Saturday, July 31, 2010

For All the Saints: Ignatius of Loyola

In Congregational Sunday School as a child, I used to sing, “Jesus loves me, yes I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Today, I have a dear friend who signs his e-mails, “If the Catholic Church teaches it, it must be true.” This moves the argument from Protestant to Catholic terms: I know what I know, not because the Bible tells me but because the Church does.

But there’s really only one thing that can convince me of the Truth, or of Jesus’s love. If I am going to be a free and reasoning human being, the only thing that tells is my experience. I want to experience Jesus as intimately as that little child in the picture.

This is what touches me in today’s reading from the Office about St. Ignatius of Loyola. The excerpt is an anecdote from the life of the founder of the Jesuits that is recycled in Fr. James Martin’s book My Life with the Saints, which was so instrumental in my conversion. I know next to nothing about St. Ignatius or the Jesuits—I think of him as a sort of Don Quixote who woke up; I think of the Jesuits as really smart guys in black who, like me, may sometimes be too smart for their own good—but I think I understand the anecdote.

Bedridden and in search of something to read, Ignatius asked for tales of knight-errantry, but none were available. So, in spite of himself, he read “a life of Christ and a collection of the lives of saints written in Spanish.”

When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy.

Yet he did not pay attention to this, nor did he appreciate it until one day, in a moment of insight, he began to marvel at the difference. Then he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy. And this was the first time he applied a process of reasoning to his religious experience. Later on, when he began to formulate his spiritual exercies, he used this experience as an illustration to explain the doctrine he taught his disciples on the discernment of spirits.

“He understood his experience.” One of our great saints converted because of experience. Ignatius’s spiritual readings, unlike tales of knights and romance, corresponded to the deepest needs of his heart, leaving him not dry but joyful.

I am undertaking a book purge in my house. Now that I’ve entered my 60th year, I realize that I will never read all of the books I have accumulated around me, like boxes of Topps baseball cards from my youth. So I am giving them away, or selling them for pennies to the dollar where I can. Slowly the pile is dwindling down to a couple hundred or so, and maybe finally it will come down to a few dozen. I’m pretty sure that when the dwindling is done, the flashy Folio Society editions that I collected during a misspent youth will all have vanished. Popular novels by Cormac McCarthy and Tony Hillerman will be gone too. I’m not sure what will be left exactly, but I’m sure the saints will figure highly on the remaining list, as well as a few secular works that have always moved me, including Norman MacLean’s Young Men and Fire. 

If I remain true to the impulse that’s working now, I will hold on to those few books that correspond most deeply to the needs of my heart, the books that leave me anything but dry. I will do my best to be guided by experience.

There is a paradox waiting here, however, as our dear guest priest, Fr. Dan Hennessey suggested this morning. In his homily, he read us a prayer of St. Ignatius that I had never heard. (Repeat: I know very little about the guy.) The prayer is as follows:

Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.

As a human being, I want to—I must—preserve and enhance my freedom and reason. I want my faith to remain solidly founded on experience. But St. Ignatius invites me to give up “my entire liberty . . . my whole will.” It’s no contradiction. When I have met Jesus as surely as that child in the picture, I will—from freedom as from reason—give him my whole will too. Or so I can pray.