Tai Chi and Three Kinds of Humility

Tai chi and Three Kinds of Humility 1: Reading of this post.

One of the key meditations in the Spiritual Exercises is on Three Kinds of Humility and it outlines the different levels on which we might respond to God. Ignatius describes the different levels as:

The First…consists in this, that as far as possible I so subject and humble myself as to obey the law of God our Lord in all things …

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

The Second…it if my attitude of mind is such that I neither desire nor am I inclined to have riches rather than poverty, to seek honor rather than dishonor, to desire a long life rather than a short life, provided only in either alternative I would promote equally the service of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul.

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

The Third… I desire and choose poverty with Christ poor, rather than riches; insults with Christ loaded with them, rather than honors; I desire to be accounted as worthless and a fool for Christ, rather than to be esteemed as wise and prudent in this world. So Christ was treated before me.

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

Or, to express it more colloqually, the first because I should; the second because I want to, and the third, because I want to be like You. It is not to be critical of the first or second kind of humility, Ignatius is describing a deepening in our motives and movement, and we may operate with differing kinds of humility depending on the situation and our particular experiences at different points in our lives.

The first time I ever heard about Tai Chi, I was a student on a chaplaincy retreat in Walsingham in Norfolk. The retreat was called “God Games” and Fr. Gerry, a Marist father who was leading the retreat, gave a session on different ways of praying and introduced tai chi as a means of bringing the body into prayer. He taught us what I now recognise as the Preliminary Exercise in Tai Chi and had us practicing it for about ten minutes or so. I never forgot this session, and when I had the opportunity to learn tai chi some years later, I took it. There was also another bodily exercise of walking blindfold for a mile over a track to get to the Shrine at Walsingham, putting our trust in another person we had only just met that weekend. It is another session I will never forget!

Tai chi is an important part of my spiritual practice and my prayer, but I will confess here and now, that I am not a good student of tai chi. There are different aspects to tai chi: the form, standing postures, push hands, qi gong, sword form; but I only engage with the form and occasionally standing postures. A few months after I had begun learning it, I was stunned to learn that it was a martial art! I had understood it to be “meditation in motion” – one of my teachers had that motto on his tee shirt – and of course, my first introduction to the art had been in the context of it being a means of using the body in prayer. This opinion does seem a bit naive to me now, but then, that is it how it was. I did, and still do, not want to learn literal fighting. I do not want to brandish even a wooden sword- even though I would quite like a replica sword for my vanitas photography projects, and I feel too awkward for push hands: being drawn to spiritual solitide, I am not keen on the dance of shared internal energy around this practice, and yet, I understand the need for connection. Qi Gong I have only watched others do with a wild eyed curiosity. What can I say? I am a creature of paradox.

So why do I do it? as I have already explained, it is a means to bring my body into prayer, and it brings with it a completely different kind of peace, of bliss, that anything else. It is the same as and different from contemplative prayer, both at the same time. Ignatius discusses the use of the body in prayer in the fourth addition:

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.

and he says of spiritual exercises:

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 that will be mentioned later. For just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises, so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.

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

The practice of the tai chi form for me, is prayer: it is spiritual exercise, plain and simple. The three kinds of humility describe three levels of my prayer experience with this practice and my movement through the different levels at different points in my life and practice.

An explanation of the principles of Yin and Yang from Taoism.
Tai chi and Three Kinds of Humility 2: Reading of this post.

The first kind of humility is where I am situated mostly in the ordinary time of my life. I have always found tai chi a struggle because it requires a completely different mindset to my day to day existence. Secondary school teaching is a demanding, pushy environment, it is all yang, aggressive, forceful, hard, outgoing energy, extrovert, fire. This side of my personality has to dominate to get things done. Tai chi asks me to shift, to be more yin, yielding, soft, inward, introvert, water. I find this shift difficult and I resist it. I always found the evening classes a struggle in the middle and at the end of the week after a day at school, and my head fought with me the whole time. I am sure I was a frustrating and disruptive student.

So, much of where I am at regarding my practice of tai chi is that I should do it more, and more regularly. I have a wonderful patio in my garden where I can practice, but I do not use it nearly often enough or habitually, for many reasons: it is too cold, dark (even though I have a movement activated light out there), I am too tired, stressed or busy. The autumn and winter litter around the edges displays my neglect, and does not reflect the amazing consolation in this practice; only the desolation of my resistance to it.

Tai chi patio – suffering from neglect and resistance, like my tai chi practice.
Tai chi and Three Kinds of Humility 3 Reading of this post.

When I go on retreat however, I have established the habit of doing tai chi for about an hour after lunch and it very quickly moves from I should, to I want to – the second kind of humility. And it can be seen in the ease of the flow of movement in my practice. I move in a couple of days from doing tai chi to being in the flow. I am aware of where there is resistance and by putting my consciousness there, it begins to relax. I am speaking here physcially, of my muscles and joints, and also spiritually, of my prayer. I cannot describe the bliss of this state of practice, or the closeness of my experience with God. He is there throughout, talking, laughing, being all at once mischievous and then tender. Sometimes, in my imaginative contemplation, I imagine myself doing the tai chi form, and Jesus or the whole Holy Trinity are there in the room doing it with me. My desire is for this level of practice in my ordinary life, but I resist it. I have talked about resistance in prayer before.

And then there is the third kind of humility and tai chi. During tai chi classes my teacher would say:

Let go of all unnecessary resistance.

When I made the Spiritual Exercises by the twentieth annotation, the thirty day retreat, I maintained this daily habit throughout the thirty days of the retreat, with only one or two days rest from it. Being in the flow became the normal level for most of the time. I started to bring phrases from my prayer into my form; placing particular phrases from scripture with movements that fitted with the rythym or meaning. For example, “ward off ” I put with:

Protect your heart,

Which were words I heard during my colloquy when praying with the woman caught in adultery and Jesus saying:

Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.

John 8:7

and “fair lady works the shuttle” I put with my prayer to Him, from The Prodigal Son meditation:

I have sinned against heaven and against You.

Putting scripture and the words of my prayers into my tai chi form in this way broke down resistances I was experiencing in the exercises, these examples in particular coming from the first week when contemplating sin. There were a few times when the tai chi moved to a level I have never experienced before, or since, when I was not being in the flow: I was the flow; there was no unnecessary resistance – only that needed to move and be upright. I was tai chi, metaphor not simile. I can only describe it as being both unaware and aware of myself as a physical body, of being purely energy moving, flowing, responding. I would liken it to the third level of humility Ignatius describes: it is to be like God, and it seems to me to be grace. As in tai chi and prayer itself, I can only put my awareness there and let go; it is not something I can make happen. It might look like Master Jiamin Gao doing tai chi – on the inside though, I do not look like this when I am practicing tai chi.

Master Jiamin Gao of US Wushu Center: She begins about 1 minute 8 seconds into this video clip.
Tai chi and Three Kinds of Humility 4: Reading of this post.

My closest friend is an artist, and was working through a life drawing course where she was to draw people moving, and holding postures. I agreed that she could do this while I was doing tai chi practice, and I can see the differences in her drawings around what was happening within me during my practice. She could see the difference from watching me. She has been inspired to learn tai chi herself.

The director on a retreat a few years ago gave me a sequence of movements to go with The Suscipe Prayer from the exercises, and I add them onto my form whenever I do it, with tai chi energy and style. It is very powerful.

Tai chi and Three Kinds of Humility 5: Reading of this post.

I drew this yin and yang mandala a few years ago on that retreat. It represents the dual aspects of my personality, the active and the contemplative. Since I have been working with my own spiritual director, I have been trying to balance these aspects of myself and so reconcile my split spirituality. I realised when I did this painting that it was not the right balance that I needed, but to be free to flow from one to the other without resistance: to be able to go from teaching to tai chi without the internal struggle that entails, to be busy one moment, and then able to go to my prayer spot without having to give myself a motivational talk; and to be able to go in the opposite direction, also without resistance, to move from prayer to housework, or just work, without the reluctance, or the negative feeling and resentment that I just want to stay here where I am now, in this prayerful space. So, here I am practicing what I have learned from tai chi: I am putting my awareness where the resistance is in the hope that I will relax and move into a deeper level of humility in my prayer and in my life.

So, here is a question for you:

Where are you resisting God calling to you in your own life?

Maybe putting your awareness in that place will gently bring about a release from that resistance, with His grace. I am holding you in my prayers.

On Speaking Pleasantly.

Altar in the Lady Chapel in Ely Cathedral
On Speaking pleasantly 1: Reading of this post.

No foul word should ever cross your lips; let your words be for the improvement of others, as occasion offers, and do good to your listeners.

Ephesians 4:29; The New Jerusalem Bible

A friend of mine at church recently commented on my choice use of language on some of my social media posts (asterix’s included) and my jocular, but nevertheless aggressive expression of the violence in my heart being incongruent (my words, not my friend’s) with my practice as a spiritual director, and how I am when I am leading sessions on prayer. Quite right, I say. My friend has spoken truthfully, and with love, as Paul encourages us to do in his letters. Swearing is an issue for me, I hold my hands up to that particular fault, and it is not my intention to justify it here: it is not a good thing generally speaking and it makes nice people feel uncomfortable. There has been some discernment in my life around this subject however, and it is that process I want to share here.

I was not brought up to swear; quite the opposite in fact. It was definitely frowned upon at home growing up. I developed the habit when I started playing football in my twenties.

I say dear girl, that was rather a harsh tackle!

Is not really conducive to picking yourself up off the ground again and going after the ball. There needs to be a shorter, more motivational phrase in that situation. And where I come from, there is also the prevailing attitude that you get your studs in first, to use a contextual footballing analogy. So, there is evident a transition from who I was and from where I have come, to who I am becoming.

On my annual 8 day IGR the year before I made The Spiritual Exercises – the Song of Songs retreat, a story for another day – I discerned after a lectio divina on one of Paul’s letters, a feeling of discomfort at my own, and persistent use of uncouth language. I decided that I would stop swearing, and only “speak pleasantly” in the future. It took me about three days in the silence of the retreat to stop swearing in my self conversation. It is amazing how deeply embedded such language is when it is a habit. When I came out of the retreat, I was no longer speaking these words out loud and it was noticed by people around me. So what changed? Why has this unpleasant habit grown in me again?

My situation changed within months of returning from the Exercises a year and a half later; I found myself bombarded with persistent, aggressive and undermining hostility daily, for a sustained period of time, which was desolating to my spirit. In my morning prayer, I always asked for the graces of strength and courage to face the situation, and so I faced it, and stood against it. One of the ways the enemy works, as described by Ignatius in The Spiritual Exercises is the following:

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

I draw attention to the relevant phrase I have put in bold type. I maintained my pleasant, if firm and composed, speech throughout, both while the situation was in play, and in private, until I read, as part of my studying of the art of spiritual direction, that unexpressed anger can be turned inward and lead to depression: I immediately recognised what was happening within me, that the desolating voices were like a buzzing, flickering light bulb, destroying my faith in myself and my belief in my ability to fulfill my calling and they were using my virtue to ensure that a powerful sword against those voices was left in the scabbard.

St Patrick’s Breastplate Mandala
On Speaking pleasantly 2: Reading of this post.

Ignatius also suggests how to resist the enemy:

…the enemy becomes weak, loses courage, and turns to flight with his seductions as soon as one leading a spiritual life faces his temptations boldly, and does exactly the opposite of what he suggests.

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

Or let me put it another way through a story given in The Song of The Bird, by Anthony de Mello:

The devil once went for a walk with a friend. They saw a man ahead of them stoop down and pick something up from the ground.

“What did that man find?” asked the friend.

“A piece of truth”, said the devil.

Doesn’t that disturb you?” asked the friend.

“No”, said the devil, “I’ll let him make a belief out of it.”

The Song of The Bird, Anthony de Mello

Or, another way, concerning scruples, Ignatius says:

If one has a delicate conscience, the evil one seeks to make it excessively sensitive, in order to disturb and upset it more easily.

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

And:

A soul that wishes to make progress in the spiritual life must always act in a manner contrary to that of the enemy.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl
Ironwork from a garden seat at Penhurst Retreat Centre.
On Speaking pleasantly 3: Reading of this post.

The conversation with a spiritual director is very helpful in discerning when our own virtue and delicate conscience is being turned against us. I will never forget the moment in my meeting with my director, when I described that buzzing, flickering light bulb and how those critical voices were telling me how rubbish I was and how incapable I was for the role that God had called me to. When I verbalised this “self talk”, the foul words I was internalising, I was shocked. I understood in that moment the strength of the pull of desolation, and how important my daily pleas for the graces of strength and courage were, and how God was always there, pouring his grace out so that I was not overwhelmed by it. Neither will I forget His strength surge within me when the next time, in private, I let out a torrent of expletives and expressed my fury. Until this point, I had been a gardener in a war, and at last, I brought my warrior to the war and was now using weapons that God had not forbidden me to use.

In a different biblical translation, the phrase I began with reads:

29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[a] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

Ephesians 4:29 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition (NRSVACE)

I am reflecting that the evil talk can also be the desolating voices we listen to within ourselves. Discernment about where these voices are leading us is the point of the second part of the phrase. It is important to notice the effect these voices are having on our soul. At a bible study session I went to when I was a student, the priest leading it told us that when Jesus responded to the news of Herod beheading John the Baptist, He said:

Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.

Luke 13:32

And that the modern equivalent of calling Herod a “fox” would be to call him a “bastard”. Whether that is true or not, clearly Jesus is not speaking pleasantly about Herod, and His words here certainly inspire me with strength and encouragement in speaking out. Neither is Jesus speaking pleasantly when He says to the scribes and pharisees:

You snakes, you brood of vipers!

Matthew 23:33

So, the context matters. When we use strong language to stand up to and speak out against evil, we might not be speaking pleasantly, but it does not make it “evil talk” . When the effect is to strengthen and encourage, to build up ourselves and others in facing up to temptations boldly, then perhaps it is completely appropriate. Each occasion and context requires discernment. So as far as I am concerned, my friend at church is right, perhaps sometimes my use of strong language is inappropriate, and it is something I resolve to amend.

Light in the Darkness

Light in the darkness
Light in the Darkness 1: Reading of this post.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.

Isaiah 9:2

There has been a convergence in my thoughts recently in the contrast between light and darkness as metaphors for spiritual life. I posted a guided prayer with the image above, inspired from Isaiah, and Matthew’s gospel, which we are studying in our bible study group at church, which made reference to it. Also, in writing about my mandalas, I mentioned that they were in response to one particular imaginative contemplation that I had had on a retreat and that I was still trying to process that one prayer experience. Carl Jung says of mandalas:

In such cases it is easy to see how the severe pattern imposed by a circular image of this kind compensates the disorder of the psychic state– namely through the construction of a central point to which everything is related, or by a concentric arrangement of the disordered multiplicity and of contradictory and irreconcilable elements. This is evidently an attempt at self-healing on the part of Nature, which does not spring from conscious reflection but from an instinctive impulse.

Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

In other words, according to The Mandala Book, Jung felt that mandalas represented an unconscious attempt to heal psychic disturbances. In the contemplation to which I am referring, I spent some time simply touching Jesus’ face, as if I were a blind person, and what I could see was only light: more and less light, luminosity of differing intensity, rather than a skin and bones face. I do not have the words or images to describe completely the effect it has had on me, only that I have never been the same since then and that creating mandalas is a compulsion in response to it, which surfaces regularly, even ten years on from the prayer experience itself. I would describe it as a profound disturbance that is deeper than anything I am conscious of, still.

In the Spiritual Exercises, on the way the evil one acts, when using the analogy of the false lover who whispers and urges us to secrecy, Ignatius says:

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.

My own spiritual director uses the image of shining God’s light on things that might want to remain in the dark when helping me to discern consolation from desolation, and the direction of my path. I have found it to be very helpful and it is an image I use myself. It is as if, with God’s help and guidance, you could pick up the lantern in the featured image, and move it around the dark areas in your soul, one by one, so that with Him, you could face all of your deepest fears and shame, and He would heal you.

However, it does not feel as simple and lovely as all that. I am reminded of my prayer that no-one can see the face of God and live.

We shall surely die, for we have seen God.

Judges 13:22

And that St. Paul says:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.

1 Corinthians 13:12

I am also moved by “The Light” from The Proclaimers:

Light in the Darkness 2: Reading of this post.

I’ve been stumbling in the dark for years, and the light just made me blind.

The Proclaimers; The Light

I am only left to concede that there is trauma associated with stepping into God’s light, to look at Him face to face is blinding and causes a death within us. We can no longer see anything good in our inordinate desires and the way we lived before is no longer possible. It can be easier, and more comfortable to cling to the darkness of our shame than to look at it in the full glare of God’s light. We are unable to bear the pain of it alone. I would put my experience of touching His face in this category. It is as if there are moments when He does not hold back so much as previously in His desire to show us Himself. In my prayer on my journey with Julian of Norwich this week, one of the phrases that stood out for me is:

God wishes to be seen, He wishes to be sought…

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, Day 1

It is almost as if His enthusiasm gets the better of Him, and the usual tender and gentle respect with which He regards our protective boundaries dissipates as He gathers us up and brings us into His heart, simply because He cannot resist us. It is God who takes the initiative. And it splits us wide open. Perhaps it is what the mystics mean when they describe union with God, and it is as searingly painful, as it is blissful and transformational.

Rather than make this happen, we should simply let it happen.

The Way of Paradox, Cyprian Smith

and in a way, is it not what we desire?

…we can pine for God, reach out to Him, yearn for Him who lies hidden in an impenetrable cloud of mystery.

The Way of Paradox, Cyprian Smith

When I look at the image featured in this post, and from my prayer with it, I notice that the light is neither glaring nor harsh. The image is mostly darkness, but the warmth of the light draws us gently out of the darkness, it invites us not to remain there. There are many places in that image where we may dwell: I least wanted to be in the bottom left hand corner, furthest away from the light: I most wanted to be protected, inside the shade, but not in the full glare of the light source. I was invited to dwell outside of the shade, in the bright spot to the bottom left of the image of the cross that is projected onto the wall. There is both pain and death in standing in this place.

The third week of The Spiritual Exercises invites us to enter into the Passion and death of Jesus: the desire we ask for is:

…sorrow, compassion and shame because the Lord is going to His suffering for my sins.

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

In my own personal experience of The Exercises, I knew that I wanted to stay, to remain with Him through it all: I could not bear to be one of those who ran away, no matter how painful it was to stay and to watch Him suffer, and to be powerless in the face of His suffering. To experience this sorrow is spiritual consolation, and is to receive the grace asked for at this point in The Exercises.

Light in the Darkness 3: Reading of this post.

So it seems to me that in terms of our spiritual journey, we exist in a darkness that is both comfortable and uncomfortable. The darkness itself is not infinite, and does not have power over the light. It is diminished by the smallest presence of light. Even as we are attracted to it, we can choose to turn our back on the light and face into the darkness, and there are times of spiritual desolation when we do. We can also face the light and choose to be drawn by its warmth and move closer to it. Such invitation and movement is spiritual consolation. Just as the light is comforting, it is also painful when we are unused to its intensity, and may even blind us. In time, our eyes adjust to our new reality.

The Perfect Imperfect

Sunflower mandala.
The Perfect Imperfect 1: Reading of this post.

Perfectionism is an issue. From my training as a scientist I know that accuracy and detail is important: it makes the scientific conclusions drawn from valid data as rigorous as possible, without overstating explanations as fact. Science is careful when it is done formally. Public perception and popular science expressing opinion are not necessarily so rigorous, and there are counter arguments presented to those opinions parading as science because the author also happens to be a scientist. My concern here is not with science, because I see no contradiction between science and religious faith. In my opinion, that argument is contrived.

I remember a distant conversation with a man, but I do not remember the occasion or circumstances, nor the man. He may have been a Muslim man, and I think that he was, and he was talking about the weavers of Persian rugs. He told me that although the patterns in the rugs are clear and logical, the weavers always weave into the rug a mistake: imperceptible, but they never make them perfect:

…because only God is perfect.

And while I do not remember the occasion or who this man was, I do remember the warmth in his voice, and the light in his eyes, when he said this. It is why the truth of it has remained with me, even when everything else around it has faded in my memory.

If you have looked at my Mandala page, and other posts where I have included a mandala image, you will know that I create these pieces of art out of prayer, and that it is a compulsion that began from an imaginative contemplation I had once on a retreat, where I was trying to express, albeit inadequately, my prayer experience: words were not enough, and neither is the art. I am still trying to express this one prayer, and it draws me deeper each time and sustains me. In the course of my journey with the mandalas, I discovered the book “How the World is Made, The Story of Creation According to Sacred Geometry and was struck by the contrast in the images of the Heavenly City mandala when drawn by hand and generated by computer:

The Hand and The Computer, A Note on the Illustrations: How the World is Made, The Story of Creation According to Sacred Geometry, John Michell
The Perfect Imperfect 2: Reading of this post.

The architect and geometer Jon Allen is quoted as saying:

We lose something when we use computers to draw geometry. However beguiling their mechanical precision, they lack “heart”: in some subtle way we become observers, rather than participants.

Jon Allen, Drawing Geometry, as quoted by John Mitchell, Sacred Geometry.

The second mandala in the above image, I have to acknowledge, leaves me feeling a bit cold: not because it is in black and white, but because it is too clinical. It does not move me, whereas the hand drawn one above it captures my interest much more. I know it is not an issue of colour, because I am a member of a mandala group on another social media site and I scroll past the computer generated ones, no matter how colourful they are. I am always more likely to pause to ponder those that have been hand drawn.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matt 5: 48

So what it is that draws me to those mandalas that are imperfect, and repels me about the ones that are perfect? For me, the essential element is process, or movement. In the retreat when I first created my mandala and I spent another day, as suggested by my director, writing down my journey to the final drawing, I finished with the realisation:

…it is the process itself that is important, because it is the process we engage in that skews us towards God, that draws us closer to Him, that transforms us so that we become more like Him.

God in all Things mandala, drawn at Loyola IGR, 2009.
The Perfect Imperfect 3: Reading of this post.

One of the meditations during the first week of the Spiritual Exercises is on hell. Ignatius encourages us to imagine the place of fire and brimstone, as tradition describes. I imagined however, a place where nothing every changed, where there was no stimulation to the senses at all: no sound, smell, taste, no texture to feel, neither hot nor cold, and everything was white, no shadows, colour, nothing; for all eternity, nothing. And being fully conscious of that. I screamed, there was no sound, I cried, there were no tears. I could not hear my own heartbeat nor my own breathing. To feel, even for a moment, that there was no escape from such a place was indeed hellish.

The Perfect Imperfect 4: Reading of this post.

When I see the triquetra, I do not see a static shape, I see a constant flow. It is also what I see when I look at Rublev’s icon of the Hospitality of Abraham, a constant flowing love between the three persons of the Holy Trinity, and with a gap, where I am invited to join the flow. It is as described by Richard Rohr in “The Divine Dance”. God is constant movement. In the Contemplation to Attain Love in the Exercises Ignatius asks us to consider:

…how God works and labors for me in all creatures upon the face of the earth, that is, He conducts Himself as one who labors.

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

As I understand it, the perfection of God is in the eternal movement of God.

St Beunos. Mandala on wood.
The Perfect Imperfect 5: Reading of this post.

The above mandala is of the labyrinth at St. Beunos, painted on wood. Normally, I would have tidied up where the colour has spilled over onto the gold by way of finishing off the mandala, and here, even though it seems sloppy and a bit embarrassing, it was clear in my prayer, that it had to be left this way. The colour spectrum represents the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit:

…does not stay between the lines.

It represents the wildness of God, that He will not confine Himself to our expectations of Him. And this is my point. When we see a pattern, our brain knows what that pattern is supposed to do. When something is off about it, we are drawn to that imperfection, it bugs us and leads us into contemplation, from the imperfect as we see it, to the perfect, as we would like it to be: it is the process, the journey, the desire for improvement.

A computer drawn mandala has no room for improvement. Any change to it leads away from perfection. If God is perfect, moving away from perfection is a movement away from God, into spiritual desolation.

However an overdrive for perfection, into the area of the law of diminishing returns, can also be spiritual desolation. I recognise it within myself, the tendency towards pride, and it leads to obsession with work and neglect of other aspects of life, such as relationships and prayer. In his book “The Me I Want to Be”, Jon Ortberg talks about “Signature Sins” . He says:

The pattern of your sin is related to the pattern of your gifts…

…it starts close to home with the passions and desires that God wired into us and tries to pull them a few degrees off course. That subtle deviation is enough to disrupt the flow of the Spirit in our life, so coming to recognise the pattern of sins most tempting to us is one of the most important steps in our spiritual lives.

The Me I Want to Be, Jon Ortberg

Recognising our own pattern of sin is an important movement that occurs during the first week of the Spiritual Exercises.

At the other end of the scale, the push for perfection can cause paralysis, rather that obsession. For example, I was helping a child with ionic bonding recently. She was refusing to draw dot/cross diagrams into her beautifully and perfectly presented exercise book because she deemed them to be messy. The unattainabilty of perfection was getting in the way of the learning process. And so the feeling of it never being good enough can get in the way of doing anything at all. It is the process that draws us to God, not the final result.

The final result, because of its imperfection, will, if we allow it, continue to draw us into this process with God.

The Perfect Imperfect 6: Reading of this post.

The mandala above was the third one I coloured on the Loyola retreat after creating this design. It was a prayer for my younger child who had been bullied at school that year by a group of three boys. The purple represents suffering, the yellow, hope; the red, faith; and the blue, love. In following the pattern, one of the shapes which should have been yellow, is in fact blue. When I realised my “mistake”, I heard Him say within me, that for a child to recover from such a thing as bullying, it takes a little more love. I knew how I needed to respond to my child when I got home from my retreat.

In our imperfection, there is God’s perfection. We live in His freedom and are open to His grace when we live in our imperfection and allow it to be the case.

Christ the King and The Two Standards

Christ the King and the Two Standards 1: Reading of this post.

I have been referring to the different ways the enemy works that Ignatius describes in The Spiritual Exercises. He underpins these rules of discernment in two key meditations: The Kingdom of Christ and The Two Standards. Given the Solemnity of Christ the King this week, and my recent guided imaginative contemplation on the gospel for this feast day, a reflection of these meditations in context of this great feast seems appropriate.

Christ the King
Christ the King and the Two Standards 2: Reading of this post.

The meditation on the Kingdom of Christ comes in the space between the first and second week of The Spiritual Exercises, after considering sin and knowing myself as a loved sinner, and before the contemplations on the life of Christ; before coming to know Him more deeply and connecting with our desire to follow Him, and perhaps make an election, a choice as to a way of life. The military, patriarchal and hierarchical language of these meditations can be problematic depending on background: it was for me, on all accounts, but by maintaining a sense of fluidity, and a focus on the essence of each one, these initial barriers can be deconstructed until the imagery itself no longer gets in the way.

The Kingdom of Christ meditation firstly brings to mind an earthly king, or with a modern perspective, a leader or role model: someone we admire and respect, someone we may, or may not, choose to follow. The model of a knight serving a monarch as Ignatius knew it, may be akin to the representation of these relationships as depicted in the television series “Merlin”, between Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Christ the King and the Two Standards 3: Reading of this post.

This particular scene for me, depicts very well what Ignatius means when he says:

Consider what the answer of good subjects ought to be to a king so generous and noble minded, and consequently, if anyone would refuse the invitation of such a king, how justly he would deserve to be condemned by the whole world, and looked upon as an ignoble knight.

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

I would like to say, if you are not familiar with the series, Merlin is joking in his answer: it is characteristic of his intimate relationship with Arthur and he did not need to be asked.

When I made the Exercises myself, I found myself choosing Martin Luther King, and I smiled at the realisation that I had indeed chosen an earthly “King”. As we ponder our choice of leader, it connects us to what it is that is moving in us, what our values are and what inspires us. For me, I was drawn to Martin Luther King’s courage and purpose; his conviction in standing his ground, even to the detriment of his family life, and the physical violence the activists he inspired had to endure; his refusal to accept his “inferiority” as the critical voices would have him believe, and his persistent challenging of the established authorities of the day. Mostly though, as depicted in the bridge scene from the film Selma, was that he connected through prayer to God: all of his actions were grounded in faith. This scene is very powerful and still moves me, even though I have watched it several times.

Christ the King and the Two Standards 4: Reading of this post.

Then we are asked to consider:

…Christ our Lord, the Eternal King…

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

and how much more we might be prepared to do or give to follow Him than we would for the human king or leader. At this point, we are not being asked to make any decisions or commitments, just to consider the possibility of such. This key meditation ends with the prayer:

Eternal Lord of All Things

Eternal Lord of all things, in the presence of Thy infinite goodness, and of Thy glorious mother, and of all the saints of Thy heavenly court, this is the offering of myself which I make with Thy favor and help. I protest that it is my earnest desire and my deliberate choice, provided only it is for Thy greater service and praise, to imitate Thee in bearing all wrongs and all abuse and all poverty, both actual and spiritual, should Thy most holy majesty deign to choose and admit me to such a state and way of life.

Knight. Bodwellian Castle, North Wales
Christ the King and the Two Standards 5: Reading of this post.

The meditation on The Two Standards comes in the middle of the second week of The Exercises and assumes that we have already chosen our side, that of Christ the King, and it contrasts the modus operandi of those aligning themselves with Satan, and those aligning themselves with Christ. For the former, Ignatius uses strong language: deceit, summons, goads, lay snares, bind with chains. All of it speaks of coercion and force. He tempts us first to:

…riches, the second honour, the third pride. From these three steps the evil one leads to all other vices.

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

For those under the standard of Christ, we hear that Christ our Lord is beautiful and attractive, that He chooses, recommends, attracts, servants and friends, and Ignatius uses the word desire, such an important word in Ignatian spirituality. He outlines three steps in opposition to the enemy:

…the first, poverty as opposed to riches; the second, insults or contempt as opposed to honour of this world; the third, humility as opposed to pride. From these three steps, let them lead men to all other virtues.

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

The Two Standards meditation imagines a battleground between the two sides, and it is our own souls that are that battle ground. When I have been describing the movements of discernment in previous posts, the way the enemy works, the imagery of the darnel and the wheat, as described by Aschenbrenner, it is to examine how this battle is being conducted in myself. Where am I being bullied, harrassed or driven into thoughts, feelings and actions? And where am I being attracted and drawn? Where might there be misdirection, where something seems to be good, but the underlying sense of the movement is of water on a stone, rather than as water on a sponge? Discernment of spirits, discerning God’s voice from that of the enemy is both simple and complicated, obvious and subtle, clear and confusing. It will always be a battleground, no matter how deeply we advance on our spiritual path. It is always asking the questions where is this coming from and where is it leading to? Having an understanding of how the enemy works in us in our own particular situation and way is important in enabling us to be able to resist, with the grace of God. We explicitly ask for this grace in the Two Standards meditation:

I ask for what I desire. Here it will be to ask for a knowledge of the deceits of the rebel chief and help to guard myself against them; and also to ask for knowledge of the true life exemplified in the sovereign and true Commander, and the grace to imitate Him.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
Cross. Bodwellian Castle North Wales
Christ the King and the Two Standards 6: Reading of this post.

Through prayer, with a daily Examen, and with the understanding and discerning ear of a spiritual director, we have the tools to help us to identify where and when we are being driven, rather than drawn: where our desires, thoughts, feelings and actions are leading us towards God rather than away from God. It is the freedom given here that moves us to worship Him and to accept His invitation.

Draw me after you, let us make haste.

    The king has brought me into his chambers.

We will exult and rejoice in you;

    we will extol your love more than wine;

    rightly do they love you

Song of Songs 1:4
Incarnation Mandala

Spotlight

Reading of Spotlight 1

I watched the film “Spotlight” a few weeks ago with a heavy heart. I like a good thriller and usually enjoy those that involve investigative journalism, but the subject matter of this particular film, the exposition of the child abuse scandal in the Church by the Boston Globe, so profoundly upset me that I could not bear to go to see it at the cinema. I thought at one point that I would not watch it at all. However, I found myself a few weeks ago, on Film Friday, putting it on via my daughter’s Netflix account.

Spotlight: a film based on the investigative journalism by the Spotlight team of the Boston Globe into the systemic problem of child abuse by priests in the Catholic Church.
Reading of Spotlight 2

While I enjoyed the investigative journalism aspect of the film, I am deeply affected by it’s content. I wrote in a previous post about the silence of abuse, and I was in part, dwelling on my response to the film, and to the crisis this issue has raised, especially, but not solely, in the Catholic Church. There were a few points that the film brought out for me. The film is based on a true story and I am reflecting on the story in the film. I am currently unaware of exactly where it digresses from real events, although I am aware that Richard Sipe, who suggested to the journalists the figure of six percent, is a real person and his credentials are real.

The first is that the editor, rather than pursue particular individual priests regarding their sexual abuse of children, insisted that the Spotlight journalists look for something more systemic that allowed the abuse to be perpetuated, rather than terminated. To me, this insistence showed great insight, and his, and their, refusal to give in to the voices and threats to silence them, not only showed great courage, but also demonstrated the ways in which the enemy works, as described by Ignatius in the exercises: the tantrum of the spoiled child, the secret whispering of the false lover, even as the general, circling the castle, looking for the weaknesses in the journalists in order to silence them. And the responses of the Spotlight team, to stand strong, and together, to speak out and refuse to have their weaknesses exploited, even as it meant exposing their own failings in not speaking out earlier when they had the information, illustrates how God is able to use us to work against evil in the world.

Reading of Spotlight 3

I have been a teacher long enough in the UK to have been in the system before the current safeguarding practices were in place, and to have seen their evolution from the first introduction of the CRB check and List 99, to the now mandatory DBS check before anyone can work alone with children in a school: from ensuring that all areas where we might meet with a child have glass windows to be visible to people outside of the room, to the mandatory annual safeguarding training, with updates, at the beginning of every school year, for which we have to sign a declaration that we have attended and read the necessary paperwork. I find it excruciating, especially the part where we go over the different types of abuse and the signs that may go with them. Please do not get me wrong here, it is horrifying to hear of all the ways that adults can, and do, hurt and permanently damage children in our care, but I absolutely understand the necessity of these procedures and see that they have altered the culture in the education system to the point where it has become ingrained that safeguarding of children is the responsibility of everyone, and that even the slightest doubt or suspicion is reported to a safeguarding lead, who, if they do not already have a big picture, will raise the question and potentially start the investigation. It is enough to say to them:

Something doesn’t feel right here.

I also see measures in my parish and in other parishes in my diocese: the sacristy door is open when the priest and the altar servers are getting ready for mass, and has glass in it to see into the room, the priest participates in safeguarding training, there is a designated lay person as a safeguarding lead, and their contact details are there, for all to see, on a notice board as you go into the church. Schools and churches are reeling from child abuse disclosures, and the systems which hid and allowed them to continue are being changed. My heart is broken for every single person who suffered from this abuse and complete betrayal of trust, and it is something that we can never makes amends for, we can only feel anger and profound sorrow. The challenge for all of us in the Church is to speak out and make sure it stops. Pope Francis acknowledged as much when he opened the summit on child abuse in February 2019.

The weight of pastoral and church responsibility weighs on our meeting and forces us to discuss in a synodal, deep and sincere way about how to face this evil that afflicts the church and humanity,” Pope Francis said. Catholics were “not looking for simple and obvious condemnation, but concrete and effective measures to put into place.

Pope Francis at the summit on child abuse in Rome, February 2019.

I am not privy to how the BBC has addressed similar scandal within that particular organisation, so I will leave it here.

The second point that the film made was the statistic of six percent of priests were likely to be acting out sexually in this way. While in other contexts it seems like a small proportion, when it was translated unto actual numbers, it was a huge number of priests (around ninety in the Boston scenario) and a larger number of victims, where even one is too many. I remember a conversation with my mum soon after the scandal broke, and she had been talking to her local parish priest who had said that he felt ashamed to walk down the street wearing his dog collar because of it. While not forgetting the six percent, perhaps it is also worth remembering that around ninety four percent of priests are not paedophiles.

Reading of Spotlight 4

The third point, also made in the telephone call with Richard Sipe, was that clericalism provided a respectable hiding place for people with unacceptable tendencies. Perhaps there is an element of thinking that submitting to an external control will keep these urges dormant. Such an undertaking has echoes of the tenth addition of the exercises on penance, where here, a decision to live a life of abstention is made using reason, the second power of the soul, based on understanding of one’s own particular pattern of sin. If sincere and conscious it can be considered to be an exterior penance. However, to live it requires interior movement, for there to be a sincere desire to refrain from the offending behaviour, and also the grace of God. In the tenth addition of The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius gives a sincere desire for grace as one of the reasons we undertake penance, and it is not something we earn; it is a grace we beg for, and is given by God. A. W. Richard Sipe in his book “Living the Celibate Life: A Search for Models and Meaning” suggests that to live this vocation requires constant vigilance, and for it to be a focused part of a daily examen:

How did I live my celibacy today?

Where might I have been drawn away, in my thoughts and feelings?

For the one offending priest the journalists managed to talk to in the film, there was only fallacious reasoning and pride, and an inability to recognise his own sin. It revealed something ugly and cold, and definitely not the love of God.

In The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius encourages us to accept the authority of the Church, and when read in the light of the child abuse scandal, the way in which he does is difficult to swallow:

What seems to me white, I will believe to be black if the hierarchical Church so defines.

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

It is pertinent to remember that Ignatius was operating at the time of the Spanish Inquisition and that he also says:

But while it does harm in the absence of our superiors to speak evil of them before the people, it may be profitable to discuss their bad conduct with those who can apply a remedy.

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

It is important to be clear to what we are referring and here, Ignatius refers to clergy in higher positions of authority. Similar clarity is needed, for instance as regards the abuse survivor in the trailer saying:

How do you say no to God?

The priest is not God: neither is a particular priest, bishop nor cardinal the Church. And the Church is not God. They are not all the same. Priests, bishops and cardinals can be as guilty as anyone of bad conduct because they are human: the Church is an imperfect institution, subject to the flaws of human frailty. George A. Aschenbrenner in his book “Stretched for Greater Glory” draws a parallel with the parable of the wheat and the darnel in Matthew’s gospel. He says:

“Some enemy has done this” (13.28). Yet Jesus is also clear that the darnel and the wheat will be allowed to grow together until the end. The mixture of consolation and desolation will continue in all human hearts, which therefore are the only field in which holiness can germinate, bud and blossom.

George A. Aschenbrenner. Stretched for Greater Glory

While we may expect, on a superficial level, for the church to be perfect, we must recognise that it is not: it is managed by human beings engaged in the process of discernment, and we must therefore be vigilant for where the enemy has sown the darnel in with the wheat. Saying no to a priest, or the Church, is not necessarily saying no to God. And I do appreciate that the survivor was speaking from the perspective of a child, and a child might not appreciate the distinction. But as discerning members of the Church, we do have a duty to discuss their bad conduct with those who can apply a remedy. In the case of the child abuse scandal, since the problem was systemic within the Church, that duty fell to the Spotlight team of the Boston Globe. We owe them a debt of gratitude, because although it is painful, and shameful, this corruption has to be rooted out. In the Church, as in school, safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults is the responsibility of everyone.

Tomb Day. I painted this while I was doing the Spiritual Exercises by the thirty day retreat, on the day after praying with the crucifixion and death of Jesus, and before moving into the fourth week.

Where do you pray?

Prayer mandala

I have been thinking about my prayer spot recently because I have mentioned it a few times (Last week in Cromer, Meet you in the Morning) and I was reading a post on Ignatian Spirituality yesterday by Marina McCoy about giving herself a monthly retreat day.

In the Spiritual Exercises, in the additions, Ignatius says:

The purpose of these directions is to help one to go through the exercises better and find more readily what he desires.

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

and in the third addition he suggests that:

I will stand for the space of an Our Father, a step or two before the place where I am to meditate or contemplate

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

The words in bold are mine, and here, I want to spend some time considering the nature of this place. I might just have a chair in the living room – I do, and I use it to pray sometimes. It faces a large picture of Jesus washing Peter’s feet by Seiger Koder. You can find it, with a reflection, at The Society of Jesus in South Africa.

This place is a very comfortable place to pray, and facing the image helps me to imagine how He is looking at me. It is not the place I pray most often though: it is where I go when I am struggling. I have a space set aside specifically for prayer in my room. I was being absolutely honest when I said that I go into my room and be alone with God. Currently it looks like this:

This is my prayer spot: it is a sacred space in my home that is set aside to spend time with God. I change the display and the flowers regularly, trying not to let it become stale. I may have the scripture open at the text I am praying with, but not always, and I have different cloths to change the meaning or mood, depending on what is going on in the liturgical season or in my life. Here, in ordinary time, and with my work on Exploring Personal Prayer, I have been sensing God’s joy and gladness, so I have chosen the brightly coloured cloth, which reminds me of the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit and in general, life in all of its fullness. I am currently using the chair, rather than the prayer stool, because, for some reason, I am resisting the discomfort of the latter. I have changed my position to one which is helping me to resist the resistance to prayer, and is therefore more fruitful, in line with the fourth addition of the Spiritual Exercises. Here are some others I have used at different times:

Used when I was training to be a spiritual director and was presenting The First Principle and Foundation. Suggestive of themes of creation, with undercurrents of Eden and hearts of stone, movement into the First Week.
Used at Sheringham in the week we were looking at images. There are no images on the table to distract from those chosen for prayer. The crimson suggests the divinity of Jesus.
The arrangement used at Sheringham for the session on imaginative contemplation. We were praying with the gospel passage from Matthew on the baptism of Jesus. The blue cloth represents the water, and the mandala artwork is called “River”. More on that at a later date.
This was my prayer spot for Holy Saturday this year. The cloth is purple, for the season of lent,and the doll is a symbol of myself as a loved sinner, and transformed by God in the process of the Spiritual Exercises. The painting is the one I did during the exercises on the day between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The poem is from Rumi:

I asked.

What about my eyes?

I will fill them with tears.

I asked.

What about my heart?

I will break it with sorrow.

I asked.

What about my body?

I will crush and throw it away.

Rumi

You get the general idea. So why do I go to this trouble? Simply, because I want to communicate with Him how important He is in my life. I’m giving Him space in my life by giving Him space. I take care, and put thought into making my prayer environment a special place in my home. It is a compliment to the One I meet there. It helps me to find more readily what I desire, which is a conscious awareness of His presence, and through it, the grace to become who He would have me be.