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Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola: An Experience of the Spiritual Exercises


St. Ignatius of Loyola“We could go to hell for imitating the imperfections of the saints,” wrote Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker, but she thought that these imperfections were the very things that endeared us to the saints.

St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, whose feast day we celebrate on July 31, may be one of the most endearing saints because his colorful personality crafted a life that included both privilege and poverty, a quick wit, a flair for fashion, a weakness for women, a stint as a soldier, and a rough and tumble temperament that landed him in jail at least once, maybe twice. The story of St. Ignatius is a rollercoaster ride toward sainthood, if ever there was one.

Is it the events in our lives, or how we perceive them, that hold the power to change us?

Inigo de Loyola, born in 1491 to a large, Spanish family of nobility, held high dreams of romantic love and knighthood. He aspired to be a soldier, triumphant in battle, gaining the glory that came with victory. Perhaps God had other plans. Ignatius was wounded in battle, and in his quiet months of recovery, he chose to let go of his highfalutin fantasies, and opened his mind and heart to the gifts God offered to him in love.

Following his recuperation in Pamplona, Ignatius made a pilgrimage to Montserrat, where he decided to abandon his aspirations of gallant glory and go to Manresa, where he lived a life of humility. His lifestyle was austere, but his prayer was plentiful and potent. It was here that Ignatius penned what became known as the Spiritual Exercises.

The Spiritual Exercises reflect the journey of Ignatius, a man once tied to the trappings of self-importance and pride, but through God's grace, prayer, meditation and contemplative practice, moved to an awareness of God's presence that changed his life, and through him, changed the world.

I entered into the Exercises thirty-five years ago when I retreated from my life for thirty days to spend time with scripture, meditations, and a spiritual director who helped guide me through the process of being stretched in mind and heart, and being led by God to a change in thinking, in feeling, and perception. The fruits of the Exercises were not immediately clear to me (I was very young), but a few years later, I began reading the mystical writings of Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, who captured the essence of what I felt following my experience of the Exercises in his "Mass on the World." He said, "O God, since I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols and make the whole earth my altar."

I never like taking a quote out of context, and Teilhard's reflection "Mass on the World" is worth reading in its entirety. His words, "make the whole earth my altar", are not meant to dilute the power of our celebration of the Eucharaist, but to extend the Body and Blood of Christ to the world so that the mystery of the Incarnation is manifested everywhere, even in the most godforsaken places on this planet. It was always my hope when I traveled to impoverished places around the world, places where poverty and hunger are a way of life, that an awareness of Christ's presence could consecrate us all, empowering us to bless each other with the gifts we were given. The poor have so many gifts, all of which they shared generously, consecrating and changing us as we shared our riches with them. What I gleaned from the Exercises always reminded me that we are all one, standing on holy ground.

I am not a priest, I am a mother who consecrated the delivery room with prayer as my babies were brought into this world, and as they grew, they consecrated my life in ways I could not have imagined. I am a daughter who witnessed the consecration of my mother's deathbed made holy through her suffering and our shared prayers in the two months she lay dying. I am a teacher who was blessed to recognize the sacredness of the classroom where we taught each other about who we were, creatures made in the image of our Creator, living in a world sanctified by Christ.

The Exercises opened doors for me that led to some remarkable places. I know with certainty that there is nothing so secular it can't be made sacred, and through Christ, we all have the capacity to consecrate the world in spite of our imperfections and sins. That's made all the difference.

Lord, make us one.

- by Pat McDonough, Director of Ministry in the NY Region