In the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius invites retreatants to get in touch with the ways we are in need of God’s healing mercy. In the context of God’s love, he wants us to come to understand our patterns of unhealthy behavior. The ways we fail to make a return of God’s love.
We know there is a tremendous amount of sin in the world. We see the results of it all around us. Children starve. Old people are neglected. Governments allow torture of dissident groups and prevent aid from getting to their people. Men and women live in poverty. All around us we see discrimination…violence…hatred. And Ignatius invites us to use our imagination to really picture this – to get a deep sense and sorrow at the effect of sin in the world.
That raises the question: How do we explain the existence of sin? How do we explain the existence of acts that bring about such suffering in the world? Over the centuries, people have created different narratives to explain the entry of evil and wrongdoing in the world.
One of the things Ignatius invites retreatants to spend time in Week 1 of his Spiritual Exercises is praying with the sin of Adam and Eve – the entry of sin in the human world. Cornell Bradley explains it in traditional biblical terms like this:
Adam and Eve want to be as God is, and so they are described as eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. Both try to escape the responsibility of the choice which each one has made by trying to shift the blame to someone or something else. The effect of this one sin is not only the loss of God’s special sharing of divine life for all humankind, but also the continuing flow of evil perpetrated by people upon other people and even the various kinds of destruction inflicted by them upon God’s world.
There are some people believe that the first sin happened exactly like that. But I can understand the moral, if you will, of this story without believing that the Genesis account is a literal one. One need not believe that a man and a woman were tempted by a serpent to eat a piece of fruit from something called the Tree of Knowledge to be able to contemplate entry of sin into the world. So here is Joseph Tetlow’s rendition of the entry of sin into the world.
At some point in time and on some spot on the globe, the earliest humans came into life. They grew intellectually aware of right and wrong, and some among them – the Church has always believed it was the very first – chose to do evil. They abused what was given them. Then chose to use what was forbidden by their consciences. They decided willfully to make their own value system instead of letting the Spirit of God instruct them. From that sin came others, more and more. From that sin came death. So, from this earliest sin came flooding down all of the misery, wretchedness, evildoing, and death-dealing in the world today.
I spent some time on my retreat a couple of summers ago praying again with Ignatius’ exercise on the sin of Adam and Eve. After sitting in my hermitage reflecting on this, I went out onto the lake in a paddleboat. The day the gorgeous, and after paddling to the middle of the lake, I leaned back and gazed around me – blue sky, wispy clouds, birds singing, tree leaves dancing in the light breeze. Beautiful. I was totally content and at peace.
And the thought that then came to mind is (in the framework of the original Genesis story): if Adam and Even had all this (and more) in the Garden of Eden, why look for more? And the answer that immediately came to me is: Because what we have never seems to be enough and we always want more.
Buddhists explain our always grasping for more as a function of a desire to gain a more solid sense of a self we can’t clearly grasp and therefore feel constant unease. In Christian terms, it is perhaps best explained by the fact that we sense a hole – a hole that really only God can fill – but that we try to fill with something else. And that means that until we grasp the depth of God’s love, until we grasp the sense of the final line of Ignatius’ Suscipe prayer – that God’s love and grace is enough of for us – there will be a craving for more, a craving that will ripen on one way or another into what we label sin.
The job of the “enemy spirit”, as Ignatius sometime terms the tempter, is precisely to hinder us from that realization and to tempt us to keep wanting more. And one way to understand the expulsion from Eden as recounted in Genesis 3 is as a way of expressing what happens when we listen to the voice of the enemy spirit and not the voice of God: When we move away from love, there is an inevitable movement away from God and a loss of intimacy with God. God is still there, but we experience a movement away from God.
So the question is: What does all of this look like for each of us?
Note that this is a the twelfth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.