Every history teacher has two goals when planning a lesson or unit: to make the unfamiliar familiar and the familiar unfamiliar. The joy of teaching is complete when students encounter something they’ve never studied before and begin to understand and savor the new material. Likewise, that joy is only equaled when students begin to encounter an old topic in a totally new way, seeing an old painting with new eyes.
With both of these goals in mind, I’ve been spending the last few months immersing myself in the life of Saint Ignatius as part of the 500th anniversary of his injury via cannonball at the battle of Pamplona. With the opportunity of the Ignatian Year and wanting to share what I’ve learned and re-learned, I’ve been working on a podcast series on the life and spirituality of Ignatius.
Ignatius exists in that special category of historical figures: well-known but often profoundly misunderstood. The textbooks I use to teach my freshman world history class describe Ignatius and the early Jesuits as “a spiritual army” with a unique “emphasis on absolute discipline and obedience” and that “all Jesuits took a special vow of absolute obedience to the pope.” None of these statements are especially accurate, reflecting the caricature of Ignatius and the early Jesuits that has emerged and become dogma since the 16th century.
The image of Ignatius as the rigid Basque soldier-saint, drenched in the blood-thirsty spirit of the fiery Spanish Inquisition, the Ignatius who (perhaps) served as the inspiration for Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is well-established in common writings and representations of Ignatius and the first Jesuits. That image somehow exists along a modern version of Ignatius who only wants people to seek the good feelings and consolation of God rather than the God of consolation and says people can cloak any personal decision they want in the garb of discernment, so long as they pray about it and feel “at peace” at the end of their journey. This Ignatius says you need not worry about making a commitment but only wants you to get in touch with your deepest desires and to find your truest you, with not much reference to a relationship to anyone else, let alone Jesus of Nazareth. That many – including me – have held both of these views, likely simultaneously, is not an excuse.
Like most caricatures, these parodic versions of Ignatius have elements of truth in them. Ignatius really did emphasize obedience, discipline, and some Jesuits did (and do!) take a vow of obedience to the pope. Ignatius does ask us to consider our desires, to value drawing closer to God, and sees internal peace as a sign of consolation. Every caricature captures an aspect of the truth in an exaggerated way but when the exaggerated feature of a caricature becomes the dominant feature, the truth gets obscured.
For those that inhabit Jesuit institutions, Ignatius is everywhere: his face, his ideas, his name, his catchphrases are plastered over Jesuit spaces and so that means the caricatures of Ignatius are plastered everywhere, too. That can be unfortunate because a saint is meant to be an icon of God, not a distorting caricature. Ignatius the Icon points the way to a deeper relationship to Jesus Christ and reveals the love and mercy of God in a way that Ignatius the Caricature never can.
In this Ignatian Year, we need to rediscover Ignatius the Icon so we can allow Ignatius to be the icon God made him to be: a sign, symbol, and example to help us be more open to God.
My version of Ignatius is probably just as much a caricature as others but, together, we can hold up the Icon of Ignatius to our world, a world we hope can see all things new in Christ through the life and teachings of Ignatius. Saint Ignatius has been a meaningful way for many to grow closer to God, which is why I sought to include voices other than my own in making this podcast. Through the chorus of voices on Ignatius, I hope this podcast can be a small contribution to that effort as well as a chance to make the unfamiliar Ignatius familiar to you and the familiar Ignatius unfamiliar as well.