They would like to rid themselves of the attachment they have…in order to find peace in God our Lord and assure their salvation, but the hour of death comes, and they have not made use of any means.
~St. Ignatius of Loyola~
Things are more clear in the desert. In the city of men there is all sorts of noise and confusion, but in the desert one is alone with God, and (at least where I am) one sits under a broader sky, whose lights have no competition from those of modern men.
Whenever I go on retreat I practice what are called The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. Like their physical counterparts, the spiritual exercises tend to awaken me to just how out of shape I am. The exercises are a series of meditations and contemplative prayer designed to strengthen the soul in its resolution to draw near to God, just as physical exercise strengthens the body.
Ignatius knew well that most Christians have good intentions, they really love and want to serve God, but along the way of Christian discipleship, there are things which distract us and get us off track. Often times the things that get in the way are what we call attachments. An attachment is just that, it is a love of something – something I am attached to, something I don’t want to let go of, and therefore keeps me from doing other things. Everyone has attachments, and this is good – someone without them wouldn’t be human; we are supposed to be attached to our families, our legitimate responsibilities in life, and above all to God. The problem arises when we are attached to something inappropriate, or when we are attached to something good in a disproportionate or disordered way. For example, a boat is a good thing and if you’re a fisherman, owning a boat is likely necessary; but if St. Peter loved his boat too much, he might not have followed after Christ when he was called. Peter might have said “thank you Rabbi, but you see I just paid off my boat (it took 20 years), and I’m throwing a party tonight with the Zebedee brothers (you know how fun those guys are), so maybe you could find someone else.
In a certain sense, what this is all about is getting a proper hierarchy in our lives. Having an attachment to the Broncos is good and fine, but if the Broncos lose to the Patriots and you’re so upset that you can’t go play catch with your kids, your love is probably disproportionate. Lower loves are supposed to give way to higher ones, but fallen human beings tend to put things out of order, placing things like pride, riches and honor in the top positions. Ignatius reminds us that the only reason you and I were created was for God, and love for worldly things can keep us from the one thing we were made for. We are fallen beings, which means that the playing field is not level. Our love for God doesn’t just stay in first place, and our lower loves are constantly fighting to move up the food chain, while our love for God grows cold.
Ignatius says the purpose of the exercises is: “the conquest of self and the regulation of one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment.” If God calls a soul to go on mission to serve the poor, fear of the unknown or love of comfort may keep him from going; the exercises strengthen our love for God and weaken our attachment to comfort so that we do indeed go.
The way this happens is through prayer, fasting, penance, examinations of conscience and other spiritual practices. In the space we have left, I want to share what I prayed about this morning with you, in hopes it will awaken and strengthen your love for God as it did mine.
This morning I sat on the back deck of one of the main buildings here, I internally raised my soul to God and begged Him that I might love him above all things and that he might bless my time of prayer. I then began Ignatius’ meditation on the “three classes of men”. Ignatius first invites us to imagine that all three have acquired a large sum of money, let us say for our purposes, one hundred thousand dollars. All three desire to please God, and all three know that they will be tempted to love the money they have acquired in a disordered way; in fact Ignatius says, all three want to get rid of the attachment they have to the money.
Ignatius then tells us to imagine ourselves standing in the presence of God and of all his saints (that alone could be an hour meditation), and to ask God to give us the grace that we might choose what is for His glory and the salvation of our souls. Then, Ignatius tells us what happens to the three types of men. The first desire to rid themselves of the attachment to the money, but (see direct quote at the top) at the hour of death they find that they never actually did anything about it, they simply failed to act, presumably because of their attachment. The second class choose a sort of middle road, whereby they work to abandon their love for the money, without actually being willing to give up the money itself; they want to be generous with God, but in the way they have chosen. The third class of men surrender to God, they know the money will be a temptation, so they work to live as if they had already given the money away, but they leave the choice completely to God. This third class has succeeded in placing God as their first love, and are willing to sacrifice the money on the altar of their love for Him. Saint Ignatius then invites us to converse, first with Our Lady, then Jesus himself, and finally with the Father over our meditation.
I don’t know which of the three groups I fall into, but at the end of my time in prayer, I wanted more than before to be in the third. I fear, of course, that I am in the first, always having good intentions but stronger excuses for why I am not generous with God. This meditation is profoundly insightful even if it seems simple. It reminds us that God is everything, the one who is eternal truth, goodness and beauty, the one who loved us above all, and that our goal shouldn’t be to slide into heaven, having done “just enough” good to be saved. Rather, we are called to love God furiously, to not let lesser loves keep us from the true romance of the human soul. Brothers and sisters – which class of men do you belong to? The more we love God, the more we resemble Him, Christ’s greatest attachment was to the Father, never letting anything get in the way of carrying out the Father’s will. Jesus left behind legitimate attachments to Mary, the Apostles, and to life itself; not because he didn’t love them, but because he loved the Father first and above all.
Spiritual fitness, like its physical counterpart doesn’t just happen. To become holy, you and I need to build our love for God, for heaven, and to destroy the things that keep us from loving them. This is why I am on retreat this week, which is something very different from vacation. I would argue that retreats like the one I am currently on, are more important than almost anything I do for the good of the parish, my hope is that all of us have ways of being intentional about growing our love for spiritual things. The world fights incessantly against your holiness, what are you doing to counteract the voice of the world?