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What Pope Francis' Ignatian Spirituality Can Teach Us

Maybe it's because the new Pope is a Jesuit, but Jesuits and their spirituality - called "Ignatian Spirituality" after their founder, Ignatius of Loyola - have been on my mind a lot lately.

I'm a big fan of Ignatian Spirituality, having practiced it since first being introduced to it shortly after college.

By "practiced" I mean I've had the good fortune of meeting with Jesuit spiritual directors for the past 30 years; the bedrock of my prayer life is Ignatius' Daily Examen, and I've completed many silent retreats called "the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius" -- many 3-day retreats and one 5-day retreat, and I choose to begin my 2005 sabbatical with a 14-day silent retreat at the Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos.  

My purpose here is not to summarize the spiritual exercises in particular or Ignatian Spirituality in general - if you want a good resource for that, I highly recommend FindingGod in All Things and the new, absolutely fantastic book, AJesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life.

Today I just want to focus on one major idea of Ignatius of Loyola called "The Two Standards."

It begins with an assumption.

Namely, that there is a battle going on for our hearts. That the world we live in is not neutral territory.

In other words, we have an enemy.

We may not spend much time thinking about it, and our scientific, rational mindset may rebel against the notion, but that assumption - that our joy is opposed, that we have an enemy, an Adversary - is not just a recurring theme from Genesis to Revelation, but a basis of understanding all of salvation history.

Jesus said he came that we may have joy, and that our joy may be complete, but the enemy comes to kill, steal and destroy.

Ignatius Loyola described this dynamic better than anyone.

He said that the world has two leaders, two messages, competing for our hearts.

One is from the tempter, the adversary, what the baptismal covenant calls "Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God," the principalities and powers that would lead us away from God.

The tempter's objective is to lead us into the slavery of vices: a life characterized by obsession with possessions, achievements, reputation, "rat race of frenzied accumulation, paranoid loneliness, cutthroat competition, all-consuming yet never satisfied wants, temper, division, small-mindedness, addictions" (from Galatians 5, The Message).  

But is the evil one going to say, "Here, live this way... follow me and I will turn you into this kind of person"?

No, the tempter is far too clever, subtle for that.

The evil one's strategy is simple.

It starts by making us desire riches, and to say "this is mine."

It moves to making us desire honor and to say "look at me."

That moves us into pride, making us say "I am."

And once we're proud, all the vices come easily.

Let me unpack that:

The dynamic starts by making us desire riches, and to say "this is mine."

(My house is mine, my money is mine, my achievements are mine, my children are mine, my intellect is mine, mine, mine, mine. It's all mine!)

It moves to making us desire honor and to say "look at me."

(Look at my house, look at my clothes, look at my achievements, recognize me, look at my children and their achievements, look at how smart I am!)

And that moves us into pride, making us say "I am."
(I am the king of my castle, I am beautiful, I am accomplished, I am in a hurry, I am busy, I am suffering, I am a liberal, I am a conservative, I am orthodox or I am progressive, I am a Democrat or Republican or independent, I am having a bad day, I am having a great day, I am always steering the conversation back around to me because I am the center of the universe.)

Another way of looking at "pride" might be "self-centered-ness" because you don't necessarily need to be confident to be proud in this sense. You can be full of insecurities and self doubt and even self-loathing and still self-centered.

And do you see how it works, that once we're proud, how easily all the vices come? Envy, infidelity, injustice, dishonesty - piece of cake! - once we're in that mindset.

Now look at the other ruler, Jesus, and his other message competing for our heart.

He also entices everyone, everywhere.

His strategy is to free people, not enslave or oppress them. His objective is to lead us into the freedom of virtues, a life characterized by God bringing gifts into our lives, things like a sincere concern for others, "exuberance about life, serenity. A willingness to stick with things, compassion ... we find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, we're not forcing our way in life, we're focused and joyful. (from Galatians 5, The Message).  

His strategy is also simple.

(again a quick overview and then I'll unpack) -

The strategy starts by making us desire poverty and say "this is God's."

It moves to making us desire anonymity and say "look at others, or look at God."

That moves us into humility, making us say "God is."
And when we're humble, all the virtues come easily.

Let's unpack that:

The strategy starts by making us desire poverty - and by that is meant a self-emptying, an attitude of "I have nothing of myself. Everything I have is from the Father."

This is the attitude the world is now picking up in Pope Francis. This attitude is often found among the economic poor, which is why Jesus says, "blessed are the poor," but being economically poor is no guarantee that one has this attitude, and it is also possible (although very difficult) for those of us who are economically well off to have this attitude.

This attitude is a freeing attitude of "my house is not mine, but God's, my money is mine, but God's, my achievements are mine, but God working through me, my children are not mine but God's, my intellect is not mine but gift, it is God's, God's, God's, it's all God's."

That attitude moves to making us desire anonymity and also service to others: Look at what I've been given by God, look at what God is achieving, how do I recognize what God is doing, look at the children God entrusted me, look at how glorious God is.

And that attitude moves us to humility: the humility of a person whose whole reality and value is in being created and redeemed by Christ:

God is the king of my castle, God is beautiful, God is accomplishing things, Things happen in God's time, God sure is busy, God is suffering alongside us, God hears us, God's love is expansive, covering the sins of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, independents, orthodox and progressive; God loves me when I am having a bad day, and when I am having a great day, I am steering the conversation toward others and God because I find joy in serving others and God because God is the center of the universe and of my life.

And in that attitude, all the virtues, and an easy exuberance about life - a deep and irrepressible joy - come easily.

So there you have it: a much longer message than I usually write, but one appropriate for the start of Holy Week, I hope you think.

At any rate, let's give thanks to God for the gift God gave Ignatius of Loyola, and to Jesuits ever since, for sharing that gift.


  1. I used to think these things all the time. And then I didn't really for a while. Now, though, I think about it a lot again. Especially when I look at Aidan. I just marvel at the wonderfulness of God at his allowing me to be this child's mother. And I laugh at the humor God has of having this happen so late in my life. And then I marvel again at his wisdom by making it be so late in my life that I have more (from Him) to give to this wonderful creature-time, money, wisdom (I hope). And it fills my heart with joy! thank you for reminding me again from whom all of these gifts truly come from.


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