165-168. Three Degrees of the Love of God
Preparatory notes:

We gave the title to these reflections “three degrees of the love of God” although Ignatius speaks of “three kinds of humility” in the original text of the Spiritual Exercises. It is because Ignatius uses sparingly the word “love” and prefers to speak of “humility”, of the generous service of God, convinced that love consists of deeds and service rather than words.[1]. As we will see it is better to speak of three degrees of love then of three kinds since they are interconnected and cannot be distinguished clearly from each other; they are rather three sides or dimensions of the same self-giving commitment toward God that consists of concrete actions[2]. We could say also that these are degrees of centering more and more on God instead of oneself, stages of development from egocentrism toward authentic altruism.

This reflection is intended to help the preparation for decision by considering the necessary attitudes of the companions for a good choice from a different perspective than that we have already seen in the “Three Types of Attitudes” [149-157]. At this juncture of the Exercises the companions have a good occasion to work together on their insights reading this reflection; they should in fact have at least one meeting connected with this material when they listen and support each other and likewise try to form a common attitude for the subsequent times.

The first degree of the love of God:

The first degree of the love of God is a basic commitment that the person would never want to exclude God from his or her life and with a certain spiritual freedom resolves oneself not to turn away from the will of God which gave him or her an existence ordered to a specific goal[3]. With other words, the first degree means to love God in the sense that Jesus intended: “whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me” (Jn 14:21). Jesus makes also clear the commandment to obey is the love toward others: “I give you a new commandment: love one another” (Jn 14:34) and again “This I command you: love one another” (Jn 15:17). There is no other authentic way to love God and to love Jesus Christ than to love all men and women, children of God with whom Jesus identified himself (Mt 25:40); consequently hatred toward others is rejection of God[4].

This fundamental choice for God called traditionally the “state of grace” or freedom from mortal sin. Mortal sin consists of the complete rejection of God and it is named so because its consequence is the inability of the person to achieve the goal of his or her existence, a sort of final death. We could argue about how frequent is mortal sin, and maybe we should take it more seriously than we are used to. If we take sin seriously, surely will not fall in the casuistic trap of past spiritualities and wonder about how much meat on Friday is mortal or think that missing a Sunday Mass will cause eternal damnation. If we take mortal sin seriously, we should understand its existential weight and we need to examine ourselves in this light. For example, when we say that hatred is rejection of God, it does not refer to a passing emotional outburst but to a more or less conscious but obstinate negative will, desire of destruction and suffering toward individuals, toward certain groups of people, toward other nations or religions. Maybe we can conclude that mortal sin is not “our case”; surely, if the companions decided to make the Spiritual Exercises honestly, they are opted for God at least intentionally.

On the base of what said before we can conclude that the first degree of the love of God is necessary for the fulfillment of our existence or for salvation. Since “salvation” means definite and eternal life with God only who opts for him can or wants to obtain it. If someone would want only this first degree of the love of God, so to say to “slip into heaven” by the mere necessary means of avoiding mortal sin he or she might be in a danger not to succeed at all, as of walking on the razor’s edge. This state is vulnerable, as the person who has the first degree of love wants to attain the goal of his or her existence but strives toward it more or less by chance, without resolving to use all things as mere means toward the end and so can be mislead by the same means. Despite its vulnerability the first degree of love of God is a serious determination since as St. Ignatius describes it in [165], one who achieved this state would not consider committing mortal sin neither to save his or her life nor to become “the lord of all creation”.

The second degree of the love of God

St. Ignatius explains the difference between the first and second degree by the distinction between mortal and venial sin. As opposed to mortal sin, venial sin does not mean a fundamental rejection of God, but rather a problem in the relationship with him. As for the goal of human existence, if mortal sin is an obstacle in achieving it, venial sin consists in a difficulty to fulfillment or salvation, caused by the improper choice of means to proceed on the way toward God. The person who lives the second degree of the love of God commits oneself to avoid even the venial sins, which means with other words that he or she tries to choose always the right means toward the final goal of his or her existence. This recalls the “as far as” of the “Principle and Foundation” [23], the spiritual freedom toward all created things which renders one to be able to choose always what is helpful to achieve the final goal, and let go whatever would be hindering this. This degree does not mean yet the strong resolve to strive for what is “more” appropriate described in the last paragraph of the “Principle and Foundation”, but to live it is a great virtue as Karl Rahner points out: “Who among us chooses the better means of serving God in the rush of everyday living, does nor prefer riches to poverty or a long life to a short life?”[5]

We can see also that the second degree of the love of God is closely connected with the first one. If somebody honestly tries to live the basic commitment to God, and would not consider committing mortal sin not even to save his or her own life that person is still in the danger of falling into rejecting God indirectly by choosing the wrong means and absolutizing a created thing. To avoid this danger the basic commitment needs to develop into the second degree of love toward God. In order to ensure our way toward God it is necessary not only to recognize the goal and desire to achieve it but also to choose the right means toward it.

The third degree of the love of God

The third degree of the love of God is a “falling in love” experience, an active choice to be conformed to Jesus and follow his way. It is based on the trust in God similarly as we saw in the “Two Standards” [136-148] or in the “Kingdom” [91-99] meditations. The personal love of Jesus does not mean some affection toward an imaginary person - which in itself would be a rather easy and also false attitude. We should always remember that love toward Jesus means a commitment to the values contemplated in his life and actually serving the contemporary Christ, the “least ones” with whom he identified himself. Conforming to Christ requires perseverance in service, forgiveness, mercy and peace, accepting the implications of this commitment. St. Ignatius says that for the sake of this love “whenever the praise and glory of the Divine Majesty would be equally served, in order to imitate and to be in reality more like Christ our Lord”, one desires poverty with Christ poor, wants to be humiliated like Christ and to be “worthless and fool for Christ” rather than to be rich, honored and esteemed. We should note that it is a desire, a preference, an interior attitude preceding the decision and not an actual choice. This preference is the necessary climate for the decision itself in which the “will of God” (which we recognize as the concrete task life is presenting to us) prevails over this desire[6]. When the companions examine the concrete consequences of this love in their social ambient they might find it hard even frightening. Fidelity to the love of God will lead to actions that are out of step with people around the companions and in consequence even to rejection.

In regard the endurance of hardships in order “to-be-with Christ” we can quote Nietzsche’s statement often used by Viktor Frankl to underline the importance of a strong grasp of meaning in life: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how[7]. Frankl experienced the truth of this statement during the years in concentration camps, where who had an aim in their lives, had a future goal found more strength to survive the terrible rigors of the camp life. Adapting this maxim we can say that who finds the meaning in the love for Jesus Christ and what it means, will want to be able to bear also the consequences of this choice. As St. Ignatius stressed it in [168] we can only desire and pray for the third degree of love of God, we cannot achieve it by our own resources, only God can grant it to us. As told earlier the companions need to pray repeatedly for the grace always to be able to be as closely conformed to Christ as possible with the threefold prayer as in the “Three Types” [156] and in the “Two Standards” [147], or the prayer of “paradoxical intention” described in [157].

Through love and life lived together spouses learn to know each other and become in some way like one another. Love and knowledge reciprocally strengthen and deepen each other in a loving relationship[8] and similarly whoever chooses Jesus and his values will grow in knowledge of and becoming like the real, living, contemporary Christ. The third degree of the love of God is not stoical endurance of pain or unhealthy admiration and desire of suffering but the conforming dynamics of the relationship with the living Christ in his least brothers and sisters. Examples of this love “we see in Damien, the leper priest; in Saint Peter Claver, cleansing the wounds of the slaves; in the lives of countless women and men who have chosen to live in obscurity working with the imprisoned and the outcasts of society and who share in large measure in experiencing the contempt which ‘the world’ heaps on the poor, the exploited, the deformed, the miserable”[9]. This is some way the apex of the Exercises, the prior meditations and contemplations served to arrive to this point and what follows is intended to help the companions to strengthen the desire to live this love[10].

Further, they need to take in consideration what Ignatius meant by saying that we can prefer and choose poverty and humiliations only if it should be “equally” for the praise of God. Our choices should never lessen our service and take away from the glory of God, but if the service leads to poverty and humiliations we will accept it with peace and joy. Rahner writes so of the actualization of this love: “St. Ignatius realized in his own life the following of the Crucified – but always with a discretion that was peculiar to him. On some occasions in his following of the condemned Christ, he accepted being held for a fool, and he bore the insults of the world; on other occasions, he did not hesitate to bring another in court in order to protect his own reputation, if he was convinced that in the long run the honor and service of God would also suffer if his own reputation were injured”. As an other example Rahner refers also to Jesus before the high priest, who protested against the servant beating him, saying “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me” (Jn 18:23). At the end he warns that the necessity of discretion does not dispenses us from the “loftiness of the love of the cross” [11].

Particularly in the everyday life form of the Exercises this consideration about the three degrees of love will demand immediate influence to the behavior of the companions and will present pressing questions to answer. They accept “to be regarded as fool for Christ”, but should continue their jobs, maybe search promotion and have normal social relations, take care of their future and health, and so on; in one word they need to be faithful to the obligations of the life that has been given to them[12]. They may not just decide to make fool of themselves “for the sake of Christ”, as no one can do this without being called to it by God, been grown up to the task and act with discernment. The daily choices about values with the necessary discernment will eventually lead the companions to live their fidelity to Christ habitually, when they not consider it any more as exceptional heroism, but as a way of life.

This last remarks lead us to see the inner unity of the three degrees of love. The third degree of love is dependent on being called for it, on inner and external conditions and as St. Ignatius says in [170] it is submitted to the law of the Church. Karl Rahner speaks about the example of St. Francis of Assisi in this regard[13]. Francis had a passionate desire to live in total poverty and suffered painfully from the limitations put on his ideal of imitation of Christ by the Church authority. We could refer also to St. Clair and her lifelong and at the end successful battle with the same authorities to obtain the “privilege of poverty” for her community that is to live as cloistered nuns without the secure income of properties relying only on spontaneous donations. Even the greatest desire of poverty and folly for Christ’s sake needs to be submitted to the observance of the commandments because only this assures that the love of God is present [14]. The conditions of putting in practice the third degree of love show that it can be realized only along with the first two. On the other hand since in death everyone becomes totally poor and empty, the third degree seems to be an anticipatory exercise of dying as everyone is called to, in absolute poverty. From this follows that even the person who wants to die in the first degree of love (state of grace) needs to be prepared and striving for the third one. We need to live in some way all the three degrees of love in our life and in final analysis God decides when is time and place for each.

Also here is valid the note we made at the end of the meditation on the Standard of Christ in [143-146], the choice of poverty and insults could be result of inner pride instead of love and humility. We need to stress again that one cannot seek these for themselves, but accept as a consequence of the fidelity to Christ. For example, when thinking of poverty, it is not so easy to determine how to shape our lifestyle. Somehow it seems self-evident that wasteful richness is not compatible with Christianity, but then it requires constant awareness in our daily life to see what we really need, what we should keep or what is better to renounce. The companions need to discuss the question of lifestyle together time to time to find concrete ways to practice their love of God. For example, let us suppose that they have two job offers, both of them equally good from all other points of view except the significant difference in the money earned. Should the companions choose the one that leads to poorer lifestyle or do they need the more income?

Final notes:

We want to stress that in reality there is one love even if we speak of the different degrees of it. We have one life and one heart to love with, but we can distinguish moments when realize our love in different ways. As we told earlier, this exercise presents the companions an excellent occasion to see their common and personal lives in concrete from the point of view of these moments of loving God. The only way we can love God concretely passes through the concrete love of human beings (see Mt 25:31-46) and this is in a special manner true for the mutual love of a married couple. They are called to express and experience God’s presence in a particular way in their love for each other. Their dedication, commitment and self-giving to each other shows the world who is God and renders him present in an efficacious manner. This is the meaning of the sacramentality of the human marriage that is present also in the “natural” commitment of man and woman. The basic vocation of the couple becomes more expressed in the Christian marriage as a sacrament. The exclusive and lifelong character of the marriage represents the total character of God’s love that embraces of the whole person without limit in time. Marriage does what the Church is called to do, that is to show God to the world and so it is a fundamental ecclesial vocation. In the force of the sacrament of marriage the “ordinary” life of the couple becomes a religious reality. Even when they are physically apart to work on different projects, in force of their marriage they still act in communion, together as a couple forming always a unique entity. When they express their love in any way, wash their children, cook or clean the house and work to find the means for a living they exercise their ecclesial vocation, and so every act in their life is a real worship of God, a “liturgy” in its original sense. A Christian couple lives their ecclesial vocation not only by volunteering in the Church, leading prayer groups, visiting the sick or teaching catechism and absolutely not eminently through their financial contribution to missions and other works, but first of all and in their own right as married couple with their “ordinary”, everyday life and love. The other basic ecclesial vocation is celibate or virginity, which is in a reciprocally complementing relation to marriage. This two ecclesial vocations together express the two main characteristics of the divine love; while marriage shows the total character of the love of God virginity represents the universal dimension of it, since virgins are called to love everyone without particular preferences. The companions might stop on these reflections longer and return to it once in a while, to realize the dignity and importance of their love and be very grateful for it. This gratefulness will enhance the desire to live their vocation better and grow the capacity to review their life and amend it whenever it needs corrections.



[1] Cf. Rahner, “Spiritual Exercises,” p. 196.

[2] John C. Futrell mentions that Ignatius refers to “three degrees of indifference” in the “Autograph Directory”, (cf. Cowan-Futrell, “The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola,” p. 77), that is to the spiritual freedom of the “Principle and Foundation” [23].

[3] Cf. Rahner, “Spiritual Exercises,” p.197. This goal is described in the “Principle and Foundation” [23].

[4] See in this regard the First Letter of John in 1 Jn 2:1-11; 3:1-16; 4:10-19.

[5] Rahner, “Spiritual Exercises,” p.198.

[6] Cf. Lefrank – Giuliani, “Freedom for Service”, p. 95.

[7] Quoted in Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” p. 121.

[8] See more of this intercommunion of love and knowledge in Tyrrell, “Christotherapy I,” pp 14-16.

[9] Tyrrell, “Christotherapy II,” pp. 188-189.

[10] Cf. Sheehan, “On Becoming Whole in Christ,” p. 113.

[11] Rahner, “Spiritual Exercises,” p. 199.

[12] Cf. Lefrank – Giuliani, “Freedom for Service”, pp. 222-223.

[13] Cf. Rahner, “Spiritual Exercises,” pp. 200-202.

[14] “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me…(Jn 14,21)