The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to dive deeper into the “Presupposition” from the Spiritual Exercises. To learn more, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: The Presupposition, A Guide for Better Conversations.”
St. Ignatius’ “Presupposition” speaks of charitably interpreting our neighbor’s statements, but I think the same principle can be applied to interpreting our neighbor’s actions.
We see this in a rather provocative story told by Jerome Nadal, an early Jesuit living in Rome while Ignatius was superior. Nadal had fallen sick during Lent of 1546, so Ignatius ordered him to eat meat and break the Lenten fast until he recovered, even getting special permission for this from the papal Vicar of Rome. 1
Nadal, however, was hesitant: what if someone in the house noticed him eating meat? After all, he didn’t outwardly look sick, so they might assume he was just defying the laws of the Church and indulging his personal cravings. Perhaps, Nadal thought, it would be better to keep the fast—even at the cost of his own health—rather than risk scandalizing his fellow Jesuits.
Nadal raised this concern to Ignatius. As he remembers, Ignatius was greatly agitated and troubled on hearing Nadal’s worry, but managed to compose himself enough to ask calmly who would be scandalized by it. Although it seems Nadal didn’t have anyone particular in mind, Ignatius firmly declared to him that any Jesuit scandalized by his actions—regardless of rank or status—would promptly be thrown out of the Society of Jesus.
Why did Ignatius react so strongly? Imagine, for a moment, that a well-meaning young Jesuit in 1546 admits to Ignatius that he is troubled by the behavior of Fr. Nadal, who seems to be violating the Lenten fast. Now imagine that Ignatius, without missing a beat or explaining the situation, tells this man to go pack his things and then ushers him out the door. Isn’t this a bit harsh? After all, the young man was just operating on a misunderstanding. What was his big offense?
The offense, if we go back to the Presupposition, was the young man’s readiness to take a negative interpretation of his brother’s actions. A charitable interpreter would have assumed that Nadal, even if not visibly sick, had some good reason not to participate in the fast and had received permission to do so. Instead, the young man in our example believes or suspects that Nadal is simply acting on his own whim. After all, this is a much simpler explanation of his behavior, even if it happens to be false. But Ignatius insists that, wherever possible, we should be more ready to justify than condemn.2
Nadal attributes Ignatius’ attitude to his great emphasis on humility. In Ignatius’ view, a humble person does not judge or belittle others; rather, if she sees others acting in a way that might initially seem flawed, she presumes (within reason) some extenuating circumstance that justifies it. For example, Ignatius thought that if a Jesuit novice noticed himself engaging in harsh penances while other Jesuits were not, he should tell himself that he himself must need these penances to overcome his vices, whereas his brothers, being more advanced in virtue, do not. 3
What can we take away from this? Personally, I find it extremely relevant to living with others. For instance, when I find a peanut butter jar with only a small amount left in it, I tend to assume it’s because one of my brother Jesuits was too lazy to finish it off, rinse the jar and recycle it, when perhaps he was just absentminded and genuinely didn’t notice. Or I get annoyed that one of my brothers left a community bike on the back patio, thinking that he had forgotten to put it away when he was done with it, when in fact he’s just inside filling up his water bottle before a ride. In the absence of crucial context, we often tend to assume the worst.
Even outside the circle of those with whom we live and work, we face temptations to interpret others’ actions or words with suspicion rather than charity. For example, if I see a news story about a politician I don’t like, my inclination is to attribute underhanded motives to her otherwise innocuous actions. Again, the attitude St. Ignatius proposes in the Presupposition cuts against this natural inclination to interpret others badly.
This doesn’t mean we’ll always be right when we apply this attitude. For instance, maybe some people really do leave a tiny amount of peanut butter in the jar out of a callous disregard for humanity. But they’re probably less numerous than I’m tempted to think in the moment, and in any case there’s far less harm in falsely presuming the peanut butter bandit to be acting from ignorance than there is in falsely suspecting him of malicious intent.
In short, I think the Ignatian Presupposition offers us a blueprint not only for how to interpret and reply to another’s words, but also how to interpret their actions and respond lovingly. Rather than making us naive, I think this attitude helps us to see others as they want to be seen and typically, in fact, as they really are.