St. Ignatius summarized the context in which all of the decisions of our lives ought to be made in a consideration he titled the “First Principle and Foundation.” The Principle and Foundation is the doorway into the Spiritual Exercises – it is the first consideration Ignatius asks retreatants to spend time with. But even apart from its placement in the Exercises, Ignatius viewed the Principle and Foundation as the key to the spiritual life, a statement of human meaning and purpose that could be accepted by people of any faith.
Here is David Fleming’s contemporary rendition of the First Principle and Foundation:
The goal of our life is to live with God forever. God, who loves us, gave us life. Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into us without limit.
All the things in this world are gifts of God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.
As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God insofar as they help us develop as loving persons. But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal.
In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not bound by some obligation. We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.
Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening his life in me.
There is a lot packed into that text, but let me comment here only about what it says about our purpose: “All of the things of this world are gifts of God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.” God is the end; the gifts of this world are the means.
That we are given these gifts for the purpose of making a return of God’s love, for the purpose of developing of loving persons tells us that we need to guard against letting any of the gifts God has given us become the center of our lives, letting any of it displace God.
God is our end; the gifts are the means. But it is a common disorder of humans to make an end of what should be merely a means, developing a disordered attachment to the things of this world. It is a challenge for us to recognize that created things are valuable only to the extent that they lead to the fulfillment of God’s plan. And so we want to accept and make use of them when they are useful for accomplishing God’s will, but forego them when they are not.
Of all the things I could say and write about the Principle and Foundation, why pick this one? I do so because a consideration of our purpose is something that is often overlooked. I have become more and more convinced that we cannot have any meaningful discussion of a lot of the issues that cause conflict today without an understanding of what our purpose is. If I think my purpose is my own self-actualization, then all sorts of ways of behaving become permissible because they serve my own goals. Only if my starting point is an understanding that our purpose is intimately tied with God can I make good judgments. In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer observes “The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I do with my life? ‘ It is more elemental and demanding. ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’”
It makes an enormous difference to what I do that I know who I am – more accurately, whose I am. Johannes Baptiste Metz says that in poverty of spirit we learn to accept ourselves as beings who do not belong to ourselves.
God is the end.
Note that this is a the fifth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20.