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.
Thank you so much for putting into words what I have processed, meditated upon and consciously feel every time I have a cannonball moment. At the time, going through these experiences, I was very conscious of God’s presence but refused to let go of my controlling desires and let God take complete control. It has been a difficult journey, but today in meditation, I finally realized, it is only myself that is preventing me from having that complete loving, presence & full relationship with God. I just need to keep it simple and don’t take on a multitude of tasks to assist others. All I need, is to just strive to do what God teaches us and to pray for others and ask for His strength and clarity.
Marina, thank you so much for sharing part of your journey. I became Catholic after thirty-seven years as a minister’s wife. When my former spouseleft, God very clearly led me to the Catholic Church that very week. I also took time to make a decision to join RCIA as I wanted to be sure it wasn’t a reaction to my circumstances. It has been twenty years now and I am grateful every day. We are all on different pathways but we walk with Jesus. God bless!
What a wonderful reflection!. I am also a convert to Catholicism, and I relate to that feeling of “rightness.” Mother Church opened her arms wide and wrapped them around me. It’s the only way I can describe it. A sense of homecoming, of peace. Of learning the true value of the Eucharist.
Beautiful reflection. And, I wonder, who is the artist for the bird watercolor? It’s gorgeous!
Thanks to all for sharing your stories and insights. I keep learning more from all of our wonderful community of readers.
I’ve learned discernment from the Jesuits; or anyway, I’ve felt my way into the practice. I began attending a Church regularly fifteen years ago; I’d been led there by a kind of whisper of the spirit. And then years later I began also attending a monastery for their weekly services and Compline. As we know, with Covid all was shut down. I’d felt a bit divided between the two Churches before Covid. Both were wonderful. I used the more formal Jesuit practice of discernment to finally throw in with the Monastery community. And yes, the feeling of peace and rightness around this move has made me confident that my decision was correct.
This was not a cannonball moment. It is a significant moment. And it took several years of discernment to come about. I suppose I was growing during that time. Maybe I had to catch up to the moment of choice before it could be made!
Jeff here again: I may have given a false impression. The monastery community includes non monks who come for daily services and compline etc. I haven’t entered as a novitiate!
I thought that’s what you meant! Thanks for sharing. I’m glad that you’ve found a church community that brings that sense of right belonging.
Thanks Marina. Life is a process and a movement. Conversion is like a rolling and a never stopping cannon ball. God bless.
Thank you so much Marina. There is so much here that resonates with my journey and experience (I’m also a Catholic Convert). I found your thoughts on learning to trust God more and more through the small events if our lives very helpful and will try to hold onto that. I am discovering that surrender to God and God’s ideas for my life does indeed take place gradually.
Who would have thought that a sparrow could equate to a cannon ball. God certainly works in mysterious ways.
It is hearting to read your reflection on being a convert. Being a convert myself it resonates with me. I was raised a Baptist. Being a Baptist I grew up reading and re-reading the Bible. I encountered Jesus as a redeeming Savior and friend. Jesus became a friend that I spoke with in reflective prayer each day. But, I longed for more, I sensed there was more. The first time I attended Mass I realized this was the encountering Jesus had been drawing me towards; an encounter with Him as both Divine Word and Divine Sacrament. Was this a cannonball moment? The more I think about it, I think the answer is, “Yes.” And, I am most grateful for that moment of encounter each day 54 years ago.
Such great points. Even if we have a cannonball moment it really is the little moments that bring us to God. It wasn’t just the cannonball that made Ignatius a saint it was all the small moments after that.