Ignatian Discernment: First Principle and Foundation

St. Ignatius of Loyola’s First Principle and Foundation summarizes the goal of life and the way to achieve this goal.

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.

Ignatius of Loyola, S. (1914). The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. (E. Mullan, Trans.) (p. 19). New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons.

Here’s some quotes from Fr. Michael Gaitley on the First Principle and Foundation:

“The First Principle and Foundation teaches us that we’re made to live the “first thing” (a life of praise, reverence, and service to God) by using the “second things” (the other things on the face of the earth) only insofar as they help us to live the first thing. Not only that , it teaches that if a second thing becomes an obstacle to living out the first thing, then we should rid ourselves of it. To find the right balance between this “using” and “ridding”, Ignatius says, “We must make ourselves indifferent to all created things.” (Fr. Michael Gaitley, Consoling the Heart of Jesus, 37).

“The principle works like this: If we stay fixed on the beauty and glory of the Lord Jesus, if we taste his wonderful sweetness, then we’ll discover he’s much better than any doughnut. If we truly behold his glory, then we’ll say with St. Paul that all else is dung! (see Phil 3:8). If we keep our eyes on the first thing, then like the early Jesuits, we’ll exclaim, “All for the greater glory of God!” And we’ll charge to our goal past dozens of doughnuts with ease… The Lord Jesus wants to help us more than we want to be helped… Jesus longs for saints, and he’s more than willing to help those who aspire to sanctity” (ibid 38-9).

Fr. Spitzer’s Moral Conversion and Resisting Temptation (click here for copy)

As St. Ignatius implies, if we are to reach a deep level of moral conversion, we will have to get our priorities right.

Saint Ignatius’ priorities reflect the teachings of Jesus – “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well (Mt. 6:33). St. Ignatius wants the retreatant to go further – to understand what will be required in order to live for these priorities – namely, indifference to what might be called, “The things of this world.”

As we read his words, particularly his example of indifference – “So that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life…” – we might at first be overwhelmed by its seeming impossibility. We might be thinking, “How could I possibly be indifferent to sickness, poverty, dishonor, and a short life?”

If we focus solely on this phrase, we fail to grasp the whole context in which it is said – the real meaning intended by Saint Ignatius. So what is the whole context? It is his first statement that the true end of our lives is to save our souls – to be saved by our loving God. To do this, we will want to follow God’s will which means praying (praising and reverencing) and discipleship (following and serving). He recognizes that there will be two huge obstacles to prayer and discipleship in our lives: 1. Undue attachment to created things. 2. Spiritual evil (whom he refers to as “the evil one”).

So what is he asking of us in our pursuit of salvation? He is asking us first to prioritize our salvation (through prayer and discipleship) above any other created thing – even health, riches, honors, and a long life. He recognizes that if we truly prioritize prayer and discipleship toward salvation above everything else, we will direct everything else – health, riches, honors, and a long life — to the end for which we were created – eternal life with the Lord of unconditional love.

For St. Ignatius then, the first step in moving from spiritual to moral conversion is to subordinate all worldly pursuits – the pursuit of health, wealth, honors (ego-comparative advantage), and a long life to prayer and discipleship for the Lord. This will enable us to continuously ask the question “Is my pursuit of health, wealth, etc. commensurate with my relationship with the Lord in prayer and my desire to follow Him?” Another way of asking this question is, “Is this particular pursuit interfering with my desire to pray and be a disciple of the Lord?” If so, then I have to find a way of modifying or modulating it so that it won’t interfere with my salvation or the salvation of others whose lives I touch. Notice that Ignatius does not expect us to stop a particular pursuit that seems to be interfering with prayer or discipleship but only to modify or modulate the pursuit so that it ceases to interfere with our higher priorities. We now have our first step in the movement from spiritual to moral conversion – to prioritize prayer and discipleship over worldly pursuits – and to continually ask the question, “Is this particular pursuit interfering with my prayer and discipleship?” If so, then modify or modulate it.


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