This is a guest post from Karen Beattie as part of her blog-tour on her new book, Rock-Bottom Blessings! (If you have not read her book yet, I highly recommend it! She tackles the issues of finding God in the middle of some pretty hard times.)
The year after I was laid off from my job, in 2009, I decided to join a group from my parish to make our way through the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
It was a difficult year. I was unemployed. My husband was in school changing careers and only working one part-time job. We had to put an adoption on hold because we didn’t have enough money. And I thought God had forgotten us.
I sat in our small condo looking at heirlooms, including my diamond wedding ring—which had been my mother’s—and adding up how much money we could get for each item. I was panicked that we would run out of money, have to sell all of our possessions and live in the basement of my father’s condo.
As the months wore on without any prospects for fulltime work, two competing desires started having a tug of war inside of me: My desire to control everything and make sure we were financially secure, and my desire to trust God and let go of my fears.
Most of the time I was obsessed with money and time. But in my more sane moments, I felt peace. I could sense God’s presence, and trusted that all would be well. But those moments didn’t last long.
Our Ignatian group met in a candle-lit room. We practiced a series of prayers, meditations, and reflections developed by St. Ignatius to help us deepen our spiritual experience. We discussed where we could see God in our lives.
About halfway through the 34-week long retreat experience, I discovered that St. Ignatius was also torn between the desire for wealth, and “the way of Christ,” which could lead to spiritual humility and freedom.
In the Spiritual Exercises (contemporary version), St. Ignatius says, “People find themselves tempted to covet whatever seems to make them rich, and … because they possess some thing or things, they find themselves pursuing and basking in the honor and esteem of the world. This… raises up the false sense of personal identity and value in which a blinding pride has its roots. . . .”
And according to Ignatius, the way of Christ is a 180-degree turn in the opposite direction.
“Jesus adopts a strategy which directly opposes that of Lucifer: try to help and free people, not enslave or oppress them. Jesus’ strategy is simple too…If I have been graced with the gift of poverty…then I am rich; if I have nothing of myself … I have no power and I am despised and receive the contempt of the world … if I have nothing, my only possession is Christ … and this is to be really true to myself—the humility of a person whose whole reality and value is grounded in being created and redeemed in Christ.”
At our spiritual retreat gathering, we imagined ourselves following each of these two paths.
I felt anxiety and ugliness when I imagined following the way of riches. I realized that’s what I had been doing much of my adult life—trying to attain material wealth and create my own “abundance” to help me feel like I was OK, that I was worth something, that I was secure and loved. That I mattered.
I was tired of it all. Plus, it wasn’t working. Not only was I not able to attain material wealth, but also the striving for it left me depleted, empty, and anxious.
In contrast, thinking about the way of Christ felt freeing. What a relief it would be to stop caring about how much I had materially, or even how much I achieved or how I looked to others. To become more humble, and to live a life free from the striving. To rest in the peacefulness of knowing I am loved by God, and that is enough.
I wanted to be like Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who chose a life of poverty. She said, “I’d like to live my life so close to the bottom that when the system collapses I don’t have far to fall.”
So I started praying the words of St. Ignatius:
Lord God, may
Nothing ever distract me from your love…
Neither health or sickness
Wealth or poverty
Honor nor dishonor
Long life or short life
May I never seek nor choose to be other
That you wish or intend.
As I prayed that prayer, the tug-of-war inside me ceased. Slowly, the desire for financial security, or material comforts, started losing its grip. I can’t say exactly how it happened. But I told my spiritual director that I felt that I was on the right path. That maybe I had been on the right path all along and didn’t even know it.
Karen Beattie is author of Rock-Bottom Blessings: Discovering God’s Abundance When All Seems Lost(Loyola Press), from which this essay is adapted. She has a master’s degree in journalism and has written about women’s issues, the arts, and spirituality for several publications. She currently works as writing director for a digital creative agency. She lives with her husband, daughter and geriatric cat on the north side of Chicago. To learn more, visit her website.