The Road Not Taken

Shortly after his conversion, Ignatius was riding on a donkey towards Montserrat when another rider came alongside him. Learning where Ignatius was headed, the other – a Moor –  made some remarks about the Blessed Virgin Mary that seemed disrespectful to Inigo and then moved on in front of him.  Still very much a cavalier at heart, Inigo’s blood was stirred by this slight against the Virgin’s honor.

The path ahead diverged and Ignatius decided to allow the donkey to choose which way it went.  If the donkey followed the Moor then Inigo would kill the Moor, if the donkey chose the other path he would continue on to Montserrat.  Happily, the donkey chose the path that led to Inigo becoming a saint rather than a murderer.  Today – the feast of St. Ignatius – Greg Kennedy, SJ imagines the Moor’s side of what has come to be known as “donkey discernment”



Despite the noonday sun, which seemed to sizzle and spit like a green branch in the fire, Abdul could not stop trembling.  He knew that the eyes of the man, whose sharp jaw stretched his skin tight as drums over his cheekbones, followed him as he urged his mule to put distance between them.  Those eyes had also begun to tremble, or more accurately, to quiver as they darkened and reddened below a brow increasingly furrowed.

Source: Jesuit Sources

A storm had set in over the face of the young man, now stranger to the cordiality of a mere quarter hour before.  His rage had quaked in the corner of his eyes, while his hand opened and closed mechanically on the hilt of the grandiose sword strapped to his saddlebag.  Abdul, his chest caving towards the neck of his mule, felt as if the crawling skin of his back was being carved by the memory of that sword.  The mule, given its uncustomary speed, seemed to smell the danger as much as he.

Abdul had seen eyes quiver like that once before in Madrid, some ten years prior, his first and only time in the city.  A beggar, unsolicited, offered eagerly to show him the ancient Moorish sites, talking with great enthusiasm about the astounding achievements of the old caliphate.  With grudging interest, Abdul had allowed himself be dragged from one former mosque to another, willing to go along with the beggar simply because he was always unwilling to offend.

Finally, when the forced tour was ended, the beggar turned on Abdul and demanded payment.  “I just showed you the best of Madrid”, the large man said, maintaining his theatrical tone.  When, however, Abdul refused to hand over one of the few coins housed in his leather pouch, his bubbly companion turned sour.

Madrid circa 1500.

“Look”, said Abdul caught between fear, indignation and conciliation, “I didn’t ask you to lead me by the nose around.  I took you as a lonely man who needed some company.  I certainly won’t pay you for what I never wanted.”  An explosion of curses and expletives rushed through the other’s rotten teeth.  “You think you can steal a man’s time and give him nothing.  A pox on you.  If I see you again in any street of this city, as God lives, I’ll pierce your heart, even if I have nothing more than a broken stick.”  Those eyes: hatred, blood, destruction.

For the next three days, Abdul walked as if on glass shards every time he had to step out of the shabby hostel that lodged him.  It seemed everyone somehow saw into his anxiety, which he could not calm, despite his conviction that the thundering beggar was little more than bellows of hot air more laughable than alarming. He felt victim to a contempt he could not comprehend.  His innate jocundity withered in the vase.  He had not been made to be on the wrong side of anyone.

Now, trembling in the sun beneath the rabid stare of this young, prematurely hardened noble, Abdul again found himself drawn and quartered between fear, righteousness, incomprehension, and victimization.  He had not wanted to enter into pointless theological disputes.  Of far greater interest to him were the current price of wool, the strange purplish hue of the moon during the last two nights and the innumerable minor shipwrecks involved in sharing a home with a wife you love but cannot abide.  But the zeal of the man, excessively serious as only a youth can be, had not let up.

Whenever there had appeared a slight crack for escape, he had stuffed it solid with torrential talk about his absolute devotion to the Virgin Mother of Christ.  She was the Immaculate, the theotokos, the Queen of the Sea, the Mystical Rose, the Auxiliadora, the most blessed among woman, the Mother of Sorrows, the Well of Purity, the Star of Chastity.

Adbul had clopped along on his mule in glum silence as long as he could, but when at last the man, as if shaken from a trance, had invited him to join his paean, he could not help let slip, “Immaculate Virgin, certainly, but what girl isn’t until she’s not.”


The man had stopped short.  “Would you care to explain your statement, señor.”  There were racks, thumbscrews and hot pincers in his voice.

The tedium that had overtaken Abdul was at once replaced by tremors beginning deep within the fault lines of his lungs.  “I meant nothing by that, vecino, only that Mary was a very good woman.”

“She is the very conduit of Christ’s salvation into the world”, had been the response, dry and unyielding as the rocks beneath the hooves of Abdul’s donkey.  Suddenly, it had become impossible to distinguish the heat of the blazing sun from that of the burning eyes of his companion.

“Possibly.  Yes, perhaps.”  Abdul had known full well by now that his tongue could not pull him from the grave he had unwittingly, unwillingly dug.

Ignatius and the Moor by Peter Paul Rubans circa 1609. Source:

“So you doubt the eternal virginity of our Mother of Consolation?”  The screech of leather, like that of a preying hawk, had pierced Abdul’s ear as the young man’s glove tightened around the hilt of his sword.  “Godspeed”, breathed Abdul as much to himself as to the smoking cinder in the saddle on the beast beside him.

With equal anxiety to be gone and not to betray his terror, he pressed his heels into the ribs of his animal.  They were off, moving away on the point of combustion under the incendiary stare of the stranger.

When the mule reached the fork, Abdul did not hesitate to veer left onto el camino real,   His memory, suddenly whetted on the stone of threat, rung his brain like a fire-bell that an inn lay ahead around the corner some forty paces.  Never had he entered this or any other Christian public house.  Scarcely could he imagine what was contained inside.

But whatever its contents, surely there would be a corner of refuge for an innocent man fleeing homicide at the hands of an unhinged zealot.  Should he enter, appear normal and quickly win the confidence of those inside, likely someone would intercede to rescue his chest from perforation.

Source: Jesuit Sources

He did his best to tie his mule out of sight, behind the stable rather than in it.  Paralyzed by the initial obscurity of the inn, Abdul stood convinced that the thunder of his heart would shake the glass out of the casements of the few, small windows.  He groped unsteadily to the bar, it being the most conspicuous and solid object in the room.

“Some inferno out there today”, came a voice that, although gruff, had nothing of the poison of the other still wet in Abdul’s ear.  “What are you drinking, amigo?”

“I put myself in your hands”, replied Abdul.

“The beer is worth opening your mouth for.”

16th century Madrid inn. Source:

Abdul had never touched a glass a beer, much less consumed one.  He sat down in front of it and noted with an almost obsessive absorption how the beads of sweat pooled together on the table beneath his forearm.  With all his might, he wanted to ingratiate himself with the man behind the bar and the corpulent woman, surely his wife, who came and went lethargically from the kitchen.

He wanted to construct a fortified wall around him out of the instinctive compassion he felt was owed him as victim of an absurd, unmerited menace.  But he could summon neither the courage nor his customary bonhomie to make endearing small talk.  Immobilized before his beer, he studied with dread the door through which at any moment might enter his bloody death.

When four hours later the innkeeper, too hot to be too concerned, called out, more than anything to kill the monotony of late afternoon, Abdul did not startle.  “You want another one, amigo, the one you got there has lost all its charm.”

Source: Mussa Fadoul

Despite the lightness of his purse, and without having even tasted the first glass, Abdul chirped an affirmative.  His life once again felt as if his own.  “Give me a fresh one, if you please.  We ought to celebrate, you know.  For God may have made a saint today.”  Some moments later Abdul took his first ever sip of beer, which overwhelmed his mouth with a yeasty acidity that curled his lips.  However, the slight coolness made him feel alive.  “Alhamdulillah”, he sighed to himself.  “Allah be praised for saving souls.”


For a detailed account as recorded by Ignatius click here.

Greg Kennedy, SJ is assigned to the spiritual exercises ministry at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario.

  • Dennis Galon
    Posted at 01:32h, 31 July Reply

    Beautiful Greg. What a lovely treat for July 31.

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