On Alchemy and Indifference

On the long Memorial Day weekend, I wake early, aware of what I didn’t finish yesterday. Awake with anxiety that I have more to do. There is more to do. Always. But emails late last night compound and aggregate my anxiety, so I rise. I read; I write and send two emails. Now I can rest.

Later, I read of prayer and indifference by Ignatius. This doesn’t seem to me so much indifference as we use it today, but expectation: God uses all creation and circumstance to draw us to himself claims Ignatius. The prayer of indifference is one meant to make us open to this, whether we have wealth or health or the opposite of both.

In our Western world, travails and trials in life often anticipate our right to question God, or what we claim is our right. I believe it is, and we see this as far back as Job, which may be the oldest book in the Scriptures. We want to shake our fists at whoever created this ramshackle world, where everything seems to wear down, run down, break.

I think of the final scene in an action movie, where the hero defeats the bad guy and gets the girl (at least in older action movies), and all is right with the world. This happens — what? — a handful of times in our lives, when all seems right and we have no other preoccupation waiting on the windowsill of our minds, gathering dust. The medical bills will be due soon, the nagging doubts about yourself, the need to do more at work. The closest we regularly get to this state of mind might be the contemplation of beauty: Yosemite Valley or a piercing sunset. We realize, if only briefly, our place and smallness and our problems shrink with our own importance. More profane, sex is another place where we become caught up in the moment, forgetting all else (I write this as a man, who can enter this state — I am told — more easily due to both biological and cultural factors). This explains, too, the pandemic of pornography in our culture. Sex like this is escape, the cheap final action scene, though the hero never had to sacrifice to get there.

We long for escape because of our expectations of this world, which lead to disappointments. I found this especially true in the decade after college, when I waited for the world to open and pave the way to my dreams (notwithstanding the fact I wasn’t, and still am not, entirely clear on those). And when our lives refuse to conform to the ends of movies or even the curated lives of our friends on social media, where is God? Not to mention, where is God in the cancer diagnosis on Christmas Eve or in the weeks following a miscarriage? Where is God even when you wakes with anxiety at 4 a.m. on your day off?

After all, we enter the world armed only with desires and will leave it only with memories, and the alchemy of turning one into the other is what we’re all trying to learn. We want to work this magic reliably and predictably, but our desires do not so easily bend to our wills. If they did, I think of the Tolstoy line about Vronsky in Anna Karenina: “The realization showed him the eternal error men makes by imagining that happiness consists in the gratification of their wishes.” We know, somewhere, that a world fashioned to our desires is one of egoism and greed, not only impossible but horrifying when we get glimpses of it in the Citizen Kanes of our day. The fulfillment of our desires and caprices creates its own prison. I think, and have heard, this is especially true of the wealthy — and most of us with a computer and a car are some of the wealthiest who have ever walked this earth.

Yet, I want my desires even when I know they aren’t the best for me, like ice cream or a day of movie watching. As someone middle-class, however, my wealth is largely spoken for each month: a mortgage, groceries, two growing daughters. My time has more flexibility. I jealously guard it, caging time to write and exercise each day. I battle meetings at work and fence-in time to rest on the weekends. Where, I have wondered recently, is my time set aside for making memories, for this alchemy we all hope for? After all, making memories is also almost always an act of love.

Indifference, as Ignatius reminds us, that sixteenth century warrior turned saint, comes packaged with the ends in mind: I must love and serve God and love others as myself. This reorientation positions me not toward my own ends, but outward. My wife has spoken recently of self-comfort as opposed to self-care. Comfort is candy bars and movies; care — for me — is prayer, writing, exercise, good meals with those I care about, a desire to make memories as an act of kindness and love.

I do this by entering into the world of another or inviting them into mine (backpacking with my ten and seven-year old daughters as an example), and seeing what comes. The alchemy of making memories demands expectation: show up and expect God will be present and active. This means the memory may be backpacking and finding a snake to the screams of my girls, or sitting next to my daughter after she was picked on one day, or roasting s’mores in our backyard. My best memories occur when I show up and expect God to do the same (even if I realize God was there after the fact).

This, I believe, is what Ignatius was driving at with indifference, and he unspooled all of its potential to claim I should seek love even over my desires for my self: health or long life or wealth. For God is also present in sickness and death and poverty. I remember this, God feeling strangely close when Dad was diagnosed with cancer on Christmas Eve and I held my younger sister in the upstairs bathroom, where I had found her crying. Or, the nearness of God as my wife and I wrapped the grape-sized form of a miscarriage in yellow cloth and buried it in the backyard. Not until the weeks after did God feel far, and I read Kierkegaard and tried to spar with a God I couldn’t see.

Only with time has the alchemy turned my desires, and even the loss of them, into a memory of God walking with me in pain. Ignatius allows for this, too: we expect God’s presence in a meadow of calm, and we can only see afterward how he was there in the fire, as well. Our role is to expect and look, even when — in the words of Robert Frost — “life is too much like a pathless wood / Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs / Broken across it, and one eye is weeping / From a twig’s having lashed across it open.”

This means even our questioning of God is an act of expectation, whether from tragedy or lucky disappointment — for who is more unhappy than the man who has all he ever desired?

“When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

This questioning means we expect God in the hardest and bone-aching circumstances, and this, too, is what Ignatius pointed out. His own life story: he found his purpose after being hit in the leg with a cannonball. He would never walk the same again, but he read the lives of the saints while convalescing. No cannonball, and Inigo from Loyola would not even be a footnote in our lives, but a soldier who died young and was forgotten, like many others in sixteenth century Spain.

Expectations — or indifference, as Ignatius would have it — asks where and how God is present in cannonballs and miscarriages and cancer and anxiety at 4 a.m. Sometimes, it demands to know. Sometimes, it asks quietly. It may be hanging by a fraying rope, faith almost disappearing into the darkness. Sometimes, we know in the moment God is present. But we expect, again and again, because we were born with desires.

And over time, we learn we are not alchemists at all, able to form desires into memories. God is.

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