In his Autobiography St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote: “he sat down for a little while with his face to the river—Cardoner—which was running deep. While he was seated there, the eyes of his understanding began to be opened; though he did not see any vision, he understood and knew many things, both spiritual things and matters of faith and learning, and this was with so great an enlightenment that everything seemed new to him. It was as if he were a new man with a new intellect.”
In 1522 Ignatius stayed in the village of Manresa for almost a year, after descending from the Benediction Monastery at Montserrat, where he had symbolized his radical change of life style, forsaking the honor of noble garments and warrior sword, in an all night vigil before the Black Madonna.
His stay in Manresa was foundational for him. It was here that, during long hours of prayer and penance in the cave, his radical transformation took shape and he learned the wisdom which was to guide his life. This mystical experience or "illumination" on the banks of the Cardoner has always been viewed as a decisive moment in the life of Ignatius. While there are different explanations of its content and substance, it is obvious that Ignatius gained, or believed he gained, at that moment a broader and deeper understanding of his faith and his vocation.
Today the Cardoner still flows and many come to its banks for reflection and inspiration.
Last April I had the opportunity to sit along the Cardoner, to pray in the cave and to walk from Montserrat. As one of 34 individuals participating in an International Immersion Course on Ignatian Spirituality in Manresa, I experienced six weeks studying the legacy of Ignatius in some depth, both as an inspiration for authentic Christian living in contemporary society and church and as a means of my personal spiritual formation. The participants came from five continents, fifteen different countries, speaking our own brand of English. We were engaged in a wide range of apostolic works. We were lay people, religious women, people of different Christian confessions and a varied group of Jesuits—from provincials, to novice masters to university presidents! But we were united in a singular quest for an “Ignatian experience” so that we could love and serve in all things in a richer and more fruitful way.
It was a very privileged time. As friends in the lord, we walked along the Cardoner sharing our vocation stories. We discovered differences, mainly cultural, but mostly similarities in the how and the why we came to follow Jesus; evidence that “grace builds on nature.”God calls in many languages, but the call to serve is universal.
I had not read the Autobiography of Ignatius, his letters and Spiritual Journal for four decades. Suddenly, I was asking myself “what was my Pamplona—the bone crushing, life changing experience of Ignatius? What jettisoned me from being an aspiring lawyer to become a Jesuits? Sitting in the cave, I reflected on when was my “Jerusalem”—when God’s will trumped Ignatius’ plans? “Thy will be done,” was all I could manage that afternoon. Across the years I have had more than a few of those, “whose will be done?” conversations with the Lord. As for Ignatius’ experience of Venice—trying to find balance between contemplation and activities—I looked back over forty years of university administration and said to myself, "that time is now!"
Our time together was transforming. Shane Hogan, an Australian educator with 30 years of experience working with Jesuit institutions noted: "Companions on a Journey,” apart from being sung often, was a most appropriate description of the experiences we shared at Manresa. There we too, had the opportunity to grow and deepen our faith, and to come to know and understand Ignatius the saint and the man who has left such a significant impact on the world.” He added, “The opportunity to live, breath and deepen my spiritual connection with the Ignatian story, in such a mystical place, was pure magic.”
As Edith Ontiveros, an Ursaline sister working in Manila told me, “It was a time and space to allow the experiential awareness of God's presence to sink in, to journey to my inner self and allow God to lead me, speak to me of His desires. I realized God's deep love and presence in my life, drinking deeply from the Ignatian wellspring.” I echo her sentiment, the love of God was palpable in the coolness of the cave, the vista of Montserrat and the current of the Cardoner.
Over the weeks we studied the letters of Ignatius, the Constitutions and Formula of the Society, ending with sessions on the theology and spirituality which flow from the life and teachings of Ignatius and their application in today’s challenging age of secularism. I took those insights into my 8-day guided retreat. I emerged from that retreat (my 53rd) with a fresh sense of God’s love for me and a renewed desire to serve the church. As I wrote in my journal: “I was created to be loved and love.”
The effects were life-changing. As Camille Devaney, a lay woman from Chicago noted: “There is no earthly reason why the Jesuit Constitutions should be of interest and actually exciting for a lay woman unless all that was given is pure grace. Very definitively, externally the same woman returned to the USA but not the same person. The excitement is the sharing in mission the fruit of the graces. It is very easy to show pictures of Montserrat, the cave, the holy houses, but the experiences can only be shared in mission and love.”
In retrospect the emphasis was not on knowledge per se, but more importantly it was the experience which happens within, in the heart waiting to be transformed, that affects one’s way of being and doing as we engage in the ministry of Ignatian Spirituality. I came to know the pilgrim Ignatius more personally. The vision and the mystical experiences that led Ignatius to “finding God in all things,” echoed and re-echoed as I prayed in the cave, walked the alleys and cobbled stone streets of medieval Manresa, attended Vespers in the same church Ignatius did, and reflected by the Cardoner River.
Like others, I was spiritually enriched by a refocusing on the meaning of Ignatius’ Christ-centered spirituality. The Montserrat and Manresa pilgrim keeps reminding us that we have no other Master and Guide but Jesus, the Lord. I returned with a renewed sense of Ignatian spirituality as a way, one way, although an excellent way, to know, to love and to follow the Lord, “since he is the way which leads people to life.”
John P. Schlegel, S.J., the former president/publisher of America, is member of the pastoral team at the Gesu Parish, in Milwaukee.