The first two years in the seminary, our lives were rigidly structured. In our day-to-day lives, the bell lorded it over. It signaled when to get ready for a task, when to start the task, and, finally, when to end it.
Even prayer times were set by the bell.
To this day I appreciate how our novice masters explained this rigor, rather romantically, but with clear core values and graces. All these were external structures to help us build our internal structures.
The bell must develop in us—in the tradition of Ignatian spirituality —to live life “with one foot raised,” always ready to go on mission, to be available whenever and wherever God wants us to go.
The schedule we follow reminds us that the rhythm of our lives has been entrusted to God, blending into his kairos or the right moment.
What lies at the core of this framework is the spiritual freedom that comes from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, the process of experiencing freedom from sin because of God’s merciful love, and the process of experiencing freedom for mission, i.e., freedom to dedicate and to commit, because of God’s love that “places us with the Son.”
I recalled all this while reading the Gospel this Sunday, which portrays the Pharisees in stark contrast to this path toward the spirituality and the practice of religion that we were exposed to as young novices. Authentic spirituality and an equally authentic practice of religion must be liberating.
Spiritual freedom comes from humility and gratitude that lead to a total offering of self in and for love and service.
This is best captured in Ignatius’ prayer, “Take and receive, O Lord, all my liberty… all things I have and all that I am you have given all to me; to you I return them that you may dispose of me totally according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace, these make me rich, I ask for nothing more.”
Many things, good and bad, have been done in the name of religion. And today’s Gospel is a good reminder for us to check our view, perhaps shaped by our experience.
Christ condemns religion that is hypocritical, the split between what we practice and what we preach; religion that is ostentatious, the misplaced pomp and circumstance in the midst of poverty and injustice. Religion used to lord it over people, a betrayal of Christ’s core of loving and humble servant hood.
Our faith, our religion and our spirituality must be liberating—freedom to dedicate ourselves to a worthy cause, to what God wants us to do, and for all humanity.
To live and die for
The esteemed theologian, Fr. Hans Kung, S.J., posits that people must have something to live on, to live for, and to die for—a process leading to the Ignatian freedom to dedicate and commit oneself to God’s mission, simply, to what God wants us to do.
This is what religion and spirituality—and education—might consider as goals. Giving each other something to live on is the most fundamental imperative of our faith or our humanity. It brings us back to a shared stewardship of our material resources.
Stewardship is to care for and share the goods of our world. This is our fundamental exercise of compassion, making sure all have access to these goods and have something to live on.
We often hear that one cannot preach to people whose stomachs are empty. (“Yes” and “no” to this, but for the moment we focus on the “yes.” There is much to say in favor of the crucible of sacrifice, but this is for another reflection.) It is when the basics are met that in gratitude we can consider something to live for, the meaning and purpose of our life.
All institutions across all domains have this basic task to provide people the opportunity to search for, discern and choose their something to live for. It is the fundamental freedom we ought to ensure each other if we are to truly live within a shared humanity.
With these two pillars of freedom—freedom from want and freedom to choose and live a meaningful and purposeful life—the freedom to commit and to dedicate one’s life, something to die for, is possible. This is the greatest of all the freedoms.
The greatness of this freedom is ineffable, but perhaps best approximated by Ignatius’ words: “… To you I return all that you may dispose of me totally according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace, I ask for nothing more.”
Regardless of religion, political persuasion and all, this is the core human aspiration, project and fulfillment that Christ came for to live out, fulfill and make available to us with the promised companionship of his Spirit.
This begins with the “first bell” we hear and respond to in taking the first step on the journey to doing what God wants us to do.