By Fr. José (Pepe) Andujo Ruiz
There is an optical illusion called the Penrose effect. You may have seen it: It is a stairwell that appears to ascend at every step and turn but is impossible because at the highest point you find yourself also at the original, lowest starting point. Jacob’s stairwell has been used in a similar way to speak about God’s surprising dream for the world and God’s strategy to bring about God’s Kingdom. St. Dominic, and many after him, picked this image to speak about humility in seven, twelve, or as many as 30 steps. The image shows each step “going down,” but when you reach the lowest point, you have actually reached the highest: humility, fullness of life and union with God. In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius simplifies this idea to three steps.
Ignatius lays out God’s strategy to bring about God’s dream for the world in the contemplation of the Two Standards: the standard or banner of the “Kingdom of God,” contrasted with the standard of the “Kingdom of Satan” – or “the World.” Ignatius invites us to listen to the language and strategy each leader sets out for their respective followers.
Satan sits on a high chair among fire and smoke, sending demons to trap and enslave the masses via three simple steps: 1) Desire for riches, 2) Desire for honors, which lead naturally to 3) Hubris. Each step seems to move the person “up” in the world. However, the higher they go, the closer they are to their demise. In a surprising twist, when they get to the top, they reach the bottom: the door to all vices. Consider the above diagram.
This strategy is still alive and well in our world today. The desire for riches is about appropriating every good thing (skills, degrees, money and properties) and using them for our personal benefit. This desire, alongside the desire for honors, seems to be a great motivator for many business and political leaders, as they pursue personal advancement rather than working to solve the toughest problems of our world.
We see it in our own hearts, too, with the protection and comfort of having everything we keep for ourselves. We feel the pull of being respected, admired and acknowledged for our greatest features, not our full selves. We must take heed lest we forfeit true love for admiration, genuine relationship in community for domination and the servitude of others.
Ignatius quoted Mark 8:36 to his roommate, Francis Xavier: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
In contrast, Christ walks with his friends on a field and invites them first to desire 1) Spiritual – and sometimes material – poverty, then 2) Underappreciation and opprobrium, which naturally lead to 3) Humility, “the door to all virtues” as Ignatius puts it.
We could illustrate this surprising stairwell that seems to go down in the world, but results in salvation, a full life and communion with God and others in the following diagram:
In John 13:14, Jesus leads by example: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you do well, for I am so. If I, your Teacher and Lord, have washed your feet, you should go and do likewise.”
Following Christ through these steps might not feel great, but it comes with great fruits. The desire for poverty has to do with using every good thing at my disposal for a purpose other than myself, once my basic needs have been met, like Jesus did in his life. If we live like this, we find that happiness does not reside in things, but that they are a means for relationship with God and with others. Things can easily become analgesics for pain we might need to heal or deal with.
Secondly, being underappreciated or experiencing the opprobrium of making a mistake in public is never fun. However, these experiences confront me with how others see me, and thus allow me to check for those false images I create for myself.
If I am able to admit my limitations in public, I allow others to do the same, and if I am aware of my limitations, I will extend empathy when others mess up.
Thirdly, true humility requires us to live in truth with our gaze placed outside ourselves. False humility denies my gifts; true humility refers all my gifts to God and makes me grateful. It also recognizes all my limitations with self-compassion, and it becomes the virtue of constant growth, self-improvement and gazing at others with compassion.
We would do well to be mindful of these two value systems and their respective strategies and invitations. Stepping down is never fun, but our inner world gets restructured if we recognize that it’s all just part of falling in love with Christ and following him.