In a classic scene from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Scuttle the seagull tries to show Ariel how to use the “human stuff” she found in a shipwreck. He confidently explains that a fork (“dinglehopper”) is used to comb hair, while a tobacco pipe (“snarfblatt”) is a musical instrument. Of course, as comically misguided as these explanations are, we can’t really blame Scuttle: after all, it’s hard to know the purpose of an artifact without first knowing the intentions of its maker. Since Scuttle doesn’t understand humans’ intentions and interests, he can’t understand how to use the things they’ve made.
I can’t help thinking the same is true of our lives. We’re constantly worrying about how to spend our one (rather short) life: should I get this degree? Apply for this job? Marry this person? Vow perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience? You get the idea. Our attempts to figure out how best to use our lives will be no more successful than Scuttle’s attempts to understand how to use forks, unless we first ask, “What are human beings made for?” If we can figure out the latter, we’re less likely to go wrong with the former.
I suspect this is why St. Ignatius of Loyola chose to begin his Spiritual Exercises by meditating on the “Principle and Foundation.” 1 Ignatius envisioned the Exercises partly as a way of discerning God’s will for our lives. But this is impossible without first grasping the purpose for which God created us. This is the aim of Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation, which is short enough to reproduce in full:
The human person is created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord, and by doing so to save his or her soul; and it is for the human person that the other things on the face of the earth are created, as helps to the pursuit of this end. It follows from this that the person has to use these things insofar as they help towards this end, and to be free of them insofar as they stand in the way of it.
To attain this, we need to make ourselves indifferent towards all created things, provided the matter is subject to our free choice and there is no prohibition. Thus for our part we should not want health more than sickness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one—and so with everything else; desiring and choosing only what conduces more to the end for which we are created. 2
There’s a lot packed into these deceptively simple lines. I’ve been through them dozens (maybe hundreds?) of times, and I still get surprised by new things in them. But to break it into manageable chunks, we can consider the Principle and Foundation under three headings: (1) ends, (2) means, and (3) implications. 3
The human person is created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord, and by doing so to save his or her soul. Here, Ignatius names the end or purpose for which God created us. But this language can sound stuffy and dry to our ears; what does he mean by it?
First, “praise, reverence and serve”: Ignatius, whenever he writes about the purpose of an action, constantly makes reference to God’s greater glory, praise, honor, service, and so on. While these terms aren’t identical, they all get at the same rough idea. That is, our actions aim not at benefiting God—which is impossible, since God is already perfectly good—but at reflecting God’s goodness and making it known to others. The notion of “serving God” in particular emphasizes the aspect of seeking to carry out God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven” in every aspect of our lives.
Second, “to save his or her soul”: while this language can conjure up images of salvation from fire and brimstone, it has a deeper significance for Ignatius. The term he uses for this state throughout the Spiritual Exercises is “salud espiritual,” or “salud eterna.” 4 In Spanish, salud refers not just to salvation but more broadly to health or well-being. 5 Hence Ignatius has in mind not only being in a state of grace and saved from eternal separation from God, but also our whole spiritual well-being and progress towards God.
It is for the human person that the other things on the face of the earth are created, as helps to the pursuit of this end. It follows from this that the person has to use these things insofar as they help towards this end, and to be free of them insofar as they stand in the way of it.
If our purpose in life is to “praise, reverence, and serve God,” then everything else takes a back seat. Every object, event, action, or relationship must be weighed according to this end and chosen or relinquished based on whether it helps or hurts our progress towards it.
This doesn’t mean that everything is a “mere means” in the sense that it can be treated in any way whatever, since many actions might be incompatible with our end of loving and serving God. For instance, if I kill my fellow human beings or destroy the natural world, then I am showing a lack of love not only for them but also for God who created them. St. Ignatius would hold that “praising, reverencing, and serving God” entails a positive obligation to love our neighbors, and we could reasonably extend this obligation of care to the whole created world.
Still, it’s true that in all our dealings with people or things, our end should be first in our mind. For example, if I have a friend who’s leading me further away from God—that is, further from my ultimate end and purpose—then I either need to have a serious talk with them, or if that fails, break off the friendship. This doesn’t mean I’m using my friend as a mere means, since I can do this while seeking the good of my friend as well as my own good. But it does mean that God as our final end and goal should be the sole criterion for keeping or breaking off the friendship.
What are the implications of this truth for our lives? Ignatius doesn’t mince words: To attain this, we need to make ourselves indifferent towards all created things, provided the matter is subject to our free choice and there is no prohibition. Thus for our part we should not want health more than sickness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one—and so with everything else; desiring and choosing only what conduces more to the end for which we are created.
I was taken aback the first time I read this. Should we really desire health no more than sickness, or a long life no more than a short one? After all, aren’t health and life good things, desirable in themselves? Of course they are. But Ignatius doesn’t need to deny this in order to make his point, since—as he knew well from his old military career—one must often sacrifice good things (wealth, security, comfort, health, etc.) for the sake of something greater. How much more, then, for something infinitely valuable?
This point is made constantly in Scripture. It’s behind Jesus’ parables of the buried treasure and the pearl of great price 6: if we find something worth more than everything we have, we’ll gladly abandon everything else to pursue it. Likewise Jesus’ shocking saying that “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off” 7: the idea is that we should sooner choose to be separated from our hand than from God, the goal of our existence.
Of course, this is easy to say, hard to do. How many of us, when faced with a choice that could bring us pleasure or pain, popularity or humiliation, etc., treat these things as indifferent and choose solely based on which option leads us closer to God? Personally, I’m not there yet. But Ignatius doesn’t imagine we’ll reach this ideal just by meditating on the Principle and Foundation a few times. Rather, this is the project of the whole Spiritual Exercises, and even more, of the whole Christian life. The Principle and Foundation is only the beginning.
From this, we see that the “indifference” Ignatius proposes in the Principle and Foundation isn’t apathy. Far from it. It’s rooted in being radically non-indifferent about one thing and one thing only: God, the “end for which we are created.” If we really understood the life that God holds out to us, then we’d be equally willing to experience health and sickness, wealth and poverty, fame and disgrace, long and short life for the sake of it. And in a world that’s constantly stressing out over these things, there’s tremendous freedom in that.
- Spiritual Exercises #23. ↩
- Translation by Michael Ivens, SJ, Understanding the Spiritual Exercises, p.29. ↩
- I get this tripartite division from the 1599 Directory, #XII.2. ↩
- See Spiritual Exercises #1, 16, 165-166, 316, 320, 327, etc. ↩
- Diccionario de la Lengua Española, “salud” (Real Academia Española, https://dle.rae.es/salud) ↩
- Mt. 14:44-46 ↩
- Mk. 9:43 ↩