Should We Be Indifferent to Everything But God?


One of the difficulties we all face in spiritual life is that attitudes which seem to be identical can, in fact, be quite different and even at antipodes. To confuse them can have serious consequences. All of us are exposed to such confusions but many of us are not aware of the danger.

St. Ignatius taught that "indifference" was key to growth in the spiritual life. The term is somewhat problematic for us, because when a person today says, "I am indifferent" toward something, he means "I don’t care about it." But when Ignatius called us to be indifferent about something, he didn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about it, that we should somehow leave our heart out of it: He meant that we should care about God more. We may say, then, that in the Christian life indifference means to position oneself in right relation to God, his creatures, and those material attachments, which, for better or worse, are part of our earthly lives.

Break the Ties that Bind

Our habits are one thing to which we need to become indifferent. All of us have certain idiosyncrasies and particular ways of doing things. They are largely harmless in themselves, but many of us are so attached to them that we can get very upset when they are disturbed in the slightest way. These can be our daily schedule, our plans, our tastes, our way of doing things, or even the order in which we do them.

For example, when several women work together in a kitchen, it can become a battlefield. Some people are so finicky about their food that it is never cooked to their taste: too salty, too cold, too spicy, not well presented, served too early or too late. Other people are finicky about sleep: The bed or pillow is too hard or too soft; the blankets are too heavy or too light; the room is too hot or too cold, too noisy or too quiet. The fairy tale of the princess and the pea is a perfect illustration of what we have in mind. Old maids and bachelors have the reputation of being impossible to please because they are set in their ways. But some married people are the same way, making a drama when things don’t go their way.

No religious order worthy of its name will tolerate princesses on a pea. A friend of mine, a Canadian nun, told me that on the very first day she entered the convent, she was corrected by her superior because she turned down a dish she did not like. Those entering religious orders are told that they must liberate themselves from these small, apparently insignificant ties which, like the thin threads that bound Gulliver to the ground, prevent novices from taking their flight upward. The same symbolism is found in the Canticle of Canticles: "Tiny foxes" are devastating the vineyard (2:15). They are so tiny that the sleepy soul does not notice the damage that they are doing. The victim of these harmless habits gradually loses his freedom without realizing it.

The path to holiness entails, through God’s grace, becoming "indifferent" to these small attachments which bind us. It would be sheer illusion to believe that this victory does not cost great efforts.

Beware of Order for Its Own Sake

Another kind of habit is genuinely good in and of itself. One only need read the Rule of St. Benedict to see that he orders his monks to follow a tight schedule: time for prayer, time for reading, time for work, time for sleep. In convents and monasteries, the bell rings to call the religious to certain duties. St. Benedict insists that as soon as it rings, the monk should immediately abandon whatever he is doing (relinquis ommnibus). This is not easy when one is very close to completing a task. Most of us would either get irritated, or cheat a tiny bit. (A couple of minutes should make no difference!)

Following a schedule is a good habit; so is leading an ordered life. Some talented people accomplish very little because they lack discipline. Some people who have no exceptional talents nevertheless accomplish much because they organize their day. Discipline and order are praiseworthy. But they too can become illegitimate ties. We all know people who actually lose their temper when an object is misplaced. Moreover, charity demands that sometimes we should disrupt our schedule in an emergency. In such cases, charity should always be given precedence. There are situations in which a person must sacrifice (and I purposely choose the word sacrifice) Sunday Mass for the sake of helping a person in an emergency.

But there are also persons who are so imprisoned in their "good" habits that these take priority, whatever the call of the moment. I know some people whose schedule is sacred and who fly off the handle when they are asked to break its routine. The letter has priority over the spirit. Good habits become a corset which deprive them of true freedom. I knew a professor—a perfect slave of his "good" habits—who got upset if his cocktail was not on his table when the clock struck six o’clock. Philosopher Immanuel Kant’s life was so regulated that the citizens of Königsberg used to set their watches when he was crossing a bridge on his way to the university.

Order and discipline are desirable, but for many people they become a straitjacket and can cause them gravely to offend charity. Because these habits are good in themselves, it is often very difficult to make people realize that they can become harmful to one’s spiritual development. The saint, though, acquires a superb flexibility and indifference. On the one hand, he never allows his moods to disrupt his schedule; on the other he never hesitates to break it when charity demands it.

Holy Freedom

Anyone striving for holiness must be ruled by "holy freedom"—that is, to be master not only of subjective habits but also of good ones when the "thema Christi" tells them to do so. What does Christ request of me now?—that is the crucial question. To change diapers can glorify God more than writing a beautiful article if that is what is demanded at this precise moment. This is why, in Christian life, everything can be done for the glory of God: "Whether you eat or drink, glorify the Lord." The work of the Holy Virgin at Nazareth—a work that all of us should envy—was to provide for her Holy Child. Viewed from the outside, the task appeared modest, and yet she certainly was surrounded by a host of angels, singing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus. The Blessed one among women knew it was an overwhelming privilege to change the diapers of the Savior who had accepted becoming a helpless child in order to save us.

When St. Ignatius—against his wishes—was elected first superior of his order, he assigned to himself the task of working in the kitchen (Genelli, The Life of St. Ignatius, 220). Why? First and foremost, because he wanted to serve and not to be served. Second, he was teaching his sons that a small, mean task done with love can glorify God more than a noble one tainted by vanity.

To free oneself from subjective habits, and to give up good habits when charity calls for it can play an important role, not only in religious life, but also in marriage. The true lover will always be the one who is ready to change course for the sake of the loved one.

Heart of the Matter

Growth in the spiritual life requires indifference as regards our personal preferences and even our good habits. But should indifference characterize our attitude to other people? Some would argue that it should. This was a position that St. Augustine briefly adopted after his conversion: His horror of his past life drove him to advocate cutting off all ties with his past. To start anew, the rupture had to be radical. In one of his very early works, the Soliloquies, he defends the thesis that only two things should concern us: God and our own soul. This is a position which he modified later in deepening his understanding of the Christian message. If man is commanded to love his neighbor as Christ himself loved him, it should be clear that his neighbor is worth loving: His weal and woe should not leave us indifferent; our hearts should pulse with his. This does not mean that loving concern about creatures should make us forget God. On the contrary, Augustine makes it clear that true love of creatures is an amare in deo. This is why he exclaims, "How can I love more than God those I love in God?" (City of God XXI.26). He does not eliminate love of creatures: He baptizes it.

Does Christian indifference require that we should perform the duties we owe to our neighbors only with our will, never allowing our hearts to get involved? No doubt, there are some Christians who endorse this position. They mistrust the heart. They are convinced that intellect and will alone constitute man’s superiority over animals. (This is the position adopted by Aristotle.) As a matter of fact, some of them would claim that the less the heart is involved, the purer our acts of charity will be; then only can they be selfless. Some might even claim that the heart is only a piece of flesh. Kant held a similar position; for him any emotion was "pathological." A famous, sad story is told of a hermit who endorsed this view. His sister was dying, and begged him to pay her a last visit; he had not seen her for years. At first, he refused, but finally relented. He went to Alexandria, stood in front of her window, and while closing his eyes, shouted: "Now look at me" and left. Whether this is an exemplary case of Christian charity is debatable.

The deeper question, perhaps, is what role the heart should play in Catholic spiritual life. C.S. Lewis tells us in The Abolition of Man that the problem facing modern educators "is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts" (24). What he means is that in our contemporary society, many suffer from atrophy of the heart. In romantic times, one could speak of hypertrophy of the heart, but today we suffer because our hearts are "deserts." Recently, a priest friend of mine who had heard thousand of confessions told me that the main problem in our society is not only broken hearts, but hearts as hard as rocks. Our hearts are indeed "deserts needing to be irrigated." We cannot be heartless toward mere things because they are beneath hurt. Alas, we can be heartless toward people. Is this the authentic teaching of Ignatius? By preaching indifference does he mean closing one’s heart toward others, and reducing our relationships with others to cold acts of will, totally deprived of any warmth?

The truth is that both St. Ignatius and St. Philip Neri touched hearts because their own hearts were on fire: Their love of God embraced their neighbors. They were not indifferent, but they were detached.

Authentic goods call for a proper response on our part. When Christ tells us that he does not pray for the world, he is not referring to God’s beautiful creation which, as St. Bonaventure tells us, speaks of God’s glory. He is referring to the domain of the wicked one, the prince of this world, whose "gospel" is non serviam—pride, hatred, and war on whatever is good, noble and beautiful. When God completed creation, he saw that "it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). Are the good things God has given us intended to leave us indifferent? Why did St. Francis express his love for brother Sun, sister Moon if not because he saw them as lovely creations of a loving God? He certainly was not indifferent toward them.

But what the saints know is that because of our fallen nature we are often tempted to love God’s creatures more than God—this is definitely an arch-temptation of fallen man. This is why we know mothers who hate God because he has dared to take their child away from them. Not long ago, someone said to me that when his wife died, he "was as mad as hell toward God." Elie Wiesel turned against God because of the Holocaust. A student of mine committed suicide when his closest friend died. The friend was his God.

Are these people to be condemned because they were not indifferent, or rather are they tragically blameworthy because they were not detached—that is, because they loved creatures more than the Creator? Augustine tells us that we should love most what is highest, equally what is equal, unequally what is unequal.

The word indifference, then, should be reserved for things which, being neutral by nature, are incapable of moving us positively or negatively and to purely subjective matters of taste and habits. When dealing with things important in themselves (for example human dignity, love, friendship), the word indifference is inadequate. For these things, detachment is a more appropriate word.

The Sacrifice Love Demands

To understand fully the nature of detachment, let us look to the Bible. One of the most heartrending stories of the Old Testament is that of Abraham. Sarah, his wife, was sterile. Despite her old age, God promised Abraham that he would become a father. This triggered Sarah’s laughter. She did not need to major in biology to know that at a certain age, women can no longer be mothers. But God kept his promise, and in her old age, Sara gave birth to Isaac—the son of the promise. We can imagine the overwhelming joy Sarah and Abraham experienced when they held this blessed child in their arms. Even though the Bible does not mention their joy, it is because silence is more eloquent.

But which of us is prepared for the drama that follows? God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, to give back to him the very child so miraculously conceived after long years of fruitless expectation. Is God not contradicting himself? Can he possibly be a good and loving God? Abraham fully deserves the glorious title of "father of faith" because, although in total darkness, he still believed. He was ready to obey; he did not plead; he did not discuss. He trusted. Blind are those who do not perceive a perfect analogy between his case and Calvary. The Old Testament points to the New; the New fulfills the Old.

Nobody has etched the Calvary that Abraham traversed on his way to Mount Moriah better than Søren Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling). Heartrending is the query made by Isaac: "Where is the victim?" Abraham’s answer, "God will provide" is one of the key themes of religious life and one which many of us often forget to utter.

To indicate further the abyss between indifference and detachment, let us compare the bleeding heart of Abraham with someone forced by circumstances to give up a cherished habit—say, an Englishman compelled to stop drinking tea. How ludicrous it would be if the Englishman told us that he did so "with a broken heart"! That is the stuff of comedy.

Had Abraham been indifferent to Isaac’s life, he would not be worthy to be called a father; he would be a monster. But Abraham, while his heart was bleeding, was detached; that is, while crushed by sorrow, he did not allow any creature, however dear, to be preferred to God. Once again the bond between the Old Testament and the New is highlighted in the Gospel of Luke: "He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me" (cf. Luke 14:26). Abraham’s love of God was greater than his tenderness for his son. His heart was broken; his will was unshaken.

Such sacrifices are demanded more than once in the history of religion. There are cases in which the will and the heart must speak contradictory words: The will accepts; the heart must bleed.

Religious life in a nutshell is a repetition of the same theme: the absolute primacy of the love of God over the love of creatures. When Christ called Peter and Andrew, they immediately left everything (relinquis omnibus, again) and followed him. St. Teresa of Avila knew that she was breaking her father’s heart when she decided to respond to Christ’s call and enter the convent in Avila. The pain, she tells us, was such that she could not conceive death was worse. Yet, she obeyed God’s call. After months of prayer, following the advice of St. Francis of Sales, St. Jeanne Francoise de Chantal left Dijon. She walked over her son, who was lying on the threshold to prevent her from leaving him. She, too, did not hesitate, but her heart was bleeding. At fifteen, St. Therese of Lisieux informed her beloved father that she had a religious vocation and was about to leave him. Both her heart and his were broken; but the love of God triumphed.

Make Our Hearts Like Unto Thine

Those animated by a supernatural spirit will follow this path, understanding its message. Those whose spiritual outlook has been dimmed by secularism will inevitably interpret these heartbreaking decisions as either proof of the inhumane character of Christianity or evidence that stoicism is its basic teaching. Nothing should move us. Nothing is worthy of our tears.

On the other hand, for some people the heart, which is the center of man’s affective life, is wrongly identified with sentimentality, with emotionalism, even with hysteria. They are proud that their heart plays no role whatever in their lives. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, thanked God that in marrying his wife, he was driven by duty, not love. True, sentimentality is disastrous and must be curtailed. Unfortunately, though, some set a false dichotomy: sentimentality or a total elimination of affectivity. This is not the Catholic position. We need only think of Augustine, whose warm affectivity matched his superb intellect. "Late have I loved thee O Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved thee" (Confessions X.27).

A religion which teaches us to pray: "Make my heart like your heart," that has a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus—a religion which teaches that the Church was born on Calvary when Christ’s divine Heart was pierced by a spear—certainly recognizes and honors the crucial importance of the heart in spiritual life.

Christ wept at the tomb of Lazarus. St. Paul wept with those who wept.

May Christ make our hearts like unto his and may he also give us the grace to understand that "nothing is to be preferred to the love of Christ."

SIDEBARS

Noble and Ignoble Feelings

The idea that it would be good to eliminate "affectivity"—feelings and emotions—can be traced back to Aristotle, who sees man’s superiority over animals in the fact that he has both intelligence and will. Feelings, he tells us, are something he shares with animals. A great thinker can be partially blind, and this is a case in point. Aristotle fails to make a crucial distinction between the physical feelings (pain, physical pleasure) that man shares with animals, psychological feelings, and a radically different type of feelings which are intentional—conscious responses to an object calling for such responses. Admiration, veneration, esteem, and love are responses to what is admirable, venerable, estimable, or lovable. Man’s vocation is not only to know God, but to love him, which presupposes knowledge.

There is something tragic in the fact that even though this is the very core of Christian revelation, so many "spiritual" people are blind to its crucial importance. Their distrust of feelings is such that they do not perceive any difference between non-spiritual and spiritual feelings, between legitimate and illegitimate feelings, between noble and ignoble feelings—between those that we should disavow and those we should sanction with our will.

The Holy Madness of Love

When St. Ignatius recommends indifference, he not only tells us to eliminate subjective habits, but goes further: He tells his disciples that they should be disposed to "glorify God in riches, in honor, in poverty, in humiliations." This advice implies a deeper degree of freedom: freedom from both subjective ties and freedom from good habits when there is a call for it. In this case, it is the freedom to follow St. Paul, who could live in abundance and in poverty with equal supernatural joy. We should be indifferent to health and sickness. Which one of us does not know how bitterly disappointing it is when sickness prevents from giving a talk, attending a beautiful concert, going on a long-planned trip? Ignatius goes still further and even recommends that we should give preference to poverty and humiliations because in this we follow more closely the path chosen by Christ (Genelli, The Life of St. Ignatius, 141). To prefer humiliations to honor and poverty to riches truly calls for a supernatural spirit. Secular eyes will view it as madness. Supernaturally speaking, it is the holy madness of love.


Alice von Hildebrand is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hunter College of City University of New York.

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 4.