The Cannonball That Created a Saint — and Changed Catholicism

Read what the conversion of St. Ignatius of Loyla can teach you about your spiritual life.

Only one Spanish soldier wanted to stay and fight on May 20, 1521, when it became clear that the advancing French troops were about to overtake the castle in the city of Pamplona. His name was Inigo Lopez de Loyola, a 29-year-old nobleman with an enormous ego who wanted nothing more than to make a name for himself as the bravest knight around. He convinced the Spanish commander to stick it out. This was Inigo’s big chance to become a hero. 

It didn’t turn out well.

As the French finished off their victory, a cannonball shattered Inigo’s leg. Impressed by (or at least pitying) his bravery (or stupidity), the French troops carried Inigo back to his home castle for what would become a long period of excruciatingly painful recovery. 

If this story were a Hollywood movie, his recovery would be compressed into a montage, with an elderly retired soldier tending to Inigo and teaching him to fight with humility. Inigo would return to the battlefield and defeat France once and for all.

What actually happened was way more surprising. That French cannonball ignited a huge transformation in Inigo’s life, who encountered God on his sickbed and decided he wanted to serve the Lord instead of a more worldly king. Eventually changing his name to Ignatius, he would go on to found the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, which is now the largest community of Catholic priests and brothers in the world. 

Five centuries after the Battle of Pamplona, Ignatius’ Jesuit successors are spending a whole year celebrating that cannonball moment. It seems like an odd anniversary to mark with a huge party — cheers to that time you almost died! — but the cannonball and what followed made Ignatius one of the most revered saints of all time and a perfect spiritual guide for us today. Here are four things we can learn from his story of conversion and what came after.

1. Pay attention to your experiences and emotions. You can encounter God at work there. 

Ignatius spent months in bed recovering from the leg wound. He asked for some exciting novels to read, but there were only two books in the castle: A book about the life of Christ and one about saints. Ignatius read them, begrudgingly at first. He’d then find himself daydreaming, alternating between fantasies about pursuing the hand of a lady through chivalrous activities and mimicking the lives of the saints he was reading about. He enjoyed both of these experiences, but noticed that a while after imagining life as a knight, he was left “dry and sad.” 

When he imagined himself following Jesus as holy men like St. Francis and St. Dominic had done, his joy sustained long after the daydream was over. He eventually noticed this difference, and wrote in his autobiography decades later that this was his very first spiritual insight. It would influence one of his most revolutionary teachings: God deals directly with each person, and we can mine our experiences and emotions to learn about how God might be calling us. (This was so controversial at the time that he got himself thrown in jail by the Inquisition before the authorities decided it wasn’t heretical.) 

If you’re considering changing jobs or getting married, and you’re filled with genuine peace when you contemplate those options, that’s good stuff. God uses those feelings!

2. Carve out quiet time for prayer in a way that works for you. 

Soon after healing, Ignatius was determined to dedicate his life to serving God and helping souls. He spent parts of nearly a year living, praying, and writing in a cave near the Spanish city of Manresa. It was during this time that Ignatius first drafted his most famous work, a collection of prayers and meditations called the “Spiritual Exercises.” Out of his experiences on this prayerful retreat, Ignatius crafted the ultimate retreat guide for the rest of us, which is divided into four “weeks.” 

Jesuits to this day complete the entire retreat twice in their lives —30 days of silent prayer and meditation on the life of Christ, our own sinfulness, and the grace from God that allows us to serve God and others. Ignatius includes a note in the “Spiritual Exercises” that permits them to be taken up throughout the course of one’s daily life — even if we can’t spend a full month in prayer, we can still have fruitful experiences of God.

This underlines the flexibility that was a key value for Ignatius and the Jesuits who came after him. For instance, Jesuits in the U.S. are most famous for their universities like Georgetown, Boston College, and Gonzaga. But setting up educational institutions wasn’t initially part of the work Ignatius and his companions were doing. Only when they saw the need did they respond with schools. 

In this spirit of flexibility: If you can’t make a retreat, another famous prayer form that comes from the Spiritual Exercises is the Ignatian Examen. Often prayed at the end of a day, the Examen includes going back through your day in your mind, making note of those times when you experienced God at work in your life. It’s a simple prayer form to learn and can bring a lot of clarity.

My own favorite type of prayer that also comes from the Spiritual Exercises is what is sometimes called imaginative prayer or Ignatian contemplation. In this type of prayer, you use your imagination to put yourself in a Gospel scene, taking in everything around you and even putting yourself into the story. One time while praying this way at the manger scene in Bethlehem, I found myself chatting with St. Joseph about my own three young kids. It was a different experience of prayer than any I had before, but it was a powerful moment of connection with Jesus’ “foster father.” 

3. Find a faith community that nourishes and challenges you.

Ignatius did not start the Jesuits alone. Years after the cannonball strike, as he had been traveling around Europe studying and leading people through the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius wound up in Paris, where he met six companions he would come to call his “friends in the Lord.” These seven together would found the Society of Jesus, with shared communal life as a bedrock value. 

Despite Ignatius’ important experiences in relative solitude, it was only when he joined up with friends who shared in his zeal that things really took off. It can sometimes be hard to find a faith community close to where we live that is a good fit. But, like Ignatius and his friends in the Lord, we can bring whatever gifts we have to the faith community and offer them generously. 

4. Need to make a tough decision? Ignatius has thoughts on that.

One phrase you hear a lot in Jesuit circles is “discernment of spirits.” Also appearing in the Spiritual Exercises, the practice of discernment of spirits is what Ignatius believed God revealed to him on his sickbed during his fantasies about chivalric life vs. a life devoted to serving God. Some interior movements we experience come from “good spirits,” while others come from what Ignatius called “evil spirits.”  

“For people who are trying to live a life pleasing to God, the good spirit strengthens, encourages, consoles, removes obstacles, and gives peace,” reads one introduction to discernment in the tradition of Ignatius. “The evil spirit tries to derail them by stirring up anxiety, false sadness, needless confusion, frustration, and other obstacles.” 

Here’s one practical tool for discernment Ignatius offers: take a difficult decision and pretend you had decided one way for a day: for instance, “Today, I’ll imagine all day I’m going to leave this job for a new offer.” The next day, you imagine the opposite: “Today, I’ll imagine I’m staying in my current job.” Take an inventory of your thoughts and feelings after each day and see which one brings you more peace, joy, and hope. 

I love that Ignatius includes this in his Spiritual Exercises because it’s so incredibly practical and relevant. That’s a theme throughout so much of Ignatius’ teaching: God is not far off and disconnected from our lives. God wants an intimate relationship with us, and we can learn to notice God’s work every day more clearly. I find that to be an extremely encouraging worldview when religion so often feels disconnected from my life today.

These four gifts of St. Ignatius are just the tip of the iceberg; there’s so much he has to offer, even 500 years after that cannonball smashed his leg. I thank God it didn’t kill him, but I also thank God it didn’t miss him completely. Maybe this anniversary year is the perfect opportunity for us to reflect like Ignatius did in those painful weeks and months after the Battle of Pamplona. God is calling each of us. How will we respond?

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