Apathy is not a virtue. But it is an understandable reaction to a world plagued by a changing climate, ongoing violence, and the constant spread of hate and discrimination. With so many constantly evolving problems, where can we turn to sustain ourselves in the work for justice and the common good?
Turning to a 15th-century soldier-turned-mystic for wisdom in addressing our 21st-century problems might not be the most obvious solution. But St. Ignatius of Loyola and the spirituality that bears his name offer a spiritual framework that can nurture our humanitarian impulse.
1. Practice contemplation in action.
The late Jesuit theologian Father Walter Burghardt described contemplation in action as taking a “long, loving look at the real.” Practicing this kind of spirituality requires an honest, at times brutal, assessment of the needs of the moment. We must look plainly at the raw wounds of our world: melting glaciers, religious persecution, oppression, forced migration, and so much more. We must listen closely to the stories of those who are most at risk. We must avoid the temptation to impose our own biases, our own spin, our own brand of whataboutism and instead sit with—and weep for—the problems as they truly are.
Only then, with clear eyes to encounter the real with love, can we begin to work toward a solution. If we’re volunteering in a soup kitchen, this might mean stopping to really listen to and validate the stories of the guests in line. Or it might mean challenging ourselves to read those heart-wrenching stories of war and famine that we easily pass over for more entertaining clips on our social media feeds.
It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself a professional humanitarian worker or a casual volunteer. Contemplation in action is the starting point for this work. Set aside intentional time over the next few days to take a long, loving look at the real—to see how the day-to-day challenges of our world inspire you to act with love. Then do so.
2. Find the magis already at work.
At the beginning of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, the retreatant encounters the First Principle and Foundation. We pray to “desire and elect only the thing which is more conducive to the end for which [we are] created.” That word more is the literal translation of the word magis and another staple of Ignatian spirituality.
How does the magis factor into justice work? We’re not praying for more of a particular thing. We’re praying to become more authentically the person God desires we become. Each and every person shares this same invitation.
This truth reframes any humanitarian vision: The problems of the world can only be solved by empowering each individual to become that person God has made them to be. This is not a one-way street of charity but rather a true collaboration among all of God’s people. Those in need are not seen solely for what they lack but empowered to use the strengths they already have—the strengths God has already given them.
It’s easy, for example, to label refugees as “in need.” Newcomers to our country are fleeing violence and persecution—certainly, we have what they need to survive. But we forget that these are women and men who likely lived full and flourishing lives in their homelands. They have careers, hobbies, and passions. Rather than solely give, what might we all receive when the magis is reverenced in the refugee community?
Any work for justice must be about unleashing the magis within each person. Let us discern our own magis and then ask how our own deepest self might accompany others in the discovery of theirs.
3. Remember with whom God deals.
How we relate to one another matters. It’s not about doing for but doing with. Recognizing the magis already present within those we hope might benefit from our humanitarian efforts, it becomes that much easier to move beyond a savior/saved dichotomy. Instead, we walk together, accompanying one another in building a better world.
Ignatius encourages those making the Spiritual Exercises to have a spiritual director. This relationship isn’t one of master/apprentice but rather two souls walking side by side in the quest for God. The director’s role is to encourage, challenge, and nudge. The director does not correct, instruct, or dictate.
How might we embody this model in our hopes for a more just, peaceful world? If we’re marching in a protest, do we see God already there among the marchers to our left and to our right? Do we recognize our God already on the side of the marginalized, declaring “Black Lives Matter” and welcoming immigrants? If we’re traveling to a place that is not our own, hoping to serve that local community, do we reverence God already at work there among the people?
We aren’t bringing God. God is already among God’s people. We bring our own unique insights, our own unique experiences of that same God.
Once we realize that we are all connected, all walking together in this work, we relinquish any claim to hidden knowledge or expertise. Instead, we bring our insights and experiences while recognizing and valuing the same in those we encounter. Catholic social teaching reminds us to engage in subsidiarity, to let those closest to an issue be the ones to take the lead in addressing it.
In this way, we can encourage, challenge, and nudge—informed by our own set of skills and experiences—while avoiding the temptation to correct, instruct, or dictate. Remember: God is already at work here in God’s people. It’s our role to accompany.
4. Remember where God is.
The next Ignatian principle follows naturally from the previous: God is in all things. If we’ve taken to heart this idea that God is already at work in the people we hope to serve—cultivating the magis, dealing directly with each person—then this foundational Ignatian idea that God is present everywhere might seem redundant. It’s not.
What we claim here is not that all things are God. Rather, we recognize all things as revelatory of God at work in the world—if we develop an eye to see. How then might we enter a situation of desperation, of suffering, of need and look for hints of God? Might we develop within ourselves a tendency to be amazed, to stand in wonder and awe at all that God’s creation entails—the good and the difficult? What might God be saying to us in and through even these most challenging moments?
If all things manifest God to us, then all things must be respected and treated with care. We must take a holistic approach and tread humbly, always aware that there might be more at work here than we see at first. We must allow ourselves to be surprised.
This means that when we care for our common home, advocating for policies that promote the good of the climate, we’re recognizing and reverencing that God is speaking to us through the very planet we hope to save. We’re not just protecting a tree. We’re passing on a unique expression of God’s love to future generations.
How can we recognize God at work in our lives, dealing directly with us, manifesting Godself in surprising and unlooked for places? What does it mean to then realize that God deals in the same way with each and every person we encounter?
5. Cultivate indifference.
Ignatian spirituality encourages a peculiar and uncomfortable disposition: indifference. “I must make myself indifferent to all created things,” Ignatius writes. But this word—indifference—does not mean apathy. Rather, it points to the exact opposite: passion.
Ignatius assumes we want to do good in the world. But he knows that we all have our natural limitations. We can’t do it all. And we can run ourselves ragged in the effort.
Cultivating Ignatian indifference means recognizing that the good work we are given to do is different than the work of another. We are called to accept our task—and all the joys and challenges that accompany it—and not distract ourselves by fantasizing about that of another. We make ourselves available to meet the needs of the world as they manifest themselves. We put our unique skills and experiences at the world’s service.
We hold all things lightly. This includes humanitarian projects and justice initiatives.
It’s not uncommon to hear nonprofits purport to want to put themselves out of a job—we want to end poverty, right? Ending poverty, homelessness, hunger, and more means ending corresponding projects and programs. That’s a lofty, far-off goal, but it’s our hope that it’s possible, that we make concrete progress.
It’s easy for our egos to become caught up in this ongoing work, to make decisions that prolong the program rather than serve the people. We resist handing initiatives over to local leaders. We establish new projects rather than collaborate with ongoing ones. We want to be seen as a social justice hero rather than simply do the work. And so on—the temptations are many!
Don’t hold on to your ego too tightly. Allow yourself to find that unique place in which God is inviting you to meet the world’s needs—and don’t be surprised when God asks you to step aside so another might step up.
Image: Unsplash/Gayatri Malhotra