…and my first official blog post.
St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) is considered one of the most popular and well-known saints in the Catholic Church. For those who are not familiar with him, here’s a rough sketch of who he is and why he is important:
Ignatius was born in 1491 in the Basque region of modern-day Spain. He was born into a noble family, and worked as a page for a treasurer at a local castle.His youth was filled with the typical activities of a nobleman’s son- parties, women, and vainglory. Inspired by tales of knighthood and glory, Ignatius became a soldier in the army. In 1521, however, his life changed forever. It was then, at the Battle of Pamplona, that his leg was struck by a cannonball and he had to be carried away. He was placed in bed- injured, bruised, and defeated. To pass time and to distract himself from the many surgeries he needed, he asked for books to read, wanting to read more about the tales of brave knights and ladies-in-waiting. However, there were only two books available- “The Lives of the Saints”, and “The Imitation of Christ”. Originally annoyed, Ignatius’ mind began to wander. He would think about impressing ladies and winning battles, and his mind produced earthy thoughts, agitation, and overall restlessness. However, when he read about the lives of St.Francis and St. Dominic, both founders of medieval mendicant orders that focused on Gospel values and serving the poor, Ignatius was filled with excitement, wonder, and joy. It was here that Ignatius first understood the gift of discernment.
In a reduction that would disappoint any Jesuit reading this (I apologize in advance, SJs!), I will briefly summarize what happened next- he converted. He abandoned his noble title and his honor, and left the castle to a Benedictine monastery in the mountains of Spain- Montserrat. He wanted to live an austere life and make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but when he got to the Holy Land, he was rejected and took that as a sign that God wanted him to do something else. Ignatius’ conversion was radical; he took upon extreme penances and spiritual practices in order to become “holy”. And yet, he eventually grew in his gift for what is called the “discernment of spirits”- the process in which one sifts through what is of the good spirit, and that which leads us away from God and our truest selves- the evil spirit. Ignatius developed one of the first understandings of modern psychology, one that identified positive influences to behavior, negative influences to behavior, and even seemingly positive influences which, after much sifting and discernment, turned out to be a false “angel of light”. His penances and mortification was now properly ordered to a healthy and organic spiritual end. Ignatius eventually went back to school (he was in a class with children, a serious blow to his ego but one he accepted with humility) and university. He founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuit order), and was canonized shortly after his death in 1556.
There is a rough sketch of his life, but if you’re interested in more on his life (or want to fact check some of my summary), I recommend a reading of his Autobiography (here). Oh wait. I forgot something. Ignatius’ greatest gift to the Church (besides the founding of the largest male religious order) was his thirty-day “Spiritual Exercises”. The Spiritual Exercises are designed to walk the Christian through a Scripturally-guided 4 week meditation, in which one views oneself within their relationship with God, with others, and how one’s life has responded to the invitation to divine friendship. The first thing the Exercises start with is what is called the “First Principle and Foundation”. This is:
“Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.
And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.
From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.
For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.”
For Ignatius, man’s teleological end is to worship, adore, and reverence his Creator. And yet, this Creator is not some far-off, distant, cold, metaphysical Being. Rather, this Creator is none other than God- the Triune Lord of Life. Who we are to society, what we own, what our gifts and talents are- all of these are secondary- what is foundational is that we are created in love by Love Himself. Our primary identity is found in the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27). It’s not that our gifts and talents do not matter- quite often, we are given gifts by God Himself. So, if you have a talent of dancing, or public speaking, or singing, or art, or athletics, don’t buy into a false humility which makes you think that in order to be “holy”, you must abandon these gifts! If anything, the gifts and talents which we are given can (and should) be used to glorify God Almighty, the giver of good gifts (James 1:17). However, despite our gifts, they do not define us for who we are. Take for example, an opera singer who has a lovely voice. While singing may be her passion and a source of much joy and consolation, her primary identity cannot be tied to her ability to sing. Why not? Well, take the unfortunate case of someone with chronic laryngitis, a bane to beautiful voices, or imagine the awful case of this opera singer getting into an accident which prevents her from speaking- God forbid! Where would her identity and dignity lie, once her ability to sing is taken from her by some malevolent circumstance? Would she cease to have a sense of purpose or direction?
For the Christian, the answer is a resounding NO. While we would never wish evil upon anyone, in the case of suffering or a debilitating condition, our dignity remains intact. This is because our identity is not rooted in gender or sociopolitical roles or sexuality- our identity is rooted in the fact that each and every human being is an imago Dei (Latin: image of God). Thank God (literally) for this wonderful truth!
Ignatius, in saying that our foundation & primary source of dignity is in that we are “loved sinners” by God actually frees us. Whereas 21st century society might regard our worth based on how many ‘likes’ our Instagram selfies get or how many ‘followers’ we have on Twitter and other social media, Ignatius discards this in favor of a Christian anthropology, namely, that our dignity and worth are found in that we are created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:27). This is both a consoling truth and a challenge- because we are created in His image and likeness, we always have an inherent and fundamental dignity that no circumstance or situation could take away (yay!). However, this challenges us, then, to recognize in every person- whether we like, love, dislike, hate, or do not understand them, is ALSO made in God’s image and likeness. Once we abandon the notion that our identity is rooted in anything else, we can rejoice, but we also must be mature in our faith enough to see this same reality in every other person- which may (and will) push us outside of our comfort zones. Will I smile at the lady who flipped me off on the freeway, or will I scowl and wish death upon her family? (Or anywhere in between). Will I discard someone who disagrees with me as a “conservative wackjob” or a “looney liberal”?
And so, we return to the title of this post- “The First Principle”. Let’s ask ourselves, “What is my first principle”? Do I view the source of my identity as a homo adorans (Latin: “man who worships”), or am I constantly burdened by “finding myself” through other means- what I wear, what music I listen to, what I have done, how much money I make, what kind of car I drive, etc? Moreover, how do I view the identity of others? Hint: if we view another person’s worth and “value” stemming from anywhere but the reality that they are created and loved by God, then we are missing the mark. The “First Principle” not only radically re-orients our understanding of self, but also challenges our understanding of others, as well.
Many of us are now saying goodbye to summer and hello to a new school year with new opportunities, new friends, new steps. We would do well to reflect on Ignatius’ “First Principle”, and to make his understanding of the human being- as created to praise God and accept His love- as our own.