(“Manresa, Chapel in the Cave of St. Ignatius where Ignatius practiced asceticism and conceived his Spiritual Exercises in 1522″)
“There is nothing of which apostolic men have more need than interior recollection” (Saint Ignatius of Loyola)
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).
Father Hardon mentions that the “spiritual efficacy” of the Spiritual Exercises is “sometimes nearly miraculous” and that the “marvelous results they produce” has touched the lives of thousands of people. Saint Ignatius described his Spiritual Exercises as a “method of examination of conscience, of meditation, of vocal and mental prayer prayer, and of other spiritual activities.” He says “they are a way of preparing and disposing a soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the dispositions of our life for the salvation of our soul.” Clearly, there is great value in making an “Ignatian retreat” utilizing the Saint’s Spiritual Exercises.
St. Ignatius realized that our attachment to created things often is like a great weight around our necks which impedes our love of God and our progress in the spiritual life. Here in these three foundational principles of the Exercises he instructs us in the correct use of things so that they are used for the glory of God and to advance our salvation. The young rich man in the Gospel must have had a lot of possessions, for when the Lord Jesus bid to him, “Come follow me,” he looked back at all of his possessions and this mountain of things captivated his heart and he walked away – at least at that moment – from the Lord of Life who was offering him infinite happiness.
The foundational principles of the Spiritual Exercises, comments Father Hardon, “is a compendium of Christian spirituality. It is the principle of faith from which everything in Christianity finally derives. It is the foundation of morality on which everything in our lives finally depends.” Here, then, in question form, are the three foundational principles of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises:
1. Why were we created?
“The human person is created to praise, reverence and serve God, and by so doing to save his or her soul.” (#23 of The Spiritual Exercises)
Comment: One of the main values of the Exercises is to get us to seriously contemplate what is of truly lasting value, and what is fleeting, transient and passing – and to order our lives accordingly. In this context, “he who has God (truly) has everything” (St. Teresa of Avila). Ultimately, our preference for God over things leads us to more strongly value things in relationship to God’s glory and the salvation of souls.
2. Why were other things created?
“The other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created. It follows from this that one must use other created things in so far as they help towards one’s end, and free oneself from them in so far as they are obstacles to one’s end.” ( #23 of The Spiritual Exercises)
Comment: This is one of the most important principles for our spiritual lives. To protect ourselves from the malignant threat of worldliness, we use created things to serve God and to reach Heaven – if not, they have little value and will have the tendency to draw our thoughts away from God. As an example, are we using our media devices to promote God’s glory? Do the shows or movies we watch tend to this end? God made things and other creatures to lead us to Heaven. Of course, appropriate and reasonable recreation is not opposed to this end.
3. How do we train our wills to use things and circumstances for God’s glory?
“We need to make ourselves indifferent to all created things…but we should desire and choose only what helps us more toward the end for which we are created.” (#23 of The Spiritual Exercises)
Comment: 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 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. 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.
6. 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: Photo above of the Chapel in the Cave of St. Ignatius by PMRMaeyaert under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Spain license. This photo is indexed in the Spanish heritage register. Photo at Wikipedia.
References: I am relying on Father Hardon’s book, Retreat With The Lord (Servant Publications) which is a self-guided way to make an Ignatian retreat, especially if you simply don’t have the time to make a formal one (although Fr. Hardon recommends you have a qualified spiritual director, if only by way of phone). Another similar book is A Do-It-At-Home-Retreat by Father Andre Ravier, S.J. (Ignatius Press). I found both book very valuable but you would certainly want a spiritual director if you are trying to discern a major change or decision in your life. I think it is clear that where Ignatius uses the word indifference other spiritual writers use the word detachment. The quotes in the second paragraph are taken from Father Hardon’s retreat book.
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