HOMILY for the memorial of St Ignatius of Loyola
St Ignatius’ famous Spiritual Exercises begin with the consideration that the goal of our human life is to love God, and so, to have fullness of life with him for ever. And everything in God’s good creation can be used to help us love God better if they direct us towards that goal, or can hinder us if they displace God as the object of our love. So, he says, we should “desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created”. Because, it seems to me, we are created by Love for love, so that the more we love God and neighbour the more alive we become, the more truly human we are, because we are becoming more and more what God meant us to be until in heaven we become one with God, one with Love itself.
Some people may have difficulty reconciling this image of God as pure Love with the doctrine of hell, with the challenging image Christ uses in today’s Gospel of evildoers being thrown into the “furnace of fire” where men and women will “weep and gnash their teeth” (Mt 13:41f). But the fact is that hell is only a possibility because of love. Because love has to be, as St Ignatius says, desired and chosen. We can’t be forced to love, be automatically programmed to love, or just commanded to love. We have to freely choose to love, otherwise, if there were any compulsion at all, it wouldn’t be love, would it? And if we can freely choose to love, we can also freely choose not to love. That is the sobering reality of our human freedom and the fact that our choices matter and we are responsible for what we freely choose to do and who we become.
The more we reject love, the more we become less than what God intended for us; we become less human, less alive, so to speak. So that hell, like the ancient Jewish understanding of Sheol, the afterlife, is a place of shadows because we’ll become a dim reflection of what we’re meant to be. For this is what the absence of love does to us: we’re diminished and fade away.
But isn’t the image of hell as a fiery furnace an image of divine wrath and eternal punishment? I don’t think this is altogether accurate.