St Ignatius: the dark side of entitlement

St Ignatius of Loyola is a saint of many roles. Some like to remember him as an ex-military man. But he was also in his time variously a tongue-tied mystic, an ascetical pilgrim, a mature student, a man of affairs and a meticulous administrator. And Rubens made sure that no one before or since has ever looked as good in a chasuble as Ignatius did. For me, in the strange and turbulent time we are now living through, a particular angle is emerging which speaks to contemporary concerns. He is a saint who shows the way out of the imprisoning mindset our culture has come to call “entitlement”, and into the freedom of mutual love and care.

To understand who Ignatius is for the Christian tradition, it helps to remember that early on after his conversion, in a rather rash and conceited way, he found himself wanting to outdo St Francis of Assisi in holiness (St Dominic too, but that’s another story…). His life was to unfold as a new iteration of the narrative of il poverello, one more of those “riches to rags” stories which litter Christian – and Jesuit – history,  in which a woman or man of high rank comes to discover Jesus Christ as the world’s hidden treasure and surrenders everything they have in order to follow Him.

The emblematic moment of that reversal in Ignatius’ life is the vigil he made at the great Benedictine monastery of Montserrat, during which he cast off all his possessions in order to pursue the life of a holy mendicant.

The eve of the Annunciation of Our Blessed Lady in the year 1522 was the time he chose to carry out the project he had formed. At nightfall, unobserved by anyone, he approached a beggar, and taking off his own costly garments gave them to the beggar. He then put on the pilgrim's dress he had previously bought, and hastened to the church, where he threw himself on his knees before the altar of the Blessed Mother of God, and there, now kneeling, now standing, with staff in hand, he passed the entire night. (Autobiography of St Ignatius, Chapter 2)

Why is this strangely powerful scene so relevant for us today? If I had to choose one word to sum up the greatest obstacle to friendship with God that we face in the rich world, it would be “entitlement”. I have come to notice in myself and others an over-powering, unspoken, usually unconscious conviction that resides in the dark, inarticulate recesses of our minds that we have a right to something, a possession, a person or experience. Precisely because it is usually invisible to us, it is hard to see how much this sense of entitlement distorts our perception and causes damage to us and to others. Ignatius discovered on his spiritual pilgrimage the power of “attachments” to prevent us from living in the freedom of the Gospel. But it is clear that for him the most significant attachments we harbour pertain to our sense of selfhood, our identity and our place in the world. God slowly but surely showed him another way and so it was that Ignatius managed to “disentitle” himself in a radical way. The course of his life has a great deal to teach us about how we too can escape the clutches of entitlement and enjoy the freedom of following Jesus Christ.

It’s a relatively modern coinage, entitlement, but the truth it captures is an ancient one. In Genesis 4, Cain is so outraged when God rejects his sacrificial offering in favour his younger brother’s, that he is driven to the first act of homicide. Why could he not just accept God’s admittedly capricious preference? It didn’t seem to come with any consequence. He must have been labouring under the misapprehension that he was somehow entitled to God’s approval, and that hence an injustice had been done, a particularly humiliating one, given that it is his younger brother who gains the advantage. Perhaps his entitlement derives from the serpent’s deceitful words to his mother, Eve, which cast doubt on God’s integrity. Cain’s frustrated entitlement issues, as it usually does, in bitter resentment and murderous rage.

The entitlement of the firstborn son is a recurrent topos of the Hebrew Bible and the theme finds a culmination of sorts in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). Jesus addresses the parable to those religious leaders who were seeking to end Jesus’ mission of mercy because it subverted their own deeply held conviction that they themselves did not need mercy. Jesus’s calculus of mercy subverted their sense that they were entitled to God’s approval.

One of the things the parable does is to bring that hidden sense of entitlement to the surface for all to see – and feel. Entitlement is usually outside the field of vision of those who shelter it. It only usually comes to light when its expectations are not met – and it then makes itself felt as self-righteous anger. It is almost always the case that the reader of the Prodigal Son suspects that an injustice has been perpetrated against the older son. This is the whiff of entitlement in our own hearts.

Entitlement springs from many sources. Looking back at my own life, I notice that I have felt entitled by virtue of multiple aspects of my identity: elder brother, cleric, male, white, British citizen, my education, even my acquaintances, interests and hobbies. But entitlement doesn’t only spring from privilege; detecting it is not just a game for the woke. Entitlement is also frequently operative in the victims of injustice or those who are marginalised and persecuted. Indeed, we can even turn these aspects of experience into warrants of entitlement: “How dare they not give me my dues as a victim?”

Perhaps the most widespread and consequential entitlement in operation in the early twenty-first century is the almost universally held assumption that our generation has the right to consume without limit the goods and resources of our planet, regardless of the cost to future generations. It is obviously irrational to think that we can live as we are without jeopardising the well-being of our children and grand-children. But challenge our entitlement and see what a violent reaction you provoke!

Another of our contemporary pre-occupations, too, is rightly linked to entitlement: the widespread practice of abuse against the vulnerable by those who occupy positions of trust and power. It is not unusual for those who carry out domestic abuse, for example, to appeal to entitled beliefs to justify their actions. How else to explain why one is able to disregard a person’s innate dignity other than by invoking some kind of license to do so?

Entitlement is intractable. How can we ever hope to move beyond it, to see how it operates in us and to disengage from it? No doubt there are many ways out, but the one that has helped me is that of Ignatius, who shows the way forward by pointing to the self-emptying nature of Jesus and who makes Him the model for creaturely life.

Jesus Christ, as St Paul says, “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2: 6-7). Jesus, who alone among human beings had good reason to feel entitled to parity with the Father, renounces it. His incarnation is not only the act of putting on human nature but that of giving up all that his divine Sonship entitled Him to. Ignatius teaches us to contemplate this kenotic Jesus, who longs to bring about the salvation of the human race by letting go of the privilege of divinity. He asks us to look long and lovingly on the Christ child, so fragile and undefended in the manger. Ignatius wants us to acquire deep down a taste for this self-emptying movement which is the very opposite of and antidote to entitlement.

Ignatius has us contemplate the effects of Jesus’ renunciation of entitlement, manifest in the way He deals with Satan proposing a number of eminently reasonable and attractive forms of entitlement: “If you are the Son of God…” (Luke 4) We are to gaze on how Jesus lived this out, never drawing attention to His own power, always putting it at the service of others, even, in the final analysis, when it became clear that it would cost His life. Finally, we are to behold Christ’s self-emptying in all its fullness in the Passion, watching as Jesus surrenders all, making no complaint, uttering neither judgment nor condemnation, only showing concern for those standing at the foot of the cross.

Is this to say that we are called give up our self-respect, to allow others to trample upon us, to surrender all our rights and our dignity? The answer to that is a clear “no” and neither Christ nor Ignatius propose such a self-destructive path. What we are called to renounce is our sense of entitlement, because we can never experience the gifts which God showers upon us every day if our fundamental sense is that they are due us. When we renounce entitlement, we liberate a space, the space of gratuity and gift, a space in which the Spirit can act. And in that space it becomes possible to discover the love of the Father in all its surprising richness.

The Spiritual Exercises end with a meditation on the love of God. The final prayer, known as the Suscipe, illustrates perfectly the relationship with God that becomes possible on the far side of entitlement. It is a dance of mutual gift in which I no longer hold to that which is due me because God is so vividly present in my life as the super-abundant source of everything, the One who keeps giving, and Whom I find most perfectly when I return the gift, spending myself for Him:

Take Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I now return it. All is Yours, dispose of it wholly according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; that is enough for me.

Damian Howard SJ

Feast of St Ignatius, 31st July 2020