A Meditation on Two Standards[ii] is the peak moment of the Exercises. It is in this exercise that Ignatius asks us to choose between two foundational stances towards life: The Standard of Satan or The Standard of Christ. In opting for one we will find ourselves in direct opposition to, and in conflict with, the other.
Choosing the way of Satan aligns us with the “rebel chief” and all those driven by self-interest to achieve wealth, prestige and the domination of others. Choosing the way of Christ, the “sovereign and true commander,” commits us, along with others, to humble service with Christ on behalf of God’s ongoing plan for the creation and salvation of this world.[iii]
The Standard of Satan[iv]
Let those who follow this path lay snares for others and bind them with chains. First, they are to tempt them to covet riches, as Satan himself is accustomed to do in most cases, that they may the more easily attain the empty honors of this world, and then come to overweening pride.
The first step, then, will be riches, the second honor, and the third pride. From these three steps the evil one leads to all other vices.
Ignatius personifies the Standard of Satan to represent a biblical image of evil that seduces people into lives of self-interest, even greed, and so often at the expense of others. First, the way of Satan tempts people, often under the appearance of good, to covet riches. In succumbing to the lure of wealth they displace God from God’s rightful role over creation and replace God with an inordinate desire for money and possessions.[v] Second, the accumulation of wealth inevitably attracts the honor and esteem of society by setting those who have it apart from those who do not.[vi] Third, riches and honors leads to a falsely elevated sense of self-importance. The result is a blinding pride and desire to maintain one’s privileged status and sense of entitlement without adequate consideration of the plight of others.[vii] Ignatius describes this pathway of riches to honor to pride as a sure and certain road to self-ruin.
The Standard of Satan not only has destructive personal consequences, it also has negative structural effects. It fosters hierarchical and competitive social systems in which the lives of most are dominated by the few who reap an abundance of society’s benefits while many go without adequate opportunities to achieve their self-fulfillment and a fair share of the goods of God’s creation. The result is often a loss of personal subjectivity, freedom, and a true sense of humanity within society. In its fullest sense, the Standard of Satan leads to the depersonalization and dehumanization of all within its reach.[viii]
The Standard of Christ[ix]
Let those who follow this path seek to help all, first by attracting them to the highest spiritual poverty, and should it please the Divine Majesty, and should God deign to choose them for it, even to actual poverty. Secondly, they should lead them to a desire for insults and contempt, for from these spring humility.
Hence, there will be three steps: the first, poverty as opposed to riches; the second, insults or contempt as opposed to the honor of this world; the third, humility as opposed to pride. From these three steps, let them lead people to all other virtues.
The Standard of Christ unfolds in complete contrast to the Standard of Satan. First, instead of seeking riches, the way of Christ seeks spiritual, even actual, poverty.[x] Then, instead of basking in the honor and esteem of society, it accepts the inevitable pushback, including insults and contempt from friend and foe alike, that results from witnessing to the unfinished work of the kingdom of God.[xi] Finally, instead of the blinding pride that is the denouement of The Standard of Satan, the Standard of Christ leads to true humility through humble service on behalf all God’s people.[xii] Ignatius describes this pathway of poverty instead of riches, insults or contempt instead of honors, and humility instead of pride, so often demeaned by society as foolish or naive, as a sure and certain road to self-fulfillment and salvation.
The Standard of Christ not only has positive personal consequences, it also has positive structural effects. It fosters social systems of mutual understanding, personal subjectivity, freedom, and a true sense of humanity. In its fullest sense, The Standard of Christ leads to social settings that are in closer proximity to God’s desire for a world that is respectful of the dignity and rights of all people.[xiii]
A Meditation on Two Standards is premised upon the grace of gratitude of the First Week and the desire to return to God in kind the infinite love and goodness that has been so gratuitously received. In this light, Ignatius asks us to choose between the two standards, fully expecting that at this point in the Exercises we will opt for the Standard of Christ which will lead us to discipleship with the risen Christ and his mission on behalf of the unfinished work of the kingdom of God.
Authentic discipleship with the risen Christ is a transformative experience. It sets us upon a path to acquire the inner freedom so necessary to allow the Spirit of God to lead us to where God will have us go. In doing so, we come to recognize that our salvation has been woven into the fabric of God’s larger plan for the salvation of all of creation.
Ignatius asks us to engage this meditation two different times, seeking to deepen our understanding of the choice before us and the consequences that will follow from our decision. We then make two repetitions of the meditation, ending each one with a triple colloquy (conversation). There, we ask in succession, Mary, Jesus, and the God of creation, for the following grace.
We ask for the grace to be received under the standard of Christ, first in the highest spiritual poverty, and should the Divine Majesty be pleased thereby, and deign to choose and accept me, even in actual poverty; secondly, in bearing insults and wrongs, thereby to imitate him better, provided only I can suffer these without sin on the part of another, and without offense of the Divine Majesty.[xiv]
Two additional meditations follow A Meditation on Two Standards. Presuming we have chosen to follow the risen Christ in this world, they will gauge the depth of our commitment to discipleship with him.
[ii] Puhl, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1951), Sections 136-48.
[iii] Ibid., Section 139.
[iv] Ibid., Section 142.
[v] Cusson. Biblical Theology and the Spiritual Exercises (St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1994), 255-56. Riches include, among other things, an inordinate interest in wealth and possessions, ambition and the quest for power.
[vi] Ibid., 256. Honors are vain and worthless accolades. They provide a false pretense for who we really are, even as they lead to the esteem and recognition of others.
[vii] Ibid., 256. Overweening pride is a “false value” that results in the promotion of our own cause (self-seeking), the continual choosing of our own views (self-sufficiency) and the preference of ourselves to everything else.
[viii] R. Haight, Christian Spirituality for Seekers (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 174.
[ix] Puhl, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, Section 146.
[x] Spiritual poverty seeks the will of God in all one’s thoughts, words and actions.
[xi] Insults and contempt include any negative outcomes that result from the avoidance of riches, honors and pride, and the true following of the risen Christ in this world.
[xii] Cusson. Biblical Theology and the Spiritual Exercises, 257. Humility results from spiritual poverty, self-renunciation, and total openness to God.
[xiii] Haight, Christian Spirituality for Seekers, 175.
[xiv] Puhl, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, Section 147.