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Purifying the heart, controlling desires


Last week we reflected on the renewal of spirit, how moments of grace make us remember and renew our spirit, the inspiration that gives us life and meaning; the inspiration that shows us our mission to which we dedicate our life.

As we previously also reflected on, the first conscious life task is to discover our mission, the reason why we are in this world or why we were sent into the world. The second is to live this mission with great love and a great soul, magna anima.

This week we reflect on this part of the process of spiritual formation where, as the Preface of Lent II puts it, we are given “strength to purify our hearts, to control our desires and so to serve you in freedom.”

The two processes of formation, the purification of the heart and the controlling of desires, are not ends in themselves, but the means to the end which is to serve God—his mission—in freedom.

The purification of the heart is what Ignatius would refer to as ridding ourselves of inordinate attachments. Attachments by themselves are neither good nor bad, but once they become inordinate—excessive, misplaced, undue—then they cause “un-freedom.”

Over two weeks ago, I had to tell my six-year-old ward, the little boy who grew up with me, that I was going to be away for two weeks for work. With pensive eyes, he looked at me and said, “I am going to be very sad, E.” (E is what he calls me since he first called me “by name.”) This tugged at my heart. He is genuinely attached to me even before he turned one and I am also very attached to him.

I must admit I entertained the thought of not joining the party that will meet with universities and organizations in Madrid and London for the development of specialized tracks in sports and the arts under the K+12 program of the Department of Education. My heart was so attached to the little boy that I was tempted to rationalize that there were others who were equally if not more competent to get the job done and are going on the trip anyway; if I did not go we could save on our project budget, etc., etc.


This is inordinate attachment! Potentially. Not without emotional and affective purification, I chose to go and do my work. The days that followed were filled with so many good and inspiring developments for the project.

As I write this, I am en route to my meetings with the sense that I am doing what God wants me to do. There is a sense of fulfillment that I am pursuing my dream, God’s dream for our world—that my work with public schools will bring to more young girls and boys the possible fulfillment of their dreams to be artists, to be athletes; the hope and the chance to pursue their dreams and live out their passion, especially through a quality public school education.

We will always have attachments to someone, to something, but their being inordinate—or ordinate—attachments are determined by the choices we make. The good choices we make lead us to greater freedom from attachments. And as the pattern of good choices develops, it leads us to an even greater freedom to attach, commit our self primarily to God and to his will and mission alone.

“…You give us strength to purify our hearts…and so to serve you in freedom…” Ignatius says we become so free, so detached that we choose whatever is for God’s greater glory. Our choices show how free we are and our freedom defines our service to God and others.

There is a story—a true story—that happened a few years ago in an organization. The organization had embarked on an ambitious project that would have placed it in a position of leadership in its industry. One of its up-and-coming officers was tasked to do the research and development for the project.

After years of work and preparations, politics set in. A high-ranking officer was threatened by the possible success of the project which would put many others in good light and would be a threat to his power and influence. He sat on the project to slow down if not avert its launch.

In the midst of all this, another high-ranking officer sent word to the young officer tasked to prepare and launch the project. The message, delivered through an emissary, was “Mr. So-and-so said nothing is happening to the project. Give him a script and he will play his role.” To which the young officer responded, “Please convey my appreciation for his trust and confidence, but let us call a spade a spade. Let us not play games.”

The choices we make define us. Several years after this incident, I asked the young officer what made him decide to respond the way he did. He said: “I accepted the project because I believed in it. I gave it my best, working and fighting for the project. But when people wanted to play games, I had to choose. I could have played the game, won and landed the top job, but it meant embracing something I did not believe in.”

This choice certainly defined him. He said “no” to the games and trappings of power and influence, ridding himself of an insidious inordinate attachment. Soon after, he moved out of the organization and worked on what I would call his first love, the original inspiration of his mission. He purified his heart and served with greater freedom.

“…You give us strength…to control our desires…” The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola states that one of its purposes is to reorient the desires of the person. The person must first be aware of such desires, accept them and integrate them into his life, person and mission. The reorientation is toward the service of mission, others and God.

Sexual struggle

I love to share this story of third-year high school students I worked with in the 1980s. I was a seminarian in Loyola House of Studies and the late Fr. Joe Cruz, SJ, was the principal of the Ateneo de Manila High School. He was my predecessor.

He asked me to do vocation work with third-year high school students. In 1987-1988, 42 of them join the three vocation seminars I conducted. The following school year, 14 of them continued to see me and two other seminarians for some form of spiritual direction.

As they were finishing senior year, I saw them one by one to explore the next step since they were leaving the high school and were going off to different colleges. All 14 of them expressed a similar concern. (I love asking people when I give homilies, seminars, recollections what they thought the common concern was. I’d always have an amusing exchange on this.)

They all expressed their concern about, some consider it a struggle with, their sexual passion. I would first comment, “Maybe that is a sign that might be good Jesuit.” This would elicit varying reactions from a perplexed look to laughter. Then I would ask, “Tell me, is there any Jesuit you admired who was not passionate about his work?” Then they begin to see the point.

This is a key element in Ignatian spirituality, the controlling or the reorientation of one’s desires and passions toward the service of mission, others and God.

In the second week of the Spiritual Exercises, where there is a deepening of the freedom in order to follow and to commit to the mission of Jesus, the central grace to ask for is to “see you (Jesus) more clearly, love you more dearly, follow you more nearly.”

The movement of the grace teaches us much, but we reserve this for next week. This week we focus on two elements constantly repeated: you or Jesus and more.

The “more,” or magis, shows us how the passion is not to be suppressed or killed, but rather it is to be nurtured and inspired. It is more, more, more, but with a clear orientation or reorientation. It is reoriented toward Jesus climaxing in the following of Jesus.

It is not simply a purification of the heart or a ridding of inordinate attachments. It is not simply a controlling or reorientation of the desires or passions. Yes, it is for greater freedom, first a freedom from inordinate attachments and misguided passions. But more important is a greater freedom to serve, to commit and dedicate oneself to mission, to others and to God.

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Tags: purifying the heart , renewal of spirit , Spiritual Exercises , Sunday Gospel

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