Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Take and Receive, O Lord

Today is the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola. I will try to make this post as short and sweet as possible.

There is a statue of St. Ignatius that I have always admired. It depicts the saint, kneeling in profound adoration, looking skyward in deference to Divine Majesty. The saint's eyes are fixed, enraptured, and seized by a childlike wonder. In his hands, a sword, gleaming silver, cradled like a fragile gift in his arms, ready to be put to the service of the Almighty at a moment's notice. As I child, I remember gazing up at this statue and thinking to myself: who is this man? Why does he have a sword? What did he do? Needless to say, I was captured by this image of the saint from the very moment I first laid eyes on it. At certain points in the day, when the sun would revel in all its glory, the sunbeams would strike at the saint's face and set fire to his sword. It was a glorious thing to behold.

The story of St. Ignatius and his First Companions is something most of us are doubtless familiar with. Born a nobleman in the Basque region of Spain, the saint's aspirations in life were as worldly as can be. He desired power and glory, conquests and military victories one ofter the other. Of course, that fateful day came when a cannonball hit Ignatius's leg, shattering it and his ambitions of becoming a celebrated soldier. But with it came the realization that he was being called to something far greater than he had ever imagined. I remember thinking to myself how this incident must have been unbearably painful; I recall getting shivers down my spine and my flesh quailing at the thought of being hit by a cannonball.

Ignatius entered the University of Paris, where he surely must have been the odd one out-- let us recall that he was a good fifteen years older than both Francis Xavier and Peter Faber, his first companions. As well, they excelled academically, and being roommates with Ignatius, were tasked to tutor him in these fields. A Jesuit Scholastic friend once joked, 'If Ignatius were in the University today, he would probably be the scourge of the Jesuits and be placed in Basic Math and Basic English'. So how did this nobleman with worldly ambitions come to found the most academically-inclined (but not necessarily orthodox) orders in the Church today? And what is it about Inigo that makes him such an enigmatic figure still?

I have met many people in my life so far-- good, bad, charismatic, melancholic, scholarly and facetious-- but I have never met someone who has had such a remarkable transformation. I have known former druggies who have become numeraries and seemingly pious individuals fall to the whims of the flesh. Is it impossible then in this present age to become a saint? With all the excesses and self-aggrandizing so prevalent in modern society, it is difficult not to lose focus. We are constantly being misguided and thrown off course by a combination of many things, chief among them our unshakable pride. I admit that I am too often a victim of such circumstances.

I guess it all comes down to the Cross. We have heard it said that the Cross is the source and summit of the Christian life-- to embrace the cross and bear it alongside Our Lord is the path that all Christians must ultimately take. The problem with many of us is that we deliberately choose to live as if the cross were never there, that it is something reserved for a select few while we go on with our lives and indulge ourselves in the grossest excesses possible. The first Jesuits were not immediately accepted by the established Orders-- they viewed La Campania as something of an anomaly, a strange, if heretical, admixture of the divine and the worldly. If you want to get a feel of how it must have felt to be a Jesuit back then, one only has to look, ironically, at this Order's own aggressive 'treatment' of Opus Dei. And unless we forget, many Jesuits have been martyred in the past.

The late Father John F. Hurley, wartime superior of the Jesuits in the Philippines, was almost killed when he defended a Filipina nurse from being gang-raped by a thrall of bored Japanese soldiers. If I remember correctly, they stabbed him several times with their bayonets (I'm not really sure; I'll check my sources and edit this if need be). Still another Jesuit, Father Ignacio Alzina, was criticized and mocked by his superiors for building a monstrance in some deserted, colonial outpost that was 'more fitting for a cathedral in Seville' than a 'rural barrio in the Philippines'. He replied, 'The God of the Filipinos is the same God of the Spaniards!'. But these are local figures: we need only to recall the name 'Francis Xavier', 'Edmond Campion', 'Robert Bellarmine' and a host of other names to be reminded of how much this Order has accomplished. And each of these saints have something in common: they all learned to embrace the Cross. It is an obedience silent and serene, and it is the only obedience worth following: it is obedience done out of love.

When I was growing up, my father always taught me to pray the immortal prayer of St. Ignatius. As I closed my eyes and folded my hands to pray, I would repeat after him these words, first spoken some five hundred years ago by a soldier with a broken leg who was not as academically gifted as his own sons: 'Take and receive, O Lord, my liberty; take all my will, my mind, my memory! All things I own and all I hold are Thine!' I pondered over these lines countless times, absorbing its rhythm before I ever learned to understand what it is all about. I guess it is only now that I am beginning to see what it is all about. It is, simply put, a prayer of surrender, a desire for 'annihilation', of being one with God, and becoming His alone. It is difficult to explain with words alone-- it is something far more visceral, more gut-wrenching than any theology could ever produce. Its irrationality is its own source of illumination and inner clarity, its rhythms the fount of conviction. It is the Cross, as expressed in words.

Our Lord said, 'If anyone wishes to follow Me, let him take up His cross and do so'. And lest we forget, the Cross is not easy to bear: it will wear you down, crush your bones, and be a cause of much ignominy and humiliation for the one who carries it. But it is the only path worth taking. Only by loving the Cross can we ever hope to follow Christ. And it is strange, impossible, even downright insufferable at times; we have but the face of Christ to prod us on in this most arduous of journeys. I imagine that is what St. Ignatius must have been looking at when he knelt down, and offered his sword for the service of the Church. He was looking at Truth.


Andrew said...

We need to pray, and pray fervently, for the Jesuits, that they might once again discover the fervour of their sainted Founder and the many Companions who have shed their blood for Christ and have been raised to the glories of the altar. Perhaps someone should fire a cannonball at the Jesuit curia. Perhaps that would avail should prayer fail or take too long. =)

Archistrategos said...

^ I was reading about the Jesuits of Vietnam the other day. Truly heartrending stuff. They really do need our prayers, and lots of them.

Soutenus said...

What a wonderful post - I have quoted it and linked back to you.
I enjoy your blog.
God bless!