A Faith That Does Justice engages The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola[i] (Exercises) to discern God’s will and live faith in action on behalf of all God’s people. When appropriately adapted they offer a way for all people of good will to do the same. This essay features First Week: Human Sinfulness and God’s Infinite Love (Part One).
The ordered vision of reality presented by Ignatius in the First Principle and Foundation has been under siege from the very beginning of time, as human sinfulness, both personal and structural,[ii] has undermined God’s desire for the salvation of this world. In addition, the negative effects of sin continue to endure in history long after the sinful have been forgiven, giving it not only past and present dimensions, but a future one as well.
Ignatius offers five meditations during the First Week that seek to elicit not only sorrow for our complicity with sin, but also an increasing awareness of God’s infinite love and offer of forgiveness and salvation. The grace to be sought during this week is a deep sense of gratitude for all that God has done for us and a growing desire to return in kind the love we have received.
For many, these meditations culminate in a formal atonement for the sins of their past life through sacramental reconciliation and a simultaneous commitment to surrender to the will of God in the future.
Meditations on Sin
The first three meditations of this week depict sin as a historical reality, existing from before the creation of this world to the present moment. The first meditation presents the story of the fallen angels[iii] who, although created in the state of grace, changed to hatred towards God out of sinful pride and then sought to usurp God’s rightful role over creation. For their failure to reverence and obey the Creator of all, they were driven from heaven and into hell for all eternity. The second meditation presents the biblical account of Adam and Eve[iv] who were cast out from the garden of Eden for eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge in defiance of God’s instruction to eat of every fruit of the garden except that one. For their sinful disregard of God’s will, they and their posterity lost “original justice” and now toil upon this earth as a test of their fitness for eternal life. The third meditation presents the story of any human being who has gone to hell for committing one mortal sin[v], that is, for completely rupturing the relationship with God and creation.
Ignatius offers these initial meditations to make clear that while human sinfulness has been pervasive throughout history, and that many have suffered dire consequences for their complicity with evil, we have not yet been asked for a final accounting of our lives. Despite our sinfulness, we continue to live and be loved by God who offers us forgiveness and salvation.
Ignatius suggests that after reflecting upon these three meditations, we place ourselves in Jesus’ presence as he dies upon a cross so that we might experience a deeper appreciation of the cost of salvation we have been offered (Phil 2:6-8). He
then invites us to enter into a colloquy (conversation) with the crucified Jesus as we ask ourselves the three foundational questions of this week before reflecting upon the thoughts that arise in our consciousness.
What have I done for Christ?
What am I doing for Christ?
What ought I to do for Christ?[vi]
These questions span our past, present and future. Ignatius’ expectation is that we will begin to experience a deep sense of gratitude for God’s love and offer of salvation, and that from our gratitude there will emerge a growing desire to return to God the love we have received. We will be challenged to act upon this desire in the call to follow Jesus in discipleship in the Second Week.
Today, we live in era of much greater social awareness than existed during the time of Ignatius in the sixteenth century. For this reason, many believe God’s offer of personal salvation is woven into the fabric of God’s larger plan for the salvation of all of creation. Consequently, Jesus’ self-sacrifice for the salvation of this world has become, at least figuratively, an ongoing historical reality for oppressed people everywhere. That is, the Spirit of Jesus continues to walk with, and is crucified alongside, the suffering people of this world who, like him, so often die unjustly and before their time. It is these people who are the “crucified people” of history who continue to witness to Jesus’ salvific offering to a world that is still so in need of redemption.[vii]
In this light, Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ, suggests that we reexamine Ignatius’ foundational inquiry of the First Week by now asking ourselves the following questions before pondering our commitment to God’s desire for the salvation of all of creation.
“What have we done …
What are we doing …
What ought we to do …
to take the suffering people of our world down from the crosses upon which they continue to be crucified today?” [viii]
Reflecting upon these transformative questions in the presence of Jesus and the suffering people of this world ought to heighten our sense of gratitude and desire to return the love and offer of salvation we have received. However, our desire to respond to God’s goodness can no longer be an unspecified commitment to action in Jesus’ name. We now seek to follow Jesus among the poor, oppressed and marginalized of this world so that we might take them down from the crosses upon which they hang and help them experience the salvation God has always desired for them. Ultimately, it is from this commitment to Jesus and the unfinished work of the kingdom of God that our own, personal, salvation is realized.
Let us pray that God’s infinite love for us will lead us to gratitude and a commitment to participate in God’s ongoing plan for the creation and salvation of this world.
The next essay will explore the final two meditations of the First Week.
[i] The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are a series of Christian contemplations and meditations written by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th‑century Spanish priest and founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Divided into four thematic “weeks” of variable length, they are designed to be carried out over a period of approximately 30 days. They were composed to help participants in religious retreats to discern the will of God and commit to following Jesus in this world whatever the cost. When appropriately adapted, they can also help people of other faith traditions discern God’s will and engage problems facing society in the 21st century.
[ii] Personal sin usually results from the self-interested behavior of one person at the expense of another person, group of people, or object(s) of God’s creation. Moreover, the sinner usually exists in close proximity to the person(s) or object(s) sinned against. Structural sin, also called social sin, usually results from the self-interested behavior of one group of people who unjustly profit at the expense another larger group of people, even whole societies. In contrast to personal sin, these sinners usually exist distant to and deny any responsibility for the negative effects of their actions upon the people, objects or environment sinned against.
[iii] L.J. Puhl, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1951), Section 50.
[iv] Ibid, Section 51
[v] Ibid, Section 52
[vi] Ibid, Section 53.
[vii] I. Ellacuría, “The Crucified People,” Mysterium Liberationis, Ellacuría and Sobrino, eds., (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 580-603. Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ, coined the phrase the “crucified people” of history to represent the poor, oppressed and marginalized of this world who are so often treated unjustly and cast aside by the power structure of history. Ellacuría was assassinated for defending the rights and human dignity of the poor of El Salvador in 1989.
[viii] Ibid, 580-603.