The Three Inheritors: a Useful Contemplation Exercise

Editor’s Note: This blog post originally appeared here.

When I work with families and communities around aligning their resources with their values, beliefs, and loves, I like to talk about inheritance. If you consider wealth more broadly, then we inherit a history of place and communities that strove to support each other, the Earth, and the disadvantaged among us. We inherit stories of people who tried to live loving and altruistic lives, to live up to their ancestor’s examples, who adapted to a rapidly changing world yet held on to core values, hopes, and faith. We may also have inherited valuables in the form of property, invaluable keepsakes, or financial resources. This is a rich trove of inheritance for almost anyone.

Yet we may also inherit a history of actions and systems we want to correct, histories we might not be as proud of. And we ourselves may have held ideas and done things we regret, that we would not want to pass on to anyone. These bring humility and a longing for our best selves that are also valuable to grounding in our faith, particularly as we move to make a difference in the world.

The Three Inheritors is a wonderful contemplation practice taken from Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. We can use it to consider our own orientation to inheritance and our current resources. Ignatius was a 16th Century theologian and spiritual guide who founded the Catholic Jesuit order known as the Society of Jesus. Ignatius’ exercises were meant to be carried out over about a month, often during a contemplative retreat.

The Three Inheritors is not about our choices or actions (good or bad). It is about our inner state and identity. It helps us examine how we understand ourselves in relation to each other, the world, and our beliefs. It also helps assess our own stability when we engage with external circumstances, and specifically when those circumstances change. It asks how able we move through our lives consistently guided by our values and faith, even in the face of a significant windfall.

Here is The Three Inheritors story:
Three people unexpectedly inherit a large sum of money and each handles it differently. However, they all share a belief in God. Each feels uneasy about the inheritance, because it has not yet been integrated into their understanding of themselves and their lifestyles. This is a considerable challenge, given the seductive quality of newly acquired wealth.

The first inheritor feels moved to get rid of the windfall inheritance since it is a source of disturbance and distraction in all areas of their life. However, the attraction to the inheritance and the desire to be rid of its negative consequences neutralize each other, so this inheritor takes no action during their lifetime. This first inheritor carries this ambivalence always, and the money is not used at all.

The second inheritor convinces themselves that God gave them the money and wants them to have it for their own use. In that way this inheritor can retain their beliefs and have the money to spend on satisfying their own comfort and desires. This second inheritor is able to act almost immediately.

The third inheritor sets the inheritance aside and waits for an understanding of the inheritance’s purpose. They maintain their relationship to God as a guiding force in the disposition of these new resources. In the interim, they get on with their life as it is, and their identity does not get tied up in having greater wealth. This allows this third inheritor’s interior orientation to adjust to the new external circumstance and to align their faith with their resources before deciding how to use them.

I invite you to engage in this exercise as part of your meditation or spiritual practice. Spend some time with it. Do not be distracted if you have not been given, or do not expect, a large financial windfall. We have all inherited valuable things throughout our lives – both material and immaterial. Please consider it as a metaphor.

I carry some of each of the three inheritors in me, which I consider inevitable in our materialistic and comfort-striving culture. It is not difficult to move from being grateful and humble in my orientation to God, to feeling like I have been favored by God and should consider that as an entitlement. The important questions are: to what degree do I hold each of the inheritor’s orientations, and how am I maturing in faith toward a richer understanding of my resources and their uses as the conditions of my financial life change.

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