A 'cannon ball' moment - Madonna Magazine

A 'cannon ball' moment

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ 18 May 2021

The trajectory of one cannon ball altered the direction of the Catholic Church, and its effects are still being felt 500 years later.

Most events, even though they seemed big to those who took part in them, are soon forgotten in the history books. Other events, however, are remembered for things that seemed very small at the time but had huge consequences.

Both these things are true of the attack on the Castle at Pamplona that took place 500 years ago. It seemed big at the time. It pitted the Spanish king who was trying to unify Spain against forces from the local kingdom of Navarre aided by French soldiers. It was, however, a relatively unimportant incident among hundreds of such skirmishes over 20 years, many of which involved Pamplona, and which have coloured the subsequent history of this fiercely independent Basque region.       

The small event for which the battle is now best remembered was the wounding of a knight defending the castle (20 May 1521). His leg was struck by a ricocheting cannon ball. His injury led to the inevitable surrender of the castle. For the wounded knight, Inigo (Ignatius) of Loyola, it also led to a long convalescence which changed the direction of his life and shaped the church and world that we inherit.

The key to this change lay in the history and the inner life of the injured man himself. He was a representative of his age – with high aspirations, his heart set on life at court, on military prowess, achievement in war, on falling in love, on public esteem and on rising in society. He was a doer and a goer. Being laid up with a busted leg that out of vanity he had rebroken, with nothing to dream about but jousting and lovemaking, with nothing to read about but the extraordinary lives of saints, was not part of his plan. He found himself dreaming about both these opposing ways of life. And crucially, he began to reflect both on his dreams and on his life, and then to reflect on his reflections.

In this process he found God’s calling. As he devoted all his energies to following it, he began to open this reflective way of life to others. He lived as a beggar who in the marketplaces engaged people in conversation that led them to reflect on their own lives. When the religious authorities stopped him from doing this because of his lack of qualifications, he went to Paris to study. There he gathered around him a group of fellow students whom he also taught to reflect on their lives and to ask where God was leading them. Their shared journey led them eventually to form a religious congregation characterised by its gift for spiritual conversation and by its treasuring Ignatius’ way to a reflective life. He named the congregation after Jesus, whose following was central both to the path he took and to the reflection he encouraged.

The reflectiveness that led Ignatius to ask what matters is central to the Jesuit way of working – of seeking out the people who most need help, of helping them also to find what they want most deeply in life, and to reflect constantly on our own way of working to ensure that we continue to serve others and not just ourselves.

We do not know what happened to the canon ball which bounced off the castle wall on to Ignatius’ leg. But its apparently accidental path remains an image of Ignatius’ own change of trajectory, one to which he brought all his natural gifts of leadership and persistence. He harnessed these to the radical new life he discovered through reflection on where God was leading him.

In doing that he has left all of us in his debt.

Image: Ignatius of Loyola as a soldier – WikiCommons