Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Pilgrim Journey: Solidarity With the Poor


On the eve, then, of our Lady’s Annunciation, March 24, at night, in the year 1522, he went as secretly as possible to a poor man, and removing his fine clothes gave them to him, put on his desired attire, and went to kneel before our Lady’s altar. Alternating between kneeling and standing, with his pilgrim’s staff in hand, he thus spent the whole night. At daybreak he left, and to avoid being recognized, he took, not the highway that led straight to Barcelona where he would meet many who knew him and honored him, but byways by which he came to a small town called Manresa, where he decided to spend a few days in the hospital and to make a few notes in his book which he carried very carefully with him and which brought him many consolations.

By the time he had covered about three miles from Montserrat, he was overtaken by a man who came after him in great haste to ask whether he had given some clothing to a poor man, as the poor man said he had. Answering that he had given the clothes, tears of compassion started from his eyes, compassion for the poor man to whom he had given his clothing, compassion for him because he had been suspected of stealing them. But no matter how much he tried to avoid esteem, he could not be long in Manresa before the people were saying great things about him, a report having got abroad from what happened at Montserrat. It was not long before they were saying more than was true, that he had given up a large income, and such things.

The fact that Ignatius fully embraces his identity as a poor pilgrim on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation is significant in many ways. Most immediately, it demonstrates the great devotion that Ignatius had for the Blessed Mother, and his desire that she be with him in a special way on this journey. But there is also a deeper significance, one that lies deep within Mary’s womb. The beginning of the pilgrim Ignatius’ journey coincides with that of the pilgrim Jesus—God who has embraced the poverty of human life is now growing within Mary’s womb.

Through his action of giving away his fine clothes and replacing them with the poor, rough and prickly garments of the pilgrim, Ignatius begins to get a sense of what it is like to be poor. But when he learns that the poor man has been accused of stealing his clothes, he breaks into tears. He has moved one step further to solidarity with the poor man. The poor man that he knows is being mistreated, and Ignatius knows himself to be partly to blame, but he also realizes the guilt of his society, a society that immediately assumes that the poor man is lying; that even sends someone to pursue Ignatius in order to verify the man’s story. Throughout his lifetime, the poor would hold a special place in Ignatius’ heart. Indeed, later, when some of the early Jesuits were setting out to participate in the Council of Trent, Ignatius wrote them a letter. In it, he said nothing of what they were to do at the Council. Rather, it was a reminder to them that while they were there, they were not to forget their obligation to be of service to the poor.

The “coincidence” of this experience with the celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus into Mary’s womb would not have been lost on Ignatius. Our need to be in solidarity with the poor is a reflection of God’s solidarity with us in Jesus, who “took the form of a slave” and was born into our human poverty and richness, becoming human in all things but sin. The compassion for the poor man which moves Ignatius to tears is but a glimpse of the greater compassion that God feels for us through the person of Jesus, who came to share in our poverty, and thus come to know us intimately, and completely.


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