One of St. Ignatius’s gifts to us today is his wisdom about discernment. What Ignatius first noticed while lying in bed recovering from a severe war injury was the way God, through the Holy Spirit, guides us, leading us to discern why we feel longing in the first place. Let me tell you a bit of Ignatius’s story to illustrate what I mean.
St. Ignatius was born in Spain and grew up in a wealthy family. He was a soldier and a well-known womanizer. In a battle in Pamplona, Spain, he was struck in the leg and severely injured by a cannonball. He recovered at his family’s castle. He was an avid reader, used to reading chivalrous romances. During his recovery, he asked for books to pass the time in bed. There were no books in the castle he was used to reading. Only two books were available: a book on the life of Christ and one on the lives of the saints.
When he read these two books, he noticed something happening within his heart. There was a longing awakened, a longing to follow in the footsteps of the saints. As he thought about the lives of the saints and following Christ, he noticed within him a change. His heart seemed lighter. He was happy and joyful. What Ignatius noticed over time was that when he dreamed of imitating the saints, his peace and joy stayed for a long time. When he pondered returning to the worldly ways he lived prior to his injury, he felt delight for a short while, but it quickly dissipated and left him feeling dry and unhappy. Over time, Ignatius realized that these were holy desires being awakened within him to imitate the life of the saints and follow Christ. His desires were affirmed by God in prayer when he had a vision of Mary that brought him joy and peace for a long time. From that moment on, God became the focal point of Ignatius’s life. He turned completely away from the path of wealth, womanizing, and battle. He acknowledged that the longing within him was his longing for God and also God’s longing for him. As it says in his autobiography, “The result of all this was that he felt within himself a strong impulse to serve our Lord.”
We now know that what St. Ignatius experienced during his recovery time was the beginning of the “discernment of spirits.” It all began because of a cannonball. His long convalescence allowed him time to read and to ponder, to think, and to pray. Ignatius in a sense was going to his inner chapel and paying attention to his longings for God—and God’s longing for him.
The same is true for us. Just as the Holy Spirit awakened a longing within Ignatius to follow Christ and God confirmed this by giving Ignatius peace, our longings are awakened and confirmed. As we celebrate the solemnity of Pentecost this Sunday, we are reminded how we and others can be transformed by the Holy Spirit, just as the Spirit enabled the apostles to speak in different languages. For me, it is the Holy Spirit that empowers me to transcend all that feels impossible in my life and to have the courage to do what God asks of me – the courage to walk a whole new path.
In our new blog series, When The Road Forks, our Into the Deep writers will share their own “cannonball moments” – times in their lives, just like Ignatius being struck in battle, that have entirely changed their direction, awakened and confirmed new longings, and set their feet on a new path. Thanks to Ignatius, we now have five-hundred-year-old wisdom to lean on to help us notice God at work in our lives.
*Excerpted from The Inner Chapel
- Join us in prayer for the beginning of the Ignatian year with this prayer from the Jesuits.
- Check out our Ignatian Year resources here.