Saturday, February 25, 2006

You Can't Always Get What You Want

Saint Ignatius' Autobiography, part 29

It was his firm determination to remain in Jerusalem, perpetually visiting the holy places. But in addition to this devotion, he also proposed to be of help to souls. For this purpose, he brought letters of recommendation to the Guardian, which he gave to him, telling him of his intention to remain there to satisfy his devotion. But he said nothing of his desire to benefit souls, for this he had told to no one, while he had often spoken freely of the first part of his plan. The Guardian told him that he could not see how he could remain, since the house was in such need that it could not support the friars, and it was for this reason that they had determined on sending some of the friars to the west with the pilgrims. The pilgrim answered that he wanted nothing from the house, but only someone to hear him when he came to confession. At this the Guardian told him that they might be able to arrange things, but that he should wait until the provincial came, who was the chief superior of the Order and was at the time in Bethlehem.

The pilgrim remained satisfied with this promise, and set about writing letters to some spiritual persons in Barcelona. Having written one, he was at work on the second on the eve of the departure of the pilgrims when he was summoned to the provincial and the Guardian, the former of whom had returned. The provincial addressed him kindly and told him that he had learned of his good intention to remain in the holy places, and had given the matter careful thought. From the experience he had of others, he thought that it would not be wise. Many, he said, had entertained a like desire, some of whom had been taken prisoner, others died, and that his Order had been later obliged to ransom those who had been taken captive. For this reason, he should get ready to leave the next day with the other pilgrims. His answer was that he had made up his mind to stay, and was determined to let no reason prevent him from sticking to his resolve, giving him honestly to understand that although the provincial did not agree with him, if it was not a matter which obliged him under pain of sin, he would not give up his purpose out of any fear. To this the provincial replied that they had the authority from the Apostolic See to dismiss or retain those whom they wished to dismiss or retain, and to excommunicate anyone who refused to obey. In his case he judged that he should not remain.

As the provincial was willing to show him the bulls which gave him power to excommunicate, the pilgrim said that there was no need of his seeing them, since he believed their reverences, and since they so judged with the authority conferred on them, he would obey.


Some of our greatest learning experiences can come when we don’t get what we want. Such moments force us to rethink our priorities and perhaps question what we thought was God’s will for our lives. Ignatius thought it was God’s will that he go to Jerusalem. How could it be then now that he has arrived there that he would be sent home? We can see his resistance to the idea with his defiant statement to the provincial. Up to now it seems as if God had made things happen for Ignatius, but suddenly he’s hit a roadblock.

A few years ago my mother confessed to me that there was something she regretted doing to me when I was in high school. At the time, I was a leader in our city’s Junior Achievement program. I had planned a day trip to New York City for the students involved in the program, organizing everything from the bus to dinner reservations, etc. When the time for the trip came, I was short the money I needed to pay for the trip. But I was certain that my mother would give me what I needed to make up the difference. So, it was a bit of a shock when she told me that she would not give me the money. I was furious! How could she prevent me from going on the trip that I organized! It was strange that weekend to be sitting at home, knowing that all that I had planned was happening without me. I learned from that experience the wisdom of planning ahead (though I’m still not always so great at it), and I learned not to presume that someone is always going to bail you out at the last minute, even a parent. I assured my mother those many years later that she had indeed done the right thing, no matter how angry I’d been about it at the time.

In light of what we know about Ignatius now, we can see that he too is learning some important lessons, though he may not have realized it then. He speaks of his great desire to be “of help to souls.” His hopes for doing so in Jerusalem dashed, he discovers that he will have to find other ways to do it. Later, this attitude of finding ways of being of help to souls will be foundational to the work of the Society of Jesus. Indeed, in The First Jesuits, John O’Malley suggests that being “of help to souls” was to be the primary motivation of all the work of the early Jesuits. We also see some echoes of principles that will later appear in The Spiritual Exercises, with regard to decision-making:

From the First Principle and Foundation: “We must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice, and are not under any prohibition.”

Regarding “Matters about which a choice should be made”: “It is necessary that all matters of which we wish to make a choice be either indifferent or good in themselves, and such that they are lawful within our Holy Mother, the hierarchical Church, and not bad or opposed to her.”

Finally, we see at work something which later comes to be considered one of Ignatius’ hallmarks, his emphasis on obedience. Among Saint Ignatius’ most famous letters is one on obedience, which he wrote to the province of Portugal, whose provincial had defied him. He writes:

“Of course I wish you to be perfect in all spiritual gifts and adornments. But it is especially in the virtue of obedience, as you have heard from me on other occasions, that I am anxious to see you signalize yourselves. I desire this not only because of the rare and outstanding blessings connected with obedience, as may be seen from the many distinguished proofs and examples of it to be found in Holy Scripture, in both the Old and the New Testaments; but also because, as we read in St. Gregory: ‘Obedience is the only virtue which implants the other virtues in the heart, and preserves them after they have been so implanted.’ . . . We may the more readily allow other religious orders to surpass in the manner of fasting, watching, and other austerities in their manner of living, which all of them devoutly practice according to their respective Institutes. But in the purity and perfection of obedience and the surrender of our will and judgment, it is my warmest wish, beloved brethren, to see those who serve God in this Society signalize themselves.”

Though not without expressing his desire (and stubbornness), Ignatius demonstrates such obedience in Jerusalem.

2 Comments:

Blogger Susan Rose, CSJP said...

... but sometimes you do get what you need.

Funny how that works. It's almost like God knows :)

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We must make ourselves indifferent to all created things..."

How is this to be accomplished?

9:25 PM  

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