The early life of St Ignatius might remind older readers of the hippie 1960s. Certainly many observers of his own day looked on Ignatius with the suspicion with which people regarded the children of the 60s.
Ignatius was brought up in a proud family who had great expectations for him and for his brilliant career. He was educated in court, given experience in military leadership, and dreamed of romance and glory. He would grow up to be an ornament to his family.
But then his world changed. He cracked up. Wounded in battle, a convalescent with nothing to do, he found Jesus, slipped off to live in a cave, grew his hair long, dressed in rags and became a guru for devout women, always moved on by the authorities.
Then, when universities were in ferment, he went back to study as a mature student. He fell under immediate suspicion as a religious agitator because of his influence on younger students. He gathered the more impressionable around him and fed them a utopian plan of going to the volatile Holy Land – the India of his day, which needed bright sparks as much as petrol does.
When Plan A failed, it was time for Plan B – his band offered themselves to the Pope for missions that no one else would take on. And the rest is history. Ignatius spent the rest of his life at his desk, devising Plans A, B, C and D for his band of followers.
It is easy to pass over the significance of Ignatius’ inability to find a boat that would take them to Palestine. Imagine what might have happened if the boat had come in. The ship may well have sunk, as so many others did. Ignatius and his friends would then have been a comma in the history books, romantics who died young.
Muslim pirates may have captured the ship, and Ignatius forced to row in their galleys. He surely would have learned from his experience and have influenced some of his fellow captives and captors. If he had been ransomed, what new path might he have taken?
If the group had arrived safely in the Holy Land, the Christian guardians of the Holy Places would certainly have kept a very careful eye on them. They needed young fanatics there like they needed a hole in the head. Their grand ideas would certainly not have worked, but they may have found a discreet and needed mission in the area and still be remembered for it.
That is if the little group of friends stayed together. But the 1960s are full of enterprises that ended in tears when the leader disappeared, the members of the group found different dreams, and the group broke up.
We cannot know what might have been. But certainly only the weather and wars meant that we can speak today of Ignatius as a world figure as well as local one, of Ignatian spirituality as well as of Ignatius, and of Jesuit spirituality as well as Ignatian spirituality.
But even if the boat had sailed and sunk, Ignatius’ life would have been a gift. He had learned to focus on what matters and found ways of setting the compass of the heart so that it constantly returned to what mattered most. When Plan A proved impossible, or Plan C more helpful, he could move easily from one to the other. What mattered was God’s will, which was always found in the given world, whether it was as a pilgrim in Spain, a captive in the Turkish Empire or an administrator in Rome.
His journey had taken him away from conventional dreams of wealth and status to be at ease with poverty and unnoticed. It was a journey into freedom, but the freedom was not shown in an escape from commitments but in the ability to focus on what mattered. He and his companions were ready to go wherever God’s call led them, whether that was to suit and tie and professional life, to a pilgrim’s staff, or to preaching in a city church.
That readiness to be led and to hang in was not the 1960s style. But nothing else will do in the church and world of our day. The challenge for us, as it was for Ignatius, is to follow Jesus where he leads us, reading our own hearts, the hearts of others in need, and the world in which we live.
– Andy Hamilton SJ