Solemnity of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Anticipated),
Priest, Religious, Founder of the Society of Jesus
Of Ronin & Samurai
Readings: Isaiah 43:1-5; Psalm 1; Ephesians 3:14-20; John 1:35-39
Sisters and brothers, do you like action-movies? Today I’m reminded of one that was released in 1998. It has all the standard ingredients of a good action-movie: fight-scenes, car-chases, shootings, murders and even some romance. It also has a pretty interesting storyline and its cast includes Robert De Niro. But what I find most intriguing about this movie is its title. It’s called Ronin.
As you probably already know, ronin is a Japanese word that literally means drifter. According to Wikipedia, ronin were masterless samurai who lived in feudal Japan (1185–1868). Samurai became masterless either when they fell out of favour with their Lord or when their Lord was ruined or killed. Once that happened, samurai were supposed to commit ritual suicide. But some chose to become ronin instead, wandering mercenaries, selling their services to the highest bidder. Some even became bandits in order to survive.
But no, this is not a Japanese movie. Neither is it set in feudal Japan. But it does tell the story of a band of modern-day ronin of a different sort. Most of them are ex-employees of various secret service agencies, the CIA, the French Secret Service, the KGB, and so on. No longer employed by their respective masters they choose to free-lance. They sell their services to all the wrong people, to terrorist organizations mostly. And the movie highlights the pain and suffering that results. Sadly, most of them end up dead.
But what has an apparently depressing action-movie like that got to do with us, especially as we celebrate this solemn feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the patron of our parish and founder of the Society of Jesus? I think quite a lot, actually. Although St. Ignatius, or Inigo, if you prefer, was not Japanese, like the ronin and the samurai, he was born into a feudal society. Much of his early life was spent searching for a Lord worthy of his allegiance. Although he was not a tall man – I’m told that the height of that statue in our Gathering Space is probably not too far off the mark – he had dreams and desires of immense proportions. He wanted to spend his life as a gallant knight performing glorious and heroic deeds. He served various Dukes and even fought bravely for Spain against the French at a place called Pamplona. But it was only while recovering from the wounds that he sustained in that battle that Ignatius eventually encountered the One he had been searching for all his life, the only One truly worthy of his loyal service, the One he later referred to as the eternal Lord of all things. I’m not sure if others will agree with me, but I think St. Ignatius was something of a samurai.
We, of course, no longer live in a feudal society. We are modern people who value our individual freedom. We don’t like people to tell us what to do. In this day and age, it is not unheard of even for children to bring their parents to court. In many ways, it often seems like we prefer to live the lives of ronin. We wish to be free to travel wherever we like and to sell our services to the highest bidder. We want to be answerable to nobody but ourselves. In the latest issue of Time magazine, for example, we find the following quote from Wang Ning, a 27-year-old Chinese national and owner of an advertising company: We are more self-centered. We live for ourselves, and that’s good. We contribute to the economy. That’s our power.
And yet, we may wonder how truly free and independent we actually are. Isn’t it striking, for example, how young people may get into heated arguments with their parents about the style of their clothes and the length of their hair only to end up looking pretty much the same as their friends? And, of course, we can say this of grown-ups too. Ever notice how people in the business district dress more or less the same? And on a daily basis, don’t we find ourselves listening to what various advertisements tell us are the things that we just have to acquire: a faster internet connection, a snazzier cell-phone, high-definition TV, better complexion, no split ends… The list is endless.
Even as we may dream about and try to live the lives of ronin, don’t we often find ourselves submitting to very unworthy Lords, who use and abuse us, and who can make us very unhappy? Don’t we often find ourselves struggling to measure up to what society expects of us? Don’t we find ourselves scared to death of failure, afraid that we might be found unacceptable and be looked down upon and laughed at by everyone, or at least by the people who matter?
What does all this tell us about us? Could it be that, although we may seem to enjoy the apparent freedom of ronin, deep down in our hearts, we all long for the life of the samurai? Could it be that although we no longer live in a feudal age, like St. Ignatius, there remains in each of us a deep desire to spend our lives in the service of someone truly worthy of our loyalty?
Instead of the different lords of this age, who stress us out with all kinds of unreasonable demands, don’t we long to encounter the eternal Lord of all things whom Ignatius encountered while recovering from his wounds? Especially when we feel lost and afraid, don’t we long to hear this same Lord speak to us those words from the first reading today: do not be afraid… I have called you by your name, you are mine… you are precious in my eyes… and I love you?
Instead of continuing to listen to the masters of this world tell us what we need, don’t we yearn instead to hear the Divine Master ask us the same question that he asks the first disciples in the gospel today? What do you want? Don’t we dream of meeting Jesus and having him help us to discover the answer to this question? And when we do finally encounter him, will he not lead us onto the path that Ignatius walked so many years ago, the same path we heard about in today’s psalm, the path of the one who ponders God’s law day and night, the path that leads us to appreciate more and more, the breadth and the length, the height and the depth… of the love of Christ for us?
Sisters and brothers, isn’t this what we are celebrating today? As we remember the patron of our parish, aren’t we also celebrating the fact that the same Lord whom he encountered and served in the 16th century, continues to console us and to call us into his service in the 21st? Even if we may still be unsure of what we really want, in this Mass, the eternal Lord of all things is asking us to give him a chance. He’s inviting us to come and see, to come and see if he is indeed the One we are looking for, the One truly worthy of our loyalty and our service.
Sisters and brothers, which do you prefer to be, ronin or samurai? Whom do you serve?