A friend and I were discussing events in our lives that we did not like or want.
After he left, I went internet searching for something on the Ignatian idea of “indifference.” I found this blog by South African chemistry professor and spiritual director Margaret Blackie on the subject. She offers an interesting reflection on the admittedly difficult concept.
Didn’t Jesus tell us to ask, seek, and keep knocking at the door with our prayer requests? Didn’t he often ask those who approached him, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) Of course, there were times he got answers to that question and responded, “You don’t know what you are asking.” (Matthew 20:22)
When his mother tried to stir his concern for the friends running out of wine at their wedding party, Jesus responded that it wasn’t their business to interfere. (John 2) Mary stopped asking for his help — but she told the servants to do whatever he told them to do. She became “indifferent,” but only about trying to figure out the solution herself. She left that in Jesus’ hands.
When Peter pressed Jesus, giving him his best advice on Jesus’ future ministry, Jesus (who had just finished affirming something Peter said) bluntly rejected his counsel. “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) Clearly, there are times when the Lord has no interest in listening to what we have to say.
Jesus highly praised the centurion who had a firm understanding about how authority worked between a master and a servant. (Matthew 8:8, 9) When the master says, “Go,” the servant doesn’t ask for explanations. He just goes. Both parties assume the master knows what he is doing, even if the servant does not.
If Adam and Eve had had this principle down pat, the conversation with the serpent would have gone differently. “Yes, this tree and its fruit look just as good as all the others we have permission to eat. But He said to leave this one alone. Yes, that’s what He said. Which of those words is not clear to you, snake?”
What that tree looked like should have been a matter of “indifference” to them, having no impact on their decision. God had already made the decision.
This is not to deny what they saw. And the principle of “indifference” that St. Ignatius taught does not deny the way things may look to us. It’s simply that “the way things look to us” is the wrong channel for us to focus on when God has already spoken. In his prayer that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is clearly aware of strong signals on two channels. Paul discussed those two channels.
I Corinthians 2: 12. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.
13. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.
14. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.
Paul speaks elsewhere of the level of flesh and the natural man being servants of “the stomach god.” (Philippians 3:19) Anything more significant than the hungers of the moment cannot be understood at this level, by this god. If God Almighty has some other goals or plans, there is going to be a struggle in our will over which master to follow. The struggle was so strong inside Jesus that night in the Garden that he was sweating blood.
St. Ignatius is saying we must practice being “indifferent” to the desires of this lesser, limited god. There is no suggestion it is ever easy (see Jesus in the Garden again).
In her blog, Margaret observes “I believe that the experience of that kind of indifference or freedom is grace.” In other words, both the Word from the Lord and the ability to obey it are His gifts to us.
I Corinthians 10: 12. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! 13. No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.