WHAT IS THE IGNATIAN PRINCIPLE OF INDIFFERENCE AND WHY IS IT HELPFUL?

(Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Founder of The Society of Jesus)

“We must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed… Consequently…we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things. Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we were created” (#23 of The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola).

Discussion: 

This is the famous Ignatian principle of indifference (of being dispassionate about what happens to us as long as it is for the glory of God). It is a foundational principle of The Spiritual Exercises. Since the battle for our souls is won in the mind, Ignatius is training us to think with apostolic wisdom and fortitude, namely, to train our pattern of thinking to be “indifferent to all created things.” This principle is not always easy to grasp, but I will try to explain it in the following manner (relying heavily on Father Hardon’s book, Retreat With the Lord, and an essay by Karl Rahner, S.J.):

1. Because of our fallen nature we have very strong attachments to persons and things that are not necessarily conducive to our salvation.

2. The main purpose of our life is to know, love and serve God and thus to attain eternal life: next to this goal everything else amounts to practically nothing (unless it is used in service of this goal).

3. People on earth tend to act in this manner: they are indifferent to God and very attentive to creatures and things. Ignatius advises that this situation should be exactly the opposite: we should be very attentive to God and indifferent to all created things except to the extent that these created things help us to serve and give glory to God. Thus, detachment from and mortification of our inordinate desire for earthly things is necessary. Therefore, we should make use of created things only insofar as they help us to attain our eternal destiny.

4. Thus, the main purpose of created things is to help us reach heaven. To the extent created things hinder me from reaching my eternal destiny, they are to be discarded. Everything in our lives is to be brought under the Lordship of Christ.

5. And yet this principle of indifference goes deeper. If we are to develop apostolic strength of mind, and thus avoid or minimize disabling anxiety, we need to become indifferent to what happens to us – provided we are trying to accomplish the will of God and lead a holy life. Thus, as an extreme example, if you were kidnapped tomorrow and forced to live in a small dungeon away from your loved ones, you would accept this unfortunate turn of events as God’s permissive will and do your best under the circumstances. This state of mind trains us to understand that nothing happens to us except by God’s permission. He knows every hair on our heads. If misfortune comes, despite our good efforts, we are to accept it as God’s will and to make the best of the circumstances. This apostolic strength of mind makes us less hostile to the crosses that God will call us to carry –  as we will see them as part of His amazing plan for our salvation. Developing this state of mind leads to peace of soul under trying circumstances. Ignatius is basically teaching us to trust God no matter what happens because we are always under the Father’s providential care. Boldly ask the Holy Spirit for apostolic strength of mind. This is the type of strength St. Maximilian Kolbe demonstrated when he ministered the gospel at the Auschwitz extermination camp – he having achieved such a high degree of apostolic strength of mind that he even volunteered to take the place of a man who had been sentenced to death by starvation. Kolbe was placed in a small cell to endure the slow and painful death of starvation.

6. By exercising this principle of indifference, we do not become dispassionate stoics, but rather we seek God’s will whether in pain or pleasure, health or sickness, success or failure, etc.,  knowing that whatever God allows to happen to us is ultimately, in His mysterious providence, for our ultimate welfare.

7. This indifference does not make us “aloof to the world,” but reaffirms the fact that all of history is rooted in the “eschatological goal of salvation.”

I hope this may be of some help to you, since this principle of indifference is a foundational principle of Ignatian spirituality. It helps us to order our lives for the glory of God and is of immense value when strong winds or even hurricanes come into our lives.

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

Image: Saint Ignatius of Loyola by Peter Paul Rubens, 1600s, Public Domain, U.S.A.

Note: The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, “composed between 1522–1524, are a set of Christian meditations, prayers and mental exercises, written by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th-century Spanish priest, theologian, and founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Divided into four thematic “weeks” of variable length, they are designed to be carried out over a period of 28 to 30 days. They were composed with the intention of helping participants in religious retreats to discern the will of God in their lives, leading to a personal commitment to follow Jesus whatever the cost” (from Wikipedia).

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3 comments

  1. Just made an Ignatian retreat using “The Golden Key to Heaven” by St. Anthony Marie Claret. Best retreat I’ve made, better than all others combined. Claret wrote it so that the lay could do it at home (if necessary) in 10 or 30 days or on weekends.

    Thanks. And Holy Indifference is a key (but a struggle), especially for the sake of overcoming venial sin.

    Like

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