The Serenity of the Surrendered Self
Three Variations on a Theme
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Drei Formen der Gelassenheit
Editorial:Saint John Publications
Man Is Created. Explorations in Theology V. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014 (Reprinted with the kind permission of Ignatius Press)
On the Way to the Surrendered Self: The Sinner1
The Ignatian Exercises are characterized with all desirable clarity by a twofold rhythm whose first beat is the necessary prelude to the second. As early as the “Principle and Foundation” (no. 23), or even the “Introductory Explanations”, Ignatius begins training the exercitant with ruthless consistency in one thing and one thing only: indiferencia.2 Negatively, indiferencia means the conquest of all “disordered affections” that act as a prior constraint upon man, inducing him to seek the objects that attract him and to avoid those he finds unpleasant. Note that the respective “disorder” can very easily lie concealed behind tendencies “natural” to all men. After all, who would not “seek health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one” (no. 23)? It would seem, though, that Ignatius’ criterion for what counts as “disorder” here is not an idea or ideal of humanity. His yardstick is not anthropological but is from the outset transcendent and theological: God’s will for man in general and for every man in particular. In order to enable the exercitant to seek and find the “divine will” and to place his life at its “disposal” (disponer), Ignatius trains him in indiferencia, teaching him to dispose (disponer) his “soul to rid itself of all its disordered affections” (no. 1) or, positively, to “seek and find” the higher will of God. The theological picture of man that Ignatius sets before our eyes as the one and only norm in the “Principle and Foundation” has nothing to do with “religious self-actualization”. Rather, it accentuates the fact that man is ordered beyond himself to the “praise, reverence, and service of God”. And “the other things on the face of the earth”, all this-worldly immanence, is a gift that man is to order toward this transcendent goal.
Indiferencia at any price. The exercitant is trained in this goal by learning how to master the alternating “moods” of consolation and desolation. For the sake of indifference, a man who “feels an affection or inclination to something in a disordered way” should “strive with all possible effort to come over to the opposite of that to which he… is wrongly attached… [He] should try to bring [himself] to desire (affectarse) the opposite. [He] should make earnest prayers and other spiritual exercises and ask God our Lord for the contrary” (no. 16). This counsel may seem excessive, but by the time the Christian is called to follow in the footsteps of the suffering Christ, if not sooner, he will recognize just how normal and necessary Ignatius’ advice is, since it was precisely suffering, ignominy, and a short life that Christ chose for himself.
As the Exercises draw closer to their chief goal and culmination—to what Ignatius calls the “election” (elección)—the struggle to achieve indiferencia grows proportionately more intense. This is attested by the subtle, almost casuistic meditations that Ignatius devotes, for example, to the three “classes of men” (nos. 149 ff.), the second class being the decisive point of comparison. At stake is a sum of money that has been gotten by not entirely honest means; the men in this second group wish to “get rid” of their attachment to the money they have acquired, “but in such a way that they will keep the acquired money, so that God will come to where they desire.” The men in the third group, by contrast, “desire to get rid of the attachment, but in such a way that they have no inclination either to keep the acquired money or to dispose of it”. As we have already said, letting go will always be hard for the natural man; in order to achieve the proper self-surrender, then, he should “beg” God to deprive him of his treasure, “even though it is contrary to our lower nature” (no. 157).
The emptiness that characterizes indiferencia in the Exercises is totally different in kind from the emptiness sought in Eastern meditation practices. Ultimately, it is more radical as well. For, whereas one can engage in Eastern meditation without troubling oneself about what, theologically speaking, may have been disordered, that is, sinful, in one’s past life, the Exercises spend the entire “first week” clearing away sinful disorder. This may be the first time that the light of God’s judgment, of the full seriousness of the Cross, has shone into the exercitant’s life. That said, this first week of purification is not an end in itself but a preparation for something else: the dismantling of all one’s illusions about the imagined constructions and achievements of one’s own power; humiliation to the point of recognizing that we would be lost if our existence were not even yet hanging by the unbreakable thread of God’s grace (no. 71). The meditations on sin do not just create a huge emptiness, they open a yawning abyss, and, by arousing profound terror over one’s own disorder, they enable a yearning for true order in one’s life. Disponer has two meanings, and the initial beat of the rhythm of the Exercises serves the attainment of the first: to dispose oneself (through indifference) for the breakthrough of the second—in which God disposes over me.
The second, third, and fourth weeks of the Exercises subserve this second sense of disponer. If I meditate upon the life, suffering, and Resurrection of Jesus; if I follow him from situation to situation, then, provided I am not “deaf to his call” (no. 91), he will make his choice and enable me to understand it. He chooses, and we choose what he chooses for us. We now know “how we ought to dispose ourselves (disponer) in order to come to perfection in whatsoever state of life God our Lord may grant us to elect (nos diere para elegir)” (no. 135). This gift, which God has eternally chosen for us, is that for which we have been created; in choosing God’s choice, we fulfill the idea of ourselves as it exists in God and, so, attain the highest freedom. What God chooses for us, though, is always a mission to follow Christ within his Church. We can call it a “charism”, provided we interpret “charism” as coincident with “mission”. Only when we identify ourselves with our mission do we become persons in the deepest, theological sense of the word.
This claim can be verified by looking at the saints. Take Paul or Augustine or Francis or Ignatius as an example. What God saw as disorder had to be burned out of their lives so that, laying hold of their task, they could become the unique persons, the unique shapers of history, whom we recognize them to be centuries later. These examples also help us understand that the primary and central focus of the Exercises is a choice that is made only once, that brings the totality of one’s life into play, and that is therefore irrevocable: the choice in which I find my own identity in God.
Self-surrendered from the Start: Mary
The Exercises show a fondness for prayer “through Mary to Jesus, and through Jesus to the Father”, and Ignatius repeatedly recommends this method to the exercitant. This insistence can only mean that Mary—and of course Jesus—archetypally embody the governing idea of the Exercises, the ideal to which they aspire. We can easily show that Mary belongs to the ideal, because if, as Catholic dogma teaches, she was conceived immaculately and remained sinless ever after, then she has always already attained the perfection of the creature’s attitude of indiferencia vis-à-vis God. She has no need to struggle to overcome disordered inclinations. At every moment of her existence, she is ready for God’s call, though she of course remains a creature with the corresponding limits (limits, however, that are no hindrance to her readiness). She requires a time of maturation until the actual call comes to her in an explicit form. This diastasis3 between readiness and call is the clearest marker of her creaturely status, and it distinguishes her way of being human from her Son’s. During the time of her readiness prior to the call, she can make decisions that on the surface appear to contradict her later vocation, for example, her decision to marry Joseph. Looked at more deeply, however, these decisions fit perfectly into her calling and are even a necessary element in it. After all, her child has to have a legal right to be considered a “son of David”, and her union with Joseph secures that right. Moreover, in the scene where she receives the call itself, she can be perplexed about how she is supposed to fulfill God’s will (“How can this be…?”), but this perplexity implies no disorder on her part. Similarly, we are told that she is uncomprehending when she discovers the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple, and this noncomprehension undoubtedly continues to play a large role in her life up to and including the Cross. In fact, part of what she says Yes to is precisely the non-comprehension of much that she will be asked to do and suffer in obedience. How much less perfect, not to mention less human, she would seem if she did not have to go through the experience of the night, if she were not obliged to enter step by step into the darkness awaiting the Virgin of the Pietà. The difficulty she faces in life in spite of—or perhaps because of—her immaculate purity makes her an intercessor for sinners, whose mostly very different sort of perplexity is due to their wandering from the right path. She can suffer “com-passionately” with us sinners, and, like her Son, she can “learn” more deeply by suffering the “obedience” (Heb 5:8) that she has always affirmed in principle at the core of her being. Nevertheless, her entire path through the midst of tribulation is enclosed within the heart of the divine will and her vocation to be the Mother of the Messiah.
Mary journeys forward without the slightest misstep, and it is on account of this absolute accuracy that the exercitant requests her mediation. He asks her to lead him to the correct starting point: the conquest of all “disordered affections”, the indiferencia of the absolute Yes of the Handmaid of the Lord. She is the mistress of indifference because it was the place from which she herself never failed to begin (nos. 63, 109, 147, 156).
The Surrendered Self as Mission: Jesus
At first sight, one might be tempted to see Jesus’ calling as in some way analogous to his Mother’s. For example, one might consider his baptism in the Jordan as the moment when he supposedly receives the revelation of his election to a special filial relation with God. On this hypothesis, he would have been just an ordinary man among others before that time (since one cannot be the unique Son of the Father without knowing it). Of course, even this belated announcement of his election would not have raised him any higher than adoptive sonship. But in that case, the New Testament’s claims about his status as God’s Son by nature—claims that make a very early, and very decisive, appearance—would logically be pious exaggerations. The only problem, though, is that the whole edifice of Pauline and (later on) Johannine Christology rests entirely on Christ’s natural, hence, eternal Sonship (which transcends any sort of adoption).
If we hold fast to this natural Sonship, then we have to rule out the possibility of any temporal diastasis between Jesus’ human readiness and his mission from the Father (though we certainly can, indeed must, suppose that his consciousness of his mission reflected the gradual development he experienced as he grew to human maturity). There can be no such diastasis in Jesus because he is the Word of God who becomes man and is thus born, “not…of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:13). The same One who is born or begotten of God is also the Emissary sent by God into the world. Not only that, but the very fact that this emissary becomes man is already an act—the first act—of his mission. This mission itself, in turn, is nothing but the “timeward” side of his eternal procession from the Father. This is the express teaching of Saint Thomas: “The temporal procession is in its essence none other than the eternal procession. The only difference is that the former adds to the latter a relation to a temporal effect” (I, d. 14, q. I, a. I sol). By the same token, the Son’s assumption of a human nature is a function of a prior mission, a mission to which every gesture and attitude of his humanity refers.
This attitude certainly includes an indifference that is completely given over to, and available for, divine mission, and if we consider such indifference abstractly, bracketing the Incarnation of the Word, it can seem adequate to claim (as many theologians do) that “Jesus was the man who was totally surrendered to God”; or that “the fundamental trait of this man’s self-consciousness was to let God assert his presence as God in every act of his life”, to live a self-forgetfulness that coincided with a “lofty claim” (E. Jüngel). But this sort of self-surrender, while it “lets God assert his presence”, does not rise in the end above the level already attained by Mary. It leaves the decisive point unexplained: This man is much more than just a “hollow vessel” (as we also hear it said nowadays) through which God’s voice resounds; rather, he himself speaks God’s Word, indeed, speaks as God’s Word (“But I say unto you”), and so is God’s Word.
Concretely, then, there is not a single moment when we can consider Christ’s humanity as somehow facing the Word of God, not even in an attitude of indiferencia, self-forgetfulness, self-surrender, and so forth. Rather, Christ’s humanity can never be understood (nor can it ever understand itself) except as the presence of a mission that founds its entire existence. The most one can say is that its entire available space for indifference has always already been claimed by, and completely filled with, his objective mission and his subjective consciousness of it.
The “space” about which we are talking belongs, of course, to the essence of human nature and constitutes its most precious core: freedom. Christ, then, also realizes the highest potentialities of human freedom, as Klaus Hemmerle explains in the following passage:
The point of the Incarnation is that God gives himself to the utmost. This means that Jesus’ human freedom is the most exposed finite freedom that exists. In other words, it is the finite freedom whose free obedience, whose free self-giving to the Father, is the least automatic self-giving imaginable. And yet precisely because it is, there is no contradiction in saying that this self-giving simultaneously stands within the infallible resoluteness of the divine freedom and the divine self-gift. The highest drama and the purest release from tension coincide.4
We must not forget, however, the source of the drama to which Hemmerle points here: Jesus’ human freedom has to bear—and experience—the full burden of sinners’ capacity to resist God’s will. Jesus must suffer this experience through to the end in the temptation on the Mount of Olives. Nevertheless, his unshakeable indifference as the One sent (“not my will, but yours, be done”) holds firm.5
The Son’s temporal mission, which is substantially identical with his eternal procession from the Father, cannot be ascribed only to the Divine Person of the Logos (as opposed to the man Jesus) but must also be attributed to the humanity in which the Logos acts. Even as man, then, Jesus must know that the foundation and goal of his existence is identical with the task he receives from his Father (and not simply from the Trinity): the task of reconciling the world with God. The Father is of course free to shape this task however he pleases. The final “how” is something Jesus does not need to know; in fact, he does not want to know it; rather, he leaves the decisive “Hour” in the Father’s hands. He lives “today and tomorrow, and the third day” (Lk 13:32). He lives, that is, for his task, in an ongoing unification with the Father’s will revealed to him by the Holy Spirit. At the same time, he bears the Spirit in himself and so draws on his own (not in the least hollow) spontaneity to give shape to his divine task. This is how he appears to us in the Gospels: he, the One, whom no analysis can dismantle into two juxtaposed consciousnesses or “I’s”. No, this One is conscious that the deepest thing about him, his Person, is the Father’s task, a task he not only has to proclaim, like the prophets, but that he actually has to be.
It goes without saying that the foregoing remarks are not an explanation of the mystery of Christ, whose further exploration would in any case require a whole new set of considerations. Yet they do lead to at least one clear conclusion: Jesus’ mission, and his consciousness of it, while completely unique, do not remove him to some lofty distance from us; rather, they place him before our eyes as the archetype and model whom we are called to follow. True, our readiness (indiferencia) does not originally coincide with our recognition and acceptance of mission, but we can at least put our readiness totally at the service of our mission when the call does resound (and it can sometimes resound in a series of earthquake-like stages). Mary was able to do this because her readiness was always already perfect. Our job is to learn how to do it in the school of the Exercises, by purifying our readiness from disordered affections. With all the realism demanded by the exercises of the First Week, we need to cleanse our readiness from the filth of our sins, because, without the equally realistic conversion that occurs in the sinner’s “colloquy” with his victim, the crucified Son of God, every form of meditation is nothing but illusion. Because this conversion, this repentance, and this (general) confession (no. 44) are so absolutely necessary for us, Ignatius can insist with a seemingly exaggerated emphasis on the struggle to achieve true—as opposed to merely imagined—indifference. Even in his preliminary remarks on election, he is still vigorously warning the exercitant against choosing a state of life without indifference: “This is a way in which many are in error; for they take up a predisposed or bad choice and then regard it as a divine vocation. For every vocation from God is something pure, stainless (limpia),6 and without mingling of the flesh or any other disordered affection” (no. 172).
- “The serenity of the surrendered self” (and variations thereof) is meant to render the difficult-to-translate German word Gelassenheit, which in everyday speech means something like “relaxed serenity” and in the mystical literature means something like “the state of having left one’s self behind”.—Trans.↩
- Diastasis (Diastase, in German) transcribes a Greek word meaning distance or gap. The word was used by some of the Greek Fathers to indicate the non-identity between various aspects of the creature’s being. This non-identity is a mark of creatureliness as distinct from divine being.—Trans.↩
- Klaus Hemmerle, Thesen zu einer trinitarischen Ontologie (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1967), 65.↩
- On this point, see Hans Urs von Balthasar, Does Jesus Know Us? Do We Know Him? Trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983).↩
- Literally: “clean”.—Trans.↩