500 Years Since a Cannonball Changed the World

Have you ever wondered how different your life might have been if certain things had been just slightly different? Sometimes it seems as though all the facts of my life happened with a certain inevitability – I was always going to be raised in this town, support this football team, enjoy this type of food, and be on this particular career path. But what if the events of my past had worked out differently? 

When I look at my history, I see moments, big and small, that shaped the person I have become. And many of these moments could have worked out otherwise and my life could have taken a drastically different path. 

Ignatius of Loyola was a Spanish aristocrat in the sixteenth century. He may also have felt his life to have had a certain inevitability to it. He was born into a rich and powerful family, and he lived a life in pursuit of pleasure and honour. He became a soldier, taking “a special delight in the exercise of arms” and passionately pursued military success and prestige. He dreamed of wooing a particular princess, of a far nobler rank than his own. He was a passionate and ambitious man, but all of that was directed to his own personal gain. Then one day, a cannonball came crashing into all of these dreams.

Spain was at war with France and Ignatius was part of the assignment defending the Pamplona castle. Against their better judgment, Ignatius had convinced the officers not to surrender to the superior French attack. He rallied the troops and went around motivating them to keep up the fight. Suddenly, one of the French cannonballs struck his legs, crushing one and damaging the other. Without Ignatius to urge on the troops, the castle soon fell to the French. His bravery won admiration from the French who treated him kindly and even helped to transport him back to his home in Loyola.

Back at the family castle, his legs had to be broken and reset (without anesthesia or pain killers!) before they could heal properly. He came close to death, but then began to slowly turn the corner. He noticed that the recovered bones were causing a protuberance on his leg. This was not acceptable to Ignatius. He thought it would make him look less attractive and ruin his chances of worldly success, so he asked the doctors to remove it – for which he endured greater pain than all the previous procedures. It shows just how much he was willing to endure for worldly gain.

During his many months of recovery and immobility – Ignatius began to grow bored. He asked for some books to read, but the only books in all of Loyola castle were a book on the life of Christ and a book on the lives of the Saints. In between reading, Ignatius would lay awake for hours daydreaming. He fantasized about how he would win over his princess and all the acts of gallantry and honor he would perform. He also fantasized about how he might imitate the Saints, imagining himself fasting and making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. 

Reflecting on these daydreams, he made a certain observation. While his worldly daydreams made him happy during the time of imagination, when he stopped daydreaming, he found himself empty and dry. But with the saintly daydreams, he found himself joyful both during and after the imaginations. He marveled at this difference and realized that there were different spirits moving his soul – both evil and good. He was so struck by the realization that God was moving him that he decided to give up all his old ways and devote his life to finding and serving God.

This started a great journey for Ignatius. He remained a passionate and magnanimous man, but he redirected these traits from serving his self-interest to the praise and service of God. He swapped his fine clothes for those of a beggar. He laid down his sword at the feet of a shrine to Our Lady and took up his pilgrim’s staff. He spent long hours and days in prayer and made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He made his way to Paris where he would meet the men with whom he was to found the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). This religious order grew incredibly fast within his lifetime and would go on to build hundreds of schools and send missionaries to all parts of the world. Today, the Jesuits are the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church, and we continue to devote ourselves to serving Christ and building justice all over the world. 

When I reflect on St. Ignatius’ story, and the impact that his life has had in the life of the Church and the world, I am struck by how strongly it was shaped by small events that could well have turned out so differently. What would have happened if the cannon ball had missed, or if it had killed him? What would have happened if he had a different pair of books sitting at the castle, or none at all?

These reflections inspired me to write a poem.

The Mason’s Dust

The stones of a ruin 
May shift in the sands they lie.
The path a river bends 
May sliver sideways on the plain. 
A courageous soldier 
Once was turned pilgrim
By the cursed projectile
That shattered his legs
And the blessed books he read 
That restored his dreams.
But what might have been 
If that unguided stone had struck elsewhere? 
Or if those books had never been minted?
That which seems so inevitably chiseled 
in the lore of time
Might nearly just have been
The Mason’s dust blown away.

What was true for St. Ignatius is true for each of us. Much of who we are depends on moments, small and large, that really could have had different outcomes, and yet did not. As I look at my own history, I see how God has been working through millions of small moments that have shaped me. I find myself in awe at the work of God in my life and filled with gratitude for all that is. And my gratitude leads me to a desire to make a gift of myself, to serve the God who has shaped my life as he strives to shape the world in the image of his love. 

This year marks five hundred years since that cannonball turned a soldier into a pilgrim and changed the course of history. The Society of Jesus is remembering this event by holding an “Ignatian Year” from May 2021 to July 2022 in which we are invited, like Ignatius during his convalescence, to see all things new in Christ. It is an opportunity to look at our own lives and to reflect on how God is at work in them. 

What are those things we thought would never change? Have we experienced cannonball moments that radically shifted our paths? Have we encountered simple things, like Ignatius’ books, that have gently guided us to God? What are our dreams and hopes for our future? How is God shaping our lives and calling us deeper into love and service? 

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Cover image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay.

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