The second point I want to make about our dear Ignatius was that he had some serious personal issues to work out. Often we imagine saintly people as having balanced lives, pulling themselves together to be great examples for the rest of us. St. Ignatius is an example all right—of how God keeps showing mercy to stubborn human beings.
It’s fair to say that Ignatius had a strong male ego. He was a soldier, after all, and had served at court as a privileged son of nobility. He and at least one brother had fallen afoul of the law. Ignatius admitted to a history of womanizing. And he was so driven that, even when the troops he led at Pamplona were ridiculously outnumbered, rather than seeking to preserve the lives of those in his command, he chose to keep fighting and urged everyone else to do the same. Hence, a horribly lost battle and an injury that crippled him for life.
A strong ego can work in several directions. Not only can it make a person mistakenly confident, but also it can drive that person to obsess over personal sins and shortcomings. After Ignatius went through his conversion experience, he spent several months in Manresa, living in a cave and praying. That’s where ego met its match. He grew so overwhelmed by his past sins and his present sinfulness that he became immobilized by thoughts of suicide. To counteract his sinfulness, he engaged in extreme practices, which he considered spiritual disciplines and forms of penance, but which only made matters worse.
God rescued Ignatius through the friendships of some key women who had befriended him. They took notice of this convert and realized that his heart was in the right place, even if his methods were overly zealous to the point of getting in the way of spiritual progress. Eventually, Ignatius was able to turn from his egocentric efforts at spiritual growth and rely instead on the sufficient and lavish grace of God.
I doubt that Ignatius overcame his personal “issues” once and for all—most of us struggle throughout life with one or two recurring problems. But clearly he continued to mature in love and other marks of Christlikeness. He did not give up on growing and expected to continue the process throughout his life. Ignatius grew to expect great things from God—and he offered himself to be a participant in that greatness.
Many of us tend to discount our potential in God’s kingdom because we know our own weaknesses. Sometimes our lives become focused, not on divine possibilities, but on personal problems. The next time I, once again, bemoan the recurring troubles in my soul, I hope to remember Ignatius in Manresa, sitting in his cave and gazing out at the River Cardoner, learning to let go of his burdens and let them drift on the currents of God’s mercy and care.