St. Ignatius gives some helpful criteria for making decisions, which is actually a very Lenten practice.
What’s the difference between the urgent and the important? One way to think of it is that the most urgent presents itself as the demand that makes the most noise, whereas the most important presents itself as the demand that makes the most sense. Mopping up a spilled drink appears urgent; teaching your child to look both ways before crossing the street is certainly more important.
Life is about making hard choices. After all, we just can’t do everything we want at the same time all the time. Life doesn’t work that way. Skydiving on Tuesday at dawn precludes a piano lesson on Tuesday at dawn. Repeatedly, we have to choose whether to say “Yes” or “No” or “Maybe” or “Not now” or “Always” or “Never.” The season of Lent can help us to see our patterns of choices, and to humbly assess whether our habits of choosing are wise, foolish, or catastrophic. The season of Lent calls us to look at what do in time in light of its meaning for our eternity. In other words, it’s about priorities.
St. Ignatius Loyola, at the outset of his “Spiritual Exercises,” speaks of the “First Principle and Foundation.” If we know how to employ it, we can develop the habit of making wises choices about what is good for us, what is bad for us, when to say “Yes” and when to say “No.” Here’s how Ignatius starts his reflection:
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.
The natural world was made by God to be useful for man. Yet this world is not our true home. We may rightly use and enjoy the natural order, but we must do so with an eye towards the end for which we were made by God, which is eternal communion with him.
In it to win it
Note the clarity and practicality of Ignatius’ wisdom. He tells us to use what is helpful and distance ourselves from whatever is distracting or harmful. He is, to use contemporary parlance, “in it to win it.” He has taken to heart (and hand) St. Paul’s exhortation to “run so as to win the race” (1 Corinthians 9:24). As mortal men destined for immortality, “winning the race” means finishing this life in such a condition that we’re ready to enjoy eternity with God—and that can happen only if we’re unencumbered by sin.
Now Ignatius gets specific, and does so in a way that provides guidance for living Lent well:
For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.
These words reflect his own experience of conversion, which was a total reorientation and recalibration of his whole life. He rejected, of course, all that was sinful. Yet he appraised with a very keen eye anything ordinarily good in itself. If any good thing distracted him from his goal, he saw that he was obliged to put it out of his life. Similarly, any ordinarily good thing that did not facilitate his goal he treated as a luxury he couldn’t afford. Ignatius would insist that a wise man will arrange every aspect, every last detail of his life to facilitate attaining the end for which he was made, which is the happiness of Heaven.
The First Principle and Foundation is a divinely-ordained mandate. It is enjoined upon each and every human person. Any person could embrace it; every person should embrace it. The First Principle and Foundation announces and illuminates the need for true freedom in my life. I need “freedom-from” distractions, illusions, addictions. I need “freedom-for” the true, the good, the beautiful. I need to use my time to prepare for eternity. It’s a race I must win and can’t afford to lose.
As we make our way through Lent, let’s look at what our real priorities have been, and what they should be. It’s a matter of priorities.
When I write next, I will continue our reflections on Lent. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.