When Francis Xavier attended the University of Paris in the early sixteenth century, he was on the fast track to joining the power elite of Renaissance Spain. Talented, athletic--the best runner on campus, he knew the pleasures and power of the world were at his finger tips. One problem: one of his roommates was an older, plain-spoken guy named Inigo of Loyola who possessed this odd mix of worldly savvy and an unworldly, counter-cultural vision. Inigo had what we call today “a delayed vocation” and was hoping one day to be approved for ordination to the priesthood. Xavier did not share that particular enthusiasm, but he couldn’t help liking and being intrigued with this fascinating pilgrim of a roommate.
When Inigo would talk to him (and their other roommate, Pierre Favre) about his conversion experience of discovering the living Jesus during his improvised retreat for several months in a cave near the town of Manresa, Francis was fascinated. Inigo spoke of a pattern of combining meditation on the story of Jesus, praying and following his deepest feelings. It was a way of praying that you might sum up in a refrain we sing today: “Shepherd me, O Lord, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.” Inigo had discovered that the good news of Jesus was an invitation to relate to the Reign of God here and now. It was a matter of letting the Lord tutor his desires and feelings in a way that would free him from his worldly addictions of seeking honor and power and wealth. Inigo claimed to have experienced that liberation. He had discovered a new way of seeing himself and his place in this world that amounted to, well, following the risen Christ, just like it says in the New Testament. He also discovered that he had learned a way of leading others to know God in that way. It didn’t hurt that Inigo referred to this prayer program, mysteriously, as “spiritual exercises.”
Eventually, Xavier-- who was willing to try anything—let Inigo guide him through “the Exercises.” Pierre followed suit. They both came to experience that same liberation and sense of mission. They discovered that they received Inigo’s sense of freedom and purpose, of following Jesus in a very personal way, right there on the campus of the University of Paris. This process eventually led these three roommates to found a new religious community aimed at helping others connect with Jesus in this way. For Ignatius it meant becoming an administrator; for Francis it meant preaching the gospel in the Far East. For Pierre it meant hitting the road and doing for others what Inigo did for him and their other roommate by leading them in the Spiritual Exercises.
We Jesuits, who dare to call ourselves Companions of Jesus (something you can blame on Ignatius), insist that this sense of mission, this sense of following the risen Jesus is possible for all Christians. But it requires that we take seriously and personally Jesus’ original call to his followers: namely, believing that “the time of fulfillment is here,” that the kingdom of God is at hand, and that if we repent and believe in the good news, we will come to know the power of the Spirit in our lives and either (a) focus better what we are already doing, or (b) find a fresh direction for our lives. Ignatius taught that the “repent” part usually entails a radical makeover of the habits of our heart, which usually takes a lot of prayer, meditation and talking things through with somebody who’s been through this process him- or herself. And it entails connecting (or re-connecting) in a lively way with the local faith community (normally a parish). But these things are really possible if on our own day if we take advantage of the opportunities the Lord presents to us.
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