FROM THE PASTOR: October 18, 2009
Since we are a Jesuit parish, I thought it might be interesting to do a series of columns on key graces and movements in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Inigo de Loyola underwent a deep personal conversion at around the age of 30 after reading the life of Christ and the lives of the saints during a lengthy recuperation from battle injuries. During a visit to the Benedictine monastery at Montserrat, Ignatius made a general confession and kept “vigil at arms” before the famous “black Madonna.” He then left his fine clothing, his armor, and his sword at Our Lady’s altar, dressed in pilgrim’s attire, and set out for Barcelona in hopes of finding a ship to Jerusalem.
Learning that Barcelona was quarantined because of plague, Ignatius stopped instead at a little town on the River Cardoner called Manresa. Ignatius had planned to stay there only a few days; but in the end, he took up residence in a cave and lived the ascetical life of a hermit for nine or ten months while God taught him to pray. Ignatius kept careful notes on his spiritual experiences; and these notes would become the core of his Spiritual Exercises.
At the head of the Exercises stands a meditation which Ignatius called the “Principle and Foundation.” I see it as a sort of “statement of working assumptions.” It is the saint addressing himself to the retreatant and the spiritual director to say: “Before we get started, let’s make sure that we’re all on the same page.” The “Principle and Foundation” assumes something that would have been clear for Christians (and many non-Christian theists) in Ignatius’ time – namely, that human beings have a shared ultimate purpose. The saint begins: “[Human beings are] created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save [their souls]” (Sp. Ex., #23). Let’s unpack this a bit.
First off, human beings are created, and the clear assumption is that they are deliberately created by God. Whether God achieved our creation through a long process of evolution or not, Ignatius clearly assumed that we human beings did not come to be who we are by accident. We exist on purpose, and we are as God intended us to be.
Secondly, we all have a common, ultimate purpose – one that is to be kept in sight at all times, and never to be superseded by lesser goals or intentions. This is Ignatius’ answer (which he believed to be God’s) to the question, “Why are we here?” I sometimes explain this to retreatants by using the analogy of Google Maps or Mapquest or a GPS. In order to use these navigational aids, we need a starting point (where we are) and a final destination. If the trip is a long one, our route will almost certainly not be a straight line from point A to point B; but if we have specified our final destination, then we can be sure that any switchbacks or turns are necessary parts of the overall journey, and are getting us closer to our ultimate goal. So, too, says Ignatius, ought we to navigate our spiritual lives.
Having established that we are created by God and for God, Ignatius then turns to how we should deal with everyone and everything else that exists. He writes: “Other things on the face of the earth are created for [humans…] that they may help [us] in prosecuting the end for which [we are] created. From this it follows that [we are] to use them as much as they help [us] on to [our] end, and ought to rid [ourselves] of them insofar as they hinder [us] as to it.”
What does the saint mean here? Well, everything else that we know and interact with – air, water, soil, sun, animals, plants, Bic pens, GPS systems, Honda Civics, books, looks, relationships, sexuality, money – all of it is given us as gift by the divine Creator, and is intended to help us in “praising, reverencing, and serving God” and so “saving our souls.” In a very real sense, none of us “earns” or “deserves” any of what we have available to us; rather, these “things” and “talents” are freely given by a provident God.
And therefore, “it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will.” Now let’s be clear: this Ignatian “indifference” does not mean our post-modern shrug accompanied by the word, “What-ever!” Rather, it means freedom vis-à-vis the use of “things.” The gifts are neutral; the sin or virtue resides in us and in how we relate to them. To use a concrete example, if your BMW causes you to fall to your knees and thank God each time you lay eyes on it, then it is probably a help to attaining your “ultimate goal.” If, on the other hand, you want to kill your teenager when she or he accidently scratches it, then you are probably “inordinately attached” to the BMW, and would do better to trade it in for a Volkswagen Beetle. It’s an interesting way to look at the meaning of your life and your gifts and possessions, isn’t it?
©2009 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.