Give me Ignatius any day

August 1, 2022

Homily by Fr Damian Howard SJ at the Vigil Mass of the Solemnity of St Ignatius of Loyola, Farm Street Church, 6pm, 30 July 2022

And so at last we reach the end of this Ignatian Year. The organisers will be breathing a sigh of relief. The Jesuits will be aglow with gratitude after a fruitful time of prayer and reflection. And a few of us, I wager, who were happily oblivious to the whole thing will be wondering what they have just missed.

Well, what you missed, or at least what missed you, was a French cannonball, a large lump of stone which hurtled into the leg of a young Iñigo Lopez de Loyola, as he was back then in 1521, interrupting his upward social mobility and thus leading to the creation of the Society of Jesus, the Counter-Reformation, the education of Europe, the spread of Christianity to all four corners of the globe, the construction of this beautiful church and much else besides. One apparently random incident like countless others, it changed the trajectory of a human life and with it the course of history, sacred and profane.

There is something vertiginous about that cannonball’s consequences; it was a super-dense event which God made a vehicle of transformative grace. Most things that happen in life aren’t that consequential. What made it so was Iñigo’s response to it. He allowed himself to be changed. He put his life on the line and became available to God. The mature Ignatius would one day see that when someone co-operates fully with God’s grace, their actions can take on a similar density of impact. God, acting through us, is capable of things beyond our wildest imaginings. Under the operation of grace, we can become, if you will forgive me, human cannonballs.

The greatest among Ignatius’ spiritual progeny have always been human cannonballs. They are an immense cloud of witnesses to God’s glory: writers, pastors, community leaders, discoverers, thinkers, linguists, administrators, poets, teachers, humble doorkeepers, and of course martyrs: we always remember here in Farm Street the Jesuits hanged at the Tyburn Tree. But let’s not forget the martyrs of El Salvador and Musami, and the likes of Frans van der Lugt of Homs, Stan Swamy, champion of the adivasis, and now Javier Campos and Joaquin Mora, who only last month gave their lives in solidarity with the poor of Mexico. Great Ignatian women and men all share that cannonball charism that changes lives for the better. Their witness interrupts us in our distractedness and shatters our indifference.

To be a cannonball is to be up for a fight. Some of us find it hard to make the link between conflict and the spiritual life. For Ignatius the connection was obvious. Hauled up repeatedly before the inquisition, gossiped about and undermined at every turn, he knew that doing God’s will did not lead to a comfortable life. He plunged himself into the cosmic battle between good and evil and saw even seemingly banal details of his daily activity in the light of that combat. True Ignatian spirituality doesn’t defang a rough world to make it bearable but seeks out the sweetness and joy of Christ in the very midst of war.

The Spiritual Exercises take us into the fray on the very first page.

“God created human beings”, says Ignatius, “to praise, reverence, and serve God, and by doing this, to save their souls. God created all other things on the face of the earth to help fulfil this purpose. From this it follows that we are to use the things of this world only to the extent that they help us to this end, and we ought to rid ourselves of the things of this world to the extent that they get in the way of this end.”

Words which lay before us the path to life and the path to death, triumph and disaster by pointing to the desires which would pull every human life apart.

What makes a human cannonball is wholeheartedness. Ignatius’ lifetime campaign was against half-heartedness. The average human being spends much time and effort being good. But they expend equal resources on betraying the good, by trusting equally the voices of good and bad spirits. Our desires pull us in many contradictory directions; our divided hearts refuse to choose. They believe and they do not believe. Love and do not love. A chronically undecided heart beats in your breast and in mine. And the fissure of indecision courses through culture and society and the Church too.

One heart, and one heart alone, beats true, has made up its mind. And that whole heart, the wholeheartedness of Christ was Ignatius’ inspiration and goal, to have a heart like Christ’s, to attain the love of God and to surrender everything which threatened that one good.

How is this decided heart of Christ such a potent force?

The heart of Christ frees us from our fear of conflict, anchoring us not in the security of a good reputation or a group of admiring friends but in God’s love and grace.  

The heart of Christ fills us with hope that conflict can be overcome, refusing to be discouraged by counsels of despair.

The heart of Christ alights gently on our indecision, not shaming us but taking us one humble step forward.

The heart of Christ is solidarity, never seeks to degrade, even our enemies, knowing they are loved and graced by God.

The heart of Christ picks up the Cross when necessary and carries it along without fuss.

The heart of Christ is sensitive t othe delicate scent of risen life, knowing its suffering to be the birthpangs ofthe Kingdom.

After communion, we will pray with Jesuits all around the world to be configured to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In so doing we share in a solemn act of Fr General which echoes past acts of consecration in 1872 and 1972. It is fundamentally an expression of a desire for a decision for Christ. It betokens readiness to become human cannonballs, to gather up all the loose strands of our lives into one thick rope able to bear the load of the world’s sufferings. To focus our fickle loves into one great beam of agape.

In our poor, battered liberal culture, such wholeheartedness is not an aspiration. In an oft-quoted passage, John Rawls, the political philosopher, describes Ignatius as mad precisely because he ordered his life to the single over-riding good of God’s love. Our contemporaries, very reasonably prefer to serve a multitude of values and goods. The problem is it makes us unequipped to act decisively for peace and justice, to reorganise our lifestyle to preserve a climate friendly to human life, to give a coherent witness to human dignity in all its dimensions.

Mad? Perhaps, Iñigo, our human cannonball… But give me Ignatius any day. Give me always that magnanimous devotion to God’s love. Let the heart of Jesus everbeat in my breast.

Fr Damian Howard SJ

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