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To Manresa 1522

30 November, 1999

Brian Grogan SJ describes the insecure journey of Inigo as a poor pilgrim from Montserrat to Manresa and focuses on how he begins to see things through the eyese of a beggar. He goes on to ask the reader to reflect on their own experience of poverty or of helping the poor.

An insecure life, an uncertain future, a life dependent on daily handouts: these would be Ignatius’s routine after leaving Montserrat in March 1522. He had left in order to flee public notice. Possibly someone there had directed him to the hospice at Manresa, only a few hours away, where he would be able to spend a few days writing down the experiences he had been living through. At the same time, he would be making some headway on his journey toward Jerusalem.

These ‘few days’ turned into eleven months, months that proved to be the crucial interlude that would leave an indelible mark on his life. Not only the sketchy outline of the little booklet that would become the Spiritual Exercises would see the light of day at Manresa; there are some who maintain that the germ of the Society of Jesus can be detected in his famous vision at the Cardoner River. For this reason it is understandable why Jesuit historiography puts such importance on these two formative events, but it does so in hindsight.

Let us simply follow along with Ignatius on his journey, keeping in mind that, ever since his adventure with the Moor, he refers to himself as ‘the pilgrim’, the name that will define perfectly his attitudes for a long time to come. The pilgrim is one who ventures into a foreign land, who makes himself an alien, who loses contact with the familiar props of his ordinary life, and who deprives himself of all help other than the charity which people show to those whom they do not know, but who have the indications of being poor.

Our pilgrim is now going to see life from the point of view beyond all his previous experience, that is, he is going to see it through the eyes of a beggar. He will no longer think about life as a beautiful adventure, but he will live it to the ultimate limits of total self-renunciation. ‘The greatest enemy to heroism,’ says Unamuno, ‘is the shame of seeming to be poor.’

Manresa was a small industrial centre of a few thousand inhabitants whose lives were centred around cotton growing, manufacturing, or trading. They were used to seeing pilgrims passing through their town on their way to and from Montserrat, but they had never seen the likes of him who now made his appearance among them.

He was a young man, still strong and robust. In one hand he carried a pilgrim’s staff, and he was dressed in a garment of sackcloth that went down to his two feet, one of which was bare and the other was slipped into a flat sandal, made from esparto grass.

He would have been carrying a knapsack filled with papers and writing materials, his inseparable book of hundreds of pages, and other items, one of which was the picture of Our Lady of Sorrows that he had brought from Loyola and would keep at his side for many years, until the day in Rome when he gave it to his nephew Antonio.

A widow named Ines Pascual was returning to Manresa from a day’s pilgrimage at Montserrat, accompanied by her children and three other widows. While they were making their way home slowly, talking with one another, a poor man approached them. He was carrying a pilgrim’s staff.

‘He was not very tall; his complexion was pale and flesh pink; he had a handsome, grave face, and especially he had great modesty of the eyes… he was very tired and walked with a limp in his right leg.’

He asked if there was a hospice nearby where he could be lodged. The appearance of this pilgrim, who ‘was balding a bit’ and who spoke in Castilian, touched the heart of Ines Pascual. She told him that he could find the hospice he was looking for in Manresa and invited him to join her group. They walked along slowly to enable him to keep up with them, but they were unable to persuade him to ride the little donkey they had at their disposal. They arrived late in Manresa.

Now, the Catalans have the reputation of being people endowed with practical common sense, and the practical common sense of Ines Pascual warned her against wagging tongues, and so she did not come into town in the company of the pilgrim nor bring him home ‘because she was a widow and the man had a handsome face and was young’.

She sent him on ahead to the hospice of Santa Lucia with one of the widows who worked there, and she requested that they give him every consideration. She also promised that she herself would look after him from her own house.

On the first night, she sent him a dinner of good broth and some chicken because ‘he had been walking with pain,’ and on the following days she sent him more chicken and soup. Within a week the pilgrim had attracted the attention of everyone.

His gentility would have been noticed very quickly by the good people who had dealings with the pilgrim. Witnesses who participated in Ignatius’s beatification processes more than forty years after his death offer valuable supplementary material to his own recollections in his Autobiography.

We learn that the children of Manresa sometimes followed the pilgrim, calling him ‘The Holy Man’. An old woman testified that she had kept the scissors which he had used to adjust the length of the pilgrim’s sackcloth. It seems it was longer on one side than on the other. Such trivia came from men and women whose intuitive conviction told them they had been in the presence of a saint. The summary of these impressions is that in a very short time the people of Manresa came to recognize ‘the holy man’ in the traveller whom they had at first called ‘the sack man’.

Ignatius had wanted his change of clothes to be the external sign of a changed interior, a radical change of life, and this was certainly the way that those who saw him and heard him speak interpreted his action.

‘But for as much as he avoided the esteem of others, he was not long in Manresa before people were saying great things about him, all because of what had happened at Montserrat. His reputation started to grow and the people were saying more than what was true about him, that he had given up a large inheritance, etc.’ People are usually given to gossip, and so speculations about who he was became exaggerated.

To be continued.

For Pondering: What is your experience of personal poverty, or of helping the poor?

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