Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

If Ignatius hadn't missed the boat ...


One of the advantages of saints is that the coming and going of their feast days makes you ask questions. They invite you to muse on how people come to be remembered. What events were crucial for them to be remembered? And does it matter whether and how we are remembered? Good questions for public figures as well as saints.

Ignatius of Loyola, whose feast day is on 31 July, is well remembered for founding the Jesuits, for his Spiritual Exercises and for the effect Jesuits had on European history and in overseas missions. He was a man who made a difference. He also has an army of people who make sure he continues to be remembered: historians, Jesuits, students and teachers of spirituality, and artists.

But during his life that reputation was not a done deal. Indeed one often overlooked event, or more accurately an event that failed to happen, shaped decisively how he has come to be remembered.

In 1537 he could not find a boat to take him and his friends to Palestine where they wanted to live simply as Jesus did. If he had caught the boat, his life would have been looked at quite differently.

Up to that time many of his contemporaries looked at him suspiciously, as people later regarded the hippie children of the 1960s. And with some reason.

Ignatius was brought up in a proud family who had great expectations for him and his brilliant career. He was educated in court, given experience in military leadership, and dreamed of romance and glory.

But then his world changed. He cracked up. Wounded in battle, a convalescent with nothing to do, he found Jesus, slipped off to live in a cave, grew his hair long, dressed in rags and became a guru for devout women, always moved on by the authorities.

At a time when universities were in ferment, he went back to study as a mature student. He fell under immediate suspicion as a religious agitator because of his influence on younger students. He gathered the more impressionable around him and fed them a utopian plan of going to the volatile Holy Land — the India of his day, which needed bright sparks as much as petrol does.

So imagine what might have happened if the boat had come in. It may well have sunk, as so many others did. Ignatius and his friends would then have been a comma in the history books, romantics who died young.

Or Muslim pirates could have captured the ship, and Ignatius forced to row in their galleys. He surely would have learned from his experience. If he was ransomed, what new path might he have taken?

If the group had arrived safely in the Holy Land, the Christian guardians of the Holy Places would certainly have kept a very careful eye on them. At a time of tension between Muslims and Christians they needed young fanatics there like they needed a hole in the head. They may have found a discreet place to live faithfully to their dream, and perhaps been locally remembered.

That is, if the little group of friends stayed together. But the 1960s were full of enterprises that ended in tears when the leader disappeared or the members of the group grew apart, and the group broke up.

We can never know what might have been. But certainly only the political tensions in the Mediterranean in 1537 meant that we can speak today of Ignatius as a world as well as a local figure, of Ignatian spirituality as well as of Ignatius, and of Jesuit spirituality as well as Ignatian spirituality.

But it is certain from Ignatius' own account of his life that he would not have cared how he was remembered. That is a remarkable thing to say of minor Spanish nobility in the age of Don Quixote. His inner journey had led him to focus on what matters and enabled him to set the compass of the heart so that it constantly returned to what mattered most.

What mattered to him was following Jesus along a path that always had to be found in the world that presented itself to him, whether it would be as a pilgrim in Spain, a captive in the Turkish Empire or an administrator in Rome. How others saw him was immaterial.

That perhaps is the reason why the business of making and remembering saints is ambiguous. It makes a gift of being ceremonially remembered to saints and good human beings, like Ignatius, whose own great gift was not to care whether or how they were remembered. A thought for the day for public figures, too.

Dr John Falzon is the Chief Executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Ignatius of Loyola



submit a comment

Existing comments

"How others saw him was immaterial". I know a bit more now about St Ignatius from this article. It takes a lot of humility and courage to truly be a person for others.

Pam | 30 July 2015  

If only modern Jesuits embodied Ignatius' Sentire Cum Ecclesia calling for unwavering adherence to magisterium

Father John George | 01 August 2015  

Times have changed Father George. Perhaps you have forgotten that priests are no longer compelled to take the Oath Against Modernism.

Mahdi | 09 August 2015