Fr. James Martin’s book starts with his personal story about his “saint in the sock drawer,” so it’s only fitting that I begin with mine: St. Ignatius of Loyola. When I was a freshman in high school, that was about the time we were supposed to receive the sacrament of Confirmation. And among the duties tasked to us prior to becoming an “adult in the eyes of the Church” (as it was repeated to us in case Archbishop Fiorenza was to quiz us on what the sacrament was) was to choose a name for ourselves…a patron saint. Someone that we identified with. Now despite being the son of a former Roman Catholic priest, I had no idea what to pick and was simply looking for what I perceived to be a “normal” name. My dad had other ideas.
He brought out his little Pocket Dictionary of Saints (which I still have to this day), and pointed me in the direction of St. Ignatius of Loyola. At this point, I was like “Seriously? You already screwed me with the name Eugene, and now you’re going to stick me with Ignatius too?!” I’d been hoping for something normal like James, John, Peter, hell even Sebastian sounded more appealing despite the fact that it more reminded me of the little lobster from The Little Mermaid than the much more noble saint. (I never actually really verbalized this to anyone as a dear friend of mine – and his father – are both named Ignacio. But the former goes by IJ and both had the confidence that I lacked to own a name that wasn’t typically heard in our community). But as it stood, I figured my father knew what he was talking about and I had bigger fish to fry, so I went about writing my essay on him as required by my class.
I did a very brief entry since they didn’t expect a research paper. In fact, it was more or less blatant plagiarism from that pocket dictionary since it was acceptable enough for my youth minister, and I had all region band tryouts at hand (the essay was actually written while I was in the room for tryouts. Whoever thought making 80 high school students sit in silence while we played three different etudes one at a time was a good idea was a foolish, foolish educator). While I was writing, St. Ignatius seemed to grow on me. He struck me as the bookish type. And with me seemingly the crowd favorite to be high school valedictorian with some teachers, I kind of identified with the intellectual side of him, but not much more.
Iñigo de Loyola was born the youngest of 13 children in 1491 in northern Spain. To make a long story short, he had a taste for the life of a knight: the valor, the swordplay, the ladies. But as an officer in a battle in Pamplona in 1521, he was hit by a cannonball that wounded a leg and broke the other. But because they admired his courage, he was carried back his home in the castle of Loyola instead of being brought to prison.
Now long story short, his days of being a little ladies’ man were over because his leg didn’t heal right no matter how many elective procedures were done (without the courtesy of anesthesia, I might add to illustrate the vanity of this man pre-conversion), so he was left with a perpetual limp. So with this being before the time where you could Facebook your day away, Ignatius asked for something to read, preferably of the romance novel variety (a la Danielle Steele, or her medieval equivalent). Thankfully, that wasn’t really his family’s kind of thing, and all they had were a book about Christ and a book about saints. That sufficed for him since at the time, the only other option was probably to just stare at the ceiling, so he read them. And then the lives and exploits of the saints began to be more appealing to him and at the same time, his fantasies of knighthood being some woman’s proverbial “knight in shining armor” left him unsatisfied despite that euphoric glee that it gave him initially. It was this stark contrast that would play a key role not only in his conversion but in his Spiritual Exercises.
By the time his body was recovered enough to travel, he had completely given up his plans for romance and conquest and embarked on a journey. He ended up in Montserrat where, after a general confession and a knight’s vigil before the altar at the shrine of Our Lady at Montserrat, he left his sword and knife at the altar, gave his clothes away, and dressed himself in a much poorer fashion complete with sandals and a staff.
We’re going to pause his biography here at his time at Montserrat for a tick. So I didn’t really think twice again about St. Ignatius until college. Until then, in my head, he was kind of just like that embarrassing family member that you claim when someone asks you about them but otherwise don’t mention. But I got to the University of Texas and by the goading of a friend from church back home, got involved with the University Catholic Center and Lambda Omega Alpha, the Catholic fraternity based out of the UCC. At this point in time, a good number of the guys were from a Houston high school called Strake Jesuit. (Spoiler alert, for those that aren’t familiar at all with Ignatius or the connection to him here, he was the one that founded the Society of Jesus…also known as the Jesuits). In any case, one of our pledge captains (and now one of my best friends) was one of these guys, and during the first night prayer I attended, he introduced us to the Lectio Divina, using Psalm 139. While it is a beautiful passage, it’s a seemingly mundane detail…at least so I thought at this point.
My interaction with Ignatius at this point was pretty limited. I grew even more fond of staffing spiritual retreats of which he was the patron saint, but other than obligatorily listing him as one of my “favorite saints” in random “hey let’s get to know you” questionnaires, I never really had much interaction for a few years. Although, funny enough, I deeply connected with the image of God as a warrior, and even went so far as to give a talk on a retreat with a sword – made in Spain – in hand. Not that I ever made the connection to St. Ignatius’ history as a soldier at the time, but it’s a funny coincidence now.
So after stopping in Montserrat, he continued his journey to Jerusalem via Barcelona. He stopped in Manresa, and stayed for ten months, despite his original intent to stay for only a few days. Spending his days in prayer and working at a hospice, he had a vision or enlightenment while on the banks of the nearby river Cardoner that allowed him to find God in all things, a core concept of the Jesuit spirituality.
Upon arrival at Barcelona, he traveled to Italy and gained permission from Pope Adrian VI to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But as the situation was too dangerous, he was told to leave. When he refused, the Franciscan superior in charge of the Catholics in the area threatened him with excommunication, and he relented.
Now in his early 30’s, he was set on becoming a priest. The fundamental knowledge of Latin, however, wasn’t quite there, and he found himself in class with young boys learning Latin – the admittance that he had no more knowledge of this subject than school-aged children must have been quite the humbling experience for the once proud soldier. After what proved to be a tumultuous educational experience (and we thought finals sucked), he was finally ordained a priest. When service in the Holy Land was ruled out as an option, he and his companions went to Rome to make themselves available to the Pope has he wished, and were quickly sent to teach and preach, and eventually gathered together to discuss the formation of a community at the disposal of the Papacy for whatever duties he wished.
The Societatis Jesu, or the Society of Jesus, was formally approved on September 27, 1540, and Ignatius was elected the superior general. Despite his love for actively being a spiritual leader for many, he sacrificed this for the society that he loved and founded by remaining in Rome to direct this international society via thousands of letters to ensure a level of communication that would foster growth and unity in this new order vulnerable to the dangers of separation. As a former soldier, it is of no surprise that he had a certain harshness about him in his leadership style. But he was just as, if not more so, inclined to love, living life ad majorem Dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God.
Now, fast forward a couple of years to 2010. I had just quit my human biology/Hispanic linguistics double major with a focus on pre-med. I had my own fantasies about becoming a doctor. None involved any medieval valor and courtship and conquest aside from my affinity for collecting bladed weaponry, but I still had my desires. However, much like my patron, my passion lied in the service of others: staffing retreats to reach out to others, social justice, and the like. That gave me that sense of consolation. Meanwhile, studying for OChem, among other classes seemed to be killing my soul…that sense of desolation. Not that I knew what those two words meant at this point in time (that semester there were a lot of things I didn’t know at the time…including in the classroom which proved particularly troublesome). In any case, I had just switched majors into pre-nursing and had just gotten accepted into the UT School of Nursing. So finally, my academic life seemed to work itself out beautifully.
Then my best friend (who at this point in time could probably sell me my own stuff and have me happily convinced with my purchase) invited me to go on this silent retreat with him. I was kind of hesitant considering I could barely stay quiet for four minutes much less four days and, on top of that, in a review of the last 12 months, I’d averaged about one retreat a month. But I also took into consideration this retreat was actually for me and I had no responsibilities but to go, so I went ahead and jumped at the chance despite my reservations.
On the way to the retreat, we met up for a quick bite with a college friend, and then continued on our way to the retreat site. I get a mild anxiety while driving in places that I am unfamiliar, so this was not quite the ideal state to enter the retreat. But we finally made it to the Montserrat retreat site to begin “the Adventure,” as the retreat was named. By this point in time, I’d completely forgotten the significance of the name of this site to my patron (and frankly was probably unaware that this was a Jesuit retreat on a Jesuit retreat site until I was greeted by a statue of St. Ignatius in front of the St. Ignatius chapel).
I was cheerfully reunited with some college friends that had graduated before me and I hadn’t seen in a while, but the reunion was brief as the silence began. Other than the introduction to Ignatian spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises, not a whole lot of remarkable anything came from that first year. Well…there is a quote that stuck with me from one of the prayer conferences. Fr. Nathan said that “if you let Him, God will mess with you.” And that he did. For while me and Saul were driving back down to Austin from Lake Dallas, a friendly driver alerted us of our flat tire. Thankfully, Saul was much more handy than I, so he made quick work of it, but it would prove to be the first of many post-retreat stress tests.
The second year (or my second week of the Spiritual Exercises) was a lot more interesting. During this retreat, I finally made the decision to admit my homosexuality to myself after much prayer and turmoil. After much anguish, I was able to admit it to my spiritual director, whose reaction “Well, that’s fine, but how’s your prayer going?” gave me this odd sense of acceptance and normalcy. He probably didn’t realize that he was the first person I admitted that to. But his brushing it off, made me realize that there is more to me than my sexuality, and it gave me this further consolation and the grace I had prayed for in the first year to be accepted as a disciple. My test after this retreat was actually coming out and telling my friends and family (who thankfully greeted me with nothing but love, for which I still continue to give thanks to God).
The third year’s retreat came the weekend after my graduation and completion of my BSN. The first passage for meditation that greeted me for this year: Psalm 139. The same passage that welcomed me into college was the one to usher me out into a new era of my life. And as the third week focuses on the Passion and death of the Lord, I was also in my own state of “death” as I was about to begin to be initiated into adulthood. For the record, this wisdom only came after the fact. While I was going through the whole NCLEX and job hunt process, I was not a happy person to be around because clearly I hadn’t quite kept this experience in mind. But that was my own foolishness. God gave me the tools to endure that process. And regardless of how I handled it, he took care of it for me.
And so comes the fourth year, and the fourth week…or so I thought. Upon arrival, my companion and I quickly realized that we were not about to get what we were expecting. I’d had my binder of the first three weeks of the retreat put together and I was ready to complete it with the materials of the fourth. Nope. The retreat was restructured and it was now a four-day overview of the entire Spiritual Exercises. You can imagine my dismay. My initial attitude was “Screw it, I’m here. Let’s see where this goes.” Not quite the best attitude, but at least I was willing to explore. It became probably one of the more fruitful experiences I’ve had. Upon reviewing passages I reflected on during my experiences with the first two weeks, I realized that between then and now, I’d gotten two completely different things from my reflections. But the main theme that seemed to get me was to let go and let God. I had expectations of this retreat. They didn’t happen. And hell, I work in an ER. There is nothing I have full control of in there. Things can go to hell in a handbasket and there is nothing I can do but pray and keep on trucking. It is time to throw my proverbial cloak aside as Bartimaeus did in Mark 10:46-52, to surrender my sword and shield to God as St. Ignatius had done. All I can do is take the experiences put in front of me and draw all of the knowledge and learning that I can out of it.
On top of that, while perusing the book store, I noticed a book called My Life with the Saints that had been recommended to me by a friend, which I bought and immediately it drew me in with the humanity with which the author painted each saint. And as I’m drawn into the lives of these saints, I finally reached the chapter about St. Ignatius, and I identified a shockingly strong parallel with my patron. As he was physically wounded, he drew consolation from the lives of saints and their actions. In the wounding of my pride after my expectations weren’t met, I too was filled with what I imagine was a similar sense of consolation from the lives of these saints and religious figures to whom Fr. James Martin was introducing me.
And at the end of the retreat, I made the realization that the ultimate grace of the fourth week, the sense of hope and joy as we reentered our lives, was bestowed upon me. Hope in knowing that I am not expected to be perfect, simply just to try; after all, many imperfect people came before me and were able to leave a positive legacy. And joy in knowing that I am not alone; God is always with me, and St. Ignatius, like Fr. Martin’s St. Jude, had apparently “prayed for a kid that didn’t even know he was being prayed for.”