The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to dive deeper into Ignatian Discernment. To learn more about this discernment, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: Finding Our Way Through Ignatian Discernment.”
Since high school I had been taught that Ignatius grew up in a castle, that he womanized, brawled, and drank. This all, at the time, sounded cool.
During my own discernment, Jesuits constantly made connections between my own story, and that of Ignatius. While I was never in the military like Ignatius, I did consider joining the Marines after college. While I have never had to dodge a cannonball, I did dislocate my ankle and fracture my leg during a tackling drill the last week of the football season my sophomore year in high school.
People often want to hear a sort of cannonball story, the single event where everything must have changed, or at least ought to have begun to change, like when Ignatius suffered his debilitating injury during the Battle of Pamplona in 1521. I do not have one. I cannot trace back my own decision to a single event, a single day, a single location. This truth may, in fact, be the most Ignatian thing of all about my own vocation story.
Discernment took time for Ignatius, too. It was not the cannonball that made Ignatius holy, but his commitment to prayer during his convalescence, and, just as importantly, how that prayer manifested itself in changed behavior. For instance, if we stop at the cannonball, we neglect the promise of chastity Ignatius made, when he was 31 years old, while traveling just outside his hometown. Even before founding the Jesuits, before needing to take any vows, Ignatius made a choice, not because he had to, but because he wanted to, all in an effort to lead him closer to God. In fact, unlike the spiritual literature of the time, Ignatius did not use the word “conversion” in relating his own story. Instead, he described himself as determined, firmly proposed, or dealing very truly with certain movements. That is, “an interior transformation of a person towards a more radical following of the Lord, which evolved amid doubts, shadows, lights, successes and errors.” 1 For Ignatius, it was “a gradual reorientation (11 months) in the life of a person who was polarized or attracted in his affection, desire and project by a new horizon that little by little was emerging in his life and that had Jesus of Nazareth as the first and powerful attracting center of energy.” 2
If we stop at the cannonball, we neglect the commitment to follow a new life after praying to Our Lady of Monserrat.
What images of God, Jesus, and Mary do I pray to and is there room in my heart for other images, too?
If we stop at the cannonball, we neglect the fruit of his intimate experiences in prayer that he compiled in order to help others, the Spiritual Exercises.
Have we sufficiently shared the gifts that God has given us?
If we stop at the cannonball, we neglect his near-death experience at sea that led him to trust only in God.
Where do we place our trust on a day-to-day basis?
If we stop at the cannonball, we neglect the grace he received outside the gates of Rome from Jesus.
Do we create the time and space each day for Christ to enter into our lives, or better said, for us to recognize that presence?
If we stop at the cannonball, we neglect the fountain of energy, as he described it, that he received while saying Mass, once ordained.
Is Mass and the Sacraments a priority for me, a space of spiritual renewal, or an obligation, a chore?
If we stop at the cannonball, we neglect the humility he experienced while gazing at the stars. As he put it, ‘How insignificant the earth seems when I look to heaven.’
Do I find God in the beauty of creation, or just the ways that I am accustomed to find Him? Do I limit my search of Him to a building?
If we stop at the cannonball, we forget that Ignatius nearly killed someone even after his supposed cannonball conversion. Indeed, like politics, theological conversations can be intense, especially if we let ourselves get distracted from seeking the Christ already present in each and every person. For someone who would become known as a Master of Discernment, he came close to really messing up, big time. Might this be a helpful reminder for all of us? Rather than seek to turn our lives around once and for all, we might be more realistic if we expected to turn our lives around in small, but tangible ways, each and every day. Perhaps then we would not get so frustrated when someone, or something, gets in the way of our plans, holy though they may be.
Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking God is not communicating with us because we cannot point to a cannonball story in our own lives. If we look at the life of Ignatius honestly, we must acknowledge that even for Ignatius, as passionate and unique as his life may have been, discernment was not a one-and-done event but a life-long process and promise. Even more accurately: a life-long process of promises, made over and over again. No wonder Jesuits renew their vows every year. Perhaps if our focus is less on the cannonball, and more on the ‘canon’ of Ignatian conversions, we would better prepare ourselves for the many ways God may be seeking to speak to each and every one of us some 500 years later.