This is a tough word and an even more difficult concept since it can mean two different realities, one very good and one very bad. First let us look at the bad since it is very much the more obvious and understandable meaning of the word ‘Indifference’.
In a negative sense, it is everything that is wrong with this world. We simply don’t care enough for what is happening to our fellow men and women. We are neither hot nor cold. We don’t love or hate, we just ignore and pretend that things do not exist. The Lord in the book of Revelation is very unambiguous about how He feels about these lukewarm individuals: “I will vomit you out of my mouth”. This is a very clear understanding of where God stands with this negative form of indifference.
And it is everywhere!
For many, indifference is even more objectionable than outright hatred. Where there is found the vehemence of hatred, there often was love first that subsequently went south, so to speak. Indifference is a sort of nonchalant rejection that seems to say: you don’t matter. That this is endemic in our world is very sad. It may be indicative of a worldwide depression that robs everything of significance and interest, leaving behind a sort of boring non-engagement with life.
But in Catholic Spirituality there is a positive form of indifference. St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order, in his highly influential and much used compendium of spiritual growth called “The Spiritual Exercises” writes of what he terms: ‘Holy Indifference’. By this he means a radical openness to God’s will that holds nothing as non-negotiable. “I am ready to do God’s will whatever it may be. My preferences do not matter. What is important is the will of God since in that will lies the best for my life and for those that I pray for.”
We tend to identify with what we want. What begins as a preference morphs into a necessity and finally becomes a craving that I cannot live without.
Holy Indifference frees us from that slippery slope and keeps us open and ready to do what God wants. It does require both a positive decision to think this way and a negative one to stay away from the usual things that induce our addiction to our own will.
In fact, St. Ignatius goes even further than a mere openness to God. He seeks to prepare the person to do even the things that they do not want to do. On the first level, we are to pray for whatever God wants, be it health or sickness. On the second level, we are encouraged to go against our natural propensities to take the easy way out of things. St Ignatius has the person pray for sickness if it is God’s will.
Underneath this more radical self-offering is a technique that he develops in the Spiritual Exercises that is known by its Latin name: ‘Agere Contra’. In this form of Holy Indifference, when we notice a particular failing that keeps coming out of us and disturbing the progress that God has in mind for us, we are to ‘Work Against it’. (That is the meaning of Agere Contra). So, for instance, if we are habitually late for meetings, liturgies etc. We ‘Agere Contra’ and ‘Work Against’ this by making a commitment to arrive 30 minutes before the scheduled time that we were supposed to be there. So, for instance, if it is a Mass, we leave ourselves a good amount of time to spiritually prepare for the great gift of the Holy Eucharist, by meditating on the readings of the day or by simply sitting in quiet contemplative prayer. If we do this in the right spirit we will have solved the bad habit of lateness! Holy Indifference and Agere Contra are weapons that St. Ignatius uses in the battle against evil in the soul.
They can bring us to the edges of a self-mastery that, aided with the grace of God, can do amazing things in our lives. This is what is classically called ‘Ascetism’. It reflects the role we can play in doing in the will of God. Of course, Grace brings us beyond this but it is still a good beginning that God can use to transform us into what we are being called to be.