I’m among many who have benefitted from experimenting with the practices found in Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Friends from various Christian traditions practice the Prayer of Examen, a contemplative review of the day in which we reflect on moments of “consolation” when God seemed especially present or “desolation” when God seemed distant or absent.
One less-frequently-discussed Ignatian concept has also captured my attention. It is called agere contra, which in Latin means “to act against.” In practice, it is to act directly against thoughts and actions that aren’t life-giving. Right now, I’m “acting against” distractions that would prevent me from writing this article. But there are much more insidious impulses and desires that I do well to act against. Jesuit scholar Edward Lo, S.J. describes agere contra this way:
We can be attached to patterns of behaviour that seemingly make us feel safer, be they our insecurities, doubts, or unwillingness to be pulled out of our comfort zones. They prevent us from living our lives fully in the way the Lord intends. When we live our lives in Spirit and in Truth, we live in a true freedom. Agere contra helps us to confront those things that hold us back from such freedom; better yet, it helps us to grow into this freedom.
What I find compelling here is both the approach of a life lived “in Spirit and in Truth” and the vision of “true freedom” that awaits us on the other side of our resistance. This isn’t about a white-knuckle, flesh-empowered determination to live a devout Christian life. It isn’t about achieving optimum health, fitness and self-actualization. Rather, a Spirit-empowered life in Christ requires the attentive engagement of my will through spiritual exercises to “act against” the habitual thoughts and patterns that serve me poorly, harm others and deprive me of abundant life in the kingdom of God now. For me this often looks like stepping into risk and initiating challenging conversations instead of taking refuge in passivity. For others it might look like setting aside anxiety-driven work to practice Sabbath, solitude and silence.
This is where Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises meets Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart.* Both Ignatius and Willard champion an authentic Christian spirituality that engages spiritual disciplines that are rooted in and empowered by the grace and love of God. It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of an outward conformity that leaves me empty inside. Willard says, “one of the great dangers in the process of spiritual formation is that self-denial and death to self will be taken as but one more technique or ‘job’ for those who wish to save their own life (soul).”
But Ignatius and Willard cast a vision of a transformed inward and outward Christian life that far exceeds what I’m tempted to settle for. Why bother “acting against” intense but self-destructive pleasures and attachments if bland sobriety and dutiful church involvement is all that awaits me on the other side? Ignatius and Willard offer instead a vision of life that makes it possible to share in the character, mission, suffering and triumph of Christ. I’m reminded of Col. 2: 9-10: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.”
It is this fullness in Christ I move toward when I “act against” the thoughts and actions that keep me empty. A lesser vision won’t propel me to overcome the inertia towards worldly contentment; it won’t enable me to foster new life-giving thoughts and actions that will, over time, make fullness in Christ my lived reality. A lesser vision won’t sustain me when I “act against” personal comfort and preferences to venture with Christ deeper into his mission to engage the brokenness of the world.
Agere contra names the engagement of the will that cooperates with the grace and Spirit of God and moves us deeper into life with Christ.
What thoughts or actions do you feel invited to “act against” in the spirit and grace of God?
What is your vision of abundant life in Christ that compels you to persist in this activity when you experience inevitable opposition?
Here are some helpful resources for more on agere contra, Ignatian spirituality and Dallas Willard:
Agere Contra: Why Go the Opposite Way
A Center for Spiritual Renewal
Experiencing various curriculums of Christlikeness through the contributions of Dallas Willard, Ancient Christian Spirituality, and Ignatius of Loyola.
*Catherine Looker, SSJ, has written an excellent academic article demonstrating how Ignatius of Loyola and Dallas Willard can serve as spiritual guides using the Spiritual Exercises and Renovation of the Heart. It is available for purchase here.