A career military soldier for early sixteenth-century Spain, Ignatius of Loyola would be forever impacted by his defending the Citadel of Pamplona. During this battle with the French, he was struck by a cannon ball, which badly broke one of his legs and injured the other. When he went down, his garrison surrendered. Ignatius was admired and respected not only by his men, but also by his French victors. French field doctors nursed him for about two weeks and then transported him by stretcher (a ten-day trip across rugged terrain) to one of his family’s holdings, a castle at Loyola.
During his convalescence, which lasted almost a year, Ignatius suffered a great deal. His leg required rebreaking and resetting two more times — all without anesthesia. The third “butchery,” as he called it, was done for vain reasons:
One bone below the knee remained on top of another, shortening his leg. The bone protruded . . . an ugly sight. He was unable to abide it because he was determined to follow the world and he thought that it would deform him.
The Autobiography of St. Ignatius Loyola, trans. Joseph O’Callaghan (New York: Harper Torch-books, 1974), 22.
Ignatius wasn’t exaggerating about his vanity, worldliness, and pride. During all three surgeries, one on the battlefield and two at the castle, “he never spoke a word nor showed any sign of pain other than to clench his fists.”
These details are important to consider if we are to grasp the drastic change that was required of Ignatius when he gave his fidelity wholeheartedly to God. This quality of single-mindedness, his ambitious nature, and his tenacity — when channeled in God’s direction — would impact the world for centuries to come.
After enduring these excruciating procedures, a razor-thin brush with death, and futile efforts to stretch his leg, he was left with a permanent limp. Ignatius had always been an active man, fully engaged in all his endeavors. Extravagant about his dress and the quest for glory, he admits to self-gratifying pursuits.
He was a man given over to vanities of the world; with great and vain desire to win fame he delighted especially in the exercise of arms.
To be confined to a bed, totally dependent on others, must have been the worst of the torments he endured. That he would have preferred the chivalrous romantic novels of his day to pass the time and distract his mind is an understatement. Oh, for a good diversion! But only two books were to be found in the castle of Loyola during his recovery: one on the life of Christ and another on the saints. These two books he read many times, resulting in a complete and total conversion.
What if a huge library of novels had been available to Ignatius? What would have happened then? The two supplied books were absolutely pivotal to his conversion — and there was nothing else competing for his attention. We can see how important it is to have good materials available to us. Moreover, there are priceless benefits to removing those distractions that lead us away from God.
Ignatius left the castle of Loyola a changed man. During those endless hours of recovery, he had discerned, through prayer, study, and using his imagination, that he would become a soldier of the Catholic Faith.
A Focus on Following God’s Will
Picture a classroom full of young boys. Ignatius is sitting among them. He isn’t the instructor. He is one of the students. They are all learning Latin together.
At thirty-seven years of age, Ignatius “was found to be deficient in fundamentals.”35 If he were to become a priest, it was imperative that he learn Latin. He was penniless and begged for the food he ate but somehow managed to acquire the necessary education, even when it obliged him to go back to primary school. Nothing would stop Ignatius from following God’s will, not even the most humbling of circumstances.
It’s a good thing that Ignatius didn’t think, “Well, all I know is soldiering. I’m in my thirties now [comparable to being in one’s fifties today], and it’s too late to start all over in life. I’m not healthy. I’ve got a very bad limp and stomach troubles.” There were many legitimate reasons Ignatius might have questioned the path God had chosen for him. But here again we see the intensity with which he was known to have focused on his pursuits: only now, he was pursuing God.
Equipped with Our Experiences
Ignatius used his military experience and leadership skills to establish the Society of Jesus, and he applied those lessons to the disciplines he developed for his order. For instance, his advice to “divide and conquer,” in our struggle against sin is derived from his background as a soldier and commander.
All of our experiences can be placed in the service of the Lord: our mistakes, our careers, our relationships — everything. Our personal histories, no matter how sheltered or colorful, contribute to our formation. The very thing we think disqualifies us might be exactly what uniquely qualifies us for our mission. For example, pro-life workers have in their ranks women who have had abortions themselves. These women have had a change of heart and want to help others avoid the mistakes they made. From personal experience, they can say to someone considering an abortion, “I know how you feel now, and I also know what it’s like to live with that regret.”
God doesn’t need our perfection, our planning, our money, or our talents. Our Lord doesn’t need anything, but in His great humility, He requests our yes, our fiat, to His plans for us. The circumstances and experiences that lead to our yes are as individual as we are.
Ignatius’s temperament, his personality traits, his experiences, his physical abilities and inabilities all, in some way, contributed to his God-given mission. It’s the same for us. Our life is our formation.