St. Ignatius' Autobiography, Part 11: Rough & Prickly
He continued his way to Montserrat, thinking as usual of the great deeds he was going to do for the love of God. As his mind was filled with the adventures of Amadis and Gaul and such books, thoughts corresponding to these adventures came to his mind. He determined, therefore, on a watch of arms throughout a whole night, without ever sitting or lying down, but standing a while and then kneeling, before the altar of our Lady of Montserrat, where he had made up his mind to leave his fine attire and to clothe himself with the armor of Christ. Leaving, then, this place, he continued, as was his wont, thinking about his resolutions, and when he arrived at Montserrat, after praying for a while and making an engagement with his confessor, he made a general confession in writing which lasted three days. He arranged with the confessor to have the mule taken away, and his sword and dagger hung in the Church at the altar of our Lady. This man was the first to whom he had made known his purpose, because up to then he had not revealed it to any confessor.
In the movie, The Mission, the soldier and slave trader Rodrigo kills his brother in a jealous rage. Able to avoid the legal ramifications, he still cannot avoid the stirrings of his own heart. He seeks the counsel and help of Father Gabriel, the Jesuit superior, in doing penance for his sins, rejecting his old life and embracing a new one in the service of God. In a series of excruciating scenes we watch Rodrigo, who has weighted himself down with all the weapons and accoutrements of his former life, desperately climbing up into the high country to go and serve the very natives he had formerly enslaved. The other Jesuits watch as Rodrigo loses his footing and is pulled by the weight he is carrying, back to where he started, only to stubbornly start over. The other Jesuits beg Father Gabriel to tell him it is enough, but Father Gabriel will not interfere. Few scenes in film so dramatically capture the weight of sin and the power of penance.
On his way to Montserrat, Saint Ignatius feels a similar weight. His general confession, he tells us, lasts three days!! He, too, is eager to suffer the weight of his past sins. His leg barely healed, he spends the night standing and kneeling only. One can only imagine the pain and discomfort he must have endured that night. With the last of his money, he purchases a rough and prickly garment with which he will replace the finer garments he has worn on his journey to Montserrat. He does not intend this pilgrimage to be a comfortable journey. For now, “the great deeds he [is] going to do for the love of God” seem to consist in suffering and atonement for past sins and, like in a great adventure, he is going to do it to the extreme.
Today, we tend to see such practices as excessive, and with good reason. However it is helpful to consider and reflect upon such examples, to try to get in touch with the motivations that lie behind such extreme acts. These are spiritual motivations that seem to indicate a need we have as human beings. Yes, God forgives our sins, but as human beings we seem to have a need to do something to make up for the wrongs we have done in the past. Too often, I think we have a tendency, because as a culture we think it unhealthy to dwell on sin, to dismiss any sort of penance as excessive or even superstitious, but the reason people felt compelled to perform such severe penances in the past is not merely because they were less advanced or sophisticated than we are today, but because they were responding to a need within themselves to make amends and to do great things for God. We don’t have to cause ourselves great physical suffering, but the example of Saint Ignatius can help us to see the spiritual value of things such as sacrifice, fasting and almsgiving in helping us in our attempts to become free of the burden of our past sins and, knowing God’s forgiveness, turn our attention to what good we can do for others.