Disputatio, Volume 14 #4

St. Ignatius's

Approach to

Nature Was Not


by John English

In her article in the May/June issue of Compass, Anne Lonergan gives a very positive review of writings on the "New Respect for Women and the Earth." Lonergan's life at the Holy Cross Centre for Ecology and Spirituality, a centre in the vanguard of ecological spirituality, has given her a deep awareness of the subjective and companionship component of life and the interdependence of all of us in our personal lives and with the natural world. We need to extend the sense of interpersonal relationships to all created things, knowing that God is present in all of them.

Lonergan traces the origins of the instrumental view of nature and suggests that "the famous `Principle and Foundation' of St. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises exhibits the same instrumentality: `Everything else on earth has been created for man's sake.'" As a practitioner of the Spiritual Exercises in the late twentieth century I would like to comment on these words.

While I can understand Lonergan's concern, the actual words suggest relationship rather than dominance, as "for man's sake" implies. The text itself goes beyond the strictly utilitarian: "The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created" (Sp. Exx. [23]). Today we might wish to say, "The other things on the face of the earth are created as companions to assist us and all of the earth to attain the fullness of relationship with God." My experience in listening to people's prayer over the First Principle and Foundation is that they are captivated with the need for freedom with regard to all that is not God--a freedom that involves a correct relationship with all creatures and is negated by the abuse of our companions on the way to union with God.

Lonergan's statement does highlight the need for guides of the Spiritual Exercises to be aware of the danger of misconstruing the text by presenting it literally without taking into account Ignatius's full intention. Such misconstruing of the Exercises will continue to take place if their purpose is not understood. We must be careful lest we consider the Spiritual Exercises a series of doctrines to be applied, as literal understandings tend to do. They are rather exercises to assist the person to respond positively to the impetus of God's love in full freedom. The Spiritual Exercises are to help us come to the necessary freedom so that we might join Christ in the "enterprise" of freeing the earth to manifest the glory of God in all things.

When it comes to interpreting traditional classics, it is important to remember that the reason they are classics is that they continue to dialogue with us across generations and cultures. Yet they do need to be interpreted, as David Tracy remarks: "Any conversation with a classic is always interactive. Once the result of that conversation is communicated to others it enters yet another dialogue, in principle, with the whole community of competent readers." It is important that guides of the Spiritual Exercises participate in the conversation with the text in terms of our present-day heightened awareness of companionship with all creatures.

Another principle of interpretation of a classic is not to separate the parts from the whole. As Scripture is to be interpreted by the rest of Scripture, so a phrase like "man is to make use of creatures" in the Spiritual Exercises is to be interpreted by other teachings of Ignatius.

Ignatius relates to creatures in a personal way. In the exercises on sin he calls us to "a cry of wonder accompanied by surging emotion as I pass in review all creatures. How is it that they have permitted me to live, and have sustained me in life!...And the heaven, sun, moon, stars, and the elements; the fruits, birds, fishes, and other animals--why have they been at my service!" (Sp. Exx. [60]). Similarly, in the "Contemplation to Obtain the Love of God," Ignatius has us "reflect on how God dwells in creatures...elements...plants...animals....So God dwells in me" (Sp. Exx. [235]).

Besides the misunderstanding of the Spiritual Exercises as a book of doctrines, we also need to be wary of the post-Enlightenment approach to spirituality as a vertical and individualistic relationship with God. This was totally out of Ignatius's ken. His whole life was communal. He realized that salvation and spirituality were communal affairs. So he could see the Spirit of God in all creatures. Today we need to question our post-Enlightenment assumptions and approach the First Principle and Foundation in a more nuanced way.

Thank God that people like Anna Primavesi, Rosemary Radford Ruether and the other women Lonergan refers to in her article, along with men like John Macmurray and Tom Berry, have brought us to our senses and called us to know that all life involves companionship, relation and interdependence.

John English SJ has guided hundreds of retreatants through the Spiritual Exercises. A new edition of Spiritual Freedom, his book on the Exercises, appeared in 1995. He lives in Guelph, Ontario.

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