The Benefit of the Doubt

St. Ignatius Loyola was a dandy knight and a courtier until he was seriously wounded in a battle. As he lay in bed recuperating, he read the life of Christ and some biographies of saints. He decided to renounce the world and to try to imitate the Lord Jesus in a life of poverty, chastity, and total obedience to God. St. Ignatius went from delusions of grandeur to extreme, almost frightening humility.

St. Ignatius is famous for his “Spiritual Exercises,” a month-long series of meditations which unite the person who makes them with Christ. In order for someone to do the Exercises, he or she needs a guide. The relationship between the person praying and the director is crucial for spiritual success. Profound trust is obviously necessary.

Because this relationship is so important, St. Ignatius spelled out how both parties should approach it. His teaching is a perfect guide for all of us in our dealings with other people:

“That both the giver and the maker of the Spiritual Exercises may be of greater help and benefit to each other, it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved.” (paragraph 22 of the Spiritual Exercises)

It is much easier to want to do this than to do it, as we know. Giving the other person the benefit of the doubt every time is a very demanding discipline. But isn’t it the way that the saints have seen things? Haven’t the saints always been accused of being naïve and obtuse, precisely because they refused to think ill of another person until there was unimpeachable objective evidence? The saints have lived in the so-called “dream world” in which other people always mean well.

At the end of the book of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius gives some practical rules for staying in communion with the Church. One of them is: “What seems to me to be white, I will believe to be black if the hierarchical Church thus determines it.” (paragraph 365).

This extreme case of self-doubt obviously only applies in matters where the Church teaches a solemn doctrine. But the underlying theme is the same as in the rule for giving the benefit of the doubt to the other person. The underlying theme of St. Ignatius’ spiritual life is: I should be quick to doubt myself. My own conclusions must always be put to a rigorous test before I commit myself to them.

I do not claim to be any expert at this. I tend to assume that everyone thinks that I am a big fool, deluded and impossible to understand. In fact, only about 50% of the people I know think this.

Now, there is self-doubt and there is self-doubt. Humbly withholding judgment is good self-doubt. Perpetual fear and trembling is bad self-doubt. This perpetual fear and trembling pretty well describes my first five years as a priest. After all, the responsibilities are frightening, and my capacities are woefully limited. Someday the Lord will ask me to give an account for all the souls that have ever been under my care in any way, and if I have failed any of them, I will have to pay the price for my negligence.

I am not looking for pity here, though. I love being a priest, and in fact I do not tremble at all times. I know that if I do my duty, teach the truth with loving care, and do my best to be kind, then I can hope that I will get to heaven someday, and be with the people I have loved here on earth. Being a priest is fundamentally a matter of duty; the good Lord does not ask His priests to be mind-readers (believe it or not) or rock-stars, or even particularly good politicians. We are just supposed to pray all the time.

May the good Lord give me the grace to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, to think that they are right until I know for sure that they are wrong, and to help them in any way I can.

One thought on “The Benefit of the Doubt

  1. I think you should win an award for this posting. The beauty of true humility cannot be over stated. Thank you, Father, for being our good teacher and excellent example in this most beautiful of virtues. I am very grateful for your words and wisdom.

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