The Cabin, Light.

Everything in Iceland is in the middle of nowhere.  One realizes as soon as one is outside the mild urban hum of Reykjavik that there are just not very many people or very many towns in Iceland.  A settlement the size of the small town where I live– a place with a college, a movie theater, a hospital, a hotel, and a few restaurants and bars and not much else– would be the sixth largest population center in Iceland.  So when I say that the cabin near Reykholt was remote, it is worth admitting that it was within a couple miles of a gas station where I filled the car with gas and bought ice cream for the family.  But it was also very far from so many things that most people think of as essential.

The Cabin
The cabin at Reykholt

We arrived at the cabin around “dinner time.”  It was July in Iceland, so all the markers of the time of day were broken.  We had taken a 4pm ferry from Vestmannaeyjar.  En route, we ate salami and cheese sandwiches, fresh nectarines, almonds, and muesli in the car.  Was it dinner time?  Was this food dinner?  It was getting hard to say.

If you depend on the rising of the sun to wake you up, you are out of luck in Iceland.  The sun is always here in the summer, even in the 2am “dusk.”  When do I wake up?  When do I eat?  When do I take stock of my day?  All is light– there is no shadow of the turning of the hours.

The law in Iceland indicates that one needs to leave one’s headlights on while driving.  This is useful, I am sure, on the many rainy days here and during the long winter months.  But on the eternal sunny days of an Icelandic summer, they are redundant.

The cabin was new and immaculately kept.  The walkway from the parking spot to the cabin was made of grey stone river gravel and led to a narrow front porch with a bench, table, chairs, gas grill, and a few small decorations.  I spent my “late” hours the first night reading Halldór Laxness on the bench until it got too cold and ate muesli and yogurt there while chatting with an American friend on Facebook at around 8am –morning, according to consensus.

Inside, the cabin was simple.  Clockwise, one could see:

  • Coat hangers on a coat rack
  • A wifi router on a small shelf, with “house rules” framed underneath
  • A small round table with three chairs
  • A kitchen with a small oven, sink, refrigerator, dish cabinet, pots and pans, silverware holder, and dish soap
  • a bathroom with a lovely shower, a toilet, sink, and extra toilet paper; a shelf next to the toilet holds extra supplies
  • a sleeping area with a large bed and an overhead bunk perpendicular to the bed and mounted into the wall, with a comforter and pillow but no mattress
  • a sofa with removable back cushions

It was not a “tiny house,” but it was close.

The Cabin 3.JPG

We had followed somewhat minimalist principles in packing, so we were traveling with only carry-on luggage.  Almost all the bad packing decisions I had made were based on fear– fears that I’d be unhappy without a few actual books, that I’d feel poorly dressed without a second and third pair of pants, that I couldn’t live without a belt or without four pairs of wool socks.

But the cabin was instructive.  Smack dab in the middle of nothing, with nary a significant store within sixty miles, there was exactly enough.

Well, except that there was no coffee.

The coffee culture in Iceland really seems to bridge the gap between European and American coffee cultures.  One can get American filtered coffee, and everywhere but the gas stations it is served in ceramic cups with free refills from a vacuum pot.  But one can get espresso, Cappuccino, and any other kind of Euro coffee drink here, too, all prepared with care using high quality ingredients.  All of this becomes moot, of course, when one realizes that no one’s preparing coffee anywhere near us.  How do we handle this problem when the clock is telling us that it is morning?

Back when I was reading The Minimalists a lot, I was struck by an article on their web site about how they packed for their long speaking tours.  Both guys carried very little luggage but, to my amazement, they carried both coffee and the gear to make it with.  Given the ubiquity of coffee in the US, I didn’t really get that.  In Iceland, it made sense.

I think the whole world now, for many of us, feels like summer in Iceland.  The old rules and wisdom about how humans work feel less solid and true than ever.  One needs to make decisions about what one needs and doesn’t need.  Fear often leads us to think we need too much.  And in the end, so much of life is tied up in the art of choosing well and in the discipline of a well-considered, realistic fearlessness.



Benediction for Colgate University’s 2017 Commencement

The Prepared Text of the Benediction for Commencement 2017

May you always know yourself to be loved and may your presence always be an occasion of joy for others.

May you always cherish the liberty of your mind and conscience and never fall prey to tyranny or intimidation.

May you never lack courage in the face of adversity or difficulty,
but may you love the true and the good and the just more than your own material or political success.

May you grow to be a true citizen, generous with your neighbors and others in your community, and may your heart run over with solidarity toward the poor, the suffering and the marginalized in your midst.

May you find a wellspring of generosity within you as you accompany those you love in their mourning, and may you never be without the consolation of friends and family in your times of need.

May you find great, selfless, reckless, mutual, and abiding love in your relationships,
and may you be beloved by the children in your midst.

May you cherish the earth and do all in your power to care for it for the sake of those children and for generations you will never see or know.

May you discover the work you were created to do, and
may you gain joy and mastery in bringing that work to fulfillment.

May you, when you reach the end of your long and fruitful life, be at peace with yourself, with all people, and with God.

May God strengthen you and bring success to the work of your hands.
May hope accompany your journey through the days to come.
May God’s abiding presence be with you
All the days of your life.


Baccalaureate Mass Homily 2017

Easter 6 Homily: John 14:15-21

Jesus said to his disciples:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
And I will ask the Father,
and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always,
the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept,
because it neither sees nor knows him.
But you know him, because he remains with you,
and will be in you.
I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.
In a little while the world will no longer see me,
but you will see me, because I live and you will live.
On that day you will realize that I am in my Father
and you are in me and I in you.

Whoever has my commandments and observes them
is the one who loves me.
And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”

There is a lovely little children’s song called “I See the Moon.” Do you know it?

I see the moon and the moon sees me
And the moon sees the one that I long to see.
So God bless the moon, and God bless me
And God bless the one that I long to see.

I first heard the song on a children’s record by the Iowa folk singer Greg Brown. I’ve thought of that song often when I’ve been alone at night with my loved ones far away– the song imagines the two of us, each alone, staring at the moon from our respective places, seeing the same moon in the sky and being mysteriously united to each other through our vision. OK, it’s not the deepest song, but there is something profound about it, anyway– there’s a longing for communion, a desire to be close, a sense that perhaps somehow we are not as far away from each other as we might feel. If we each look up at the moon at the same time, there is a form of connection. The moon, so far away, somehow brings us together.

But when you think about it, the moon also sees every other person. Or, really, the moon, being a big rock orbiting the earth and reflecting the light of the sun, sees nothing. So, really, the moon isn’t doing anything in this scenario. The active agent– the real energy in the song– is the love between the singer and the object of the song.

Today’s Gospel is about love and leave-taking, about the pain of separation and the reality of our communion. Jesus, as he speaks to his disciples, is preparing them for his death.

To the casual reader, Jesus’ first words in this Gospel reading are jarring: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” One’s mind immediately goes to the question, “Uh, oh– which commandments?” as if Jesus had a long list of arcane and difficult tasks he’s set before us, or like he’s setting up some strict moral conditions for receiving his love. But one must consider the context of John’s Gospel. In reality, there is one commandment that Jesus gives in John’s Gospel: Love one another as I have loved you.

It’s like the moon song, only much deeper: Love is the basis of our union with Jesus. Love is the basis of our union with each other. Submitting to Jesus’ commandments means allowing oneself to love, to be loved, and to live and move and have your being in the milieu of God’s love.

Jesus promises to send the Spirit of truth, another Advocate, to be with us. This word that’s translated advocate is, in Greek, parakletos, a word which was used to describe a person called on behalf of a prisoner or victim to act in his or her defense. The role of the parakletos was to dissipate the fog of bias and deception and to bring justice and truth to light. And it is the truth, of course, which sets us free, which invites us to live in the reality of God’s justice and love. So, this is the work of the Spirit. And where there is truth and justice and love, there is communion. All are essential. Love without justice is pure sentimentality, a self-justifying cover. One cannot say, “I love that person but am unconcerned about his mistreatment, his oppression, his suffering.” But justice without love so quickly turns to violence and hatred. And in the context of both love and justice, the truth humbles us, takes each of us off God’s own judgment throne, helping us see that our own human brokenness is yet another bond of solidarity with both friend and opponent.

The world teaches us some horrible things. We learn to hate from the world. We learn to distrust from the world. We learn to shift blame from the world. We learn to scapegoat from the world. The world cannot accept the spirit because it neither sees the spirit nor knows the spirit.

But you– child of God, you have been called out of the world, plunged in baptism into the river of God’s love. What if love is your true home? What if love is everyone’s true home? What if the Gospel is true, and Jesus’ words are true, and a life of love, truth, justice, and mercy is really not only an option for you, but is the deepest reality in your life?

deeper than your own success
deeper than your own ego
deeper than your plans
deeper than your sins
stronger than hatred
stronger than the divisions
stronger than death or chaos or whatever you fear

The Christian life is a life lived in the Spirit, in love. And all the practices of the Christian life are intended to change our habits of attention so that we can learn that it is truly safe to love because we are loved. It is safe to forgive because we are forgiven. It is safe to side with the poor and suffering because Jesus has already sided with them and with us when we were poor or suffering. It is safe to repent and to change because change is the portal to greater love. Repentance is just a way of saying, “I see that I could love more, and I long to do it.”

So, beloved friends: not to be the bearer of bad news, but the world will probably kick you around a bit in these next few years. Those of you who’ve got sweet jobs or internships will be tempted to think that work is life, that work and success are the meaning of life. Recognize that as a temptation. You are put on earth to love and be loved and to achieve whatever completeness you will find in this life in the service of love. Those of you who are uncertain about your future will be tempted, too– perhaps with jealousy, perhaps with frustration. Recognize these, too, as temptations. You are put on earth to love and be loved and to achieve whatever completeness you will find in this life in the service of love.

And remember, too, the bond of our love and connection across time and place, and remain in it. It is Jesus, always present to us in the Eucharist. When you look at the host when elevated by the priest here today or wherever your life may take you, see in the risen Christ present under the sign of bread the eternal covenant bond of our love, and the bond you have with the universal church, with the saints in heaven and all Christ’s disciples here on earth and indeed with all whom the Holy Spirit has called into God’s family. Your true home is love and your true identity is love and your true destination is Love.

I love you all. Remain in God’s love now and forever.

Living Under Threat of Disaster


Luke 21:5-19

I don’t care how young you were when you first read Harry Potter: You quickly figured out two things:  (1) Harry would ultimately survive and be OK and (2) He would eventually kill Voldemort.  Right?  But even though you knew both those things, you didn’t just say, “OK, Harry equals good guy.  Voldemort equals bad guy.  Harry will win.  Next!”  You made a decision to put your trust in the author that this was a story worth savoring and throwing yourself into even though you knew where it was going.  

And then, one day, Dobby died.  How many of you cried?  It was awful.  And at that point, you could have just slammed down the book and said, “I give up.  This is terrible.”  But somehow you decided to trust the author.  You didn’t know how bad it would get, how many more precious characters and places would be lost, but you were pulled forward because you knew that, however bad it got, Harry would win.  

Now, of course, the Harry Potter universe also opens kids to the reality that life isn’t always just good vs. evil, and that people who appear evil might in fact be good deep down, and people who seem good and wise may harbor secrets or conflicting motives.  But Rowling ultimately sorts these things out, and we see the reality behind our guesses, behind our initial prejudices.  

The attraction of the whole universe Rowling created, of course, is that it conforms to what we see, and it conforms to our hopes.  

So, what about our story– the actual story we’re living in and which we see through the lens of our faith?  When we turn to the Gospel, of course, we have Jesus in full-blown apocalyptic mode.  They’re walking through the temple– which is huge and, we should note, at that time pretty much brand new– and Jesus says to the folks who are admiring the beauty of the place, “Yeah, this building that seems so stable and so permanent?  So much a symbol of national and religious pride?  So much a sign of how we have made our peace with Rome?  The days are coming when this whole thing will be torn down utterly.”  

That got their attention.  

And then he cautions them, saying, essentially, “Look:  You are going to experience some really bad times.  Wars.  Insurrections.  Persecutions.  It will feel like the end of the world.  It won’t be.  Nations come and go.  Buildings come and go.  Evil may reign for a season, but love has the last word.”

Whatever your politics, and however you’re feeling about the election, it’s worth noting that Jesus realizes the temple isn’t forever.  Nor is Trump.  Neither, for that matter, is the United States.  Only his Church and his kingdom is forever.  People put their faith in the temple, which was destroyed.  People put their faith in Rome, which fell.  People put their hopes in an endless string of nations, political movements, and charismatic leaders over these last two thousand years.  All once seemed more powerful, and now all are gone, but Christ’s church remains.  

If you are letting Jesus shape your understanding of your political obligations, that’s called discipleship.  If you are letting your politics shape your understanding of Jesus, that’s called idolatry.  Be a disciple, not an idolater.  

I have heard repeatedly from Christians this week that we must not worry because “God is in control.”  At one level, of course, they are correct.  At another, I find myself wondering why they jump to this so quickly.  History is littered with examples of things going very, very badly.  History is littered with times when good people stuck their heads in the sand and let horrible things happen.  History is littered with times when seemingly good people– including religious leaders!– sold out to evil, justified evil, even collaborated with evil because of a misguided desire for power and safety.  God is indeed in control in the sense that he will ultimately work his purposes out.  But God has given you a conscience.  God has commanded you to be kind.  God has commanded you to love the immigrant, the widow, the orphan.  God has commanded you to love justice.  God has commanded you to protect the vulnerable.  God has commanded you to side with the poor.  If we know these things and know that we fail, how can we assume that somehow everything’s going to work out splendidly in the near term?  We can’t.  

Now, that said, we have to be humble enough to know that our assessment of any situation– even when things appear to be going our way– always bears within it the potential for being wrong.  This is why Jesus warns us that many will be deceived– human fear can distort us and our perceptions.  This is where prayer comes in– it is a long, loving look into reality as it is, not either as we are afraid it might be or as we unrealistically think it is.  The world is a stubborn thing that will not wrap itself around your human hopes.  

So it is for us to long for holiness, to strive for justice, to love the truth more than we love being right, to love the poor, the disabled, the orphan.  In a world where bad things happen, we need to stay close to Jesus, stay courageous, recommit ourselves to justice and to each other, be sober and vigilant.  But above all, people, be charitable.  Be kind.  Be respectful of difference.  Do the difficult work of reconciliation when reconciliation is possible.

A few things:

  1. Don’t let either your activism or your happiness get ahead of the facts.  The world needs sobriety and vigilance, not hysteria and gamesmanship.  If you engage in politics, let truth and love guide your steps.
  2. If you find yourself speaking with hatred or condescension, check yourself.  Whatever Jesus wants of you, he does not want this.
  3. Don’t attribute to God’s will what can be better accounted for by human sin, selfishness, stupidity, or lack of wisdom.  
  4. If you find yourself giving in to despair, know that this is not of God.  The authentically Christian life is both aware and light.  As Wendell Berry would say, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”  
  5. Be, above all, a person of prayer.  When we admit our need for God and we begin to trust in his lovingkindness, the inevitable setbacks and tragedies of life can start being framed against the grand narrative of his story.   

Being a Christian does not mean that things can’t get abysmally bad; things do, in fact, fall apart. Being a Christian is knowing that the story’s ending is in the author’s hands, and that by staying close to Jesus we can share in that ultimate victory.  And I can’t emphasize this enough:  This altar, right here, is where heaven meets earth in the Eucharist, where all the saints and martyrs gather around the throne of the lamb in the new Jerusalem, in a living temple of which we are all building blocks. Remain in him, let him be your strength and your joy until we come at last to the fullness of his kingdom where he lives and reigns forever and ever.  

The Church is a Dying? Uh huh.

People talk today as if the present state of the Catholic Church is a disaster– some like to claim that this time the wheels really are coming off and that the Church can’t possibly survive the scandals, the onslaught of secularism, the Obama administration, the transition into the information age.

If you think those things, you probably need to familiarize yourself with the actual history of the Church and with the current phenomenal growth and flowering of the Church in many places throughout the world.  Persecution, confusion, debate, corruption, and martyrdom are, historically speaking, the normal conditions under which the Church has grown.

Some things to consider:

1. Read the Gospels, especially the Passion narratives. The Church was born in the bosom of failure and has alternated between near-defeat and utter defeat throughout its history.  The founder was killed.  Almost all his closest followers met violent ends.  And yet, it grows.
2. Read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Or Acts. Or James. The Church was a disaster in the New Testament- morally, structurally, socio-economically.  And yet, it grows.

3. Read some early Church history. There were fist fights at Nicea. It took them 350 years to really nail down the definition of the Trinity. It wasn’t pretty. It has never, ever been pretty.  And yet, it grows.

4. There is no era where the members of the Church weren’t arguing about stuff– important stuff. Argument, dissent, and error are all present at every single stage of the Church’s life. So is persecution in one form or another. You’d do well to get used to it. Arguing is how we figure stuff out, guided by the Holy Spirit.  Whatever else it is– and I believe, of course, that it is very much more– the history of the Church is a 2000-year-old argument about what is true.

5. Even the stupid heresies and bad ideas can last a few hundred years. The more robust ones can last 400-500 years, but they all collapse back into Catholicism eventually because Catholicism finds a way to incorporate the real, legitimate, holy insights and truths that the heresies illumine.

6. Before you get worked up about the present corruption of the Catholic Church, go and read about Pope Alexander VI. We’ve had some certifiably evil Popes and some certifiably crazy ones.  We’re here.  We survived them.

7. I think it was Chesterton who said that the demise of the Catholic Church has been predicted regularly for 2000 years. He’s right. The prophets of doom have all been wrong, and most of the organizations they’ve proposed for replacing the Church no longer exist.

The best thing you can do, as far as I can see, is keep your eyes on Jesus and keep looking for the real saints Jesus has planted in the Church as leaven. They are here, in your midst, and they are the signs of God’s continuing presence in the Church. And that is also how it’s always been.

“Ugh,” Said the Rich Young Ruler

As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.’” He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.– Mark 10:17-27

One of the great joys of hiking the Camino Santiago de Compostela in 2014 was that each of us in our team carried so few possessions.  I could tell you everything I had with me in my pack.  It was easy to run through a mental checklist to make sure I had packed all my things (though that didn’t stop me from leaving all my toiletries behind in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port just before the long hike

My pack.  Saint-Côme-d’Olt, France.  May, 2014

over the Pyrenees).   There was a mindfulness– an intentionality– about my things, a gratitude for the quality and utility of each thing I owned.  Although I put more care into packing for the Camino than I had for most previous trips, it was to a good end– I could travel lightly and be as unencumbered as possible over the hundreds of kilometers we’d hike.


My Camino pack was so different from the life I was living, with closets filled with stuff.  In the years before I did my pilgrimage I was already frustrated by the sheer number of things I owned, and was even more frustrated by the habits I’d acquired for buying things.  Mine were “respectable” habits– always within certain boundaries, never going into debt, selling things to buy other things– but the net result was that we had too many things, and I didn’t have any good strategies for getting rid of the stuff we had or for limiting the flow of new stuff into my house and office.  If a book looked useful or interesting for my work as a chaplain, I’d buy it.  If I kept running out of shirts, I’d buy more shirts (instead of, you know, doing more laundry).  If I couldn’t find the AA batteries because I didn’t know where they had been stored, I’d buy new batteries.

At a certain point, I started deviating from the normal reading of the story of the Rich Young Ruler (above).  What I’d heard countless times was that the young man was “too attached” to his possessions– that his possessions meant more to him than following Jesus.  For the last couple years, I’ve imagined the guy saying to himself, “This is all immensely attractive, but getting rid of my stuff?  That could take years!”   Maybe he hated all his extra stuff as much as I did, but felt too overwhelmed to do anything about it.

I have been surprised by how widespread the problem of possessions is in our culture, even for Christians who follow Jesus who had “nowhere to lay his head.”  The proliferation of storage facilities, the very common use of garages as overflow areas for stuff that doesn’t fit in closets (more than a third of all two-car garages in the US can’t house two cars because one or more bays is being used to store, well, stuff)– these phenomena reveal a culture that is awash in things but lacking a sense of purpose or reflection.

The good news is that it doesn’t actually have to be that way.  Throughout all of Christian history, there have been those who’ve found a way to be free of their stuff and to follow Jesus without the burdens of entanglement with possessions.  And in the contemporary era, there is a growing movement of so-called “minimalists” who can help provide strategies for getting rid of the stuff we don’t need.  One such person is Josh Becker, whose blog Becoming Minimalist provides great strategies for those looking to simplify, disentangle, and clarify.

What if we took Jesus’ words not just as an overwhelming and dispiriting  challenge?  What if he is offering us a grace-filled opportunity to let go of our stuff?  What if, following him more closely,  we decided to travel lightly?  What if we lived our lives like pilgrims, carrying only what we need to get to our destination?  And what if we believed that God was actually ready to help us live this way?





A Saint’s Decluttering Method

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:

  1. 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.
  2. God gives you the things you need to fulfill your purpose.
  3. You will probably be given more than you need.  In these circumstances, ask God who to whom you should give the extra.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.