The Two Standards
A reflection on the Meditation on Two Standards (from the Spiritual Exercises) by Teresa McCaffery
When I first encountered the Two Standards it seemed like a no brainer. The nasty enslaving devil had no chance against the friendly, inviting Jesus. I had not noticed that the devil has enough sense to present an agreeable front, and clearly did not bother to read the rest.
Presented, decades later, with the full text, there was no way I was going to accept the need for poverty and insults. Surely the God I knew and loved would not want that for anyone. Fortunately, my director [of the Exercises] had given me a Gospel text, so I prepared to enter the scene as Ignatius suggests, so that God could speak to me through it.
An encounter with Jesus
In Mark chapter 6 the feeding of the five thousand follows hard on the feast at which Herod is offered the head of John the Baptist on a platter. I could not imagine myself as a guest of Herod’s, nor would I have wanted to work for him, but I thought that maybe if I was too young to know better, and very hungry, I might try to grab some of the food that fell to the floor. That was filthy and degrading work and to cap it all I was literally kicked out by the servants.
I sat on the hill outside and saw loads of food being offered free to anyone who wanted it! By that time I had had my fill, and anyway, I was far too dirty and ragged to join that orderly crowd. After a while I became rather good at stealing food from Herod.
Later, I found myself on the hillside again. Similar crowd, same guy at the head of things, I know his name now, it’s Jesus. I saw another lad offering his food to Jesus. I shouted a warning “Don’t do that, you need that food, you’ll be in trouble with your parents!” The boy hesitated but Jesus took the food with a smile of thanks (nobody ever thanked me for anything). At the end of the feast one of the helpers came back to the boy with a basket full of delicious food saying, “These are left overs, you’re welcome to take them to your family”. I stomped off in disgust.
Ever since then I have thought of the two standards as two stages. ‘I need’, ‘I deserve’ and ‘I’m in a hurry’ are excuses that justify all manner of morally dodgy activity. If some kind person had offered me a warm bath and a square meal as I sat on that hillside I would have found it relatively easy to mend my ways, but once I had become proud of my skill at being dishonest it became much harder to win me back. I imagined this lad, now fully grown, caught by the Roman authorities and sentenced to crucifixion. Seeing who was hanging next to him he must have wondered how Jesus came to be condemned. It’s a good question.
Jesus was brought to crucifixion by people who thought they were doing the right thing. The soldiers who did the work knew nothing about him (that’s why he forgave them), they were just doing their job. Herod and Pilate were convinced that Jesus had to be executed for the public good. How could they make such mistakes? Today we see thousands of people suffering sickness, poverty and war, in communities that claim to be doing the right thing. Where did we go wrong?
You don’t have to be poor and ill-educated to do wrong, and even punishment for crime can be avoided with the help of good organisation. Today we speak of organised crime, and know that the worst offenders rarely get caught. In a sinful world, behaviour in stark contrast to that demanded in the beatitudes may be highly valued. It is considered virtuous to ‘get on’, to be ambitious, to ‘make’ a lot of money, to make industry more efficient by sacking the workforce…
At the service of the Creator
A healthy body, brains and a good education can be offered in the service of God with great benefit; we should deploy all our talents as the parable says. But as saint Augustine saw with diamond clarity 1,100 years before Ignatius, great talent, even when not deployed for bad ends, has no value if not put at the service of the Creator, and can easily lead to harm. (It’s no wonder he liked St Paul when he got around to reading him)
Augustine was a master of rhetoric and a very keen thinker. These very skills are the ones that bring us down today. Brilliant ideas can justify dreadful policies and the clever use of words in the media has brought young people to suicide. How can young people develop such awful behaviours?
We have learned to make good use of ionising radiation. It provides us with power and is a useful medical tool for diagnosis and treatment in hospital. It is also a powerful beast that can do incalculable damage if not kept strictly under control. People who work with radiation wear Geiger counters. If the level of exposure passes a low threshold the worker must take time off. The greatest, and most terrifying problem with radiation is that there are no symptoms at all when exposed to it. Apart from the relatively rapid results of nuclear accident or bomb, the effects will not be felt for years or decades. I wonder if some of the grisly things we see going on among our young people today are the consequences of equally insidious and invisible poison. Children brought up from birth in the companionship of virtual friends, trained to be competitive, presented with constant images of people who are important and rich, may find moral sicknesses appearing when they approach adult life. Some parents will try to minimise these exposures but it’s not easy. They will have to teach their children to accept the ugly comments of friends who, all unthinking, follow the soaps, aim always to win, and wear designer trainers.
The Other Child
There was another small boy in my meditation. He was obviously a lot better off. Well fed, and well taught, he had been entrusted with the task of taking food to a relative who could not get to the shops. Attracted to the wise teaching of Jesus he got caught up in the crowd. As time wore on people got hungry and noticed he had food. He wanted to share, but Granny was waiting for the food. What to do? Well, he’d been brought up to respect authority and Jesus clearly spoke with authority, so why not put the problem in his hands? He heard the other lad shouting at him, calling him a fool, but by that time one of the disciples had spotted him. He wasn’t impressed, a couple of fish and some bread were not going to go far, but the disciple also respected the authority of Jesus, and the child, feeling rather nervous now, handed up his basket, not forgetting to mention Granny’s need.
We know that the food was enough for everybody, including a generous basket for Granny. What lessons do we learn? Jesus said, ‘Unless you become as little children you cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven.’ This lad was obedient, respectful and generous. He was also confused and a bit lost. He did not know how his tiny contribution could really help but he offered it anyway, giving it to Jesus rather than letting people in the crowd take it. That way it went a lot further. He had a wonderful story to tell his granny and his parents and I’m sure that, just as Peter the fisherman was recruited to become a fisher of men, this lad grew up to help Jesus feed the world with the bread of life.
Is this what Ignatius really meant? Not that poverty and insults are goals to aim for to please God, but that they just happen as we try to trust in God and help our neighbour in a sinful world. Like landmarks on the road they tell us that we are heading in the right direction.