LESSONS FROM A FALLEN SOLDIER (30 July 2011)

IgnatiusWoundedThe lives of saints have much to teach us, some saints more than others.  If you grew up in a Jesuit parish like Mary the Queen, maybe St. Ignatius of Loyola has something to teach you.  If you studied in a Jesuit school like Xavier School or Ateneo de Manila, or perhaps Georgetown University, certainly St. Ignatius would have something to say to you.

But even if you’re from La Salle, but went out on some date sometime ago with an Atenean or Xaverian, maybe St. Ignatius still has a message for you on this eve of his feast.

There are many things we can say about St. Ignatius of Loyola. We could talk about Ignatius the mystic, the spiritual master who gave us the Spiritual Exercises. Or we could talk about Ignatius the leader, the great founder of the Jesuit Order. But today I choose to talk about Ignatius the soldier—in fact, to be more precise, let me correct that: I’d like to talk about Inigo before he changed his name to Ignatius, when he was a soldier before his conversion.

It was the battle of Pamplona in 1521 when the Basque nobleman Inigo was leading the Spanish defense against the invading French forces. At the time, Inigo was no more than 30 years old; his whole life was ahead of him. He nursed many dreams, but serving God and others were not among them. Like most young people those days and perhaps like many young people these days, serving God and others were probably farthest from his mind. His were worldly ambitions, dreams of a distinguished career and fun-filled days with wine and women.

As it turned out, Pamplona was a losing battle, but Inigo most probably got carried away and as some of us are tempted to do, he wanted to play hero and believed he could save the day for Mother Spain. It was, of course, a case of too much daring and too little caution. He underestimated the enemy and overrated himself. So, as the familiar story goes, a cannonball hit this leader of the Spanish forces, shattering his leg, and abruptly bringing the battle to an end. So much for victory. So much for heroism. And to add insult to injury, this fallen soldier had to be carried on a litter all the way back to their castle in Loyola, where he spent weeks in recovery.

But as we know today, that cannonball was no stray bullet. Nothing in Inigo’s life could have been more on the mark, more on target, and more life-altering. When his leg didn’t heal properly the first time, Inigo was so vain that he insisted that his doctors perform a second, more painful surgery, where his leg was broken again just to reset the bones. But even this second surgery failed to repair his leg and his injury.

Inigo’s leg was broken; his heart was broken—but not his spirit. He knew that with his injury he could no longer be the heroic soldier he had always dreamt to be. Through the books he read, God inspired him to revise his dreams. God led him to follow a higher goal in life, to serve a better King. As soon as he could walk, Inigo resolved to leave behind his former life: He exchanged his nobleman’s clothes with a beggar’s rags and offered up his soldier’s sword, but his wound he carried with him all his life.  The Australian Jesuit poet, Andy Bullen, described it as “a wound that would heal all his life.”

I think one gift we can ask for from St. Ignatius of Loyola this evening, on the eve of his feast, is the grace of resilience and self-reinvention.When he lay in bed in the Castle of Loyola, Inigo’s life was in ruins, and he could not, for the life of him, imagine how he could reassemble the scattered pieces of his original dreams and ambitions. He must have been afraid, even tempted to despair, as we ourselves would be. But he received precisely the gift of resilience and self-reinvention.

I am sure many of us can also recall times in our lives when we have met unexpected crises and turmoil, when we have felt like it’s the end of the world as we know it. During such moments we can’t help but feel like hiding from the world and giving up on ourselves. But Ignatius shows us through his own life that these crises are precisely occasions that God uses to invite us to reinvent ourselves, to find our bearings again, so that we can become even more faithful followers of the Lord.

There’s a saying that when God closes a door, He opens a window. Ignatius shows us that when we embrace the opportunity that God sends us, the window He eventually opens for us can be much wider than the door He has closed.Through his story, Ignatius teaches us that if we do stumble and take a fall, it’s okay because that’s what human beings do. The important thing is deciding to pick ourselves up as Ignatius did and more importantly, learning how to walk again. If we trust in the Lord and if we don’t give up on ourselves, God will surely help us. Whatever our troubles, with God’s help, we can always stage a comeback.

Another thing I like about St. Ignatius is the way he keeps things real. He never deluded himself—and he refuses to mislead us—into thinking that following the Lord would be easy. Through his guidelines for the discernment of spirits, Ignatius reminds us always to be on guard against the evil spirit who will do anything and everything to keep us away from the Lord: The evil spirit will attack our weaknesses like a shrewd general. It will seduce us into keeping our failings not only from others but even more importantly from ourselves as well. And finally, it will at times be stubborn and unyielding like one terribly spoiled child.

You see, years after his leg injury Ignatius kept his limp the way our Lord kept His wounds after the Resurrection. I suspect there’s a significant reason for that. By limping all his life, St. Ignatius teaches us in the most vivid of ways one very valuable lesson about this business of following our Lord. And it is this: We can never race ahead of the Lord. We cannot even march beside Him. The most we His followers can do is to limp after the Lord. Because that’s what followers do:  To know in all humility that we can never keep up with the Lord, that we will occasionally stumble, but what matters is that we exert every effort to follow the Eternal King.

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