Ignatius of Loyola on finding your purpose

Fr. Michael Rennier writes on St. Ignatius Loyola:

Asking questions about why you’re here and what will make you happy is too often neglected. When planning for the future, there can be significant pressure to obtain the highest paying job or get into the most prestigious school. The result is that we forget to examine why we want to pursue these options in the first place and never ask the most important questions. Will being a lawyer make me happy, or should I be a stay-at-home father instead? Is it worth it to go to Yale if the love of my life, the person I hope to marry, cannot go there with me and our relationship comes to an end?

Failing to consider our purpose in life isn’t a new problem. As a young man 500 years ago, St. Ignatius of Loyola never took the time to consider his future. Instead, he spent his time chasing women and obsessing over fancy clothes. He also loved the bravado of shiny swords and military exploits. Eventually his way of life caught up with him when he was seriously injured by a cannonball during a battle. While in bed healing, he had time to think about his life and discover his purpose: to begin a new religious order. From that moment on he was a different man.

In hopes that it would help guide others, Ignatius wrote down some of the steps he took to discover his purpose in life. Here is some of his advice based on a chapter titled “Making a Good Election,” from his book of Spiritual Exercises.

Fr. Rennier elaborates on each of these:

  1. Pick the right time to think about it
  2. Imagine yourself in the future
  3. Ask the people who know you best
  4. Think about how the rest of your life is affected
  5. Pretend you are another person giving advice to yourself
  6. Imagine you are living your last moments

‘We have to love our way out of this’

I went to mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle at lunchtime today. I had seen earlier that today is the Memorial of Saint Bonaventure, and his life was spoken of during the homily. Bishop Barron’s Gospel reflection (on Matthew 10:34-11:1) speaks to anyone with a wounded heart:

Friends, in today’s Gospel Jesus lays down the conditions for discipleship: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

There is line from the illuminator of the St. John’s Bible that states: “We have to love our way out of this.” There is nothing wimpy or namby-pamby or blind about this conviction. When we love extravagantly, we are not purposely blinding ourselves to moral realities—just the contrary. Love is not a sentiment, but “a harsh and dreadful thing,” as Dostoevsky said.

This is just what Jesus shows on his terrible cross. And this is just what we, his followers, must imitate…

“We have to love our way out of this.” If we want intimacy with God, and to learn from and imitate the lives of the saints, we can “love our way” in the most authentic sense—in striving for heroic virtue.

Potomac at sunset

What do you do in times when you feel absolutely alone?

I think we all have times where we feel this way—sometimes as a part of daily life, sometimes as a result of heartache, sometimes as a result of trauma, sometimes from a sense of failure or inadequacy, or other longing. I think most of us can identify on some level with C.S. Lewis’s observation that, “Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow travelers.” A common part of aloneness is probably that feeling of “going nowhere.”

In reading Philip D. Halfacre’s Genuine Friendship today, I’m reminded that our way out of this terrible aloneness is, at its heart, in the striving for heroic virtue. It’s been said that “virtue is its own reward,” and I realize that doesn’t simply mean “doing good is good,” but that, because it is in our nature as human beings to relate to one another, virtue inherently involves right relating to those around us. Virtue is its own reward because it is the basis from which other goods flow.

In Genuine Friendship, Philip D. Halfacre writes:

There is a likeness, a similarity between God and us, and that similarity is found in our personhood. We have personhood in common with God; and persons, because they are persons, seek interpersonal union. The personalist philosophy of Pope John Paul II provides fresh insights into the way we look at God and into the way we look at ourselves. It is part of the personalist philosophy that we acquire insights about ourselves by reflecting on the personhood of God and that we acquire insights about God by reflecting on human persons.

Because we were made in God’s image, we desire at our deepest level to live in union with other persons. The human person grasps long before the age of reason that possessing the good to the fullest cannot be done in solitude. As we grow and mature, our understanding of the role that people have in our lives develops more fully. This is more than saying that we humans are social beings. We desire to live in union with others not simply because it helps us meet biological needs, but as the bishops at the Second Vatican Council said, “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

A principal theme of this book is that love is the gift of one’s self, a gift that brings about interpersonal union. This is how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love each other. It is a love that unites. And, though not always felt, it is real. We must not make the mistake of reducing all love merely to the experience of feeling love. Love is the gift of self, and we can give a small gift or a large gift. When I was a boy, there was a retired gentleman who lived several houses down the street. I was about seven-years-old, and he was in his seventies. In the summertime, I would often go down to his house and sit outside with him. I even had my own little pint-sized chair. We would sit and visit. Though we did not think of it in these terms, we each made a gift of self to the other. It was a small gift—but a gift nonetheless. The experience of the gift of self and the interpersonal union that is created thereby is what I call intimacy.

Imagine two friends who have known each other for many years. They have reached the point where they have no fear of revealing their deepest secrets. Besides feeling free to speak about very private things, they are genuinely concerned about the welfare of the other and are willing to make personal sacrifices for the other’s well-being. Here we see a greater gift of self than in the previous example. The union is deeper, and so is the intimacy. Intimacy must not be thought of in an exclusively sexual or romantic way. There is certainly intimacy in sexual love—but non-sexual relationships can be intimate as well. The experience of intimacy is the feeling of being connected with another. It is the sense that somehow my life is a part of your life, and vice versa.

What happens when one experiences intimacy with no one? Then one has the experience, the feeling, of aloneness.

This is one of the most important graphs in the book:

Finally, healthy relating—the kind found in healthy friendships and happy marriages—is a matter of virtue. Great friends, great spouses, begin as great men and great women. It is hard to be a really good friend all the time. That is why we seldom see it. Great lovers love even when their love is not reciprocated. That is hard to do, especially over the long haul. And loving people well means loving them virtuously, which means that all love must be based on and rooted in truth.

Acedia, nihilism, and despair

Dawn Eden Goldstein writes:

The text of The Noonday Devil is neatly divided between two initial chapters outlining the development of theological thought on acedia and two subsequent chapters providing practical advice for combating it. Nault’s historical analysis follows a ressourcement approach that will be familiar to readers of Servais Pinckaers. He begins with an extensive treatment of acedia in Evagrius and other Desert Fathers, passing briefly through other Church Fathers and Hugh of St. Victor before commencing a chapter-length account of Thomas Aquinas’s teachings on the vice.

Acedia, Nault explains, is a concern in the Desert Fathers’ writings because it “drives the monk to leave his cell and to flee intimacy with God, so as to seek here and there some compensation for the austere way of life to which he felt called by God” (11). Nault’s analysis of Evagrius provides a core insight, one which he will revisit as the book’s focus turns from theory to praxis: acedia for Evagrius comprises two complementary dimensions, the temporal and the spatial. Temporally, the acedia sufferer feels as though “the passage of time is never ending.” This sense of ennui can affect the body, bringing about “a certain physical weakness …, accompanied by the potential for a psychological disturbance.” Spatially, the acedia sufferer has “the impression of being hemmed in, of being stifled” (30).

Before developing the implications of Evagrius’s account, Nault switches gears for his Thomistic analysis. Thomas follows Gregory the Great in identifying acedia as “sorrow for spiritual good.” “And yet,” Nault adds, “in an altogether new insight, he describes it as the first sin against the joy that springs from charity. He makes it the sin against the gaudium de caritate” (62).

The remedy for acedia is, therefore, that which will restore charity in the sufferer’s soul. Nault, by means of a remarkably concise (and unmistakably Pinckaersian) account of the outlines of Aquinas’s moral theology—the exitus-reditus structure of the Summa, the nature of virtue as a habitus, true vs. false freedom, and the ultimate goal of beatitude—identifies that remedy as nothing less than the Incarnation: “Christ restores to us the hope of being able to participate fully in the divine life” (86). …

If you take the two definitions of acedia that we mentioned in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, the “sadness about spiritual good” and “disgust with action,” and you abandon the unified concept of Christian action in which the Holy Spirit and Christ are at the very heart of this action, you will see that sadness becomes [characterized as] “melancholy” and the paralysis of action becomes “sloth.” (105)

At the start of the second half of The Noonday Devil, Nault notes that he is not so interested in “[analyzing] the causes of the rather disillusioned outlook of our modern world” as in proposing “the current relevance of acedia in the life of a Christian” (107‒08, emphasis in original). By understanding the nature of acedia, the Christian may guard against temptations toward nihilism and despair.

“Modernity,” writes Brian Rottkamp, “tends to blur the difference between spending time in a way that elevates the individual and society and a way which is unproductive and/or harmful.”

Dumbarton birdsong

I was on Dumbarton Street in Georgetown, early one morning a few weeks ago, and heard the birds singing. Georgetown is a neighborhood that feels absolutely covered by trees, and so it’s like a refuse amidst the wider city (or at least compared to the downtown) where birds can rest and sing:

When is the last time you’ve made the time to hear the birds?

Rooted, mobile, or stuck

Gracy Olmstead has a new monthly newsletter “Granola” arrived for the first time in my inbox this week. Granola focuses on place, books, and community. Here’s an excerpt:

“Though I grew up among these complex communities built on the exchange of homegrown and handmade goods, my emotionally tumultuous teenage years separated me from it and my nights were spent dreaming of better futures in a city nearby.”

Darby Weaver writes the above lines in a lovely article about agriculture and the importance of raising up a new generation of farmers—but many youths who grew up in rural America could identify with these sentiments.

We may leave home because we’ve developed different religious or cultural beliefs than our small-town communities; we may leave because we don’t see job opportunities where we grew up. Maybe our homes were broken, and we need to start over someplace else.

But whatever the case, this rural exodus is proliferating in our time. At the end of April, Congress’s Joint Economic Committee “Social Capital Project” released some important findings on the geography of brain drain in America:

“Rather than more-cosmopolitan and more-traditional residents intermingling within states, swaths of the country may become more exclusively home to one or the other camp. The places remaining when families with the most resources move to opportunity can be left entirely bereft of community.”

You might think rural places are going to decline and die out, no matter what we do. (If you do, you are definitely not alone—here are just two recent arguments for rural and post-industrial America’s inevitable collapse.) But personally, I believe the proliferation of “winner-takes-all” urbanism is not good for our ecological, economic, or cultural health—and we need to be thinking about solutions.

Richard Florida divides Americans into three groups: “the mobile,” who have the means and education to move toward opportunity, “the stuck,” who lack resources and are thus forced to remain in place, and “the rooted,” who have the resources to move, but choose to stay instead.

We can fight rural brain drain by increasing incentives for people to stay in place (or return home), thus growing the ranks of the “rooted”. But I would argue that the answer must also involve growing opportunity and social capital for the “stuck”: giving them opportunities to flourish in their home soil.

In his newly released book Dignity, Chris Arnade considers the lives of those who remain in America’s “forgotten” places. Arnade left a community like this when he was young, as part of the mobile class that sees staying put as a “form of failure.”

“I left my rural hometown and got into elite schools, which got me into elite jobs, which got me into an elite neighborhood,” he writes. But Arnade admits that his acceptance into this elite class resulted in a narrow understanding of the world: “We valued what we could measure, and that meant material wealth. Things that couldn’t be measured—community, ­dignity, faith, happiness—were largely ignored ­because they were hard to see, especially from so far away. … It didn’t occur to us that what we valued wasn’t what everyone else wanted.”

Dignity pushes us to consider what our society might owe to the “back row” Americans who’ve decided to stay put, not matter the cost.

Granola and Chris Arnade remind me of this observation from G.K. Chesterton on the difference between Richard Florida’s “mobile” versus “rooted/stuck” communities:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men.

The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies, groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique.

Subscribe to Granola.

Bladensburg Cross

Chad Pecknold writes on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bladensburg Cross ruling:

The question of why the Bladensburg Cross should stand is inseparable from the question of whether it violates the Establishment Clause which prohibits the Federal government from establishing an official religion, or from favoring one religion over others. …

Justice Alito remarked in the first section that a Christian symbol can accrue additional symbolic meanings which are not in themselves religious. Alito writes:

“The fact that the cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol should not blind one to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent: a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home, a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for this Nation, and a historical landmark. For many, destroying or defacing the Cross would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.” …

Justice Gorsuch takes the judgment further, joined by Justice Thomas, in a concurring opinion. He writes that the “offended observer” theory, which the American Humanist Association based their case on in part — so deeply does the cross offend them as they drive by — “has no basis in law.” It’s not enough to be offended. There has to be injury that is “concrete and particularized,” and no one is injured by seeing a cross. …

“Although the plurality does not say it in as many words, the message of today’s decision for the lower courts must be this: whether a monument, symbol, or practice is old or new, apply Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U. S. 565, not Lemon, because what matters when it comes to assessing a monument, symbol, or practice is not its age but its compliance with ageless principles. Pp. 6–9.” [Emphasis not in original]

Now ageless principles can well be philosophical or theological, and they can be arrived at by reason unaided by the act of faith, or by divine revelation. But what Gorsuch does here strikes me as important because he recognizes a non-positivist standard. I don’t know exactly how Gorsuch would develop this standard, but he is right that law must not become relativistic. The Establishment Clause was made to protect religion — indeed, Christian religion — from excessive government interference. It recognized the substantive good of religion as something which is more than just “history and tradition” but as something which orients us to what is permanently true. In this sense, Gorsuch recognizes that the more modest test should not privilege “secular purpose” but respect transcendent principles.

An important case for religious liberty, and interesting to see both the “history and tradition” and “ageless principles” standards being articulated as a means for restraining the government from destroying public religious symbols.

‘I found delight in the human race’

A few years ago my friend Ben Novak shared his playful theory of Christ’s sacrifice with me, and today’s scripture on the solemnity of the Trinity reminded me of Ben’s “layman’s theory” as to why God had to send his son to earth to become a man to die for us:

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Reading 1 Prv 8:22-31

Thus says the wisdom of God:
“The LORD possessed me, the beginning of his ways,
the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago;
from of old I was poured forth,
at the first, before the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water;
before the mountains were settled into place,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
while as yet the earth and fields were not made,
nor the first clods of the world.

“When the Lord established the heavens I was there,
when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep;
when he made firm the skies above,
when he fixed fast the foundations of the earth;
when he set for the sea its limit,
so that the waters should not transgress his command;
then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the human race.”