I have been walking quite a difficult path for a while now – you know, one of those rocky paths where there are stones and potholes where you could easily turn over on your ankle; or it narrows until there are thorn bushes on one side and a precipice on the other and it is a very tight gap to negotiate through. And of course, this path is uphill. There are interludes along the way: green, grassy valleys, flower meadows and cool fresh streams to drink, rest and bathe in. These nurture points are all appreciated with a deeper gratitude because the rest of the way is difficult.
So on this journey one day, I came around a sharp bend to a fork in the path. My feet were sore and blistered inside my boots from the walking I had already done, and my back was aching and my knees buckling with the weight of the rucksack I was carrying. I stared in dismay at the fork in the path: I had no idea which one to take. It mattered which one I took, because, while both were difficult and painful to travel by, the wrong one was treacherous, and not just for me. The problem was, I did not know which path was the wrong path, they both seemed as dangerous as each other.
In the Rules of Discernment in The Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius uses metaphor to describe the different ways the evil spirit works. Of one he says:
The conduct of our enemy may also be compared to the tactics of a leader intent upon seizing and plundering a position he desires. A commander and leader of an army will encamp, explore the fortifications and defenses of the stronghold, and attack at the weakest point. In the same way, the enemy of our human nature investigates from every side all our virtues, theological, cardinal and moral. Where he finds the defenses of eternal salvation weakest and most deficient, there he attacks and tries to take us by storm.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
As I stood at the fork in the path, my castle came under attack, sustained and violent. I was bombarded with flaming canon balls, pressuring me to make a choice, telling me that the wrong choice would cause a catastrophe from which there would be no coming back and would have serious implications for those I loved. Those critical voices told me that it was all my fault, that I was worthless, and that any fallout from this decision was down to me, and in fact that there was a decision here at all was all my fault anyway because I had made mistakes in my past. Those critical voices told me that there was no time to waste, that I had to make a decision and make it quickly, because every second of delay only made it worse. Perhaps you know what I mean because you have been in a similar situation yourself?
I remembered an image from a story I had been reading as a child. There was a Buddhist monk sitting meditating, breathing gently through a pipe or a rolled up piece of paper because he was covered in bees. The image I had of myself at this point, while trying to decide which path to take was very similar, but the bees were wasps, and I am a little phobic about wasps. Whenever one comes into my house I open the rest of the windows and leave the room, coming back later in the hope that it is gone. If one comes onto my classroom I make an incredible effort to remain calm and not show the rising panic inside me by asking one of the students to try to remove it, thanking them for being so helpful when they do. As I am sitting in this image, the wasps are calm and crawling, and as I become aware of the rising panic within me they begin to buzz around, making me feel even more fearful. Such was the anxious fear, the desolation at being faced with choosing one of these two paths.
Ignatius advises that we act against the desolation when we are aware of it, and that speaking to a spiritual person, such as a spiritual director, who is well versed in the art of discernment can help:
But if one manifests them to a confessor, or to some other spiritual person who understands his deceits and malicious designs, the evil one is very much vexed. For he knows that he cannot succeed in his evil undertaking, once his evident deceits have been revealed.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
So, I resisted the pressure to choose quickly, and I spoke to my spiritual director and to another person I knew who was an expert in dealing with the type of situation I was facing. At the end of it, the responsibility for the decision was all mine. So, I sat down at the fork in the path and I prayed:
In the First Principle and Foundation of The Exercises Ignatius suggests:
…we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.
Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
For me, when I made The Exercises, this moment of indifference came when I imagined myself sat on a chair in the middle of a white, hexagonal room with six doors. Behind three of the doors were darkness, secrets and indiscernable material things, and fear: behind the other three doors were the three persons of the Holy Trinity. I was alone in the room and I had come there because He had called me. When I came into the room and saw that He was not there, I knew and trusted that He would come, no matter how long it took. So, I sat in the chair and stilled myself. I placed my palms upwards and said into the room:
I will wait.
And the moment I let go of all my preferences, and waited for Him in complete trust, He was there beside me; I was not alone.
They say, they being people who are experienced in working with The Exercises, that the graces received when we make the Exercises are always there. I would assert this to be true based on my own first hand experience. So, I sat down at the fork in that stony path and I prayed both with the song and in silence, and I put myself back into the hexagonal room, connected with that sense of indifference I had felt at the time and told Him the same thing:
I will wait.
I was not alone, and I knew it. I was affirming it to myself, to Him, and I was asserting it to the world. The critical voices were silenced and the wasps stopped buzzing. It is to deal with desolation as Ignatius suggests:
On the other hand, one who suffers desolation should remember that by making use of the sufficient grace offered him, he can do much to withstand all his enemies. Let him find his strength in his Creator and Lord.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
And I waited. I remained in this place, still, for over two weeks in real time. Not so long in God time. Gradually, a sense of knowing emerged from deep down, and the certainty of it strengthened as I remained there in stillness. The decision was made, and I knew which path to take. There was serenity in that decision, and an affirming smile from God. So I followed the path I had been shown.
In the Lectio Divina for Psalm 16 it says:
You will show me the path of life.Psalm 16:11
and praying with Julian of Norwich where the psalm fragment suggested is from Psalm 139:
…and lead me in the way everlasting.Psalm 139:24
And last week I was writing about consolation and desolation. I have been pondering these things. Deepening trust in God is a theme that seems to be surfacing, especially when things get tough. Months after I followed through on my choice there was no disaster and a verbal confirmation that demonstrated that I had made the right choice from someone who knew nothing of my choice or my struggle, and who would have been badly affected had I made the wrong choice. I was immediately both grateful and humble at the impact my trust and faith in Him had had in real time.
When the situation is difficult and there is turmoil of spirits, it can be confusing to see which way to go. In the First principle and Foundation, we are encouraged to become indifferent to moving one way or another, to wait and to listen for what God would have us do. We are encouraged to trust in Him to show us the way and for that, we must be still and patient.