Iñigo the Pilgrim at Manresa (Carlos Saenz de Tejada)
At the Year 11 Arrupe Academy this week, we were speaking about Ignatius and the range of extraordinary experiences which were his over a lifetime. I think we are very fortunate to have Ignatius as our patron. He is reflective, but very much a man of action. He has experienced a world of excesses and vanities, but also a world where a search for meaning and honest discernment could lead him to his true self. He was given to vainglory as a soldier, a gang member, a street-fighter, a gambler and womaniser but then found himself fulfilled by a heroic life of generous desires and the service of others. He has strengths and weaknesses like all of us. He knew what it was to be human. That’s the stuff of a good patron, because, if they are to be effective patrons, we have to be able to relate to them as human, as our heroes and our role models.
Ignatius made a perfect model for us to consider in our Friends Listen Assembly this week when we reminded ourselves of being each other’s carer. Our patron made a lot of early mistakes and he freely admits to these in his Autobiography. After his convalescence and conversion, Ignatius began a pilgrimage from Loyola as the fiery Basque male who had everything under control. The boastful convert who, in his own words, was even going to outdo the great saints like Dominic or Francis. So, he arrives at Manresa in northern Spain and begins to live, largely in a cave, something like a hermit. But he doesn’t look after himself. He gives himself over to too many hours of prayer and penances. Excesses of diet. His self-image suffers as his hair and nails grow wild. The Pilgrim soon finds that digging deeper and deeper into the core of who he was, he comes unstuck. Ignatius becomes plagued with doubts. Then destructive inner voices were heard: What are you doing? Look what you’ve given up. How can you endure a life like this? They began to undo him. He sank to an all-time low and serious depression followed. In that Autobiography, Ignatius admits that at one point he considered jumping off a cliff – that is, taking his life. Only then did he realise that he couldn’t handle this all alone.
Ignatius then made the best of decisions and opted to talk to someone about it. A wisdom figure. A person experienced in all the forces that move through the human heart and mind. Someone he trusted. It happened to be a monk from the nearby abbey. After quite a number of conversations and some good advice, Ignatius’ doubts and distractions dissolved. He opened up. His purpose clarified. Ignatius was ready to take to the road again because he trusted someone with whom he could share his struggles.
The lesson is clear. When the way ahead is shrouded in mystery … When all seems bleak … When different voices within us are tugging one way, then another … When we don’t seem to have the strength to move on … then we seek out a guide, someone who knows us well, one experienced in the trials of life. We find a friend. We begin a conversation. We bring it all into the light. Then healing can happen. But not if we hang on to an attitude like that early Ignatius – “I’m okay.” “Nothing’s wrong with me.” “I can handle this.” No. Doing it alone is not a good strategy. Nothing is so troubling that it can’t be shared. Whatever the situation, we are not the first to feel like this, and we won’t be the last. What seems an impossible burden for us can be lifted by the hands of others. Just trust is needed.
The other half of the story is that for Ignatius, and for ourselves, such support and healing can only happen if there is someone there to listen. A good friend, a trustworthy mentor, someone who understands. Those listeners have to be sympathetic, but sometimes these friends need to be bold. They might need to take the initiative. They might need confidence to reach out. At the risk of awkwardness, to reach out. At the risk of seeming intrusive, to reach out. At the risk of being rebuffed, to reach out. As Martin Luther King once observed, “In the end, what will hurt the most is not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
I find it very appealing the way we call ourselves ‘the Riverview family’. And I know the reality of that phrase – it is not simply a marketing ploy. It is who we are at our best. So, in this Friends Listen week, let us recommit to that ideal of family. To be alert in recognising any brother or sister who is on the edge. And if we find ourselves on the edge, to know that there is someone in the family who will love and who will listen and maybe will challenge – and who will be there for the long haul.