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”
Whenever I take some time to pray with the Presupposition, I am always struck by its location in St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. The helpful tool follows Ignatius’ definition of the retreat’s purpose: “to conquer oneself and regulate one’s life”. At first glance, these words appear charged with a focus on the individual self. However, as anyone attempting to grow in knowledge of themselves is aware, “conquer[ing] oneself” by striving for mastery over disordered tendencies never solely involves just us. The Presupposition shows us how to live alongside others.
The Exercises are never made purely alone. The retreatant prays with God, Father, Son, and Spirit, as well as with our Blessed Mother and the entire heavenly court. Particularly in the Second Week, we pray and converse with the figures who appear alongside Jesus throughout the Gospel. Of course, a Spiritual Director is always present to offer a listening ear and guidance throughout.
Similarly, we make our way through life. We often find ourselves in the presence of or in conversation with other people. At times, we easily accept the blessing of such an encounter. During others, not so much. It is during the latter times that it is helpful to remember the Presupposition and its calling us to understand as Christians.
We have all had an encounter with a family member, friend, or coworker in which we do not see eye-to-eye. These conversations are all the more emotionally involved when they are about faith and the Church. A friend says something about the Pope that angers us. Our cousin presents questions she has regarding the Church’s comments on a social issue, and we are confused. We grow suspicious of a coworker who will not stop criticizing the way some priests celebrate mass.
We feel how we feel; the experience of an emotional charge is only human. In the Presupposition, Ignatius tells us that the movements and actions that arise from these emotions are of most concern to us. Our feelings often lead us to mute out others. “Oh, so-and-so is talking, time to check out for ten minutes before I say my piece”. But muting them also leads to blocking out helpful and positive words. Muting them blinds us to their actions which may include good deeds!
The Pharisees were often guilty of muting Jesus out. When Jesus cures and heals, others are sometimes present to witness his compassion, power, and glory. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus cures a man with a withered hand, and the Pharisees “watched him closely to see if he would cure him on the sabbath so that they might accuse him”. So closely were the Pharisees watching for the bad– that Jesus would heal on a holy day of rest– that they were not really watching at all. So closely indeed were they watching for the bad thing that they completely missed the true and pure good that is Jesus. 1
What can lead to this muting out? This same Gospel passage tells us Jesus grieved at the Pharisees’ “hardness of heart,” the complete opposite of the Presupposition’s call to Christian understanding. An impermeable heart of stone prevents us from adopting “a more positive acceptance of someone’s statement rather than a rejection of it out of hand”. Hence, we know our tool: Christian understanding. But, how do we access it? The late 16th-early 17th century English poet John Donne lends us a helpful hand. The first four lines of his Sonnet “Batter my heart, three-personned God” read as follows:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
Donne asks God to “batter”–meaning repeatedly strike–his heart with hard blows. Donne’s heart is so hard that it fights to let in a God who initially only warmly knocks, breathes, shines, and seeks to mend. When it comes to faith and the Church, can we not all agree that we desire to be able to “mend” and rejuvenate where there are wounds as God mends us through his “force to break, blow, burn” and make us new? We are called to support one another in these efforts, especially if we think that some are being led astray like lost sheep. Deep down, do we not want others to do the same for us when we are lost?
Understanding is key. We know how good it feels and is to be understood. We are gifted with faith and reason in order to understand. Practically speaking, this understanding may mean taking a step back after listening to the comments of another, sometimes for a few hours, days, weeks, or even longer. Afterwards, we might still think, “I have been patient and listened, but this person is still wrong and stuck in their ways! I have to tell them off!” We have all been there. Allowing God to “batter” our hearts, however, allows us to cling to the truth, to Jesus our stronghold, before speaking or acting.
Going deeper and beyond the cliché-sounding lesson to see the good in all, the Presupposition teaches us that understanding involves seeing and holding onto the good first. Seeing and clinging to the good first helps us to more clearly pinpoint the bad, where we or others are being led astray. Unlike the Pharisees with their hard hearts, we see Jesus in all his splendor first. Seeing Jesus as such helps us to understand that he is doing good rather than bad.
As Ignatius’ placement of the Presupposition in the Exercises shows, a battered, softened heart is how we ultimately conquer ourselves. Through the battering, we let in our good God and grow aware of our own disordered tendencies. With a softened heart, we can hear the words of others aimed at the Pope, a local church’s priest, or the Church in general as intended to do some good. Battered by God’s goodness, Jesus will remind us that our brothers and sisters are at the very least making an effort with what they have to serve him. Filled with this goodwill, we can calmly approach the situation, noting where we and others are misguided but leading with a battered heart.
- Mark 3:1-6 ↩