A Faith That Does Justice engages The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola[i] (Exercises) to discern God’s will and live faith in action on behalf of all God’s people. When appropriately adapted they offer a way for all people of good will to do the same. This essay features First Week: Human Sinfulness and God’s Infinite Love (Part Two).
MEDITATIONS ON SIN
While the first three meditations of this week depicted sin as a historical reality, existing from the beginning of creation to the present moment, the fourth meditation moves us from the past and into the present. Ignatius now asks us to personalize our complicity with evil by recalling the sins of our lives, year by year and period by period in all their gravity, coming to grips with who we are in humble comparison to other people, the angels and saints, and finally to God.[ii]
I will consider who God is against whom I have sinned, going through God’s attributes and comparing them with their contraries in me: God’s wisdom with my ignorance, God’s power with my weakness, God’s justice with my iniquity, God’s goodness with my wickedness.[iii]
In pondering our sinfulness, we become increasingly aware that despite our weaknesses and failings God has placed at our disposal all of creation so that we might recognize it as a gift that is intended to assist us in our journey towards salvation.
“This is a cry of wonder accompanied by surging emotion as I pass in review all creatures. How is it they have permitted me to live and have sustained me in life! Why have the angels, though they are the sword of God’s justice, tolerated me, guarded me, and prayed for me! Why have the saints interceded for me and asked favors for me! And the heavens, sun, moon, stars, and the elements; the fruits, birds, fishes, and other animals – why have they all been at my service! How is it that the earth did not open to swallow me up and create new hells in which I should be forever tormented forever!”[iv]
After reflecting on God’s continued goodness to us despite our sinfulness, Ignatius suggests we enter into another colloquy (conversation), this time with God our Creator, acknowledging God’s mercy and giving thanks that we have received continued life so that we might come to realize the true end of our existence, salvation. In doing so, he hopes we will resolve to amend our ways as we move forward into the future with great hope.[v]
As a prelude to the final exercise of this week, Ignatius asks us to meditate two different times on the four previous exercises, paying special attention to those points where we experienced greater consolation or desolation, or greater spiritual appreciation. We end each of these meditations with a triple colloquy, first with Mary, the mother of Jesus, then with Jesus, and finally with the God of creation, seeking the grace to know and ask forgiveness for our past sins, put our lives in order, and resolve to avoid all that is worldly and vain.[vi]
The fifth meditation leads us into the future as we consider hell as the consequence of the complete rupture of relationship with God and creation. Ignatius envisioned hell as a physical place of eternal torment. He asks us to use our senses to see the fires, hear the wailing, smell the smoke, sulphur and filth, taste the bitterness of tears, sadness and remorse of those afflicted, and feel the searing flames that envelop and burn those condemned to everlasting damnation. Ignatius’ intent is to have us experience the horror of hell so that even if we forget God’s infinite love for us, fear of the burning flames of hell will keep us from falling into sin that would lead to eternal damnation. We then end this final meditation by giving thanks to God for being so loving and merciful to us, and for not condemning us to such an eternal existence.[vii]
Today, many view Ignatius’ traditional image of hell as difficult to accept given God’s infinite love and willingness to forgive human sinfulness. In its place, many perceive hell not as a place, but a psychological state of self-alienation from God that results from the self-interested choices we make that leave us isolated from God and all of creation. While it is difficult to imagine any person of sound body, mind, and spirit opting for such eternal alienation, we must at least acknowledge it is a theoretical possibility.
Still another image of hell is a historical one that depicts the lived experience of many of the poor, oppressed and marginalized people of this world who so often struggle to survive without access to the basic goods of creation that others take for granted. Ironically, these people are often banished to this earthly damnation by the self-interest and greed of others whose actions show little or no concern for their plight. For this reason, it is not hard to imagine why, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” in the kingdom of God (Mk 10:31)
Ignatius brings the final meditation of the First Week to closure with another colloquy, this time in the presence of the risen Jesus. He asks us to consider once again all those who may be experiencing eternal damnation as we give thanks that God’s love and compassion has spared us from this fate.[viii] A deep sense of gratitude and desire to return the love we have received ought to be part of our consciousness as we conclude the meditations of this week. In fact, so vital is the grace of gratitude to a successful experience of the Exercises that Ignatius did not permit retreatants to continue into the remainder of the Exercises without an awareness of it.
The First Week has been an experience of the triumph of God’s infinite love over human sinfulness. We are sinners, but we are beloved sinners who have been forgiven and called to return to God the love we have received. To do so, we must put aside the past and set our gaze upon the future. We now seek to incarnate God’s love in this world. It is a love that is not offered vertically, as if from one person who is privileged by God’s grace to another who is in need of it, but horizontally, from one humble person to another, in a common quest to encounter the center and origin of the love we have experienced – God’s very self.[ix]
Finally, in addition to the grace of gratitude, the meditations of the First Week ought to produce within us a metanoia, a changed way of living, one that has made progress in claiming the inner freedom and indifference to created things to discern God’s will and allow the Spirit to lead us to wherever God will have us go (Mt 6:33). Let us prayerfully begin to discern our call to return the love of God we have so gratuitously received. Ignatius will soon make clear that the answer to this call, at least for Christians, is fulfilled in the following of Jesus in our world today. This is the subject matter of the Second Week.
[i] The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are a series of Christian contemplations and meditations written by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th‑century Spanish priest and founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Divided into four thematic “weeks” of variable length, they are designed to be carried out over a period of approximately 30 days. They were composed to help participants in religious retreats to discern the will of God and commit to following Jesus in this world whatever the cost. When appropriately adapted, they can also help people of other faith traditions discern God’s will and engage problems facing society in the 21st century.[ii]L.J. Puhl, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1951), Section 56-58.
[iii] Ibid., Section 59.
[iv] Ibid., Section 60.
[v] Ibid., Section 61.
[vi] Ibid., Section 62-64.
[vii] Ibid., Section 65-71.
[viii]Ibid., Section 71.
[ix] J.I. Gonzaléz Faus, Adiestrar la Libertad (Santander: Sal Terrae, 2007), 41-44.