HOMILY for the memorial of St Ignatius of Loyola
St Ignatius’ famous Spiritual Exercises begin with the consideration that the goal of our human life is to love God, and so, to have fullness of life with him for ever. And everything in God’s good creation can be used to help us love God better if they direct us towards that goal, or can hinder us if they displace God as the object of our love. So, he says, we should “desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created”. Because, it seems to me, we are created by Love for love, so that the more we love God and neighbour the more alive we become, the more truly human we are, because we are becoming more and more what God meant us to be until in heaven we become one with God, one with Love itself.
Some people may have difficulty reconciling this image of God as pure Love with the doctrine of hell, with the challenging image Christ uses in today’s Gospel of evildoers being thrown into the “furnace of fire” where men and women will “weep and gnash their teeth” (Mt 13:41f). But the fact is that hell is only a possibility because of love. Because love has to be, as St Ignatius says, desired and chosen. We can’t be forced to love, be automatically programmed to love, or just commanded to love. We have to freely choose to love, otherwise, if there were any compulsion at all, it wouldn’t be love, would it? And if we can freely choose to love, we can also freely choose not to love. That is the sobering reality of our human freedom and the fact that our choices matter and we are responsible for what we freely choose to do and who we become.
The more we reject love, the more we become less than what God intended for us; we become less human, less alive, so to speak. So that hell, like the ancient Jewish understanding of Sheol, the afterlife, is a place of shadows because we’ll become a dim reflection of what we’re meant to be. For this is what the absence of love does to us: we’re diminished and fade away.
But isn’t the image of hell as a fiery furnace an image of divine wrath and eternal punishment? I don’t think this is altogether accurate. For in fact, fire is an image for divine love. So, the Holy Spirit, who is the Love of God is depicted as fire; and Christ says that he wishes this fire were already blazing on earth, and that he has come to bring this fire to earth: the purifying and healing fire of divine love. So, to those who choose to love, they become aflame with the Holy Spirit, filled with love and it brings peace, joy, and eternal life: heaven. But to those who choose evil and hatred, this love is experienced as a torment, and thus, hell. As St Symeon the New Theologian said: “Love’s power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it”.
However, even in our free choices, God doesn’t just abandon us. Because he loves us, God is always giving us actual graces to help us to make better choices, prompting us through the good things of his creation, the good people we encounter, and even the situations we find ourselves in. As St Ignatius knew from the actual grace of conversion that he had experienced while convalescing from a war injury, God is always working in our lives to be true to his Name. For ‘Jesus’ means ‘God saves’. So, God’s grace is always offered to us to deliver us for the glory of his Name, as we said in our psalm response. This is something the Founder of the Society of Jesus knew so well. But he also knew that we do have to freely respond to God’s offer and, so, choose to love.
Hence St Ignatius wrote this beautiful prayer:
“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will, all I have and call my own.
You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me”.
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