With the school holidays coming to an end, and with my post last week on discerning whether to remain in work we do not want to do, I have been thinking about work and the discussion which took place at the Norwich Christian Meditation event I went to. Fr. Korko spent some time looking at Contemplation in Action (Karma Yoga). He drew on the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita (The Song of God) and the Bible to elucidate an attitude to our work that is consistent with what Ignatius describes in the First Principle and Foundation, and in the Contemplatio of the Spiritual Exercises.
3.5.2. Work with noble motive.
Yesu Nama Japan (The Practice of Jesus Prayer), Korkoniyas Moses S.J.
Whatever you eat, drink or do, do everything for the glory of God.
1 Cor 10:31
Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give away as charity and whatever austerity you perform do that as an offering unto me.
Bh. Gita 9:27
In the Principle and Foundation of the Exercises, Ignatius says:
Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.
Hence, the first thing to consider in our work is the reason we are doing that particular job: we may or may not enjoy the work we are doing, but the question for us really to consider in our hearts is how does it help, or not help us, praise , reverence and serve God. It might be we need to change our work if it leads us away from God, or we need to change our own attitude to the work we are doing. I know I said in my last post that I could not bear to watch or put clips from the Green Mile, but the ending might be relevant here (spoiler alert):
The scene, although not exactly an imaginative contemplation about what decision something might want to have made when considering it from their death bed, it has echoes of it. Had he fully appreciated what was moving in him at the time, would he have made different decisions about how he responded within his work? With respect to those not making a change to their material situation, Ignatius says:
…to propose a way for each to reform his manner of living in his state by setting before him the purpose of his creation and of his life and position, namely, the glory and praise of God our Lord and the salvation of his soul.
And it was largely around this point that the discussion took place; if I do not want to do the job I am doing, and I recognise that I am working with noble motive and for the greater glory of God, I can keep going.
I was struck recently about James Martin’s commentary in Jesus A Pilgrimage, in the chapter on Parables, where he describes a perspective on the Parable of the Talents, given by Barbara Reid. It is worth giving the detail here. He says:
The third servant, she believes, is the honorable one, because he refused to cooperate with a system in which the master continues to accrue large amounts of money while others are poor.
Reid sees the parable as a warning “about the ease with which people can be co-opted by an unjust system,” while also encouraging disciples to expose unfettered greed. She believes that the last verse shows what happens to those who “blow the whistle” on the rich and powerful.
It is the phrase of “manner of living” and these two ideas that are converging in my mind. What if we remain in our current state, or work, and look to change the manner in which we live within it? What would have happened if Paul Edgecomb (the character played by Tom Hanks in the Green Mile) had acted on the movements within him, and refused to execute John Coffey? Would it inevitably lead him to refuse to walk the Green Mile with others, and therefore put him in a position where his employment in the prison was completely untenable? Barbera Reid refers specifically to greed in her interpretation, but the principle can be applied to all areas where there are unjust power structures, where we cooperate with the structures of sin in the world.
In contrast to slaves, who live in servile fear of a greedy master who metes out cruel punishment to those who will not go along with this program for self-aggrandizement, Jesus’s disciples live with trust in God, whose equitable love emboldens them to work for justice here and now while awaiting ultimate fulfillment.
Difficult questions…where can we stand up and say no to the unjust, immoral practices we encounter in our work, without having to make the decision to walk away completely, or be made to leave? I have done it several times, and it is not comfortable.
3.5.2 Work dutifully with gratitude.
Yesu Nama Japan (The Practice of Jesus Prayer), Korkoniyas Moses S.J.
This section is grounded in the Contemplatio, or more accurately, Contemplation to Attain the Love of God, which comes at the end of the Spiritual Exercises, and the point is, not to earn the love of God, that is already given, but to learn to love as God loves. And the first point that Ignatius makes is that:
…love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.
When we collaborate with God in the work of His creation we become like Him.
Yesu Nama Japan (The Practice of Jesus Prayer), Korkoniyas Moses S.J.
I love this idea that in our work, we are collaborating with God and becoming like Him…it is the seed of God, growing into God as described in the Meister Eckhart quote in the header. Fr. Korko expresses the attitude that the ability and opportunity to work is a gift, and that when we work, we are instruments in the hands of God. It is from this context that the question from my last post was posed. I mentioned that I had had periods where I was not filled with joy and zest at going into work, but that I had kept in mind what had drawn me into the work in the first place (first time choice). I’m thinking specifically of when I had glandular fever and subsequently experienced chronic fatigue. Here, it illustrates the example of noble motive: I was struggling with the work, but focus on my reasons for being there was part of what kept me going into work. Being grateful for my job, and the support I was given to enable me to be there as much as possible, in spite of the difficulty, something that was expressed in my examen at the end of the day, was also important.
It kept me aware that health and opportunity to work were not given to everyone, and the benefits of autonomy and security were not to be taken for granted. How many people are only one decision, an illness or unfortunate occurrence away from being on the streets? Also important was the grace I always asked for in my morning prayer: the energy and the strength to do and be what He would have me do and be today. Ignatius encourages us to ask for the graces we desire at the beginning of our prayer, and in doing so, we are handing ourselves over to be instruments of God.
And again, receiving such grace was also a point of gratitude at the end of the day. And there were days when the answer was:
Not today. You need to rest today.
And I would sleep for several hours, with a sense of relief that at least for today, I did not have to fight against the lethargy in my body.
Contemplation in action, in relation to the work we do, brings God right into the heart of what we do: our work is not separate from our faith in God, it is the means by which God can act in the world when we allow ourselves to be His instruments in the world. Being mindful of God in all things and living consciously and reflectively opens us to this potential.
This was a challenging question asked during a session at Fr. Korko’s quiet day at the Christian Meditation Centre. As far as I could follow, the discussion mostly centred about how we remain in work we don’t want to do, which implies the underlying assumption that the answer to the question is “Yes”. And while I acknowledge that “Yes” is a possible answer to this question, so also is: “No”, “Maybe”. “Depends”, “For the time being anyway”, “Until such times as…”. And the answer will depend on the individual, the context, the timing and any other number of factors unique to the one asking the question. It is a question of personal discernment:
For me, for now, for good.
Considering the “for good” part, and that Ignatius is encouraging us to choose between good and what is more for the Glory of God, rather than between good and evil, and I thought as long as your job is not immoral, say killing people, because that would fall into the latter category – breaking one of the commandments. I was then brought up short by the memory of a couple of scenes from the film The Green Mile, with Tom Hanks in it. I realised that I am lucky to live in a time and a place where there is no capital punishment, but what if I didn’t? What if I were on death row, wouldn’t I prefer the executioner to soberly carry the weight of their responsibility, rather than have a lust for it? The Tom Hanks character, rather than the other younger guard? (It is on my list of “too painful to watch twice” films, so I won’t put any clips on here.) An executioner who shows compassion…an oxymoron? But I’m digressing. Suffice to say, a spiritual direction conversation around discernment with the Tom Hanks character at the height of his career might be interesting. More on that next time I think.
So, St. Ignatius to the rescue. Let us assume the job you are doing is moral and good. In the Spiritual Exercises, he outlines for us three different ways that a choice such as the one in question might be made, and some guidelines to help us to discern God’s voice and God’s will for us, and he calls them first, second and third time, but it is not that you make a choice using all three times in this order. Let me illustrate with examples from my own experience and work.
First time choice is the most infrequent. It involves a revelation, about which there is no doubt at the time, there is a desire for it and it is possible to follow through on it. I have experienced this twice in my life regarding the work I do, with respect to becoming a teacher and secondly, a spiritual director.
In the first case, I was studying for my PhD and I was at a Catholic Student Council conference on Education. We were in a discussion group about privilege and responsibility, and examining the question of what the ethos in a church school should look like. I remember feeling very lucky and grateful that I was able to engage in education to the level that I wanted to, and there came – I can only describe it as a booming voice – which said:
Be a teacher!
It was a real Damascus moment for me, since not long previously, when I had been asked, I had vehemently asserted that I would not touch teaching with a ten foot barge pole! I had no doubt about who the voice belonged to. The rest, as they say, is history, and twenty seven years later, here I am, still in the classroom four days a week. Not every day or every part of my work has been filled joyfully with a zest for it, sometimes it has been a real drag, and for periods that have lasted a long time, but I have used this example in response to the question asked in the title of this post. It is bringing to mind the original moment of consolation that set me on that particular path that has sustained me through the difficult times: I was certain about why I was there doing what I was doing. To the person asking the question in the title I would ask:
What drew you into the work you are doing in the first place?
Second time choice is more difficult to my mind, and involves much angst, a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, doubts, certainties, oscillation; what is called “turmoil of spirits”. We are arguing within and outwith ourselves at this point and it is pretty exhausting. Giving voice to a spiritual director of the push and pull, the attraction and the repulsion going on is invaluable in my experience. After my first time choice of training to be a spiritual director, I entered a period of questioning about it…it would mean going part time, less financial security as well as stability, it took two hours to travel to where the course was held…the list went on, and the decision had to be made very promptly, because of the way schools have to sort out staffing for the following academic year quite early. I felt under pressure to decide or delay making the decision for another year. My director logically, asked about making the decision to go part time now, and of applying for the course later, if I had doubts about the course. By the time I sat down on the train to go home, I realised that it was fear of going part time that was getting in the way, not my desire to do the course. This would be an example of the first rule Ignatius gives to help us with second time choice:
The love that moves and causes one to choose must descend from above, that is, from the love of God, so that before one chooses he should perceive that the greater or less attachment for the object of his choice is solely because of His Creator and Lord.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
And so I realised that training to become a spiritual director was the attraction drawing me to God: fear of the consequences of going part time in order to do it was getting in the way, and that the fear was not of God. And when I put my MP3 player on, this was the song that played first:
Holding back, what did I get for all of that? What did it count for? Tell me that, tell me that. Nothing, nothing, that’s a fact.
Maggie Said: Natalie Merchant,
I even wrote the chorus down. It haunted me, it was like a conversation wth an older version of myself – a very practical example of Ignatius’ third rule to help with second time choice:
This is to consider what procedure and norm of action I would wish to have followed in making the present choice if I were at the moment of death. I will guide myself by this and make my decision entirely in conformity with it.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
And my decision was made, turmoil over. Ignatius gives another two suggestions in the first and fourth rules which involve considering what advice you would give to someone you have never met before who was struggling with the exact same decision to choose for the greater glory of God and also to picture yourself in front of God on your day of judgment and ask yourself which decision you would have wished to have made.
To the person asking the question and experiencing turmoil of spirits I would ask:
What is holding you in your current work?
And I would explore with them their fears, desires and motivations. I might ask:
What is preventing you from looking for a different job?
And I would definitely ask:
What happens when you put all this to God in prayer? How does He respond?
Third time choice is a means of making a choice when we are tranquil; when there is no push or pull, and one choice seems as another. Ignatius gives us a useful and practical tool. I used this method to decide whether to apply for a job in a different school.
I should apply for the job at School.
I should NOT apply for the job
Church school – ethos Has a prayer room! Energy to pursue spiritual direction
Hassle of moving when I’m settled Would feel disloyal to people who have supported me
Familiarity – established here Good colleagues I know I work well with
Have not enjoyed being here since last years stress
Notice the choice is framed as both a positive and negative, and the advantages and disadvantages of both are considered. It is more subtle than a staightforward list of pros and cons, and it is not the number of reasons in each column that is important, but the weight given to each of them. It draws out the different desires that are motivating us, even when we think we have no strong feelings about the decision. Also notice how specific the decision is – I can only discern for myself, and the only choice I had here was whether to apply for the job or not. Whether I was offered the job was someone else’s discernment, and whether I would accept it if offered it was yet another choice to be discerned. Above is only a small section of my grid but before I had finished it, I knew that I wanted to apply for the job, and I was also sure that, failing a terrible experience there, I would accept it if offered it. I have been there a year now and have not doubted the rightness of the choice for a moment.
To the person asking the question in the title, if they are tranquil (and the question itself and the way it was asked suggests not), but if they were, I would suggest trying Ignatius’ grid for themselves.
And finally, after making a choice by whatever way, Ignatius suggests that:
…the one who has made it must turn with great diligence to prayer in the presence of God our Lord, and offer Him his choice that the Divine Majesty may deign to accept and confirm it if it is for His greater service and praise.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
Remembering that the absence of anything to contradict the decision can also be regarded as confirmation.
Answering the question in the title of this post is a very individual process. Ignatius describes ways of going about it which are helpful, and conversations with a spiritual director invaluable in helping the seeker find a way through until in the end, the choice is offered to God. In my experience, there is a deep, sustaining peace about choices made like this.
I went to the meditation event run by the Norwich Christian Meditation Centre and it has given me much food for thought. The first, and maybe most obvious thing to explore is that Fr. Korko, being a Jesuit, has integrated aspects of The Spiritual Exercises with other aspects of his Indian culture. St. Ignatius tells us that:
The Spiritual Exercises must be adapted to the condition of the one who is to engage in them, that is, to his age, education and talent.
Annotation 18; The Spiritual Exercises trans: Loius J. Puhl, S.J
Fr. Korko used the specific term “Spiritual Exercises” near the beginning of the day and from his Jesuit background, and from his teaching on the day itself, we can infer that he means:
By the term “Spiritual Exercises” is meant every method of examination of conscience, of meditation, of contemplation, of vocal and mental prayer, and of other spiritual activities…so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments…
Annotation 1; The Spiritual Exercises trans: Loius J. Puhl, S.J
His interweaving of the Exercises and his Indian culture was seamless, and presented as a conversation between East and West, and between West and East, a true representation of God in All Things.
For example, there was an image of Christ the Guru, not this particular one, but the video illustrates the principle I am trying to elucidate.
It reminded me of a time I visited the Westminster Interfaith project and I met the founder/director, Brother Daniel Faivre SG, one of the most inspiring people I have ever had the privilege to meet in my life. Like Fr. Korko, his mystic character, as described by Wayne Teasdale in The Mystic Heart, was evident.
And I remembered visiting the mosque, and the Sikh and Hindu temples that day, seeing how highly regarded Br. Daniel was by the other faith leaders, and how our group was welcomed into each by the communities there as guests and friends. This conversation moved me and has stayed with me all these years: as has another comment about the day from one of our group:
Yes, but all of those deities would have to go.
It saddened me. Here “Deep is calling to deep” as the psalmist sings, and the blue note was not heard by all who were there. It is the insistence that I am right, and you are wrong, and you need to come over to my way of doing things.
It’s let him live in freedom. If he lives like me.
Jim Croce. Which way are you goin’?
It seems to me that God is far more generous than this – we only have to look at how Jesus behaves towards Samaritans, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Roman centurian. Openness, listening, seeing, profound peace – these are some of the fruits of the spiritual journey.
A few years ago, I was on retreat at St Beunos in North Wales and I was wandering in the herb garden. There was a bed there that had seven different varieties of lavender: all clearly recognisable by their scent, even though each was subtly different. I had a conversation with God about it, as one friend speaks to another:
“Why have you made so many things that are very similar but are variations on a theme?” I asked Him.
“When you draw and paint mandalas, why do you do so many that are similar, but with slight variations?” He asked me.
I thought about it for a moment before answering. “Well, I have all of these ideas in my head, and I can’t decide which one I like best, so I do them all.”
“Exactly.” He said. “That is how it is for me. I have all these fantastic ideas and I can’t decide which is best, so I make them all.”
It seems to me then to be very disingenuous for one variety to turn round to the others and say:
Yes, but you’re not true lavender, are you?
When I was a teenager and in my early twenties I spent some years attending a twelve step fellowship, and I wrestled with the third step:
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Alcoholics Anonymous, Step 3 of the Twelve Steps.
There is a whole journey in this step alone, but here, I’m specifically referring to the last part: God, as we understood Him. When I listen to people in my capacity as a spiritual director I realise that everyone understands God differently, according to their own unique experience of being in relationship with Him; and I am listening for the One I know in what they are saying. When I hear of Him, my love for Him deepens, as does my love for the person telling me about Him: I get to view my beloved through the eyes of another. And I do recognise Him in the story of the other when I think: “Yes, that is just like Him.”
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare.
You might have experienced such a thing by meeting someone who is a friend of a friend. It’s natural then to swap some stories of the mutual friend, and this only enhances love for both your friend, and the friend of your friend.
I don’t consider it my place to deny or criticise another persons experience of God, wherever they are coming from; I do consider that I have a role, as a spiritual director, to listen and to help someone to discern for themselves what is of God, and what is not of God, just as others do the same for me. And here, as further food for thought, I offer Natalie Merchant’s song of the poem by John Godfrey Saxe, and a mind map of the guidelines for inter-religious understanding discussed in The Mystic Heart by Wayne Teasdale. This inter-mystical bridge is good ground from which open-hearted, respectful and loving conversations can take place with others that have a different perspective from our own. The Ignatian way is that God is found in all things, and we can ask for the grace to find Him in all things, including in conversations with others of different cultures, denominations and faiths, and even of no professed faith, as one friend speaks to another. Imagine a world where we all spoke to one another as friends.
Against the backdrop of reading the articles about the Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry and Women in the Priesthood in The Tablet last week (29 June 2019), I went to the Ordination service of five new priests on Saturday in St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Norwich. And I was deeply moved, especially at the point where those being ordained promised obedience to the bishop and his successors. It occurred to me that such a promise is no small thing. And it was standing room only in the cathedral, so there were a lot of witnesses!
When a new head is appointed where I work, and this has happened a few times, I get to make a decision about whether I am able to accept the authority of that person: similarly, if I attend an interview to move somewhere else, I get the same opportunity. If I am unable to respect and accept the authority of that person, I can walk away. Whose authority we submit to is a big deal, and an act of free will. I am reminded of a scene from the film Mary Magdalene:
One question I get asked a lot is:
Have you ever thought of becoming a nun?
My answer is always no; however, I must think about it when people ask me the question. To be a nun is to live in community and to obey the authority of the head of that community. I’m more of a spiritual solitary, to go into my room and be alone with God; to discern from my prayer, with the help and wisdom of my spiritual director, and with the guidance of scripture, the Spiritual Exercises (the rules on discernment are very helpful) and of course, the church. The primacy of conscience is important to me, always being aware of my tendency towards pride. So, to witness five men promising their obedience and service to someone who will direct them to where they will work and for how long, and to surrender themselves in faith to God in this path, filled me with awe and moved me: goosebumps and tears. It is a huge deal. It’s easy to forget that in the storm of the current crisis in the church. There are many faithful priests and they deserve our respect and support. We should cherish them. I am grateful that I went to the ordination service; it has left me with a greater appreciation of what is given by some in praise, reverence and service to God. I think I will take it less for granted in the future.
When I chose this image to pray with, one of the things that struck me with it was that the figure was hunched up over a book. I identified myself as the figure and felt an uncomfortable aching in my back, and in my legs at sitting in such a cross legged fashion. It resonated with a recognisable resistance to formal prayer. When things are difficult in life, and I am tired from lack of sleep and my body is aching, it can be difficult to get up at that early hour in the morning, place myself in my prayer spot before God, and to be there for the agreed time, all before breakfast. Sometimes, I have breakfast first, sometimes I go downstairs to the reclining chair where it is more comfortable, sometimes I curl up and pray in bed – and usually fall asleep again – and then I am annoyed with myself for my resistance and slothfulness. When I asked God how He sees the picture, and me, as I contemplate the picture, He saw my desire to pray, and my desire and efforts to resist the resistance to pray. He drew my attention to the leading lines in the image which come to a point in the book, scripture – His word – that the figure is intensely focused upon; and I sensed that He takes pleasure in the desire to spend time with Him in contemplation, and in the efforts to resist the resistance, which we all inevitably feel at some point, whether we are successful in acting against it or not. I am reminded of the fourth addition of the exercises where Ignatius says:
I will enter upon the meditation, now kneeling, now prostrate upon the ground, now lying face upwards, now seated, now standing, always being intent on seeking what I desire.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: trans Louis J. Puhl, S.J.
I notice that this week, I have felt encouraged in my prayer; I have been more able to act against the resistance. The generosity of God in noticing and taking delight in my desire to be more giving in my prayer has shifted the balance in favour of acting against the restance, to acting more from the desire. And St. Ignatius gives us the advice, if that position isn’t working for you, change the position until you find the one that does…and we might have to do that regularly.