This is not the post I was intending to write for today but I find myself sitting in my car not too far from Bury St. Edmunds waiting for the RAC To come and rescue me. I have no idea when I will get home. I know for sure that I really like this little mobile internet device I thought I would try for a few months before I committed to a longer contract. I have a low boredom threshold, I don’t mind admitting, and I have already been here for two and a half hours.
Issues with the house or the car have long been a stress point for me, a sense of panic usually ensues and the fear that it will be terrible, or so expensive that I can’t afford it, or awful or even dangerous. My car insurance company – and I am very pleased with my car insurance company, they have always done the right thing by me – they used to give you a credit card sized card with all your details on it: very useful. They do not do that now and the number on the one I still carry does not work any more. Trying to find the number for the breakdown assistance was when the panic almost began to set in. I say almost because it was so fleeting, I almost did not notice it. I’ve broken down before, sure, it is irritating, but I know exactly what to do and it is why I buy a policy that has breakdown cover. The movement to accepting the things I cannot change was as quick as it was certain. I can trust in the process, because it has all worked out before.
I have been talking to my own spiritual director this week about serenity. He pressed me on what it meant and looked like to me. I remember discussing it with a friend some years ago and we both went away to decide what serenity meant to us. My answer to the question was:
It’s about being aware of the presence of God with you, no matter what you are doing.
After a brief interlude – it is the alternater for the battery – I am now sitting in my car in a petrol station, waiting for a pick up truck to collect me and my car and take us to my garage in Norwich, where I will leave it with a note and get a taxi home. The road side assistance chap, who lent me a battery to get to here, says it could be a couple of hours. Still, he has left me in a place where I can get food, have access to toilets…and my car is my bubble after all.
I could get frustrated…it is not so far under the surface…it is not how I planned, or wanted to spend my Sunday, but frustrated is not how I want to be. My desire is for serenity, and my attitude is mine to choose. I trust that all will be fine. My past experience with both my insurance company and my garage tells me that it will all be fine. I can trust and I do not need to worry, they have not let me down before.
To me, trusting God is the same. I do not need to panic. I can trust Him because He has never let me down before. I know He never will. Ignatius advises us when we are in consolation to store up these consolations and remind ourselves of them when we are in desolation. Accepting what we cannot change is serenity and even more so when we are aware that God is with us throughout. As always, I am going into my room of indifference, sitting in the chair in the middle of the room and telling Him:
I will wait.
Patience, I think, is also one of the fruits of the Spirit.
Well, it has been a while since my last reflection, when I was writing about the need to reform my manner of living to take in the new state of being I find myself in. I have been on a discernment journey in this time. I continued working too hard for a while; I completed an activity journal for a week for the ME/CFS service and I went on retreat. I arrived at St. Beunos completely exhausted and it took about three days for my energy to even begin to pick up on the retreat so that I could walk up to the labyrinth there. I wrestled with myself on that retreat. The director suggested prayer with the passage where Jacob wrestles with the angel, since she thought I might be wrestling with God, but I knew it was myself I was fighting, not God.
The movement to accept my new limitations with this health condition had centred around the Principle and Foundation of The Exercises, as I described previously, around the grace of indifference.
…we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things…we should not prefer health to sickness…our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we were created.
And I oscillated about this point of indifference for a while. During my retreat however, something else began to happen, a different movement. I came out of my retreat perceiving that this long term health condition as a gift. Let me explain – because I am not being all idealistic and mushy here, and to see it as such is difficult and challenging. Nevertheless, it connects with Step 7, and humbly asking God to remove our shortcomings.
I have said before that I can be a bit work obsessed, and I have used the term “workaholic” frequently to describe myself. The teaching profession as it is today in the UK is conducive to bringing out the worst of the workaholic in anyone. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could survive teaching without being like that. I have seen too many good teachers buckle under the unreasonable demands, and perhaps I include myself in this group too.
I associated the River Meditation that I did during The Exercises and I used in my Positive Penance Retreat days with a conversation with God where it was understood we were talking about work. I was standing in the river in front of an outflow pipe and a black sludge, like crude oil – toxic and carcinogenic – was coming out of it. There were students I teach behind me, and I was tryng to block the black slime from getting to them. It was making me sick. And I could not stop it all, because some of it still flowed around my body and reached them. I could not protect them from the poison. At the time, my sense of it from God was:
We need to have a conversation about work sometime, but not yet. We have other things to deal with first.
Five months later, I got glandular fever and my first experience of chronic fatigue syndrome. One day, driving home from school and struggling, there was a moment when it occurred to me, and I said it out loud to Him:
One day I will look back and recognise that this is the moment I decided to leave teaching.
It is as St. Ignatius describes a First time choice:
When God our Lord so moves and attracts the will that a devout soul without hesitation, or the possibility of hesitation, follows what has been manifested to it…
From there, my desire to leave the teaching profession increased. I prayed for a slower pace, to have time to breathe and to pray, to be still and not so over worked. My sense on retreat was that this prayer was being answered here and now, at this point in my life. It is one of those be careful what you wish for moments, or as I read once:
It is laudable to ask God for what we desire, and dangerous.
In The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius talks about Exterior and Interior Penance: we can act from the interior movement within us or our actions can effect the change within us. Either way, the practice of penance is a serious expression of our desire for freedom from our inordinate desires that lead us away from God into spiritual desolation. People laugh when I say that I have to actively rest several times a day and that it is a real penance, but it is. I have been overworking for too many years and wearing my workaholism like a badge, a joke – something that is not to be taken too seriously. My soul has also been praying from release from this compulsion since that day in the car, perhaps even longer than that. I have been working Step 7 in this context for a while now, humbly asking Him to remove this shortcoming. In the few months I have already been self employed, it has become clear that I am not able to free myself from it and that here is some Divine Intervention: ME/CFS is a gift in the sense that it is freeing me from my workaholism compulsion and it is an answer to my prayers. It is not a piece of cake, it is penance – there is a part of me wrestling with sitting and resting several times a day, that is impatient to be cycling or walking around, even doing housework! There is also relief and gratitude too, I do not have to push so hard any more, I can let it go. This week, as I recorded my guided prayers for Radio Maria, I felt it acutely.
In Pray as you go this morning they used the Gospel passage, and asked if there are things you have heard Jesus say, perhaps this week, that you have found hard to accept and they asked how you have dealt with that.
Step 7 seems deceptively simple on the face of it, we humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings like it is all we have to do and then to wait to be released from them. When He answers our prayer and it may not be the light and fluffy answer we envisaged when we asked. It may be difficult and painful and we have to work through it with the support of others. It is a gift nevertheless.
My dear old mum is ninety and recently fell over and broke her hip – a common injury in people of her age. I visited her a few weeks ago, once the lock down restrictions on travel were lifted and stayed for a week. Suffice to say, she is struggling a bit and has suffered loneliness during the long months of lock down. It was nice to be there with her, even if the conversations circled round every ten or twenty minutes and the ever constant television was awful. We talked about our faith naturally enough. One of our conversations was around why God lets or makes things happen. She is a very traditional Catholic of her generation and not given to questioning perceptions and images of God handed down in the popular culture. I am not going to change that. With a certain lightness of tone, I told her that I thought it was quite simple. If we want what God wants for us then God will always give us what we want. I am aware that it sounds flippant. I centred it around the the structure of the Ignatian prayer period I use in the guided prayers. It goes like this: I ask that all my intentions and actions be directed purely to His service and praise as preparation: I place myself in His gaze and become aware of myself there to get a sense of how He is looking at me; I then contemplate His desire for me, before I ask for my desire. This order is deliberate. I ask for grace in response to His desire for me. If He is asking me to have that difficult conversation with the friend or sister who has offended me, I might ask for the grace of courage or compassion to enable me to open the conversation to make it right, and to forgive the harm that was caused.
Here I am now, a few weeks on, being challenged with this very idea. I have been feeling quite tired for a while now – since before Christmas in fact, and in a conversation with someone recently it dawned on me that it was since the last time I was ill, at the beginning of December. You may have noticed the frequency of my reflections and other posts has declined in this time. It is not all about the fact that I am setting up as a self employed online Chemistry tutor, alongside my spiritual direction work. After some normal blood test results I was finally diagnosed with ME/CFS last week. The doctor is certain that the illness I had in December was in fact COVID, even though my own test was negative, since some of my close colleagues had it, and it is this that has triggered the ME/CFS. I would not be honest if I denied that I was a bit gutted about that. I experienced it before, five years ago after glandular fever. It brings into play a conversation with God during the Spiritual Exercises during the River meditation I used in the Positive Penance Retreat Day. It raises that age old question about God allowing disease, and it would be easy to be filled with self pity. Is this really what God desires? And therefore, is this what I desire?
I am reminded of the Principe and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises:
…we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things…we should not prefer health to sickness…our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we were created.
When I put myself here, back into the Room of Indifference I found during my experience of the Spiritual Exercises, my inner dynamic changes. As a human being, I am limited and I feel pain, tiredness and I get sick. Here, I am still limited, it is just that those limitations have changed. Ignatius talks about different ways we can make a choice in our lives, and he also talks about how to live well within our situation when our freedom to choose is limited. He says:
It will be very profitable for such persons…in place of a choice, to propose a way for each to reform his manner of living in his state by setting before him the purpose of his creation and of his life and position, namely the glory and praise of God our Lord…
It raises, not the paralysing question of why does God let these things happen, but the more pertinent question of how do I reform my manner of living within my new limitations so that it praises, reverences and serves God? From shifting my focus from wanting to be well and healthy to what is God’s desire for me in this – in this moment, in this day and at this point in my life – as I say in my guided prayers, my attitude changes. I let go of self pity and my trust in Him deepens. I make it sound easy: I know that it is not. I experience fear and uncertainty just as everyone else does, and I yearn for that carefree exertion and freedom of cycling out for the day to visit a church and pray with the Pray As You Go app as I have done in the past with my Holy Trinity Cycling Tours. But the movement within me is real. What is God’s desire for me now, in this moment, in this prayer, in this day and at this point in my life? That is what I desire. It is as it was before ME/CFS, and it is as it is now with ME/CFS. The specifics might be different, but the Principle and Foundation remains.
Going forward, my posts may be shorter or less frequent, or both. They might even be less tidy and contain more mistakes – sorry, brain fog is an ME/CFS thing. I am no longer living as if I will get better tomorrow but I am looking at a way to reform my manner of living in this state, as if this is my state in life. I will still be writing and probably more frequently than I have been, because now I know I can manage my energy better. He would still have me tell my story and share my journey. Thank you for following me this far.
The wonderful thing about Step 6 is that it does not demand that we do anything about our defects yet. That can feel like such a relief when this one sinks in a bit deeper because we might be labouring under the sense that now the exact nature of our wrongs are on the table as it were, we are obliged to do something about them. This step slows down that process. No, we are not required to take action to remove our defects, the process is to be ready to allow God to remove them – in God’s own time. All we are is aware of them, and open and ready for God to work in us to remove them. What that looks like in practice will depend on the situation, our particular defect and probably many other facors we can only guess at.
I am reminded of A Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Far be it for me to be critical of a respected work of English Christian Literature, but I just could not get on with that book. I joke that is was too puritanical for me, but that is not a joke, it actually is. Bunyan was a Puritan, I am not. My problem with it is in the essence of Step 6. There is the point in the book where Christian, the Prilgrim, meets with the Saviour of the world. But then, Jesus disappears again, and leaves the Pilgrim to walk the rest of this dangerous journey on his own, under his own steam, using his own strength and talents. I guess this part was supposed to represent the Ascension, but to me it felt a bit like being left to my own devices, and woe betide me if I strayed off the path, that was all my own fault and I would get what I deserved! In short, it felt punitive, that God is distant, abstract: watching and critical, waiting to see if I measured up, judgemental. It is not how I experience Him.
I am much more of that fractious child, who wriggles in His arms and squeals to be put down. So He does and I run off to make a mess and get myself into all sorts of trouble I can’t get out of. When I run back to Him crying and scared, He scoops me up and holds me close to Him: no scolding, just safety. This image is some of the fruit of my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich.
Sometimes, when I hear people talking about their prayer, I frequently hear the phrases:
God wants me to…
And I ask:
How do you know it was God?
It is not that I doubt their experience, I ask myself the same question. Discernment is a process whereby we come to recognise the authentic voice of God amongst the cacophony of all the voices and noise we hear. We cannot necessarily assume it is God because the voice speaking says it is. How easily the deceiver could deceive us if that was all it took. It is a question of responsibilty. There is a danger of misinterpreting the Step 6 and thinking we can sit back and leave it up to God to sort it out, be passive if you like. I think that is why I also raise the question of whose voice is it we are listening to. Is this person moving through life, not being an active agent in it, where things happen to them and it is interpreted as being what God wants? It is the opposite extreme to the puritanical attitude of the Pilgrim’s Progress, where I am in complete control of my own salvation and it is all down to me.
In “Breathing Under Water”, Richard Rohr attaches an analogy of the chicken and egg to Step 6. He says:
It first recognises that we have to work to see our many resistances, excuses and blockages, but then we have to fully acknowledge that God alone can do the “removing”! But which should come first grace or responsibility? The answer is that both come first.
It is an interesting question. Ignatius questions, but does not assume, that a lack of effort on our part might be responsible for the “non-production” of God. He encourages spiritual directors to explore with their directees:
When the one who is giving the Exercises perceives that the exercitant is not affected by any spiritual experiences, such as consolations or desolations, and that he is not troubled by different spirits, he ought to ply him with questions about the exercises. He should ask him whether he makes them at the appointed times, and how he makes them. He should question him about the Additional Directions, whether he is diligent in the observance of them. He will demand an account in detail of each one of these points
In the Rules for Discernment, he gives three reasons why we might suffer from spiritual desolation:
The first is because we have been tepid and slothful or negligent in our exercises of piety, and so through our own fault spiritual consolation has been taken away from us.
The second reason is because God wishes to try us, to see how much we are worth, and how much we will advance in His service and praise when left without the generous reward of consolations and signal favors.
The third reason is because God wishes to give us a true knowledge and understanding of ourselves, so that we may have an intimate perception of the fact that it is not within our power to acquire and attain great devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation; but that all this is the gift and grace of God our Lord. God does not wish us to build on the property of another, to rise up in spirit in a certain pride and vainglory and attribute to ourselves the devotion and other effects of spiritual consolation.
The questioning of the director in what “efforts” the directee is making is merely an exploration of possible reasons for the apparant “absence of God”. The dark night of the soul is recognised in itself as being profound spiritual consolation, however painful it might be to the person experiencing it. It is not my own personal experience, but people have told me of it being theirs. As Rohr has suggested and implict in what St. Ignatius is saying, both our efforts and grace are involved in the encounter with God and in making Step 6. Richard Rohr goes on to talk about paradox.
Almost all spirituality has a paradoxical character to it, which is why the totally rational or dualistic mind invariably misses the point, and just calls things it does not understand wrong, heresy or stupid.
I love paradox; how you can be neither and both at the same time. One of the books I have read that has deeply influenced me is The Way of Paradox by Cyprian Smith, which is about the spiritual life as taught by Meister Eckhart. If you are on your toes, you will know that the quote at the top of my blog is from Meister Eckhart. I loved this book. I understood some of it, but by no means all of what I read. It might be time for a re-read, after Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. Smith says of Ekhart’s spiritual way:
Two apparantly opposed realities will be brought by him into clashing confrontation until the dualism separating them is transcended and their underlying unity emerges like sunlight after rain.
Like sunlight after rain…seriously, what a beautiful, evocative image of the spiritual struggle. It describes perfectly, the battle of the Step 6. But battle is the wrong word, it is tai chi, yin and yang: softness is the necessity, not hardness.
This swinging rhythm or oscillation between unlike poles, breathing in and breathing out, speaking and remaining silent, doing and resting is the basic rhythm of the spiritual life, and it is only within that rhythm that we can know God, experience Him, think and talk about Him.
From my own experience of making the Spiritual exercises, and from listening to people as a spiritual director, I notice that in this part of the Exercises, there is an oscillation about this point of indifference, and we do not remain there once we have experienced it. It is but a moment, what I would describe as an eternal moment, because the consolation in receiving this grace remains in the felt memory of the soul and is stored up to be called upon when we are in desolation and troubled by the turmoil of spirits. I have referred to this practice before.
To me, the essence of Step 6 is in the principle and foundation, and in the end of the first week of the Exercises, moving into the Second Week. We have acknowledged our disordered attachments and our powerlessness over them, and we have become willing to learn more about where God would lead us into freedom from them. Here, I will let Cyrpian Smith sum up the journey:
But to learn to pour out while remaining inwardly detached, to be at once in movement and in repose, is largely what the spiritual life is about: to the extent that we have learned that we are true Persons, true images of God, true sharers in the swirling, glowing, energetic life of the Trinity. To live like that also means to be untiring, for it brings about accumulation, not loss, of energy.
It brought back memories of the River meditation I had done during the First Week of The Spiritual Exercises, when contemplating the sinfulness of the world. I had been in the process of planning my Positive Penance Retreat day when I was praying with Day 2, so perhaps it is not surprising that this meditation was in my mind, since I was using it on my retreat day.
During and since the Exercises, I have understood that my experience of this imaginative contemplation was a conversation with God about my work. It was as if He said:
We need to have a conversation about your work, but there are more pertinent things to deal with first.
As I notice the dates in my prayer journal now, my part one and part two of praying with Day 2 of the Journey straddle a meeting I had in my job which caused a shift in my perspective and from that moment, the writing on the wall was bright and clear, no longer invisible. Sure, it took a bit longer to make the actual decision, and then a bit longer for it to happen, but it did happen and I am living that decision now.
In the Quesions to Ponder section of the Journey, Lisa Dahil asks:
What images of Jesus’ crucifixion – scriptural, musical, or artistic – are most familiar to you? Do these images readily speak to you of love, as they do to Julian? Why or why not?
I did not find that question so easy, and I am glad she introduced the possibility of it not speaking of love, because my experience of it was both. In thinking about the standard wooden crucifix with a metal Jesus on it, I have to acknowledge a sense of horror at the torture, oppression and martyrdom. Not just the horror of what was done to Jesus, but there is a sense of irredeemable guilt and sometimes a sense of looking at it and experiencing a feeling of emotional blackmail whenever I am not being as good as I “should” be:
Look at how I suffered for you, and you cannot even do this for me?
I recognise this voice as not being of God, of how it is used to exert power and control. It is fallacious reasoning that demands an account from us, which tells us we are not good enough and it cuts us off from the sense of God’s love that Julian is talking about. We spend time in the Principle and Foundation of The Exercises coming to recognise how we are loved by God, because without knowing God’s love for us deeply, facing the full reality of our sinfulness in the First Week might just be too much to cope with.
Another response I had to this image was of anger: anger at the injustice of what was done to Him. I also felt shame and confusion that sinfulness and hatred could have any small moment of triumph, and that people can be so fickle and can be turned so easily by lies. I find that frightening. Dahill states:
For Julian, Jesus’ death is not an appeasement of God’s wrath.
I do not think I have ever seen it as God’s wrath, more the wrath of humanity. I mentioned shame and confusion, noticing that this is the grace of the First Week of The Spiritual Exercises.
Here it will be to ask for shame and confusion because I see how many have been lost on account of a single mortal sin, and how many times I have deserved eternal damnation, because of the many grievous sins that I have committed.
Then there was the other side to my conflicting emotions on praying with the material for Day 2. I imagined myself stepping into Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. In the Divine Dance, Richard Rohr tells that in Rublev’s orignal artwork, there was a mirror, which invited us to join in, to take a place within God. Julian says:
It is here that I connected with the Love she is talking about. A sense of falling at His feet, of being Veronica and wiping the blood from His face. I am struck by Mel Gibson’s film of The Passion, and how, amidst the violence and the gore, there are moments of tenderness, where Jesus is seen, and those who see Him are seen by Him. It seems to me that He draws strength from those who love Him, and whom He loves. When I was praying with His passion in the Third Week of the Exercises, it was a feature of my imaginative contemplations that the moments of connection with those who loved Him and walked with Him as He made this journey, were significant in strengthening Him so that He could fulfill His task. It was in this sense of raw openness that I understood something of the love that Julian was conveying in her description. His response to my conflicting emotions:
I am Love. Never fear, I am always here, even there.
There was a movement in me through praying Day 2 of the Journey. I noticed the changes that were taking place in my life. They seemed such small changes, but in reflecting futher back I was able to recognise how far and by how much those small things had resulted in quite big shifts.
I know this is Your doing. You have answered me. Thank you.
My response to Psalm 118:22
Sometimes in prayer, what we are talking about is not what we are talking about. While I was contemplating Julian’s image of the crucifix and experiencing conflicting emotions within me, I moved from fear to experiencing the Trinity as my bliss; an eternal moment of being lost in God, where everything disappeared and there was only God. Nothing else mattered. What I was left with afterwards was a clear sense of where and how God was with me constantly in my life, where growth was happening and my own gratitude for His presence and love.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,…
9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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.
I ask God for the grace to see my journey as He sees my journey.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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
God shocks and stuns us into love. God does not love us if we change, God loves us so that we can change.
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.
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:
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.
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.