Recently, I finished writing a chapter on Ignatius of Loyola for a forthcoming book that focuses on the importance of the saints in the context of the Catholic Church in crisis. (The book is edited by Catherine Wolff and is called Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience (HarperCollins, 2013)). While writing this chapter, I was confronted again with the ways in which Ignatius' old life survived, after his conversion(s) and illumination(s), in his new life. Often, stories of conversion emphasize the discontinuities between old ways and new ways. In the story of Ignatius, some contemporary research makes us more attentive to the continuities. One of those continuities is his taste for combat. Early in his life, he is a courageous and sometimes foolish fighter, frequently eager to vanquish foes with force. Once he dedicates his life to Christ, that zeal for weaponry does not evaporate but is funneled somewhat differently. He takes to characterizing Christian life as a battle of the forces of Christ against the forces of Satan, and he continued to struggle against his own impulses to command and defeat others. This is no simple criticism of Ignatius. Rather, it is an attempt to contribute to a reframing of what his conversion(s) and illumination(s) were about. (A rethinking of the meaning and dynamics of conversion is happening on many fronts in contemporary theology.)
I had Ignatius' famous story and multi-stage conversion in mind as I recently listened again to Ace Frehley's "Rock Soldiers," in which Frehley addresses his fans, from the far side of a "conversion," as soldiers -- for rock and roll.
Frehley was a guitarist for the rock band KISS who took up a solo career in the 1980s and had a hit with this tune in 1987. In "Rock Soldiers," Frehley tells the apparently autobiographical story of a car accident he had in the early 1980s. The path to the accident is marked by an internal battle about how (and even, like Ignatius at one point, whether) to live: He goes speeding dangerously down the road "With a trooper in my mirror, and Satan on my right."
It is a conversion story ("my only high was just a lie / and now I'm glad I saw"), replete -- as is so common in the rock and roll tradition -- with an explicit reference to edging out the devil. Its arc is similar to that of Ignatius and thousands of other such stories in and out of religion: dissolute young adulthood, dramatic shift in perspective over time, leading to a new and more true way of seeing/living in the world.
I don't know enough about Frehley's life to know about the deep continuities evident in his life despite the discontinuities after his conversion, but maybe readers can help fill that gap.
Thinking about Ignatius and Ace Frehley, I remembered Hercules. Why? Because of Marjorie O'Rourke Boyle's sober and learned study of Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, titled Loyola's Acts: The Rhetoric of the Self (University of California Press, 1997).
Boyle reminds us that Hercules' story informed the way Augustine portrayed his own conversion -- as a personal negotiation in which prudential judgment was at stake -- and can be found influencing Loyola's tale, too. As Boyle tells it, "In a sophistic parable Hercules, that most popular of Greek heroes, was adapted to idealize the human faculty of deliberation and its power of decision. Hercules in his passage to youth also went, like Loyola, to a quiet place and sat down pondering which path of life to choose. Two contrasting female figures appeared and addressed his doubts with the divergent attractions and promises of vice and virtue. From that exemplar, the classical ancestor of medieval and renaissance masters of choice, a character was typically plotted as a traveler on the path of life, confronted at crossroads with moral decisions" (p. 2).
In the song, Ace Frehley is in the modern industrialized equivalent of a "quiet place" -- in the driver's seat of his car, speeding along alone. In contrast to Ignatius, "Rock Soldiers" is familiarly (post)modern in its hesitation to describe or prescribe exactly what it was to which Frehley was converted, choosing instead, with so many contemporaries, to make the process of personal change itself the content of conversion. Does Frehley's (post)modern sensibility give us a way of reading Ignatius? And vice versa? I think so, but will have to discuss this in a future post.