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.