“The Memoriale”: A New Short Story by Ron Hansen

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The Jesuit Media Lab invited the acclaimed novelist Ron Hansen, author of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “Mariette in Ecstasy,” to write a piece of short fiction inspired by St. Ignatius of Loyola’s autobiography.

Rome, Italy. January, 1555.

I found him outside in the garden of the Casa professa, the house of those priests in the Society of Jesus who have taken final vows. Held shut in his left hand and resting on his lap was his Latin breviary. Evening prayer for him was finished, but his eyes were gently closed in further meditation. The skin of his hairless skull shone in the failing afternoon light, for his black biretta was off and beside him on the bench, and his face was tilted up toward a concluding sun to feel its wintry heat. Christ was the sun to him.

I note for posterity that underneath his Roman nose was a sienna brown beard hinted with gray, and it was carefully scissored, his fingernails trimmed and polished, a far cry from his hermit months in Manresa a quarter century ago. His shoes seemed as small as a child’s and his overcoat was unclosed so I could see that his black cassock was frayed and patched and imperfectly stitched wherever it was torn. Sewings rather than mendings.

I could smell pasta boiling, could hear the banging of pans and the shouted Italian of harried cooks. I got on with it. “Excuse me, Ignatius. Are you still praying?”

Shocked from his mediations, the Superior General found me standing above him and smiled. There was an of course look in that smile. With welcome, he flatly said my name, “Luís.”

“I hate to interrupt.”

“Oh, none of that,” he said, putting on his biretta.

Although we both were affable and even spirited in our friendship, I was just an unexceptional, 35-year-old Jesuit priest, close to half the age of the founder and, too often I fear, was as fawning and deferential to him as a footman. My job in Rome was Father Minister, a co-adjutor frantically in charge of our material needs in the scattered houses, and he was, as they say in his Spanish, el jefe del estado, the head of state of our religious order, judge and jury of all our offenses, and also the scariest yet holiest of saints, from whom even the faintest praise was thrilling.

“Why have you fetched me?” he asked.

Even his plainest questioning could feel like a criticism, and I hesitated before getting out, “I have a notebook with me. And inkwell and pen.”

“You may put them away. Rely on that fine memory of yours.”

“But this is not about your Autobiography. I intend yet another book.”

Just then the dinner bell rang and Ignatius stood with effort. “Walk there with me,” he said, linking his forearm with mine for the help as he limped along in a tilting way on his shorter, wrecked right leg.

“Explain what you propose,” he said.

Steeped full of myself, I told him in possibly not absorbing oration that I thought it absolutely necessary for members of religious orders, ever aspiring to perfect themselves in their way of life, to be exceedingly diligent in holding fast to the initial spirit of the foundation, and that a religious order could only maintain the purity in which it was instituted insofar as its closest imitation of the first founder was persistent. Well, in those or similar words.

“And that is why you’re writing my Autobiography,” he admitted.

“But there would be a great difference between the Acta Patris Ignatii and this book, this Memoriale. We end your pilgrim’s narrative in 1538, after all, even before the pope officially recognized the Society. My memoranda would be current. You at 64. I would note in it how you behave, how you pray, how you firmly correct what is wrong and how greatly you cherish what is good, how you form novices or how you treat those of ours who are growing old and tired.” Again, in those or similar words.

Pope Paul III confirms the Society of Jesus in 1540. (Society of Jesus)

“Warts and all?” Ignatius said.

“Written with unprotected candor,” said I.

“Would anyone read such a book?”

“Historians, the curious, perhaps the occasional novice master — only a few really. But it would at least exist.”

“Hmm,” he hummed; nothing else.

We stepped over the lintel into the din of the refectory. Silence at meals was not our way of proceeding. Widening his arms and grinning, Ignatius shouted across the room with hearty delight, “And who is this?”

Recognized, the Dutch theologian Pieter Kanis (called Canisius in Latin) stood sheepishly, his face flushed in the gladsome exhilaration I have witnessed whenever Ignatius de Loyola paid someone his zealous attention. Ordained to the priesthood in 1546, just as I was, Canisius was a consultant, or peritus, at the Council of Trent, then a religion teacher at our College of Messina in Sicily, and would become the founder of Jesuit colleges in Ingolstadt and Vienna, and finally the author of a catechism that would be published in April and become an international bestseller. But that evening in the refectory he was just as I was, a man in his thirties who was so deeply in awe of Ignatius that it made him tentative and weak.

With him then were 10 bashful, grinning lads from Germany in the various beginnings of their twenties, each having been cajoled by Pieter to become voluntary instructors at the College of Messina. Ignatius exchanged pleasantries with all 10 and interrogated each young man in his friendly, concerned, highly focused, but rather intimidating way. Each one’s features radiated an I shall remember this moment forever look.

Upon leaving their long table, Ignatius stamped them with the prediction, “You’ll all become Jesuits one day.” And the force of his personality was such that indeed nine of the 10 did do that.

While the founder and I were heading to the round table where some seminarians were twirling spaghetti onto their forks, Ignatius confided to me, “Whenever I meet any strangers I first think of the high value of their souls and of Christ Our Lord who redeemed them. And I receive so much consolation from the thought that I can’t help but express it through smiling and outward joy.”

I jotted that down but he seemed not to notice.

***

My name is Luís Gonçalves da Câmara. I was born in 1519 in the city of Funchal on the island of Madeira, which is situated far out in the Atlantic Ocean 600 miles southwest of Lisbon. My family was of the aristocracy, my father the governor of Madeira, owner of a sugar plantation and vineyard, and a familiar in the court of Portugal’s King João III. Although my older brother followed in my father’s footsteps, I did not. Instead, at the age of 16 I headed north to glamorous Paris and the 50 different colleges of the Sorbonne. There I sought an education that was mainly philosophical and literary, and with instruction completely in the Latin I have aspired to imitate in these pages, my original notebooks having been written in Spanish.

Registering in the Collège de Sainte-Barbe and finding lodging on the Rue des Chiens, the dismal Street of Dogs, I learned that by sheer good fortune I was neighbor to the building where Iñigo de Loyola roomed with the Spaniard Francisco Xavier and the Savoyard Pierre Favre, who was the first of the Companions to be ordained a priest. But this was in the fall of 1535 and a half-year earlier Iñigo had received his Master of Arts degree under the Latinized name Ignatius, and the hardships of his studies and the harsh withholdings of poverty compelled his return to Spain and a convalescence in the Loyola manor. So it took the haunch of a decade for us to meet. With Iñigo in studies as well were the Spanish companions Simao Rodrigues, who would become my Provincial, and Diego Laínez, his roommate. We had conversations at our joint colloquies in which they extolled Ignatius as the holiest person in Europe. And I cursed my bad luck that I’d missed seeing such a man.

Too soon Pierre left Paris with five companions in the 700 mile walk to Venice, where Ignatius had arranged a rendezvous for January 1537. Soon I too would become a Companion, and while finishing a doctorate in theology in the Alcaçova Palace location of the Universiade de Coimbra, I finally accepted entrance into the Society of Jesus and just a few years later, by the grace of God, was honored with ordination as a priest.

And now after a few ups and downs, I too resided in the Casa professa, just a floor beneath the Superior General’s rooms. I felt an urgency to continue our conversation and fill pages with his presence, but wondered if his modesty would hinder the plan. Wanting confirmation of the project, I hurried upstairs and found him at his desk, correcting and encouraging men in our far-flung Order with yet another of his many thousands of letters.

He saw me in his doorway, catching my breath. “And now what, Luís?” he asked rather coldly.

The holy mystic had become an administrator and it sometimes made him overburdened, hot-tempered and caustic. I recall seeing Laínez in the hallway once, his face ashen and a film of tears in his eyes. Seeing me, he’d asked, “What great sins have I committed that this saint scolds me so?” Laínez seemed to seek no reply.

To Ignatius’s question, I did reply. “Will you approve the Memoriale?”

His face softened and with a smile he said, “We have already begun.”

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