Chris Alling on St. Ignatius and “cannonball moments”

June 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

The Ignatian Educator is privileged to publish the commencement address of Chris Alling, principal of Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, CA.

St. Ignatius and Cannonball Moments

By Christopher Alling

(The following remarks were delivered to Xavier Prep’s class of 2013 during the graduation ceremonies on June 1, 2013.)

On the morning of May 20th, 1521, Ignatius of Loyola, a soldier, woke up in the fortress at Pamplona, Spain and armed himself for battle against the French. His fellow soldiers had considered surrendering, avoiding the battle altogether, but Ignatius, the consummate soldier, insisted that despite being significantly outnumbered, the day could be Spain’s, that they could outlast the French and that they could defend the fort at Pamplona.

Early in the course of the fighting, Ignatius was wounded by a cannonball that shot between his legs. An inch or two difference in the trajectory of this cannonball and Ignatius would have been unscathed. Instead, the ball tore through his left calf and shattered his right shin. Wounded, Ignatius had no choice but to wait for help, to lie on the ground in a dark corner of the fortress until someone came to get him, put him on a gurney and take him to safety. I’ve put up a couple pictures of this moment on the battlefield on the projection screens:

Ignatius wounded in battle

Ignatius of Loyola, being carried away from battle

Ignatius of Loyola, being carried away from battle

I have a great love for this wounded Ignatius, this man of ridiculous, almost foolhardy courage, this wounded man in need of assistance.

I’d like to tell you another story of a wounded man in need of his friends. It’s been one of my favorite scripture passages for as long as I can remember. This is Luke’s telling of the story:

One day He was teaching; and there were some Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem; and the power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing. And some men were carrying on a bed a man who was paralyzed; and they were trying to bring him in and to set him down in front of Him. But not finding any way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down through the tiles with his stretcher, into the middle of the crowd, in front of Jesus. Seeing their faith, Jesus said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.”  The scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?”  But Jesus, aware of their reasonings, answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts?  Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins have been forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?  “But, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,”—He said to the paralytic—“I say to you, get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home.”  Immediately he got up before them, and picked up what he had been lying on, and went home glorifying God. They were all struck with astonishment and began glorifying God; and they were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen remarkable things today.”

I’ve always wondered about this paralyzed man. What happened? How old was he? How was he injured? Where was his family? I’ve always admired his friends, friends who had a simple faith that compelled them to be the hands and feet of their friend, to carry him who knows how far to the house where Jesus was preaching, to try to get into the house through the front door. I’ve always admired this faith that inspired them to get their friend and his gurney to the rooftop, a faith that inspired them with the brilliant idea to tear the roof apart and perhaps borrow ropes so that they could lower their paralyzed friend down into the crowd pressing around the Messiah. A faith and a courage that told them that if they could just get their friend to the feet of Jesus, if they could just get him there, he just might be healed.

We’re all wounded in some way or another. We’ve all been hurt. We will all be hurt again, and again. As we live our lives, as we choose to get out of bed every morning and arm ourselves for the day, we all risk having a cannonball knock us off our feet, leaving us helpless, perhaps unable to move and in need of someone else to carry us.

Legend has it that when the French soldiers found Ignatius, they were so impressed with his courage and toughness that they carried him to the back lines and then returned him to his home in Loyola so that he could heal.

Doctors attended to his torn left calf and did their best to set his broken right leg.

When his broken leg finally mended, it was crooked. Being the vain man that he was, and knowing that his leg would look ridiculous when he wore the fashionable tights and boots of his day, knowing that his deformed leg would draw disgusted stares from the women at court, Ignatius had the doctors break his leg and set it again.

Without any anesthesia.

When the leg healed again, it was still grossly deformed, a large part of the bone protruding, so Ignatius had the surgeons saw off the offending bump.

Without anesthesia

But now his right leg was considerably shorter than his left, so he had the doctors use a system of weights and pulleys to stretch his right leg so that it would be longer.

Did I mention that this was without anesthesia?

I have always tried to relate to the vanity and stubbornness of St. Ignatius and the crazy lengths to which it drove him with regards to his broken leg. I’ve broken one bone in my body twice, my nose. I was unconscious when they reset it. Both times. However, I do recall a particularly bad hair day when I was sixteen.

It was 1982 and I was parting my hair down the middle as was the fashion of the day. I couldn’t get the part right. I washed my hair again, and used the blow dryer. Yes; I even tried my mother’s curling iron. I washed it again. Let it air dry. No dice.  Eventually, I took out the scissors and thought that I might fix it if I simply cut off the offending unruly hairs. One snip led to another and 30 minutes into giving myself a haircut, I looked like the runner up at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. So, I took out the clippers and, without any anesthesia, I took a deep breath, attached the number 2 guard …and … that was that.

Cannonballs. Cannonball moments. Hurt. Suffering. Woundedness. Broken hearts, hurt feelings, lost friends, ended marriages, failed exams, lost games, dropped passes, painful rumors, break ups,  crappy prom dates, and bad hair days. Cannonball moments, every single one of them. You have endured many cannonball moments this year. In some cases, these were near misses, the cannonball whizzing by your heads or between your legs, leaving you scared, but still standing, healthy and grateful. In some cases, the shot hit you square and with blinding speed. Left you scattered and lost, wounded…but not for long. Left you speechless and breathless at times, but did not leave you uninspired.

So, after the cannonball hits, what do you do? What did you do? Before I address this, I’d like to talk about what Peter did after his cannonball moment.

The Apostle Peter, perhaps one of Jesus’s closest friends, had a few bad days, none worse than the day Jesus died, a day made worse by the fact that he vehemently denied knowing his best friend three times that day.

I’ll give you my paraphrase of St. Peter’s cannonball moment from Luke’s Gospel, an episode after the death of Jesus. Peter, a fisherman, decides to do what he knows how to do best. He goes fishing. He jumps into a boat with whatever nets he can find and sets out into the Sea of Galilee to fish, something he’d done hundreds if not thousands of times before this. I am certain that while he sat in the boat, waiting for the nets to grow taut with fish, he recalled his friend, Jesus. I imagine that he recalled the day Jesus came down to the shore and called to him and challenged him to throw down his net and to come follow him, to be a fisher of men. I am sure he recalled all the campfires, the stories, the tears, and I bet he remembered the day those crazy men ripped the roof off of a stranger’s house and lowered their paralyzed friend down to the feet of Jesus. I am sure he remembered all the miracles, the restored sight, the healed legs, the opened ears.

Peter, in his most wounded moment, does what he always did. He goes fishing. And Jesus, disguised, meets Peter, again, on the shore and calls to him. And he tells Peter to cast his nets on the other side of the boat, something that Jesus had asked Peter to do many times before. And Peter, not recognizing Jesus on the shore, probably said something like, “Hey, I’ve been out here all morning…the fish just aren’t biting…leave me alone.” And Jesus says something like, “Will you just put your nets out on the other side of the boat?”

And when Peter decides to take fishing advice from a carpenter’s son, he catches a net full of fish.

I think this is what happened to Ignatius. While he was healing at his home in Loyola, I am sure that he had thoughts of going back to court, of being  a soldier again when he was able to walk. It’s what he knew. It’s what he was good at. And at some point in his convalescence, Jesus showed up and challenged Ignatius to be a different kind of soldier. To cast his nets on the other side of the boat, if you will.

After the cannonball, we simply need to get up and keep doing what we know how to do. We just keep fishing. And we hope that Jesus will show up in the ordinary. We fall back on our training. We remember to pray. We remember to be grateful. We do our very best to protect ourselves, to learn from our mistakes, to avoid being so proud as to think that we’re invincible or perfect. We humble ourselves and do our best to be patient with others and with ourselves.

After graduation your lives will be different, in some cases dramatically different. You’ll be living in distant cities, with new roommates. You’ll be working part time, perhaps. You’ll still be going to the gym three days a week. You will continue to do what you’re good at. You’ll still be students, good students. You’ll still wake up most days and go to class most days and you’ll continue to do this for another four … maybe five … maybe six … maybe even more … years.

And Jesus will still show up on the shore, and he will call to you and will continue to challenge you to fish on the other side of the boat. To do what you’ve done for so long but to do it differently. You will be surrounded by others who are seeking their own self-interest, who are seeking their own honors, their own benefits, their own advancement, their own promotions and accolades, and Jesus will continue to call to you from the shore and ask you to be different. To fish from the other side of the boat. To labor without asking for reward, to toil without seeking rest, to give without counting the cost, to fight without heeding the wounds.

And some days, that will be impossible. And it is on those days that we need our companions, that we need our friends to carry us. We need the French to give us a place to heal; we may need extraordinary healing, and this often comes to us in the form of others. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, an international network of homes for people with developmental disabilities, reminds us  that to “be human is to be bonded together, each with our own weaknesses and strengths, because we need each other.”  On another occasion Vanier describes the hands of those who care for others as hands that keep us safe but that also need to allow us to grow. Hands, Vanier says, need to say, “I’ve got you, and I hold you safe because I love you and I’ll never be apart from you. Don’t be afraid.” And they also need to say, “Go, my child, find your way. Make  mistakes, learn, suffer, grow, and become who you need to be. Don’t be afraid. You are free and I am always near.”

Parents, you know exactly what Vanier is saying. Friends, as you prepare to leave home, pay good attention to your hands and the ways you might continue to care for one another and those you meet in your lives.

The paralytic’s friends used their hands to carry him. They used their hands to tear apart the roof of the house. They used their hands to lower their friend into the crowd and down to the feet of Jesus, where maybe, just maybe, he would be healed. And when Jesus noticed this large gurney on ropes being lowered into his line of sight, he quieted the crowd and looked at the paralytic’s friends and he saw their faith and he healed their friend. He forgave his sins, and the man got up and walked.

Friends. I know that Greg* didn’t get up and walk. I know that not all of the broken marriages were healed, that the gossip didn’t get un-gossiped, that dropped passes weren’t miraculously caught, that bad dates didn’t always turn into good dates, that not every tumor shrank, nor did every biopsy come back negative. I am not naïve. I am certain, also, that like Ignatius’s leg, our hearts may continue to break again and again…sometimes due to forces we cannot control and sometimes of our own choosing. And I know that God will work miracles through you…whether  you can see them or not.

But I also know that you are very special people. You are great friends. If you will have the courage to fish from the other side of the boat, if you will go out into the world and be the hands of Jesus, you can, despite the odds, win the day, change the world, heal the broken, restore sight to the blind, open deaf ears, and bring light where there is darkness. Like St. Ignatius, your heroic choices can be contagious.

So imagine that tomorrow is May 20th, 1521. We are stupidly outnumbered, but we are full of foolhardy courage, and our faith stirs not only in our hearts, but in the eyes of our companions, in the touch of their hands and the embrace of their arms, in their willingness to give without counting the cost, to toil without seeking rest, to labor without seeking reward, to fight without heeding the wounds.

 Tomorrow morning, because of your courageous faith, I will rise and walk.

Thank you.

[*Editor’s note: Gregory Friscia, a member of the class of 2013, died on March 24, 2013, the result of a skateboarding accident.]

Chris Alling

Chris Alling

Chris Alling is the principal of Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, CA. He can be reached at


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