murder.) It is the kind of vulnerability, humility, capacity for discernment with others, and readiness to serve that can lead, as it has for many Jesuits, to martyrdom.

In this Ignatian Year, marking the 500th anniversary of Ignatius’s conversion, and on this Feast of Ignatius, July 31st, 2021, consider the possibility that healing, fellowship, and the joy of discovering vocation, may find us, too, on the road from Loyola to Montserrat.

+ Is there a moment or period in your life that marks a shift from a youthful or pragmatic preoccupation with career to a deepening discovery of vocation?

+ Has physical suffering, illness, or disability – whether your own or that of someone you love – ever become for you a doorway to reevaluation, transformation, or unexpected grace? Is there a person who especially helped you through that experience? Is there a time when you have been that person for another?

+ Much of the earliest part of Ignatius’s story focuses on his individual strivings to make a name for himself, prior to his intensive experiences of God in the natural world, in community, in spiritual conversation with others. Are there similar chapters or phases of spiritual discovery in your life, e.g., between the individual and the communal, the youthful and the older, the active and the contemplative?

+ During the terrible height of the AIDS pandemic in New York City, Fr. Bill McNichols ministered to many men dying with AIDS, to their loved ones and their families. He has compared the fear, isolation, and “othering” that characterized those years of “plague” with the extreme social and political polarization marking the present COVID-19 crisis [listen to a wonderful podcast interview here]. I invite you to take some time to quiet yourself, and to picture yourself as Ignatius in Fr. Bill’s image above, wounded, ill, isolated, or in some way suffering your own “cannonball” moment. As you lay in bed, imagine that Mary and the Child Jesus appear to you. Allow them simply to be present to you in your fragility. Can you feel their presence? their touch? What words do they speak to you?

Iconographer Father William Hart McNichols in the studio

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