Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Meeting Ignatius in Rome



Yesterday Becky Eldridge, one of the writers at dotMagis, asked: What would you say if St. Ignatius came to visit? I can't claim to have ever imagined that scenario before, but I have often wondered about the encounter we might have had in the 16th century.  I've always, ever since I was a little girl reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, imagined myself spending time with the people who have populated my imagination, so it's not surprising that I would have done the same with someone whose life work has had such a profound effect in mine.  

I wish I were a fiction writer but, sadly, I never get beyond four or five pages.  But here's what I think such a story would look like:


Let's make my father in the 1530s the same kind of man that he was in the 1950s: a small business owner (since we're talking 16th century England, we'll make him a textile merchant) with little interest in religion or, especially, in pomp and ceremony, but a passion for educating his children, girls and boys alike.

In a world in which some observance of Christian faith was expected, he might well have been drawn to the Anglican church emerging from Henry VIII's 1529 dissolution of his relationship with the Pope.  He would have understood Sir Thomas More and Cardinal John  Fisher to have been men of integrity and would have been dismayed by their executions in 1534, but he would have thrown in his lot with the Anglicans.  He might have liked the Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1549.  I doubt that he would have been much impressed by what he learned through his European business travels of John Calvin's theology of predestination, but he would have been attracted to the Reformers' ideals of less in the way of church hierarchy, their commitment to simplicity in worship, and their emphasis on preaching in lieu of ritual.

As for myself, I imagine a young woman much like Thomas More's daughter Margaret:  literate, educated, and aware of and interested in business and politics.  Since in my real life my mother died during my childhood, I would write the story of my 16th century self along the same lines, and see my fictional self by 1550 as a companion and assistant to my father, traveling with him on occasion and more knowledgeable about other European cultures and customs than many of my peers. I would have been comfortable among Jews and Catholics as well as Protestants, due to my exposure through my father's  work to worlds beyond my own.

Forward to 1553: Henry's daughter Mary ascends to the throne and, as a follower of her mother's Catholic faith, immediately turns the tables in England and institutes a determined persecution of the Protestants, which will continue until her death five years later, when Elizabeth, Henry's Protestant daughter, becomes queen.  At this point, my story takes a dramatic turn.  I imagine my father whisking us out of England for an extended business sojourn on the continent in order to elude Mary's henchmen, and I imagine that at some point in 1553 or the next year we find ourselves in Rome.

And I further imagine myself always intrigued, just as I am in my real life today, by different expressions of religious faith, by art, and by music, and wandering in and out of various churches in Rome, sometimes lingering for mass ~ and one day happening to attend a mass at which an intensely serious and yet radiant priest presides.   I would have asked around and learned that this priest was named Father Ignatius, and I would have been intrigued by the sense of God that his very person seemed to convey, and would have asked to meet with him.

And then what? Ignatius was very discriminating in discerning to whom to give the Exercises, wanting to be sure that someone was "ready," so I doubt that he would have extended that opportunity to me.  But I am a reasonably persistent person, so I imagine that we would have met for several conversations, and then continued to correspond until his death.  That scenario might sound a bit presumptuous, but in my real life, I made the Exercises with someone whose reputation would have completely intimidated me, had I known about it at the beginning, so I think that it would be fair to say that my 16th century self would have blundered ahead in the same way with Ignatius himself.  (I once asked my spiritual director, some years after the fact, why he had agreed to guide me through the Exercises, and he said, "Because you asked."  Desire, even the smallest tidbit of incipient desire, gets you a long way in Ignatian spirituality! But probably Ignatius himself would not have been quite so accommodating.)  And Jesuits, just as Ignatius was, are great correspondents, so I have that example upon which to rely in imagining a correspondence taking shape.

In real life, Ignatius died in 1556 and Mary, Queen of England, in 1558.  My father and I would have returned to Elizabeth's Protestant England and our family's drift toward a Puritan expression of faith would have commenced shortly thereafter.  Perhaps my fictional self would have had a descendant on the Mayflower, just as my real self had an ancestor aboard.  I like to think, however, that my fictional self, like my real self, would have experienced a deep and fruitful awakening of faith in conversation with the founder of the Society of Jesus.






Image: According to wikipedia, this is how a young woman of mid-16th century England might have looked!


14 comments:

  1. You should write more fiction!

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  2. This scenario is the stuff of historical fiction... But I wonder, really, how many opportunities of this sort would have been open to a woman of any social stratum in 16th century Europe. Sometimes we "modern" women forget how far we have come from our definition as chattel and/or political pawns which was our lot until not so very long ago.

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    1. Oh, Lisa, this scenario presumes so much. An education and independence almost unknown for a 16th century woman. A sense of curiosity and determination that I certainly did not possess as a young woman. And being in the right place at the right time -- in those days, if you were of the religious faith not in power, one misstep and you were done for. Henry VIII and Elizabeth did all they could to dismantle the Catholic church and destroy its people, as Mary did vice versa. This is TOTAL fiction! But it's fun to think about.

      And in fact,there were women who forged astounding opportunities for themselves and others, even then, and even when they weren't royalty. I've just received some reading material about a couple of them; another couple of posts someday.

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    2. And let us not forget that the only women in which the Church showed any interest for centuries were the Virgin Mary and wealthy widows...

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    3. Don't get me wrong...I love historical fiction. But I'm on somewhat of a feminist jag these days... :)

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    4. Ah - but women showed great interest in the church, and in the faith at its core. We should not fall into the trap of letting the institution bar us from seeing its faithful.

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  3. I love imagination...one can go any where and any time and be part of something else. And like seeing something commonplace in a different context, we can gain a different perspective on our "real" selves. This is a fun read.

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  4. Glad you chose to have fun with this

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  5. I’m a professional historian. One of the more important lessons that I learned in my training is that the category “things that were likely to happen to most people in a given era” and the category “things that actually could and did happen to a given individual in that era” do not necessarily overlap that much, and the second category is always far more broad then most people imagine. My own field is early American history, although I know a thing or two about Europe, as well. But drawing on my own field . . . did the typical African slave in colonial America write published poetry? Obviously not. But Phillis Wheatley did. Did your typical eighteenth-century American woman write learned books? No, but Mercy Otis Warren wrote the first major history of the American Revolution. Did women usually have the education or resources to become playwrights in London? No, but you can download the works of Aphra Behn and read them on your Kindle even now. I’m certainly not saying that women generally enjoyed equality or even anything like it. Most people (men and women) had limited education, very limited money, and a skill set that mostly revolved around subsistence farming. But some women were lucky enough to be born into families of greater opportunity. This is why male writers from Ignatius to John Winthrop and John Calvin had female correspondents, and why some women actually did achieve success as artists, writers, scientists, or religious figures. I liked the little story that you imagined, and although I can’t say that it sounded like something that was “likely” to happen, I can assure you that it also didn’t sound impossible. Here’s a link to one of the best books that I read in grad school. It is about the unlikely (but real and accomplished) lives of three seventeenth-century women – a merchant, a nun, and a naturalist.

    http://www.amazon.com/Women-Margins-Three-Seventeenth-Century-Lives/dp/0674955218

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  6. Anon, thanks for the comment and recommendation. I look forward to reading the book!

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  7. Robin, I really like this imaginative post and it has been fun following the comments as well. Think about writing the fiction book - you have so many incredible gifts.

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    1. I think the comments are really fun, too. A reminder that this story could be written a thousand ways.

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  8. Ignatius seems to have written to many women. I loved reading some of his letters and 'autobiography' a while ago. He seems, at least later in life to have a very gentle sense of humour, not least about his younger self!

    I loved your story and it made me think how different we would be born at a different time or in a different culture. It first hit me as a student studying Margery Kemp, Julian of Norwich and some of the Medieval mystics. It all seemed very alien. And yet, like with Ignatius the experience of encountering God seems to transcend all those differences. (Not with Margery Kemp-as a 20something I didn't get her at all)

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    1. A few years ago, I read a huge collection of Ignatius's letters to women - discovered, ironically, in my Presbyterian seminary library on the "new arrivals" display shelf. (I see that it originally cost $45.00, which explains why I did not hit "order with one click" until a minute ago!) One of the letters is a particularly famous one; it essentially summarizes his entire understanding of spiritual consolation and desolation in a few pages. That one I do have a copy of somewhere.

      More on his sense of humor and self-deprecation coming up in a post in a couple of weeks.

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