Humor, Humility & Help
While these thoughts were tormenting him he was frequently seized with the temptation to throw himself into an excavation close to his room and adjacent to the place where he did his praying. But, knowing that it was a sin to do away with himself, he cried again: “Lord, I will do nothing to offend you,” frequently repeating these words as he did the first. Here he recalled the story of a saint who to obtain something from God he much desired, went many days without eating until he got what he wanted. Giving a good deal of thought to this fact, he finally made up his mind to do the same thing, telling himself that he would neither eat nor drink until God did something for him, or he saw that death was approaching. For, if he saw himself reduced to the extremity of having to die if he did not eat, in that case he would ask for bread and food (as though in that extremity, he could either ask for it or even eat it).
He resorted to this one Sunday after having received communion, and went through the whole week without putting a morsel of food into his mouth. He omitted none of his ordinary exercises, even going to the divine office and praying on his knees from midnight on, and so forth. But on the following Sunday, which was his confession day. as he was accustomed to be very detailed with his confessor, he told him also that he had eaten nothing that week. The confessor bade him give up his abstinence, and although he was still strong, he obeyed his confessor, and that day and the next found himself delivered from his scruples.
If we hope to advance in the spiritual life, there are two things that we can’t do without: humor and humility. It’s not clear why Saint Ignatius is thinking of resorting to something so extreme as taking his own life, but I think one thing we could say is that he’s taking things far too seriously. His desire to be free of his sins has caused him to consider (and Ignatius wisely realizes this) committing a grave sin. But his solution takes him to another extreme, one which also could potentially threaten his life.
Here’s where we see the more mature Ignatius inject a little humor into his reflection on his former self. The young Ignatius thinks he’s making a great and saintly sacrifice by abstaining from food, even to the brink of death. The older Ignatius wisely observes that if he had let it get that far, it would probably be too late to start eating: “as though in that extremity, he could either ask for it or even eat it.” The older Ignatius has the humility and, it seems, sense of humor, to recognize and admit to his former foolishness. This is a practice that is both honest and can be helpful to all of us any time we are tempted to think that we have it “all together.” We’ve made foolish mistakes in the past, and despite our best intentions, we’re going to make them in the present as well. So, having a sense of humor is essential in helping us deal with the consequences of our foolish mistakes, especially the harsh judgments we tend to level against ourselves in such situations.
Moving again to the younger Ignatius, it is also important to note that he has a safeguard against letting his foolish decisions place him in jeopardy. He speaks to his confessor about it, and he is humble enough to obey his confessor when he tells him to knock it off. Whether it’s our confessor or a spiritual director, an important part of advancing in the spiritual life involves another “H,” a helper. The spiritual life isn’t a solo project. We must be willing to share our desires, struggles, prayers and practices with someone else who is acquainted with the spiritual life, someone who can help us to see where we are doing well and in what ways we should continue, and where we are getting off track in our desire to live with Jesus in our daily lives. To give up a certain amount of control and accept such help requires humility, and a sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.