Ask a Spiritual Director.

I am planning a feature in future posts, to “interview” some spiritual directors I know, and possibly to feature contributions from them by way of blog posts. This is an idea in its infancy, and to be developed. As a first step, my request is of you to put forward questions you would be interested in asking a spiritual director. My intention is to offer the directors twenty questions for them to choose ten to answer for the feature. So, as an example, my question might be (and indeed, has been):

When people ask you “What does a spiritual director do?”, how do you respond?

I will interview myself first to try it out and because I wouldn’t ask anyone to do what I am not willing to do myself. So, if you have a question you are curious about regarding spiritual direction, or prayer, or God in All Things, or Spirituality…and so on, please put it into the comments and I will begin to put together my questionnaire, and my own repsonses. I look forward to hearing from you, and to pondering your questions.

Positive Penance

Positive Penance 1: Reading of the post.

Here I would like to describe the context and ideas I presented at the retreat day yesterday on Positive Penance: Preparation for Lent.

It occurred to me that many of us have in the past, and perhaps still do, view penance as being a self inflicted punishment for sins committed, a bit like Dobby, before he became a free elf: I would call him a penitent elf:

Positive Penance 2: Reading of the post.

I have felt very dissatisfied with this underlying perspective of penance when I heard it in church, or listening to people. This albeit subconscious understanding of it seemed to me to lead to anger, resentment or self loathing and not to spiritual consolation. Dobby is not expressing sorrow and a heartfelt desire to do and be more in the scene above. When I was studying the Spiritual Exercises, it was skimmed over uncomfortably and pointed out that it was of the time. Again, it left me feeling frustrated and with a sense of there being so much more to it than all of this. So, I chose to study the Tenth Addition of the Exercises on Penance and to write my theory paper in the second year of my course on what I had learned. The retreat I led yesterday is the fruit of that work.

The Catholic Church gives the reasons for making Lenten observances in the Catechism:

…in contrast to those who had once provoked God during forty years in the desert, Christ reveals Himself as God’s servant, totally obedient to the Divine will.

Catechism of the Catholic  Church; (539)

By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.

Catechism of the Catholic Church; (540)

And has drawn the traditional Lenten practices of fasting, alms-giving and prayer from scripture:

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16 for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 And the world and its desire[a] are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

1 John 2:15-17

Where fasting is a means to acting against the desire of the flesh; alms-giving a means to act again the desire of the eyes, and prayer to act against the pride in riches. To act against spiritual desolation is the principle of “agere contra”, which is also described in the Spiritual Exercises, and there is no contradiction with what I am presenting: I am looking for the more in it.

Ignatius describes three powers of the soul that we employ in our spiritual lives: the first memory and imagination together, the second the understanding and thirdly, the will, where the latter is the heart, rather than our modern day interpretation of mind over matter. Have you ever felt:

I know what I should do here, but I just don’t have the heart to do it.

I believe that to be the difference, and meaning of the will in this context, what it is that is in the heart to do, even if it does not seem to make much sense.

On the imagination, I have frequently heard it questioned, or where other people have questioned what another means when they talk about God speaking to them. The conversation between the inquisitor and Joan of Arc sums it up for me:

“You say God speaks to you, but it’s only your imagination.” These are the words spoken by the inquisitor to Joan of Arc during her trial for heresy.

“How else would God speak to me, if not through my imagination?” Joan replied.

and of course, there is the idea Ignatius describes in the Three Kinds of Humility, which I wrote about before.

Ignatius gives reasons for doing penance:

The principal reason for performing exterior penance is to secure three effects:

(i) To make satisfaction for past sins;

(ii) To overcome oneself, that is, to make our sensual nature obey reason, and to bring all of our lower faculties into greater subjection to the higher;

(iii) To obtain some grace or gift that one earnestly desires. Thus it may be that one wants a deep sorrow for sin, or tears, either because of his sins or because of the pains and sufferings of Christ our Lord; or he may want the solution of some doubt that is in his mind

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

In another translation of The Spiritual Exercises, by Michael Ivens, he uses the word reparation, rather than satisfaction. The sense of this latter word is more, because it goes beyond punishment, beyond evening the score, to making it right. I gave an example from my own experience.

I can be a bit work obsessed and years ago I was marking some coursework on a Sunday afternoon – I shiver in horror at the thought of doing that now – and my younger child had an invitation to a birthday party. I was trying to get the work finished by three thirty to get her to the party on time at four. She came through several times asking if it was time to go yet; she must have been around six or seven. I finished marking the last piece at three thirty and asked her to bring the invitation with the address on it and we would go, but to my horror and grief I saw that the party finished at four, not started. We would get there in time for the end. I was immediately distraught as the neglect I had shown my own child overwhelmed me; it broke my heart and I started to cry. It was a third power of the soul response. I told her I was sorry, I asked her to forgive me and I offered her to choose something else we could do instead. So we went out for pizza. My penance showed her the sincerity of my remorse and the intensity of my desire to make it right with her, to repair the damage I had done to our relationship with my negligence. I could have been angry and resentful that she had inconvenienced me with a party invitation when I had so much work to do; I could have beaten myself up with self loathing for being a bad mother; but to express my deep and sincere sorrow, to ask for forgiveness and to do what was in my power to do to repair the situation, was the more loving response. And with her generosity of heart, she forgave me and allowed me to make it right with her, to the extent that she had forgotten all about it until I reminded her recently when I was preparing for this retreat.

Door to Capely Coed, St Beunos.
Positive Penance 3: Reading of the post.

On the second reason Ignatius gives, Gerard W. Hughes sums it up beautifully in God in All Things:

Self denial is life giving and a doorway to freedom when it is understood in terms of denying our superficial desires the right to dominate our lives and determine our actions. The self that we are asked to deny is, in fact, the false self, the self of superficial desires which has the power to frustrate and dominate our true self, which is drawing us into the life and love of God. This true self must never be denied.

Gerard W. Hughes, God in All Things

The first sentence of this quote was a complete revelation to me when I first read it. It caused a paradigm shift in my understanding and experience of lent, and is the basis of my dissatisfaction thereafter, with the perspectives I described at the beginning. In The Immortal Diamond, Richard Rohr gives an insight into what is meant by the false and true self:

Positive Penance 4: Reading of the post.

I perceive the movement of penance as a deconstruction of the false self, and a reconstruction of the true self, when we focus our attention on God. I visualise it in the artistic composition of The Ecstasy of St. Francis, a great penitent of the third order of humility, by Caravaggio, by all accounts, a renowned sinner. The downward movement represents the deconstruction of the false self, and the upward movement, the reconstruction, focused on God, that draws us nearer to our true self.

The Ecstasy of St. Francis, Caravaggio
Positive Penance 5: Reading of the post.

The third reason Ignatius gives for doing penance is not to be understood as a bargaining with God, but more as a pleading; it is the means of expressing the sincerity, depth and intensity of our desire for the grace for which we are asking. In the party incident with my youngest, my tears and offer of a treat of her choosing, were expressing the profundity of my remorse, and my sincerity and the depth of my desire for her forgiveness, and to make the relationship right again.

From the end of the presentation at this point, retreatants were invited to do the One Man and His Dog reflective exercise. I have made the worksheet from an exercise described by Gerard W. Hughes in God in All Things. The shepherd represents God, the dog alert and focused on the shepherd represents the soul and the sheep represent our scattered desires. The idea of the exercise at this point is to name our desires, without any judgement or resolution, just to notice what they are.

One Man and His Dog: my worksheet inspired by an exercise described in God in All Things, Gerad W. Hughes
Positive Penance 6: Reading of the post.

Then we spent some time in prayer with an imaginative contemplation, using the Ignatian structure of preparation, prayer and review; and then in paired sharing. After lunch, laying down some context for the afternoon continued in a second, shorter presentation.

Ignatius separates penance into interior and exterior:

Interior penance consists in sorrow for one’s sins and a firm purpose not to commit them or any others. Exterior penance is the fruit of the first kind.

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

And I suggest that the movement can be in either direction: I can feel remorse and sorrow (interior) as I did with my daughter, and that initiates an external response: or, with my reason I can recognise that I am not the person God is calling me to be in an aspect of my life: for example, I was a coffee addict at one point drinking five of six cups a day. I recognised that it led me to be dismissive of children in school and irritable and impatient, because I needed a cup of coffee. I decided I needed to give up coffee one year (exterior) because it was driving my behaviour in a way that took me away from who I was called to be. Now I mostly limit it to one a day, with the occasional two cup day as a special treat. I am unable to drink three cups because it makes me feel sick. It is a long time since I dismissed someone, or delayed doing something because I needed coffee. So, the exterior penance, the action or behaviour, sinks deeper until the internal desire falls into line. It is effectively being the change you want to make.

On The Nature of Penance, I have summed it up in the diagram:

Positive Penance 7: Reading of the post.

Living modestly between the extremes of harm and superfluous is described by Ignatius as temperance and is more of a general lifestyle recommendation. Penance is something that should not cause harm if practiced in the short term. As a scientist I am aware that the body has mechanisms to deal with mild, short term disruptions to its needs in terms of food, sleep and pain, but should any of these become extreme or chronic then deeper health problems ensue. Ignatius suggests that we do a little more, and adjust until we find the right level for us. Ignatius himself practiced extreme penances and had to be nursed back to health, and it may be this reason that the tenth addition is dealt with as being of its time, and a little uncomfortably. In my opinion, what he has written in the Exercises is the fruit of his experiences and radically moderates the extreme practices of his time, and also demonstrates principles that are still relevant to us today.

After this point, we again spent some time in prayer, with another imaginative contemplation, which took off from where the morning one left off. Again, the structure of preparation, prayer and review was followed, and then by paired sharing. The One Man and his Dog reflection was brought back into play. The purpose of the dog (soul) is to be attentive to God, and to gather up all of the scattered sheep (desires) in an ordered arrangement and have them moving in the direction God desires them to go. Then there was a personal reflection on My Unruly Sheep:

Positive Penance 8: Reading of this post.

Retreatants were asked to pick up one or more of the little characters above and to try to name any pertinent disordered desires that might have come to the surface during the day. They were encouraged to ponder how this desire may be getting in the way of their deeper personal relationship with God, and to resolve to amend it during lent by making a decision on an action they could take, an exterior penance, that would help them draw closer to God. At least one person left the retreat, after the group sharing and closing prayer, having identified a habit to give up for lent that would open up the time and space for more spiritual reading, contemplation and prayer. It is consistent with the purpose of the retreat day and with what Ignatius has to say about our choice of penance:

Now since God our Lord knows our nature infinitely better, when we make changes of this kind, He often grants each one the grace to understand what is suitable for him.

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

On a personal level, I was extremely tired after the day and being used to teaching teenagers all day, I was not expecting that. It was a blissful, contented tiredness, replete with God’s pleasure and joy. I am as yet unaware of all the graces I received myself, and I am grateful for the graces received by those who came, some of which were evident. I look forward to noticing the fruit these seeds bear in the future.

So , here is a question for you:

What personal penance are you planning for the forthcoming lent?

If you have not thought about it, or decided yet, maybe you could try, with prayer, the One Man and His Dog exercise, and then contemplate your Unruly Sheep. Something relevant to you and your relationship with God may very well surface. I wish you a fruitful and holy season of lent.

Positive Penance Retreat Day:

During Lent, the Church encourages us to unite ourselves to the mystery of Jesus in the desert, to act against the desire of the flesh, of the eyes and the pride in riches by fasting, giving alms and prayer. The practice of such penance may feel judicial and be difficult to maintain for the whole season of lent, perhaps because of its general sense of understanding. In “The Spiritual Excercises”, St. Ignatius writes about the practice of penance in the Tenth Addition, and the discussion is often passed over uncomfortably and put into the context of his time. My discomfort with both approaches compels me to present this retreat day.  

Ignatius presents the idea of penance as a form of desire for more in our relationship with God and he makes it personal. He says: 

Now since God our Lord knows our nature infinitely better, when we make changes of this kind, He often grants each one the grace to understand what is suitable for him.

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

My intention is to provide the time, space and stimulation for each one to notice the desires and motivations for their feelings and actions; to notice the direction of the movement in those desires, whether they are towards God (spiritual consolation) or away from God (spiritual desolation); the latter being identified as inordinate desire; and, with the grace and help of God, to choose the most pertinent of our own inordinate desires and resolve to amend it or them. The resolve to amend will form the basis of our chosen lenten practice, which will be personal in the context of our own relationship with God and drawn from the desire for more in that relationship. Fuelled by this desire, may we find sustenance to maintain our lenten observance for the duration, and allow it to impact a deeper change in our lives beyond lent. 

The process will be facilitated with two short presentations, The Examen prayer, Guided Imaginative Contemplations, Personal reflection and paired and group sharing. To ensure safety, sharing should be only what you are comfortable with, and should remain confidential within the context of the person or group it is shared in. 

Our Lady of The Annunciation has excellent facilities. There is a beautiful church, with the Thirkettle Room attached, and it is here that the first presentation will be given at 10am. The Conference Centre has further space and a kitchen, where refreshments will be available from 9.30am. There is Mass in the church at 9.00am and the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be available on the day. There may also be access to the gardens, weather permitting. Plenty of parking is available on site. 

Retreat Day: Positive Penance. 15 February 2020

I am running this retreat day, based on the tenth addition of The Spiritual Exercises, to prepare for lent. If you are thinking that you would like to enter more deeply into this special season of the church and you are able to get yourself there, you are most welcome. Please let me know, by leaving a comment or email, if you do intend to be there (not written in stone) just to help me to estimate the numbers of resources I need to prepare. And please do share with anyone you think may be interested. Thank you.

Imaginative Contemplation: The Birth of Jesus

Christmas Day

Here, as stated before, it is my intention to draw from the forthcoming Sunday liturgy and to offer a guided prayer on one of the pieces of scripture in the same way that we have been doing in Exploring Personal Prayer. However, today, since it is Christmas day, I have chosen one of the Gospel passages used for this very special feast. I do not intend to offer any reflections on the scripture. My suggestion is that you follow the Ignatian structure: preparation for prayer by reading the scripture, going to your prayer place and doing the prayer itself, and then moving away to another place and doing a review of the prayer. Keeping some sort of prayer journal is good practice. Note any moments of consolation in the prayer, where you felt drawn more deeply into God, and moments of desolation, where prayer was disturbed, where you were distracted and pulled further away from God: feelings of attraction and repulsion should be noted. These points may provide areas for repetition of the prayer. Also, if you have a spiritual director or prayer partner, someone who can listen with an ear to where God is in this, it may be worth sharing your prayer with them. I am following the processes outline in the prayer cards above. You may print these onto A6 or A4 card to have in your prayer space to help you become accustomed to this way of praying, remembering it is more of a flow than a rigid structure.

Luke 2:15-20

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Imaginative Contemplation Luke 2: 15-20, guided prayer

Background music is the album: Keith Halligan – Lifestyle Meditation, Global Journey

All things in a hazelnut.

Reading of All things in a hazelnut part 1

I went to the Saturday retreat day at St Julian’s Church (below) and found an oasis in space and time. There has been a lot of stress in my life recently, and to stop in the midst of it all was, literally, a Godsend.

I was, and was looking for, quiet, and at least until lunchtime, I maintained a quiet solitude within myself. And then to my surprise, I found myself engaged in easy conversation with a variety of different people, who brought me out of myself, in spite of myself.

Reading of All things in a hazelnut part 2

When I was studying to be a Spiritual Director, in the first year, we spent some time learning about all sorts of different spiritualities, not just the Ignatian Way. We spent a day looking at Hermits and Anchorites, Solitaries and the Beguines were also mentioned. In the meditation at the end of that day we were asked to notice our own internal response to what we had been learning. I noticed that I had found it extremely interesting, and in my reflective log later commented that I found it interesting that I had found it interesting. I have since recognised my own solitary nature, and that the longing in my own spiritual journey is for solitude: to go into my room alone with God and to close the door. I had observed a few years before that the more time I spent alone, and alone with God, the more open I was, in a non attached and free way, to other people. It seems a strange paradox, but was evident at the retreat day. I am drawn to Julian of Norwich, partly for this reason, partly because she was a woman writing about God and something of the non-patriarchal attitude in her writing is attractive, and in a similar way to St. Ignatius, she comes at our createdness from the perspective that we are like God “in nature”, that:

The soul…is accorded with God.

A Revelation of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich.

rather than the common perspective than we are doomed sinners. Please do not get me wrong, there is no denial of sin either from Julian or from Ignatius, it is just that holding that our true nature is in God, and that we are completely loved by Him, is hopeful and opens us more freely to allow ourselves to accept the love of God, and to love Him more fully in return. It is the process by which we are transformed. I listen to people who begin from the point that they are doomed and they are so full of guilt that it gets in the way, or they have a subtle nuance in their thinking that they can achieve their own salvation by being good. They seem defeated before they even start, and I am sure I have felt like that at times too.

Reading of All things in a hazelnut part 3

There was a guided meditation on a hazelnut.

Then He showed me a little thing, no bigger than a hazelnut, as it seemed to me, lying in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought:

What can this be?

And I was answered generally:

It is all that is made.

I gazed with astonishment, wondering how it could survive because of its littleness. It seemed to me that it was about to fall into nothingness. And I was answered in my mind:

It lasts and always will last because God loves it.

And so, everything receives its being from the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three truths:

God made it.

God loves it.

God keeps it.

A Revelation of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich.

I was reminded of an imaginative contemplation I had during the exercises on The First Principle and Foundation, where I had been praying with Psalm 139, and pondering my own creation, and I found myself in a repetition of that prayer, focusing on a consolation I had received at that time. I was my small inner child, around four years of age, in the garden with God, wearing my purple sparkly wellies and a simple white dress: I kid you not. Who would put a child in a white dress to do gardening? With my nose running like a burn, as they say where I am from, we were planting sunflowers in a large round flowerbed. He had shown me how to do it, and was over on the other side of the flower bed working, when I stopped to stare at the seeds in my hand. The phrase from the psalm repeated again and again in my mind:

when I was being formed in secret,

textured in the depths of the earth.

Psalm 139: 15b
Reading of All things in a hazelnut part 4

I remember He noticed me standing transfixed, and asked me tenderly:

Sunflower, are you okay?

I whispered to Him in awe:

You made me. Just like this, you made me.

I imagine Julian’s astonishment as she contemplated the vision of the hazelnut to be something similar. In this repetition, I heard those words directed to me:

I made you.

I love you.

I keep you.

I am keeping you very safe.

The last sentence here is another from Revelations of Divine Love, and it is one I hold close to me regularly. Previously I wrote about how Ignatius has said that we should store up the experience of consolation to strengthen us in periods of desolation. This last phrase is one of my consolations that I bring to mind when I notice that I am feeling fearful. Julian says that there are only two sins: anxious fear and despairing fear. Both are a lack of trust in God. Ignatius identifies both the want of faith and the want of hope as signs of desolation, of being pulled away from God. I said earlier that there has been a lot of stress in my life recently, and it has certainly led to me feeling unsafe and fearful at times, and despairing. To hear Him affirm me this way in prayer has shifted my perspective since the retreat day. I spent some time considering the people who have been, and still are, supporting me: friends, family, at Church and particularly my colleagues at work, and for their kindness and tenderness towards me, I am deeply grateful.

It was also mentioned on my course that Revelations of Divine Love could be used as a prayer programme or retreat, in a similar way to The Spiritual Exercises. That possibility I found extremely interesting and wondered how it could work in practice. What would the process be? I thought that when I had finished my training I might go back to that idea and look at it more closely. At the Julian Centre on the day of the retreat, I found the book “40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich”, Lisa E. Dahill, editor. There are a whole series of 40 Day Journey with… books with a selection of inspirational people. So, feeling inspired by what I have found, it is my intention to go on this 40 day journey with Julian, as a sort of 19th annotation, like in The Exercises, where one day in the journey takes a week of everyday life. I intend to begin at the beginning of the liturgical year: the beginning of advent, so I have some time to ready myself for the journey. Wish me Bon Voyage!