I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Am I going out on a limb to say that the Society of Jesus is not what it used to be? I don’t want to be a Jebbie basher: I have studied under and worked with many Jesuits over the years. I have liked most of them, even admired a few. There are a few Jesuits in public life (Fr.s Fessio and Pacwa, for instance, and Fr. Schall before he passed away the year before last) who are eloquent expositors and defenders of the faith as handed on by the Apostles.
These Jesuit defenders of Catholic orthodoxy are outliers, unfortunately. A Jesuit of my acquaintance once dismissively referred to Fr. Fessio as “a complicated man”, with the definite implication that his brothers in the Society would disown him if they could. It’s no surprise that the public face of the Society of Jesus today does not belong to Fr. Fessio or Fr. Pacwa. No, by far the most recognizable S.J. right now is Fr. James Martin, whose mission does not seem to be preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ so much as celebrating, well, more earthy pursuits.
It wasn’t always that way. For a very long time the Jesuits followed the mold of their founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, whose feast we celebrate today. Like St. Paul, who told the Galatians he had been “Crucified with Christ”, Ignatius lived two different lives. His first life, a life of vanity and worldly ambition, was transformed in the crucible of pain and defeat into a new life of sanctity and service. The poor but proud Spanish nobleman Inigo Lopez was indeed reborn as a different man when he became Ignatius.
Like St. Martin of Tours, St. Ignatius had been a soldier before he turned his life over to God. His leg was shattered by a French cannonball in his brave but futile efforts to defend the city of Pamplona. Doctors performed several extremely painful operations on his leg, but were unable to correct the damage fully. It was clear that he would never be a soldier again.
But something else had happened as well. During his months-long convalescence Ignatius had little to occupy his time other than reading and thinking, and his reading was limited by the fact that there were only two books in the castle, a life of Christ and the lives of the saints. That left lots of time for thinking. He eventually noticed that fantasizing about his old worldly ways felt good when he was doing it, but left him feeling empty afterwards. Reflecting about what he had read in the life of Christ and about the saints left him feeling joyful and uplifted. He began to realize that God was calling him to be a soldier on a very different battlefield. He eventually embraced the life of spiritual heroism exemplified by the likes of St. Francis and St. Dominic, and gathered his own group of followers who, in time, became the Society of Jesus.
After his conversion Ignatius sought to live differently. Instead of the military officer’s stern and harsh way of addressing his subordinates, for instance, he employed a humble and gentle mode, even when administering necessary discipline. At the same time, he never lost his “fighting spirit”, even if he expressed it in a new way; and instead of directing his fire at human enemies, he was now concerned with “the principalities, . . .the powers, . . . the world rulers of this present darkness, . . . the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
In fact he saw the inner life of every believer as a battlefield, where each one of us must choose between following the battle standard of Christ, or that of Satan. His distinctive spirituality includes an emphasis on the “discernment of spirits”, which is a prayerful sifting of feelings and other influences to determine whether they are from the Spirit of God or the Spirit of the Devil. Drawing on his own experience of conversion, St. Ignatius forged an extraordinarily effective weapon to assist followers of Christ in this internal combat: the Spiritual Exercises, a potent mix of imagery, prayer, self-examination, and spiritual direction.
Having self-disciplined himself in this way, Ignatius believed that the Christian should then, like a good soldier, submit to his superiors in obedience: “ . . . we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it”, St. Ignatius says in that part of his Spiritual Exercises called “To Have the True Sentiment Which We Ought to Have in the Church Militant”. This is not, however, simply the outward obedience that is required of the man under arms, but also the inner obedience of both the Will and the Intellect, as he explains in his famous Letter on Obedience [text here]. In other words, an obedience born of love, not fear.
This seems a good time to remember the concept of the “Church Militant”, and that each of us is called to be a Soldier for Christ. I’m not talking about soldiering in a literal sense, although given the fallen state f humanity, there will always be need for that. I’m thinking more of the war to defend our souls and the souls of others against the “spiritual hosts of wickedness” that St. Paul mentions in his letter to the Ephesians. Of course, the two kinds of warfare are not unrelated: Jihadists and their allies, for example, can see the spiritual decay in our culture, which only serves to embolden them (just as Osama Bin Laden says he was inspired by the apparent weakness of the United States after our inelegant withdrawal from Somalia). As the forces of Jihad discovered at Lepanto, however, they can’t hope to succeed against a Christendom united in Faith and fortified with Prayer; but against mere Secularism, well, what’s to stop them?
Having said that, it is good to remember that any conflict with Islamism, secularism, or any other “ism” that threatens Christian culture in this world is secondary to the big cosmic struggle. The outcome of that cosmic battle is not in doubt (see the Book of Revelation), but there will be casualties along the way: we have no guarantee of the outcome of the internal battle each one of us must fight. St. Ignatius, a seeker for his own glory who, by God’s grace, was transformed into a soldier for Christ, shows us how to stay on the winning side, and follow the battle Standard of Our Lord.
Featured image top of page: “Ignatius is wounded at the Battle of Pamplona” by Albert Chevallier-Tayler, 1904