Following a very nice lunch for hardly any money we set off from the Guggenheim out of Bilbao towards Pamplona. It was a fantastic journey, through green, wooded mountains, past small villages which had an almost alpine feel, alongside rivers and streams. It really was fantastic.
On the way to Pamplona we stopped at Loyola. This was both the birthplace of St Ignatius and the place where following the injury he received as a soldier in battle defending Pamplona he was converted. As you arrive in Loyola, which is a relatively small town, you see the dome of the Church of St Ignatius, a huge baroque basilica, dominating the skyline at the end of an avenue. We parked and made our way across the front of the church and went through a side entrance to be met by the most amazing sight – the holy house, the home of St Ignatius.
The ground floors are made of stone, like a fortress, the upper floors are made of brick, a kind of renaissance palace on top of a medieval castle. Inside it was amazing and at the top of the house was the Chapel of the Conversion. We stood in the ante-room and watched through a glass screen a Mass being celebrated in the very room where Ignatius convalesced and was captured by God.
We made our way down into the bascillica. I have to admit to not being a huge fan of baroque architecture but this was impressive. It was perfectly proportioned and beautifully kept. Music was playing gently in the background and we sat in our own silence until I stood and prayed the prayer of St Ignatius.
It was a day of surprises – the elegance of Bilbao, the experience of disorientation in the Guggenheim, the encounter with St Ignatius in the beauty of his home and this whole concept of journey and conversion.
The recorded commentary in the holy house reminded us that conversion to Christ is not a one off experience but a journey through life. Yet for St Ignatius, as for many of us, we can speak of a moment, an event, a time, when God became very real and our heart, to use John Wesley’s phrase ‘was strangely warmed.’ I know this is true for me. I had been brought up as a Christian and had never stopped going to church, but on a June Sunday when I was 14 and on my way to Choral Evensong at our parish church, I knew God and his will for me in a way that was both powerful and real. And if it is true for me I am sure it is true for many of us. Being alongside that Chapel of the Conversion made me revisit that moment 42 years ago – and to give thanks for the God who constantly captures my heart and my love.
We got back in the coach and completed the journey to the beautiful city of Pamplona, set amongst the mountains. Tomorrow we will begin walking along the Way, the Camino. None of us can wait and Sister Joyce prepared us this evening during Night Prayer by telling us 15 reasons why people go on pilgrimage and asking us to reflect on why we are making this journey. It is a good question to go to bed on.