Mary Frances Coady

St. Ignatius: The Slow Turning of a Key

The death mask of St. Ignatius Loyola, who died 450 years ago last year, is at once ghoulish and fascinating. A copy sits on a ledge inside the square, thick-walled castle where he was born near the Basque town of Azpeitia in northern Spain (the original death mask is in Rome). It captures perfectly the contours of the saint’s face and head: the small beard that rounds the mouth and covers the chin, gristly and pressed in by the wax; the noble nose; the ears with their intricate folds; the bald head. The eyes, of course, are blank, lacking pupils which otherwise would animate the face, but in all other respects, the death mask is so lifelike that one might expect it to open its mouth and start talking.

That sense of immediacy isn’t usually how it is with saints who are centuries old. And those saints who underwent conversions seem especially remote and are often mythologized out of all semblance to the rest of the human race. Sinner one minute, blinding flash, saint the next–just like that (and we are often left with the unfortunate feeling that of the two the sinner was the more interesting). Anyone mildly acquainted with the details of Ignatius’s life—from Spanish court dandy and proud knight-errant to wounded soldier who sees the light and then founds the formidable Society of Jesus and is forever doomed to wearing a halo—might understandably think this way.

The writer C.S. Lewis compared spiritual conversion to the slow turning of a key in a locked door: the dawning doesn’t happen all at once, but only little by little, in a series of infinitesimal movements. And so it was with Ignatius. A bungled attempt at defending the city of Pamplona against the French ended in disaster, and his shattered and badly set leg forced him to turn his back on the military life. That was the first tiny 2 movement in the turning of the key. And from then on, his conversion took years of uncertainty and trial-and-error–a journey across Spain in which he was so unsure of his spiritual path that at one point he let his mule decide which road to take; a misguided period of outlandish personal neglect; an ill-advised trip to Jerusalem, from where he was abruptly sent packing; earnest sermons that landed him in prison; and so on.

The experience of one foot forward, two feet back that we all feel at times, must have been his as well. Indeed, even at the peak of his spiritual maturity and infused with mystical graces, he dithers and frets in his spiritual journal over his inability to make certain decisions, imploring help from the Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the apostles, and on down through the list of lesser saints. He wonders at another point what his reaction would be if God should send him to hell. And should he maybe get away from it all, rent a room somewhere and close the door?

St. Ignatius was, of course, a spiritual genius, and although he wasn’t aware of this at the time (and the fact probably never occurred to him), he had the foresight to document in writing the tiny interior movements that were happening inside him as the key was slowly turning (“After I think about life at the court I feel unhappy.” “St. Francis did these things, so surely I can too.”). This recording he did for years as he was going about his hit-and-miss journeys, and he gradually got the notion that his search for God, though unique to himself, was fundamentally no different from that of other people. And so he began to work on his jottings until they became systematized in the Spiritual Exercises, the ground-breaking guide that has influenced countless Christian lives over the centuries.

Between the lines of his autobiography, which was dictated toward the end of his life at the behest of his followers, Ignatius seems to be gently laughing at his younger self, and it is this God-looks-after-fools attitude that takes the halo off, making him human. Spiritual genius aside, he is not unlike most of us, criss-crossing through life, trying our best, hitting dead-ends and falling way short of our goal, wishing we could pray better (whatever “better” means), do more for the world, not be so caught up in the stuff of daily domestic life. So to read of Ignatius and of his bumbling attempts to discern and respond to the action of the Holy Spirit, is to see much of myself and, in some consoling sense, know that I’m not alone in the Christian endeavor.

—Spirituality, July/August, 2007