By Gordon Rixon, S.J. – Regis College, University of Toronto
On the day Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope, the television networks searched for Jesuits to comment. I found myself facing the anchor of the 6 o’clock news of one of the national networks as he asked me, “What will Pope Francis do in the first 100 days of his pontificate to maintain his popularity?” I responded, “I don’t think Francis will be too concerned about his popularity. Whether we are Roman Catholic, Christians from other denominations, believers from other religious traditions, or simply other people of goodwill, I think he will remind us that we are to be the artisans of a new humanity.”
In retrospect, I think this has been Francis’s constant guiding principle: to build up our human capacities to contribute to a project more significant than ourselves and perhaps even beyond the grasp of any one faith tradition.
As Francis has taken this approach, sometimes he has been criticized for pointing out new possibilities of inclusion and compassion. He avoids approaches that divide and isolate. Yet, despite the perplexity he evokes in some, Francis is far from being rudderless. His approach is deeply grounded in the “Foundation Exercise” of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius.
He draws deeply from the Foundation’s three taproots: gratitude in acknowledging creaturehood before the creator, freedom in the use of gifts and talents, and commitment to praise, reverence, and serve God and neighbor.
The liberating key to Francis’s thought and the Spiritual Exercises is recognizing that we human beings are not the center of the universe. Nonetheless, we are the beloved of God and invited to participate in the divine project of building a more just world that preserves, enhances, and celebrates the beauty of all creation, including the bounty of diverse peoples and their cultures. We draw on our most profound source and approach our true summit when our lives become free, creative expressions of this divine artistry.
Yet, we know that serious environmental denigration, abject hunger, social exclusion, political corruption, cultural arrogance, and religious idolatry plague the planet and its peoples. Racism, colonialism, and sexualized violence distort the possibility of human thriving.
Such distortions misshape our spontaneous attractions and aversions and the patterns of social interaction that recast mutual interdependence as exploitation and domination. Sometimes even laudatory talk about the common good cloaks the exclusion of entire groups of people from those who contribute to and benefit from the bounty of creation.
In the “Two Standards Exercise,” Ignatius invites us to reflect on deviations from grateful, free commitment to the divine project. Deviations frequently established upon goodwill and eloquently articulated but subtlety displacing the divine source and goal of human desires and actions with distortions of the true self and its self-and-species-transcending orientation. After reaffirming the contrast between heavenly and worldly orientations under the standards of Christ and Satan, Ignatius invites us to evaluate the movements of our thoughts and feelings. To assist our reflective noticing, he identifies two patterns.
The negative movement away from fuller participation in the divine source and goal is easier to notice and describe. Such a desolating movement may begin by placing some good but finite gift at the center of our concern. Such a misplaced finite gift becomes a false, weakly secured possession, disassociated from the gift-giver. A profound lie that avoids disclosure by turning to others for admiration. The potential withdrawal of such honors threatens the vulnerability of the lie, which then seeks protection in the self-sufficiency of pride. A desolating movement, thus, flows from mislocated riches to false honor to isolating pride.
In contrast, the positive movement toward fuller participation in the divine project requires careful attention to discern. This consoling movement begins from the experience of poverty. The very center of my being and desiring focuses not on a possession but a relation to the gift-giver that I cannot control. Divine love is offered freely and without entrapping entitlement.
Living in this vulnerable state subjects the person to the scorn of self-secured others, who shelter their fragility by humiliating those they perceive as weak. Yet, those who accept their giftedness in transparent simplicity live in freedom and truth, which unites them in humility with Christ. A consoling movement, thus, emerges from poverty to humiliation to humility.
In practice, walking with the excluded is a complex task that benefits from becoming more explicit about the development of the self in relation to the source and goal of the divine project. Admittedly, this clarity is itself perspectival and imperfect. Feelings and perceptions shaping our engagement of civil society, religious institutions, personal privilege, and those who are just different from us in social location are always active but seldom fully resolved. Self-critical reflection guided by the Foundation and Two Standards exercises helps us notice and evaluate the spontaneous attractions and aversions shaping our perceptions and invite us to encounter the world beyond our self-interest.
We confront two challenges. The first focuses on developing the affective freedom, intellectual flexibility, and social commitment required to meet and accompany those inhabiting different worlds of experience and meaning. The second addresses the stark facts of systemic injustice expressed in the social determinates of well-being: adverse patterns of food security, over-policing, and access to education, healthcare, and employment. Both challenges are substantial, perhaps even overwhelming. The Foundation and the Two Standards provide the hope-filled relief of general orientation and specific schooling that link growing human capacity with a divine project larger than any one person or people. Together, they equip us to become artisans of a new humanity.