Chapter Eight: Rules for the Distribution of Alms

In the supplemental section in the back of The Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius offers seven rules for the distribution of alms. These rules are especially for those who hold some office in the Church and are responsible for the distribution of alms (money and other necessities in life) as a part of their official ministry. However, in the final rule he also makes it clear that these rules apply just as much to anyone and everyone who is called to generosity with their material possessions. This would essentially include anyone who has possessions and money beyond their most basic needs.

The first four rules that follow are at the heart of Saint Ignatius’ teaching on this subject. The final three add more clarity and perspective.

First Rule. The first: If I make the distribution to relatives or friends, or to persons for whom I have an affection, I shall have four things to see to, of which mention was made, in part, in the matter of Election.

The first is, that that love which moves me and makes me give the alms, should descend from above, from the love of God our Lord, so that I feel first in me that the love, more or less, which I have to such persons is for God; and that in the reason why I love them more, God appears.

Your love of neighbor flows from and is grounded in your love of God. When you love another and thus give to them, be it spiritual, material, or any other human gift, you should do so with God as the end and also as the motivating factor. Love of God is found in love of others. In fact, the last two words of this rule, “God appears,” means that Ignatius saw charitable work as a way of bringing the presence of God into the world. Charity is a way of continuing the Incarnation of Christ our Lord and giving the greatest glory to God, which is the ultimate goal and purpose of life.

Second Rule. The second: I want to set before me a man whom I have never seen or known, and desiring all his perfection in the ministry and condition which he has, as I would want him to keep the mean in his manner of distributing, for the greater glory of God our Lord and the greater perfection of his soul; I, doing so, neither more nor less, will keep the rule and measure which I should want and judge to be right for the other.

What a great spiritual exercise! At the heart of this exercise is detachment and objectivity. This rule uses a number of Ignatian principles. 

First, it uses the imagination to paint the scene. 

Second, it presents to you a man whom you desire to do all “for the greater glory of God our Lord” and for the “greater perfection of his soul.” 

Third, it incorporates the principle of spiritual indifference. I neither prefer more or less nor this or that. Instead, I strive to have no preference so as not to be influenced by my own preferences. 

Fourth, it uses this objectivity to decide how to act. The same rule I would like him to follow, and the norm I judge would be for the glory of God, I shall abide by myself.

If you find yourself trying to decide what to do in a particular situation, such as whether you should give of your material wealth in a particular situation, or even your time and talent, try to make this imaginative meditation and use its conclusion as your guide.

Third Rule. The third: I want to consider, as if I were at the point of death, the form and measure which then I should want to have kept in the office of my administration, and regulating myself by that, to keep it in the acts of my distribution.

Fourth Rule. The fourth: Looking how I shall find myself on the Day of Judgment, to think well how then I should want to have used this office and charge of administration; and the rule which then I should want to have kept, to keep it now.

Again, using your imagination, you prayerfully ponder this exercise. At the point of death, what decision would I be most at peace with? This is a useful exercise for many decisions in life. This exercise does, however, presume that when one is on their deathbed, they will be more prayerfully detached from all worldly ambitions. Sadly, that’s not always the case. It can be imagined that some may die holding onto their worldly legacy and accomplishments. But if one is constantly seeking the love and glory of God, the deathbed is a humbling state in which many things are put into perspective.

If the perspective of your deathbed is not motivation enough to see clearly how it is best to live and what gives the most glory to God, then try the exercise of Rule Four and consider the Day of Judgment. This added focus helps to strip away any remaining selfish ambition or goal of worldly glory. With this imaginative meditation, you are left exclusively with the perspective of God. What does God think? You will not be able to convince God that you were right for going down this or that selfish path. On the Day of Judgment, you will be held perfectly accountable for all that you chose and did. This perspective provides plenty of motivation to be radically honest with yourself and your decisions in life. And, in this case, with decisions on how you use your material wealth.

Fifth Rule. The fifth: When some person feels himself inclined and drawn to some persons to whom he wants to distribute alms, let him hold himself back and ponder well the above-mentioned four Rules, examining and testing his affection by them; and not give the alms until, conformably to them, he has in all dismissed and cast out his disordered inclination.

This rule is an invitation to return to the first four rules and ponder them again. This time, Saint Ignatius invites you to review the rules using the principles he has already taught you about the discernment of spirits. Go through, again, the exercises suggested by the first four rules and pay even greater attention to the interior movements within your soul. Where do you sense consolation as you use your imagination in these exercises? Where do you find God’s peace, clearly and comfortably? The goal is to make sure that there are no disordered affections that motivate us. Are you detached? Objective? Indifferent? Be sure of this. Don’t fool yourself by any form of selfishness or disorder in your affections.

Sixth Rule. The sixth: Although there is no fault in taking the goods of God our Lord to distribute them, when the person is called by God our Lord to such ministry; still in the quantity of what he has to take and apply to himself out of what he has to give to others, there may be doubt as to fault and excess. Therefore, he can reform in his life and condition by the above-mentioned Rules.

The above rule applies primarily to those within the Church who hold an office, such as a priest or religious, and it gives basic guidance on how much should be received so as to distribute. Simply put, the rule recommends that Rules One–Four be used as a guide so as not to fall into excess or fault and, in fact, to eliminate any doubt about these questions.

Seventh Rule. The seventh: For the reasons already mentioned and for many others, it is always better and more secure in what touches one’s person and condition of life to spare more and diminish and approach more to our High Priest, our model and rule, who is Christ our Lord; conformably to what the third Council of Carthage, in which St. Augustine was, determines and orders—that the furniture of the Bishop be cheap and poor. The same should be considered in all manners of life, looking at and deciding according to the condition and state of the persons; as in married life we have the example of St. Joachim and of St. Ann, who, dividing their means into three parts, gave the first to the poor, and the second to the ministry and service of the Temple, and took the third for the support of themselves and of their household.

Lastly, Saint Ignatius offers a general rule that it is always better to be more generous and to live more simply if there is any question about it. He then uses the second paragraph to show that these principles apply also to all states of life.

 

Summary

Growing in holiness will have definite effects on your life. As you pray, meditate on the life of our Lord, seek to give glory to God in all things and strive to surrender all to Him and His holy will. If you do so, you will change. Everything about you will change. One of those things will be how you live in the material world and how you use your possessions. Saint Ignatius does not give any clear rules on how to use your material resources. Instead, he gives you a basic method of discernment so that you can come to understand God’s will in regard to your possessions.

This is an exceptionally fruitful approach because none of us should be afraid to seek God’s will. No one should shy away from the single goal of giving the greatest glory to God in all things, including in the way material possessions are used. Therefore, do not shy away from these lessons. Strive to surrender all to God, seek His will, detach from personal preferences and allow God to take charge of your life. There is no doubt that if you are able to do this, your life will greatly improve for the better.

Probing the Depths

Chapter Nine: Some Notes Concerning Scruples

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