by Ryan Carroll
This original piece of fiction, a reflection on the story of St. Ignatius of Loyola, is part of the Pilgrim Stories initiative and a project of the Ignatian Year.
Even before it met the broken soldier, Vita Jesu Christi e quatuor evangelis et scriptoribus orthodoxis concinnata per Ludolphum de Saxonia had already lived an eventful life.
As the book passed into the sick man’s callused fingers, it remembered that distant night when Ludolph, a kind and quiet Carthusian, had pressed fresh, cool ink into its skin. Of course, before that moment, that skin hadn’t been skin; it had just been a sheet of paper. But in the instant when Ludolph traced his first lines, life flowed into the page, pure spirit incarnating into flesh. In that moment, the paper came alive, shining joyously with God’s life. In that moment, the Vita Christi was born.
Though it was alive from those first lines, the book’s spirit evolved over months, growing and changing with each new word that Ludolph added. What the words looked like or what language they were written in, the book did not know, for, being a book and not a person, it could not read. But it did know the words, for as these lines spun across its surface, new truths were etched into its very being, ready to burst forth. Thirsting to savor each precious drop of the good wine of the Gospel that the Lord Jesus has stored up till this time of grace, the book proclaimed, let us begin with his divine intervention. These words were the Vita Christi’s substance, the vessels of its soul, which it was only glad to share with the world, to deal out the being that within it dwelled.
After Ludolph finished crafting the Vita Christi from the luminous stuff of the Lord, the book enjoyed the wonderful privilege of being given to new souls with new hands to touch it and new eyes to read it. They exalted the book, called its illustrations works of beauty, its rhetoric ingenious, its advice on meditation an achievement in evangelism. What all this meant the book did not precisely understand, but their awe and laudation left it brimming with pride. But it was even more proud of what it gave to them: to these knights of the faith, the book offered the presence of the Lord, the truth of His nearness to their earthly lives. This, it knew, was the holy vocation that God had given to it.
And so it happened one morning after this joyous sharing that the book found itself stretched across two places at once. It felt itself simultaneously on the left side of Ludolph’s desk, in its same skin, and in another body, just a few inches away, with different paper for skin and different binding for bones, pages rippling with fresh ink.
At first, the sensation was unsettling—but to the book’s delight, this new body quickly allowed it to be passed into more hands, to gaze upon even more human souls and to mediate the Lord to them. And from there, the Vita Christi gained even more bodies. In a week or a decade (the book could not tell precisely how long it was, on account of having so many forms to keep track of) it had innumerable bodies passing through innumerable hands and being gazed at by innumerable eyes. The book traveled far and wide, to desert cathedrals where its pages were cracked by arid sun and ancient palaces where its spine grew waterlogged from humid air. So too grew the legion of theologians and faithful whom it met, with whom it was able to share of the Lord’s divine life. The book was fulfilled. It was precisely as God had made it to be.
But, eventually, despite the Vita Christi’s long and faithful service to God, its acclaim began to dim. Fewer and fewer holy people read it by the year. It was still ensconced in ornate libraries and invoked by eminent masters of the theological arts, to be sure, but it seemed that fewer souls met God within its pages. It was a sad realization for the prestigious book, which had taken immense pride in the spiritual renaissance it had initiated. Evidently, the book reasoned, God’s plans for it had simply expired.
The book languished in this morbid certainty until one morning, just a few short years after its birth (or perhaps it was one hundred and forty-seven years—who could keep track of such things?), when the book was passed from the hands of Queen Isabella of Spain to a bright soul called Magdalena, and from Magdalena to a sick soldier lying in bed in a room lit with sun, the kind of space that was perfect for reading.
“I’m sorry, Iñigo,” Magdalena said. “We have none of the romances you asked for. But I do have books that might direct you to the Lord during your recovery.”
“Thank you, Magdalena,” the soldier said. He paused and then grunted. “I fear, however, that the Lord no longer has much use for me.”
The soldier placed the Vita Christi by his bedside, and for a time left it undisturbed. After Magdalena left the bedroom, the book found itself gazing on the soldier as he looked out onto the vista. He seemed youthful and fit, but beneath the blankets that had been heaped on him and the medical devices wrapped around his leg, it saw that he was meek. Broken. He squirmed constantly, as though he would be miraculously healed if he could only escape the bed.
Contrary to the book’s expectations, the soldier did not immediately reach for its cover. In fact, he seemed hesitant to even look at it; his mind, quite plainly, was elsewhere. Eventually, however, he did snatch it from the small side-table, and, much to the book’s enthusiasm, began thumbing through its pages. It was disappointed, however, when the soldier remained distracted. As his eyes swept over its pages, the Vita Christi could feel echoes from within his spirit—
Gone. All gone. Failure. Broken. God made you to be a heroic knight, and now you’ll never do that again. You’re nothing.
The soldier flung the book aside, and it was left to watch him chafe in his bed.
It could see clearly that these conditions were alien to his soul; his every movement was a strained burst of energy, angry thrashing against his fate. When others came to visit, he became cheery, speaking of the battles he hoped to win and the vengeance he hoped to visit upon his enemies once his leg was healed. But when they left, the book saw, a great sadness fell over him and his valiant armor melted away, revealing his dim spirit. He was a warrior who could not make war, a knight who could not be a knight. All that God had ordained for him, his holy vocation, was now impossible. He was a lost soul.
The Vita Christi bristled. How could it share of itself, of God’s love, with a man in this state? Its most favorite readers had been pious and God-loving, theologians and faithful and royalty, all ready to lay themselves at the Lord’s feet. Such eminent readers were ready to receive the Lord, but surely this soldier was in no position to do such a thing. It was dismayed: its calling, the purpose of its very being, was to share of Christ’s love, and it had come into the hands of a man who was, evidently, not up to the task.
Late into the night, however, the Vita Christi saw—being a book, of course, it had had no difficulty seeing in the dark—something else. It discerned the soldier slumped against his pillow, crystalline tears glimmering against his aquiline face. His forceful voice was reduced to a low murmur, a whisper in the darkness.
“Please, Lord, make me whole again. Please Lord, make me whole again. Please Lord, make me whole again,” The soldier murmured.
He continued for some time, and the book was moved to pity at the sight of the man, alone in the dark. But, it reasoned, there was nothing it could do. Holy people, it was sure, were holy because they knew they served God—because they had been blessed with a role to play in the Kingdom of Heaven and could give of themselves to that vocation. Clearly, this broken soldier had little to give.
But as the sun reached the horizon and the first strip of prismatic light streamed into the bedroom, the Vita Christi felt the rough fingers brush against it.
For a moment, all was still. And then the soldier peeled open the cover and began to read aloud, not skipping a word. His eyes saw, truly saw, and so did the book. Its spirit gazed upon his, and it saw something brighter in him than it had first seen. Through the wreckage of his bones and his being, through the collapsed fragments of body and his soul, he was still shot through with Christ. Charged with the promise that he could be more. The Vita Christi saw in him the light of the Lord, a light that it had been sure he had been too broken to receive. It was wrong, it realized, to know him as a solider. He was so much more.
“I will follow you, Lord,” the pilgrim whispered. “Wherever you lead me.”
Over the next hours, or perhaps days, or perhaps weeks, the book remained with the pilgrim. It remained with him as he ruminated on Ludolph’s advice to imagine oneself alongside Christ in His life. It remained with him as his mind drifted back to the romances that had captivated him, and the desolation that they gave him. It remained with him as he struggled to believe that God might speak even here, even in this dim infirmary, to a broken man such as himself. And it remained with him when he found that, in fact, God did.
Eventually, the pilgrim was able to lift himself from the bed and leave the infirmary, letting go of the last wispy fragments of the man he had once been but keeping the same light that had always been within him. And the book gladly followed.
They journeyed to places that the Vita Christi had never been, to dark damp caves and hinterlands that books rarely were able to visit. The pilgrim kept the book close as he traversed these wilds, and as he walked among holy men in remote monasteries, and as he laid his sword before a Virgin that glimmered obsidian and gold. With every step, the pilgrim changed, grew, brightened, and yet became more fully himself—and, with him, the Vita Christi felt the same deepening in its own soul.
So it happened one morning that the book felt something it had never precisely felt before. Like the experience of being extended outward, into a new body, but somehow different—somehow more. The book cast a look to the pilgrim and saw him, quill in hand, tracing careful lines onto a crisp sheet of paper. The Vita Christi could feel a shred of itself in that page, but was apart from it, as a mother from a child. It was a thing that was the Vita Christi but was also something else entirely, transformed by the pilgrim’s spirit and God’s grace. As the Vita Christi met this new spirit, pouring the depth of its being into it as it came into existence, it could see a vast, unfolding future that gleamed with the galactic glow of God’s love, charged into the lives of the broken pilgrim and all the broken lives he would touch. There, in the depths of its being, the book felt the purest spark of life that God had bestowed on it.
Amidst the quiet and the cacophony, it heard the pilgrim’s whisper, charged with the music of the angels.
“Exercitia spiritualia. Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.”
Even as the years passed and Vita Christi was met with fewer and fewer new readers, it would always feel an echo of itself in the pilgrim and in his words, and in the spirits of every soul who met God through him. And in every moment since, Vita Christi’s spirit rejoiced that God had delivered it into the hands of Ignatius of Loyola.
Ryan Carroll is a PhD student in English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He is a longtime enthusiast of Ignatian spirituality, having first become involved through the Ignatian Spirituality Ministry at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. In his academic and creative work, he is interested in uniting “secular” fields of literary studies with sacramental and liberation theology, especially that of figures like Ignacio Ellacuria, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Karl Rahner. He currently resides in Durham, North Carolina, where he mostly works on finding God in all things.