Looking the Gift Horse in the Mouth

I’ve been thinking a lot about my mum recently. Probably because the family have now got the house cleared, cleaned and ready to sell. My eldest came back from Scotland last weekend with some things for us from my mum’s house, including the piano, which has gone to my youngest. My mum will well pleased with that arrangement I imagine. My mind wanders to a story that she repeated many times to me in the last few years of her life. She struggled a lot with restless legs and it meant she often had poor sleep and spent the small hours “walking the floors” as she described it. She had a great devotion to the Sacred Heart – her name was Margaret Mary, like mine, so no surprises there I guess. She was constantly speaking to Him through the many pictures around the house, and one of her favourite prayers was, when driving into a car park:

Please Sacred Heart, find me a parking space.

Photo by MART PRODUCTION on Pexels.com

One always opened up immediately no matter how busy the car park was, I kid you not. It happened so consistently that other members of my family, who do not necessarily believe, use it when they cannot find a parking space! Sure, we can argue about coincidence and patience and whatever rational explanation you like, I’m just telling you what I’ve witnessed. Anyway, I digress – back to walking the floors. One night, after about a week of broken sleep, when she couldn’t stand it anymore, she turned to her picture of the Sacred Heart and challenged Him with words to the effect of:

Don’t tell me to offer it up and to think about everything you went through! You only suffered for a day, I’ve been going on like this for a week and I can’t stand it any more!

An honest prayer, even though I think she believed herself to be disrespectful. She had the sense of God laughing in response and the restlessness disappeared, allowing her to get a good night of sleep.

Within this context, I also found myself reaching this point of:

Enough already!

regarding my own health condition – myalgic encephalomyelitus (ME/CFS). I described before how I had accepted it as a gift, and an answer to my prayers arising from the desire to live more slowly: to realise that it is the cure for my workaholism, because I was not going to let that go on my own. It’s been nearly eighteen months since I got sick, and then failed to completely recover from it. My first experience of chronic fatigue lasted thirteen months and then I got well. Maybe subconsciously I was holding onto the belief that that would happen again, especially with all the ways I am being proactive and that my energy does improve when I look after myself. But that is unlikely to happen this time…it is for life, not just for Christmas, as they say. In football, it is the last ten minutes of the game, when you are so very tired because you have given it all you have, but you have to dig even deeper to keep it going to that final whistle…you don’t want to lose the match at this point! It is where I am on my journey with ME/CFS and with God. I’ve accepted this gift horse and I’m looking in its mouth and not liking what I see, maybe even struggling with it sometimes, and I know that those dark clouds of despairing or anxious fear are swirling around in the distance. It’s like the Battle of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where they createe a defence bubble around the school that keeps Voldermort’s army at bay, but it starts to dismantle as the dark forces continue to attack it. I’m in Hogwarts, protected, but watching that protection begin to disintegrate.

There is another image from my prayer that plays alongside this one though: I’m sitting in the deep calm of the storm, leaning against Jesus, as it all swirls around above us. Both of these images for me are spiritual consolation. It might seem strange to say that about the first image because I mentioned fear, but when we apply some useful discernment questions here it will show what I mean.

Where is it coming from?

Where is it leading to?

In the Hogwart’s image, even in the midst of a community taking a stand against evil and working together for the common good, I am relying on my own magic power to protect me from the forces of darkness which are driving me into spiritual desolation:

I call desolation…as darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination towards what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl S.J.

I may be in the quiet centre of the dome, but without God, with only our own power, the safety shield crumbles and the darkness comes flooding in and I am afraid and overwhelmed. In my imagination I oscillate between both images. In the storm image, I am leaning on Jesus and the quiet centre is more than quiet, it is serene and safe. It is spiritual consolation:

Winter storm over the Northeast (night time thermal image)
Winter storm over the Northeast (night time thermal image) by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

I call consolation every increase of faith, hope and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of ones soul by filling it with peace and quiet in it creator and Lord.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl S.J.

For me, to flip between these two images is no accident. It is like being shown desolation and consolation side by side in similar, but different images. Ignatius says of being in desolation:

When one is in desolation, he should be mindful that God has left him to his natural powers to to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy in order to try him. He can resist with the help of God, which always remains, though he may not clearly perceive it.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl S.J.

I do not believe that this desolation is where I am, although I can definitely feel the pull of it at times and I am guarding against it. The second image of the storm is explicitly inviting me to lean on Him, to discern the movements of spirits within me, to not try to rely all on my own strength or determination. And so I come back to the Principle and Foundation of the Exercises and the room of indifference:

Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honour to dishonour, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl S.J.

The essence of looking a gift horse in the mouth is to see its age. I guess the discouragement in doing so is in finding out that we have been given an old nag – a negative judgement of the gift. Where does it lead? Ingratitude. What if we were to accept the gift horse as a gift, regardless of what is in its mouth? I learned from the Spiritual Exercises that sorrow is a grace: uncomfortable for sure, but grace nevertheless. So, I’m looking at what spiritual desolation and spiritual consolation look like in this space and as I acknowledge my swirling emotions, I imagine myself in the quiet of the storm leaning against Jesus. I am not praying for healing from ME/CFS because I recognise it as the gift of healing of workaholism that I asked for so fervently and for so long, and believe me, that has not gone. Instead, I am praying for indifference in those “enough already” moments and serenity when I see those swirling dark clouds, knowing that He is here with me and I am leaning on Him.

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