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The challenge of indifference

The subject of this article is not what you think. It’s not about apathy or a lack of care. Far from it. It’s about discernment, listening for God and perceiving the activity and leading of the Spirit. The holy habits of prayerful listening, careful discernment and courageous action form the life-giving rhythm at the heart of the church. They underpin the spiritual wellbeing of us all.

The previous Archbishop of Canterbury described mission as ‘finding out what God is doing and joining in’. Without ‘finding out’ there can be no ‘joining in’. Without discernment our attempts at mission are likely to be good intentions at best. But where does ‘indifference’ fit in? Stick with me. We’ll get to that.

Last autumn I was struggling with motivation for my job. It was strange. I was passionate about my work and well-suited to it, but I was unsettled and battling for motivation. My wife and I decided to go on a retreat. Unable to find an opportunity within familiar traditions or geographically close, we joined a silent retreat at a Jesuit centre in North Wales.

After a brief introduction, silence descended. At first it felt awkward, but soon became liberating, welcoming. On the first day I took a stroll to the ‘rock chapel’, a tiny sanctuary on top of a small hill. As I shared my struggles with God in prayer, a diagnosis dawned on me: I had become ‘cautious’. That was an uncomfortable discovery. I think of myself as an adventurous person. However, there was no denying it. Some recent opportunities came to mind, each of which I had responded to with restraint. I was forced to admit that sticking with the safe and familiar had become my default.

I decided to walk the retreat centre’s labyrinth while meditating on Psalm 42:1 “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.” It’s difficult to articulate what happened, except to say that during that slow, contemplative stroll I found myself released from the risk-averse attitude I had been experiencing as a kind of constraining entanglement.

Over the days that followed I became convinced I should resign from my job. I needed to step into the unknown and trust the Lord to reveal the next thing in his time. Liz, my wife was supportive. In fact, she was so empathetic that she resigned too! While working our notice period we came across an ancient prayer attributed to St. Brendan and began to pray it each day:

Help me to journey beyond the familiar and into the unknown. Give me the faith to leave old ways and break fresh ground with You. Christ of the mysteries, I trust You to be stronger than each storm within me. I will trust in the darkness and know that my times, even now, are in Your hand. Tune my spirit to the music of heaven, and somehow, make my obedience count for You.

Wanting to be in the best possible place to hear God and encouraged by our experiences at the Jesuit retreat centre, we decided to complete the Ignatian ‘Spiritual Exercises’. The Exercises comprise a series of prayers and practices developed by St. Ignatius, a 16th-century priest and founder of the Jesuit (‘Society of Jesus’) order. They originally took the form of a 30-day silent retreat, but we opted to use an online resource over eight weeks. With a foundation like this it is not surprising that the Jesuits became one of the most significant mission movements in the Catholic church. The focus of the Exercises is on cultivating a closer relationship with Jesus. We learned new ways to engage with scripture through prayerful contemplation and … yes, we learned about indifference!

Within Ignatian spirituality, indifference refers to a state of heart and mind that cares greatly about God and being close and faithful to Him, but is entirely open regarding the calling received or the service assigned. Another prayer, the ‘Suspice’ (Latin for ‘receive’), expresses a longing for greater indifference:

‘Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess, You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be used according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough and will desire nothing more. Amen.

Methodists will see strong similarities with their annual ‘covenant prayer’. That begins, ‘I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will, put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you …’. Asking God for the grace of indifference using prayers like these brings us to a place of greater inner freedom and openness, allowing us to make decisions without our judgement being clouded by our own agendas and priorities.

Liz and I know what ‘what next’ looks like now. More importantly though, through the spiritual adventures of recent months, our roots have gone a little deeper and our trust has grown a bit. We are grateful for the spiritual treasures of a tradition that was unfamiliar to us, especially the challenge and the grace that is indifference.

Steve Aisthorpe

Steve Aisthorpe leads Kilmalieu, a place of Christian retreat and environmental restoration on the west coast of Scotland. He is author of The Invisible Church (SAP, 2016) and Rewilding the Church (SAP, 2020). He was previously a Mission Development Worker for the Church of Scotland and Executive Director of the International Nepal Fellowship.

First published in MOSAIC September - December issue 2023

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