In my mind I can see Ignatius riding his mule on a dusty road from Rioja to Aragon in Spain shortly after his conversion at Loyola. He had met a Moor traveling on the same road, and they fell into a conversation about “spiritual things.” They agreed about many beliefs, but the Moor, though he could accept the Christian idea of the virgin birth, did not believe that Mary remained a virgin after that. Ignatius became more upset as the discussion continued, and the Moor quickly rode ahead. Feeling that the Moor had insulted Mary, Ignatius wondered if he should pursue him and kill him with his dagger. He couldn’t make up his mind. He knew where the Moor was going. At an upcoming crossroad, he decided to let the donkey have free reign. If the mule went left, he’d pursue the Moor and avenge the insult to Mary. If the mule went right, he’d continue on his way and not pursue the Moor. Fortunately, the mule stayed to the right. At that point in time, it is safe to say that Ignatius had a very rudimentary understanding of discernment and Christian decision-making.
Ignatius was profoundly influenced by his culture. The concepts of honor and loyalty, colored by arrogance, were deeply ingrained. He had not yet achieved a spirit of detachment and the freedom to make wise choices. We know this story, however, because Ignatius himself recounted this event some thirty- two years later. It is encouraging to hear his story as we struggle today to free ourselves from defective values in our own culture.
For me role models are an important element in this process of discernment. In his biography of St. Francis of Assisi, G.K. Chesterton said that if St. Francis was like Jesus, then Jesus was also like St. Francis. In other words, we can find Jesus in lives close to our own experience.
My brother, sister and I often reflect together on relatives we knew in the prior generation who touched us in ways we are still exploring. For example, I think of my Aunt Helen who was born in 1900. I treasure a beautiful portrait of her taken at my own wedding that captured her smile and bit of her soul.
In the early 1930s my Aunt Helen married and set up a household with my Uncle Archie. At the time, my father was living with and supporting his aging mother and his other sister, as his father had died at a young age. When my father became engaged to my mother, he thought he would continue with that responsibility. My Aunt Helen, however, insisted that her mother and sister move in with her and her husband. My father later believed that Helen knew their mother was failing. In fact, Helen subsequently cared for my grandmother through several strokes. Many other stories about Aunt Helen reflect similar examples of great generosity and caring. Such stories, when they linger in family memories, weave a beautiful pattern to follow and help us navigate important choices in life. In a frantic, individualistic and materialistic culture, such examples are important signposts.
I guess a wise mule would also be helpful.