Today is the feast day of St. Ignatius Loyola, who has been my companion and guide for many years. Like many of those we now label saints, Ignatius had a wild young life. Born into Basque nobility, he wrote in his autobiography that he wasted his early adult life on “the follies of the world.” He also wrote that he had a special liking for “warlike sport, with a great and foolish desire to gain fame.”
Here is how God got Ignatius’ attention: He was injured in battle, struck by a cannon ball that wounded one leg and broke the other. When the injury healed, one of his legs was shorter than the other, with a visible lump where a bone protruded. This was completely unacceptable to the ladies’ man: Ignatius considered it a fate worse than death not to be able to wear the long-tight-fitting boots and hose of the courtier. So he told doctors to saw off the knob of bone and lengthen the leg.
During his long recuperation at the family castle in Loyola, Spain, Ignatius did not have the benefit of television, radio or computer games. (No ability to wile away the hours playing Candy Crush Saga or Trivia Crack – or any of the other million games people are always asking me to play on Facebook.) So he asked for something to read, hoping for some romance novels, which he quite enjoyed reading. He was told that all that was available were two books, one on the life of Christ and one on the lives of the saints. Probably on little more than the idea that anything was better than nothing, he started to read. The more he read, the more he came to see that the lives of the saints were worthy of imitating. He started to ask himself, “What if I should do what St. Francis did, and what St. Dominic did?”, letting his imagination run wile with what that would look like. But at other times, he continued to daydream of fame and glory, fantasizing about winning the love of beautiful women.
As his cycles of reading and daydreaming went on, Ignatius started to notice something. Both reading and thinking about the lives of the saints, and daydreaming about his exploits in war and love brought him enjoyment while he was engaged in the activity. But he noticed that after reading and thinking of the saints and of Christ, he continued to experience feelings of peace, well-being and satisfaction. After his daydreams, he felt restless, dry and unsatisfied. This was the beginning of Ignatius’ conversion; he wrote in his autobiography that this turning point transformed him into a man who wanted to do great things for God.
From the standpoint of something so crucial to Ignatian Sprituality, it was also the beginning of Ignatius’ understanding of what we refer to as discernment of spirits. In the words of Margaret Silf, Ignatius began
to notice which dreams are capable of sustaining him and providing new vision and energy, and which dreams are transitory, leaving him feeling flat and disappointed. It [was] the start of a personal experience and understanding of the inner movements going on all the time in his mind and heart….[He learned] how to distinguish between his own self-focused fantasies, and the stirring of what we might call the God-dream within him.
And Ignatius wants us to learn to do the same. To learn “which dreams are capable of sustaining [us] and providing new vision and energy.”
On this feast day of his, that is what I pray for all of us.