In May of 1521, a captain of the Spanish army was wounded in battle—and the Church has never been the same since.
That’s because the captain’s name was Ignatius of Loyola, the proud son of a noble Basque family who went on to found the Jesuit order and write the Spiritual Exercises.
The fact that Ignatius was wounded at all owes itself to a large degree to his personality. The battle took place in Pamplona, Spain. Ignatius’ company was defending Pamplona’s fortress against the French army, but his troops were sorely outnumbered. Everyone thought that sur- render was the only real option, but Ignatius would not hear it. Despite the odds, he rallied the troops and convinced the other officers to fight. But the French were too numerous, and they broke through the fortress wall. As the wall crumbled, a cannonball streaked in and struck Ignatius, shattering his right leg. With their captain downed, saner heads prevailed, and the Spanish soldiers surrendered.
If Ignatius’ refusal to give up the fortress gives us just a glimpse into how stubborn and self-confident he was, his convalescence provides a much more complete picture. Ignatius had always had a love for chivalry and romance, and the thought of going through life with a mangled leg—or even so much as a limp— was completely unacceptable. How could he ever perform daring deeds and impress noble ladies with such handicaps? So in order to regain the image of a dashing knight that he so loved, Ignatius underwent three excruciating surgeries and endured having his leg stretched for days afterward—all without the benefit of anesthesia!
While Ignatius’ reaction to his injuries showed how reckless and headstrong he could be, his recovery showed how merciful God could be. As he lay in his bed recuperating, Ignatius asked for some books to read. The only books available were a life of Christ and a book about the saints. Ignatius was hoping for the medieval romances that had so enthralled him, but these books were better than nothing. So he accepted them graciously.
As Ignatius read, he began to notice new thoughts and desires welling up within him. “What if I were to do the heroic deeds that St. Francis and St. Dominic did?” he asked himself. The thought of taking a dangerous pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or of subjecting his body to rigorous fasts and deprivations, appealed to his heroic nature. But he also noticed that when he dwelt on these stories, his sense of excitement, anticipation, and fulfillment was both stronger and longer-lasting than when he dwelt instead on his familiar dreams of chivalry and romance. He sensed that something important was happening to him, and the more he read, the more he came to see how empty his past life was. He now wanted to be a humble saint, and no longer a dashing knight.
True to his all-or-nothing approach to life, Ignatius decided that he would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as soon as he was able and then live a life of fasting and penance as a poor monk. But to prepare for such heroic sacrifice for God, he first had to make a complete break with his past. So he visited the shrine to the Virgin Mary at Montserrat and made a general confession.
But something happened next that Ignatius did not anticipate. On the way to Jerusalem, he stopped at the village of Manresa, intending to rest a bit and do penance by working in the local hospital. But various obstacles waylaid these plans, and the few days that Ignatius had planned stretched into nearly a year. Eager to continue his life of prayer and penance, he found a cave where he could live alone and fast and pray unhindered. He went to Confession every week, prayed for hours at a time, and paid no attention to his appearance. He let his hair and beard grow long and unkempt. He rarely cut his fingernails or took a bath. For months, he subjected himself to as much humiliation as he could bear, all the while hoping to overcome every possible temptation, grow in holiness, and atone for his past sins.
Ignatius’ frequent use of Confession was a source of difficulty for him—as well as for his confessor. It seemed that no matter how often he would confess a sin, he would still be haunted by the fear that his repentance had not been sincere enough and that God was still displeased with him. These thoughts led him only to redouble his fasts, pray harder, and go back to his confessor to try again. His scruples became so intense that he was even tempted to commit suicide, just to free himself from a guilty, overactive conscience.
It wasn’t until his confessor finally told Ignatius to give up his rigorous fasting that things began to change. His scruples began to subside as he discovered that battling with faith in God’s mercy—and not just relying on his own abilities—was a far better way to freedom. Ignatius resolved never to revisit his past and try to repent for sins that God had already forgiven. He began to take better care of himself now as well. He cut his hair, shaved his beard, and trimmed his nails. He bathed and put aside his sackcloth and hair shirt.
The soldier who believed he could fight his way out of any problem had finally come up against his limitations and was learning how to surrender gracefully. The strong man who gritted his teeth through three agonizing surgeries for the sake of his vanity realized that his own human strength could only take him so far in forming him into the image of saint-like heroism he had conjured up for himself. For all the awe and reverence he had conceived for the saints during his convalescence, Ignatius was just now beginning to grasp the real nature of holiness.
Not long after this happened, Ignatius had an experience of the Lord that changed his life forever. He was on his way to a church just outside of Manresa when he stopped by the River Cardoner and sat down to pray for a bit. As he prayed that day, he received so powerful a rev- elation of the love of Christ and the truth of the gospel that, as a close friend later described it, “he felt as if he were another man with another mind.” Having begun to put aside his scrupulous nature—and having begun to give up on the thought that he could make himself holy—Ignatius was ready for a revelation from God that would shape and sustain him for the rest of his life.
While extreme at times, St. Ignatius’ time at Manresa points to a truth of Christianity that God has taught every saint—a truth that he wants to teach us as well. We simply cannot grow in holiness by relying only on our own power. For months, Ignatius tried to become like Jesus, and over and over again he ran into countless roadblocks. And when he threw more of his own energy at them, these roadblocks only grew larger and more intimidating. If his problem was pride, he sought to overcome it by humiliating himself. If it was his appetites, he sought to master them by fasting more fervently. But no matter what he tried, he ended up more frustrated.
Ignatius worked himself to a feverish pitch, to the point of both mental and physical exhaustion, before he finally surrendered to the Lord. It was only when he humbly accepted the advice of his confessor and yielded himself to God that he found relief. And once he did, he was far more effective not only in experiencing Jesus’ love but also in telling other people about Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, Ignatius’ story shows us that we can’t make it on our own. He shows us that if we want to keep growing with the Lord, we need to give up the thought that it all depends on us. We need to look for help from other Christians and learn how to yield ourselves to Jesus and his grace. Even when we feel confused about where we stand with the Lord, or when we feel that living the Christian life is more a burden than a joy, we can turn to Jesus, and he will answer us. We don’t have to tough it out on our own. Jesus is with us every step of the way, always ready to give us his comfort, his encouragement, and his power.