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The touch of God

30 November, 1999

Continuing in the footsteps of St Ignatius, Brian Grogan SJ recounts Ignatius’s vision of “Our Lady with the Holy Child Jesus” and what effect this had on his journey on for the greater glory of God.

The alternation of ideals in the convalescent Ignatius – feats of valour in the service of a lady and feats of valour in competing with the Saints – was followed by a change in the state of his soul, but he did not notice the subtle contrast until one day when ‘his eyes were partially opened and he began to wonder at this difference’. This meant opening his eyes to the flow of his spirit and allowing himself to be won over by the surprising discovery of different reverberations that issued from the depths of his being.

Wonder, for Ignatius, was followed by reflection, and from reflection came verification. ‘From experience he knew that some thoughts left him sad, while others made him happy’ Reflecting on this experience, he learned a lesson that he never forgot: ‘Different spirits were moving in him.’

His early biographer Ribadeneira emphasized the point when he informs us that, ‘Ignatius understood that there were two different spirits, completely opposed to one another’. He contrasts them as light and darkness, truth and falsehood, Christ and the devil. The two spirits seemed to entice him from without, and the two tendencies that began to take shape were associated with his fantasies.

God was not challenging him personally, for God as yet was far off, not personalized or intimate. Yet, at this point of his labouring reflection, God was indeed raising him onto the first rung of his upward journey and was teaching him a lesson, the consequences of which would be momentous.

According to an off-the-record note that Goncalves da Camara scribbled on the margin of the autobiographical papers, Ignatius clearly saw then what were the origins of these contrary tensions: ‘This was the first reflection he made on the things of God; and later on, when he was composing the Exercises, it was from this experience within himself that he began to draw light on what pertained to the diversity of spirits.’

The discovery of tensions that came about as a result of the duality of spirits, forces and desires, was a great lesson for Ignatius, and it provided him with ‘no little light’. It was a light that clarified for him the cause of his present waverings, and, at the same time, it illuminated the darker corners of his past.

‘He began to think more seriously about his past life, and he realized the great need he had to do penance for it…  Without giving any consideration to his present circumstance, he promised to do, with God’s grace, what the saints had done.’

All he wanted to do then, was to go to Jerusalem as soon as he became well, in order, as he said, ‘to observe all the fasts and to practise all the disciplines any generous soul on fire with God usually wants to do’.

His ancestors had been accustomed, at the moment of their death, to ask that someone make a ‘pilgrimage for their soul to far-off Holy Places’. Ignatius wanted to make his own pilgrimage himself. Why Jerusalem?

In his Life of Christ, Ludolph the Carthusian declared that there was ‘no sight more delightful’ than seeing with the eyes of the body the land where Christ earned our redemption. Because of its great distance, it was seen as symbolizing a rupture with the past, and perhaps and most importantly, it represented a quest – the unconscious call to the faraway ethereal place.

In a wonderful understatement, Ignatius noted that, ‘it seemed that all the fantasies he had previously pictured gradually faded away before the holy desires he now had’. Then came an inner support which he called a ‘visitation’, and many years later, he described it with matter-of-fact frankness. He describes it in the Autobiography:

‘One night, as he lay sleepless, he clearly saw the likeness of our Lady with the Holy Child Jesus. From this vision he received great consolation for a remarkably long time. He felt so great a disgust for all his past, especially his sexual misdeeds, that it seemed to him that all the fantasies that had been previously imprinted on his mind were now erased.

‘Thus from that hour until August 1553, when this is being written, he never again gave the slightest consent to temptations against chastity. For this reason the vision may be considered the work of God, although he did not dare to claim it to be so.’

This statement is a marvel of psychological insights, an example of discernment on the part of the one who would one day give precise rules for discerning spirits. Ignatius relates this episode very carefully, but he does not dare say with certainty that it came from God. On the other hand, he states the lasting effects that resulted from it, and he was convinced that so radical a transformation could not have come about as a result of his own efforts.

This was the moment in his life when he became a convert, a man in need of profound redemption, a man driven to find ways to make up for lost time. It was then, rather than at Pamplona, that Ignatius fell wounded and vanquished. The disgust he spoke of was not the cause of his transformation; rather, it was the effect of a light that had flooded him from within, enabling him to see the abyss that lay at his feet and, at the same time, marking out the pathway to the Absolute. 

For Pondering:
How well do you read your inner experience?

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