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He set out limping trusting to luck

· Ignatius of Loyola ·

How can one describe this exceptional book? As a biography, a hagiography or a spiritual meditation? It is all these at the same time but it is the meditation that sweeps the whole story along.

In Inigo, portrait , by François Sureau (Paris, Gallimard, 2010, 154 pages), the biography is reduced to two years in the life of St Ignatius, from the Battle of Pamplona to his departure from Manresa, that is, from 1521 to 1523.

Ignatius (Inigo), the younger son of a respectable family of the Basque Country, neither rich nor famous, entered the service of the Crown of Spain as a page to the Viceroy of Navarre. He lived a courtier’s life, somewhat dissipated but neither more nor less than befitted the customs of his state. It was later that he realized how far he had drifted from God.

At this court he distinguished himself by the pertinence of his opinions and the intelligence of the advice expected of him. He happened to be in the fortress of Pamplona when it was attacked by the army of the King of France which was far more powerful. Inigo, against all common sense, advised resistance and convinced the governor to hold out. This meant engaging in a battle then heroically lost. François Sureau, familiar with military life and the code of honour, gives a splendid description of it. He delights in describing the world of soldiers, the Tercio (the invincible infantry of Castile), the mercenaries, the lansquenets and the knights.

He then recounts with professional precision the operations of the siege, the artillery that demolished the walls, the opening of a breach and the assault, resisted but in the end victorious. It is a wonderful account. It reminds me of the classical passages of French military history, Mérimée’s L’enlèvement de la redoute and Hugo’s Cimetière d’Eylau . In his first battle experience, Ignatius showed he had the metal of a great captain. Then a cannon ball broke his leg, an open fracture from which it seemed that Ignatius was doomed to die.

He did not die but that was the end of his military career and his life at court. After being taken back with great difficulty to the castle of his birth, he realized that his tibia was healing crooked. He ordered unskilled doctors to break and reset his leg. It was butchery but not a groan escaped him. He was once again at death’s door. As he lay in bed, he reviewed his life. People brought him books, novels of chivalric life, Amadís de Gaula which excited him; just as later Don Quixote intoxicated him, as well as the Legende Dorée and the Vita Christi by Ludolph the Carthusian.

His examination of conscience began painfully, coloured by the spectacle of his past sins and his present inadequacy. He fell in love with Jesus Christ, took his leave of the Viceroy and set out limping, trusting to luck, for he did not know what he wanted or rather he did not know what God wanted of him.

At this point the biography becomes a hagiography. François Sureau has conformed to the canon of the lives of saints. Only God knows how many books have recounted the birth of Ignatius to the life of holiness. His path was extraordinarily steep. He cast off his courtly dress and manner, and dressed as a pilgrim. He soon acquired the aspect of an unkempt, ragged tramp but he still did not know where to go. Ignatius received spiritual help from a French monk at the Abbey of Montserrat who was endowed with great tact, but he continued to seek his way. At Manresa he wore himself out with fasting and penance, crushed by his sins, tormented by his scruples. He was admitted to the hospital where he was given the lowliest of tasks. He implored God to enlighten him. But God was silent. He was so silent that Ignatius could no longer pray, he could no longer believe or even think or speak.

Like so many saints he was enveloped by darkness so thick that he was on the brink of despair. He was tempted to give up everything and to return defeated to Loyola. Then one fine day he was set free. He then became St Ignatius, still a soldier, a great captain, but with the Kingdom in view. He became General of the Order which, in accordance with his detailed instructions, was to rebuild the Catholic Church. And his letters, ten months after they were sent, were read in Japan by Francis Xavier on his knees.

Seen from the outside, the adventure of Ignatius and the beginnings of his Society have something of a chivalric novel. Yet François Sureau has blotted out all that could give a picturesque note or a Baroque tint to this adventure. He prefers Ignatius grey, sober to the extreme, polite, unadorned, and who dies alone in his cell.

Sureau’s design is to avoid recounting this saint’s life yet again; rather, his aim is to reveal the invisible interior of a soul who before finding peace went through many trials and torments which he successfully concealed. To espouse a secret spiritual journey as far as this is possible.

François Sureau has laid his talent as a writer at the Teacher’s feet, as if he were seeking to sanctify his own literary act. In this he calls to mind Chateaubriand who claimed to have written the Life of Rancé as a penance imposed upon him by his spiritual director. But Sureau, who claims nothing of the kind, is more rigorous, more honest and purer. His taut, simple style is at the same time open and secret, in the knowledge that he will never be truly clear except to readers who are determined to walk in his footsteps. In fact, the whole of this book is an “exercise” in conformity with the Exercises of St Ignatius. One puts it down edified, if one allows oneself to be. This kind of work is rare everywhere, especially in France. It leaves the spirit satisfied and the heart joyful.




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 13, 2019