The Ignatian Year XVI: Understanding Active Indifference

I wrote in a prior post about Ignatius’ First Principle and Foundation, which invites us to make ourselves “indifferent to all created things” such that we do not seek health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty and so forth.

Indifference is a term people struggle with, doubtless because we think of it in terms of not caring a whole lot about the outcome.  “Where do you want to eat?”  “Wherever.  I’m indifferent.”  “Do you prefer the red or the purple dress?”  “No preference; I’m indifferent.”

Ignatian indifference has a very particular meaning.  As George Ganss explains, indifference means

Undetermined to one thing or option rather than another; impartial; unbiased; with decision suspended until the reasons for a wise choice are learned; still undecided.  In no way does it mean unconcerned or unimportant.  It implies interior freedom from disordered inclinations.

So it is neither devoid of desire or impassive.  Rather, in the words of Dean Brackley it means being so “passionately and single-mindedly committed, so completely in love, that we are willing to sacrifice anything, including our lives, for the ultimate goal.  It means magnanimous generosity, abandonment into God’s hands, availability.  It is not so much detachment from things as ‘detachability.’”

This interior freedom reflected in the phrase active indifference does not mean we are completely without disordered desires.  While we are human, they will always arise.  But it does speak to our ability to learn to overcome those disordered desires when they arise. 

Note that this is a the sixteenth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.


The Ignatian Year XV: Making the Spiritual Exercises

Ignatius’ goal in writing his Spiritual Exercises was not to provide people with a nice retreat experience, a chance to get away from their normal lives and relax a bit with God so that they could go back to live the lives they lived before their retreat.  Rather, his aim was precisely that sought by Jesus Christ – a transformation of who we are into the world. The purpose of the Spiritual Exercises – indeed all of Ignatian spirituality – is (in Joseph Tetlow’s words) “to help us find how we are to work along with God to bring the reign of Christ to human life and good order to the natural world – to the everyday world as it now is.”

That is precisely what many people who make the Exercises experience.  Shannon Rupp Barnes writes in her contribution to A New Introduction to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, “Most people who have made the Exercises see more deeply with the ‘eyes’ of faith, develop a fuller appreciation of on-going discernment, and acquire the gift of a discerning heart.  In everyday, ordinary life their questions are ‘What is the most loving thing to do?  How does Jesus want me to be in this situation?’” 

One woman I directed making the Exercises said that the Exercises gave her “greater confidence to live from a center of faith and commitment within a very secular society.”

We are not even midway through the summer, but if you have been reading these posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year (and plan to continue doing so) and have not yet made the Exercises (in one form or another) this is a good time to think about doing so, perhaps starting this fall.  There are so many opportunities to do so.  In my own parish in St. Paul (St. Thomas More), we offer the individually directed 19th Annotation (meeting weekly with a director), an 8-month group experience (meeting every other week), as well as shorter versions in Advent and Lent.  And there are other Jesuit parishes and retreat houses that have numerous offerings.

So consider taking some time prayerfully considering a deeper dive into Ignatius and his Exercises.

Note that this is a the fifteenth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

Joseph and the Famine

We are all familiar with the Genesis story of Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Ultimately, Joseph occupies a high position as governorin Pharaoh’s kingdom in Egypt and is put in charge of feeding the people during the famine.

We tend to look positively on Joseph (perhaps at least in part because of our sympathy for how he was treated by his brothers), and he was certainly a competent administrator. Because our first Mass readings today and in the coming days focus on Joseph’s meeting and reconciliation with his brothers, the Lectionary skips some of the details of how Joseph handled the need of the people for food during the famine.

Walter Brueggemann, in his book Journey to the Common Good, talks in somewhat less than glowing terms about Joseph’s handling of the situation. He writes

Joseph…commits himself to Pharaoh’s food policy. The royal policy is to accomplish a food monopoly. In that ancient world as in any contemporary world, food is a weapon and a tool of control…

The peasants, having no food of their own, come to Joseph, now a high-ranking Egypian, and pay their money in exchange for food, so that the centralized government of Pharaoh achieves even greater wealth. After the money is all taken, the peasants come again and ask for food. This time Jospeh, on behalf of Pharaoh, takes their cattle, which Karl Marx would have termed their “means of production.” In the next year, the third year, the peasants still need food. But they have no money and they have no livestock. In the third year they gladly surrender their freedom in exchange for food…

Slavery in the Old Testament happens because the strong ones work a monopoly over the weak ones, and eventually exercise control over their bodies.

As Brueggemann observes we focus on the exodus deliverance, but “do not take notice that slavery occurred by the manipulation of the economy in the interest of a concentration of wealth and power for the few at the expense of the community.”

There is certainly a lesson for us in that!

The Ignatian Year XIV: Cura Personalis

The Latin phrase cura personalis translates as “care for the entire person.”  And, although we may speak about it less frequently than we do things like finding God in all things and the need for a personal encounter with Christ, cura personalis is an important element of Ignatian spirituality.

The term cura personalis was not used by Ignatius or other early Jesuits.  I read that it was first used in a 1934 letter from the then Superior General of the Society of Jesus in the context of Jesuit higher education, speaking of the need to provide personal care for students that looks beyond intellectual learning to the development of the faculties of the whole person. 

Although early discussion of the phrase seems to have been limited to the context of Jesuit education, in 2007, Superior General Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach gave a speech to an international workshop on Ignatian Spirituality titled Spiritual Accompaniment in the Ignatian Tradition. In that talk he defined cura personalis as not only a central element in Jesuit education, but also as “a characteristic of spiritual accompaniment.” While he may have had in mind the proper relationship between retreatants making the Spiritual Exercises and their spiritual directors, the term has come to be understood more broadly.

Cura personalis thus includes respecting the dignity of each person as a loved child of God and a concern for the personal development and well being of the entire person – mind, body and spirit. This implies a focus on meeting people where they are and giving them what they need.

And, since we are to love others as ourselves, it also means love and care for one’s own well being. Some of us need a reminder that we can’t serve God and others if we don’t also take time for self-care.

Note that this is a the fourteenth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

The Ignatian Year XIII: Responding in Freedom

Our freedom to respond to Christ’s invitation to us to co-labor with him on behalf of his Father’s plan is a central theme for St. Ignatius.  It matters to him that we are responding from a place of freedom, and not compulsion.

When I made the Spiritual Exercises a number of years ago, one of the first issues I had a major struggle with was that of free will.  This was less than two years after my return to Christianity from 20 years of practicing Buddhism, and I was still trying to see where those prior years as a Buddhist fit in with my rediscovered Christianity.  And, like Augustine and Ignatius and so many others when they first got excited about deepening their relationship with God, I started looking back on some of my past choices that seemed somewhat questionable.  As a result, I didn’t have a whole lot of trust in myself. 

Early in the retreat I prayed with the story of Jesus.  You doubtless recall the passage: the man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus’ first answer was that he should obey the commandments.  When the young man says he does all that, Jesus tells him: Sell all you have, give it to the poor and come follow me.  And Matthew tells us “When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

As I prayed with that passage, I was deeply pained that Jesus let the rich young man walk away, that he didn’t try to force him to stay.  Imagining myself in that situation, there was no small a part of me that wanted God to make it easy – to just force me to do what he wanted the way a parent would force a child to eat healthy food.  I experienced frustration, irritation and even anger.  Why give us the choice?  Why give me the choice?  Why doesn’t God just fix it so we make all the right choices?  Sounding like a child, I told my director during one of our early meetings, “I just don’t like the way the whole thing is set up.”

What I really was experiencing was fear – fear that there were choices I was not capable of making (like the rich young man), fear that left to my own devices I would make bad choices.  Looking back over some of my past choices (especially those made in the period between my earlier abandonment of Catholicism and my embrace of Buddhism) made me fearful that I couldn’t be trusted with the power to decide how to respond.

I had to spend a lot of time praying with this issue until I came to see that giving us the freedom to respond was a great gift from God, that our ability to choose is necessary to be fully human, and, ultimately, to reach full union with the divine.  I sometimes joke that God could have populated the world with goldfish – they just swim around in an enclosed space eating and pooping.  They don’t have to make any choices.  Instead, he created us with the ability to exercise choice – and that ability is a fundamental part of our creation in God’s image.  (I also had to admit to myself that had I been forced by God to do what God wanted, I would have felt resentful.  The truth is that am, and always have been, uncomfortable when I feel like someone is trying to force my hand.)

The reality is that we need to discover for ourselves that none of the other things we look to for happiness ultimately will work.  It is not something we can be argued into understanding.  Thus, free choice is the only way we can be fully on board with God.

This freedom to respond to Christ’s invitation is something we see reflected over and over in the Spiritual Exercises.  The First Principle and Foundation ends with the expression that “we ought to desire and choose only that which is more conducive to the end for which we are created.”  In the Kingdom Exercise which opens the Second Week,  we are invited, not forcibly drafted to take part in God’s plan of salvation.  It is for us to decide how to respond to that invitation.   And there is another meditation in the Second Week referred to as the Three Classes of Persons, and in that meditation we pray for the grace “to choose that which is more to the glory of the Divine Majesty.”

Ignatius – and, more to the point God – seeks our willing response.  As we deepen our prayer life with God, hopefully we are more and more able to freely respond as God hopes we will.

Note that this is a the thirteenth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

Take Your Son Isaac

Today’s first Mass reading is one that always caused me some difficulty: the Genesis account of God’s request to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  God says to Abraham “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.”

Several years ago I read Rabbi Marc Gellman’s interpretation of this passage, which I found helpful.  He suggests that one can only understand what happens in this episode by considering what preceded it, that is, Abraham’s response to Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar when Hagar became pregnant. Abraham allows Sarah to mistreat Hagar, causing Hagar to flee into the desert. Rabbi Gellman observes that “God saw how Abraham was willing to abandon Hagar and his future son just because his favored wife was jealous of her new standing in the family. God saw that Abraham was morally blind.” Although Hagar returns and gives birth to Ishmael, after Sara gives birth to Isaac, Sara demands that Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael out, a demand Abraham complied with.

Abraham is troubled at what he does, but God tells him, “through Isaac shall your seed be named, and I will also transform the son of the slave woman into a nation, for he is also your seed.”

Rabbi Gellman then says this:

So Abraham expels Hagar and Ishmael, but did he do it because he believed that God would protect both his wives and both his sons, or because this was a good way to get rid of an unwanted wife and unwanted child? There was only one way to know for certain. God would have to command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to see if Abraham truly believed in both promises.

If Abraham believed that Ishmael would survive the desert, he would believe that Isaac would survive Mt. Moriah. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael, his least loved son, left God no other choice but to command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his best loved son. The story is not about a morally insensitive God, but about a morally insensitive servant of God.

“After these things,” God had no misgivings about choosing Abraham.

“After these things,” Abraham could be the father of two nations because he had learned at last what it meant to be the father of two sons.

“After these things,” Abraham was free.