Here are two ways God works. First, God seems to clear a path so obviously that you can’t doubt God’s activity. As St. Paul wrote, All things work together for good for those who love God. Second, God seems to make achieving something so difficult that you realize that the struggle is part of the journey. And here I like to quote St. Catherine of Siena: Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring. Most of my life consists in proving the second observation. Just walking around Manhattan can be trying. Not long ago I was on my way to hear confessions, the day after appearing on a few television stations to comment on the recent papal conclave. A few blocks from the church, someone shouted, Are you Father Martin? When I nodded, he ran up to me, poked his finger in my chest and said, The next time you’re on television, you should just shut up!
As St. Catherine said, much of life is about enduring.
But there are moments when everything works out with almost alarming grace. In April I was invited for a return trip to Lourdes with a Jesuit friend named George. We were part of a pilgrimage organized by the Order of Malta, an international Catholic group that sponsors an annual trip for the sick and their companions (and their chaplains) to the famous shrine in southern France.
This year George and I decided to make a side visit to Loyola, the Spanish town and birthplace of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. So after a few days at Lourdes celebrating Masses, walking in eucharistic processions, visiting the baths, hearing many confessions and singing Immaculate Mary about a zillion times, we rented a car for our pilgrimage within a pilgrimage. Secretly I wondered whether we would get lost. Plus I wondered if we would be able to procure any Loyola water, which supposedly helps women get pregnant, and which had been requested by some of our fellow pilgrims.
Our trip took us along the coast of southern France, past Biarritz, the fabled resort where I imagined the moneyed gentry still living in Cole Porter-like style. To my surprise, George and I arrived in Loyola in just three hours, and here is where it became obvious, at least to me, how God can make things easy.
When we walked into the ornate basilica in the center of town, we discovered that a Mass in Basque (St. Ignatius’ mother tongue) was to begin in just a few minutes. After the Mass (which George said might as well have been in Navajo, for all we understood) we toured Loyola Castle, located within the basilica complex. On the uppermost floor, we stumbled on the room in which St. Ignatius experienced his first conversion, while recuperating from battle injuries in 1521. In that room a French priest was just about to celebrate Mass before an ornate wooden altar. Waving us in, he invited us to join a group of pilgrims just starting a pilgrimage to Compostela. We celebrated Mass with them and proclaimed the readings in our high-school French. Afterward the priest asked us what we did back home. I’m a writer, I said, and George is a prison chaplain.
He put his arms around us and smiled broadly. Ces deux vocations ont commencé dans cette chambre, he said to the pilgrims. These two vocations began in this room.
Immediately afterward, in the gift shop, George and I met a cheerful Jesuit brother, who invited us to the Jesuit residence for lunch, which was just about to begin. Using what Spanish we remembered from summer classes as novices, we asked about the history of the complex of buildings at Loyola and the work of the Jesuits in the community. The meal was all the more delightful, as I was down to my very last euro.
Afterward, one of our lunchtime partners gave us an extensive tour of their main apostolate, which was, appropriately enough, a colossal retreat house located on immaculately kept grounds, called the Centro de Espiritualidad, or, more accurately in Basque, the Gogarte Extea. Each of the five floors boasted its own chapel, each appealing to a different style of prayer: one ornate, one spare and so on. One even looked very Zen, though I knew neither the Spanish nor the French for that word (and certainly not the Basque). We left the retreat house with just enough time to return to Lourdes.
All things worked together for good, and at just the right time, too. On the other hand, we failed miserably in our attempt to get Loyola water. (The sacristan shrugged eloquently when we asked whether they had it in the house.) But no matter. George filled a bottle of water from a fountain outside the basilica and said triumphantly, Loyola water! When I looked doubtful, he said, Well, it’s from Loyola, and it’s water. We returned to Lourdes just in time for dinner with our friends. When I described how perfectly our trip to Loyola had gone, a fellow pilgrim said, Like a confirmation of your Jesuit vocation!
The day after returning to New York, I received a letter from someone who had seen me on television. He called me an idiot.
Oh well, I thought, back to enduring.