A couple of years ago when I was a Jesuit novice, we visited the community of senior Jesuits living in Guadalajara as a community activity. Spending time with elder Jesuits and listening to their stories as teachers, Jesuit formators or missionaries has always been an activity that I give thanks to God for; I learn from them that a life given with heart and faith in God is worth whatever ministry we are sent to. For example, I remember Fr. Miguel Aguayo telling us novices at a dinner: “all of us old men who are here, we may be sick and tired, but we have all been very happy all our lives in the company of Jesus”, while the other brothers confirmed his comment with a silent smile and faces full of gratitude.
While listening to many stories made my heart overflow with joy, there was one that captivated my thoughts and feelings. Fr. Lazaro Martinez, SJ, sharing his life journey in the Society of Jesus, told me: “The Jesuit carries faith in his heart, strength in his chest, books in his head, and always a foot in the air.” The image of the foot in the air is a reflection that our vocation is dynamic, that the Jesuit is constantly in movement for the greater glory of God wherever we are sent. However, seeing this wheelchair-bound brother say the phrase with strength and emotion made me wonder something difficult: what happens when we cannot carry out our activities because of illness, or just because of responsibilities requiring stability in a place?
I thought of Ignatius of Loyola, our founder who wanted to be a missionary all over the world bringing the gospel to people in places where it is difficult to talk about Jesus, as it was in Jerusalem, or in the ‘Indians’ or in the ‘Americas,’ where religious arrived from around the world. When he listened to the voice of his Jesuit brothers, and through his Jesuit brothers, the Holy Spirit, he remained in Rome directing the nascent Society of Jesus until the last of his days. What made him give up his great dreams as a missionary? Why did he remain in one place while the Society grew all over the world? What does God tell us from the experience of Ignatius? Thinking about the life of Loyola’s pilgrim, I find three lessons that all of us, as Christians, can learn and live through any activity we do.
I learned from Ignatius to have total and complete trust in God at all times, knowing that he is present even when we feel he is absent in our lives. I remember that back in 2019, as a Jesuit novice I was sent for a work experience on the U.S.-Mexico border, working anonymously in factories. While Ignatius invites us to trust “in God’s providence,” experiencing it made me grateful to encounter him in the midst of difficulties such as poverty, violence, and labor exploitation.
Facing labor exploitation with my co-workers, standing between overheated iron machines and repeating the same movement over and over along the eight hours long journey, became an opportunity to discern and find God beyond what we can see with our eyes, hear with our ears and feel with our skin. I experienced the mystical reality of the world relayed in the love that a mother has for her children giving her the strength to endure inhumane situations like being faced with the fear of being assaulted or having our rented room robbed. Other co-workers took care of each other showed the loving presence of God to their friends. As some of our new friends opened their hearts to tell their life stories and felt listened to without being judged, they revealed the presence of God who said: give your life to them in this moment.
St. Ignatius reminds us to put our trust totally in God, because he knew how to find him in his moments of sickness, when he had no money, or even when he was judged or threatened, he simply let himself be carried by the loving presence of God who said to him: here I am with you. In my case, this work experience was a time of knowing how to listen and to find God, in a wounded world that asks us all to open our hearts so that others may enter into our lives, and thus be signs of God in our world.
If trust is a sign of faith for every Christian in the 21st century, hope is an act of rebellion for, and it is the second characteristic I have learned from St. Ignatius. He knew how important it is to cultivate hope in the midst of difficulties. The work that his Jesuit brothers asked him to do in the last years of his life, as superior general of the Society, was to offer and share trust in God who accompanies us at all times in order to grow in hope by knowing Jesus internally. Ignatius received thousands of letters through which he learned about the situation of the world, the church and the Society, yet at all times he encouraged us to turn our gaze to Jesus and ask him: what do you want me to do at this moment? In order to respond with love to the needs of the world, Ignatius teaches us to look at Jesus, to observe his gestures, to feel in our hearts his words, for only by learning from him can we respond lovingly to the needs of the world and be witnesses that the world can change when we know ourselves with Jesus.
During the Pilgrimage experience in the factory, there was a moment when I felt overwhelmed by the reality of exploitation, poverty and violence suffered by my co-workers. Not able to understand why this is happening, I slowly experienced a sadness that made my heart close. I knew well that this sadness would pass when I returned to the novitiate, but in my heart I wondered how to overcome the ‘desolation’ caused by these difficult times. I had forgotten that hope always comes from God who makes himself present in others. On that day, a co-worker with addiction problems, told me very calmly: “everything will be alright”, while placing a candy in my hand.
I am convinced that people who have experienced vulnerability at some point in life know how to identify when someone is suffering and are not afraid to offer support, just as Jesus did by reaching out to the sick, women and children. From this experience, I identified that hope can come in the loving words of a friend in a letter, in the candy that is enjoyed not for its taste but for the joy it revived, or because God teaches us to care for one another.
While these experiences of God remain latent in my heart, the third learning of Ignatius is to know how to share all Good things that God gives us. At first Ignatius refused to tell his life story thinking that it was vain. When his companions asked him to write it down so that they would know what to share with the new generations of Jesuits, he changed his mind and dared to tell his life story, but with the centrality of God’s presence in it. He modeled the habit of stopping at the end of the day to ask ourselves sincerely: how has God made himself present in my life? Praying through those moments in the examen is a legacy of the spirituality of St. Ignatius for the whole world.
At the end of each of the central experiences of the novitiate, our novice director asked us to write in a few pages a synthesis to share with our community the presence of God in those weeks; this implied re-reading our spiritual diaries and reliving moments that had just passed days before. At that time it became an invitation from God to find and feel his presence in the midst of those days, complicated by difficulty but completely overabundant with his Grace. Re-reading my journals, praying the most significant moments and making a synthesis to share with my Jesuit community has been one of the most difficult activities I have done as a Jesuit. Sharing the most intimate part of my spiritual life, the presence and unconditional love of God is gratifying. Sharing my mistrust, vulnerability and despair in the most difficult moments of the pilgrimage, revealed to me a God present in human frailty who waits for us to share ourselves unconditionally as we are.
These are just three traits that I rescue from Ignatius of Loyola: the trust that always refers us to God’s love, the hope given by the encounters with our brothers who become God’s witnesses, and the sharing of God’s steps in our life to root our belonging in His heart. I am convinced that anyone can find three, ten or a hundred other words to describe his relationship with God, but the most important thing of all is, as Fr. Lazarus said, “to always have a foot in the air” ready to go out to meet God and our brothers who speak to us about him and about Jesus.
Let us pray to God to allow us to find him in all things, and especially in the lives of our brothers and sisters with whom he leads us to.
Let us ask St. Ignatius to accompany us on our pilgrimage through the world without being afraid to expose ourselves as fragile, vulnerable and needy.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, pray for us.
Featured painting: San Ignacio
Artist: Juan Manuel Gaucher Troncoso.