After the Cannonball

An essay on walking the Camino Ignaciano in Spain, and reflecting on how the time that comes after the big, pivotal moments is when change happens.

After the Cannonball
An 1866 engraving depicting the bridge leading to the church and sanctuary in Manresa, Spain. The sanctuary is built around the cave of St. Ignatius, where he spent months of intense spirituality, and wrote Spiritual Exercises. Image courtesy Getty Images.

In 1521, the noble Spanish soldier Íñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola—a big-headed, womanizing, privileged punk—was gravely wounded in battle when a cannonball smashed into his right leg. Íñigo spent the next year healing his shattered body at a family castle with little in the way of reading material. Bored and bedridden, he settled for a book about the life of Christ and biographies of various saints. A year later, completely reformed, he got out of bed to take up the life of a poor, pious pilgrim.

St. Ignatius’s legacy—the Society of Jesus religious order, the many institutes of higher learning producing men and women for others, the Spiritual Exercises that urge us to see God in all things—can be traced back to that single cannonball that waylaid the vainglorious man, forced him to reassess his path, and set him on a course toward sainthood. The Jesuits just celebrated such “cannonball moments” in the Ignatian Year, which ran from May 2021 to July 2022, marking 500 years since Ignatius was struck and began his transformation.

In the following essay, Hung Pham, S.J. M.Div. ’04, details the anxieties he and his then-students at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University faced in 2016 just before setting off on the Camino Ignaciano in Spain, which traces the pilgrimage that St. Ignatius took following his cannonball moment, cementing his spiritual reformation. Everyone at the starting line in 2016 was there because of big, pivotal moments in their own lives. But big moments, as a rule, don’t last forever. It’s what we do in the quieter, much longer timeline that fosters real change.

From Swords to Shoes:
Encountering Grace on the Camino Ignaciano

June 27, 2016
Loyola, Spain

The motivation and desire that inspired Ignatius of Loyola to make a pilgrimage did not come easy. Had his leg had not been struck and his bones not crushed during the battle in Pamplona, Ignatius would not have been confined to bed convalescing in Loyola but would have continued his pursuit of “vanities of the world and special delight in the exercise of arms with a great vain desire of winning glory,” as stated in his autobiography.Only during this immobile convalescence, pushed to the extreme border between life and death, helpless on his own, removed from the world he knew, did life alternatives emerge. Possibilities were imagined; new life directions envisioned.

Wrestling between his former way of life and new possibilities, between “things of the world” and “going barefoot to Jerusalem and eating nothing but herbs and performing the other rigors he saw that the saints had performed,” Ignatius was first aware of the various interior movements of the spirits that were stirred up in his soul. From this awareness, Íñigo—as he was called before becoming Ignatius—began to discern the bad and the good. Furthermore, he came to realize that it was not he but God who had initiated the encounter, ever so “gently and kindly” awakening holy desires within him. Inflamed with divine love, Ignatius resolved to go to Jerusalem “as soon as he was restored to health undertaking all the disciplines and abstinences.”

Although none of our Camino participants had undergone dramatic bone-crushing injuries or were pushed to the limit of immobile convalescence in the same way that Ignatius had, we both as individuals and as a group were wrestling with our own human limitations and vulnerability on our way to and during our stay in Loyola.

One Jesuit student reflected on how the difficulty of negotiating a delayed flight on foreign territory put him in touch with his fear of uncertainty, leading him to pray and to rely on God’s grace at work in the moment. For another Jesuit student, the sudden death of a good friend and Jesuit companion prior to the Camino had left him feeling helpless in grief and sorrow. For a Latina-American student, the anticipation of entering yet another culture both widened and narrowed the space-in-between in her liminal intercultural identity: widening it by being enriched with the best values which each of her cultures offer, narrowing it by being caught in the loneliness from a realization of belonging to none. Looking back, the Camino served as a way for her to contemplate life’s mysteries in a deeper and more active way.

Now I know that it was my Pamplona moment, and I find myself in a liminal space. I have been asking deep questions like how do we know [what] God’s will is? What is my vocation?

Anxiety and insecurity began to creep in as I watched members of the course assemble in the Jesuit chapel for a blessing before heading to downtown Berkeley to board the train for the airport. No longer dressed in some neat coat and tie walking to the school and meeting students in their casual attire and air-conditioned classroom, we all appeared well-equipped with walking gear and outdoor outfits, eager to get on with the journey. The road would become our classroom, and we, teachers and students, would become pilgrims.

Multiple worries and concerns rushed through my heart and my mind at different levels. The feeling of losing control settled in. What would happen if our plans fell through? Would students behave the same as they had in class? Their lifestyles, customs, and language were so different from mine (our students hailed from countries and cultures as diverse as Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines, the United States, and Vietnam; they comprised both lay and religious women and men).

Ignatius Way Between Loyola And Zumarraga
Arrows mark the way for pilgrims following Loyola’s path along the Camino. It is on these roads, in these moments after big discoveries, that they can find ways to sustain change. Photo courtesy Getty Images.

Three weeks walking on the Camino seemed to me, at that moment, like an eternity. What had I gotten myself into? And why?

The road ahead seemed reduced into fears that choked up any previous excitement. Fear intensified and anxiety heightened as we wandered at midnight around the parking lot of the Barcelona International Airport after the long transcontinental flight, looking for our Spanish correspondent and guide. The road seemed dark; my spirit immobilized.

In the bunk bed of the tiny hostel, struggling with the darkness of my fear and anxiety, I stumbled upon the folder of the students’ reflection papers. 

Slowly and prayerfully, I had a powerful vision of each of their faces appearing in front of mine so vividly together with their holy desires in wanting to walk the Ignatian Way. For one Jesuit student, the desire to “gain a deeper sense of Ignatius, who he was, how he thought, what made him a saint” had energized him to walk.For others, the desire to grow in a deeper trust of God empowered them. Reflecting on her reason to walk, a student wrote succinctly:

Two years ago, I spent a year in Ecuador living among those we call the poor. It was the hardest and most amazing year of [my] life. There I encountered God, witnessed suffering, tried to fight injustice, and fell in love with people. What happened there led me to JST. But I am not there anymore, and this life is not like life there. Now I know that it was my Pamplona moment, and I find myself in a liminal space. I have been asking deep questions like how do we know [what] God’s will is? What is my vocation? … With a hunger for God, desire for adventure, and ephemeral joy, I applied [to this course in order] to walk.

One after another, students’ motivations and desires began to ignite mine. Recalling some of the graces which I had received on the past journeys three years ago during my Jesuit formation brought me deep consolation. As the desire for the students to experience the grace of what it means to place their trust in God had then moved me to create the course, so had it now empowered my next step, continuing on the road with trust and courage.

Hung Pham, S.J. taught Ignatian spirituality at JST for seven years. He is now the Provincial Assistant for Formation of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province. This essay originally appeared on June 28, 2016, in Practical Matters, an academic journal of theology and religious practice at Emory University. It has been reprinted and edited here with permission.

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