My son is preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation this month. The other day, he came home from school worried because he couldn’t remember all of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit on a quiz. He was secretly wondering if this would affect his Confirmation. I told him not to worry; he simply needed to prepare his heart and ask the Spirit to come. The Holy Spirit would not be delayed by his quiz score.
I recounted to my son how St. Ignatius, his chosen Confirmation saint, experienced the power of the Holy Spirit well before he studied theology. As a youth, St. Ignatius trained to be a courtier, so he didn’t receive even a basic elementary education until he sought it out in his early 30s so that he could apply to university. At the age of 33, Ignatius sat among elementary school children to learn Latin grammar! Yet Ignatius experienced the most powerful mystical experience of his life prior to attending that elementary school and without a degree in theology.
In fact, when Ignatius made the decision to follow Christ, he had a lot of zeal but only a basic knowledge of his faith. He had read about the lives of the saints and had decided that if they could do it, he could too. And, being a competitive person, he wanted to outdo the saints. He recounts in his autobiography how it took him three full days to write an account of his sins at Montserrat, how he fasted from all food and even water for an entire week, and how he performed severe penitential practices in his quest to become a saint. During that time, his focus was on his sins, and he saw himself as so worthless that he was even tempted to commit suicide.
Then, one day, as he sat on the banks of the Cardoner River, everything changed:
Near the road is a stream, on the bank of which he sat, and gazed at the deep waters flowing by. While seated there, the eyes of his soul were opened. He did not have any special vision, but his mind was enlightened on many subjects, spiritual and intellectual. So clear was this knowledge that from that day everything appeared to him in a new light. Such was the abundance of this light in his mind that all the divine helps received, and all the knowledge acquired up to his sixty-second year, were not equal to it. From that day he seemed to be quite another man, and possessed of a new intellect. (The Autobiography of St. Ignatius)
There, he suddenly realized how loved he was by God. He understood how precious he was to God. He knew without a doubt that although he was a sinner, he was loved in a way he could not even fathom. His fear-filled approach to God changed into awe and wonder at the depths of God’s mercy and love. He didn’t want to sin, because he didn’t want to be apart from that love. Ignatius said, “It is not hard to obey, when we love the one we obey.” It was a pivotal point in Ignatius’s spiritual journey, and it’s a distinction that sets his spirituality apart to this day: we are sinners, but we are loved sinners.
That powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit left Ignatius with a kind of gratitude, a relational gratitude, that exists only within the experience of encounter; a gratitude that resides within the sacred relationship with God. It was that gratitude, infused with the joy of the Spirit, which impelled him forward throughout the remainder of his life. No amount of learning could have prepared him for that experience, and no amount of learning was required for the Holy Spirit to visit him on that day.
It is the same with my son. With his heart open and waiting, the Spirit will come. The Spirit will not be waiting for a better quiz score.