Sunday, February 19, 2006

Out of Control?

Saint Ignatius' Autobiography, part 24

At the beginning of winter (1522), he came down with a severe illness, and the town placed him in the house of the father of a certain Ferrera, who was later in the service of Baltasar de Faria. Here he was very attentively cared for, and many prominent ladies of the town came to watch over him at night out of the devotion they felt for him. But even after his recovery from this illness, he remained quite weak with frequent stomach pains. For this reason, and also because the winter was very severe, they insisted that he dress properly, wear shoes and a hat, two dark gray jackets of a rough sort of cloth, with a headpiece that was half bonnet and half cap. At this time there were many days when he was eager to hold forth on spiritual things, and to find those who were likewise interested in them. But the time was drawing near that he had set for his departure for Jerusalem.

Therefore, at the beginning of the year 1523 he left for Barcelona to take ship, and although several offered to accompany him, he preferred to travel by himself, since his whole purpose was to have God alone for refuge. One day he was beset by many who argued with him to take some companions on the grounds that he did not know Italian or Latin, and a companion would be of great help to him. He answered that even if the companion were the son or the brother of the Duke of Cardona he would not travel in his company. He desired, he said, three virtues—faith, hope and charity. If he had a companion he would expect help from him when he was hungry, and he would thus trust in him, and be drawn to place his affection in him, when he wanted to place all this confidence and affection and hope in God alone. He spoke thus out of the fullness of his heart. In this state of mind he wished to embark, not merely alone, but without any provisions for the voyage. When they discussed the cost of passage, he obtained free passage from the shipmaster, since he was without money. But he was expected to bring aboard enough ship’s biscuit to keep him, and would not be taken aboard on any other condition.

I can’t help but think when I read this that Saint Ignatius is being something of a stubborn, single-minded control freak. I’m glad I’m never like that! He says his intention is to put all his trust in God, but what if God meant for that to include putting his trust in other people? As he admits he was sick, clearly these people had nothing but his best interest in mind. It reminds me of the story of the man who is caught in a flood. As the waters begin to rise, a rescue vehicle arrives and suggests he get in. “No, that’s alright,” he says, “God will save me.” He climbs the stairs of his three story home until he gets to a second floor window. The waters have now risen beyond the first floor. As he looks out the window, a boat passes by and, seeing him at the window, the passengers are quite insistent that he join them. “No, thanks,” he says, “God will save me.” The water rises beyond the level of the window, and he makes his way to the roof of the house, where he is met by a rescue helicopter, lowering a rope ladder so that he can climb to safety. He waves the helicopter on, screaming, “Don’t worry about me, God will save me.” The helicopter moves on, and eventually he drowns in the rising water. He is taken into heaven and finds himself face to face with God. He is puzzled, and a bit perturbed, and says to God, “I’m sorry if I seem impertinent, but I put all my trust in you. Why didn’t you save me?” God says, “I sent you a rescue truck, a boat and a helicopter. What else did you want me to do?”

I expect this is a point in his narrative when Saint Ignatius might have stopped and suggested that people not choose to imitate him. Already we see evidence of serious damage caused by all his “trusting in God,” in the form of the frequent stomach pains which he is suffering. Like the man in the flood, we are beginning to see here that this “trusting in God alone” is becoming a serious detriment to his health. We have to wonder if this less mature Ignatius isn’t stubbornly trying to control how much he will let God do for him. This may not be trusting in God alone at all, but instead a confused egoism. It seems Ignatius might have realized this himself, for later we see a more nuanced point of view in his First Principle and Foundation of The Spiritual Exercises:

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.
The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created.
Hence, man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him.
Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as afar as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.
Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.

Now it’s possible to see this as a justification for what he is doing in the above passage. However, though that is possible, I think The First Principle and Foundation calls for a level of discernment which the younger Ignatius has not achieved in this instance. Is this choice, we should ask, really “more conducive to the end for which he was created.” I think Ignatius himself later concludes that the risk to his life and health which these decisions involved were not. After all, if God is calling us to do great things for him in the service of others, doesn't that mean we have to safeguard our health, insofar as we're able?


Anonymous Jeff said...

Just found your blog, Br Mark, and wanted to thank you for being so Ignatian, i.e. Catholic. If most SJs had minds like yours, I'd be right there languishing among you.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Mark Mossa, SJ said...

Thanks, Jeff, for your comments.

Though I am, of course, a unique creation of God, I must say that many of my fellow Jesuits are of a similar mind. I'd invite you to languish with us anytime!



7:27 PM  
Blogger angelmeg said...


This is something I have been trying to work out. Is my illness (chronic in nature) something I just simply live with, but that doesn't make me any more or less holy because I live with it. Or can it become something that I can use to bring me to a state of holiness because I am more dependent upon God's providence and care (and the care of medical professionals, therapies, etc)?

Would it be better for me to count it as neither a help or a hindrance and just go about my work as best I can?

I have prayed about this alot. I still am not sure I have come to a strong conclusion one way or the other. This post gives me much to think about. Thanks.


12:11 AM  
Blogger Mark Mossa, SJ said...


I have a more or less permanent illness, which usually is not a problem as long as I take my medication everyday (which I do!). The spiritual significance I have found in it is the knowledge that I can't always be in control, and have to accept my weakness. Even better, is the grace which comes when I encounter someone who is struggling with the same illness. I think that frequently God puts me in these people's lives because no one can understand what they are going through like I can. That God can use me in this way is pretty awesome!


12:22 AM  

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