Aim to live a life of creative tension | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

William Barry, SJ, and Robert Doherty, SJ, wrote a little book on Jesuit spirituality, “Contemplatives in Action: The Jesuit Way.” They frame this spirituality in several “tensions,” and the first tension they discuss is trust in God and the use of one’s talents.

I thought this would be a good starting point for our reflections this Sunday. Our readings for today evoke the grace of trust in God: “I will never forget you” from Isaiah; “Rest in God alone, my soul” from the responsorial psalm; “Therefore do not make any judgment before the appointed time, until the Lord comes,” from Corinthians 1; and “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” from Matthew.

Beautiful readings, especially at a time when we have many anxieties and doubts, or at the very least, questions as to what is happening around us. For example, the extra-judicial killings, the increasing impunity of perpetrators of violence and a culture of death, the rise of racism and discrimination, etc.

‘Pray as if everything depended on you and work as if everything depended on God’–St. Ignatius of Loyola

Faith response

This tension, trust in God vis-à-vis the use of one’s talents, can probably lead us to a faith response to our present situation. Let us explore, reflect and, hopefully, come to a choice on how to respond.

In the seminary, we were told that tensions are unavoidable and the resolution is to transform it into creative tension—one that is life-giving and, I add, tension that breaks new ground in doing things or responding to situations that seem to be torn by diametrically opposed elements.

When we look at tension or stress in nature, we see how this can be life-giving. I remember from botany class that plants bear fruit or flower after a process of stress or tension in their system. In stringed musical instruments, beautiful music is produced when the chords held in tension are played. These are simple examples of creative tension.

When I checked the meaning of stress, one definition included the response to stress, i.e., it induces a fight-or-flight response. So, how do we respond to stress or tension? Do we fight or take flight? Do we invigorate or enervate? Are we life-giving or life-sapping?


One of the rules put forth by Ignatius of Loyola was that one must not make a decision when one is under extreme stress or extreme joy, for that matter. When one is in an extreme state of emotion, one should not make any decision, but rather try to regain balance or perspective.

In the early years of the Society of Jesus, its suppression or disbandment was a very real threat, especially when one of the archenemies of the Jesuits, Cardinal Carafa, became Pope Paul IV. Ignatius always said that if such an event happened, all he needs is 15 minutes in prayer to regain equanimity and peace.

According to eyewitness accounts, Ignatius turned pale upon receiving the news of Carafa’s election. He went into the community chapel and came out 15 minutes later very much at peace and with a glowing countenance. Then he said he was sure God wanted the Society of Jesus to continue its work and mission.

Trust in God and trust in one’s talents is a tension Ignatius creatively addressed with this tenet often attributed to him: “Pray as if everything depended on you and work as if everything depended on God.” This most crucial moment in the life of the early years of the Jesuit order is a simple yet shining example of how he lived this out.

In many situations, Ignatius would discern God’s will and then apply himself totally to the work in implementing this will. His closest colleagues said he had great courage to take on challenging tasks, trail-blaze and pioneer.

This he did with great constancy in pursuing the tasks with patience, perseverance and hard work. At the same time he brought them to completion with great prudence, always choosing what is for the great good for the greater number, and what is for the greater glory of God.


Authors Barry and Doherty have one more interesting note to ponder. They write that creative tension arises from trust in God and trust in one’s talents.

Peak or excellent performance in doing a task—be it as as an athlete, a musician, an actor, a speaker or a teacher—is often preceded by some nervousness, or tension.

It is at this experience of tension that we need to make a choice—fight or flight? Or, better still, trust in one’s talents and then entrusting this to God, as opposed to giving up by taking flight or simply walking away.

But when one makes the choice, particularly to trust and entrust, then we break through into the experience of what Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” This is when our person, our body, becomes so united with the activity, the experience is peak performance or excellence.

Living our life trusting in our talents and our self, and entrusting all that we are and have to God and his will, is genuine prayer and spirituality. It is not a question of living a stress-free or tension-free life, but living a life of creative tension.

This is a heroic life, a life that makes the world a little bit better for others, because to live in creative tension is never about one’s self.

Let me end with a favorite line attributed to Evelio Javier that captures this heroic life: “If you tilt at windmills, they will either crush you or cast you among the stars.”

Let your light shine on others, and like the stars, inspire others to dream of a better life and a better world.

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