A Book to Change the World

Today is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola. In 1491, as Christopher Columbus was preparing to sail the ocean blue, Ignatius was born the youngest of 13 siblings. As the son of a wealthy family, he was sent to become a page to a nobleman in the Spanish royal court. He grew to love his life there very much. He loved it all, especially the gambling and the ladies and fighting people with swords in rituals of honor. He was brave but also reckless to the point of foolishly ambushing the priests of another family with whom he was disputing. In time, he was asked to put his military training to use and sent Pamplona to help defend against a French army. During the battle, his leg was struck by a cannonball and broken. The bone refused to heal and had to be broken and reset. Even after it healed, the bone remained crooked, causing the leg to be shorter than the other. He ordered it to be broken yet again and reset, all of this, mind you, without anesthesia! We are talking about a proud, courageous man. His leg did remain shorter and all his life Ignatius walked with a limp.

During convalescence, Ignatius asked that romance novels be brought to him to help pass the time. Instead, he was given a book on the life of Christ, Ludolph of Saxony’s De Vita Christi, also known as Mirror of the Life of Christ. First printed in the 1470’s, this devotional book encouraged readers of the life of Christ to imagine themselves vividly in the midst of the scene, not only reading about it, but meditating upon it as a first-hand witness.

As anyone familiar with Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises might recognize, De Vita Christi was highly appealing to Ignatius and formed the lines along which his own spirituality would later develop. Meanwhile, still in bed with a broken leg, he asked to read more about the lives of the saints. Their heroic manner of living and their courageous deaths for the faith fired his chivalric imagination. Finally he had found something worth the gift of a lifetime, noble enough for which to fight and die! Once on his feet again he traveled directly to the Altar of Our Lady of Montserrat and left his sword there at her feet, thus pledging his knighthood to Mary and the Church. The rest is history: the Spiritual Exercises, the founding of the Society of Jesus, Jesuit education, Jesuit missions to hostile cultures…all for the greater glory of God.

We might observe that the world was changed by a simple, seeming inadequacy in a Spanish library. There were no trashy romance novels to be found! Perhaps we may take from this the lesson that not all books are worth reading. Some are a waste of time. Some fail to live up to the noble purpose of literature to bring the human soul to perfection through truth and beauty. Maybe some books, even if very popular, ought not be in our home libraries. If Ignatius had been given the romance books he desired, it is likely that he would have remained much what he already was.

A more encouraging insight relates to the power of a single book. Perhaps many of us have never heard of De Vita Christi or Ludolph of Saxony, and yet his influence has helped to remake the world from top to bottom. Through the power of his writing, an aimless, romantic nobleman was shown a higher purpose for his knighthood. This was a book to change the world.