Last week I wrote about a murder mystery I am writing that involves the Jesuits. As I mentioned, the Jesuits are a religious order of men in the Roman Catholic Church founded in 1540 by a scrappy, determined Basque named Iñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola, known throughout history as St. Ignatius of Loyola (see Stories of No Consequence).
Ignatius’ vision was to form men who would be “contemplatives in action,” by which he meant that they would be in the world but not of the world; they would develop not one charism or ministry but many; and they would be ready to serve anywhere to save souls for Christ. Thomas Merton referred to them as “monsters of efficiency” (see The Other Men in Black).
One of the characteristics of the Jesuits that has always appealed to me is their indifference to things the rest of the world counts as valuable: success, renown, happiness, power, wealth, even health. In general, Jesuits can take these things or leave them. I say “in general,” because no one wants to suffer or live an unfulfilled life. But the ideal Jesuit life is to serve God and the people of God, particularly the poor, without being recognized or rewarded for the service. If their projects succeed, then fine; if not, then it may be time to move onto something else.
Legend has it that Ignatius was asked once what he would do “if the pope abolished the Society, wiped out the Constitutions, and liquidated everything you’ve built?” He answered that it, “would take me a quarter of an hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament to get back my peace of mind. Then I’d start all over again.”
We may never be challenged exactly like that, but what would happen if we developed that attitude? What would life be like if we could walk away after just fifteen minutes of sitting with a crushing disappointment and saying goodbye? Would we be able to leave, or would we be too invested in whatever it was–project, goal, dream, vision, relationship–to let go?
I think the difference between our reaction, reared as we are on dreams of glory and romantic notions of success, and Ignatius’ attitude of indifference has to do with two distinct but related things.
First, Ignatius turned his soul over to Christ and his earthly existence over to the pope. The reason for this is another hallmark of the Jesuits: their unquestionable obedience. This held true even when Pope Clement XIV abolished the order in 1773 under pressure from the heads of various European countries. For most people today, however, “We are still masters of our fate. We still are captains of our souls,” as Churchill declared to the British House of Commons in 1941.
Second, for Ignatius the purpose of something, its reason for being or telos, does not reside in the thing itself but beyond it. For instance, the purpose of a pen is not in the pen but in its use as a writing instrument, in what I am going to do with it. The same was true for Ignatius’ projects, which included universities, schools, missions, and hospitals. He described their purpose as Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, or the greater glory of God.
However, we live in a postmodern world in which we strive for the “thing-in-itself” rather than what lies beyond it, the creature rather than the creator. In fact, trying to get beyond the thing-in-itself is often seen as oppressive, attempted only by someone with a privileged attitude.
I don’t like to give advice. So I am going to suggest something to you, the reader, as well as for myself. Starting tomorrow at work, imagine your supervisor telling you that the project you’ve spent the past year working on and that you’ve put your heart into has been cancelled. You have been relieved of the work. You may even be relieved of your job, which isn’t so crazy given the economy today, although I certainly don’t wish that on anyone. Now imagine that you have fifteen minutes to recover and move on.
That’s indifference. It’s what has made the Jesuits last nearly half a millennium. Try it out and practice it. It may save your life.