I was posting about the meaning of work the other day, and one of the questions that came up in that discussion was the nature of ambition. Is it a good thing to want to use our talents well, to do our best, and to go as far as we can in whatever structure of work we are in? What if it involves wanting to get ahead of others, and by implication to keep them down? What if it is muddled up with pride, or vanity, or a lust for power, or insecurity, or whatever? What if the pressures of work, and especially of an ambitious work ethic, mean that we have less time and energy to give to family, friends, good works, etc?
By coincidence, the Jesuit Final Vows that I witnessed on Saturday involved a powerful reflection on the dangers of ambition – not in the public celebration of the Mass, but in the sacristy afterwards, when the new fully-professed Jesuit takes five additional ‘simple’ vows privately. James Martin explains:
These vows show how well St. Ignatius understood human nature. First, we vow never to change anything in the Jesuit Constitutions about poverty–unless to make it “more strict.” Second, a vow never to “strive or ambition” for any dignity in the church, like becoming a bishop. Third, never to “strive or ambition” for any high office in the Jesuits. Fourth, if we find out that someone is striving for these things, we are to “communicate his name” to the Society. (A friend calls this the vow to rat out someone, but it’s another indication of how much Ignatius wanted to eliminate ambition, as far as possible, from the Jesuits.) Finally, we take a vow that, if we are somehow made bishop, we will still listen to the superior general.
It doesn’t mean, of course, that you shouldn’t be ambitious for the ‘higher gifts’ (1 Cor 12); and the Jesuit ambition, above all, is always to seek whatever is for the greater glory of God. That’s the point of renouncing worldly or ecclesiastical ambition, in these simple vows, so that you can truly be ambitious for the Lord, without getting distracted by other stuff.