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Going on pilgrimage right at home

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Someone once gave me a plaque that read, "If you want to be a pilgrim on the road of life, you have to travel light."

I can't find that plaque, which amuses me because I realize its absence means I'm a little lighter than I would be if I still had it. Instead, the quote is stored in my mind, and as I try to pare down my possessions and reorganize, those words are my mantra.

One consequence of our recent isolation is that we've become more aware of the excess clutter in our homes. What is all this stuff? What do I really need? What's essential? And, why, as isolation ends, do I feel tempted to buy more?

St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, often referred to himself as "the pilgrim" as he began his spiritual journey. Pilgrimage is a great concept, the idea of going off, a few items stuffed in a backpack, in search of the truth.

Of course, we can make a pilgrimage in our own home, but it seems that even this demands some simplifying of our lifestyles. Everything won't fit in a backpack, but we can pare down.

Beginning in May 2021, and lasting until July 2022, we are celebrating an Ignatian year, meaning we're celebrating St. Ignatius himself and his great spiritual gifts to us. It was exactly 500 years ago, in May, that Ignatius experienced a "cannonball moment" that led to his dramatic conversion.

Ignatius did not start out as a spiritual pilgrim. Indeed, Iñigo, as he was named, was a man who desired wealth, honor and military success. Born into an aristocratic family, he was a knight who hoped his prowess on the battlefield would improve his success with the ladies. When he was 24, a criminal charge of "nocturnal misdemeanors" was on his police record, and he and his brother were briefly jailed.

A short biography at Fordham.edu puts it succinctly: "In short, Iñigo was an experienced sinner before an inexperienced saint."

In other words, he was a bit like us.

On May 20, 1521, Iñigo's life changed dramatically. While leading men into battle against the French at Pamplona, a cannonball shattered his leg.

Amid the intense pain and boredom of recuperation in a family castle, Iñigo yearned for something to read, hoping for the popular romance novels of chivalry. Fortunately for us, this particular castle was all out of pulp fiction, so the young knight read instead the lives of the saints and Scripture.

That's when Ignatius' life really began. The cannonball moment led to conversion. And there's so much to learn from his life, especially his development of the Spiritual Exercises, which have changed the lives of so many.

During the past 14 months, I've been doing the 19th annotation of the Spiritual Exercises, led by a trained director. The Spiritual Exercises can be done in the formal format of 30 days at a retreat house. But the 19th annotation provides a way to do them over a much longer time, fitting into our regular lives. Just add time for prayer, discernment and a good spiritual director.

However, there are also many books and online sites that delve into the Spiritual Exercises. Our parish is offering a retreat during July (Ignatius' feast day is July 31) using "Ascending with Ignatius: A 30-Day at-Home Retreat," a book by Jesuit Father Mark Thibodeaux, which can be ordered online. It's a great intro to Ignatian spirituality.

For those of us stay-at-home pilgrims, with St. Ignatius' help the book might just be our own cannonball moment.

Caldarola writes from Omaha, Neb.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021