On July 31 we celebrate the feast day of a distinguished saint, Ignatius Loyola. What, we might ask, distinguishes him? Well, he might forgive us for recalling that he is probably the only canonized saint who has a police record—for anti-social behavior in his youth. And he might not (with the hindsight of half a millennium in heaven) object if we remember that he underwent cosmetic surgery—twice—to get an injured leg back into shape in order to show off to best effect his fashionable clothes and attract the highest ladies in the land. In fact he would probably want to remind us that his youth was so misspent as to require a full three days of confession to even begin to address its ramifications.
Another distinguishing feature would be his famous limp—the legacy of his knee injury, inflicted by a cannon ball while he was stubbornly defending the indefensible fortress of Pamplona against an overwhelming French attack. In fact, if he had not had his limp, we would have had to invent it, so powerfully does it speak of imperfection—his own and ours and the world’s.
But the truly distinguishing feature of Ignatius Loyola is not the extent of his imperfection, but the fact that such imperfection could, and did, become the channel of an amazingly powerful flow of divine love and transformation. In this man we see writ large what can happen when divine grace and human imperfection meet.
When God goes on a recruitment drive, it seems, God is not looking for those who can do the job, whatever the job might be, but for those who know they cannot. The competent achievers will likely proceed under their own steam, just as the stubborn defender of Pamplona fiercely stood his ground, utterly confident that he could single-handedly overcome the French army. Those who know that they cannot, by their own strength, conquer life’s challenges will necessarily fall back on God’s power, not their own, as Ignatius would learn through painful experience.
Grace is a mysterious thing. It seeps through the cracks in our defenses and can all too easily be blocked by our imagined self-sufficiency.
Ignatius, intuiting this truth, moved on from the trauma of defeat at Pamplona and the agony of a long convalescence in the castle of Loyola to the heights of Montserrat, where he dramatically lay down his defenses at the altar of the Black Madonna in the Benedictine Abbey there. He still had everything to learn about “how the Creator deals with the creature,” but already his heart was telling him that his own defenses would not cut the mustard and were a hindrance to his onward journey in God’s service. So sword and dagger were left behind, and the rich man’s clothes, once so prized, were exchanged for the garb of a beggar.
To be present to this scene in imagination, as we are invited to do when we pray, is to ask ourselves some searching questions. What defenses could I not live without? What accessories define who I think I am, or who I want others to think I am? What might a 21st-century Black Madonna find on her altar? Credit cards perhaps and smartphones and all manner of status symbols?
Very painfully, Ignatius was learning that access to the pearl of great price involves a great deal of unravelling of the layers and layers of lesser things that we wrap around ourselves to keep out the chilling awareness of our own fragility. But there was more to come. After leaving Montser-rat, determined to be a pilgrim for God and heading for Jerusalem, Ignatius passed through the little town of Manresa. And there God had other plans for him. The few days of his intended stay stretched into 11 months, during which time our pilgrim would lurch between the heights of spiritual consolation and the darkest abyss of despair as he learned to recognize those subtle movements in his heart that marked the action of the Spirit of God and the contrary actions of darker motivations. The fruits of his struggles would form the basis of his life-changing, world-changing Spiri-tual Exercises.
In Ignatius we recognize how the erratic, limping progress of a very imperfect pilgrim led him to surrender his self-reliance, fall back on God and allow the Spirit free, transforming passage through his life, acknowledging his faith in the simple affirmation: “Give me only your love and your grace; that is enough for me.” And that’s a good reason to celebrate.