Originally written in TACKED THOUGHTS for The Freeman
by Nancy Unchuan Toledo
The Church celebrates the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola on July 31. If you want to know about Ignatius and his spirituality, I recommend a wonderful book called “The Jesuit’s Guide to (Almost) Everything,” by Father James Martin, S.J.
As a cradle Catholic, I grew up thinking that the saints were as real as my friends. Only, they had more power—although not quite dressed as fashionably as the Super Friends. Aside from my family, they were the constant in my life. And I don’t just mean in a spiritual abstract way. I mean, their photos and statues were in all the places I spent most of my time. They were there in our house. In my grandmother’s house. My aunt’s house, where I spent summer vacation. At church. In school. They’d even be at the department store—even if they were there for different reasons. They were always the same. Always in the same pose. Always dressed in the same way. Always with a halo.
Some saints, I met in my childhood. The Virgin Mary is a given. I wore the Carmel scapular as a child, drank the water from Lourdes and went to Sunday Mass in the church dedicated to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The Sto. Niño too is a permanent fixture (although technically not a saint), on account of my family being true blue Cebuanos. St. Anthony, for reasons I’m not quite sure, is a family favorite. There are a lot of Anthonys and Antonios in our family, I guess. We also seem to be needing his specialty as we’re constantly looking for lost items.
Having devotions to particular saints as a child or as a teenager is a lot like making childhood friends. You don’t really remember who started the conversation or what you had in common (if you had anything in common at all). You just took for granted that you would have to share cookies and play during recess and talk about your crushes and life would be grand. You gravitate towards each other, for some reason or another, and boom just like that—you’re friends. Of course you probably made each other cry, too, because someone didn’t feel like sharing or hadn’t quite yet learned how to be subtle. But all in all, it’s a low maintenance friendship because you don’t really realize that you’re building a friendship in the first place. The childhood friendships that last become the rock on which you build the other relationships in your life—your constant source of consolation and strength. That’s how I feel about my suki saints. No matter who else comes into my life or whatever trials I come across, I know I can count on them. After all, we have a history together.
Making friends as an adult is another matter entirely. You’re more jaded as an adult, less innocent in the ways of the world. You’re a bit wary about making new friends because you have your childhood friends anyway. Besides, it’s so much more difficult to tell your whole life story to a stranger instead of living through it with them. Really, why would you want to tell them that you had pimples as a teenager, or crooked teeth before braces, or had a crush on Ricky Martin when he was still in a boyband or when you were hoping (against hope) that he really was straight? Who wants to unload and unpack all those things about your life? And for the record, why would you want to hear about someone else’s baggage that you didn’t get to live through either?And so I find that there’s something more purposeful about making a friend as an adult. I filter the parts of my self that I willingly share. It takes me a lot longer to open up to someone and I make more of an effort to keep the friendship.
And it is the same with the saints I’ve met in my adult life. Some saints were easy to get to know and to love—like St. Therese of the Child Jesus and St. Joseph. Some saints, I tried to love but we just don’t seem to have many things in common and so we sort of…agreed…to maybe meet at a later time in my life (like St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross). Some saints, I feel like I ought to get close to (like St. Francis and St. Dominic) but I just can’t get myself to find anything in common with them (and they with me—my mom tells me the saints choose us too). And some saints…well, one in particular, just sort of grew on me. And the next thing I know, he’s inserted himself in my life in so many ways I never even imagined. That saint, is St. Ignatius of Loyola.
I found him a difficult saint to love and appreciate, and well, and even more difficult saint to understand. You see, he was an aristocrat turned soldier turned beggar turned student turned priest turned founder of an order. And quite frankly, none of those various stages in his life was relatable to me when I first heard about them. I always thought, there was a masculinity about him (not in terms in looks certainly, as he walked with a limp from a cannonball injury) that I couldn’t quite grasp. And so I would look at him from afar not quite certain if I wanted him to be my friend.
And even so I was fascinated by him—by his practical spirituality and his unconventional approach to holiness that caught me by surprise. He’s sort of , revealed himself to me in stages throughout my life—as though he knew that if we could ever build a friendship together it’d have to be slow and steady. And so, in different stages in my life I’d come to get to know him—through a book or through a retreat or a seminar or through an institution that was founded on his principles. But mostly, through people who’d come in contact with him, whose lives were permanently changed by him—by Jesuits (from the order he founded) and lay people alike—whether they spoke his name or not.
And then one day at prayer, I realized that I’d come to count on him as a permanent presence in my life. Someone whose ideas I could live out (his skills in discernment and making choices are invaluable), someone I could complain to and about (he’s a bit of a workaholic), someone I could ask favors from (I rather like to think of him as my Teaching Assistant in the classroom although he never helps me check papers), someone I could share tears with (apparently, he would be overcome with emotion at saying Mass that he’d weep copious tears), someone I could talk about my colleagues with (his first companions weren’t all saintly), someone I could share suffering with (he had stomach problems—hyperacidity, I’d like to imagine so we can have something in common), someone I could share my passion for writing (he wrote thousands of letters in his lifetime), someone I could pray with (Ignatian prayer is one of my favorite forms of prayer), someone I could share my love for God with. Ignatius turned out to be someone I could call my friend.
I wonder, sometimes, what it’ll be like when I finally meet St. Ignatius face to face. I wonder if I’ll ever have the courage to ask him to show me his scarred knee (assuming we keep our scars in heaven). I wonder if I’ll ask him to introduce me to all the other Jesuit saints. I wonder what conversations between him and St. Francis and St. Dominic are like or if they even “hang out” together much and tell each other jokes. But I’ll probably spend most of my time thanking him for all the graces I received through his intercession and for being patient with a stubborn young woman whose life he changed with his generous friendship.