This is a review of a book I’ve read for a course in Spiritual Direction …
Brian Grogan SJ, Alone and on Foot. Ignatius of Loyola (Dublin: Veritas 2008) ISBN 9781847301345 (Paperback), 223 pages (Available here)
This biography of Ignatius of Loyola is an abridged translation of the Spanish Sola y a Pie by Jose Ignacio Tellechea. That original is noted for being by a compatriot of Ignatius, a Basque, who is also a medievalist and, unusual among biographers of Ignatius, not a Jesuit. This version, however, is by an Irish Jesuit. I am not sure what difference that makes, other than that it certainly strikes me as being very ‘Ignatian’ in this retelling. Biographers of Ignatius are fortunate in having both the Autobiography and witness statements for the canonisation process from people who remembered Ignatius, so the interesting small details and insights with which this book abounds are probably more than the imaginative recreations of an able storyteller. Perhaps as a result of the choices Grogan made in shortening the original, what we have here is a sharply drawn and utterly fascinating verbal portrait of Ignatius, with just enough historical and cultural context given to make sense of the story without losing focus on Ignatius and his companions. The narrative is the verbal equivalent of the delightful black and white illustrations throughout the book – simple, uncluttered, and quietly evocative of an intriguing personality.
Alone and on Foot tells the story of Ignatius as a graced personal history, and it is designed to be read slowly. The book is not overly long – 223 pages – but those pages are divided into 70 chapters, around 3 pages long. Each chapter should be savoured and mulled over; one can’t read the book in a few sittings. The final page of every chapter has a shaded sidebar with a sentence from the chapter quoted in the upper part and a question for the reader to ponder in light of the chapter at the bottom. It is perhaps this above all else which makes the experience of reading the book one of listening to a personal faith journey more than an historical exercise, and also a journey of understanding one’s own life story as graced history.
These questions enriched my reading experience, but occasionally they jarred by cutting across the direction of my own thoughts in response to the narrative, knocking them right out of my head, much like an ill-timed comment or question from a spiritual director might shatter a sacred moment for the directee. After a while I began reading with a piece of paper obscuring the sidebar until I was ready to reflect on the chapter, meaning I could benefit both from my own musings and the insightful direction of Grogan. Often these questions were predictable enough, but there were times they were utterly unexpected and illuminating precisely because they caught me off guard. One of my favourite was: “How do you think God finds the task of teaching you?” (p66)
I would recommend the book to anyone interested in Ignatius and the Jesuits. It is not a scholarly account in that only sometimes is the source of the material made explicit, so it would not be the go-to-book for historians, but for those who are interested in the spiritual life. For those engaged in Spiritual Direction, this book can accomplish several things at once. It is an excellent way to get to know the story of Ignatius, precisely because it is told as a graced personal history. The questions invite one to reflect on one’s own journey. It is also an indirect education in good questions to ask of someone in order to encourage deep reflection on their life with God. It is a concise book, but paradoxically not a book that can be read quickly. One needs to work through it from beginning to end, not dip in and out of it, and the best would be to read only one chapter in a sitting. I’d even recommend it as a prayer companion.