Mysticism (II): How to Live in a World with Many Gods

“Purity of heart is to will one thing.” (Soren Kierkegaard)

In my last post, I started a series of reflections (that I plan to continue) on mysticism, drawing largely from Frederick Bauerschmidt’s brilliant book “Why the Mystics Matter Now.” In this post, I reflect on the ideas of Ignatius of Loyola.

I long have been fascinated in the pursuit of personal goals. In fact, goals were a central component of my dissertation research. In general, it seems to me that one of the most important issues in life is to decide to what one is going to commit. There obviously are many options! However, it long has seemed to me that some goals are more likely to create a good life than others and that conflict among goals or conflict between a goal and certain ¬†circumstances explains a lot of the problems people experience in life. Given this, and following the advice of Stephen Covey in his outstanding book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” I have spent a good amount of time in the past 20 years reflecting on the overall mission of my life and the specific goals that would contribute to this mission. The details of my commitments have changed over time, but the process of reflecting in this way has been one of the most helpful disciplines of my life.

Given this context, I was very much intrigued by Ignatius’s reflection, found in “Principle and Foundation” of his well-known spiritual exercises that:

“Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God. . . From this it follows that I should use [other] things to the extent that they help me toward my end, and rid myself of them to the extent that they hinder me. . . Consequently, on my own part, I ought not to seek health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one, and so on in all other matters.”

For the Christian, then, one way of thinking about the mission of life is to seek to “praise, reverence, and serve God.” As Bauerschmidt reflects: “The relevant question to ask about anything is whether it enables me to better praise, reverence, and serve God.” Of course, there are many ways in which this may be done. As discussed by Bauerschmidt, Loyola emphasized that this requires discernment, which:

“. . . requires time, patience, and constant attention. When considering a possible path to be followed, one should notice whether the consideration of it produces an enduring sense of joy and a long-term increase in faith, hope, and love, or whether its pleasures are only passing. One must not choose hastily, because the immediately attractive thing is not always the best. A path that is initially unattractive might, upon further experience and reflection, prove to be better than that path to which we were first drawn.”

For me, these ideas reframe much of my experience in life. For instance, much of my life has been oriented toward the pursuit of goals such as being healthy, having a good family life, and making a difference in my work. Obviously, these are good things. However, I have noticed that focusing on these pursuits as ends in themselves brings considerable anxiety and stress. The reality is that I am not completely in control of being healthy, having a good family life, and making a difference in my work. People get sick and die for unexpected reasons; families consist of many people, all of whom have their own free wills; and what happens in my students’ lives through exposure to my teaching is more about them than me. However, when I think about these goals not as ends, but rather as means toward my broader mission to praise, reverence, and serve God, I feel more peace. In other words, being healthy, having a good family life, and making a difference in my work are not inherently meaningful in themselves; these aspirations only matter to the extent that they help me to praise, reverence, and serve God. Thinking in this way helps me to turn my attention much more toward how I am going to respond to life’s circumstances, rather than trying to get life’s circumstances to turn out well. Kierkegaard’s statement that “purity of heart is to will one thing” seems very profound in this context.

Bauerschmidt concludes by noting that many of these ideas reflect some of the most profound ideas of Paul, who stated:

“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s