Ignatius and The Magis
Today is the Feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. He died on this day in 1556. Ignatius left many gifts to the Church. Today is a day to give thanks for those gifts. It is a day to celebrate the continuing influence of his spiritual wisdom in the lives of individuals and communities. One of the aspects of the spiritual life for which he is most famous is his instruction on discernment.
My experience of listening to busy people in our culture has shown me that one of the most helpful elements of discernment Ignatius offers is found in the Latin word magis. People live very demanding, full and busy lives. We have many expectations and desires. But we can’t do it all. We need to make wise and discerning choices about how we spend our limited time and energy. Thus the magis, “the greater good.” I am the first to admit that I don’t follow my own advice. I have several responsibilities. As I am teaching the magis to others, I ask myself, so which of these good things I do is the greater good? Is my energy too divided among various good things?
Ignatian spirituality is rooted in an understanding that the spiritual life is marked by interior movement. His view was that staying put in one spiritual stance is a sign that the spiritual life is dead. Simply put, the movement is either consolation or desolation.
I am in consolation when I am moving out of myself, toward God and others. One Ignatian writer describes it as being in tune with the action of God in the world. That is often accompanied by good and positive feelings such as happiness. There are also times when I don’t feel good, but the movement is clearly taking me out of myself. The classic example is Jesus on the cross. We can assume that he did not feel good. But his crucifixion is a perfect manifestation of being in tune with God the Father and the needs of suffering humanity. Jesus was at peace that he was choosing the Father’s will.
I am in desolation when I am in a kind of spiritual narcissism, caught up in myself. I am separated or out of tune with God and those around me. I can feel desolate. But, the tricky part is that I can also feel quite happy and be oblivious to the reality that I am selfishly unaware of God and those around me. Once I become aware of those movements of consolation and desolation within me, I have the self-knowledge that Ignatius presumes for discernment. I know the ways and patterns by which I am helped to be in tune with God and out of tune with God. But discernment is not just about the interior movements. It is also about the actual choices I make about how I live.
A common misunderstanding among many people is that discernment is about choosing between good and bad things. Ignatius assumes that we are basically good people, so we would not normally choose something bad over something good. Rather, we are often in situations where we have to choose between two or more good things. I might have a desire to work on all kinds of projects at the same time. But I can’t do them all. I have limited time and energy. I walk into an all-you-can-eat buffet and realize after a while that there is a limit to what I can actually put in my body.
To be discerning means that I make wise decisions, based on all of the data before me. That’s where the magis comes in. I can’t do it all or have it all. So, I have to ask myself what is the greater good. It presumes that I have an internal set of priorities that tell me one thing is more important than another.
That is a very helpful concept for people who are very busy and have many expectations placed on them – in other words, most people in our culture. I can’t realistically watch two movies at once. So, which is the better good? I can’t take two evening courses, given my family commitments and my work. Which is the better good? I can’t pursue those two projects at once, so which is the better choice, the magis? I can’t be both a Roman Catholic priest and a married man with a family.
We have to make choices about how we use our limited time and energy. On this Feast of Saint Ignatius, let us pray for the grace to be discerning and selective in our choices, both the everyday choices, but also the major choices in life.