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The Holy Family in Prayer

Ignatius of Loyola converted by reading the Lives of the Saints.

At the siege of Pamplona in 1521, Ignatius of Loyola appeared in the breach at the head of the bravest Spaniards, and received the French with sword in hand. They fought furiously on both sides, and in a short time there was a great slaughter. In the heat of the battle, a piece of stone hit Ignatius in the left leg, and a cannonball broke his right leg at the same time. The Navarrese, who had been animated by his example, lost courage and surrendered at random as soon as they saw him wounded; but the French made good use of the victory. They took Ignatius to the headquarters of their general, treated him very civilly, and took all the care they thought was due to his quality and value. When his leg had recovered and the condition of his wound allowed him to move, they had him carried in a litter to the castle of Loyola, which is not far from Pamplona.

As soon as he arrived, he felt great pain. The surgeons who were called, having looked at his leg, all judged that there were bones out of place, either because the surgeon who had dressed it had not joined them properly, or because the movement had prevented them from fitting together properly; and they added that, in order to restore these bones to their natural position, the leg had to be broken all over again. Ignatius believed them, and having put himself in their hands, he showed no weakness during such a cruel operation.

His leg, which had been badly dressed the first time, was not so well dressed the second time as to leave a noticeable deformity. It was a bone that protruded too far below the knee, and which prevented the rider from wearing the tight-fitting boot. As he liked good grace and cleanliness in everything, he resolved to have this bone cut. The surgeons told him that the operation would be extremely painful. He counted the pain as nothing, and did not want to be bound or held. They cut his bone to the core, without him uttering a single cry or changing his face.

This was not the only torment Ignatius suffered in order to have nothing distorted in his person: one of his thighs had receded since his wound, and he was strangely afraid of appearing to be somewhat lame. He put himself to torture for several days, having his leg violently pulled with an iron machine. But no matter how hard they tried, they could not extend it to the length of the other one, and so his right leg always remained a little short.

The state in which Ignatius found himself did not accommodate such an ardent nature as his. He still could not walk, and was even forced to stay in bed. Not knowing what to do, and bored as he was, except for his knee, which was healing day by day, he asked for a novel to entertain himself. Amadis and the other books of chivalry, so profane and dangerous, were famous in those days, and the most honest people delighted in them. He loved them very much, and among the various adventures of these knights errant, he was especially charmed by their beautiful feats of arms. Although Loyola’s castle was not lacking in these fabulous stories, there were none to be found there; and instead of a novel, Ignatius was brought the Life of Jesus Christ and that of the Saints.

He read these books with no other intention than to amuse himself, and at first he read them without any pleasure; but he gradually acquired a taste for them and grew so absorbed in them that he spent whole days reading. The first effect of the reading was to admire in the Saints the love of solitude and of the cross. He was amazed to see, among the anchorites of Palestine and Egypt, men of quality covered with cilice, exhausted by fasting, buried alive in huts and caves. Afterwards he said to himself, “These men, so enemies of their flesh and so dead to the vanities of the earth, were not of a different nature from me; why should I not do all that they did?” At the same time, he felt a desire to imitate them, and it seemed to him that nothing would exceed his strength. He intended to visit the Holy Land, and to shut himself up in a hermitage. But these good movements did not last long, and he soon felt his weakness. In addition to the fact that glory was his passion, he loved a lady of the court of Castile and of the first houses of the kingdom; so much so that he forgot in a moment the projects which he had just made. His mind was occupied only with war and love, and instead of thinking of retirement, he meditated on some military exploit to make himself worthy of the good graces of his lady, as he confessed one day to Father Louis Gonzalez, while telling him the story of his conversion. These crazy ideas enchanted him to such an extent that he did not understand that one could live without a great ambition, nor be happy without a great commitment.

When he was tired of dreaming, he read again to pass the time. And admiring again the virtues of the Saints, he found something more wonderful in them than in the actions of all those heroes whose imagination he was filled with. By dint of reading and reflecting on what he read, he knew that nothing was more frivolous than that worldly glory with which he was so infatuated; that God alone could satisfy the human heart, and that it was necessary to renounce everything in order to save oneself surely.

These views gradually rekindled in him the desire for solitude; and what had seemed impossible to him, by consulting his natural inclinations, seemed easy to him, by putting before his eyes the example of the Saints. But when he thought he had made a good resolution, the world appeared to him with all its charms, and engaged him more than ever.

He spent several days dreaming and worrying, not knowing what to do, always attracted by God and always held back by the world. But the thoughts with which he was confronted had very different effects. Those that came from God filled him with consolation and gave him deep peace within himself. The others, to be sure, caused him some pleasure at first, but they left him with a certain confusion in his mind and I don’t know what bitterness in his heart, which made him very sad. One day he realized this, and while he was still very much a carnal man, he began to reason about spiritual things; for God, who wanted to establish in him a great fund of holiness, and to show in his person how far Christian prudence can go when it is accompanied by a great natural sense, did not want his conversion to be made lightly and in jest.

He observed that there were two quite contrary spirits, one of God and the other of the world. He noticed the different properties of these two spirits, and judging from his own experience how much a solid joy that penetrates the soul surpasses a light pleasure that flatters the senses, he had no difficulty in understanding the advantage that the things of heaven have over those of the earth, in order to put man’s heart at rest. These first insights Ignatius had into interior movements were the source of the rules he gives in the book of his Exercises for discerning the spirits which are in us the principles of good and evil.

Enlightened by these lights, and strengthened by an all-divine virtue against the suggestions of hell, he finally determined to change his life and to break with the world. As soon as he had made up his mind, he thought only of the rigorous treatment he could give himself, either because, struck by the fear of eternal punishment, he wished to begin by appeasing the justice of God, or because, not yet having any experience, he imagined that all the perfection of Christianity was reduced to maceration of the body.

He therefore resolved to go barefoot to the Holy Land, to clothe himself in sackcloth, to fast on bread and water, to sleep only on hard ground, and to seek for his dwelling some dreadful solitude. But as his leg was not yet completely healed, he could not carry out so soon what the love of penitence inspired him.

To satisfy his fervor in some way, he got up every night and, filled with regret for his sins, he wept over them at his ease in the dark and in silence. One night he got up, as was his custom, and prostrated himself before an image of the Virgin with extraordinary sentiments, he offered himself to Jesus Christ through the Virgin Herself, consecrated himself to the service of the Son and the Mother, and swore inviolable fidelity to Them. As he finished his prayer, he heard a great noise: the house shook, all the windows of his room broke, and a rather large opening was made in the wall, which is still visible today.

It is probable that God wanted to show by this that He accepted the sacrifice of His new servant: for Heaven sometimes declares itself by these surprising signs in favor of the Saints; witness what we read in the Acts of the Apostles, of the place where the faithful made their prayers, and of the prison where Saint Paul and Silas sang hymns together. Perhaps this earthquake was caused by the demons, who, desperate to see their prey escape, and foreseeing what Ignatius would one day become, would have liked to see him perish under the ruins of Loyola Castle.

While waiting for his leg to heal, he reread the life of Jesus Christ and that of the Saints, not to amuse himself as he had done before, but to train himself on these great models, and to strengthen his good resolutions. He was not content with reading; he meditated deeply, and wrote down what struck him most. It is even said that, knowing how to draw well, he took pleasure in writing down, with pencils of various colors, the most noteworthy actions of the Saints and their most remarkable words, in order to distinguish them from one another and to imprint them more deeply in his memory.

While he was occupied in this way, the eternal truths made such an impression on him that he was surprised to see himself transformed into another man. Thus Ignatius’ conversion was completed where it had begun; and reading did in him what neither the fears of death nor a heavenly apparition and a miraculous cure had done in a mortal illness; so important is it to worldly people, and to the most hardened sinners, that they sometimes read books of piety.

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