Friday, March 10, 2006

How Practical Must We Be When God Calls?

Saint Ignatius' Autobiography, part 43

Finally, as he found no solution to his difficulty, a Spanish friar told him one day that it would be better to go each year to Flanders and lose two months, or even less, to bring back enough to enable him to study for the whole year. This suggestion he thought good, after commending it to God. Following this advice, he brought back enough each year from Flanders to get along on for the year. Once he went over to England and brought back a larger sum in alms than he had been accustomed to do in former years.

On his first return from Flanders, he began to give himself more intensely than usual to spiritual conversation, and at almost the same time he gave the Exercises to three, namely, Peralta, the Bachelor Castro, who was at the Sorbonne, and to a Basque at St. Barbara, named Amador. Great changes were effected in these men, and they at once gave all they had to the poor, even their books; they began to beg alms through Paris and took up lodgings at the Hospital of St. James, where the pilgrim had stayed earlier and which he left for reasons already given. This caused something of an uproar in the University, for the first two were persons of some standing and very well known. Soon the Spaniards began to take up arms against the two teachers, but not being able to get the better of them with reason and pleading to return to the University, marched on them one day in crowds with weapons in their hands and dragged them away from the hospital.

They brought them to the University, and came to an agreement on this point, namely, that after they had finished their courses they might carry out their purposes. The Bachelor Castro later went to Spain, preached in Burgos for a time, and became a Carthusian in Valencia. Peralta left for Jerusalem on foot as a pilgrim. In these circumstances he was taken in hand in Italy by a captain, a relative who had means of bringing him to the Pope and had a command laid on him to return to Spain. These events did not take place immediately, but a few years later.

Might we accuse Ignatius of being a little responsible here? In my experience of offering people spiritual direction I have found that it is very important to take into account their place in life. As noble as one’s intentions might be, someone who is married and has a family cannot just change his or her life radically and insist that his or her family go along with it. People who have made commitments to do certain things can’t just say, “Sorry, I’ve had a religious conversion, I hope it’s not an inconvenience if I just quit on you now.” There’s a practical side to such discussions which Saint Ignatius takes into account in later writings, but here he just gives us the facts and offers no indication if he advised these men otherwise, as he insisted he did in the case of the two ladies in the similar incident which he related earlier. The compromise they come to seems reasonable. Finish your studies, then if you want to go off and give everything to God, then so be it. Though we don’t know all the details, in this case perhaps, and certainly in the other cases I described, it may be that to make such a rash decision would cause one to commit a sin. Perhaps learning from the type of situation he describes above, in The Exercises and The Constitutions Ignatius makes a point to say that one, for example, could not make a commitment to religious life if one has already made a commitment like marriage which must be kept and precludes the other choice. He also says about obedience that one cannot be compelled to do anything in obedience that would be sinful. So, even if the motivation be a holy reason or desire, one cannot commit a sinful act to achieve such an end.

Of course, our response to our holy desires need not be so practical. It may be that these men were committing no sin by doing what they did. They sold what they had, gave their money to the poor and chose to follow Christ just like he asked. Perhaps the reaction to their action shows not so much that they did something wrong, but that their status got in the way. Perhaps it demonstrates what Jesus said in the Gospel after the rich young man balked at the same invitation: How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God!


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