The word “indifference” often carries a negative connotation, a sort of “I don't care” attitude. It may seem surprising at first glance that this word plays an important role in Ignatian spirituality. Should we not care about anything? Actually, we should – it's just that we should care in a different way. Let us return to its origin and dissect this idea further.
In The Spiritual Exercises (SE) of St. Ignatius of Loyola, he first mentions the word “indifference” in a small section called “First Principle and Foundation”. We are “...created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord”, and by this means to save our souls. Everything must be considered through this lens, and this is what I call the first domino. We are created to direct our entire being towards our Creator, and everything else is “just” creations. We are not to treat created things as the ultimate goal of our lives as if they were our Creator; we should not worship them as idols. It is within this context that indifference is discussed. St. Ignatius writes:
“Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honour to dishonour, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.” (SE 23)This is to say that we should not be attached to either end of the polarities described in this statement. We are not to make these the ultimate goals or conditions of life; we should rather devote our attention to praising, reverencing and serving God our Lord by our lives. St. Ignatius' understanding of indifference is caring about things in the right order. It is a matter of “I care so much (about what I am created for) that I do not care (about created things)”, except insofar as they help lead me towards my ultimate goal.
When so considered, indifference takes on a different meaning. However, we can still turn "indifference" into an subtle excuse for actually seeking things such as riches, honour and long life. We may subconsciously block out important data for our discernment for whatever reasons, so to form the illusion that we are at such a state of indifference. For example, when we are presented with riches, we may immediately switch to the mode of thinking that "we must not be blindsided by just being poor to glorify God, because we must also be open to having riches too, since this can also bring glory to God". Therefore, I choose the riches because this is hypothetically possible, while not going into the nitty-gritty details of discernment. It means that we are not, or are not willing to be in touch with our own reality. This calls for a honest self-reflection. What are my inner motives behind this excuse? Why am I hiding them, be it subconsciously or not? More importantly, why am I attached to them?
Given the direction of this indifference, some have called it “holy indifference”. It is a kind of detachment that grants us a special freedom: to give to the Lord all that we have, and to receive from the Lord whatever he desires to bestow upon us, all done in joy and gratitude. This kind of freedom from attachment and openness to the promptings of God's grace is wonderful, but what does that mean to us within the context of our lives? While we can keep this disposition as our spiritual compass, it does not and should not give us a pious free pass to be indecisive. It is not passivism. We need to make decisions in order to live and love.
St. Ignatius addresses this in the SE in a section called “Three Kinds of Humility”, or as the late Canadian Jesuit Fr. John Veltri would call it, “Three Moments of Loving Response”. How does this relationship of love between God and me take place? The first way is doing the minimal; the second the kind of holy indifference that we have already discussed. The third is as such:
If we suppose the first and second kind attained, then whenever the praise and glory of the Divine Majesty would be equally served, in order to imitate and be in reality more like Christ our Lord, I desire and choose poverty with Christ poor, rather than riches; insults with Christ loaded with them, rather than honours; I desire to be accounted as worthless and a fool for Christ, rather than to be esteemed as wise and prudent in this world. So Christ was treated before me. (SE 167)Firstly, we need to reach the first and second stage; if doing the minimal and holy indifference does not make sense to us, then this third kind of attitude will not be built on a solid foundation. If in my case, being rich or poor, having honour or without both manage to bring praise, reverence, and service of the Lord, then we should desire to choose to be on the side of Christ. The Christ poor, the Christ loaded with insults. It means that we freely choose to be with our beloved One in order to be more like him, the One who is persecuted, poor and neglected with all other things being equal.
Think of the promises made to each other by the bride and the groom: “… in good times and bad, in sickness and in health.” You promise to love and be true to the other regardless of the life situation at hand. But when you find the other downtrodden and poor not hypothetically but in reality, you would – hopefully – choose to be with the beloved. This is similar in our case with Christ.
This should provide the context of the comment made by Pope Francis at the beginning of his pontificate, that he “… would like to have a poor Church for the poor”. Reading his comment through the lens of St. Ignatius, Pope Francis is saying that with holy indifference as our compass and driven by love, we should choose to be with our beloved Christ Jesus in the poor. It is not a matter of efficiency but one of love. In the end, this holy indifference requires us to care a lot, and love a lot. What do I choose, then? How am I choosing to love?