I was reflecting recently on St Ignatius’ ‘Rules for thinking with the Church.’ In our journey from the Anglican Communion to being part of the Catholic Church, the riches of tradition and teaching have been a rare and beautiful gain. It is a gain that is both freeing and challenging. I find St Ignatius’ rules, therefore very helpful as I learn more.
When looking at the rules there are a couple of things to remember. First, St Ignatius was living in a time that was at least as turbulent as ours. The Reformation was in full swing, religion and power often went hand in hand, with disastrous and unjust consequences across Europe. In some senses media and the Internet disseminates information, ideas and propaganda incredibly quickly and this provides a similar turbulence in our own time. Our engagement with this media can be fast and unthinking. It is tempting to take on ideas without properly thinking them through.
Secondly, the ‘Rules’ come within the context of the Spiritual Exercises. St Ignatius’ aim in the exercises is that a person would be drawn into an ever-deeper relationship with God. His main concern was the ‘orientating of the soul towards God.’ The rules for thinking (or feeling- of being of one heart) with Christ’s Church are all contributing to this aim.
The exercises begin by focusing on the goodness, generosity and mercy of God. They also look at those things that get in the way of a truly free response to our Creator. St Ignatius is very aware, from his own experience and that of his companions and friends, of the part our sinful self plays in our lives. St Ignatius saw how our sinful nature allowed our ‘self’ to take over and run amok in our spiritual lives. He also saw how we can be ‘blown this way and that’ by turbulence of our particular time. His rules for thinking with the Church are designed to free us from this in our approach to the issues of our day and to God’s revelation of himself, through the Church.
There are quite a few rules but they can be grouped in several categories, which I want to look at, over a couple of posts. The first rule, itself, is a stark reminder. St Ignatius writes “Laying aside all judgment of our own, we should keep our minds disposed and ready to obey in everything the true bride of Christ our Lord, which is our Holy mother the hierarchical Church. (Paragraph 353).
This underpins all that comes later. One thing that is important here is the attitude Ignatius wants us to have in relation to anything to do with the Church. This attitude can be summed up in the words ‘humility’ and ‘balance.’
When we engage with the Church, of which we are a part, we need to be prepared that we might be wrong. Today the Internet, the media and conversations are often full of entrenched opinions. It is easy to be opinionated. “I know what is right and I’m going to get it across.” It can be summed up by the cartoon of an individual on the computer, whose partner is asking them to come to bed. They refuse because “Someone is wrong on the Internet.”
St Ignatius describes this balance in his Principle and Foundation. David Fleming SJ translates one particular line as “In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance…For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.” It is this balance that allows us to “Find God in all things” including in our relationship with his Church.
First, when we engage with the Church’s teaching we need to have this open disposition. Secondly, we need to remember what the Church is. In the second part of this rule St Ignatius describes the Church as the true bride of Christ and our mother. Michael Ivens writes “The two images of spouse and mother, standing respectfully for the Church’s relationship to Christ and to ourselves, express the mystery of the Church. For Ignatius they were powerful images with strong affective overtones and together they establish the characteristic ‘filial’ quality of his ecclesial spirituality.”
Do we really believe that the Church is the Bride of Christ? Do we really believe she is our mother? If we do, then this has implications. The Church is not a human institution. It is God’s. We do not own it. Another question arises. If the Church is God’s, do we trust God to use the Church to bring about his purposes? If we don’t trust God in this maybe we need to look a whole lot closer at our relationship with him. It is a common problem, not trusting God. However, if we are prepared to trust we must not assume that the Church is wrong when we, as individuals, disagree with part of its teaching. Maybe there is something in a particular teaching that we need to investigate.
And there is another facet to this, which George Ashenbrenner SJ describes like this. “The attitude presented is that of someone fully within the Church. The preposition within catches this refinement. We, as any localised group of believers, never own the Church, because the Church is Christ’s spouse. Yet, as God’s embracing a variety of roles of service, we all constitute the Church.” There is not ‘me’ or ‘us’ and ‘The Church’ as separate entities. We cannot stand outside ‘The Church’ and pass judgement on ‘it’ as if ‘it’ were an object. In our life in Christ, we are caught up into the Church, a member of His bride, part of his body.
To sum up, in our relationship to the Church we have to make sure we are open to what God is doing. For this we need humility and balance and we need to remember that the Church belongs to God and trust that, despite what we see, He is working his purposes out. This is why St Ignatius asks us to set aside our own judgment, to let go of our own opinions. And there is also something more. Ashenbrenner again. “The intimately personal love you have for the risen Jesus spills over into a love for his spouse the Church. A similar personal love of commitment is involved in relating to the Church as a dearly beloved mother.” With this attitude we are more able to access the riches of the Churches teaching and deepen our knowledge and love of God.