At a fork in the road, St. Ignatius stumbled into God’s grace.
I first encountered St. Ignatius of Loyola when I was a boy. My grandmother had volunteered with Father Pedro Arrupe (one of the great Ignatian social activists), and although she was a Baptist, Arrupe’s spirituality deeply impressed her. As she talked with me about the Ignatian practice of seeing God in everything, I became curious about this 16th-century saint. I wanted to get to know him better.
To my surprise, I learned that St. Ignatius had not started out as a particularly holy person. He was not one of those saints who saw visions or performed miracles from the time he was a young child. Instead, St. Ignatius grew up daydreaming about adventure and romance. While he was still a teenager, he became a soldier. He was too busy drinking, brawling, gambling, and flirting to have much time for God.
Then one day in 1521 something happened that changed him forever. In the midst of battle, a cannonball wounded both of his legs. Afterward, he underwent a long and painful convalescence.
This incident, known as St. Ignatius’ “cannonball experience,” has become a metaphor for life’s unexpected catastrophes—those events that force us to come to a standstill, reconsider our lives, and then change direction. Over the past couple of years, our world has had a number of these experiences. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the murder of George Floyd, from natural disasters to the bad news about the inevitability of climate change, we, like St. Ignatius, have been knocked off our feet and had our old lives shattered.
St. Ignatius might have allowed his injury to fill him with anger and bitterness. He could have chosen to continue his life of violence and self-indulgence, bringing hurt to others just as he had been hurt. Instead, he allowed his pain to transform him into someone new. He turned away from human hatred and was remade into a vehicle of divine love.
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Patrick Saint-Jean, S.J. is a native of Haiti and a member of the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus. He currently teaches psychology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the author of The Spiritual Work of Racial Justice: A Month of Meditation with Ignatius of Loyola (Anamchara Books).
With thanks to U.S. Catholic, a publication of the Claretian Missionaries, a Roman Catholic religious community of priests and brothers dedicated to the mission of living and spreading the gospel of Jesus.