The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to dive deeper into the First Principle and Foundation from the Spiritual Exercises. To learn more, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: The First Principle and Foundation: What Are Human Beings Made For?”
St Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation, as translated by David Fleming, states that “the goal of our life is to live with God forever.” With its clarity and conciseness, it makes for a great mission statement for our lives.
While teaching high school theology last semester, I spent two weeks discussing Ignatius’s Principle and Foundation, with an emphasis on this first line: “the goal of our life is to live with God forever.” If one assents to this statement, the remainder of the Principle and Foundation, including the indifference towards good health, is uncontroversial. The subsequent paragraphs of this short essay by Ignatius can be seen as a roadmap to fulfill the goal of living with God forever.
The students in my class, however, were hesitant to give their assent to this opening statement.
For high school seniors, on the cusp of college, a relationship with God was one goal among many. Some desired financial success. Others wanted to have fulfilling careers. Most hoped to be men for others by helping make this world a better place. All of these were good desires. However, a relationship with God could not be one goal among many. Ignatius says that a relationship with God is the only goal that matters. Everything else in life is supposed to be oriented towards this goal.
Asking high school students to make God the center of their lives was a huge ask. I could sense their hesitation. I could sense my hesitation in believing that my relationship with God was the only goal of my life.
Taking a step back, I asked them to ponder the reason for our existence. I asked them to think about answers to existential questions: “why are we here?”, “where were we going from here?”, “why was there a need to live a good life?”.
While the first two questions could be dealt in an abstract philosophical manner, the third question touched upon their current stage of life. It seemed like they generally wanted to live the good life because that was what was expected from them by their families, friends, and the wider culture. However, there did not seem to be a strong reason for adhering to a good life, except for perhaps increasing one’s well-being and avoiding suffering. Increasing pleasure and decreasing pain seemed to be the ultimate goal of human existence. Was mere survival, and experience of pleasure the reasons for our existence? And so we went back to the question of “why are we here?”.
Ignatius believed that we are here because “God created human beings to praise, reverence, and serve God, and by doing this, to save their souls”. We are here to live for God because God created us and gave us life. If we accept that God personally knit us in our mother’s womb, then we would reflexively turn to God in gratitude and would desire to live a life pleasing to Him. If we believe that God created us, that knowledge is consequential to the way we live. We cannot agree that God created us, and then go about our day as though it did not matter. Once we conclude that God created us, we will want to live with God forever.
Besides answering the overarching existential questions, Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation can play a role in our daily lives. During this pandemic, I have relied on it for help in navigating difficult situations. Whenever I have felt frustrated with canceled plans, anxious over the uncertain future, or fearful of sickness or death, I remind myself of the Principle and Foundation.
Examining a given situation, I ask how I can live a life that draws me closer to God. I seek beauty, goodness, and truth, the three transcendentals, in my everyday life. From the gorgeous sunsets to the kindness of my Jesuit brothers and the great books in our house, I can find numerous ways to further my goal of living with God forever. While I acknowledge the darkness of COVID, I can keep myself oriented towards God at all times.
Once we have established that our goal is to be with God, we are blessed with tremendous freedom. We do not need too many things to be with God. We have heard many stories of faith where people have found a path to God in sickness, suffering, poverty, and hardship. We also know many stories of people who have found God in the good life of loving families, exceptional work, and pleasurable experiences. People have found God through beautiful experiences, the goodness of others, and through the truth of the Catholic faith. God can be sought in myriad things. And more importantly, God makes himself known through countless things, and God gives us the grace to help us build a relationship with Him.
Thus, we are blessed with tremendous freedom; not a freedom of having abundant choices at every decision, but a freedom for excellence that allows us to live flourishing lives by choosing a path towards God irrespective of our condition. We are always free to choose God in every circumstance of our life. Even in times of difficulty, we have the freedom to choose God and fulfill our life’s purpose.
Knowing that God wants us to be close to Him, we can live our lives that continually seek to deepen our relationship with Him. As I have noted, the three transcendentals provided me a path to God during this pandemic and I can continue to use that path moving forward. I can meditate on the Truths of the faith through daily prayer and reading of scripture. I can be an agent of goodness in this world by loving my neighbor. And I can be alert to the beauty in the world that reminds me of God.
The goal of our life is to be with God forever. How are we living with that goal in mind?
Image: Wikimedia Commons