I’ve always been interested in the lives of the Christian saints and mystics, and one particular life has been on my mind lately. Which is the life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who was a Spanish Catholic priest and theologian, and the founder of the Society of Jesus. But it was actually his life leading up to these things that I am more curious about.
Before his conversion, Ignatius spent time as a page where he was frequently at court and developed a taste for the finer things. He had wanted to be a courtier, and was known to be obsessed with his appearance and reputation and often consumed with lust. He went on to become an officer in the Spanish army but was injured in battle and was bedridden for an entire year.
It was during this time of recovery that he spent a lot of time reading, and the only material he could find in the castle he was staying was a book about the life of Christ and biographies of the saints. These people captivated him, and it is clear that God was working on his heart and calling Ignatius to Himself.
When Ignatius was finally well enough he left home with a newfound zeal for God. He put aside his sword, gave his fine clothes to a poor man, and took up the life of a poor pilgrim. He then spent the next nine months living in a cave, reading scripture and writing about all that he was learning and experiencing. Out of this time came his well known book, Spiritual Exercises.
I listened to a sermon by Bishop Barron recently where he said something that struck me about the saints and mystics. These are people we look at with awe and admiration, for the holy and devoted lives they lived are truly inspiring. In his sermon Bishop Barren asked, why did the saints opt for lives of poverty and chastity, of celibacy and seclusion? It wasn’t because they were holier than the rest of us — we see the obsessions Ignatius had in his younger life that makes him no different than you and I. It was exactly because they felt the pull towards these worldly goods of wealth and power and lust and fame that they knew they had to act against them, to “agere contra”, a term coined by St. Ignatius. It means we can deliberately choose to go against what our tendencies might be.
I recently deactivated my Instagram account. I was spending hours scrolling through reels to distract myself, to numb myself, to stave off boredom. I knew it was unhealthy and yet I just couldn’t resist the pull of that glowing slot machine in my palm. Time to agere contra. Shutting it down feels a little bit like entering a cave. There is this entire world going on that I am not part of anymore and it does feel a little unsettling.
I think boredom can be one of the holiest experiences for us. Not just because our boredom might inspire us into something creative and productive, although it might, but because boredom and restlessness can also be the feeling of things dying within us. When we agere contra, we are forced into a kind of death. A death of things we once relied upon for comfort and happiness and security. Yes, we love to celebrate Easter Sunday and yes, the Resurrection is a pillar of our faith, but before resurrection can happen there has to be death.
Father Ron Rolheiser has said this: “It’s the dying part we find hard. Everything inside of us resists death.” Or as A.W Tozer has put it, “It is never fun to die.” And yet the Christian life is so much about letting go. Jesus said that if we want to be his followers, we need to “Take up our cross daily.”
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. – Luke 9:23 (NIV)
We are going to experience death after death after death. I’ve only talked about Instagram here, but there are many other attachments in my life that are being called to my attention because it is time to let go. Not just so that I can be a happier or healthier person, but because these things block me from finding God’s will, and detaching myself opens up the space in my heart and mind to find out what that might be. This is the true purpose behind the idea of “agere contra”, and why the saints and mystics, including St. Ignatius, lived the lives they did.
The cave is not a pleasant place to be, but if we are brave enough to spend time there, brave enough to sit in the emptiness and aloneness, then I truly believe God will do something even better in us. The fire we are walking through will not destroy us, it will only refine us. And in the midst of the discomfort and pain of giving up things we might have been addicted to, we can pray these wise words:
All my longings lie open before you, Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes… Lord, do not forsake me; do not be far from me, my God. Come quickly to help me, my Lord and my Savior. – Psalm 38:9-10, 21-22 (NIV)
“Lord, how excellent are Thy ways, and how devious and dark are the ways of man. Show us how to die, that we may rise again to newness of life.” – A.W. Tozer [emphasis added]