Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome 1: reading of this post

In my previous reflection I mentioned what Ignatius had to say in The Exercises regarding the evil one as an angel of light, and I used the word “imposter”. I have been pondering this word for the last few weeks, and it is one of those occasions in life where once a thought has lodged in your head, you notice it everywhere. Here, the equation that formed in my brain is imposter = desolation. I am sure there are many stories and cases where someone was not who they appeared to be, and who they actually were is much better, but right now, I can only think of superheros: Buffy, Superman and the rest, with their secret identities. Imposter syndrome I guess is like an inverse superhero, where our secret identity, as we perceive it to be, is not the “all that” that the world perceives us to be. Throw around also the concept of humility and false humility, and we have a right old tangle.

So, where are all the dots coming from that I have joined together on the title of this post? A reading from Jeremiah during morning prayer with Pray as you Go, a skim past of a social media post, I believe on Linked In, which suggested that Jacinda Adern, the prime minister of New Zealand, frequently experiences “imposter syndrome”, the challenges I am facing in setting up my own business as an online Chemistry tutor, and the admission to the business coach I have invested in to help me, that I need to be more up front about my skills and talents, and how uncomfortable it feels to do that. I remember from my Ignatian Spirituality Course in a discussion around the book “The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed”, the tutor made a comment:

We can become attached to our smallness.”

A simple idea, that imposter syndrome is a disordered attachment and can result in us being afraid to use our talents for the greater glory of God.

Imposter syndrome 2: reading of this post

I am not a follower of celebrity status as a general rule, but from what I’ve seen of Jacinda Adern, I like her a great deal and I see her to be an excellent role model. One incident alone sums her up, and it is one of the COVID broadcasts she did to her country last year. She addressed the children of New Zealand and reassured them that the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy were considered to be essential workers and would therefore be able to continue with their work during lockdown. This still has the power to move me even now as I write it. With the severity of the pandemic, and the seriousness of the measures to be taken, and in her role in leading the way, she was not too busy or too important to take notice of the concerns and fears of the little ones in her country. In my experience as a parent, children infrequently express and identify their fears explicitly: they project it onto something else or express it by doing something “naughty”. For example, I knew my eldest was stressed as a young girl when she wrote on the walls in her room or on her furniture: I knew my youngest was when she took scissors to her hair. To me, these were clear signals that I had missed something and that I needed to take time out to sit and listen to my child. The something else that children project onto might seem trivial and unimportant to adults who are bearing the responsibility for dealing with a difficult situation. In watching Jacinda Adern reassure the children of New Zealand, it was not only that she saw and heard them, she cared about them and comforted them, rather than trivialise or ignore their concerns.

Imposter syndrome 3: reading of this post

In “God in all Things”, Gerard Hughes says:

What do you find attractive in the teachings of Jesus? Focus your heart on these things. An attraction is a sign that you are being called to live out these qualities in your own way, in your own circumstances.

God in All Things, Gerard W. Hughes

This statement was really important for me in helping me to discover the deepest desire of my soul. For me, it is Jesus Himself that I am attraced to and what I find attractive about Jesus is that He sees people; He sees who they are and what they need, and He gives them what they need to draw them closer to God, whether it is challenge, healing or direct invitation. The gospel stories are full of Jesus’ interactions where He is doing all this. Maybe I am moved by Jacinda Adern’s address to the children because she sees their fear and gives them something they need to not be afraid in these scary times.

Imposter syndrome 4: reading of this post

And then there is Jeremiah from St Patrick’s Day. When God says to Jeremiah:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew[a] you,
    before you were born I set you apart;
    I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.

Jeremiah 1:4-5

And Jeremiah answers God:

Alas, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am too young.

Jeremiah 1:6

So here is the subtext. God tells us that this is who He created us to be, and this path is the one He asks us to walk. And our response is no way am I good enough for that! Maybe there is even a bit of what will people think in there too. And God’s response:

7…Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,…

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.

Jeremiah 1:7-9

In the place where I grew up, insults and banter were all part of the humour, although at times I do have to say there could be a sharp edge to it. I had appropriated words like “useless” and “worthless” in my self description when I did something clumsy or idiotic, until one day my own spiritual director caused me to reflect on this self dialogue simply by telling me very gently and firmly that he did not like it when I used these words about myself. When he is as direct as this, I pay attention, because he has said something very important.

Imposter syndrome 5: reading of this post

St. Augustine said:

He loves each one of us as if there were only one of us.

We may experience God like that in prayer, but what if we were to truly believe it always, and live our lives as if it were true? What difference would it make? How would it be to remember the consolation we have in prayer at the moment when we feel that we are not good enough? I like Jeremiah. He talks about being overwhelmed by God, and he reveals his own imposter syndrome. I feel some kinship with him. Perhaps there is a fine line to walk. Humility is to know who I am, my own weaknesses as well as my own strengths. Perhaps the imposter syndrome, the feeling of not being good enough, is the grace that keeps my heart open to my dependence and need for God. Perhaps it is that very knowledge that enables me to walk the path with Him, because I know for sure that it is not something I can do on my own.

40 Day Journey’s End: Day 1

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich: Day 1

40 day Journey;s End Day 1 (i)

What is interesting for me to notice as I read back over my prayer journal for the first “Day” of my journey with Julian is that I am still, even now, wrestling with the same old patterns of resistance. Sometimes they are not so strong in distracting me from my prayer, and sometimes they are. Watching films or box sets when I should be doing my Examen and going to bed. There is that word “should” : I always raise an eyebrow when I hear it in Spiritual Direction. My desire is to spend the time with Him, to live differently, more in tune with Him, and yet, there is an inertia to doing just that when it comes to it. You might know what I mean. I do not believe I am the first person to ask why I do these things that are self destructive when I want to do something different. And my head ties me up in knots. I see that I began my journey feeling a lot of resistance, not just in the arguments in my head as I fought the inertia, but I was restless and uncomfortable in my body.

Even when prayer is like this, and I drag myself to it; even if it is on the reclining seat of the sofa and not in the more alert position in my prayer spot, just by putting myself in that space, I am expressing my desire to encounter God and I am opening myself to the opportunity for connection with Him.

Julian says in day 1 of the 40 Day Journey:

He wishes to be sought.

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, edited Lisa E . Dahill

I heard a story once of a reporter asking Cardinal Hume how long he prayed for every day. He replied:

Oh, for about a minute.

The reporter was apparantly quite shocked and queried his lack of commitment not being commensurate with his leadership position in the Church, to which he replied along the lines of:

Yes, but it does take me about twenty nine minutes of sitting still to get to that point.

I did meet Cardinal Hume when I first moved to Norwich and I shook his hand. This does seem like the kind of thing he could say, from my brief experience of listening to his talk and shaking his hand. This story always encourages me when I am restless and resistant to prayer. I know that if I can just put myself there, I am more likely to make that intimate connection with God, to experience that eternal moment, even if my head will not stop spinning for the whole time and I was distracted by all the things I have to get through that day. It is not something He holds against me.

…our Lover desires the soul to adhere to Him…it is so preciously loved by Him…

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, edited Lisa E . Dahill
40 day Journey;s End Day 1 (ii)

So I acted against my restless body and my busy head, and I put myself in that space because I knew that I desired Him, and I knew that He desired me. Somewhere in that first part of The Journey, I noticed myself:

…clad and enclosed in the goodness of God.

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, edited Lisa E . Dahill

I felt it as a warmth – emotional and physical – that lingered with me for the rest of that day. It brought to mind an imaginative contemplation I had experienced when I made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I was a servant, a wine pourer, at the wedding feast at Cana, and after Jesus had turned the water into wine, YHWH and JC (the Holy Spirit as I call Him) appeared at the party. YHWH asked me to dance a rumba with Him. I became vapour, a fragrance, lost in the dance with Him.

I noticed that during this first prayer with Day 1 that I became aware of people that I interacted with in my daily life. One person in particular, where the relationship was difficult, I got a sense of the huge problems this person was dealing with in their life. I was moved to compassion for them and a desire to help, even if my ability to help was limited to regarding and interacting with them more kindly and to praying for them.

Image by karin smulders from Pixabay
40 day Journey;s End Day 1 (iii)

During my second prayer with Day 1, I was focused on the extract from Psalm 139. There were again distractions at the beginning of the prayer and an odd interaction with what appeared to be God, but my response to this character was to go limp and floppy like a rag doll. My spiritual director on The Spiritual Exercises had said to me in one of our conversations about what happens in prayer:

If something feels odd, it probably is odd.

I think I may have objected at the time, but I have never forgotten it, and it comes to mind whenever I realise that something is odd in my prayer. On my spiritual direction course, they talked about St. Bernard (I think it was St. Bernard) who once had a vision that “Jesus” appeared to him, dressed as a Roman Legionary. The point of discerning if this vision really was Jesus is that it did not seem like Him. In the Rules for Discernment for the Second Week, Ignatius says:

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

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. 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 Loyola. Trans Louis J. Puhl

The point here is that not everything that appears to be God, or of God, is God, or of God. There are times when we may be dealing with the imposter. Discernment is the process by which we learn to recognise what is of God and what is fallacious reasonings, subtilties, and deception.

40 day Journey;s End Day 1 (iv)

When I sensed the oddity in the prayer, I imagined myself back in the Room of Indifference from the my experience of the Exercises. This was the moment of grace during the Principle and Foundation when I experienced indifference. I described this experience before. Ignatius tells us to store up these moments of consolation in order to strengthen us when we are in desolation. So I imagined myself once more sitting in the chair at the centre of the room, my palms face up, and I said:

I will wait.

And He was there, no doubts or oddness.

I recalled some conversations I had had that day. My mum is ninety now and much to her frustration, has developed a stutter. A young man in my church is autistic and finds social interactions difficult. I remembered a the beginning of a retreat as a student, where we were asked to briefly introduce ourselves. There was a student there from Zimbabwe, who told a winding story about one day when he went out on a walk back home. I remember at one point wishing he would hurry up and get to the point when it immediately dawned on me, that was the point. It was not a summary list: this was someone who was present. By telling us a story, he was revealing who he was , he was introducing himself. As I recalled my conversations with the two people who struggled to talk that day, I recognised that there had been a similar movement within me, a movement from impatience to patience, as I saw the person in front of me. The fact that someone may struggle to express themselves does not invalidate what they have to say. It only requires for them to be seen, and for the other to be patient and listen.

When I prayed the second prayer with Day 1, I said to Him:

It was You. I praise You, I am wonderfully made.

And His reply:

You are wonderfully made. I made you.

To really see the other, to see them as God sees them is the Contemplation to Attain Love. It is to love as God loves. There are moments when it cuts through into our consciousness. This was the fruit of Day 1 of my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich. It was to look at those others and recognise in my heart:

You are wonderfully made.

40 Day Journey’s End: Examen

40 Day Journey’s End Examen 1: Reading of this post.

I finally finished my 40 day Journey with Julian of Norwich on Shrove Tuesday, just in time for the beginning of Lent. While the time since then has certainly been very full – I have left the classrooom and I am setting up as an online tutor – I have been pondering the Journey in the back of my mind. Here feels like the suitable point to make an Examen of my journey and the fruits that it has borne. I began the journey on Thursday 5th December 2019 and in that time, completely filled the prayer journal that I had started at the beginning of the third week of the Spiritual Exercises, and I finished the journal with the last entry of the Journey, the day before the beginning of Lent! A strange convergance: endings an beginnings. It had been my intention, in preparation for writing this post, that I read through my journey and summarise it all here, in a nice tidy blog post, a beautifully wrapped package; a wonderful display of the glory of God and the graces He so generously gives. And then I read my journal entries for Day 1 of my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich. I realised immediately how impossible it would be to do that – there is too much. Each day warrants its own post. I will endeavour to do that as I continue posting on this blog. So, I closed my journal and decided to write an Examen here from my memories of this time on the Journey.

40 Day Journey’s End Examen 2 : Reading of this post.

Gratitude

I am grateful for all of the graces that I have received in this journey: the intimacy with God and the deepening trust; the fulfilment of the conversation about my working life which began during The Exercises and the courage to take that path. I am grateful for the affirmations of my work received through the people I am directing, through my guided prayers with Radio Maria England and through the retreats I have led. I am grateful for the friendship of Bill Stebbe, which grew in the time of that retreat day where I bought the 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich and made the decision to make this pilgrimage. I am also grateful that I was able to accompany Bill in his dying, and for the grace of humility which I received during that time. And as Julian herself lived in the time of plague, and the current pandemic was an event waiting to happen at the time I picked up the book and began this journey, I am grateful for the relative safety in which I have been able to live and work throughout, and continue to be able to do so, even as I am weary of it.

Grace

I ask God for the grace to see my journey as He sees my journey.

40 Day Journey’s End Examen 3: Reading of this post.

Account

The predominant image I have from the Journey, and also from The Spiritual Exercises, is of myself as a child: not the memories of me as an actual child, but of my inner free child, Sunflower. I described her in the post All Things in a Hazelnut, where I picked up the book. This child is always open and honest with God. She says things as she sees and feels them, without dressing them up to make them palatable or acceptable. Even when she is restless and fractious, refuses to be held and wriggles in His arms saying:

Put me down! put me down!

He does, with some amusement, and watches over her tenderly as she does her worst and comes running back to His open arms when she realises her trouble and her need. And God loves and adores her, and regards her as precious. This is where God has been for me in this journey, and how I have turned away to those inordinate attachments that are self destructive to me, and then turned back again when I recognised that I had messed up again. As always, my tender loving God has picked me up and held me close once more.

Pardon

The free child is also open and honest when she recognises her mistakes. She does not try to justify or explain. Moved by her sorrow, her desire is simply to repair the relationship that she sees she has hurt by her behaviour. Asking for forgiveness is her expression of that sorrow. He listens and forgives.

Resolve to Amend

From here, the world is different. Things have changed.

And they have – I have been writing about the changes taking place in my life throughout this last year. It is not to say that these inordinate desires have been vanquished – they most certainly have not. I am still wrestling with the same distractions and resistances that I was dealing with at the beginining to the Journey. Sometimes, I am that little girl planting sunflower seeds with Him in the garden, full of wonder and awe. Sometimes I am still that fractious child, wriggling in His arms, trying to break free to do those naughty things that are not good for me and cause me, and perhaps others around me, pain and harm. To me on a bad day, it may feel that I have not made much progress, but to Him, well, maybe that Sunflower stalk is just a little bit taller as it reaches for the sun.

Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God

by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, Matthew Linn, Miranda Francisco (Illustrator)

Admitted to God…Step 5 and the Spiritual Exercises

Admitted to God 1…reading of this post.

Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.

Step 5: Alcoholics Anonymous

As if Step 4 was not hard enough, Step 5 is also difficult and sore, and at the same time, pours a soothing balm into our self inflicted wounds. Our wrongs, by their very essence, are those things that we identified as being faults and failings: places where we did not live up to being the person we were created to be; the dark corners where we hide away those things about ourselves that we are embarrassed and ashamed of; we are now being asked to bring out onto the light of day, not just to show them to God, not just to look at ourselves, but to show them to someone else. To be appropriately and openly honest about the bad and the ugly within us. Daunting work.

It is worth remembering, that we have not come to this point in isolation – we have already been journeying in the steps and are walking here with God. At this point, we have submitted to our Higher Power in Step 3, and have committed to this work: we trust Him enough. To try to this step without having made the journey to it would be like doing the first week of The Spiritual Exercises, without firstly having prayed with the Principle and Foundation – not to be recommended. I did try that once a long time ago. I really wanted to do The Spiritual Exercises, but my children were too young for me to go away for thirty days to do them. I had not heard of the nineteenth annotation, where you could do them in every day life, at that time. Not that that would have made a difference. I think I had too much on my plate to be able to devote myslef completely to them at that point in my life. I know that now, but then – I naively thought I could pray my way through each of these meditations. So, I started with the first contemplation of the first week – that seemed logical enough. That meditation is about the fall of the angels and it left me in a very dark place, full of fear and anxiety, like having had a nightmare, and God was not there! When I talked to my spiritual director about it, he was firm in his suggestion of me putting those books away, that the Exercises were a guidebook for directors who were accompanying people as they made them, they were not intended to be done alone.

Part of a wall n the Plantatin Garden in Norwich.
Admitted to God 2…reading of this post.

The same is true for a Twelve Step program. While we do the work ourselves, we are not alone in it, and we cannot do it alone. There is too much room for dishonestly, denial and delusion when we go it alone: we are too close to our faults and cannot see the wood for the trees. When we share our turmoil and the traps and turns with an experienced and caring other, when we bring God into that conversation and allow Him to shine His light on us, these malicious whisperings lose their power to hurt us.

St. Ignatious describes the different ways the enemy works in us in vivid analogy. The particular one I am thinking of here is as a “false lover”:

He seeks to remain hidden and does not want to be discovered. If such a lover speaks with evil intention to the daughter of a good father, or to the wife of a good husband, and seeks to seduce them, he wants his words and solicitations kept secret…In the same way, when the enemy of our human nature tempts a just soul with his wiles and seductions, he earnestly desires that they be received secretly and kept secret.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
Wrought iron spiral candle holder
Admitted to God 3…reading of this post.

And Ignatius does not just describe the problem, he offers us the solution:

He is greatly displeased if his evil suggestions and depraved intentions are revealed by the daughter to her father, or by the wife to her husband. Then he readily sees he will not succeed in what he has begun…

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

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.

It is uncomfortable, but ultimately life giving, because it helps to free us from those traps which ensare us, often repeatedly, when we act on our compulsions and our signature sin, in spite of ourselves.

Ignatius mentions two people we can talk to about our faults: a confessor and another spiritual person who understands. I would equate a spiritual director as the second person here , and the first, in the Roman Catholic tradtion, to which I belong, as the priest who hears our confession. In my experience, these two conversations are very different. In Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr writes on Step 5:

What humanity needs is an honest exposure of the truth and true accountability and responsibility for what has happened.

Breathing under Water. Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Richard Rohr.

I would say that the most honest confessions I have ever made in my life – forget the five minute shopping list – are when I have been on an individually guided retreat and have already spent six days in silence, speaking only to a spiritual director, and the confession is made in a face to face conversation, no hiding behind the grid of the confessional box. At the end of the honest exposure, the accountability and responsibility, there is forgiveness. I am also able to forgive myself.

Rohr contrasts two models: the juridical model

sin–> punishment –> repentence –> transformation

and the restorative model:

sin –> unconditional love –> transformation–> repentence

He says:

God shocks and stuns us into love. God does not love us if we change, God loves us so that we can change.

Breathing under Water. Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Richard Rohr.

It is the movement I was describing in the earlier post: How does He look at Me?

Graffiti on a door in Norwich
Admitted to God 4…reading of this post.

In my second year of training to be a Spiritual Director, I was drawn to write my paper on the Exercises on penance, and my understanding of it is in this light. It is about reparation, not punishment, it is about making it right when I have messed up, and I do and will mess up. I am a sinner after all.

Rohr sums it up:

Step 5 is far from any notion of retributive justice, which the sacrament of “penance” too often became, and returned it to the much more biblical notion of restorative justice – to restore relationships themselves, to restore integrity with myself, and to restore a sense of communion with God.

Breathing under Water. Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Richard Rohr.

It feels very appropriate to be writing about step 5 at this point, given the retreat day on Positive Penance which I ran last weekend. The movement was very much to encourage a more personal, restorative approach to doing penance in Lent, rather than just picking up from the usual three, without necessary pondering their relevance to my own relationship with God. The point is to notice where am I not fully being in my relationship with God, and then seeking to act against the desolation and so express my sincere desire for reparation. I am currently acting against my tempation to workaholism, which had indeed led me and my soul to be:

…wholly slothful, tepid and sad…

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

I am acting against the symptoms and the root cause this Lent; all those areas where I make the easy, lazy choice. And I set the timer when I am working. I am allowed one ten minute snooze on the alarm to finish off, in an effort to prevent me from carrying on until it is too late to cook, exercise or even go to bed in a timely fashion, because my head is still spinning round. Since that snooze on the alarm is now beeping at me, I know it is time to switch off the computer.

A Conversation Between Directors: Paula Pearce

I thought I would change the format of what I was previously calling “Ask a Spiritual Director” to more of a conversation than an interview. Feeback from my “interview” with David suggested that the more conversational sections of the video were more interesting and worked better. I also thought that repetitive questions might get a bit dull. So, here, in this talking heads conversation, I am talking to Paula Pearce who has recently moved into the Diocese of East Anglia. Enjoy.

Pray in colour.

Just before the first lockdown in March last year, I posted about my reflections on intercessory prayer. Just after that, and maybe even as a result of that post, I started to explore with Praying in Color. My Spiritual Director on the IGR I did at Penhurst had mentioned it, and I had tucked it away for future reference. I mentioned that when I painted a mandala with someone in mind, it was a way of praying for them and that quite often I gave them the finished mandala. It seemed a very natural attraction for me.

Here, I will summarise the process that Sybil MacBeth lays out in great detail in her book “Praying in Color”:

1. Draw a shape on the page:

– a triangle, trapezoid, squiggly line, or imperfect circle.  

2. Write a word in or near the shape:

– the person you are praying for, word or phrase from scripture, a name for God, a feeling word that came up in your prayer… 

3. Add detail to the drawing.

This might be dots, lines, circles, zigzags, or whatever your hand wants to do. 

4. Continue to enhance the drawing.

Think of each stroke and each moment as time that you spend with that person or word or phrase or God in prayer. 

5. Keep drawing until the image feels finished. 

6. Add colour to the picture.

Choose colours that will stay in your memory, that you particularly like, or that remind you of what you are praying about. 

I am not quite so dextrous with the digitial pen, but I am sure that you can see where it is going. When the drawing and praying for the first person, word, phrase, feeling or name for God are completed, You can move onto another space on the page:

7. Draw a new shape or design

-to create a place for the name of another person, word, phrase, feeling or name for God. 

8. Repeat the process of drawing as many times as you feel moved to. 

9. Linger with the page in front of you.

Let the names, images and colours imprint themselves on your brain. Spend another moment with each one on silence and close with an “Amen”. 

10. Carry the page with you.

Place it open on your prayer spot or on the fridge: someplace where your eyes will scan it during the day. 

Sometimes when I am busy or stressed, and my mind is all over the place, I have found this to be a helpful way of praying that slows me down.

In another of her books on this concept, Sybil Macbeth offers colouring templates that she has drawn – steps 1-5 effectively – and a wealth of other suggestions on how to use them. During the first lockdown in March last year, I used one of those to make intercessory prayers for the people I cared about and who were struggling. I took one person a day and spent the time in my morning prayer, thinking of them and the graces I wished to ask God to bestow on them. Then I kept the sheet around and placed it in my prayer space overnight. I also added prayers for my two children during Holy Week.

The images are stuck into an art book that I use as a spiritual workbook and I love the prayer patchwork they make. I have also considered the possibility of cutting the rectangles when I have finished the praying in colour with them and putting them in my prayer pot to hold, or take out at random another day.

During the retreat I made at home in the summer, I learned that to help me move from one state of being to another, I need to have some transtion type activities, and especially when going from a busy, active state to a contemplative state. Praying in colour helps me to do just that.

My friend the artist is taken with this idea and created some colouring templates of Julian of Norwich quotes for me to pray with during my retreat. Her intention is to leave room in the templates for enhancements as well as colouring. You can see I have added my own. At some point, she is talking about creating colouring books that can be bought and she is in the process of creating them. I am looking forward to that, but in the meantime, I still have some she gave me in the summer. Suffice to say that the last few months have been hectic and stressful for me, as the next few weeks also promise to be. I am feeling drawn to spend sometime praying in colour to slow me down enough to reconnect with my inner contemplative. Why not give it a try yourself?

Made a searching and fearless…Step 4 and The Spiritual Exercises.

Made a searching and fearless…1: Reading of this post.

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Step 4: Alcoholics Anonymous

There is something quite appropriate about looking at this step at the beginning of January! We might be in the first blush of enthusiasm for our New Year’s Resolutions – if we have indeed made any. Perhaps we have already forgotten it or given up.

This step is difficult and long, and not to be taken lightly. It is to be approached with seriousness, and also gentleness. Its equivalent in the Spiritual Exercises is the first week, where we look at our own sinfulness. Step 4 encourages us to look deeply at ourselves, warts and all, our strengths and our weaknesses, our virtues and vices. We are invited to bring everything out into the light to look at it.

In “Blueprint for Progress”, the workbook that goes along with step 4, personal qualities are put along side their opposites and we are invited to consider where we generally sit in the space between the two extremes. The process is then to consider examples of situations and our response to them that have led to us placing ourselves there. It is a process of discernment. When we are being too hard on ourselves, we might find that we can think of examples that support the contrary to what we propose. And when we are inclined to justify our behaviour or actions, the sting of conscience – the phrase St. Ignatius uses in the Exercises – pulls us up short and demands that we look more closely. As with the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, it is an uncomfortable journey. It demands humility, true humility. Not the self deprecating kind that refuses to recognise our own good as well as our own faults. And it is not a journey to make alone. Having moved through the second and third steps, where we came to believe and made a decision to turn our lives over to God, we make this journey together with our God.

Made a searching and fearless…2: Reading of this post.

In the Spiritual Exercises, where we have moved into the First week from the Principle and Foundation, we have come to know ourselves as created and deeply loved by God. It is our reaching out to God that enables us to make this inventory without growing to despise ourselves.

I was a young adult when I worked through this step formally. There were things I discovered about myself that I did not like, and I worked to mend them. There were identified characteristics of adult children of alcoholics that I recognised the potential for in myself and I resolved to avoid those pitfalls. One of those was that it was common for adults who had been raised in an alcoholic home to leave projects unfinished, to start something and then to walk away without seeing it all the way to the end. I saw that that could easily be me and it has stayed with me all these years. I may struggle to be consistent, and it may look like something has quietly gone by the wayside – my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich for example. I did not finish that in one year, even though at the beginning of Advent last year it seemed that there was more than enough time! I have not given up. I have resumed the journey where I left off in October, and I will finish it.

I do not drink alcohol myself. There is also a tendency for this addiction to run in families and I knew at the age of seventeen that I did not want to walk that path. I joined the Pioneer Association when I was eighteen and made that abstinence into a lifelong prayer.

I am struck by an idea I heard , I think when I heard Laurence Freeman speak in Norwich some years ago. It describes the perception of the Seven Deadly Sins as being compulsions, addictions that drive our behaviour and as such, make us not free. Addiction, by its very nature is an inordinate desire because the addict places their addiction above everything else. I would suggest that we all have them, and that they can be small as well as big. I know for example, that I am not able to “just have one” chocolate digestive, even if I resolve to, and I am in public. I can tie myself up in all sorts of knots with that one. If the packet is open I am not at peace. They call to me and torment me. Best not to buy them at all and refuse the first one. It may seem like a trivial example, but the behaviour and desire is there, nevertheless. The journey of the fourth step, and the First week of the spiritual exercises is to become aware of our own specific compulsions, even the subtle ones, and to remove us from denial so that we can live freely of them.

Made a searching and fearless…3: Reading of this post.

At the end of every year for quite a few years running, it was my habit to do a review of the year, a sort of examen. I would read through my diary and try to sum of the mood of each month and then create some sort on collage showing my movement through the year. I notice two changes to this habit in recent years that have made this review essentially obsolete. The first is that as I have engaged more deeply in Ignatian Spirituality, I have regularly practised the daily examen, and the second is that my “diary” is now exclusively my prayer journal. All my reflections are derived from my prayer, including my daily examen.

So, here is where I am today. In my examen of the year, I recognise the hand of God in the big changes taking place in my life, and my commitment and hard work, my complete cooperation, in the new direction He is leading me. I also recognise my compulsion to workaholism, motivated by pride, and that it has led me to burnt out exhaustion and away from the space and time for a slower pace and deepened engagement in prayer. This latter desire of mine and His is the raisin d’etre for changing direction in my career.

Made a searching and fearless…4: Reading of this post.

In the 10th Addition of the Exercises on Penance – believe me, I have a lot to say about that particular addition – Ignatius describes how we can do too much penance as well as too little penance. It is all about the point of equilibrium. The work of the Fourth step, the moral inventory strikes me as being the same thing. Ignatius encourages us to act against the desolation. So, in that spirit, while I am still working in school and trying to set up my business as an online Chemistry tutor, I will be cutting back a little in a few places. One of those is here. Between now and February, I will post a reflection fortnightly rather than weekly, alternating it with a Chemistry blog on my other website. I hope to pick it up weekly again when I am no longer spending my working days in the classroom. The other posts I do will continue in the normal pattern.

I would like to wish you all a safe and good new year, and for you to deepen your own prayer life and journey into the heart of God.

In The Bleak Midwinter.

In the Bleak Midwinter: Recording of ths post.

December has been a very tough month this year. You might have fathomed that from my lack of posts. I have been trying just to make it to the end of term. Did I make it? No, not really. I was ill and had another negative COVID test, and then back to work for the last week and a bit, only to scald my face quite badly on the Wednesday and have to stay home on the last day of term, after a visit to Accident and Emergency. Not that it made any difference, since I received a phone call from the Assistant Head telling me not to come into school on the Friday because one of the students I taught had tested positive, our first confirmed case in school. They needed to double check protocols with Public Health England. It seems to change regularly. Since then, another two students and some teachers have tested positive too. It is easy to complain and make a list of all the negatives, but suffice to say, December has been tough, for lots of reasons.

I have been watching Peaky Blinders on DVD box set throughout this month…maybe I should nickname it “Bleaky Blinders”. It is dark. Since watching TV is one of my amber, desires – it tips over into inordinate desire and obsessiveness all too easily, my Spiritual director encourages me to notice what I am drawn to watch and why. What is it that draws me? Where is it coming from? and where is it leading to? All good discernment questions. If you know the series, you might recognise in the title for this post, the words the brothers are committed to saying at the point of death.

So, here is what I notice. I watch a lot of Films/Box sets when I am ill, stressed or exhausted. I have been all of these, all throughout this long, long month. When my head is caving in and my body is just fighting to do what I need to do, and crash when there is no necessity or even option. My head becomes a swirly place to be, and the escapism offers some relief from the constant noise. You may know what I mean.

I am drawn to complicated characters that demonstrate moral ambiguity. Tommy Shelby might indeed be a violent gangster, but he also has admirable qualities and vulnerabilities: he shows tenderness and is clearly tortured by his experiences of the First World war. What would he have been without that desolating experience? The most recent episodes I watched described a charming young man with a desire to change the world for the better. A different man came back from the war, and is still fighting it. He knows no peace and falls apart when his circumstances and environment are peaceful. I am not recommending Peaky Blinders here, I am noticing my response.

I also notice the feeling of restlessness and the impulse to turn it off. Is that the nature of the drama itself or the process of watching too much TV? Or both?

When I did turn it off a couple of evenings before Christmas, I put up my Christmas tree and played carols, I had to stop for about five minutes and cry. So many of the baubles bring with them their own memories of different Christmasses past. When I became a single parent, I bought a set of very cheap baubles for that first Christmas alone with my children, and we bought only two elaborate baubles that they each got to choose one. We did that every year, gradually replacing the cheaper ones, so that now it is an eclectic mix. They are not inclined ot put up the tree anymore, and because of Coronavirus, my friend did not come to stay this year: I decorated the tree on my own. It was a poignant experience, and moving.

Christmas has been quieter this year, not the huge pomp and ceremony as usual. It has been trimmed back. And yet, in the middle of this winter, where perhaps we still have as much to go through as we have aready been through, there is the cosiness of finding a safe place and hunkering down, in spite of the odds. It may be survival mode and if there is survival, there is life and recovery is possible. In the centre of this hard place, there is a light and hope: it is this truth that hit me while I was decorating my Christmas tree. As always, when we remember to look for the presence of God, He is to be found, no matter how long or bleak the winter.

Made a Decision. Step 3 and The Spiritual Exercises

Made a decsion. Step 3 and the Spiritual Exercises.1

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

The Twelve Steps: Step 3

It has been a while since I wrote the reflection on Step 2. I finished that post with a poignant clip where Wallander handed in his badge. It was not something I could express explicitly at the time, but the clip caught the mood of my decision and alluded to it: I decided to hand in my badge. I had decided to resign from my job as a teacher, but at that point had not acted on it. I have now, and I am currently working my notice in school, which I agreed to extend until the February half term. The period inbetween is living the third step. I have written about this step before, and several times on the theme of surrendering to God. This third of the twelve steps follows on naturally from the first two, but to say that makes it sound easy. It is not easy.

In “Breathing Underwater” Richard Rohr says:

Surrender will always feel like dying, and yet it is the necessary path to liberation.”

Breathing Underwater, Richard Rohr

and he makes the point of surrendering being a decision we make:

Our inner blockage to “turning our will over” is only overcome by a decision.

Breathing Underwater, Richard Rohr

He talks about the dangers of “the myth of heroic sacrifice”, or the martyr complex as revealing the false side of love. In the twelve step fellowship to which I belong it is called “playing the martyr”, and the character of wanting the be the “hero” is a personality type that is recognised in adult children of alcoholics. It is about always wanting to be good: I have to watch out for that one myself.

In relation to the Spiritual Exercises, I might align it with the 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

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

It is also consistent with the three powers of the soul that Ignatius describes:

…will consist in using the memory to recall…and then in applying the understanding by reasoning….then the will by seeking to remember and understand all to be the more filled with…

So, too, the understanding is to be used to think over the matter more in detail, and then the will to rouse more deeply the emotions.

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

Here is described a process of deepening. Our imagination and memory begin to tell us something, and then our reason works it out and comes to a decision. It is not done and dusted at this point. The Eternal Lord of All things occurs in the space between the first and second week of The Exercises, and expresses a desire, a wanting to want it, as it is described sometimes. Three quarters of the journey of the Exercises, which take us to the Suscipe prayer and the expression of surrender, still remain. And yet, the movement throught the rest of the Twelve Steps suggests that with the decision, it is done. What is not made explicit in the step is the process of handing our will over. It is the struggle of Oda Mae Brown from Ghost agreeing to hand over the cheque and then handing over the cheque, even cheerfully and freely.

Made a decsion. Step 3 and the Spiritual Exercises.2

What does it look like to live this step? I recognise that it is what I am doing. It is once and for all, and every day. The once and for all was making the decision, sitting with it for a bit to notice movements within me and then acting on it by handing in that resignation letter. There is no turning back at that point. The consequences of acting begin to accumulate, a public announcement and a replacement appointment being made. The every day decision is noticing when that creeping fear of making a mistake in these uncertain times is creeping into my thoughts and then turning to God in trust that I am following the path He is leading me on. It is to notice the sense of lightness I walk with, the burden laid down, the life giving energy flowing through me. When I notice a sense of being overwhelmed by all the work that is in front of me in forging this new path I have been shown, it is to listen and hear Him say:

One day at a time, one step at a time.

Feeling fear is of itself not so much the problem, C.S. Lewis says as much in The Screwtape letters when the senior devil is trying to educate its junior in getting the young soldier to abandon his post, rather than just be afraid. Rather it is what our fear leads to. Previously, in my journey with Julian of Norwich, Julian recommends:

…but He then wants us to behave like a child. For when it is distressed and frightened, it runs quickly to its mother; and if it can do no more, it calls to its mother for help with all its might. So He wants us [to cry out]

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich: Day 30

The Spiritual Consolation is in allowing out fear to turn us towards God in faith and trust.

I call it consolation when an interior movement is aroused in the soul, by which it is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and as a consequence, can love no creature on the face of the earth for its own sake, but only in the Creator of them all. It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears that move to the love of God, whether it be because of sorrow for sins, or because of the sufferings of Christ our Lord, or for any other reason that is immediately directed to the praise and service of God. Finally, I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.

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

Of course, there is a second part to this step:

…as we understood Him.

The Twelve Steps: Step 3

Made a decsion. Step 3 and the Spiritual Exercises.3

And this part of the step may prove challenging to those who prescribe to any particular religion. How do we really feel about someone else’s image of God that is different from our own? Can we accept the premise and so engage in dialogue as equals? or do we have to insist that we are right and they are wrong? And try to get them to admit it. I do not know about you, but I would certainly not feel very enamoured if someone else was trying to shove their image of God down my throat, so I am not going to set out with the agenda of shoving my image of God down theirs. Can I be generous and magnanimous, as God is generous and magnanimous, and find my God in the description of their Higher Power that the other person is describing to me? As a spiritual director, when people tell me about their relationships with God, they are personal and unique, and different from my own. But I recognise my God in who they are talking about. There is something intrinsically liberating about letting God be God in terms of how others understand Him. When I do not try to dictate how God is to another, it frees me to tell my story, and of my relationship with Him; it frees me to hear of how another relates to God. It is like when you meet someone, and realise that you have a mutual friend. When you start to share your own stories about your time and impressions of your friend, you recognise with joy that:

Yes, that is just like Him!

When I experience this in listening to another, it brings be out in goosebumps, and I know the reality of God. If I were intent on bringing the other round to my understanding, I am certain I would miss that.

The third step to my mind is a gateway to deeper freedom and relationship with God. It may be a process, but it starts with a decision, we make up our minds.

Obituary: William Stebbe

I would like to take this opportunity to say goodbye to my friend Bill, who died at home from cancer in the early hours of Friday. Bill has been a follower of my blog pretty much since we met, and has frequently posted lovely, affirming comments and some questions. I met him last year on the retreat day I went to at Julian’s shrine in Norwich. I had spent most of the day being quiet and maintaining my sense of solitude as much as possible, until towards the end of the day, I had a wonderful conversation with a former Chemistry student of mine. Feeling bouyant after that I decided to return to the coffee shop for a bit, to be where the people were. That is when I met Bill. We spent about an hour chatting, with the young priest in charge of the parish. Afterwards, I decided to go to a film and as I was crossing the Millenium Bridge over the river, bumped into Bill, who had taken the other fork which now merged with mine. We had dinner together, and it set us on a path of friendship. We occasionally met up and went to the cinema, or had coffee or food, and he came to see my mandalas in an art exhibition. A gentle, optimistic soul, I enjoyed our discussions. He let me know that he was thinking about joining my church, and eventually asked me how he should go about it. Taking instruction prior to lockdown, when it became evident that he was seriously ill, he was received into the church. I met with him once more in the space inbetween lockdown and him being confined to home, when he asked me to be with him in church when he received the sacrament of the sick. I have never been present for this sacrament before, and felt very privileged and moved to be there.

In the last month or so while Bill was confined to home, his family had been providing him with constant care on a rota. I am full of admiration for Celia, Barbara, Solveig and Adern for their commitment and care. I am quite a squeamish person, so I am not at all sure how I would cope in a similar situation. I have been visiting him twice a week to spend time with him, to read scripture to him and to pray. It seemed fitting to read the Book of Tobit to him, since he asked me quite a few times on and off the blog, about the Sally Vickers quote at the beginning of the Diary of a Sunflower entries. He liked Sarah’s prayer for death – it seemed to express his readiness:

‘Blessed are you, merciful God!
    Blessed is your name for ever;
    let all your works praise you for ever.
12 And now, Lord,[d] I turn my face to you,
    and raise my eyes towards you.
13 Command that I be released from the earth

Tobit 3: 11b-13a

Bill told me, and he told me to tell people, that dying was a nice experience and that this was the best country to die in. The NHS also took good care of him and the palliative care he recieved helped to keep his pain at a bearable level. If anything, he was impatient to “be with the Lord”, and we talked about purgatory as being a state of waiting, where he was now. As a relatively new Catholic, it was something he found puzzling.

I miss this gentle man already, with his easy, optimistic view of life and his cheerfulness when facing all of these big questions. Goodbye Bill, my life is better for having met you and I am glad that you are no longer in pain. I’m sure that, like the good thief you identified with in our talk on purgatory, you are with Him, this day in heaven. x