Last Sunday we went back to our exploration of Ignatian spirituality. We covered as much of James-Martin-the-priest-not-the-chef’s book in one evening as we had in the previous three sessions, and there was plenty more we could have said, but it was all held together by the idea of the simple life, which for Jesuits means accepting the disciplines of poverty and chastity and obedience.
Those words may cause a sinking feeling in the gut, but please don’t stop reading just yet, because I think there are great insights to be learned from the lives of religious communities like the Jesuits, and I think there are many blessings to be gained by incorporating elements of the disciplines they follow into our own lives.
The Jesuits have, at various points throughout their history, been criticised for their accumulation of wealth, but that is a departure from the way of Ignatius. Pope Francis is a much better model, with his rejection of many of the finer things that come with the papacy.
Poverty was also part of my introduction to Ignatian spirituality, as I lived on the equivalent of benefits while part of the Jesuit Volunteer Community. I managed to put food on the table for the month, but as the project went on, I began to wonder what would happen if this was my everyday reality. What would I have to sacrifice if I wore through a pair of shoes or I wanted to buy a birthday gift for a friend? I wasn’t part of the project long enough to have to answer those questions, but it did provoke some interesting reflections.
In The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, James Martin says that taking a vow of poverty allows you to live simply, which makes it sound like a gift rather than a burden. He also notes that there is a difference between voluntary poverty and forced poverty, insisting that the former is not intended to romanticise or legitimise the latter, which is dehumanising and should always be worked against.
Speaking from his own experience of living in community, Martin says that poverty leads to a greater simplicity and unity. We do not live in community in the same way, and so we may not hold all things in common or be able to avoid clutter completely, but there may still be advantages to living a less material life.
Possessions take up time and energy, lead to comparisons with others, and start a never ending cycle of want. On the other hand, poverty can mean freedom from those things. It may alos be understood as an imitation of Christ and a way of standing in solidarity with those for whom poverty is not chosen, as well as increasing our sense of dependence on God.
Martin therefore calls us to practice sensible simplicity, moderate asceticism, healthy poverty. I think those moderating words are important, because this is not about making ourselves destitute. The Jesuits have homes and enough food, and they run schools and hospitals and refugee support programmes. All of those things require resources, so the kind of poverty the Jesuits are interested in is about using those resources wisely.
Martin proposes that we get rid of what we don’t need and be generous with it, encouraging us to really think about what it is that we truly cannot do without. I also think there is value in thinking about what leads us to consume as we do, because that self awareness can help us to challenge our habits.
When we broke into groups for discussion on Sunday night, a few of us expressed some concern about what all of this meant for those things which bring great pleasure but are not strictly necessary. I think we have emotional and spiritual and social needs as well as physical needs, and so there can be a place for beauty and creativity within this kind of poverty.
Ignatius had little to say on this one, as he believed that it was most perfectly practiced as an imitation of the angels, and that was all there was to it. Martin affirms the value of celibacy for those who are called to it, saying that it brings freedom to devote oneself to others in a way that is impossible if there is a primary commitment to a family, and serves a reminder that romantic and familial love are not only loves which give meaning and fullness to life, but takes a more generous view on chastity.
We often think of celibacy and chastity as being interchangeable, but whereas celibacy has always referred specifically to abstaining from romantic or sexual relationships, chastity originally had the sense of being in a state of moral purity. To conflate the two is to assume that only abstinence is pure, but that’s not how Martin understands it.
Martin talks about chastity as “proper and loving use of our sexuality”, which for him means refraining from sex, but for someone else may mean a full and exciting sex life with someone they love deeply. He also talks about it as the call to “love as many people as deeply as possible”, and that is certainly for all of us to hear.
A couple of blogposts ago I shared the spoken word piece performed at Kate Wharton’s BeLoved ceremony, at which she made vows of singleness. I particularly like the following lines, which speak of an openness to the other, a passionate chastity I think we can all aspire to, single or married or other.
This is where things really start to get tricky between me and Ignatius, as he believed in maintaing a strict hierarchy within the order, but that is the antithesis of the Baptist ecclesiology I so fiercely believe in. I think we are called to practice mutual obedience, inviting and submitting to one another. It is hard but keeps us humble and considerate.
So much for obedience in the church, but of course there other areas of life where we are required to be obedient without that same mutuality. Martin calls us to accept such authority with grace, but that does not rule out challenge, as proved by Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest whose opposition to the Vietnam War landed him on the FBI’s most wanted list. Perhaps we must discern whether acceptance or challenge is the better witness in each case.
Martin also talks about obedience to God as a surrendering to him, even when we are suffering. When some of us gathered to pray in a difficult time a couple of weeks ago, I kept thinking of the passage in John where Jesus asks his disciples if they want to leave him, and Peter answers “To whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life”. Even if we go to God with questions and rage and confusion, it is to God that we must go. There is something uncomfortable about calling that obedience, but there is certainly a sense of God being the one we always return to.
Obedience to God also means a willingness to adventure, although that does not mean giving up our entire freedom. When Thomas Oord was with us he talked about choosing from among the best options available to us, emphasising that God does not give us a single right path. Again, obedience doesn’t feel like the right word, but there is a leaning into God for wisdom.
The Methodist Covenant Prayer says “Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing: I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal”. It is a radical declaration of obedience, but I think there is someting liberating in that willingness to accept whatever comes our way.
So there is a very brief introduction to the disciplines of poverty and chastity and obedience. I offer these thoughts to you, and encourage you to think about where the blessings might be for you, and how you might incorporate them into your own lives.