Admitted we were powerless: Step 1 and the Spiritual Exercises

Step 1 and The Spiritual Exercises 1: Reading of this post

I posted a while back on The Spiritual Exercises and The Twelve Steps and I notice that it is one of my most consistently read posts. I have been talking a lot about the steps recently with someone who is new to the program, and these two things are making me think more deeply yet about the steps myself, and about how they integrate with The Spiritual Exercises, and my with spirituality and how I find God in all things. I will say at this point that the opinions expressed here are my own and not representative of AA or Al Anon as a whole. The full first step is:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/About-AA/The-12-Steps-of-AA

In Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr draws a connection between addiction and sin, and makes four basic assumptions about addiction:

  1. We are all addicts.
  2. “Stinking Thinking” is the universal addiction – we are all addicted to our patterned way of thinking.
  3. All societies are addicted to themselves and create a deep codependency on them.
  4. Some form of alternative consciousness is the only freedom from this self and from cultural ties.
Redemption mandala
Step 1 and The Spiritual Exercises 2: Reading of this post

Some years ago I went to a talk given by Laurence Freeman organised by the Norwich Christian Meditation Centre, and his talk made a deep impression on me in lots of different ways. One part of it that stays with me was that he explained that the desert fathers saw sin as compulsions, and when I researched Dante’s nine circles of hell for the Redemption mandala that I was creating, I was taken by the fact that the first seven circles equated to the seven deadly sins. These stimuli gradually changed my thinking on sin from being a single event – something that I did, or failed to do – to a pattern of events, a path that I walked on that led me away from the one God lays down for me. In “The Me I want to Be”, John Ortberg talks about our signature sins. He says:

We do not get tempted by that which repulses us….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 life.

The Me I Want to Be. John Ortberg

and further:

Our sin takes a consistent and predictable course….the pattern of your sin is related to the pattern of your gifts.

The Me I Want to Be. John Ortberg

Put in this context, it might be easy to see how difficult it can be to notice that we are being pulled off course. We can be walking along steadily, in tune with God, and we come to a fork in the path. It might not be obvious immediately which fork is the one God is calling us to since the enemy is a deceiver, we do not always recognise him as the imposter. Ignatius himself warns us in the Spiritual Exercises:

It is characteristic of God and His Angels, when they act upon the soul, to give true happiness and spiritual joy, and to banish all the sadness and disturbances which are caused by the enemy.

It is characteristic of the evil one to fight against such happiness and consolation by proposing fallacious reasonings, subtilties, and continual deceptions.

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

It is a mark of the evil spirit to assume the appearance of an angel of light. He begins by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul, and ends by suggesting his own. For example, he will suggest holy and pious thoughts that are wholly in conformity with the sanctity of the soul. Afterwards, he will endeavor little by little to end by drawing the soul into his hidden snares and evil designs.

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

There is tell of Ignatius spending hours in the night contemplating a glorious vision instead of sleeping, night after night, before recognising that it was making him too tired the following day to carry out the work he knew God was calling him to. By noticing where it was leading, he was able to recognise it for the spiritual desolation that it was. The scene of his vision at the Cardoner river, as depicted in the film Ignacio de Loyola, moves me and strikes me as particularly relevant here, when Jesus says to Ignatius:

Do you think your sins would have any power over me had I not chosen it to be so?

“Discernment”; St. Beunos
Step 1 and The Spiritual Exercises 3: Reading of this post

Distilling these thoughts down brings out the essence of “I am powerless”. Our strengths are also our weaknesses, and our weaknesses can be our strength. It is in noticing the movement within us, the discernment of where our thoughts, feelings and actions are coming from and where they are leading to, that is the admission of our powerlessness. St. Paul says:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Romans 7:15

In the second exercise of the first week of The Spiritual Exercises, we spend time meditating on our own sins. The desire we ask for is:

…a growing and intense sorrow and tears for my sins.

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

and the movement leads to:

a cry of wonder…How is it that the earth did not open to swallow me up, and create new hells in which I should be tormented forever!

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

Here, in the cry of wonder, is the movement in the first of the twelve steps. In the twelve step program, we may be talking about alcohol, drugs, food, our codependency on an addict we love…fill in your own blank here. In the Exercises, we have already spent some time, deepening our relationship with the God who we already know loves us from the Principle and Foundation, and we have come to recognise our own pattern, our own signature sin. In the cry of wonder, we are admitting our powerlessness over it, and that in our being pulled along that particular path, it is getting in the way of our living fully, with God, and as the person He created us to be. The First step, like the First week, is about having the scales removed from our eyes and recognising it, and the effect it is having on our lives.

Bodwellian Castle
Step 1 and The Spiritual Exercises 4: Reading of this post

I make it sound simple, but it is not. We stumble along blindly, not always or easily recognising the path we are walking on, or where it leads us, but thinking we are heading in the right direction. Have you ever been lost? You will know what I mean. There is always another fork in the path to lead us away. However, if we do happen to go down the wrong one, there is always another fork encouraging us back onto the path God would have us walk. Every temptation is another opportunity to choose God. The feeling of powerlessness can be in itself a source of fear, or lead to the abdication of responsibility. That might be spiritual desolation and is not the movement I am referring to here. The consolation of powerlessness allows us to let go of the perceived control we do not actually have; to recognise that these things around us are outwith our control and that we do not have to try to control them. We cannot prevent spiritual desolation: we cannot prevent the fork in the path, the temptation to follow our compulsions, our signature sin, and sometimes, we may well take the wrong path. It is who we are. The first step, the cry of wonder, allows us to put that hard headed will power down. We are not in control of it, we cannot manage it, and there is great consolation in admitting it and being able to put away our efforts to try to control something we have no power to control. It is a relief to let it go. To be in this place, to take the first step, to release the cry of wonder, opens a window and allows God’s light into that dark area in our soul. It is the beginnings of a wondrous transformation.

Labyrinth Garden

Labyrinth Garden 1: Reading of this post.

Abundance. That is the word that comes to mind whenever I go out into my garden. It is so abundant in fact, that I simply cannot keep up with it! It reminds me of a scene from “The Shack” where Mack goes into the garden to talk to Sarayu (The Holy Spirit):

Labyrinth Garden 2: Reading of this post.

I have not always been a gardener. It is something I have picked up out of necessity in the last few years. I dug over the top third of my back garden about four years ago, thinking that if I planted a wild flower garden, it would take care of itself a bit, that I would not have so much grass to cut and it would make life a bit easier. I could not have been more wrong! The first year was absolutely splendid – and I missed a lot of the summer being away doing The Spiritual Exercises. After that, I was ill for about a year and nettles encroached, trying to reclaim it for themselves. I spent the last two years claiming it back, and this year has been maintenance, in that respect.

I have learned a lot in my time spent in the garden. The first, and most important lesson I learned is that I am not in control of it. I may have gone out there with a plan, but in no way has it happened the way that I thought it would. There are plants I have not seen since the first year I planted them – the scarlet pimpernel, for example. Such beautiful little flowers, I see why they are called elusive.

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.

Sir Percy Blakeney, Baronet (ch.12); The Scarlet Pimpernel Baroness Orczy

I discovered during that first year that the best time to catch them with the flowers open was mid morning, so I took to taking my coffee break (I still call it that, even though I now limit my one coffee a day to breakfast time) at the top of the garden, looking for the scarlet pimpernel.

Scarlet Pimpernel – close up from the Spiritual Direction Mandala.
Labyrinth Garden 3: Reading of this post.

I generally left things alone for a while, to see what they would do, and I gradually became able to discern the difference between a plain old bramble, a raspberry and a blackberry. I did not plant any of these, but, there they were, in abundance. I am not so cavalier as Sarayu in removing things; in fact, I am as shocked as Mack is at the way she attacks that flower bed with such gusto, and I am tentative, but gradually becoming less so, about uprooting plants in my garden.

The strategy of waiting to see has paid off though. In the first year, as I was walking down the lanes near my house, I noticed some thistles growing on the verge at the side of the road. Being my national flower, I am quite partial to thistles, but I did not recall ever seeing their seeds on sale in the garden shops, and I wondered how I might get some in my garden. A few weeks later, I was sitting on the bench in the wild flower garden and I noticed that that spiky plant I had left alone was a big thistle and it was in flower. This was the second thing that I learned about gardening, that you get presented with many unexpected gifts. My garden has been growing trees – from scratch. As far as I can identify, beeches, hornbeam, black poplar and elderflower. These are challenging, problematic gifts because there is not the space for them there, from their perspective and mine, but what to do about it? I sat on that problem for months, until I noticed that some of them were lined nicely and could form a hedge, delineating the footpaths I have been putting in to prayer spots at the edges. I moved some of the others to form a little grove, leading to a meditation point, and I am coppicing them to form a hedge. I only lost three out of sixteen that I moved. I also planted some sunflowers in the first year, and those were glorious.

Spiritual Direction Mandala
Labyrinth Garden 4: Reading of this post.

This was always meant to be a conversation between friends.

Why am I telling you about my garden? Some of you experienced gardeners might even be shaking your heads thinking:

What is she talking about? She really doesn’t know much about gardening.

And you would be absolutely correct to think so. But I am not really talking about gardening: I am talking about the spiritual journey. Sometimes in our spiritual lives, something begins to emerge, fresh shoots, and we may not know what it is at first. It is like the darnel and the wheat, or in my case, the brambles, the raspberries and the blackberries, the thistles and the trees. God gives graces and gifts freely. Some of these, we desire, and maybe do not even know that we desire them -for me, the thistles. Some of these gifts and graces may be problematic, and we have to sit with them, to work through what it is He is giving, and what He would have us do with them – the trees. Some may be gifts we deliberately asked for, but we have to simply be, and at the right time, in the right place, we will notice their flowering – the scarlet pimpernel. And the sunflowers? Sometimes He gives exactly what we ask for and in the most generous and exuberant way. There are also times to uproot what was there before, even if it seems good, in order to prepare the ground for new growth. We may see a mess on the ground, but from the viewpoint of God, as Sarayu says, of the garden and of us:

Wild, wonderful and perfectly in process.

The mandala I have featured here is an assignment I did in the second year of my formation as a Spiritual Director. I have added the assignment as a page in its own right. It is too long to include everything I have learned since my initiation to gardening. As a celebration, particularly relevant since the churches have opened again in the United Kingdom this weekend, I offer this joyful prayer, featuring some of God’s abundant gifts as they appear in my garden.

Praying with Images: Pentecost

Pentecost Sunday, Cycle A

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. 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.  

18th Century altar piece at The Church of St. Michael, Framlingham, Suffolk.

Jesus Appears to the Disciples

John 20:19-23

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

Praying with Images: Pentecost. Guided prayer

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

Praying with Images: Tomb Day

Today and tomorrow, I will post an image with a more generic guided prayer for praying with images to use in this great climax to Holy Week. I will also post a Lectio Divina for Sunday. It did not feel appropriate at this point to present prayer on Sunday’s scripture, as I would usually do. I have also used different background music for this prayer, as befits the grace of sorrow for this Holy Week.

Praying with Images: guided prayer
Benedictus performed by 2Cellos

Rhythm and Religiosity

Rhythm and Religiosity 1: Reading of this Post.

I heard tell of an interview once of a septuagenarian nun where the interviewer had asked her:

Do you never get fed up getting up so early in the morning to pray?

Of course.

She replied. The interviewer then asked her:

Then why do you do it?

To which she replied:

Because the bell rings.

Rhythm or Religiosity? Is it a thing that is done because those are the rules as laid down by the organisation one is working and living in, or is it a rhythm, a habit that flows from one movement to the next without any need to think about it. All that is needed is to relax and go with the flow. Or is it both?

Rhythm and Religiosity 2: Reading of this Post.

Personally, I think that there must be a bit of both. Structures that we put in place are a support, scaffolding, to enable us to be present, to not struggle with every decision that has to be made, by constantly having to make every decision again and again as if it were the first time. I have been a teacher for over twenty five years and my working life has been governed by a timetable: so much so, that while the holidays are desired for the rest and spaciousness of time that they bring; for the break in the constant bombardment that happens in teaching; for the slowness of pace that is difficult, or at times impossible to find during the term time; that very spaciousness of time can be a little scary as it opens up in front of you. A timetable is a rhythm: we know where to be and when, without necessarily thinking about it, we know when to get up and when to go to bed to ensure enough sleep to enable us for what has to be done the next day. There is a safety and a security in it.

But structures that are designed to be supportive might also become limiting, might become the bars of a prison, rather than scaffolding. The daily, weekly, monthly, annually habit become a rut, something that either we are unable to escape from, or are too afraid to escape from; they may become something that hinder rather than help. For example, when I was making the Spiritual Exercises at St. Beunos a few years ago, I fell into a daily rhythm: night time prayer, sleep, wake, prayer, breakfast, review of prayer, meeting with spiritual director, art room – painting, break/coffee, preparation for prayer, prayer, shower, review of prayer, lunch, tai chi and so on. Each day, other than the repose days, was very much the same routine and it flowed naturally from one thing to the next. It seemed to be this way for others in the group too – the same man was in the art room at the same time as me daily; when I was doing tai chi, the same two women walked past me at about the same point each day on their daily walk. The rhythm supported the prayer and engagement with the exercises. But there were a few days when I did not want to paint, I wanted to just walk, or to walk the labyrinth; or I did not want to do tai chi, I wanted to have a long hot soak in the bath instead of tai chi and a shower. These may seem like trivial examples, but they illustrate my point, and when you have withdrawn from the world into the silence of retreat, you do become very sensitive to disruptions in your thoughts, desires and habits. And that is, in a way, the point. So, what to do when the desire is to step out of the routine? I went with what I was drawn to. Spiritual directors talk about noticing the difference between being “driven” and “drawn”. Certainly had I forced myself to paint, or do tai chi at those points because that is what I did every day, it would have been jarring to the movement within in me at those times. Other times, when maybe I did not feel like doing those things, or even dare I say it, the designated prayer, the routine was helpful, because, like the nun with the bell, it was the time to do that activity. What else was I going to do? I had an inner resistance to the “timetabled” activity, not necessarily a feeling of being drawn to something else.

Labyrinth, St. Beunos
Rhythm and Religiosity 3: Reading of this Post.

In The Spiritual Exercises, in the key meditation of the Two Standards, Ignatius invites us to consider the manner in which the enemy works, and compare it to how God works. Of Satan addressing his followers Ignatius makes the point:

Consider the address he makes to them, how he goads them on to lay snares for men and bind them with chains.

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

Of God, he says:

Consider the address which Christ our Lord makes to all His servants and friends whom He sends on this enterprise, recommending to them to seek to help all, first by attracting them to the highest spiritual poverty…

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

The difference is in trickery, coercion and force as opposed to attraction, recommendation and essentially, choice. Discernment is about noticing the movements within us, and what is motivating or leading us to choose one action over another. It is as much in the small choices: painting or walking, tai chi or soaking in the bath, as it is in our more important life choices as to a state in life, or what work we do.

We might feel that we ought not to escape from our habits because of our deeply held beliefs. And maybe we are right in that, and maybe we are not. I told the story from “The Song of the Bird” before, about the devil being unbothered about someone picking up a piece of truth. My sense of the meaning in this story is that the devil is hoping for the person to turn the piece of truth they have found into religiosity, a belief that they must cling to, no matter what; a rigid, no negotiation point of view which refuses to consider any others, or discern that this piece of truth may not be relevant any more, or in this particular situation. It would be the jarring situation of me forcing myself to paint, instead of walking the labyrinth, or doing tai chi instead to soaking in the bath, even as I was aware that I was being drawn elsewhere; it is the anxious fear of not being able to step out of the routine that is in itself the desolation. Sometimes, when I sense this feeling in myself, in both the small and big decisions, I tell Him about it:

Dear God, I believe that you are drawing me in this direction so it is what I am going to do. If I am wrong, please forgive my lack of understanding, because my intention is to do what You desire of me.

My anxious fear becomes trust: in the temptation to choose fear and the enemy, I choose faith and God. What is temptation after all but an opportunity to choose God?

The idea of effortless rhythm does appeal to me and I wrote about my resistance to flowing from one state of being to the other. My own spiritual director has since encouraged me to notice, not necessarily my resistance to the movement, but my own negative opinion to my resistance. What is going on there? A while ago I recognised that I was trying to find, actually force, a rhythm in my life that was like a sine wave – introducing some science here – where my own natural rhythm was actually more like a damped harmonic wave.

Rhythm and Religiosity 4: Reading of this Post.

By this I mean, that my focus does not naturally shift easily from one activity to another, in the easy flow represented by the yin and yang. In the damped harmonic graph, the amplitude (intensity) decreases over time. There are also concordant waves (different frequencies for the different properties) all happening together, but there is one that is dominant (the orange one). What this looks like in my life is that there is one thing that my thoughts, desires and actions might be drawn to in the quiet moments in between all that needs to be done just for living. It may be painting, or tai chi, or cycling, or photography; any number of things that capture my imagination. I will be preoccupied with that thing for a while, and my interest will dissipate and move to something else. My director is right to invite me to consider my own negative attitude to my resistance to flow: it is a religiosity, it is telling me something important about myself. Among other things, I am trying to force myself to be something I am not, and as I realise that, I can let it go. My dominant wave recently has been survival of winter, but now that the season is turning, that wave is dissipating, and I can feel both my bike and my camera calling to me, and the garden and my tai chi patio in the garden. Something new is coming to invite me to life and I am open and trusting to what that might be. It is my rhythm. What is yours I wonder? What might you be clinging to religiously, that perhaps is hindering you rather than drawing you more deeply into God?

Prayer Pot.

Close up of part of a stained glass window at Our Lady of the Annunciation Church, Poringland.
Prayer Pot 1: Reading of this post.

There are a lot of people I am holding in my prayers at the moment. Friends and family who are ill and/or struggling, people who have come to my workshops and retreat, people who are anxious for someone they love, people who work in spirituality, or other significant jobs where the vulnerable have to rely on them, every homeless person I pass on the street, the people who come to see me for spiritual direction…the list goes on, and it only gets longer. I watched Fr. James Martin’s live broadcast during the week “What Happens When We Pray” and I was at Quidenham Monastery last week and the Carmelite nuns there said a prayer for me and my work, and I smiled when I heard it. So what happens when we say we will pray for people? How do we deal with a long list of people we want to pray for? How do we do that without it being like reading a long shopping list out to God? Or, as children would pray before bedtime:

God bless mummy, God bless daddy, and God bless granny…

Not that I am criticising children’s prayer, far from it: there is beauty and innocence in it, I used to pray in this way as a child. But I am not a child anymore, and as I am now, it seems insufficient, that there is more complexity to what I feel and want to say to God, and what graces I would ask for on the behalf of others. Of course we call these types of prayer intercessory prayers, and as I am thinking about it this week I am wondering what is it all about and how do we go about it, and really, what does it mean to ask for graces on behalf of other people? Are we to suggest what is best for them, or needed at that point? Is that really our place?

I went to a Christian meditation workshop given by Laurence Freeman some years ago at St. Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich. It was organised by the Norwich Christian Meditation Society. One thing that he said in his talk which struck me as being deeply true is that:

When we pray, we participate in God’s infinite expansion.

Laurence Freeman

and my experience over time has only deepened my sense of the truth of this statement. Have you ever thought of someone spontaneously, and murmured a prayer for them, only to find out later that at that moment, they were undergoing some sort of trial? This has happened to me on more than one occasion, and I have read and heard of others who have had similar experiences. The more deeply I am in with God, the more frequently it seems to happen, when I am on retreat for example. There was one year on retreat when I started thinking about a friend of mine I had not seen for a while since he had gone to seminary to become a priest, and I said some prayers for him, asking God to hold him and to be with him. When I came out of retreat and turned my phone back on, there was a message from another mutual friend telling me that my first friend was terminally ill.

I think of intercessory prayer as participation. When I hold someone in my prayer, in front of and with God, it is a way of joining in with God in loving that person. Sometimes, I might colour or paint a mandala as a prayer for someone, during which time, I will be thinking of them and the things they say or do or are going through, thanking God for them, and if there are problems and trials in their life, I may contemplate what grace is needed to sustain them through it and ask for that for them; and for healing if it is appropriate. The nudge to pray as I see it, comes from God, a way of inviting me to participate by noticing or sensing His involvement with, or the need of, another who is in my life.

Sometimes, I may choose someone from my list, because they have come into my mind and I focus on them. A friend of mine gave me a copy of some prayers from a book she has: “Prayers That Avail Much” which I might use at times like this. These prayers feel very powerful. They use the words of scripture to make their request, reminding us and God of His promises, and they leave space to put in the name of the person you are praying for:

Father, You have not given Sunflower a spirit of timidity – of cowardice, of craven and cringing and fawning fear – but You have given her a spirit of power and of love….

Prayers That Avail Much, Volume Two; Prayer for deliverance from mental disorder

It is a technique that we can employ in our own prayer with scripture:

But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Sunflower,
    he who formed you, O Sunflower:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine

Isaiah 43:1

If you have never tried this way of praying for others or yourself, I recommend that you try it. It brings God up close and personal and you are left in no doubt that He is talking to you through scripture. I also like to use St. Patrick’s Breastplate as a prayer for protection for myself or others, either in full or in part:

I bind unto Sunflower the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three

St. Patrick’s Breastplate

and I imagine being wrapped up in the Holy Trinity as I do. Painting mandalas and these longer intercessory prayers are excellent when you are holding one or two people in prayer, but what about that long list that I started with? I went to some training with some other spiritual directors a few months ago, and it was the subject of discussion. Someone there talked about having a Prayer Pot. To me, it is an ingenious idea that I have adopted in my own practice. Here is mine:

My Prayer Pot
Prayer Pot 2: Reading of this post.

I have in there, pieces of paper where I have written the names of all those I have said I will hold in my prayers. I have also put in a sachet of Lavender seeds, with some drops of Jasmine essential oil, and some drops of Ylang Ylang essential oil: for me, this formulation represents the “Fragrance of God”, but more on that another time. Sometimes, I might choose a name and focus just on that one person and other times, I put the pot in my prayer space and ask God to be with them all, and give all the graces they need for that day. There are not necessarily the words, more the sense of each person I am holding. And I know that He knows.

We can get trapped rattling through a list of people we must pray for, because we have said that we would and so we carry on obsessively, almost superstitiously, lest we show ourselves to ourselves and others, including God, as insincere and empty. To make a physical offering of them in prayer by way of a collection in a pot, or on a prayer tree, or some other means, allows us to be authentic in our desire to remember those we have said we would pray for, while remaining open to participate in God’s infinite expansion in our own lives, as well as the lives of others.

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.