The man in the cave

Published on 18 Sep 2018
A homeless man on Millennium Bridge being given some alms

Teresa McCaffery reflects on the penance St Ignatius undertook in the cave at Manresa, and how this helped her understand sin and Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us.

In a mini online retreat, I was asked to consider sin in the context of Inigo’s experience of guilt, penance and forgiveness while in the cave at Manresa. Asked to imagine him looking unkempt and neglected in what he understood to be doing penance, I thought of a homeless person sitting on the kerb, head down and wearing clothes that he might not have had the opportunity to take off in a while. At best I would sympathise and offer a coin; I would not expect to learn from him. But I am being asked to learn from Inigo’s experience. Inigo was following the example of Christians who had learned that Man is a sinner and must do penance in this way; my homeless man would probably be aware of the circumstances that brought him to this pass without necessarily feeling responsible for the outcome. I am now asked to imagine Inigo months later all spruced up, God has told him that he has work to do; maybe my homeless man is now on his feet selling ‘Big Issue’.

A theological treasure

Like the story of Inigo who became Ignatius of Loyola, my parable of the homeless man who got back on to his feet is a suitcase full of theological treasure. Does the huddled figure on the pavement really have nothing to teach me? How does Inigo’s deliberate decision to do penance differ from the fate of the homeless man who is saddled with the logical consequences of circumstances and decisions made in the past? Are there any similarities between the further career of Ignatius, and that of the precariously balanced, newly on his feet, still effectively homeless man?

Old Testament view

In the Old Testament we see an inexorable moral development taking place. Effect follows cause with logical ferocity. Bad acts generate bad effects which in their turn cause bad acts in a self-perpetuating circle. Of course, good things happen too, but the bad things constantly destroy the effects of the good. God sends prophets to remind people that they need to be GOOD to avoid bad consequences, but it doesn’t really work. Sometimes the good people do bad things, like going to war, to get rid of bad people, which doesn’t help at all.


The people of God know they need help; their prophets tell them to await a Messiah. God is also aware of the problem! Ignatius asks us to imagine Him looking down at the earth in chaos wondering what to do. His solution is, in every sense of the word, magic. He decides to send His Son down to earth. We are not talking here about a committee sending a diplomatic envoy, or teacher, or police officer, or Judge, to sort out a situation gone awry. This is about the one omnipotent total creator of all who is shattering His wholeness and infinite perfection so that in his divinity He can be present to the beings He created in ways they can comprehend in their limited and imperfect nature. In sending His son to be incarnate in the created world God changed the shape of the created order.

Remember that moral circle? Imagine any rubber ring, or elastic band that naturally takes on a circular shape, now make the sides touch each other. It will twist into a new shape: two loops joined by a cross. This is what has happened through the Incarnation. The world of God and that of Man have been both separated and joined; by the Cross of Christ.

Crossroads in our lives

If a lion eats a gazelle nobody shouts ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Animals have no moral sense, humans do. But humans do not know the harm the do. If I drive faster than the speed limit I am probably not aware of breaking a rule – until some other vehicle crosses my path and I cannot stop in time. Then I will surely regret my misdemeanour. The cross of Christ has put these crossroads into our lives. It means that when disaster happens we ask, ‘was that, at least in part, my fault’. It is by the grace of Christ that we can be conscious of our faults. As we travel the pilgrim path of life we cannot avoid collision with the effects of earlier activity.

On the wrong track

In Acts of the Apostles we read about Saul. He was on the wrong track, but he did not know it. He had to be knocked off his horse, and blinded into the bargain, to bring him to his senses. He was told in words what he was doing wrong “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”. Saul got the message and became Paul. Inigo was also on the wrong track. He was stopped by a cannon ball, but he did not need a verbal message to know he needed to change. He made himself rather miserable trying to identify all the things he had done wrong before God encouraged him to get on with something more useful, like helping Him. 400 years later we have a much better idea of what went wrong and use our own brains and initiative to find ways to get people out of trouble. Helping agencies may take care not to bring God into it because they don’t want their clients to be burdened with guilt. So, we may think that humankind is learning, albeit rather slowly, when it comes to morality. We know much more about why people do things that harm themselves and others, and how to help them, but in the process we seem to have lost God. Is this a retrograde step? Or part of the learning process?

God the Grandfather

Ignatius lived at the beginning of an explosion of knowledge and understanding of the world, the stars and the mind and body of man. Today we can do, out of our own understanding and skill, things that would have needed a miracle previously. That is as it should be; did not God give humans dominion over the created world? Surely this means we should learn how to fix what is broken as well as exploiting everything we see. I see God the father becoming God the Grandfather. He is no longer so often involved ‘hands on’ as people gets on with running the world. We make lots of mistakes and often act very selfishly but the new shape of reality means that we confront ourselves with the consequences of our actions and change our ways without needing reminders. Well… that’s the way it’s meant to work!

The pilgrim journey continues

God the Grandfather is worthy of honour, glory, love and respect. If we treat Him like we treat so many older people, left to vegetate in old folks’ homes, He cannot help us. Life is not static; the pilgrim journey always continues. We have not reached some sort of end stage where God is no longer necessary, there is no end stage. We continue to struggle with the effects of sin and learn more all the time about how to fix them. The Son of God, who has done the work of making our own self-awareness of sin possible, remains with us in the sacrament of the Eucharist as friend and mentor, consolidating our gains as it were. So, God the Father/Grandfather set up the world and put us in charge: the past. Jesus Christ gave us the capacity to see how we contribute to the effects of evil and supports us as we try to put things right: the present. Then Jesus sent The Spirit to enlighten us and help us to build a creatively new and better world: the future.

We are all homeless

We may live in houses, but we are all homeless. We live in time, not space. Certainly, some individuals may be fortunate enough to have a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. Some, like Ignatius, may stay in the same place for many years while others, like Paul, spend their lives travelling. But our physical situation does not define us, rather the constant search for truth and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth does that. And we are morally homeless too. Paul and Inigo are rare exceptions that prove an important rule. We think we can see what they were doing wrong so that they had to be stopped, but that is all wrong. Nobody is directly responsible through sinfulness for his own illness or misfortune. Jesus said that the man was blind, not because of his sin or that of his parents, but that God’s greatness could be seen in him. Trouble simply brings us to a standstill and gives us the chance to see God. But for that to happen other people must help, we see that in every healing story. The moral high ground gives us a view, but not a home; it’s a lonely place. Those who try to help and understand sinners have company, but little status in society and a lot of uncertainty.

Related resources