“Let me be food for the wild beasts, through whom I can reach God. I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may prove to be pure bread.”
Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, in Syria, refused to worship the emperor Trajan; consequently, in 107 AD, he was thrown to the lions in the Roman Coliseum. On the journey from Antioch to Rome he forbad any Christians he met along the way to intercede for him or to make his journey less arduous, such was his desire for martyrdom, such was his spiritual freedom, his indifference. That sense of freedom and indifference is evidenced in the letter he wrote to the Christians in Rome from which the above statement was excerpted.
Freedom is referenced in all three scripture passages today. St. Paul speaks of a social or physical freedom from slavery as well as freedom from religious burdens. The psalm speaks of walking in freedom for those who seek to follow the precepts and directives of God. And the Gospel speaks of the freedom of the followers of Jesus, newly released from external rituals. This is an interior freedom, a spiritual freedom. Something we all long for.
Freedom in the New Testament concerns the ultimate relationship between the believer and Christ. Freedom in a positive sense is to be bound by loyalty to God’s will revealed in Christ.
This spiritual freedom is at the heart of St. Ignatius’ prayer on “the principle and foundation” in The Spiritual Exercises. We are asked to use creatures correctly, to seek balance in our life, to be indifferent to the quality of life (i.e. rich or poor, short or long). But far from being a negative aspect of our spiritual life, this Ignatian indifference is not so much leaving all things, but rather finding a person and building a relationship with that person, Christ. It means being dominated by Christ; it means to desire the will of God so strongly that one wishes to choose the better way of praising, reverencing and serving God.
We can be free of all things only if we are dominated by God. This indifference comes only with an awareness of God’s love for us.
We see this indifference modeled for us in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, his only son; it is expressed in Mary’s fiat—“be it done unto me according to Your word;” it is evident in the attitude of John the Baptist that he “must decrease as Jesus increases;” and we see it in Ignatius of Antioch’s total openness to facing certain death in the Coliseum, ground to death by lions. All were motivated by a recognition of God’s unconditional love.
But you know what? This is the ideal! These folks are all friends of God, saints. The likes of us have to struggle mightily to keep Christ at the center of our life much less be valiant in the face of the multiple obstacles, distractions and temptations that fill each of our lives and the broader contemporary world. Ours is the daily struggle for balance, for finding a niche in life where Jesus can abide and where the Gospel values can be lived. We pray in doubt and hope. We pray in both light and darkness.
Of course we all strive for the indifference of The Exercises, for the spiritual freedom of “the principle and foundation;” realistically, however, this is a life long enterprise. It is easier, I think, if you know how much you are loved by God. For the basic truth that makes us free is that God loves us with an overwhelming love. Seeking that truth can be a very good focus for one’s prayer. It is a life long quest. But the reward will be great! One glimpse of this freedom is palpable!
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