I imagine that Ignatius, bed-bound as he was in the family castle recuperating from battlewounds, would have longed to be soon back on his feet. As his convalescence stretched into months and his heart began to stir for a bolder setting-forth, the lure of the pilgrim attracted him. Ignatius was starting to dream about serving God in new and daring ways. Taking risks into the unknown. Becoming a pilgrim to the Holy Land: converting the Muslims and thereby inviting a death sentence.
Ignatius did eventually take to the road across northern Spain, by mule, against all the family’s advice. He stopped at a small town, Manresa, within a few kilometres of the mountainous abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat. There he stayed almost a year. The steep climb to the abbey for prayer and for spiritual direction from the monks was an enormously formative time for Ignatius as he explored where God might be calling him.
After an all night vigil (common enough for knights about to embark on a new venture), Ignatius offered his sword and dagger on the altar of Our Lady as a mark of his change of ways. He had a pilgrim garb made of something like rough hessian, bought some coarse shoes, then gave away the livery and apparel that marked out his noble origins. Then he set off with a staff and a satchel that held his journal and pen, book of scriptures and a picture of Our Lady that he brought from home.
Over recent months, artist Michael Christie has been capturing this decisive moment in the life of Ignatius (and therefore in the life of the Jesuits and the Church more broadly). The engaging product is two icons, which were blessed and dedicated in the Dalton Chapel during the Boarders’ Mass last Sunday. One is of Ignatius the pilgrim, setting out on the road leaving the Montserrat peaks behind. The other is an image of Our Lady of Montserrat with the child Jesus in her arms. Normally enthroned, she is here represented standing with the young Jesus wriggling to be free to take to the floor and play with Ignatius’ sword and dagger, which had been placed at the feet of the Virgin.
For me, there are three insights for us to take from this Manresa-Montserrat story; three messages to be reminded of as we look upon these icons.
Firstly, that Ignatius spent nearly a year in reflection and discernment sorting out the various dreams and desires within his heart and his mind, sifting through them and testing the true from the trivial. He was distinguishing the voices that led to his authentic self, and those which might lead him to a mere shadow of that, clarifying his vocation.
That is our hope for all the young men in this school which is named after Ignatius, this school so steeped in his tradition. This is why we esteem reflection as central to the teaching/learning process. This is why we are so interested in our students’ opinions in whatever subjects they explore. It is why we ask them to journal in their service programmes and immersions; to have them explore: the ‘what if?’ questions, the ‘how come?’ questions, the ‘where is this going?’ questions, the ‘why does it have to be like this?’ questions and the ‘who might make a difference?’ questions. It is because reflection is where meaning will surface from their experiences. In a place like this, schooling is always a ministry of meaning.
The second lesson to learn from Ignatius here is not to do it alone. He began this journey as the fiery Basque with everything under control: the military commander, the strategist, the tactician. The almost boastful convert who, in his own words, was going to outdo the great saints like Dominic or Francis. But he soon found that digging deeper and deeper into the core of who he was, and where this might be taking him, brought him unstuck. Ignatius became plagued with doubts. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Look what you’ve given up.’ ‘How can you endure a life like this?’ He became desolate and real depression ensued. In his Autobiography, Ignatius admits that at one point he considered jumping into a big cavern in order to take his life. Thankfully, he opted to talk about this with someone who was a wisdom figure, a person experienced in all the forces that move through the human heart and mind, and someone he trusted. It was a monk from the abbey. After quite a number of conversations, Ignatius’ doubts and distractions dissolved. His purpose clarified. Ignatius was ready to take to the road.
For us, the lesson is clear. When the way ahead is shrouded in mystery … when all seems bleak … when different voices within us are tugging us one way, then another … when we don’t seem to have the strength to move on … then we seek out a guide, a trusted friend, someone who knows us well, one experienced in the trials of life. We begin a conversation. We bring it all into the light. Then, the healing happens.
The final lesson. Ignatius told us that he gave away his finery and ornate clothes to a poor beggar. What a generous deed! I imagine Ignatius would have felt rather pleased with himself. Later he learned that the beggar was arrested. The town guards found him dressed in all that fancy apparel. “Where did you get this?” “A nobleman just came up and gave it to me.” “Sure, sure. Tell it to the judge.” Now the poor fellow was in prison. Of course, Ignatius rushed to rectify the misunderstanding. The man was freed but Ignatius wept. He wept because an enthusiastic but unreflective gesture on his part was so damaging. Our school community keenly engages with so much service work, so much outreach, yet we come from different worlds to those whom we serve. We must always be alert and be sensitive. When, with best intentions, might we get it wrong? Where might something be misinterpreted? When might an act of generosity be seen as patronising? When could misreading the culture be taken as an offence? Our works of charity or of justice are not about us feeling good. They involve receiving as much as giving; about learning as much as doing. It is about seeing the people we serve as subjects of their own change, never objects of our own work.
So, these icons can speak in many different ways to those who contemplate them. Those who gaze upon them will certainly see objects of beauty but they may also see a deeper meaning, drawing a deeper insight. And when that happens, the icons will serve their purpose.