Cervantes’ misbegotten but inspirational hero

Reflecting on a favorite book was a challenging dilemma for me. Somewhere Dante and Rahner sit and complain to one another about my infidelities.  Augustine paces nearby, pensively murmuring to himself. C.S. Lewis is present, but likely sulking at the bar. However, there can only be one, and Cervantes has swept me off my feet.

I can honestly say that Don Quixote, more than any other figure in literature, courses through my veins and is part of my spiritual DNA, or at least of my “ecclesial imagination.” Perhaps after 15 years of Jesuit education, it’s the perceived connection with Ignatius of Loyola. Or my love of all things Spanish after visiting the Iberian Peninsula so often. Maybe I am moved by the familiar aspirations of the optimistic and fanciful soldier-turned-dreamer (or is it the other way around?). And somehow Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride” lurks behind all of this mental imagery. But there’s no doubt about it, I hum “Man of La Mancha” songs in the shower.

I once said in a job interview that I find myself leaping out of bed in the morning reciting “To try when your arms are too weary; To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause” (Ignatius says in somewhat parallel language “To give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to ask for rest…”). I reiterated that these were not mere platitudes to me, but the very heart of Catholic education and the vivifying principle behind my life and raison d’être.

I probably should’ve scaled it back a bit — I didn’t get the job.

But there is something singularly inspirational about Cervantes’ confused and misbegotten hero to me. So much so that my laptop wallpaper is a reverse image of Picasso’s black-and-white sketch of the knight and Sancho Panza on their way to battle windmills. And so I come face to face with my hero every day between emails from students and online bills and academic writing and fantasy football.

In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius’ Meditation on the Two Standards calls us to imagine a medieval battlefield with two armies encamped one against the other, separated by an immense countryside. On one side, sitting on a smoldering throne of skulls and decadence, reigns the villain that St. John calls the Prince of this World, Satan himself, whose pride and self-interest define all that he is and desires. On the other, the standard of the King of Kings and the Lord of History soars proudly.  Here Jesus Christ calls all men and women into service of others through the work of their hands and the enlightening of their minds, and whose transfigured wounds, still present as Thomas can attest, signal ultimate triumph. Milling about in the camp, Constantine and Michael both look upward, remembering other wars waged in distant eons under the same insignia. It is up to us to determine (in Jesuit lingo “to discern”) for whom and with whom we will enter the battle that constitutes everyday living in a world wrenched between cosmic forces of good and evil.

I cannot be the only one who, squinting against the early morning sunlight gleaming off burnished armor and helmets and shields on the Victor’s side of the field, is able just barely to make out through the misty breath wafting from war-stallions’ snorting nostrils a lean and bearded silhouette on an emaciated steed, wearing what looks to be an upside-down shaving bowl on his head, and facing the wrong direction.  Could it be the Knight of the Woeful Countenance with his stocky sidekick at his heels, or is it merely a figment of my overactive imagination? Regardless, I each day revisit with joy and gratitude my decision to make my way to their encampment, no matter the cost.

Michael M. Canaris is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

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