Ah yes, another fancy Latin term from the Jesuits. From the producers of magis, ad majorem Dei gloriam and others, we bring you agere contra. Compared to its more famous counterparts, agere contra belongs to the “underrated” category. It means “to act against” in English. This begs the question: What exactly are we acting against?
Agere Contra is to act directly against my behaviours that are not life-giving. For example, if I find I chronically overeat, I act against this tendency by fasting a little, even from a just amount of food. Let's face it: We all have such behaviours in our lives, and they often take the form of avoidance. It could be the undesired chores that literally dirty our hands, being in situations in which we feel uncomfortable, or interactions with certain people whose personalities we find particularly jarring. We should note that agere contra is not simply about doing the opposite for its own sake. Otherwise, it would be a matter of “I go against these tendencies because I am strong, I am capable, and I can do it! Don't let anyone tell you that you can't!” Such a sentiment would be merely a self-centred demonstration of will-power. While exercising the will is important, our motive should be the God-centred desire to put off the “old man”, and put on the new in Christ.
We may not even be aware of our weaknesses. We may unknowingly avoid certain people, and not know that it is because our preoccupation with self-esteem. Naming what “owns” us is an important first step. While it would be nice to find out why I behave the way I do, a theoretical understanding would not guarantee that I would subsequently act against it. Just because I know that I hate taking out the garbage does not mean that I will automatically make the effort to do it. Indeed, knowing “why” is not a prerequisite; sometimes we discover the reason through the process of agere contra.
We can be attached to patterns of behaviour that seemingly make us feel safer, be they our insecurities, doubts, or unwillingness to be pulled out of our comfort zones. They prevent us from living our lives fully in the way the Lord intends. When we live our lives in Spirit and in Truth, we live in a true freedom. Agere contra helps us to confront those things that hold us back from such freedom; better yet, it helps us to grow into this freedom.
St. Ignatius of Loyola sees this through the lens of consolation and desolation, that is, how we are drawn closer to or away from God. In the Spiritual Exercises, he writes that when we are in a state of desolation, we may not feel like doing the spiritual practices that used to bring us joy. Considered within the dynamics of the retreat, we might want to terminate our prayers before the usual hour is finished. But, in the spirit of agere contra, St. Ignatius advises that we go the other way and do an hour and five minutes of prayer.
Another example would be St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In Chapter Nine of her autobiography The Story of a Soul, she mentioned that there was a holy nun in the Carmelite convent who rubbed her the wrong way in everything that she did. She found the holy nun very annoying. The natural reaction to this would be to either ignore her, be civil with her, or latch out at her in a passive-aggressive way. But she chose to act against it by being extra nice and caring to her, and would pray for her every time she saw her. Finally, this happened:
One day she said to me with a beaming face: “My dear Sœur Thérèse, tell me what attraction you find in me, for whenever we meet, you greet me with such a sweet smile.” Ah! What attracted me was Jesus hidden in the depths of her soul – Jesus who makes sweet even that which is most bitter.The last line highlights the core of agere contra: to concretely find the Lord and be attached to him in situations that threaten to pull us away from him. It is to not rely on our own strength or some attractive psychological concepts, but to rely on the grace of God, which alone carries us to him. As I am writing this, I can already think of a few things that I myself should learn to apply this concept. In fact, it is so obvious to me that it is embarrassing. I invite you to also reflect on your lives and find these moments where agere contra will be helpful.