A man on a mission, a companion of Jesus
There’s a set of seventeenth century portraits hanging along a corridor of the Jesuit residence in Oxford; as I walk past them I notice there’s always a little thrill in my heart. They depict a group of thoroughly European Jesuits. But their clothes and facial hair are those of Chinese mandarins. They have gone very native. And the forbidding look on their faces seem to say, “No need to worry; we know exactly what we’re doing.”
For me, they stand for all those Jesuits who crop up through history in unexpected garb: Hindu holymen, court astronomers, architects, congressmen, peace activists, linguists, doctors, even Popes. Some people find it troubling that Jesuits get around so much. “Shouldn’t you just have parishes like normal priests?” It doesn’t trouble me in the least, quite the reverse. But I do struggle to explain the Jesuit thing in a neat slogan. What on earth are they up to? The only explanation lies in listening to what Ignatius of Loyola has to tell us about union with God.
Blessed John Henry Newman famously said: “God has created me to do Him some definite service.” Take that thought seriously, put it right at the heart of how you live, and you begin to grasp the essentials of Ignatius’ message. Ignatius was a man who discovered how to fathom God’s will for him personally, and who was then intent on putting into practice, no matter where it took him or how much it cost. Ignatius was a man on a mission, God’s mission, and that’s what made him a companion of Jesus, the exemplary missionary, always on the move.
It’s true that Ignatius, thanks to Baroque iconography, is rarely depicted on the open road. His statues usually have him dressed in a black robe, holding up the book of the Jesuit Constitutions. And Rubens ensured that no-one would ever look quite as good in a chasuble. Yet the core of his holiness was his unconditional readiness for the mission which God made known to him as his life unfolded.
Those three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, grow out of the great experiment that was his life, each to buttress his service of the mission.
First came chastity. The young Iñigo, as he was baptised, had been no angel. But with his conversion experience came a clear direction, a purpose which consumed all his energies, all his passion. There could be no squandering of precious resources on philandering. An intense contemplation of the Madonna and Child bleached out the carnal memories imprinted on his soul, and one day en route to Montserrat he offered up a vow of chastity, after which he was never troubled by sexual distractions.
If chastity marked a founding rupture, the abiding hallmark of his new life-mission was his poverty. A life on the road has no place for clutter. So, Ignatius’ poverty made him mobile, but it also opened him up to relationship. Companionship with Jesus meant total reliance on the Father’s providence and, when the time came, sharing with other companions too. Poverty transformed him, gradually changing his tastes and preferences, freeing him up to be present to new people and surprising situations.
Ignatius practiced poverty for decades before it occurred to him to vow it. And when he did, it was all about relationship, a means of uniting his little band of student companions, now happily graduated and wondering what to do. A common vow of poverty would bind them together into the service of God’s mission – and as the young Society of Jesus. It is no coincidence that at the very same Mass the companions seem to have promised to journey to Jerusalem, or if that didn’t work out, to offer themselves to the Pope himself.
The vow of obedience to a mere Jesuit superior comes last of all. After Ignatius was elected General, the companions swore obedience to him in April 1541 in the imposing Roman basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls. This served to form the group into a coherently organised body so their charism could be sustained and offered to others, even as the companions dispersed to the four corners of the world.
So, the form of religious life Ignatius founded is a means for nurturing an electric missionary spirit, so that others, many others, can make their own journey, have their own experience of being sent out on mission with Jesus, no matter where it takes them: China, Japan, Abyssinia, death on the Tyburn Tree.
But I started with a quotation from Newman, and I have to be honest and say that Newman and Loyola are not quite saying the same thing. Newman didn’t expect us to know our mission in this life; he believed that if we were faithful to Christ we would end up fulfilling it by default. Ignatius is bold, isn’t he, to think you can discern God’s will in the here and now. It’s a boldness some are suspicious of. After all, it’s easy to deceive yourself, to baptise one’s self-serving fantasies and call them God’s plan. Those forbidding Chinese figures, mightn’t they be just a little too anxious to be seen?
It’s a healthy suspicion to have and one to which Ignatius himself was more than alert. The Ignatian orders have had more than their fair share of dazzling heroes and heroines: Xavier, Ward, Campion, people whose service of the mission drew them in plot-lines worthy of blockbuster movies. But mission is rarely like that. It is usually a humble thing. The one reward of being Provincial is discovering a depth of commitment to the mission in a Jesuit I had never considered remarkable, someone I’d walked past many times with no thrill at all. Hopkins, of course, wrote a poem about just that. It’s dedicated to a Spanish brother, St Alphonsus Rodriguez, whose mission was to answer the door to the residence in Majorca. No epic mission there, you would think. As Hopkins puts it: “Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray”.
Earth hears no hurtle, no, but there is a silent, invisible exploit in daily fidelity to the mission, whatever it may be. And that spirit of discretion is far more attuned to the mission of Jesus, more faithful to the imitation of Christ, than anything that catches the eye. Because mission means service, and true service is self-effacing. It never draws attention to itself. The more faithful you are, the less there is to see. Isn’t that the point of the Baroque style which drew so much inspiration from Ignatius and his spirituality? To bring to light the hidden drama in every ordinary life, the drama of being sent by God, an ineluctable meaning offered to every soul.
Think of it: some work has been committed to you which has been committed to no-one else. You have your mission. Have you any idea how it could change your life for ever if you asked the Lord to disclose it to you, so that you too might gather up all the strands of your very self, offering it all in love ad maiorem dei gloriam?
Homily of Fr Damian Howard SJ, given at Farm St Church on the Feast of St Ignatius 2019.