The familiar features of St. Ignatius’s experience with injury by a cannonball have to do with his learning to discern and to change his life’s course as a result of being stopped in his tracks. But as not all of us have that one moment of being stopped in our tracks, there is another dimension to his story that has come to mean more and more to me: the simple fact that Ignatius was injured and nearly died because he was insistent on following his sense of pride.
The Battle of Pamplona was a conflict that nearly everyone knew from the beginning would be lost; many advised against the futility of the battle, but Ignatius went to fight nonetheless. Probably his passionate nature thought that it would be virtuous to defend a good, if hopeless, cause rather than not to fight at all. It turned out, however, that God had different ideas in mind for Ignatius than Ignatius did. Ignatius had to learn how to surrender to God’s will. Over time, Ignatius probably struggled to some degree with being passionate and idealistic, but he also moved more and more in the direction of being willing to follow God’s lead and to be more practical in discerning what that would look like.
As I reflected on Ignatius’s story, I thought, Gosh, I do not have any single cannonball moment. But I have had many instances where God has had to convince me, again and again, to surrender to finding God in this life—the one that God is inviting me into, and not my ideas about it. These are the times I struggled in wanting to determine the direction of my own life rather than letting God do it. A clear example would be my conversion to Catholicism after having briefly practiced Protestantism following a childhood that did not include much formal religious practice. I found myself unexpectedly attracted to the Eucharist and to the intellectual tradition of the Church. I loved Mass and the peace it brought to me. One of the biggest obstacles to my becoming a Catholic, though, was not really understanding how conversion would make sense in light of the rest of my life. I had questions, such as: What would it mean for relating to my husband and his family, who were not Catholic? How would we raise our children? What if my politics didn’t always line up with my faith? What if I was bad at being Catholic? What if…?
The “what ifs” stood as a negative energy that moved against what for years I had experienced as a pretty clear set of consolations. I felt a deep sense of peace when I was at Mass. I had an intuitive sense of the “rightness” of my pending decision that lasted for many months. Intellectually, I felt both curious and consoled by many aspects of the intellectual tradition, such as works that discussed the nature of hope or articulated a call to justice for all people. At an even more basic level, I felt the knowledge that this was where God wanted me to be so that I could be the most myself. But still I hesitated.
Eventually, after much prayer and discussion with friends and family, I found myself sitting in a church pew with an overwhelming sense of interior peace. A week before, I had even seen a small sparrow that had flown in, sitting more contentedly on the floor than I was in my seat. Its presence made me think of the line in Scripture about how not even one sparrow was forgotten by God. The next time that I was in church, I simply knew in my heart that everything would be OK, and I allowed myself to let go into this desire for God that God clearly also wanted for me. I went through the process of formally becoming a member of the Church, and while it has not been a perfect place, it has been the right place for me.
Looking back these many years later, it is impossible to understand myself or many of my primary activities apart from this faith: my writing, my teaching, my relationships with God and with others and, yes, my family. But at the time, my conversion placed God at the center of my life precisely at a moment when all I could think was: This does not make sense.
Handing my life over to God with a sense of peace and trust is not a lesson that I learned once and have ever since lived out perfectly. Instead, my life has been a movement towards greater trust and surrender in God, a movement that I have to make again and again, in new forms. God does seem to keep sending the occasions for increased trust and surrender. Not all have been “cannonball moments” that stop me in my tracks and completely change my direction. Sometimes something much quieter and simpler required me to say, “Yes, Jesus, I trust in you” (and not only in myself)—like a decision to be faithful to a family relationship that I found trying or to persevere through a difficult spot in the writing process. It is that cumulative set of choices to say yes to God, discerning the best we can and trusting in God to take it from there, that I have found so central to the spirit of Ignatius.