Indifference is an uncomfortable word, isn’t it?
Imagine if someone called us, “indifferent”. I suspect we would either be offended, because we don’t think that accurately describes us, or we might feel convicted if we felt the word did accurately describe our attitude.
The word “holy” we tend to think of only in a favorable way. If something is holy, then it is good, pure, or “of God”.
But now bring the two together – “holy indifference” – and I think the most likely impression is the phrase represents an oxymoron. The terms are too dissimilar to be used in conjunction with one another.
We might be surprised to know that “holy indifference” is an attitude recommended by the Saints for hundreds of years. For example, Saint Francis de Sales (1567 – 1622) wrote a chapter entitled, “Holy Indifference Embraces All Things” in his book, Of the Love of God. In it he wrote:
We should seek to practise such indifference with respect to all that concerns our natural life such as health or sickness, beauty or deformity, strength or weakness, honour, rank, and riches; so, also, in all fluctuations of the spiritual life, dryness, consolation, and the like.
In a later chapter of the same book, St Francis de Sales writes:
Unquestionably it is a most pious mental attitude to bless and thank God for all that His Providence may ordain; but if, while leaving God to will and do whatever He pleases in us, we, indifferent to all surroundings, could devote our whole heart and mind to His Boundless Goodness and Mercy, blessing them, not merely in their appointed results, but intrinsically, this would assuredly be a higher spiritual exercise.
Jesus encouraged his followers to be detached from this world and some isolated verses of scripture might lead us to the conclusion that our “holy indifference” is to be so radical as to almost be hostile towards the world. For example when Jesus says of the man who wished to bury his parents before following him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:59-62). Is Jesus really telling us we need to adopt a hostile attitude towards the world in order to be “fit for the kingdom of God”?
I don’t think so.
Jesus taught us to love God and love neighbor, calling these the greatest two commandments (Mt 22:36-40). So right away we can see that we need to love our neighbor through concrete actions (i.e. Corporal Works of Mercy). This is not something we do in the abstract.
So for example, it’s the dead of winter and you’re leaving your office early to head home because the weather forecast is calling for snow and freezing temperatures. You put on your brand new winter coat (man, you really love this thing) and head outside towards your car. You’re getting ready to put your keys in the door when you see a homeless person walking by with a tattered blanket wrapped around their shoulders. It’s decision time. You really love your new coat (and that’s okay) but an attitude of “holy indifference” doesn’t love the coat more than the homeless person. You know you can get in your warm car, drive to your warm house, and take out last year’s winter coat, which is still in fine shape, and use that.
There is nothing wrong with having a new coat. Also, there is nothing wrong if you really enjoy it. But when an opportunity presents itself for us to fulfill our Savior’s command to love our neighbor, we can’t love the coat more than that. That’s having an attitude of “holy indifference”. It says, “This thing is nice, but it is nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to my Lord.”
Pope Innocent XII (1615-1700) wrote the following on “holy indifference”:
In the state of holy indifference, a soul no longer has voluntary and deliberate desires for its own interest, with the exception of those occasions on which it does not faithfully cooperate with the whole of its grace.
In the same state of holy indifference we wish nothing for ourselves, all for God. We do not wish that we be perfect and happy for self interest, but we wish all perfection and happiness only in so far as it pleases God to bring it about that we wish for these states by the impression of His grace.
In this state of holy indifference we no longer seek salvation as our own salvation, as our eternal liberation, as a reward of our merits, nor as the greatest of all our interests, but we wish it with our whole will as the glory and good pleasure of God, as the thing which He wishes, and which He wishes us to wish for His sake.
The bottom line is we can love our things so long as we don’t become so attached to them that we no longer have the strength to become detached when they begin to interfere with our eternal destiny. Everything and everyone must be subordinated to our pursuit of God. That’s “holy indifference” in contrast to the world’s indifference which would have left a homeless person without a coat.