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From a soldier’s heart: Learning to pray with Ignatius’ zeal


© 2011 Jesuit Institute London

Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP - published on 07/31/21

The raw military imagery, the intimacy, capture something of St. Ignatius’ devotion.

On May 20, 1521, Ignatius of Loyola tragically found himself confined to bed after a cannonball shattered his leg. Unable to pass the time reading romances, the chivalric tales of heroism and knightly gallantry he loved, he made due with the available books, which included the life of Christ and the lives of the saints.

Shattered dreams and transformation

Ignatius’ thoughts gradually shifted from the things of earth. His focus was raised up by this reading to the things of heaven. An early account of this transformation records that Ignatius began to ask himself, “What if I should do what Saint Francis or Saint Dominic did?”

“In Pamplona, 500 years ago, all the worldly dreams of Ignatius were shattered in one instance,” Pope Francis said in a video message to the Jesuits and their collaborators. “This one cannonball changed the course of his life, and of the world.”

Interior conversion

Pope Francis continued, saying, “Conversion is a daily matter; it is never once and for all.  Ignatius’ conversion started at Pamplona, but it didn’t end there.”

Ignatius of Loyola is not a saint because of one moment. His conversion was a series of assents, harmonizing his will with the will of God, day in and day out. Pope Francis insists, “All through his life he converted, every day again. And what does this mean? That all through his life he put Christ in the center.”

The interior conversion of Saint Ignatius happened when his life shifted. No longer were soldiering and worldly affairs the center of his life. The crisis of his wound, an injury that left him limping for the rest of his life, became the moment for Christ to storm his heart, to reorient the horizon of his life.

A new food, a new direction

Which brings us to the discourse in John 6. Here we have Jesus, presented by John, as the New Moses. Jesus is the new lawgiver, the one who offers a new food. Just as Moses interceded for Israel in the wilderness, and provided for their need, Christ offers a true food to refresh and renew. 

Ignatius Loyola followed the new path the Lord offered. He changed course, willing to be led out of his former slavery to worldy desires. The narrative of Israel leaving Egypt is a narrative of liberation, one that every Christian who dares to hear and follow the voice of Jesus knows. Ignatius, who heard the voice of Christ and recognized the interior peace and joy that the things of heaven offer, changed direction, definitively.

The “Anima Christi”

One prayer that is often attributed to Saint Ignatius is the marvelous traditional prayer called the Anima Christi. Historians tell us that the prayer predates Ignatius by a century or so, but we do know that the prayer was one of his favorites. In fact, it is the opening prayer of the Spiritual Exercises, a method of prayer composed by Saint Ignatius.

The Anima Christi reads:

Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me.
Within your wounds, hide me.
Let me never be separated from you.
From the malignant enemy, defend me.
In the hour of my death, call me,
And bid me come to you,
That with your saints I may praise you
Forever and ever. Amen.

We can understand easily why the prayer has come to be so frequently associated with Saint Ignatius. The raw military imagery seems to spring from a soldier’s heart; the totality of union, the intimacy, capture something of Ignatius’ zeal and devotion.

The Bread of Life

Christ is the food that satisfies. Ignatius realized that his dreams for this life, while giving momentary pleasure, gave no lasting joy. Plenty of foods are available to quench the appetite, to nourish the flesh. But the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, is the only food that nourishes the soul. The teaching of Jesus, the way of life he lived, guarded and passed down by the Church, will set our souls at peace.

This is saving food. Given up for us that we might touch and taste the things of heaven. As Jesus says, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius the soldier exhorts us to cast off the standard of the world, and instead to carry the standard of Christ. We must bear the seal of heaven, fighting for the things of God, fearlessly casting off every lesser good. As we pray in the Anima Christi, “Body of Christ, save me.” 

The Wounds of Christ

But perhaps the most mysterious line of the Anima Christi are the words, “Within your wounds, hide me.” Why would we pray such a thing?

The wounds of Christ are the signs of his glory. They remain, strangely enough, after Our Lord’s Resurrection from the dead. Even in his perfect, glorified body, these marks of his suffering endure. More strangely still, they are the means by which the apostles identify the Lord; the scars are the tokens that permit his closest friends to recognize him.

The wounds are the place of sacrifice, the means by which our salvation is purchased. The bread of life is given to us; we do not earn it. It has a price though: the suffering of the Lord. Our salvation was won by Jesus’ passion. 

Perhaps this is why Ignatius loved this prayer. Haunted by an old war wound, a broken leg that never quite healed, he was taken back with every step to that moment of conversion wrought by cannon fire. 

Like Ignatius, we ought to fearlessly reflect and evaluate where we’re at and where we’re headed. Will our wounds be handed over to Christ? Will we allow, as Ignatius did, for our sufferings and sorrows to be turned to God’s glory? Will we desire with all our hearts to be united with the soul of Christ?

O good Jesus, hear me!

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