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Ignatian Retreat

(August 1975)

The Principle and Foundation
of the Spiritual Exercises

(A Model Retreat)

Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

For the first day of the retreat, we are reflecting on what is called the Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises. We have seen that there are two basic truths which are part of our faith that undergird this so called "Principle and Foundation." They are, the purpose of our existence and the purpose of the existence of all other creatures, including our fellow human beings and for us, our fellow religious. You see, they too are meant by God to help us reach our destiny.

There are two conclusions. The first we saw in the last conference and it is a matter of logic. If, as faith tells us, creatures are in the world to help us, then we are to use them insofar as they do help and literally be rid of them insofar as they hinder the purpose of our existence. In Latin, that is the famous "Tantum Quantum Rule": Insofar (that's "tantum"); as (that's "quantum"). Creatures are to be used insofar as -- no more, no less -- they help us.

The second conclusion is not so obvious. It says, in effect, that we are to make ourselves indifferent, a very strange word about which volumes have been written. We are to make ourselves indifferent, as a consequence of what we've just said, regarding everything in life so that "insofar as in us lies, we should not prefer a long life to a short one, health to sickness, honor to dishonor, or wealth to poverty" - unquote - Saint Ignatius who was quoting all the masters of Christian sanctity.

This conclusion is not so obvious because, as it stands, it presupposes something that on reflection we should be willing to admit, but on first sight it is not so clear. In fact, it presupposes several premises.

First of all, if I were to ask whether all the creatures that God has made are good, we would have to answer, "Yes, all the creatures, insofar as they have been made by God are good." But does it therefore follow that all creatures are necessarily good for us? No, because every creature that enters our lives will not necessarily help us by being used. That's where it gets subtle. You see, some creatures help by not being used; and you don't figure that out by just human insight.

In other words, part of our faith is to believe that God has put into our lives creatures that are very appealing, naturally attractive, and He has correspondingly put into our lives creatures that are naturally unappealing, that we naturally dislike. That's what the Church teaches, and so Saint Ignatius gave four prominent examples of these things which we all naturally like and dislike.

We all naturally would like a long life, health, to be well thought of and honored, and to possess. And just for the record, we don't lose the desire to possess by taking the vow of poverty.

We all naturally dislike a shortened life. We all fear sickness, and all that goes with it. We naturally dislike not possessing.

Nothing can illustrate the point as clearly as the example of children. As one who doesn't often see children, when I am near them, I watch them shrewdly. What can they teach us? Every once in a while I have dinner with a family with young children. I've seen a youngster of six months old in a playpen and, of course, he can't get out. Outside the playpen is his brother, three years old. There's a rattle in the playpen. Big brother puts his fist through the bars of the playpen and pulls out the rattle. There is a screech: Another illustration. Once on the New York subway I watched two children competing for their mother's lap; this is the desire for possession. It was late at night and they were both sleepy. The boy was about 6, the girl 4. The little girl had her head on their mother's lap and he wanted his there too. So he put his head on her lap and the mother tried to cooperate; but his head was bigger and he kept brushing his little sister's head out of the way. Finally, the girl gave up because he was older and stronger, and she began to cry. For the next ten minutes the mother patted the girl; then she pushed the boy to the side and told the girl to take her lap. We all want to possess, from a rattle to a lap to you-name-it. And we dread to be dispossessed. It can be as little a thing as the biggest piece of cake on the table; there's just a twinge of avarice when we notice that somebody else gets it!

We all dislike to be "not well thought of". And notice, it is not even "not being well spoken of"; we dread even the thought of people not thinking well of us.

All of this is highly relevant to a retreat because, when the great saints and spiritual teachers of the Church tell us that if we're going to use creatures the way God wants us to use them, embracing some and sacrificing others, we have to work in making ourselves internally free. That's what this indifference is all about, so that insofar as it is possible with God's grace (and it surely takes a great deal of grace), we may be free to reach our destiny. This is the background for what will follow in the retreat.

But now we ask ourselves, "Why do we have these strange biases in favor of a long life, health, wealth, and acceptance; and have such a dread of rejection?" What crimes are committed through human respect, because we are afraid of what people will say or think about: There are two reasons.

The first reason is that this is part of the probation to which all rational beings, not excluding even the angels, are subject. We are put into this world as the angels were put into theirs, without seeing the vision of God. Otherwise we couldn't possibly have these biases. There are no likes and dislikes in heaven; what a joy: In heaven, everything that appeals will be good. But in this world we are living by faith, short of the vision of God, when we will not be able to make wrong choices.

We believe that certain things are good when sometimes our whole nature rebels against them, and we believe that certain things are not good for us when our whole nature is sometimes drawn as if by a powerful magnet towards them. Why are these strange drives within us? Because we are still living by faith. No matter how some people demythologize the Scriptures, as the "specialists" are trying to do with the first chapter of Genesis, we know that whatever test God gave our first parents, it was primarily a test of faith. He told them that something that was naturally appealing would be supernaturally bad. And they were bidden to act on that faith. So are we.

You see immediately what responsibilities it places on us to deepen this faith and to clarify it, so that the good things of God will not be, as they can be, in such powerful competition with the good things of man. Is that clear? Though known by faith, the good things of God will become so lucidly good, so obviously satisfying, so deeply desirable, that even short of the vision of God, we shall nevertheless be able to cope with these temptations. That's all a temptation is: something appealing that is not morally good, The appeal of what is known by faith to be good will be deepened, and the appeal of what is bad will be lessened. Let's face it, we go where our hearts lead us, as Christ so clearly told us. But there is another reason why we have these strange, sometimes maddening drives in us which attract us away from that which faith tells us we should go towards and towards those things that faith tells us, "No, no, that is not for you!" The reason, besides the fact that we are still living by faith, is that we have a fallen human nature. We usually don't like to use that expression; certain things go "out of vogue".

Now one of the out of vogue or "pre-Conciliar terms" that people had better use is that we have a fallen nature. There are all kinds of terms that have been coined over the years to express this fact. We find them in spiritual books and in that particular book which is so clear in teaching us, the Book of Experience. You may call it a tug, an urge, a propensity, a tendency, a desire; call it passion or a want or a need. You name it, and we've got it!

Not all people have the same kind of tendencies, but we've all got them. They're not always equally strong in any one person, simply because things may be different in the afternoon than they were in the morning or things can change in a moment. And an unexpected change may so try us that we must keep praying every minute for grace to overcome the temptation.

Consequently, we must brace ourselves; and this is what a retreat is about, to brace us for the rest of our lives, so that when we will be in various ways either aroused or provoked (and that about covers it) that we shall be able to cope with the temptation. But let us never underestimate the power of these drives. Let us never suppose that because we are getting up in years, or have been so many years in the religious life, or have said so many prayers and received the Sacraments so often, that somehow we are now delivered from that fallen human nature. Oh no we are not! It can spring on us like a wild beast and betray us when we least expect it. The betrayal, as we know, may not even be externally manifest. We can have entry that no one knows we have; or a deep-seated grudge that no one appreciates; or a sadness for lack of confidence in God's providence that may be belied by our sometimes too cheerful exterior. How sly this human nature is!

Having said all of this, what are we to do? Let me just stress two thoughts for the rest of this conference, each touching on the two reasons already mentioned of why we are bidden by Christ through His Church to make ourselves indifferent so as not to prefer what we like and not to fear or run away from what we dislike.

The first reason, we said, was the fact that we are still living by faith. On this level what we need to do is to reflect daily, and more than once daily, on those truths of faith that I most need. You know, there are some truths of faith that most of us find not too hard to accept because there's no great problem. There are other truths of faith that are more demanding. What are those in my life that require effort for me to live up to? Let me just suggest three such truths.

Truth #1. This life is a passing shadow. Right? The Old Testament exhausts the figures of speech to describe the shortness of this life comparing it to a wisp of smoke, to an arrow piercing the air, to a wave raised by a passing boat, to the song of a bird, to the grass of the field. That's God talking to us - that's faith. To read those beautiful images is one thing; to treat this life as a wisp of smoke or the chirp of a bird or the grass that withers - to live that way, ah, that's something else:!

Truth #2. We are told by Christ not once but many times not to fear: "Trust in God and trust in Me. I am going ahead of you to prepare a home for you." How many times He told the disciples not to fear! And His first message on Easter Sunday to His frightened apostles, the pillars of the Church, was "Peace!" (The Greek is in the imperative.) To make sure they understood, He repeated it: "Peace!" That's our faith. But how little it takes to shake our peace.

Truth #3. We are not to live in the past. The same Christ on the same occasion told His disciples, as He gave the Apostles the power to forgive sins: "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained." We believe this; we have by now been forgiven often enough. We believe that our past has been wiped out. Do we act as people who are still living in that dreary past? There are three kinds of people that I have met, as we all have: those who live consistently in the past; those who live as though there were no past or future, just the present; and the poets, the dreamers, who live only in the future. If we have a tendency to live in that past, our own past, faith should tell us that God is a merciful Lord and if He has forgiven, we are to forget.

Consequently, our first responsibility if we are going to make ourselves free from these drives, tendencies, and propensities that hinder our passage to Christ, is to reflect and ask God to enlighten us that we might more clearly see what we need so that these articles of faith will not just be articles of the Creed to us.

The second reason has to do with our inordinate desires. We are pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding creatures, and that is a good definition of human nature. This calls for a corresponding effort - always with God's grace but also with our will - to free ourselves of these tendencies as far as it is possible.

We first of all must admit that we have these tendencies. We are prone to, what are commonly called, the Seven Capital Sins; I prefer to call them the Seven Capital Tendencies. We all have them, some of us more than others. Which ones do I have? It is the sheerest wisdom to have the humility to admit it, that I am naturally prone to laziness, possessiveness, or whatever my tendency is.

First, find out what it is. Then, set about ways and means of overcoming it if it's to be overcome head-on; or outwitting it if it's to be outwitted; or, if I can't do anything better, as the Little Flower did on more than one occasion, run away: Sometimes, on some occasions, I must tell the Lord, "Dear Lord, I know I'm a coward, but the best way I can keep myself from offending You, by at least thinking something that I shouldn't about Sister so-and-so, is by not being there when she is, under circumstances that I foresee will be too much for me."

One final observation. Let's face it. We are sinners who are trying to become saints. And we had better be sure, before going on with the retreat, that we know who we are so that we don't make the mistake of ambitioning to become what we are not yet capable of becoming and miss uprooting those defects of our nature which must be overcome. And this is the good part of it. By working on this weed patch, by pulling out the weeds, by overcoming our particular failings and weaknesses, God actually is pleased with our efforts and gives us credit for having cultivated the whole garden, whereas we know that He's the one who is really responsible for any improvements. Our principal job on the road to holiness is to overcome our sinful tendencies.

Please God, we shall have the humility to recognize the task that lies ahead and the joy of knowing that whatever virtues we acquire are due to His work first of all. We will tell Him, "Oh Lord, people say I've got this or that virtue. Frankly, I didn't even realize it, I've been so hard at work overcoming my vices:"

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

Transcription of the Ignatian retreat given and recorded on August, 1975
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to the:

Handmaids of the Precious Blood

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