Monday, February 20, 2006

Leave the Blancas, Take the Biscuit: Lost In the Ordinary

Saint Ignatius’ Autobiography, part 25

When it came time to arrange for this biscuit he suffered great scruples. “Was this the faith and the hope that you had in God, of His not failing you?” The thought caused him a great deal of annoyance, and at length, not knowing what to do, as there were probable reasons on both sides, he made up his mind to place himself in the hands of his confessor. Thus, he made known how great was his desire for perfection, and for the greater glory of God, and the reasons which caused him to doubt whether he should bring anything along for his support. The confessor decided he should ask what was necessary and take it along with him. Asking it of a lady, she enquired where he was going. For a moment he doubted whether he should tell her, and finally did not dare tell her more than that he was going to Italy and Rome. Taken by surprise, she said, “You want to go to Rome? Why, there’s no telling how they return who go there,” meaning to say they who go to Rome get little spiritual profit from it. His reason for not saying that he was Jerusalem bound was his fear of vainglory, a fear that so afflicted him that he never dared to say what land he came from or to what family he belonged. Finally, he got on board with his biscuit. But when he came to the seashore, finding five or six blancas in his pockets, all that was left of what he had begged from door to door, as this was the way he used to get along, he left them on a bench there on the seashore.

He went aboard, having been in Barcelona a little more than twenty days. While he was still in Barcelona before embarking, he sought out as usual all spiritual persons, even those who were living at a distance in hermitages, to hold conversation with them. But neither in Barcelona, nor in Manresa, could he find anyone to help him as much as he wished. Except in Manresa, that woman mentioned above, who said that she asked God that Jesus Christ appear to him, was the only one who to him seemed to be deeply versed in the spiritual life. Therefore, after leaving Barcelona he lost for good this eagerness to seek out spiritual persons.

In today’s passage Saint Ignatius seems a bit lost and unsure of himself. He is troubled by his scruples and seems unable to find anyone sufficiently spiritual to talk to. Is he losing some of his zeal, as he observes, “he lost for good this eagerness to seek out spiritual persons”? Or is he, perhaps, being challenged to give himself over to things somewhat more ordinary, like having a biscuit so that he can eat on his way to Jerusalem? There seems to be a lesson here that even a person of great holiness just isn’t always going to have it all together.

Speaking of the ordinary, I am struck by the lady’s response when Ignatius says he’s going to Rome. There, she seems to believe, he will also face the dilemma of finding too much of the ordinary and not enough of the spiritual.

It reminds me of a story in Boccaccio’s classic medieval text, The Decameron. Like The Canterbury Tales, it is a collection of stories told by a group of people escaping The Plague. In the second story of Day 1, he tells the story of a man named Jehannot, who was friends with a rich Jew named Abraham. Jehannot is eager that Abraham might convert to Christianity, and tries to get him to do so. Finally, Abraham announces one day that he is going to travel to Rome to learn more about the Christian Church, and whether he might be compelled to convert. Jehannot is not pleased with this announcement and determines that Abraham’s conversion will never happen for the same reason expressed by Ignatius that “they who go to Rome get little spiritual profit from it.” For Jehannot knows that in Rome Abraham will find a Church represented by people who are far too ordinary—subject to the same sins and corruptions of all human beings. Despite Jehannot’s protestations, Abraham does indeed go to Rome, and upon his return he and Jehannot have the following conversation (the translation is an old one, but I think you can get the gist of it):

After some few dayes of resting, Jehannot demanded of him; what he thought of our holy Father the Pope and his Cardinals, and generally of all the other Courtiers? Whereto the Jew readily answered; It is strange Jehannot, that God should give them so much as he doth. For I will truely tell thee, that if I had beene able to consider all those things, which there I have both heard and seene: I could then have resolved my selfe, never to have found in any Priest, either sanctity, devotion, good worke, example of honest life, or any good thing else beside. But if a man desire to see luxury, avarice, gluttony, and such wicked things, yea, worse, if worse may be, and held in generall estimation of all men; let him but goe to Rome, which I thinke rather to be the forge of damnable actions, then any way leaning to grace or goodnesse. And, for ought I could perceive, me thinkes your chiefe Pastour, and (consequently) all the rest of his dependants, doe strive so much as they may (with all their engine arte and endevour) to bring to nothing, or else to banish quite out of the world, Christian Religion, whereof they should be the support and foundation.
But because I perceive, that their wicked intent will never come to passe, but contrariwise, that your faith enlargeth it selfe, shining every day much more cleare and splendant: I gather thereby evidently, that the blessed Spirit is the true ground and defence thereof, as being more true and holy then any other. In which respect, whereas I stood stiffe and obstinate against the good admonitions, and never minded to become a Christian: now I freely open my heart unto thee, that nothing in the world can or shall hinder me, but I will be a Christian, as thou art. Let us therefore presently goe to the Church, and there (according to the true custome of your holy faiths) helpe me to be baptized.

Now some might find this a harsh attack on the Church, but I have always found it comforting, especially at times when the imperfection of the ordinary seems much more apparent than the spiritual reality and, like Ignatius, I feel a bit lost.


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