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Ignatian Spirituality Today

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

It is just five hundred years since his birth in 1491 at the Castle of Loyola, Spain. During this half millennium, the Church has been under the most severe pressure since her foundation: to conform to the world to which her Founder said He did not belong. Ignatius set down the conditions for preserving the Church's freedom from conformity.

By now a small library has been written about Ignatian spirituality. Literally millions of people have made the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. And for the past 450 years, the Society of Jesus, which he founded, has shared the Ignatian vision with whole nations that have come under its academic and pastoral influence.

For the sake of convenience, we may identify this vision with the six key meditations of the Spiritual Exercises. They are key meditations because they are the foundational truths of revelation on which depends not only our personal destiny, but the survival in time and into eternity of the whole of created humanity.

  • The First Principle and Foundation

  • The Call of Christ the King

  • The Standards of Christ and Lucifer

  • Three Classes of People

  • Three Degrees of Humility

  • The Election

St. Ignatius built his approach to the spiritual life on these six premises. Together they form what Pope Pius XI called "the plan" which has "the greatest efficacy for dispelling the most stubborn difficulties which now confront human society" (Apostolic Constitution, Menti Nostrae, July 25, 1922).

The First Principle and Foundation

St. Ignatius may be called a genius in finality. For him, everything in the world has a purpose. This purpose is to glorify the Divine Majesty. That is why God created man, so that he might "praise, reverence and serve" his Creator, and thereby save his soul. That is also why God made the other things on the face of the earth, "in order to help man attain the end for which he was created."

Given these facts, we are to use everything in our lives according to the will of God, which means as a means to reach our heavenly destiny. However, while everything in our life is somehow part of God's providence, not everything is to be used in the same way.

Some of these creatures are to be enjoyed. We are doing God's will if we gratefully enjoy the pleasant persons, places and things that He puts into our lives.

Other creatures God wants us to endure. Then we are doing His will when we patiently accept the pain He gives us and see His loving purpose in the unpleasant experiences with which He provides us on the road to heaven.

Still other creatures God allows so we might remove them from our lives because they are occasions to sin. We must therefore rid ourselves of them if we hope to be saved.

Finally, there are pleasant things that we may legitimately keep. But God would be more pleased if we gave them up out of love for Him. These are the sacrifices which make us more like Jesus who, having joy set before Him, chose the cross out of love for us.

There is a problem, of course. We are not naturally inclined to choose only what is morally – what is providentially – good for us. Nor are we naturally inclined to remove what is morally – that is eternally – bad for us. We live by faith, so that our minds need to be enlightened by divine revelation. And we have a fallen human nature, which is constantly in need of divine grace. Therefore, "we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibitions." As far as we are concerned, we should not, for example, prefer health to sickness, wealth to poverty, praise or honor to rejection or disgrace, a long life to a short life. In a word, we must become internally detached from all created things. Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we were created.

All of Ignatian spirituality is locked up in the foregoing summary of the "First Principle and Foundation." It is a first principle for the believing mind to accept, and it is the foundation on which a truly Christian spiritual life must be built.

St. Ignatius learned from personal experience that we must have a definite goal in life and decide on definite means to achieve it or we shall not only not reach the Beatific Vision for which God made us: we shall not even be happy here on earth. Sinners are unhappy people. If only they stopped to think of it, their very unhappiness is God's way of shaking them out of their stupor; if only they are willing to accept His terms for happiness and not stubbornly insist on their own.

On the other hand, those who are ready to guide their lives according to the plan of God are the only truly happy people on earth. They are at peace because, as the angel told the shepherds, they are "men of good will." Why good will? Because their wills are conformed to the will of God. They expect to suffer, and not run away from pain, because they are sustained by the light and strength that God always provides for those who ask Him.

That is why throughout the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius insists on constantly praying for divine help. We would call them actual graces that we shall infallibly receive provided we incessantly pray. Our minds need to be enlightened all through life to keep them fixed on the horizon of eternity, toward which we are going, and to know at every conscious moment, how we are to get there. Our wills need to be constantly strengthened to remain firm in our resolution to keep doing the will of God. The most basic source of this light and strength is prayer.

The Call of Christ the King

Ignatian spirituality is unintelligible without seeing Christ as our King. The basis for this perspective is the Gospels. At the Annunciation, Mary was told that the Child she would conceive will be seated on the throne of Jacob, and His Kingdom will last forever. At the Crucifixion, the title on the Cross identified Jesus as King of the Jews. All the parables of the Savior are somehow related to the Kingdom of God and of heaven. And always Christ is their centerpiece as the King.

When God became man, absolutely speaking, He might have dispensed the graces of salvation to a sinful world without the cooperation of others. But He decided not to do so. From the beginning of His public ministry, He called certain men not only to follow Him, but to train them so they might be sent by Him to preach the Gospel to all nations.

This is the heart of Ignatian spirituality. Christ calls everyone to follow Him. They receive a vocation. But His purpose is to send them to spread His Kingdom. They are to receive a mission.

On these terms, the following of Christ is both a means and an end. The means are to become more and more like Christ in the practice of virtue. The end is to save souls.

It is my will to conquer the whole world and all my enemies, and thus to enter into the glory of my Father. Therefore, whoever wishes to join me in this enterprise must be willing to labor with me that by following me in suffering, he may follow me in glory. This is the summons of "Christ our Lord the Eternal King, before whom is assembled the whole world." He invites everyone to join with Him in the conquest of the human race. It is not a conquest by force, but of love. The Kingdom that He wants to extend is His Church Militant here on earth. It is also and finally to establish His Church Triumphant in eternal glory.

The invitation is clear. But it requires great generosity to be accepted: nothing less than following Christ in His way of the Cross as the condition for saving souls with Him, in a glorious eternity.

All the writings of St. Ignatius bear out the same message. We are to cooperate with Christ by laboring and suffering like Him, in order to be effective channels of His grace to everyone whom His providence places into our lives. The author of the Spiritual Exercises insists that the same basic law of reproduction exists in the supernatural as in the natural order. No less than like reproduces like in subhuman life, so like reproduces like among human beings. But this law of reproductivity holds also in the order of divine grace.

In His ordinary providence, God uses people as channels of His grace to other people. This faith, St. Paul tells us, comes by hearing. A believer in Christ must first speak, witnessing to his faith by word and action, in order that others might receive through him the grace to believe. So it goes with the whole of the Christian apostolate. In the measure that a person is following Christ, in poverty and patience and carrying his cross, to that degree will Christ use him as the instrument of His divine life.

It is not coincidental that St. Francis Xavier, one of the first companions of St. Ignatius, is the heavenly patron of the missions. When Xavier was sent by Ignatius to India, his directives were simply those of Christ, to conquer the Indies for the Kingdom of Christ. As biographers point out, it was mainly Xavier's close imitation of the virtues of Jesus which achieved such marvels of conversion. He personally baptized over 100,000 non-Christians in some ten years of tireless effort. But this success was due not to his eloquence as to his sanctity in following in the footsteps of the First Missionary who was sent by the Father to convert a sinful world back to God.

The Standards of Christ and Lucifer

The meditation on the Two Standards synthesizes the goals of the Christian apostolate introduced by the call of Christ the King. It also describes the zealous following of Christ in bold realistic terms.

Where the Kingdom represents the simple call to follow Jesus in winning souls to also follow Him, the Two Standards point up the existence of another and contrary call from the enemy of Christ, Satan, to follow him.

In the Kingdom, the difficulties to be experienced in following the King are either inherent in human nature, or at least not created by opposition from a malicious will. But in the Standards, the source of the conflict is the hatred of the devil against Christ and His followers.

The call of Christ the King is to imitate Him, "in bearing all insults and reproaches and all poverty" – but without further explanation and motivation. In the Standards these are supplied, where poverty is shown to be the normal source of reproaches, which are the means to humility, the basis of all other virtues.

Moreover, the call to the apostolate was implicit in the Kingdom. It is explicit and of the essence of the Two Standards where Christ "the Lord of the whole world" chooses out so many persons – apostles and disciples – and sends them throughout the whole world diffusing His sacred doctrine through all states and conditions of men.

The heart of the Two Standards can be expressed in two parallel columns. Each column describes the purpose and the contrary means used by Christ and by Satan. Each has his goal; each is intent on winning followers to his cause; each understands human nature and seeks to draw people to rally under his banner.

Final Goal To bring human beings to join Him in heaven To bring human beings to join him in hell
Human Agents Persons who respond generously to Christ's call to follow Him Persons who are deceived by Satan's call to follow him
Principal Means Disseminating the sacred doctrine revealed by Christ, Who is Incarnate Truth Disseminating error as contrived by Satan, the father of lies
Training of the Human First Step: Love of poverty

Second Step: Desire for insults and contempt
First Step: Love of riches

Second Step: Desire for wealth and worldy honor
Purpose of the Training To produce men and women of virtue for the apostolate To produce men and women steeped in sin, as effective agents of the devil
Main Object to Pray for the Mind "Knowledge of the true life exemplified in the sovereign and true Commander" "Knowledge of the deceits of the rebel chief"
Main Object to Pray for the Will "The grace to imitate Christ the King" "Help to guard myself against the wiles of the evil spirit"

If these insights into the comparative strategies of Christ and Satan were relevant when St. Ignatius first proposed them, they are crucially important in our day. Volumes are being written about the mysterious "Power" that seems to be de-christianizing whole nations. The explanation for the phenomenon and its divinely revealed solution are to be found in the meditation on the Two Standards.

Three Classes of People

In relation to the Two Standards, the Three Classes of men bring the battle between Christ and Satan into everyday practical life. What the Two Standards teach objectively about the cosmic struggle of Darkness and Light, the Three Classes depict psychologically in the mind and will of every human person.

St. Ignatius describes three classes of people who presumably want to know and do the will of God. But they are laboring under the difficulty of an inordinate affection for some creature, which in itself is not sinful. The three groups have one thing in common: the same sort of creature has the same effect on their wills, an unreasonable attachment to the object possessed. They claim to be willing to be rid of the inordinate affection, but they differ in their readiness to being internally freed from the creaturely attraction.

Members of one class say they want to be liberated from the affection, but they are unwilling to use any effective means. They fail in the fundamental prudence which demands that suitable means be taken to attain a laudable predetermined end. A variety of reasons may account for this inertia. It may be laziness which avoids the effort necessary to remove the obstacles. It may be avarice which dreads to make a sacrifice of some long-cherished possession. It may be fear which shrinks from losing an apparently harmless bodily comfort or spiritual consolation. It may be want of conviction on the importance of becoming internally detached or a certain impracticality on the method to use. It may finally be a weak faith which distrusts the providence of God to supply all the graces necessary to "find God our Lord in peace" of mind and heart.

Members of the second class will compromise. They want to be rid of the interior impediment but also want to hold on to the external possession. They want to shape the course of providence to suit themselves rather than adapt themselves to the providential will of God. Certainly all the creatures we possess make us more or less attached to them. The cumulative factors which produce the attachment are numerous and sometimes beyond our power to control, assuming that the creature itself is retained. It may be that something like money, a position or favorite pastime of which I am now enamored, may be kept or continued without giving up the object itself, and yet detachment is achieved. However, if I am sincere in wanting to be freed of a psychological burden, I must be willing to dispose of the physical object which causes the disorderly interior effect. Otherwise when the time comes – if it comes – to sacrifice what I possess, I will not do so. Why not? Because I am interiorly enslaved by the pleasant person, place or thing to which I am overly attached.

Members of the third class have the generosity to dispose of the creature – outside themselves – if this is necessary, in order to shake off a dangerous affection – within themselves. They apply the basic norms of the Principle and Foundation. According to this norm, we measure the use of creatures only by their value as means to attain the purpose of our existence. The third class also apply the rule of the counsels, which is not satisfied with the minimal service of God, to reach heaven and avoid hell. According to this rule, we choose what is more pleasing to God because it makes us more effective channels of His grace to everyone whom His providence places into our lives.

Three Degrees of Humility

The purpose of this meditation is to still better prepare a person for making a good Election. Compared with the Three Classes, the Degrees represent three levels of generosity in the following of Christ. Also called the Modes of Humility, they are very positive. They test and inspire the will for complete dedication to the service of God.

As conceived by St. Ignatius, humility is the proper disposition that a human will should assume in relation to the divine will. It may reach one of three levels of union with the will of God, in ascending order of sublimity.

The first form of humility means that quality of submission to the Divine Majesty which makes the will ready to sacrifice any created good, even life itself, rather than disobey a commandment of God binding under mortal sin. In terms of indifference or interior freedom, it requires habitual detachment at least from those creatures which cannot be enjoyed without loss of sanctifying grace.

The second level of humility is essentially higher. It presupposes the first but goes beyond it with a readiness to sacrifice anything rather than offend God by venial sin. To practice the second degree, I should be no more "inclined to have riches rather than poverty, to seek honor rather than dishonor, to desire a long life rather than a short life, provided in either alternative I should promote equally the service of God and the salvation of my soul." St. Ignatius' doctrine here is in full accord with the Church's spiritual teaching. Our fallen human nature requires many practices which are not binding under mortal sin. In fact, we must perform even some actions which are not strictly obligatory if we are to avoid sinning mortally.

Assuming that a person has attained the first and second levels, there is still one higher degree, which is "the most perfect kind of humility."

As explained by St. Ignatius in a little-known Directory written by himself, the basic difference between the second and third modes lies in the attitude of the will towards poverty and humiliations. If my will is ready to accept them, but equally ready to avoid them, then I am in the second degree. But if I am not only willing to accept, but actually prefer poverty and humiliations, then I am in the third level of humility.

Concretely, this means that a person is willing to accept the evangelical counsels. Thus a person making the Spiritual Exercises is to be encouraged "to desire the counsels rather than (just) the precepts, if this be for the greater service of God" (Monumenta Historica, "Exercitia Spiritualia," pp. 779, 781).

The Election

Although the Election is not a distinct meditation, it is the capstone of Ignatian Spirituality.

It has universal applicability, ranging from an original resolution to embrace a state of life, to improving one's conduct in a single area of a state already permanently undertaken. The Election differs, however, from a mere decision. We decide with our minds, but we choose – or elect – with our wills. The Election presumes that the mind has already made a decision. Then if the will embraces the decision, it makes the Election.

Moreover, the Election is not only for making the Spiritual Exercises. It is meant to include a lifetime of periodic choices that we make to follow Christ more faithfully and thus respond more effectively in cooperating with Him in the extension of His Kingdom.

In the light of all we have so far seen, the object of the Election should be the evangelical counsels, undertaken, improved or reinvigorated, as the case may be. Every believer in Christ is called to Christian perfection, according to his state in life. The Ignatian Election, therefore, pertains to anyone who has the grace of living out the counsels, whether in the world, or in the priesthood or deaconate, or under public or private vows.

St. Ignatius distinguishes three occasions which may be repeated when "a sound and good Election can be made." They are called "times" to describe the situation in which a person has certain internal experiences that are suitable for making an important commitment in the presence of God.

All three "times" are part of Ignatian spirituality, but not all three are equally applicable to all persons.

First Time. "When God our Lord so moves and attracts the will that a devout soul, without hesitation or the possibility of hesitation, follows what has been manifested to it. St. Paul and St. Matthew acted thus in following Christ our Lord."

Obviously an Election rarely occurs under these circumstances. It means that a miraculous grace has been received from God. But it is a grace that should normally not be asked for nor expected from the Lord.

Second Time. "When much light and understanding are derived through the experience of desolations and consolations, and discernment of diverse spirits."

This happens more often. In fact, it occurs whenever inspirations and internal movements of the soul are so strong that, with a minimum of intellectual effort, the will is moved to a generous service of God. Sometimes this consolation-desolation experience may be so strong that it practically equates the "first time." But ordinarily the will has to exert itself to arrive at a moral decision. The key here is to distinguish the positive sentiments of divine encouragement from the negative impulses aroused by human or diabolical despondency.

Third Time. "This is a time of tranquility. First a man reflects why he is born, namely, to praise God and save his soul. With the desire to attain this end before his mind, he chooses as a means to the end a manner or state of life recognized by the Church that will help him in the service of God our Lord and the salvation of his soul."

This is the most ordinary and the most secure time for reaching a decision and acting on the decision to make an Election.

Consistent with his practicality, Ignatius gives two methods for making an Election during the "Third Time."

First Method. There are six steps to this method, beginning with mental reflection and ending with prayer for light and strength to make a good Election.

To begin with, I "place before my mind the object about which I want to make a choice." Then I focus my attention on the end for which I was created along with an activity of will which is the fruit of previous reflection. I put myself into a state of indifference "like a balance at equilibrium," without deliberately leaning in favor of either side of the choice I am about to make. Then I pray, while weighing the pros and cons, even writing them out in parallel columns. Next, I weigh the reasons on both sides of the prospective decision, favoring the side that has weightier motives based on reason and faith, and not on "any sensual inclination." Once more a recourse to prayer, after which I make a decision, choose what I have decided and trust in Providence that my Election is according to the will of God.

Second Method. This is shorter and approaches the problem from another angle.

Before deciding on a given question, I first examine to see if my affection for a person, place or course of action is dictated solely by the will of God. I do not proceed further until I am sure this is the case.

Then I place myself in the position of another person who has my choice to make. What advice would I give that person. I give myself the same.

Or I place myself at the moment of death and consider what choice I would then wish to have made. Make the same choice now.

Or finally, I place myself on Judgment Day, and ask myself what I would then have wished I had chosen. Choose that course of action now.

After reaching a decision, and choosing what I have decided, I offer up my Election to God. I ask Him to confirm it by His grace and trust that He will provide me with the light and strength I need to live up to the choice I have made.

The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola have served many thousands as a guide to living the spiritual life. The vigor of his genius and the clarity of his spiritual teaching have formed a major contribution to the church and the world.

Copyright © 2003 by Inter Mirifica

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