Ecology and Ignatian spirituality

Ecology and Ignatian spirituality

An upland environment in northern Mindanao, Philippines. Photo credit: P Walpole

José Antonio García, SJ

The project of caring for the earth is so crucial to the future of humankind that all traditions – humanistic, scientific, or spiritual – ought to make a contribution. From this conviction, there arises the question whether Ignatian spirituality has some distinctive inspiration to bring to the service of the environmental movement? I believe it has: the aim of this note is to explain this belief.

Perhaps the deepest root of this claim is found at the beginning and end of the Spiritual Exercises: in the ‘Principle and Foundation’ and in the Contemplation to Attain Love (Contemplatio). The ‘things’ referred to here are more than merely things: they are created realities, gifts of God in which God’s self dwells and awaits us.

The process of the Exercises is marked by a double affirmation. The Principle and Foundation assert that not only human persons but ‘the other things on the face of the earth’ are all created by God: that is, that they derive from God’s creative love. The Contemplatio asserts that the whole of reality is a place of encounter with the God who is manifest there: a) giving us things and giving himself in them; b) dwelling in them; c) working in them for us; d) descending from above in them.

After his spiritual experiences at Manresa, the world appeared to Ignatius as a great theophany – a revelation of the divine. God shows himself in the world and wishes to be met there, to be adored, loved, and served there. This insight constitutes Ignatius’s new mysticism, which transformed the hermit into the Jesuit. From then on, his passionate search did not centre on fasting, penances, even on prayer as such, but on loving and serving God, and loving and serving God’s world. Later, when writing the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius will ask of the Society’s members something that is valid for each one, because it defines the most essential horizon of his spirituality: ‘It is precisely to seek and to find God in all things, loving him in all things and all things in him, in accordance with his most holy will.’

Is this not an inspiring principle – a triple relationship with God, with other persons, and with the earth on which humankind passes its life? Once we locate ourselves in this worldview, can we separate God from what God loves so much, the world? Can we respond to God’s love without this response being expressed in the care of the habitat of all living beings? Definitely we cannot. When we interact with ‘things’ horizontally – as Ignatius will come to say – it is precisely to find in them their source and their giver: so to be ‘horizontal mystics’, contemplatives in action. When we relate with God ‘vertically,’ it is to discover and love the world in him: to be persons active even amidst their contemplation.

Something else is to be noted in this Ignatian vision – a vision of the world as a reality imbued with God, and a vision of God as one who makes us a gift of the world and a gift of himself in the heart of the world. Men and women, the natural world, the cosmos, historical events and so on, are not for us merely an ‘occasion’ from which we detach ourselves in rising to God. We do not meet God in bypassing them but in them. How then, if nature is God’s gift to us and is the place in which God gives himself to us, could we fail to interest ourselves in the world?

Many traditions, each one with its own accent, converge in the environmental movement. Our own tradition is this: ‘things’ are creatures, but these are God’s gifts rather than our property. They are not merely free to be used as we wish. As we approach them, the first thing we need to do is to take a backward step, because ‘the ground on which we stand is holy ground,’ it does not simply belong to us. Only then, when we have seen things as our created sisters, can we take a step forward. This is what Ignatius means by the phrase ‘to the extent that’ of the Principle and Foundation, and by the expression we find in the Contemplatio, ‘to love and serve the Divine Majesty in all things.’ Haven’t we all some sense that without making this first step backwards, this moment of adoration and thanksgiving, our relationship with things easily becomes distorted into self-seeking?

Ignatian spirituality, at its very heart, embodies this worldview according to which God and the world are neither identical (according to some ancient or modern variant of pantheism), nor are de-linked realities as in a false dualism. Ignatius is far from either of these poles of thought. He appears to be close to the position of Saint Paul when he proclaims in the Areopagus, that everything is in God, that ‘it is he who gives everything – including life and breath – to everyone.’ (Acts 17 22, seq) In technical terms, this Pauline vision, which is also the Ignatian vision, is usually called panentheism, the Greek term which means that ‘everything exists and lives in God.’

What consequences derive from this spiritual vision for our care of the environment? There appear to be four:

  1. For those who wish to live the following of Christ guided by Ignatian spirituality, concern for the care of the earth is not an optional commitment, but it concerns us all. All of us need to consider how we can make our contribution, whether or not we campaign in some ecological movement.
  2. Whether or not we do belong to some such movement (but especially if we do), our involvement in caring for the earth is not something added to our spirituality. The challenge is that this involvement be itself spiritual: that is, ‘ecology in the power of the Holy Spirit,’ motivated by him who made his home on the earth, encouraged and inspired by him and by his project for a new heaven and a new earth. Scientific and technical analyses are indispensable, but we need this spirituality which sustains our motivation in the long term and which allows us to identify such initiatives as part of our spiritual tradition.
  3.  Ignatius is very realistic about our possessive instinct. As an instinct, it is not bad in itself. What is bad is one’s tendency to turn it into an obsession. Jesus often warned of this primordial tendency. Following him, Ignatius also treated it in his ‘Meditation on the two Standards.’ Usually, he tells us, the most radical temptation of the human being is ‘to covet riches,’ whether they be material or spiritual. In other words, we experience the desire to achieve one’s own salvation by accumulation, by the ‘disordered’ (disproportionate) use of things. But a price has to be paid for this obsession and it is invariably paid by the natural world and by our brothers and sisters, among the latter especially the most defenceless and poor.
  4. There remains a theme that is very difficult to discuss, but is also unavoidable. Can this Christian-Ignatian accent in our concern for the environment be an explicit dimension of the ecological debate, alongside other humanistic and scientific traditions? Ought one to make it explicit? I would say that it must. But the question of ‘when?’ and ‘how?’ is complex, and goes beyond the scope of this reflection. Specific methodologies would need further consideration.

José Antonio “Toño” García, SJ, is director of Revista Manresa, formator of many Jesuits, and has a deep knowledge of the Spiritual Exercises. He is responsible for the regular Tuesday podcast, Puntos para la oración and written the following books: Hogar y Taller, En el mundo desde Dios, Karl Rahner: Dios, Amor que desciende, Escritos Espirituales, Orar con el Padre Arrupe, Ventanas que dan a Dios.


2 thoughts on “Ecology and Ignatian spirituality

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. They give me reason to hope and motive to keep working for justice. I’ve decided to repeat the Spiritual Exercises this Lent-Easter and may write to you if I get your direct email address. In Christ, Cliff

    1. Dear Dr Cockerham

      We are forwarding your message to Father José Antonio. Thank you for your support!

      Sylvia Miclat
      for Ecojesuit

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