A day late and, almost certainly, a dollar short. I was traveling too much to post this yesterday, and Ignatius’ complex holiness doesn’t often lend itself to pithy formulas. Since this was preached to the Carmelite Monastery of Brooklyn, NY, the Scripture Readings for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time were used and the Little Flower got a shout-out.
What will separate us from the love of Christ? (Rom 8:35)
We have a strange convergence of events here today. That a Jesuit priest would celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving on the feast of St. Ignatius isn’t uncommon, but that he would end up doing so for a Carmelite Convent is a little more unusual. At bottom, however, there is only one holiness in the Church—the holiness of Christ. So I’ll trust that St. Ignatius can edify Carmelites as well.
As evidence of the Church’s one holiness, we could point to the perfect agreement between St. Ignatius’s spiritual vision and the vision that St. Paul presents today in the letter to the Romans. In both cases, the mark of holiness is twofold: 1) a preferential love for the Cross 2) measured by the greater service of God.
1. Where do we see St. Paul’s preferential love for the Cross? After listing his catalogue of hardships—anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and the sword—he notes that in these we are “conquer overwhelmingly” (ὑπερνικῶμεν). There is a comparative degree here: quite literally we are “super-conquerors” or “more-than-conquerors.” Those who love God don’t just hold their own in the face of adversity; they don’t just maintain their positions; no, as Paul sees it, here especially they advance.
In a similar way, St. Ignatius, who was always insisting on this mystical “more,” always pursing—not just the glory of God—but the “greater Glory of God,” talks of the summit of the spiritual life as the “Third Degree of Humility.” If I have truly internalized Christ’s message, then, with
the praise and glory of the Divine Majesty being equal – in order to imitate and be more actually like Christ our Lord, I want and choose poverty with Christ poor rather than riches, insults with Christ loaded with them rather than honors; and to desire to be rated as worthless and a fool for Christ, Who first was held as such, rather than wise or prudent in this world.
But this desire isn’t just another example of so-called Christian suspicion of life and pleasure. It is rooted in a sort of foolish love, a love that desires to be “more actually like” the beloved. As both St. Paul and St. Ignatius saw it, Christ was the Center of the Father’s loving plan, and the Cross was the center of that Center. All great lovers of Christ “gravitate” toward the Cross as towards a center.
2. And where do we see the measure of God’s greater service? In the all-important condition that Ignatius adds: “[With] the praise and glory of the Divine Majesty being equal …” The ultimate goal of everything–even of the Cross–is rendering a more excellent service to God. Ignatius taught this tirelessly. He once posed a “trick question” to the future General of the Jesuits, Fr. Diego Laínez, asking him how he would decide the following case. If God offered to him either to be taken from this life straightaway and to be assured of heaven, or to stay in this life and—without any such assurance—to have a chance to render some greater service to him, which would he choose? Fr. Laínez, thinking he was choosing more piously, opted to be taken straightaway. But Ignatius replied,
Now I certainly should not have done so. Rather, had I judged that, remaining here in this life, I could have rendered some singular service to the Lord, I should have besought him to leave me in it until I should have performed that service. And I should place my eyes on it, and not on myself, having no regard for my danger and security (MHSI 93:773-775).
This indifference to all but God’s service is the hallmark of all Christian holiness—not just of Ignatius’ holiness. Paul hints at it when he insists that “neither death nor life” can separate us from the Love of Christ. We may, therefore, serve Him equally in either. St. Thérèse of Lisieux stressed this principle especially during the time of her final illness. The Mother of her Carmel once asked her whether she preferred to live or die. “Oh, Mother, I repeat, I don’t love one thing more than the other … Whatever the good God prefers and chooses for me is what pleases me best.” Did Thérèse fear death? “Not at all. With what happiness I would go from the world.” Did Thérèse fear to live? “Not in the least … I would say, ‘I am very glad to be cured so as to go on serving the good God on earth since this is his will” (Balthasar, Two Sisters in the Spirit, 315).
This combination of love for the cross measured by service is characteristic of all Christian holiness because it is the only appropriate response to what has been revealed: “the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39). We love the cross because Christ chose the Cross. But we leave even our suffering in God’s hands because no created thing can separate us from the love of Christ. Thus the one indifference of of our three saints emerges not as grim effort or willful self-mastery. It is first of all a response to Love, a Love that has a particular center, yes, but that also hems us in on every side. Through the intercession of St. Paul, St. Thérèse and St. Ignatius, then, let us pray that we may respond to that great Love as they did.