A Cavalier, a Cannonball and a Convert

COMMENTARY: The challenges faced by St. Ignatius of Loyola were really blessings in disguise — something that can be a sign of hope for any of us.

Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768), “The Conversion of St. Ignatius of Loyola”
Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768), “The Conversion of St. Ignatius of Loyola” (photo: Public Domain)

The world and, most assuredly, the Catholic Church, can be grateful for a woman who was not content to give birth to a mere dozen children, but brought into the world a 13th. The year was 1491, one year before Columbus discovered America.

That 13th child was to provide not a route to a new world, but a road map to heaven. He did not sail on the Santa Maria, but had a strong devotion to St. Mary and gave to posterity his famous Spiritual Exercises. His name is Ignatius of Loyola and he was canonized in 1622.

The dream that consumed him for the first 30 or so years of his life was to be a cavalier, to win battles and the love of some high-born lady. “He strutted the streets of Castilian cities,” writes Phyllis McGinley in her 1969 book Saint Watching, “like a gamecock, fastidious in his dress if not his morals, careful that his auburn hair was well combed and his hands cared for, and ready to draw a sword if any other dandy so much as jostled him in passing.” In his own words, he was “a man given to the vanities of the world, whose chief delight consisted in martial exercises, with a great and vain desire to win renown.”

His military aspirations, however, underwent a dramatic change when, in defending the garrison at Pamplona against an overwhelming French battalion, he was hit by a cannonball and severely injured in both knees. The French, recognizing him as a man worthy of respect, did what they could for his injuries and sent him back to Loyola. What followed was a series of excruciating operations. The once proud cavalier was rendered virtually immobile. He spent months in bed. There was little he could do but read, and the Loyola household offered but two books: the life of Christ and a book on the saints.

Ignatius was taken by the heroism of saints who fought battles of the soul. Perhaps he, too, could be a victorious warrior, though on a spiritual level.

One thinks of the impact that St. Paul had on Augustine, G.K. Chesterton had on C.S. Lewis, and St. Thomas Aquinas had on Jacques Maritain. Reading can be life-changing, and books can be powerful instruments of conversion. 

“When I walk again,” Ignatius vowed, “I will go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I will be austere, sober, penitential — and maybe a great man.” 

He got as far as Manresa, a town near Barcelona, but was detained there for 10 months because of a plague that prevented people from entering or leaving. His stay, however, was spiritually beneficial. As a virtual town prisoner, he would sleep only two or three hours a day, often in caves, fast for long periods of time, and pray until his knees were sore. He begged for bread and water and, consequently, ate little.

In that time of exceptional deprivations, however, a new man arose — one whose impetuosity melted into prudence, whose vanity was replaced by humility. His mission became irresistibly clear. He was called to be a dedicated apostle for Christ.

At Manresa, he sketched the framework for his famous Spiritual Exercises, which he later reworked and rewrote. Initially, he wrote them for himself, but he subsequently turned them into one of the most effective manuals of devotion ever composed. They were given official approval by Pope Paul III in 1548. 

The four pillars of Ignatian spirituality are self-awareness, spiritual direction, effective love, and detachment from the world. Concerning love, he once walked 100 miles in winter to nurse a man he heard had fallen sick, the very person who a few weeks before had stolen Ignatius’s small store of money.

There can be little doubt that Ignatius of Loyola had a magnetic personality. He quickly won six companions for his mission, the most illustrious being Francis Xavier. That Francis, destined to be a saint, sided with Ignatius is an interesting story, for his family fought on the other side of the battle at Pamplona where Ignatius was wounded.

Initially, Francis was contemptuous of everything that Ignatius championed. Three years of Ignatius’ gentle persuasion, however, led to a dramatic conversion. Francis became the most zealous, the most generous and the most effective missionary in the long line of Jesuit saints. When he left for missionary work in India Ignatius said to him, “Ite, inflammate omnia” (go set the world on fire), a phrase used by Jesuits to this day.

Ignatius is best known as the founder of the Society of Jesus. During the seven years in which he was the superior general, the order enjoyed remarkable success. With Ignatius at the helm, the order founded several missions, built seminaries and hospitals, established the Pontifical Gregorian University, and earned the respectability of popes and the people. 

The order would soon grow to more than 1,000 members spread across various parts of the world. As of January 2022, there were 14,439 Jesuits in the world, and the order has given the Church 52 canonized saints and 157 beatified members so far.

Reflecting on the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola, it is interesting to note how a cannonball could serve as the defining object between a cavalier and a convert. The cannonball, however, was just one of the challenges that he overcame. He was eight times imprisoned by the Inquisition and he prayed that his Jesuits would be persecuted as a sign of God’s grace. The challenges he faced were really blessings in disguise, something that can be a sign of hope for any of us. We normally think of cannonballs in terms of war and death. But just as saints can turn the world around and give it greater meaning, a metaphorical cannonball can turn our lives around and lead them toward greater holiness.