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
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
We all naturally dislike a shortened
life. We all fear sickness, and all that goes with it. We naturally dislike
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
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
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
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
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