Hans Urs von Balthasar
Partial publication of:
Du hast Worte ewigen Lebens
Publisher:Saint John Publications
Translator:Community of Saint John
Saint Ignatius recounts for us his vision at the Cardoner river, where God’s plan of salvation for the world was shown him in all its indivisible unity, with the result that, as he himself puts it, he could, if necessary, do without Holy Scripture. At La Storta, he is given by the Father to the Son, so that he is now entitled to give his foundation an unprecedented name: the “society,” or fellowship, “of Jesus.” One of the early Jesuits says that his countenance became full of light during praying, while Nadal reports that he could find anything he wished for in prayer. Almost every other written record of his mystical experiences he himself consigned to the flame. For the sake of his Jesuits and the world, he wanted to appear merely as a sensible founder and organizer, and the Constitutions he wrote for his order—which almost all later religious communities depend on—do in fact remain pretty much as fresh today as when they were first composed.
Ignatius remains astonishingly present and alive for the Church through his Exercises, awkwardly written and unliterary as they are. Who could count the hundreds of thousands of vocations that they have awakened down through the centuries and that they continue to bring forth even today with undiminished vigor? There is no alternative to the event sketched in the Exercises—however many attempts to offer one have been made.
The Exercises break with the pious “manuals of perfection” that proliferated during the high and late Middle Ages. With pitiless practicality, Ignatius thrusts the exercitant into the heart of the Gospel, into a solitary encounter with Christ, so that he can hear the voice of the triune God. I say “thrusts,” because, in order to reach this point in truth, the exercitant must first be stripped of his illusions about himself, of his imaginings, and of his sins. This is how he becomes free to follow nudus nudum Christum. This is how God’s Word—Christ himself—becomes “up close and personal” for him. This divine call doesn’t land in some unimportant place, or on the mere periphery of his existence, but penetrates to the center of his being, where it is meant to become the deciding event of his entire life.
This event of “election” is also the center, meaning, and goal of the entire Exercises. This is why Ignatius surrounds it with many careful instructions (“On the Right Way of Making the Election”), whereas the entire rest of the Exercises aims at accompanying Christ in his unfolding mission: his Incarnation, his hidden and public life and activity, his Passion, his Resurrection, and the appearances in which he completed his foundation of the Church.
The event that is meant to occur is a renewal of the encounter on the banks of Jordan: “As Jesus was passing by” (Ignatius emphasizes that Jesus never stands still, but is always passing by), “John saw him and said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. But Jesus turned around and, seeing they were following him, asked, ‘What do you seek?’” And when in reply they ask, “Rabbi, where do you live?” he answers, “come and see” (Jn 1:36-39). Make the decision to come (and so “leave everything” [Lk 5:11]), and then you will see. “And they went and saw…and remained.” This episode is no mere model, but precisely the reality that actually happens here and now—just as Christ’s sacrifice becomes present in every Mass, and his post-Easter forgiveness happens anew in every sacramental confession.
Ignatius is not interested in some “way of perfection” whose stages one can learn from a book and then execute. This is already ruled out by the fact that no one can determine in advance which path in the Church and the world Jesus’ call will place the individual on. Hence Ignatius’ instruction that the retreat master should refrain from proposing some “(more) perfect” way. It is the Lord alone who decides which way is the best for you (because chosen by him). But you can learn this way only from him—supposing that, for your part, you are ready to follow any path he might choose. You need to stand where the boy Samuel stood: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Sam 3:10). Or, even better, you need to stand where the Virgin, the “handmaid of the Lord,” stood, ready and available for everything, for the hardest tasks as well as for the most delightful ones. It was she who appeared to Ignatius when he was convalescing; clearly, she came to place her own “Yes” into his heart.
His was a life of seeking and searching. Carthusian? Wandering preacher? Alone or with companions? A warrior dedicated to retaking the Holy Sepulcher from the Muslims? The Inquisition forces him, though already grown up, to go back to school and to study Latin, theology, and philosophy, which he does in the midst of a thousand problems, including financial distress and illness. Outwardly, he is the sure-footed leader of an ever growing number of followers; inwardly, he remains open and is always having to ask God for guidance. Then, in Rome, he becomes the hinge on which the whole thing turns, whose existence and activity everyone takes so much for granted that, to cite Nadal again, “in his manner of dying he showed a marvelous humility, as if he neglected himself completely and were completely neglected by the others” (quasi qui se negligeret perfecte, et ab aliis negligeretur omnibus: Epist. P. Nadal, tom. I, V, 697).