Saturday, March 04, 2006

Unjust Imprisonment and Solidarity With the Poor

Saint Ignatius’ Autobiography, part 36

After another four months, when he was established in a small house outside the hospital, an officer of the law stood at his door and called him: “Come with me a moment.” He brought him to the jail and told him not to leave until other arrangements were made. This was in summer, and as his movements in the jail were not much restricted, many people came to visit him, and he accomplished as much as he would have had he been free in the teaching of catechism and giving the Exercises. He never consented to call a lawyer or attorney, although many offers were made to him. He remembers especially Teresa de Cardenas who sent someone to visit him who made many offers of obtaining his release. But he accepted nothing, always answering with the words, “He for Whose love I came here will release me when it seems good to Him.”

He was eighteen days in custody without any examination or knowing why. At the end of this time, Figueroa came to the prison, and questioned him on many points, including this, whether he had commanded the Sabbath to be observed. He also asked whether he was acquainted with two women, mother and daughter. He said that he was. And whether he had known of their departure before they actually left. This he denied under oath. The Vicar then laid his hand on the pilgrim’s shoulder with every sign of joy and told him: “That is the reason for your being here.” Among the many people who followed the pilgrim’s talks, there was a mother and daughter, both widows, the daughter very young and beautiful. They had made great progress in the spiritual life, especially the daughter. Although they were of noble birth, they had mad a pilgrimage on foot to the veil of Veronica at Jaen, by themselves, but I don’t know whether they begged their way. This started a great deal of talk in Alcala, and Doctor Ciruelo, who had some responsibility over them, thought it was the prisoner who had induced them to make the pilgrimage, and so had him arrested. As the prisoner heard what the Vicar told him, he asked: “Would you like me to enlarge a little on this matter?” He answered, “Yes.” “Well, then, you ought to know,” said the prisoner, “that these two women had often insisted with me that they wanted to go through the whole world, serving the poor now in one hospital, now in another. I have always withdrawn them from such a resolve, since the daughter is so young and so beautiful, and so on, and I told them that when they wanted to visit the poor they could do so in Alcala, and bear the Blessed Sacrament company.” At the end of the conversation, Figueroa took leave with his notary who had taken everything down in writing.

At this time Calixto was in Segovia, and learning of this imprisonment, he came at once, although but recently recovered from a serious illness, and bore him company in his prison. But the prisoner told him it would be better to go and present himself to the Vicar. The Vicar received him kindly, and told him that he would send him to the prison since it was necessary for them to be there until the women returned, to see whether they confirmed the statements made. Calixto remained in the prison a few days only, as the pilgrim saw that he was doing himself more harm because of the poor state of his health, since he was not yet quite fully recovered. With the help of a doctor who was a good friend of his, he had Calixto released.

Pope John Paul II often emphasized solidarity with the poor. Ignatius spoke of being poor “with Christ poor.” When we hear these phrases, it’s not always immediately clear to us what they mean. In some ways, it seems, you have to experience solidarity with the poor to really understand what it means. It’s something that goes beyond merely feeling sorry for the poor and being, however generously, inclined to help them. It involves some experience of being poor yourself, of being in a situation in which your name, status, money, connections, etc. cannot get you out of. We see the converse of this when wealthy persons and celebrities are found innocent of serious crimes even when there seems a preponderance of evidence indicating their guilt or, if they are found guilty, they receive a more lenient sentence than a less affluent or well-known person might receive. We know for a fact that frequently people without money or influence are often held prisoner longer than they should be, do not receive adequate representation and are found guilty based on far less evidence than what is deemed insufficient evidence in high profile cases. This is the experience of the poor, and this is why Ignatius’ experience strikes me as a good example of the kind of thing that would count as an experience of solidarity with the poor.

In a certain sense, then, I can imagine that Ignatius is in some ways quite pleased with how he is being treated. In younger days, he had been rescued from such situations owing to his family’s name and wealth. But now he finds himself poor in money and connections, being imprisoned because he is believed to have unduly influenced the actions of two ladies of higher social status. His word that he did not encourage them in their pilgrimage, but indeed discouraged it, is not good enough. He is to be held prisoner until the ladies in question return and confirm his story. The young Inigo de Loyola would never have been treated in such a way! But the pilgrim Ignatius is no doubt consoled at this experience of being poor “with Christ poor.”

Many holy men and women throughout history have had this experience of being unjustly imprisoned. Each of them, after some questioning and suffering, seems to achieve a place of peace and even consolation at being poor and suffering as Christ did. Ignatius’ time of imprisonment is minimal compared to that endured by someone like Walter Ciszek, SJ, who spent over 20 years in the Soviet Gulag, held as a “Vatican spy” and for many years thought dead. He chronicles his experience in With God in Russia. Such stories prompt the question: What purpose could God have for such an experience? There is in it the mystery of suffering. But also if you read the story of someone like Walter Ciszek, you wonder at all that God was able to do in him and through him in the worst of conditions, and the ordinary heroism which it inspired. Such experiences not only result in a sense of solidarity with the poor, but in a life transformed.


Blogger crystal said...

This makes me think of John of the cross who also did some jail time.

1:39 PM  

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