Ignatian Indifference

by Marina McCoy


Marina McCoy is Associate Professor of Philosophy, specializing in ancient philosophy and literature with a particular emphasis on Plato, the sophists, and rhetoric. Her most recent book, Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Literature and Philosophy (Oxford) was published in October 2013.


In Ignatian spirituality, the term “indifference” is central. The idea of “indifference” points back to the “Principle and Foundation” of the Spiritual Exercises, in which “we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly with all the rest.” For the purpose of life is to know, to love, and to serve God. Slowly, we learn that all conditions of life can draw us ever closer to Love.

Most of us have “inordinate attachments”: created things that pull us away from God. But no created thing can truly satisfy us. As Augustine wrote in his Confessions, we have a sense of “restlessness” in our hearts, a depth of longing that no person or object can ever fully satisfy—only God. Our tendency is to get “hooked” on one created good. Augustine’s own temptations included: sex, earning professional respect as a court rhetorician, and clinging to grief over a friend who died. But examples abound. I know a man who was so passionate about watching his favorite sports teams every weekend that seeing every game was a “must.” Later in life, he regretted having missed other activities with his (now adult) children, who had longed for his attention.


But “indifference” does not mean asceticism, or lack of care about our family, work, friendships, or any of our “loves” (even sports!). God wants us to be passionate and engaged, yet also able to let go again so that new people and activities may enter into our lives.


A helpful image of indifference came to me in prayer many years ago: the sword Excalibur of Arthurian legend. Arthur received the sword when a mysterious hand thrust it out of a lake. On one side of the sword were the words: “Take it up.” On the other side: “Cast it away.” The strength of the sword was not only in the blade, but also in its wisdom. While Arthur used the sword in many battles, by the end of his reign he knew to return it to the lake. As he cast it into the water, the hand retrieved it to the murky depths again.


This image has continually been helpful to me in negotiating the many changes of life: new responsibilities at my job; adapting to growing children with different needs; friends who move away for work; the death of a beloved family member; new colleagues and connections. The challenge is to discern and to choose what to take up, what to set down, to try to follow God’s lead with a little more grace and a little less “kicking and screaming”.


Ignatius, too, lay down his sword and dagger on the altar of Our Lady at Montserrat, leaving behind a life as a knight and solider in order to become a pilgrim. While he traded in his courtly clothing for the poor tunic of a beggar, Ignatius would also wear the clothing of student, priest, companion, and administrator. All these were ways that he “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). But I also like to imagine that when Ignatius put down the sword of battle, he picked up the sword of indifference, a sword of service and of love.


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