Saint Ignatius knew our human tendencies well. He was a lover of the world and fell easily into lust and vanity. The pulls he felt toward such things he called the “evil spirit”. We can tend to stick with what’s comfortable and known. This autopilot can get us into trouble though. Over time Ignatius studied how the evil spirit would tempt him into sin or a disordered life. In his journal he noted ways that he could fight against things that drew him away from God and a good and healthy life. One of his methods is called agere contra – meaning to act against.
It can be put into practice for more than avoiding sin. Below are bolded headings showing various uses for agere contra.
Part of the spiritual life includes desolation. Those are times when we feel darkness or emptiness, distance from God, lack of faith or hope, and feelings of restlessness or despair. If we’re ardent pray-ers we might find a certain dryness in our prayer or lack of motivation for it. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius asks the retreatant to spend a full hour in prayer. If we experience consolation in prayer it might be easy to sit for the full hour but when we experience dryness and desolation in prayer we may be tempted to shorten the time.
“For this reason, the person who is exercising himself, in order to act against the desolation and conquer the temptations, ought always to stay somewhat more than the full hour; so as to accustom himself not only to resist the adversary, but even to overthrow him.”
(Spiritual Exercises, 13)
In Occasions of Sin
This need not be just for prayer. Agere contra is a spiritual practice for all kinds of situations. If I find myself quick to judge someone I may “act against” the way I would normally react, making an attempt to give the person the benefit of the doubt. If a certain movie or television programme causes me to obsess over something potentially sinful, I may act against the tendency to watch it. Acting against sinful tendencies can help keep me in check and on the path of bettering myself.
In Personal Will
Agere contra’s use can be expanded far beyond prayer or fighting against sin. Going against a tendency can give me personal strength and will power. At my favourite restaurant I might have the tendency to order the chili burger with cheese fries. And it’s so tempting! But I note a good looking salad. It sounds good, but boy, that burger and fries seem to be calling my name. But I always order that. Agere contra steps in… I know I haven’t had veggies in a while. So even though the salad might be less enjoyable than the burger and fries I choose the salad not just for the health factors but also as an exercise of my will power. And why shouldn’t spiritual strength come from it? Why couldn’t agere contra help me focus on God’s gifts to me? This could come into play easily with the amount of food I eat or snack or whether I order dessert.
Sometimes agere contra can simply mean taking a different path. I choose not to take the quickest route home from work to enjoy more solitary time (maybe some alone time with God). I choose to give up my tendency to plan the date night and let my significant other decide this time. Instead of travelling abroad this summer I choose somewhere domestic. I choose tea instead of coffee. It’s not about practicality or occasion of sin. It’s about doing something different because when I act against my “normal” there’s a chance I’ll learn something new, about God, about relationships, about myself.
Remember, this is about going against what you would normally tend to do. We recognise that sometimes our human tendencies can be flawed (Oops, I’m Human) and that we’re also creatures of habit. Habit can be a good thing, but not if it prevents us from growing as persons loved by God. Ignatius warns against a “disordered” life. Having order does not mean acting as a robot and never straying from your schedule or plan. Having an ordered life means you can let go of certain attachments or unhealthy relationships, you can adapt to new situations, and you remove blockades that prevent you from growing more into your true self. Agere contra is one way to help jar us out of the safe path we’ve always been taking.