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Faith and Action

Ignatian spirituality owes a great debt to Aristotle. Not a surprise, really–Ignatius absorbed the theology of Thomas Aquinas, who imbibed the philosophy of Aristotle (by way of his teacher, Albert the Great, and in conversation with Muslim and Jewish philosophers, who had been using Aristotle for centuries). Here’s my thumbnail sketch; it’s on my mind because my freshman seminar is reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
Everything we do is oriented toward some goal. We reach our goal through work. Consistent work develops our way of being in the world. The virtues are those ways of acting in the world that lead to happiness. We come to understand happiness through the practice of the virtues, and through contemplation.

Now, Ignatius: God creates us to serve God (the First Principle and Foundation), and so when we use our God-given gifts, we are expressing that for which God has created us. The spiritual life is “contemplation in action” (an early description of the Jesuits, in contrast to the monastic orders), meaning a vision of the good that moves us toward a way of proceeding in the world.

In short:

  1. contemplation (the spiritual life)
  2. a vision of the good (First Principle and Foundation)
  3. loving action in the world

Ignatius was (and is) accused of the ancient heresy of Pelagianism, which basically suggested that you earn your way into heaven through good works. That may be closer to what Aristotle had in mind, minus (of course) the Christian notion of heaven, but Ignatius certainly did not hold this. Your actions don’t get you into heaven; God’s way of creating you and sustaining you in grace does. Your actions are your assent to God’s grace.

Here’s the way that the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed the basic relationship between faith and action:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;

Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—

Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

I could say much about this poem–absolutely love it as much as a man can love language–but for now I observe this. When a kingfisher, a dragonfly, a stone tumbling down a well, a bell does what it is made to do, it “selves”– it speaks itself. And when a human being “selves,” the person manifests Christ in the world. That, according to Aristotle, is virtue. That, according to Ignatius, is freedom.

Tim Muldoon
Tim Muldoon
Tim Muldoon is the author of a number of books, including The Ignatian Workout and Living Against the Grain, and teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Boston College.


  1. Thank you for this clear link between positive psychology and Ignatius’ way of proceeding. Sources (and what we read – eg., Aristotle) explain such a lot, don’t they?

  2. I enjoy this reflection, especially your expounding on the poem.
    Gave a call to Steve C. recently, said he was working with you on some programs influenced by ‘MAGiS’ here in Australia. He’s a good friend of mine! Go well


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