Ignatius: Saving the Other’s Proposition

Rev. Raymond Helmick, S.J. (Lee Pellegrini)
Rev. Raymond Helmick, S.J. (Lee Pellegrini)

(The article was originally written by Father Ray Helmik and Tom Porter for JustPeace Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation, Copyright 2007).

“If I am to win all the arguments, know it all beforehand, my mind has already shut down.”

As a Jesuit, I have another strong anchor drawing me toward respect for persons, even those most opposed to me and all I hold for true, and recognition of their dignity. This is contained in the spiritual guidance given us by the founder of our Jesuit order, St. Ignatius Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, a manual for orienting our basic approach to a life in faith. It has become familiar to anyone who has ever made a Jesuit retreat. An introductory page in this manual is called the “Praesupponendum,” the “Presupposition” for the exercises. When I identify myself as a Jesuit I have always hoped this might be the most Jesuit thing about me.

Ignatius, 16th century soldier that he was, determined to live a life of faith after seeing the hollowness of the life he had led to that point, went through a lengthy period of reflection as a hermit in a cave at Manresa in Spain. When he emerged he structured his experience into this manual, the Spiritual Exercises, and began, even as a student in the universities of Salamanca and Paris, to guide others through these exercises, so that they could make their own decisions about their lives. Because he was not a trained theologian at this stage, his work attracted the dangerous and suspicious attention of the Inquisition.

The essential question in all this is: Whom shall I exclude from my moral community? At the very beginning of Ignatius’ book, he has this remarkable page, the Presupposition to the Exercises. It reads:

“To assure better cooperation between the one who is giving the Exercises and the one who receives them, and more beneficial results to both, it is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to save the proposition of another than to condemn it as false. If he is unable to save the proposition, the one who made it should be asked how he understands it, and if he understands it badly, it should be discussed with him with love. If this does not suffice, all appropriate means should be used so that, understanding his proposition rightly, he may save it.” – Ignatius, 16th Century


This short paragraph has been put through many processes of translation. The original was in Ignatius’ rough local vernacular Spanish. It was rendered into Latin and into a more literary Spanish and eventually into numerous other languages, those more often translated from the Latin or from the more elegant Spanish than from the original. The paragraph scandalized many editors of the Spiritual Exercises to such an extent that it was left out of several editions, and when it was retained the final sentence was often translated to mean that the one giving the Exercises should argue the case with the exercitant so as to win the argument and make him abandon his proposition. Not so the original, in which Ignatius is still, even at that stage, arguing that he should be helped to save his proposition, not to abandon it.

You see the radicalism of this procedure. At one time I used to carry it about, copied out by hand in the original rough Spanish, as Ignatius wrote it, in a diary/date‐book which I carried about in my pocket, until I ripped out the page to give it to a close associate of the great Lebanese Shi’ite Imam Musa al‐Sadr, the Ghandi‐like figure who had founded a Movement for the Dispossessed of all creeds in Lebanon and was most universal in his dialogue with all creeds, Christian and Muslim, an ever radical voice of peace. Musa, by the time I met his associates, holy man that he was, had already been “disappeared” in Colonel Khadafi’s Libya, surely killed, but his Shi’ite followers in Lebanon, used to the idea of vanishing Imams who would return, sought in every way to plead with Libya for his release. I found that his spirit closely matched what I had learned from the Ignatian Praesupponendum.

You note that this is not simply a proposal of Christian charity in our discourse. It is a theory of knowledge, applicable to all, Christian or not; specific to the Christian only insofar as it is a practical living‐out, in its openness to the other, of Christian faith. If I am to win all the arguments, know it all beforehand, my mind has already shut down. The proposition of the other, of course, refers to what is truly important in the other’s perception, experience, conviction. It is not as if there were no truth criterion. If I am to learn, I must approach the other’s proposition with openness. Winning an argument will get me nowhere and I will lose the light that the other’s perception could give me. But the other will learn also, coming to an understanding of his or her own proposition that will enrich it and lead deeper into truth.

I said that I find, in this Presupposition to the Ignatian Exercises, the most Jesuit thing by which I would like to define myself. We Jesuits are often seen as people who win arguments, who have an answer to everything, whose objective is to turn people away from their own “propositions” to ours. But that is the very opposite to what Ignatius proposes here. There is a bit of the “Don’t, please, turn me over to the Inquisition, at least until you’ve thought about this some more.” But at its root there is a way of life.

Now we may meet persons or groups whose proposition truly repels us. But it is this determination to save the other’s proposition that has led me to take seriously, to converse with, to strive to save the proposition of those identified as “terrorist,” whether the ideological leadership of IRA or the Loyalist UDA or UVF and the common sentiment of their followers, those who, “understanding [their] proposition rightly,” became the initiators of the serious work for peace in Northern Ireland. It brought me to seek out Yasser Arafat when he was most despised as “terrorist,” to Yitzhak Shamir when he seemed the least likely of Israel prime ministers to work for peace, to Ariel Sharon as well as to likelier men like Yitzhak Rabin or Ehud Barak, to Druze leader Walid Joumblatt and all the other leaders of warring factions, without exception, in Lebanon, the Hezbollah leadership included, all to be respected so as to find what truth lay hidden behind their often violent impulses. It meant treating respectfully and listening with sympathy to Serbs, Croats and the suffering Muslims of Bosnia.

Father Ray Helmik and Tom Porter for JUSTPEACE Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation, Copyright 2007.

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