St. Ignatius was not a nice guy, either before or after his conversion. He was a passionate guy. Before his conversion, he was viciously passionate for his own success, for women, for glory on the battlefield. After his conversion, Ignatius redirected that same energy towards building the Kingdom of God. He became passionate in pursuit of the Lord and for what he called “helping souls.”
Even so, this passionate not-nice guy begins his Spiritual Exercises with what’s known as the “Presupposition,” which on first reading seems to say that we should give people the benefit of the doubt. That’s the nice-guy anthem. But I’d push back against this simple definition of Ignatius’s Presupposition. In fullness, it’s much more challenging, and much more fruitful if followed with Ignatius’s own passion for virtue.
So what is Ignatius actually saying? Jesuit Louis J. Puhl’s classic English translation of the text of the Presupposition is as follows:
“To assure better cooperation between one who is giving the Exercises and the exercitant, and more beneficial results for both, it is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false. If an orthodox construction cannot be put on a proposition, the one who made it should be asked how he understands it. If he is in error, he should be corrected with all kindness. If this doesn’t not suffice, all appropriate means should be used to bring him to a correct interpretation, and so defend the proposition from error.” 1
What’s obvious from this text is that Ignatius isn’t merely saying give people the benefit of the doubt. I think the best way to understand the text is by focusing on three things: the context, the goal or purpose the text points us to, and the means to that end.
Ignatius situates the Presupposition within the context of someone undergoing the Spiritual Exercises. This means that the Presupposition is meant to help guide a person who is already striving to deepen their relationship with Christ.
It’s important to remember that the Presupposition is especially for a director and directee in “retreat mode,” undergoing the spiritual exercises. It asks for the retreatant to be open to the content of the retreat and the direction given by the director; it also asks the director to seek understanding in listening to the experiences of the retreatant.
But just because the Presupposition originates in the Exercises doesn’t mean it’s usefulness is limited to people on retreat. We can adopt this way of proceeding in our daily life. This is the case with a person going to spiritual direction outside of a retreat, but it is also applicable to all our relationships. As the first sentence indicates, we can use this principle in any situation in which we desire mutual cooperation and good will for the benefit of ourselves and others.
The reason the Presupposition is especially beneficial for someone undergoing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is because the method of praying in the exercises, especially Ignatian Contemplation, is such an open-ended way of praying. It creates a space for God to act in the imagination, but this doesn’t come without risks as well. Our imaginations are powerful tools but must be checked lest we mistake fantasy for revelation. As one of my spiritual directors put it, “God’s not going to reveal the fourth person of the Trinity to you.” In other words, God won’t give us insight or private revelations that are contrary to the fullness of divine revelation we have received through Christ and the Apostles.
This is one reason a spiritual director is so important to have on a retreat, especially for beginners in the spiritual life. Directors provide checks and balance to the movements occurring within the directee. They help point out graces the directee may have overlooked, and they name movements of what St. Ignatius calls the “false spirit” when they occur. The Presupposition gives people the freedom to explore how God’s spirit is working in their lives, trusting that they share a common goal of growing closer to Christ.
St. Ignatius articulates the goal of every person’s life in the “First Principle and Foundation,” located just after the Presupposition in the text of the Spiritual Exercises. In brief, Ignatius writes that every person is created to “praise, reverence, and serve” God, and by this means to save their souls. Everything a person has in life is meant to help them towards this one end. If something isn’t helping them to this end, then that person should treat it as an obstacle and part ways with it.
Ignatius says that we should keep ourselves “indifferent” to all created things in order to have the freedom to choose or reject them. That’s not to say we should cultivate an apathetic mentality. Rather, we should imitate Ignatius who used his God-given passionate personality to grow closer to God. He recognized the goal of his life, and he gave everything in pursuit of that goal.
Within the context of the Presupposition, this principle and foundation helps us to be indifferent even to our own preferences and predispositions. It creates a kind of freedom within us to practice “putting a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false.” After all, “praising, reverencing, and serving” God means that we must serve our brothers and sisters in imitation of Christ.
As the text of the Presupposition states (in other words), the goal of our relationships should be unity in our relationship with Christ. Anyone who has been on Catholic Twitter knows that unity can never be taken for granted. It’s not easy to cultivate. It requires patience and humility in encountering people we may disagree with. And unless we’re careful, that disagreement can become a power play. Whoever has the zingiest reply, or the most likes, is the victor. But this is not the way. Unity is not cheap, but it’s what Christ prayed for when he asked the Father that we “all might be one.”2 The Presupposition is meant to help us cultivate freedom to do this hard work. Ignatius says this when he explains in the Exercises that the Spiritual Exercises as a whole are meant to help a person “conquer oneself and regulate one’s life without determining oneself through any tendency that is disordered.” 3
The goal of the Exercises is really the goal of the entire spiritual life: freedom. Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free….So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” 4 Our freedom is rooted in a person, Jesus Christ, which is why one of the most frequent graces retreatants pray for in the Exercises is to gain a deep knowledge of the Lord in order to love him more fully and follow him more faithfully. All of the Exercises, including the Presupposition, are meant to help people come to this deep knowledge. How we strive for this sort of freedom and knowledge is important.
Even though the Presupposition isn’t just about giving people the benefit of the doubt, giving people the benefit of the doubt is certainly part of practicing it. Especially since our culture relishes condemnation. Celebrating others’ mistakes is not from God. The Presupposition gives us a means to work against this tendency so prevalent on social media and in public discourse.
The first step of the Presupposition is to try to give a person the benefit of the doubt by seeking a charitable interpretation of what they have said, done or written. In giving the benefit of the doubt, it’s important to pay attention to our own reactions in these situations. We need to honestly examine if we are quick to put good interpretations on these things, or are we quick to condemn? Even though this is merely the first step in the Presupposition, it’s an important first step! And it shows the necessary good will for a person desiring the benefit of others.
The next step of the Presupposition encourages people to seek to dialogue with the person they think might be in error. As it’s worded above, we should ask “how [they] understand it.” This is opposed to assuming we understand other people’s actions and intentions. It’s a way for people to practice creating a “culture of encounter” as Pope Francis encourages us to do. The definition of “encounter” entails facing an unexpected and difficult experience. In practice, the Presupposition is not a pleasant thing, but it is ultimately a good thing.
Yet, even after asking how a person understands whatever particular subject you may be in disagreement over, you might still conclude that they’re wrong. So, what next? If we think someone is in error, we should correct them “with all kindness.” How different would disagreements on Twitter look if everyone used this approach? This kindness requires humility, since it’s easy to feel superior to someone we think (or know) to be wrong. When we’re in that position, condescension comes naturally. But condescension doesn’t encourage unity. The Presupposition guides us to consider what kindness dictates in disagreements.
Even after employing such kindness however, we may still find ourselves faced with someone we know to be in error.5 And even though we’ve listened to them explain their own understanding, and treated them with kindness in attempted correction, they refuse to recognize their mistake. What then? The text says, “If [the above methods don’t] suffice, all appropriate means should be used to bring him to a correct interpretation, and so defend the proposition from error.”
This last part requires that we approach a resolution with discernment. There is no one answer for every situation. We have to take these things to prayer and seek the guidance God surely wants to give us. But even though the issue has come to this last point, that doesn’t mean we negate the previous methods. We should still employ understanding and seek to act in kindness. St. Ignatius doesn’t guide us to condemn the one in error. We aren’t out to make enemies. Rather, we’re supposed to keep working to build communion with others, especially those we think are in error.
Again, a spirit of humility is the only way this method is possible. It’s the humility Christ practiced as he carried his cross. It’s the humility Oscar Romero employed as he marched towards his own martyrdom. We must proclaim truth, call out error, and choose to love even those who sow destruction.
To Be People of the Exercises…
Jesuits often talk about being “men of the Exercises,” since they are the heart of our spiritual life. This extends to all people who engage in our spirituality. We’re called to be “people of the Exercises.” Even though the Presupposition is situated within the context of someone engaged in a retreat, it is easily applicable to daily life. I think it may be the very thing we need now as our world continues to deepen ideological divides:
Seeking first to understand; Correcting with all kindness; Proceeding in loving discernment.