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30 November, 1999

Brian Grogan SJ continues his series on St. Ignatius of Loyola, delving into that most crucial moment in the reformation when Inigo’s heart came alive.

During the latter half of 1521, Ignatius’s greatest concern was how to repair the poorly-set bones in his knee, ‘because the bone protruded so much that it was an ugly sight. He was unable to abide it because he was determined to follow a worldly career and he judged his leg would be unsightly, so he asked the surgeons if they could cut off the protrusion.’

His brother Martin was horrified, but Ignatius ‘was determined, nevertheless, to undergo this martyrdom to gratify his own inclinations’, and `with his customary patience’ he suffered the filing down of the knobbed bone. The surgeons then tried to avoid making his bad leg shorter than the other by applying ointments and stretching it with weights, ‘which caused him many days of martyrdom’.

He finally recovered completely, but he could not put any weight on his bad leg, and so ‘he had to remain in bed’. To pass away the time he asked for some tales of chivalry ‘to which he was very much addicted’.

‘Since none of the books he was accustomed to reading could be found in the house, they gave him a Life of Christ and a book on the Lives of the Saints.’ Thus it was that Ignatius, who had dreamed of accomplishing great deeds and had opted for martyrdom to correct a physical defect, was now introduced to new types of exploits and different kinds of martyrdom. He was introduced to flesh and blood saints, followers of ‘the eternal prince, Jesus Christ, the gentle captain of their souls’.

This was religious chivalry, and they were ‘the knights of God’. Such a description resonated stealthily in Ignatius’s imagination. He began to conjure up images of a different king, of another kingdom, of knights who were not fictional but historical role models with whom he could identify. He was a man obsessed with meeting challenges and with ‘being more’, and so now he began to consider this new stimulating interest in terms of a challenge, and became more involved in what he was reading.

Sometimes, ‘putting his reading aside, he stopped to think about the things that he had read’. For Ignatius, thinking was almost tantamount to action. As his admiration for the saints grew, a desire to do something similar began to grow in him. ‘Suppose I were to do what St. Francis did, or what St. Dominic did? ‘What if I were to do this – I?’

The moment to say ‘Yes’ had not yet come, because he had yet to pull away from the deepest part of his conscious interior. As Bernanos observed, the first step toward conversion is taken in the silence at the deepest part of one’s being, in that silence which youth fears and rejects.

The Pamplona event in itself did not convert Ignatius, but it created what psychology sees as a favourable framework for a radical re-evaluation of one’s life. Death had grazed him with its talons, but it was physical suffering, relentlessly digging its talons into his flesh over a number of weeks that produced the deepest impression. The French novelist Leon Bloy observes that, `Human beings have recesses in their hearts that were not there until pain came along to create them.’

Conversion is an unique experience, much like the experience of being born or dying. Some conversions are intellectual, the conclusion of reasoning; others come about through the appropriation of great ideals; yet others are the fruit of emotion, of irrepressible enthusiasm, or of a flashing vision of sheer beauty.

Rather than being the master of one’s conversion, one is conquered by it and seduced by truth, goodness or beauty. Conversion involves an integration of dispersed inner forces, which point the person in a new direction, and toward Another who is God. It involves a level of renunciation of which not all are capable. The French essayist Andre Gide confessed: ‘I have never been able to renounce anything; I have lived a disjointed life, protecting within myself the best and the worst.’

Ignatius, who had been concentrating on nothing more than adjusting the bones of his battered knee, ended up by adjusting his disintegrated soul and his disjointed life. In the second repairing operation, the surgeons had to saw away a number of protuberances, while the patient had to nurse his soul and renounce his will. It was a long and delicate process.

He lived this first critical moment in perfect and complete solitude, but above all, he wrapped it in absolute silence. He took no one into his confidence. Thirty years later, however, he would describe what had taken place then with a vividness that differed not a bit from a description of what he was living through at the moment. He could not have acted otherwise, for all converts agree that what takes place at that moment is comparable to a second and definitive birth, and makes one’s prior history seem insignificant and empty.

To be continued…

For Pondering:
Can you identify key moments in the integration of your life around God?

This article first appeared in The Messenger (July 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.