Ignatius thought that a particular type of ignorance was at the root of sin. The deadliest sin, he said, is ingratitude. It is “the cause, beginning, and origin of all evils and sins.” If you asked a hundred people to name the sin that’s the origin of all evils, I’ll bet none of them would say ingratitude. They would say pride or disobedience or greed or anger. The idea that we sin because we’re not sufficiently aware of God’s goodness probably wouldn’t occur to too many people.
By emphasizing gratitude, Ignatius was saying something about the nature of God. God is the generous giver, showering us with blessings like the sun shining on the earth. If we truly understood this, we would return God’s love with love. We wouldn’t sin. Gratitude is a good word for this fundamental quality of our relationship with God. Ingratitude, our blindness to who God truly is, is thus the root of all sin.
Ignatius had a particular experience of sin that may have contributed to the high value he placed on gratitude. For a time, he was tormented by morbid scrupulosity. He didn’t think his sins had been forgiven, so he tried to drive out his guilt and shame with heroic ascetic practices. He fasted, he prayed for hours, he let his hair grow—but these things only made matters worse. It got so bad that he entertained thoughts of suicide. Eventually, Ignatius threw himself on God’s mercy and found peace. He saw himself as a sinner but as a loved sinner.
In his short story “The Repentant Sinner,” Leo Tolstoy tells of a man, a great sinner, who calls out to God for mercy just before he dies. He arrives at the gates of heaven, but they are locked. The apostle Peter explains that a sinner such as he can’t enter heaven, but the man reminds Peter of his sins—he denied Christ three times after swearing to be loyal. Peter goes away and is replaced by King David, who also says that sinners can’t enter heaven. The man reminds David that God had mercy on him despite his many sins, including adultery and murder. Finally the apostle John arrives. You are the beloved disciple, the man says. You wrote that “God is love” and “Brethren, love one another.” Surely, you must let me in. And sure enough, John embraces the man and escorts him into heaven.
That’s the purpose of the first week of the Exercises—to bring us to see that we are loved sinners. Seasoned preachers and speakers know that they’ve done a good job if people can take one idea away from their talk. If you take one idea away from the Spiritual Exercises, this is the one: you are a sinner who is loved by God.