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He set out alone riding his mule

30 November, 1999

Brian Grogan SJ sketches St. Ignatius’ physical and spiritual transformation before Our Lady of Montserrat as he prepared to set out on his pilgrimage which would lead to the creation of the Jesuits and the reinvigoration of the Catholic faith.

Spring 1522
Thirty years on, Ignatius describes in his Autobiography his frame of mind as he jogged along on his mule: ‘He had determined to practise great penances not so much with an idea of making satisfaction for his sins, as to make himself agreeable to God. Thus he was determined to do the same penances the saints had done, and even more. From such thinking he took all his consolation.

‘He never took a spiritual view of anything, nor did he even know the meaning of humility, charity, or patience, or that discretion was a rule and measure of these virtues. Without having any reason in mind, his sole idea was to perform these great external works, because the Saints had done so for God’s glory.’

‘On the road there occurred an incident that is worth relating for the better understanding of how our Lord dwelt with his soul, which, although still blind, had a great desire to serve him in every way he knew.’

A Moor also riding a mule caught up with him. ‘They fell into talking, and the conversation turned on Our Lady. The Moor admitted that the Virgin had conceived without man’s aid, but he could not believe that she had remained a virgin as a result of the birth process.’ He explained the reasons for his thinking, and the theological arguments advanced by Ignatius did not make him change his mind. The Moor then took his leave, and hurried on out of sight, ‘leaving the pilgrim (Ignatius) with his own thoughts on what had taken place.’

He was caught up in a tide of emotion, moving from discontent to sorrow for failing in his duty, to wild indignation against the Moor for his audacity, to an urge to defend the honour of Our Lady, to the desire to search out the Moor, not merely to tie him captive to his mule and bring him to Our Lady of Montserrat where he would make him kneel at her feet, but with the intention of stabbing him a number of times with his dagger for what he had said.

‘He struggled with this conflict of desires for a long time, uncertain to the end as to what he ought to do,’ because among other things, to realize his plan, he had to turn off from the royal highway to pursue the Moor.

Tired from indecision, he decided ‘to let the mule go with the reins slack’ so that it could make the decision. Despite the fact that the road taken by the Moor towards the village was wider than the Royal Highway, Ignatius’s mule chose the latter, thereby saving the Moor possibly from death and Ignatius from the galleys. So he continued his way to Montserrat, thinking as always about the great deeds he was going to do for the love of God.

At this stage, despite his exercises in introspection at Loyola, Ignatius was no longer looking into his interior. He was confident that God asked him for generosity alone. So he would do great things for God.

He was thinking of imitating the penances of others, not about repentance for his own sins. Thoughts corresponding to the knightly adventures recounted in Amadis of Gaul came to his mind. He determined, therefore, on ‘a vigil of arms through the whole night, without ever sitting or lying down, but standing awhile and then kneeling awhile before the altar of Our Lady, where he resolved to leave his fine attire and to clothe himself in the armour of Christ.’

Such a ritual was already prescribed for knights in Spanish law. The knight who would make the vigil should be ‘sometimes kneeling down and sometimes standing rigidly erect… for the knight’s vigil of arms is not designed for amusement, nor for anything like that, but to beg God to protect them… as men who are entering a career of death’.

He arrived at Montserrat on 21 March, 1522. It was the first stop in his pilgrimage. He had long dreamed of coming here because devotion to Our Lady of Montserrat was popular in the Loyola region. Our elegant knight arrived at the monastery ‘with expensive, beautiful, and fine clothes… in the fashion and style of soldiers’.

He decided to divest himself of all that he had, as a first step in his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He had no difficulty arranging that his mule should be given to the Benedictine monastery. It was not unusual either that a friend should hang up before the statue of the Blessed Virgin the sword and dagger that the knight had entrusted to him in confidence. For many years these arms remained on the grille where the statue of the Blessed Virgin is placed.

Hanging his fine clothes on the grille beside his arms would have wrecked the complete anonymity with which Ignatius wanted to proceed. So, with the following gesture he annihilated his entire past: ‘On the vigil of Our Lady’s Annunciation, March 24, in the year 1522, he went at night, as secretly as he could, to a poor man and, removing his fine clothes, gave them to him and put on the attire he so wanted to wear.’

He had bought in a large town near Montserrat the clothes that he had decided to wear when he would go to Jerusalem. He remembered the purchase very distinctly as ‘some cloth of the type used for making sacks, with a very loose weave and a rough prickly surface.’ Someone made him a long garment from it that went all the way down to his feet.

He had also bought a staff as well as a small bowl, obligatory gear for a pilgrim, and finally a pair of sandals, but he did not use both of these. One of his legs was still bandaged and in bad shape, so much that it was swollen by the end of each day, even during those times when he rode. So he wore one sandal only, on the foot of this bad leg, and had thus arrived at Montserrat.

To cast aside his finery meant more than embracing a life of poverty; it meant breaking away from whatever was symbolic of his standing in others’ eyes. Ignatius had dreamed of being poor and forgotten, and the beggar had probably dreamed of being rich and esteemed; the few yards of cloth exchanged between one owner and the other had brought about a simple miracle.

Ignatius, dressed in his pilgrim robe, was now disguised as a poor unknown – as if taking off his clothes would strip him of all realization of who he was, who his family was, and what his name and reputation meant. There is something of the ‘hippy’ in this theatrical rupture with the past.

To be continued

For Pondering: What have you to let go of in order to be freer to serve God?

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