Discernment is a term that permeates the writings of St. Ignatius and his brothers in the Society of Jesus. Every Jesuit, as well as every person who is guided through the Spiritual Exercises, is called to discern what specific road God is asking them to follow. On the Mall in the center of campus at Saint Ignatius High School is an inscription that reads: “The purpose of our education is to give a young man the tools whereby he can answer to the question, ‘What does God want from me?’” The author of that quote, the beloved President Fr. Robert J. Welsh, S.J., ‘54, was a man who did his best every day to make that purpose known to all with whom he came into contact.
In these first weeks of the Ignatian Year it is fitting to turn our attention to this most important aspect of Ignatian spirituality not only because it is an essential component of any journey with St. Ignatius, but because it was, for the man himself, the starting point of his own pilgrimage from a life dedicated to personal glory to one dedicated to the glory of God.
Fr. Arturo Sosa, S.J., the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, in promulgating the four themes of the Ignatian Year, has placed at the top of the list the need “to show the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and discernment.” For Ignatius, these two - the Spiritual Exercises and discernment - came after a life-altering event that placed him at the crossroads and changed not only the nobleman soldier Iñigo Lopez de Loyola but the Church and the world as well.
While leading Spanish troops against the French at the Battle of Pamplona - a northern Spanish city known today for the “Running of the Bulls” - our hero happened to be in the right place at the right time. A French cannonball and the right leg of Iñigo occupied the same space at the same time and, as usually happens, the cannonball won that little game of musical chairs.
I said “right place at the right time” because we have the benefit of hindsight and know that without that event the world would be a very different - and less good - place. That “cannonball moment” - as it has recently been christened by those who are gifted at such namings - was seen at the time as a tragedy by Iñigo. Who could look at such an event and see the bright side? Who could see this as an example of what J.R.R. Tolkien would dub a “eucatastrophe,” a happy catastrophe?
Yet, that event forced Iñigo to stop his life of worldly excitement, confined him to a bed, and left him with only his thoughts and two books - a Bible and the Lives of the Saints. What God and a willing Iñigo were able to do with that “cannonball moment” produced the Spiritual Exercises, the Society of Jesus, dozens of saints, missionary efforts throughout the world, parishes, retreat houses, high schools, universities, and institutes of higher studies to name just some of what came about because of that millisecond where metal forced its way through flesh and bone.
Everyone has some form of a “cannonball moment” in her or his life. Sometimes it is huge - physically, emotionally, or spiritually debilitating - and other times it is subtle, maybe a feeling of empathy for someone who is struggling in life or who has been treated uncharitably, or even, like the Old Testament prophet Elijah, it comes in the form of a “light quiet sound” rather than in a violent wind, an earthquake, or a fire.
These “cannonball moments” both great and small can determine a life path of incredible beauty and courage; of faith, hope, and love. But we, like Iñigo as he sat despondent in his bed in the Loyola family castle, need to recognize those moments, otherwise we will remain merely wounded soldiers in the battle of life rather than victorious warriors who are welcomed home by the true King whose glory we have defended.