There have always been rich Christians and poor Christians. This will most likely always be true, though one may hope and pray that disparities and the real injustices that cause disparities might be healed. But, given that the tradition seems to indicate that a Christian may hypothetically occupy any socioeconomic strata while remaining true to God’s calling, the question becomes clear: How can a person understand how much stuff– possessions, money, and the like– he or she needs in light of a personal calling to holiness and union with God? Because ultimately, that is the heart of the matter and not a mere abstraction. There are expectations placed on every Christian (e.g. love of neighbor), and there are some expectations that pertain specifically to one’s vocation (e.g. the duties unique to a spouse or parent). How to discern the difference? How to discern what to keep in my life and what to give away or let go of? How to discern what things I should do out of the many things that I can do? How might I become more open to the real will of God in these matters and not rely on my vague desires and longings as a stand-in for God’s will?
How much stuff do you need, and why? And, well, what?
One way of discerning an answer to the question is to consult a text from near the beginning of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s (1491-1556) Spiritual Exercises, his retreat manual for those seeking to hear God’s call more clearly in their lives. Early in the retreat, Ignatius asks those on retreat to meditate at length on the “Principle and Foundation,” a brief text which lays the groundwork for everything that is to follow. But the text stands on its own, in a sense, as a simple manifesto for a Christian seeking to sort between what must be done and what could be done, what is needed and what can be discarded, between the essential and the inessential. It is, in a sense, a theological yet extremely practical “decluttering method,” grounded in the Christian vision of the human person.
So, what does Ignatius say? I will let the saint speak for himself and offer commentary. Ignatius’ words are in bold; my comments interspersed.
The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by doing so, to save his or her soul.
There is a recognition of a common baptismal and perhaps even fundamentally human vocation. This is why we’ve been created at all, why we are alive today, and why, God willing, our lives will extend into the future. We are here to praise, reverence, and serve God. Built into that fundamental nature of our being is an end, a purpose, and a destiny. There is no double standard: All are created, and all are called. Each of us has been summoned by love and invited to discover a meaningful contribution to the world.
The language at the end of this first phrase, “to save his or her soul,” can be jarring and can be misinterpreted to imply that we are, in some sense, in charge of our salvation or somehow above the gracious work of God. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ. But it is fair to ask what the experience of that dynamic is, what it feels like to unwrap that gift in the day-to-day of Christian discipleship. This, it seems, is what Ignatius is addressing: We are here. We want to be holy. We want to avail ourselves of God’s grace. What is the point at which the experience of living meets the experience of God’s grace? It occurs precisely in this milieu of praise, reverence, and service.
All other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created.
Ignatius has been criticized for the anthropocentrism of this aspect of the “Principle and Foundation,” but one must understand the text in existential rather than ontological terms. God did not create the Gulf of Mexico so that Mark Shiner could get to heaven. God has created all things with their own inherent goodness and utility quite apart from my individual needs, and God wills them to be free of my efforts to exploit them. However, to the extent that each of us encounters other things (or even people, to a limited extent) as objects, we may consider how our relationship with those things either furthers God’s purposes or thwarts them.
One of the fundamental challenges we humans face is that there is a certain impulse to take as much of everything as possible. Why? Well, for many of us, there is an idea that we might need something some day. “You never know when this will come in handy,” we say. Or maybe, “I’ll save this money for a rainy day.”
Ignatius is here reminding us that God gives us everything, and we are to take what we need to do what we are called to do. But what are we to do when God seems to have given us too much? In such moments– which are so plentiful in the lives of affluent Americans– God may be inviting us to share in his own work by being the means through which his gifts arrive at their proper destination. We achieve our fullest identity when we are able to give and be generous anyway, and the joy that God has built into generosity is far greater than what he has built into possession even of nice things.
It follows from this that one must use other created things, in so far as they help towards one’s end, and free oneself from them, in so far as they are obstacles to one’s end.
This, in a sense, is where the rubber hits the road. What do we need in our lives? We need the things that help us to fulfill God’s specific plan for us. What do we not need? Anything that doesn’t help. What doesn’t help? You might consider these:
- Things that prop up out self-esteem.
- Things that merely impress others.
- Things that draw us to useless preoccupations.
- Stories we tell about ourselves about the sign value of our possessions, the ownership of which we perceive to put us into some sort of special club.
- All the things we do that aren’t a part of God’s plan for us.
- Attitudes, habits, and other traits that God might wish to transform.
To do this, we need to make ourselves indifferent to all created things, provided the matter is subject to our free choice and there is no other prohibition.
This word, “indifference” is a hard word for modern readers, as indifference is often seen as synonymous with “contempt” or “lack of regard.” Nothing could be further from Ignatius’ mind. It may very well be that the exact object that pulls you away from God’s purpose for you is meant to pull someone else toward their vocation!
Let’s say that you own a beautiful, expensive tennis racket. It’s what the professional tennis players all use. You feel more important when you hold it and play with it. But, truth be told, you are a terrible tennis player. You don’t even play much– maybe once or twice a year. You don’t own the racket for what it does– you own it because it lets you tell a story about yourself as worthy of such a racket, a comforting and self-esteem-building lie. Ignatius would ask you to interrogate that lie: What purpose is that lie serving? Can you let go of both the racket and the lie that binds you to it? What if you really accepted that a loving God had a genuinely great plan for you to bring you to your fullest usefulness to the human family and your greatest beatitude both now and forever?
Now, of course, Roger Federer or Serena Williams may need exactly the racket you own to do their life’s work. They may even need five of them, or they may need even fancier rackets. But you don’t. God has other plans for you, plans grounded in the truth.
The second half of this phrase is significant. There are certain goods that a person can just say, “no” to. If I am married, could God be bringing another good and beautiful romantic relationship into my life? No, Ignatius would say, because a married person has eliminated the possibility of the future choice of a new romantic partner, and his or her state in life would prohibit it. That person might be a superb romantic partner, but not for me.
Thus, as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest, but we should desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created.
Wait, what? How can we not desire health more than illness? Wealth more than poverty? This seems masochistic. Does God not want good things for us? Why would God choose bad things for us?
The key to unlocking the spiritual treasure of the text is actually relatively straightforward. We can begin by asking very straightforwardly: What is the fundamental commitment of my life? An illustration may help:
Let’s say that you are a parent to a small child. The child gets seriously sick. You had always dreamed and hoped for a healthy child, but the circumstances you now find yourself in are not in keeping with your dreams. It would obviously be deeply wrong to say, “Sorry, I only accept children who are healthy” and to abandon the child! Rather, your fundamental commitment is to the child as a human being, not to the child because of his health or sickness. In much the same way, the “Principle and Foundation” asks us to place our fundamental purpose in life– the thing toward which we are striving, the reason we were put on the earth– ahead of inherently lesser goods. These lesser goods are almost always desirable, and in a perfect world they would be our lot. But we can never overestimate God’s ability to use the deprivation of lesser goods to accomplish a greater good.
Ignatius himself sustained a very serious and life-threatening injury, and it was exactly during his time of convalescence that he became open to following God and desirous of discerning God’s will. What seemed like a huge setback was in fact the occasion for God’s transformative love to begin to work on Ignatius. Wealth, fame, and long life are goods, but they are lesser goods. The greatest good in a human life is to grasp the truth of one’s calling and to live it out in simplicity, joy, and purpose.
So, how might one apply the “Principle and Foundation” to the life of faith and to an evaluation of the role of one’s possessions? It seems there are several takeaways:
- You are loved by God and you have a role in God’s great story for the world, and your happiness– both now and forever– is tied up in cooperating with God in your own discovery, creation, and embrace of that role.
- God gives you the things you need to fulfill your purpose.
- You will probably be given more than you need. In these circumstances, ask God who to whom you should give the extra.
- Hold on to the things you need to fulfill your mission in life, and let go of the things you don’t need by giving them away, selling them, or donating them.
- Our material possessions can become a real impediment to our gaining the things that are most important to us.
Choosing to rid yourself of things is never easy. Certain ideas and dreams need to die. Ignatius elsewhere advises that, if you find some calling of God repulsive, you should simply ask God to give you the grace to desire his calling. And if you don’t even want that? Well, then ask for the grace to desire the grace of his calling. We are inclined toward selfishness, of course, but God and his grace have both the final word and the cure for what ails us.