Today’s society and popular culture bombards us with images of what it is to be free. Common to many of these images is the sense of freedom as autonomy to do what I want to do, even at the exclusion and expense of others. Where does spiritual freedom fit with this view? An answer to these questions can be gleaned from the writings of a sixteenth century saint, Ignatius of Loyola.
Ignatius of Loyola was a minor nobleman in Spain. In his early adult years he was in love with the pursuit of fame and glory, before being wounded on the battlefield. During his long period of healing, Ignatius began to experience a spiritual journey, resulting in a deep inner transformation.
He went on to develop his Spiritual Exercises to help others journey into freedom in the service of God, and became the founder of the Society of Jesus (known as the Jesuits).
For Ignatius, spiritual freedom comprised three key features:
- To do what one is created to do;
- To be free from disordered attachments;
- And to be oriented to the service of others.
In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius gives a clear vision of the purpose and orientation of our life: the praise, reverence and service of God our creator. How we achieve this end is unique to each of us, but for Ignatius the basis of spiritual freedom was not found in having the freedom to make choices but in recognising that we are children of God. That knowledge provides the basis for all other decisions about how we should live out our lives and use our talents and time.
Ignatius also knew that experiencing spiritual freedom means facing those things that prevent us from being genuinely free. Ignatius termed these things ‘disordered attachments’; today we might speak of addictions and habits, patterns of behavior that provide short-term pleasure or satisfaction but prevent us from finding true inner peace.
Ignatius wrote about some of his own disordered attachments in his autobiography. One was the desire to be seen and affirmed as having done good and glorious things. Another was scruples, an unhealthy preoccupation with one’s sins, even to the point of seeing sin where there is none. Modern examples can range from major addictions, alcohol, pornography, to smaller attachments like constantly checking one’s phone.
Spiritual freedom requires freedom from these disordered attachments in our lives. But where does one start?
Ignatius recognised that certain thoughts and habits left him feeling unsettled, and anxious. Even things that once gave pleasure began to leave him feeling dry and empty. By reflecting on these experiences he came to identify the disordered attachments preventing his spiritual progress.
This process of reflection is known as the Examen, a prayer of looking back over one’s day, or the last few hours, to notice where one was drawing closer to God or moving away from God. By being conscious of the presence of a habit, one is able to trace the effects that it has on their daily life and peace of mind.
Spiritual freedom is also experienced as a freedom for others.
A spiritually free person is often generous with their time and talents, focused on helping those in need.
In the Spiritual Exercises this theme of being freed for the service of Christ and others is a recurring one.
Ignatius asks people to meditate on the threefold question:
- What have I done for Christ?
- What am I doing for Christ?
- What will I do for Christ?
These questions help shift the focus beyond ourselves, to the service of Christ and neighbour.
Ignatius’ insights on spiritual freedom build on a tradition of spiritual reflection stretching back through the centuries to the early Church.
At the centre of spiritual freedom is our relationship with God, who is our origin and our end. This turns other images of freedom and personal autonomy on their head.
In recognizing God as the ground of our being, our self-centered fixation on personal autonomy gives way to a radical selflessness directed beyond ourselves to the service of the other.
Image: Ignatius writes his Spiritual Exercises at Manresa, by Carlos Saenz de Tejada. Jesuit Institute, London.