This sermon was preached by Rev Sue on Wednesday 31 July 2019.
St Ignatius came was born in 1491 in the town of Loyola in the Basque region of Spain. He was the youngest of 13 children. His mother died when he was only 7, and he was brought up by the wife of the village blacksmith. As a young nobleman he was not in the least saintly. He gambled and brawled, and even had a criminal record for fighting. He longed for honour and fame, so he joined the army. He rose to a position of leadership, and, at the age of 30, led his troops into a brave but misguided battle they could not possibly win. Luckily for him, he was not killed, but only injured, by a French cannonball that hit both his legs. After several operations (without anaesthetic) the doctors warned him that he was about to die. But he took a turn for the better, recovered sufficiently for the doctors to amputate part of one leg. Naturally, it took him months to recover. He stayed at a family castle to convalesce and to pass the time he daydreamed about noble deeds, feats of great daring, and winning the love of a beautiful lady. But he felt empty and disillusioned. He asked for books about heroic deeds, but all they could find in the castle were books about the saints. So, he fantasised instead about doing great deeds for God and walking barefoot to Jerusalem. He found that these daydreams left him feeling contented and joyful. He decided to follow Christ and when he was well enough to leave the castle, he laid down all of his military equipment in front of a statue of the Madonna, and gave his other clothes away to a poor man. He walked to another town, and found a bed in a hospital in exchange for work. He begged for his food. And every spare moment was spent in nearby cave, praying. He suffered from doubts, anxiety and depression but he realised that these were not from God. He kept a journal of all his thoughts and feelings.
And that for us is the crucial part of the story. But if, like me, you cannot bear not knowing the ending, I will quickly tell you that he went to high school to learn Latin alongside the children, then onto university. He had not one, but three interviews with the Spanish Inquisition who were suspicious of independent thought. He founded the Society of Jesus, the strict religious order nicknamed the Jesuits, which worked largely in education. He died aged 64.
His gift to Christians everywhere was a new understanding of how God can speak through the imagination and the emotions. His experiments with daydreaming and journaling developed into a systematic method of prayer known as the Spiritual Exercises. You may have heard people talk about St Beunos in North Wales where there is a retreat centre offering everything from weekends to a full month praying in the Ignatian way.
The idea is simple but powerful. Take any story from the gospels. Let’s say you chose the story of Zacchaeus. You imagine yourself in Jericho. You could be a person in the crowd, a disciple or Zacchaeus himself. In your mind’s eye you picture the scene. There is Zacchaeus hiding up a tree. The warm sun, the crowds, the trees. It doesn’t matter at all whether that is how Jericho would really have looked – you don’t worry about detail. For instance, you might be dressed like someone from a Bible story, or you might be wearing your favourite sundress. You feel the fabric. You listen to the noise of the crowds, smell the air. Look at Zacchaeus. What does he want? Watch as Jesus comes forward. What does he look like? How does he move? Does he look you in the eye? Hear him say “Zacchaeus, come down, I’m coming to your house today”. How are you feeling? Watch Zacchaeus’ reaction, and see him come down the tree, offer to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back those he has treated. How does Jesus react? What does he say? Then let Zacchaeus go home to prepare the meal. Now comes the really important bit. Go to Jesus yourself or let him come to you. How do you look at each other? What is said? What happens? After you have finished imagining the scene, write in a notebook about what came to you. Nothing is right or wrong. Everything teaches you about yourself and your relationship with God.
Today’s gospel was about the pearl of great price. Ignatius found what his heart most desired when he turned away from his worldly life and followed Christ instead. Contemplative prayer is one way to explore your deepest longings and what you really desire from God.