March 20 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

lent feature

A long search for a true and authentic hero

As our series on the Ignatian Lent Retreat continues, Susan Mansfield reflects on the difficulty of finding true heroes in the modern world.

Who inspires you? Who would you follow, as Jesus’ disciples followed Him, sacrificially, totally? To whose mast would you pin your personal colours?

This is the question which St Ignatius asks at the beginning of the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises.

I’m following the journey of the Exercises this Lent on the online retreat created by Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Glasgow, along with several hundred others in Scotland and further afield.

Kingdom Exercise

By this point, as anyone else on the retreat will know, we have moved into the Second Week of Ignatius’s four-week structure, the beginning of which is marked by the ‘Kingdom Exercise’ or ‘Call of Christ the King’.

A great deal of the Spiritual Exercises translates easily into the contemporary world—so much so one can forget they was written in the 1500s.

The Kingdom Exercise, however, is one of those points where we are reminded of the gulf between Ignatius’ world and our own.

Who do we admire?

Ignatius asks us to imagine a king who calls us into his service, a man of noble character, great goodness and compassion. We are asked to imagine what it feels like to be called by such a person, and what our response would be.

Tim Muldoon, author of The Ignatian Workout, summarises the Exercise like this: “What is important to imagine is your own emotional response to this person… The basic idea is that if a person we admire can entrust us with a responsibility that gives our lives meaning, then surely Christ can do this to an even greater extent.”

The material of this reflection was second nature to Ignatius, a young nobleman in early modern Europe, whose life before his conversion was focused around finding a leader to fight for, the nobler the better.

But a lot has changed since the 1520s. Not only do we no longer set off ‘to conquer all the lands of the infidel’ like Ignatius’ imaginary hero, we don’t follow leaders in quite the same way.


Contemporary interpretations of the Exercises often suggest imagining a political leader whom we respect and admire.

But today’s world seems particularly short on these (and many of the current crop of Prime Ministers and Presidents don’t even begin to qualify).

When I first made the Exercises, I remember being asked to think of people I admired, past or present, and coming up with a motley crew: the scholar Erasmus, the artist Rembrandt, the poet Seamus Heaney.

But they are not leaders, nor would I describe myself as their follower.

Human heroes

Asking the same question today, I can think of individuals who have accomplished great things in their communities or have challenged injustice.

Had I been writing this a month ago, I might have named Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, but the recent revelations about his personal misconduct are a sharp reminder of how easily our human heroes can fall.

Alex Salmond, the architect of Scotland’s independence movement in the last three decades and a hero to many, is currently in court defending himself against sexual assault charges.


One might choose Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King or —for our own times—Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who challenged world leaders on climate change.

But, while I can be inspired by all these, and support much of what they stand for, I don’t feel moved to commit my own life directly with their specific causes.

In the end, I had to admit that I couldn’t find a suitable ‘hero.’ Perhaps the only person who can live up to such exacting requirements is Jesus himself.

But perhaps this simply emphasises Ignatius’ point. If only Jesus is good enough, radical enough, dynamic enough, kind enough, how much more does He deserve our life commitment?

Spiritual Exercises

At the point, the Spiritual Exercises executes one of its stunning shifts of perspective.

In the Incarnation reflection, we are invited to imagine we are looking down on the world, along with the Three Persons of the Trinity, to eavesdrop on the moment when the decision is made that the Son will go down to the earth and become a human being.

It’s a daring act of the imagination, but one which has stayed with me since I first made the Exercises nearly ten years ago.

We’ve spent the First Week of the Exercises looking at sin—our own and the endemic, ingrained sin in the world—and the damage it causes.

Analysing sins

For me, looking from above became much less about naming and analysing sins, trying to identify causes and effects, and more about seeing a planet increasingly bound up in layers of damage, more and more distanced from light and life.

Looking upon this with grief and love and endless compassion, the Trinity agrees to send the Son into the world.

And so the angel Gabriel appears to a young, unmarried woman in occupied Palestine and invites her to play a crucial role in the story.

Each time I reflect on the Annunciation, I’m struck afresh by the scale of this Divine ‘ask’.


Not only does Mary take on the shame of an unmarried pregnancy, she will, 33 years later, see her beloved son die on a cross.

God offers Mary a choice, as Monty Williams SJ writes, he ‘neither seduces not rapes.’

It used to trouble me that her acceptance felt too passive, subservient, but I have come to see it as courageous and profound. 

Courage and Faith

Jane Williams, writing in The Art of Advent, says this: “Mary does not become less herself by responding to God.

God’s plan, beginning with the creation of the world, is not in danger of being derailed by Mary because God knows Mary so well.

“God’s knowledge does not take away her freedom and turn her into an automaton, any more than our knowledge of the people we love does… When we struggle to assert ourselves in opposition to God, we are struggling against what sets us free to be ourselves.”

Reflecting on the Nativity in the past few days, my admiration for Mary continues to grow. She gives birth to her son in a stable, with little support, then flees with her baby into exile in Egypt.

Gospel of Luke

Luke’s Gospel describes her more than once as ‘treasuring up in her heart’ all these strange events, a quiet, contemplative act of Faith.

She does not see the big picture, but she believes that one day she will. The courage and Faith of Our Lady sets the right tone as we journey further into challenges of the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises in which we are invited to observe at close quarters the person of Jesus Christ.

To find out more about Ignatian spirituality, visit or contact Ignatian Spirituality Centre at 35 Scott Street, Glasgow, G3 6PE, tel 0131 354 0077.

To find out more about Ignatian spirituality, visit or contact Ignatian Spirituality Centre at 35 Scott Street, Glasgow, G3 6PE, tel 0131 354 0077.

Leave a Reply

latest features

Africa has much to teach us and give

April 24th, 2020 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

I can still remember when Sr Stella Niwagira arrived in...

Meet the individuals thriving because of donations to SCIAF

April 12th, 2020 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

Ryan McDougall tells the stories of two previously impoverished African...

Education and lessons learned from a Ugandan aid trip

April 10th, 2020 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

Peter Galloway reflects upon a recent aid trip to Uganda,...

We need to spread the love, Wuhan Catholic writes

March 30th, 2020 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

In a special report, a Catholic living in Wuhan, the...

Social media

Latest edition


exclusively in the paper

  • Unite in prayer against the virus, Paisley bishop pleads
  • Papal award recognises 60 years of Faithful service
  • Catholic high school leads trend with positive outcomes for pupils
  • New memorials celebrate Croy’s proud mining heritage
  • Top Catholic university rolls out programme in Scotland

Previous editions

Previous editions of the Scottish Catholic Observer newspaper are only available to subscribed Members. To download previous editions of the paper, please subscribe.

note: registered members only.

Read the SCO