My apologies. I intended inform you when I would be the guest on Songs in the Wilderness. That was this morning at 9.00 am UK time, and I forgot to post it in time. However, it will be replayed on Sat 7.30pm, Tue 2.00am, Weds 11.00am and Thurs 9.00am. I will also post it on this blog when I receive a copy of the recording. Enjoy.
The Jerusalema Dance Challenge on Facebook has been filling me with deep joy recently, especially this version of it:
It reminds me of morris dancing with the Holy Spirit. Let me explain. There is surrender, and then there is surrender! One of the funniest things one of my friends has ever said to me on the subject of surrendering to God is:
I am surrendered to God! He drags me screaming and kicking to do His will!(I am sorry, you know who you are, and it is too good not to share)
While it makes me laugh, it also illustrates what I am trying to say. We make partial surrenders and think that we are open, and doing what God calls us to do, when in reality, we are in denial about our own resistance. I read an analogy once that to surrender to God was like handing Him a signed, blank cheque that He could draw on; it is a promise, a commitment to give whatever was asked. I liked this analogy and had considered myself as having done just that for a long time. Little did I know that I was like Oda Mae Brown in Ghost:
Sure, He might claim on that signed cheque. Maybe we both knew and accepted that whatever He asked would be given, but like my friend I quoted above, I put up a good fight for someone who was surrendered. Perhaps at this point it is the state Ignatius makes the prayer at the end of the first week of The Spiritual Exercises:
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 lifeThe Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
We may have the desire to surrender, but it does not necessarily mean that we have completely surrendered.
To understand the difference, as I experienced it, let me tell you about the morris dancing. I really like dancing, I have used it as a metaphor for the relationship with God before, but morris dancing? nooooo…not my thing. If you are not familiar with the concept, and you might not be, it is an English thing as far as I understand it (Scottish folk dancing is quite different); here is an example:
Please understand, I have friends who do morris dancing, I am not mocking it, but it is definitely not for me. So with this in mind, there was The Song of Songs retreat the year before I did The Exercises. This retreat has its own name, out of the twenty or so I have ever done, because it was so significant. I had been praying with a passage from the Song of Songs as suggested by my spiritual director on the retreat and while speaking to him afterwards, I read out to him the colloquy from my imaginatve contemplation, which was pretty much a monologue from me. It was my own personal suscipe prayer:
My God, my God. I surrender everything to You, I surrender completely to You. I am lost to You, I am lost in You. I have given You my right to choose. I have no will but Your will, no choices but Your choices, no desires but Your desires, no strength but Your strength. I am completely dependent on You. I surrender everything.
As I read it out to the director, I slipped into silence as it dawned on me just what had happened, quietly and certainly in that imaginative contemplation: I had surrendered completely to God, nothing held back. I had admitted it to God, and now I was admitting it to myself and to another human being. My director also recognised the significance of it because he allowed the silence for it to sink in during my session with him and the next day, he gave me a copy of the Suscipe Prayer from The Spiritual Exercises. It was real. You cannot pray like this and not live it. And still, it had yet deeper to go. There was a subsequent imaginative contemplation towards the end of that retreat where I was standing with the Holy Trinity and we were watching some morris dancers. Please do not ask me why…such is the world of imaginative contemplation. The Holy Spirit invited me to join in the dance with Him, and I resisted, saying that it really was not my thing. He stood His ground, looked me straight in the eye and said:
I desire it.
My response to this expression from God is now, automatically:
It is given.
So I joined the Holy Spirit in the dance, while Jesus and YHWH were crying with laughter on the sidelines because the Holy Spirit had invoked the irrefusable request in order to go morris dancing with me. And yet, still I resisted, like Oda Mae, holding onto that cheque and being grumpy, even after it was handed over. I resisted, until I saw the expression of delight and pure, unadulterated joy on the face of the Holy Spirit when I was banging sticks with Him. He was stomping hard to make those bells ring loudly and He was just so happy. I realised that I was being churlish; that to join reluctantly was not surrender, I had to abandon myself freely to this dance, no matter how foolish I thought it was. It was the third kind of humility:
I desire to be accounted as worthless and a fool for Christ,
So I threw myself into the dance and Jesus and YHWH also joined in. No matter how difficult and dark things seem to be at times, the experience of being a part of this divine flow of joy still fills me whenever I recall it, five years later. In the Spiritual Exercises, regarding such spiritual consolation, St. Ignatius says:
When one enjoys consolation, let him consider how he will conduct himself during the time of ensuing desolation, and store up a supply of strength as defense against that day.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
What I learned from morris dancing with the Holy Spirit is that to give up all resistance and to surrender joyfully and freely to God is the most liberating thing to do. It is a once and for all surrender, and an everyday surrender. It takes constant prayer, listening and discernment, and patience, to know that it is indeed God who is saying:
I desire it.
The irrefusable request, to which the only response is:
It is given.
And there is no need to beat ourselves up because we are not there yet. The Holy Spirit was full of joy simply because I had joined the dance, despite me being reluctant and grumpy about it. Each desire for, and each little surrender is a step towards complete surrender. It is the movement in The Spiritual Exercises from the Eternal Lord of All Things to the Suscipe Prayer:
So here is a bit of a confession for a Catholic: I have struggled and wrestled for a long time with what I feel about Mary. There were those porcelein statues around, and this image of perfection which immediately condemned me as a failure as a woman: virgin or mother, you cannot be both, so choose one and know that you will always only be half a woman. It is the message I was receiving as I grew up as a female. And of course, she is the mother of Jesus, He loved her, He listened to her – the miracle at Cana? I am sure you know what I mean. So, I felt guilty and ignored the issue. Evangelicals are often critical of Catholics, saying that they worship Mary, and there is only one God, and while I might concede that to them, that might indeed be what it looks like, but from a Catholic perspective, if life in God is eternal, then praying to Mary (and the saints) and asking her and them to pray for me is not really that much different from asking my friends and church community to pray for me. Why would you not? No, It is not the “You Catholics worship Mary, and that is blasphemy” accusation that bothers me about Mary, and yes, that has been said to me more than once: it is more the passive, bland , vanilla image of her and how it is held up as the ideal for women who love God. Is this really who His mother is?
I read a couple of short stories which featured Mary, or an image of her, that resonated with me and made me think more deeply about the images we are presented with. One of them in The Seven Deadly Sins, on Anger, says:
…On the opposite wall above the sink there was a reproduction of a medieval Virgin and Child. The Virgin in her jewelled head-dress knelt in dazed adoration before the cradle, her hands meekly folded in prayer.
‘That’s what he wants,’ she thought, ‘That’s what they all think they have a right to.’She Went of Her Own Accord, Kate Saunders, The Seven Deadly Sins
And another, where she appears to a black man on the run and asks him to melt her:
I could never cry after that day for His loss. Since I was made marble, wax, sculpted wood, gold, ivory, I’ve had no tears. I had to carry on living this way, with a lie of stupid smiles painted on My face. Tristan, I was not what they have painted. I was different, certainly less beautiful. And I have come to tell you something.The Fall, Armonia Somers in Other Fires: Stories from the Women of Latin America , edited by Alberto Manguel
The first quote illustrates my frustration with the images we are offered as women, and the second, scandalous hope. If you want to know more about that , I recommend Armonia Somers’ story. It is not for the faint hearted.
I was so much ill at ease with images of Mary that it got in the way when I was making the Exercises. During the first week, Ignatius suggests a triple colloquy at the end of the prayer sessions:
The first colloquy will be with our Blessed Lady, that she may obtain grace for me from her Son and Lord for three favors:
A deep knowledge of my sins and a feeling of abhorrence for them;
An understanding of the disorder of my actions, that filled with horror of them, I may amend my life and put it in order;
A knowledge of the world, that filled with horror, I may put away from me all that is worldly and vain. Then I will say a Hail Mary.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
I could not get on with this practice at all. When I tried, my conversation with her was stilted and awkard, like I was trying too hard to be polite and to like her – I realised that she was a bit of a stranger to me. And when Jesus appeared with us in the second part of the colloquy, I just looked at Him agog – it was like even He was on His best behaviour, and not behaving like Himself at all! My director at the time wisely suggested leaving the triple colloquy alone since it was getting in the way, and to do the colloquy as before.
Ultimately though, it was at the beginning of the second week of the Spiritual Exercises that I felt inspired to really examine my perceptions and images. My director, again, wisely encouraged me to spend extra time on the space between the first contemplation and the Nativity, and more time with Mary during the hidden life meditations.
In the first prelude of the first contemplation of the second week, Ignatius encourages us to imagine the Holy Trinity looking upon the Earth and humanity, and coming up with a plan:
Here it will be how the Three Divine Persons look down upon the whole expanse or circuit of all the earth, filled with human beings. Since They see that all are going down to hell, They decree in Their eternity that the Second Person should become man to save the human race. So when the fullness of time had come, They send the Angel Gabriel to our Lady.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
In my imagination, the Holy Trinity were discussing the hows and when of putting the salvation plan into actions and had agreed that it would be inititated when:
She prays psalm 63.
In the next contemplation, The Annunciation, I was an invisible observer, watching and listening to Mary at prayer, and when she prayed psalm 63, it completely blew me away! In The New Jerusalem Bible, which is the one I normally use for prayer, the first part translates as:
God, you are my God, I pine for you;
my heart thirst for you,
my body longs for you,Psalm 63…The New Jerusalem Bible
The moment I heard her say the words in bold, there was what seemed to me at the time, a scandalous and shocking revelation that I recognised as “screaming womb”. Such was the ferocity of her desire and love of God, that it went far beyond the sexual imagery of desire of The Song of Songs, which of itself, can make uncomfortable reading. It is a young woman saying:
I want to have your baby.
And the answer to her biological question of how can it be, the mystery of it, is given in the psalm:
…and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;Psalm 63: 7b-8a
So I began to see her in a new light, as an audacious woman who loved and trusted God to the exclusion of everything else: social propriety and the thoughts and feelings of her betrothed included. As Grandmother Widow (myself as an Old Woman) said to her in a later imaginative contemplation:
You never even gave Joe a second thought, did you?
I developed a friendship with her from there: as the mother of my own inner child, little Sunflower, I brought her over for “playdates” with Jesus, and while they played in the garden fountain at the age of three, laughing and splashing, Mary and I talked. When I was overcome with tiredness, she looked after the children and let me sleep. She became for me, a real person and not an alabaster statue.
I went to the Ignatian Spirituality Course Triennial lecture given by Jerrfey John, an Anglican Theologan. It was about Mary in scripture, and we were presented with different images of her. My favourite, Che Maria, was put with The Magnificat and presented her as Mary the Revolutionary. John talked about Henry Martin, who went out to Calcutta as a chaplain:
When he got there, he was astonished to find that the local Governer had ordered the Magnificat to be ripped out of the Prayer Book, and forbade it to be used in church services, because he was convinced that if the natives heard it they would be inspired to rebel.Jeffrey John, Mary in Scripture, ISC Triennial lecture 2019.
John also pointed out:
…in 1978 in Beunos Aires, the mothers of all the ‘disappeared’ people who had been kidnapped and killed by the military junta in Argentina, gathered tohether in the Plaza de Mayo to fight back. One of the ways they did it was by plastering the text of the Magnificat everywhere, and endlessly singing it in front of Government headquarters until in the end the Government, very stupidly, tried to ban it.Jeffrey John, Mary in Scripture, ISC Triennial lecture 2019.
And he asserted that the song the punk band Pussy Riot sang in the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour in Moscow in 2012, and were jailed for, was a prayer to Mary to drive Putin away, and was very much in the spirit of the Magnificat.
Dallas Jenkins (The Chosen), talks about the care he took in the portrayal of Mary in Episode 5 of Season 1.
Dallas asks towards the end of this discussion:
How did we do?
I think they did a great job. Here is a woman I can relate to.
On our spiritual journey, I have learned that it is important to consider our image of God. Sometimes we can cling to unhelpful images of God that prevent us from moving into deeper intimacy with Him. I have come to understand, since I did The Spiritual Exercises, that the same is true of His mum. Getting to know her better has allowed me to indeed see her as an example and role model, but not in the way that others tell me to see her. To see her audacity, a woman who submits to God’s authority regardless of what the patriarchy tells her that looks like. Does that make her a feminist? To me it does. She believed that her free will allowed her to make a choice without first running it past a societally approved man; she made that choice, trusted God and lived with the consequences of it. In my eyes, she is an awesome role model for this reason and I am pleased to call her my friend.
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,Mary’s song of Praise. Luke 46b-55
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/About-AA/The-12-Steps-of-AA
I can honestly say that the last two weeks have been hectic in a way that I have not at all enjoyed. I would go as far as describing it as the First of the Twelve Steps:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/About-AA/The-12-Steps-of-AA
I am not specifically speaking about alcohol here, but the powerlessness I have experienced over my life is real and with it, the sense that it is completely unmanageable. Very quickly, I started to realise that I am living step two, that amidst this turmoil of spirits I have been experiencing, I am reaching out to God and believing that He can indeed restore me to sanity, and that in fact, it is exactly what He has been doing since I made the Exercises, and for a time even before that. So, I am making a discernment about my life.
In Breathing Underwater, in the chapter on Step 2, Richard Rohr writes:
The immediate embrace is from God’s side, the ineffectiveness is whatever time it takes for us to “come to believe”, which is the slow and gradual healing and reconnecting of head, heart and body so that they can operate as one.Breathing Underwater, Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Richard Rohr
He makes the point that there is a process here, a lag time. We do not suddenly believe that God can restore us to sanity, as it says in step two, without a precursor to that belief. The first step may come as a revelation, where there is a desire and a possibility for change, and no doubt about it; what Ignatius describes in The Spiritual Exercises as 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. St. Paul and St. Matthew acted thus in following Christ our Lord.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl S.J.
The second step is not quite the same thing as it is lived. I have heard a lot of people share and talk about reaching their “rock bottom” and tell that they felt that this recognition of their own powerlessness and the unmanageability of their lives had come from outwith themselves. In step two though, there is more of a struggle: with some, it is in accepting a Higher Power, where there was no belief in God previously, and with others, where there is already a faith in God, it is in deeply believing that God can restore us to sanity and living according to that belief. I include myself in this latter category.
I read somewhere, a while back, words to the effect of:
If Christians believe that they are truly saved by the sacrifice of Jesus, why do more of them not live more joyfully, as if it were true?
I do not remember where I read this, or the exact quote: it may have been Richard Rohr or James Martin who said it in one of their books, it may have been Anthony Flew in “There is a God”. Nevertheless, the sense of it has remained with me and it connects me now to this second step. We can believe in God, but to trust Him and live completely in that trust is a different thing, not least because we have to discern the movements within us, our desires and our fears. God’s voice is not the only one speaking to us, either through the people we meet, the events in our lives or within our own minds and hearts. Discernment takes listening, and listening takes time and consideration, and noticing the effect of these different voices on our soul. Ignatius describes it as turmoil of spirits and calls it second time choice:
When much light and understanding are derived through experience of desolations and consolations and discernment of diverse spirits.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl S.J.
I would say that I am generally a fairly decisive person. I joined Al Anon for the first time when I was seventeen, and one of the tools of the program that I have worked with a lot over the course of my life is the Just For Today card. One of my favourites from this card is:
Just for today I will have a program. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. I will save myself from two pests: hurry and indecision.Al Anon : Just For Today
It is a curious back and forth I am describing here. I have some control over the decisions I make, and yet I am powerless, and I come to believe that God can restore me. The process that links the powerlessness of the first step and the believing that God can restore me is in the discernment, the sitting with and noticing the push and pull in the turmoil of spirits. When I have made a decision, and I am resolved in that decision, I do act “decisively” to carry it out. Sometimes, it is only the action that people see from me, and not the process that has gone into that decision. This Just for Today focus highlights two pests in the process of making a change and in trusting God in making a change: hurry and indecision, both of which we might attribute the label “spiritual desolation”:
I call desolation… darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord. For just as consolation is the opposite of desolation, so the thoughts that spring from consolation are the opposite of those that spring from desolation.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl S.J.
The time it takes to “come to believe” allows for this discernment process, a growing into faith and trust in God. We do not need to beat ourselves up that we do not enter at this point of somehow magically trusting God, for to do so may lead to self loathing, or even believing that we do really trust God may of itself be pride, a lack of humilty, that our trust is all our own achievement:
Am I not so good? Of course I trust God completely!
Spiritual consolation, as described by Ignatius, is the movement towards deeper trust in God:
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.
When I talk to my own Spiritual Director, he is sometimes very interested in hearing what I feel about what I feel. What we feel is what we feel, and is a sign post to what is going on within us. What we feel about what we feel suggests something about our own self judgement and being aware of it may indicate a movement of spiritual desolation or spiritual consolation. This conversation, whether it is with a spiritual director, or with a sponsor in a twelve step fellowship, can be helpful in highlighting these deeper movements within us, and bringing them into the light so that we can see with greater clarity.
To me, the second of the twelve steps is describing a process of discernment and spiritual consolation. It is where I have been sitting these last few weeks, and relates to me making a second time choice about my life. It has been a long time coming, and was put on the shelf when I made The Exercises, to be dealt with another day, when the time was right. That right time is now, and I have made a decision, with God, in how to live more deeply and for His greater glory. Ignatius suggests that when we do make a choice, we offer that choice to God and listen for His response. It is where I am now, and to fulfill this choice will take a deeper trust in God and a belief that following through on it will restore me to sanity. I notice His smile and the growing sense of peace and certainty within me:
…the one who has made it must turn with great diligence to prayer in the presence of God our Lord, and offer Him his choice that the Divine Majesty may deign to accept and confirm it if it is for His greater service and praise.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl S.J.
I did begin this post two weeks ago, but got no further than the first line and the featured image. Being in it is not conducive to writing about it, and neither was it conducive to writing about anything else. Hence my absence from blogging these last two weeks. I am hoping to be back to my usual routine this week.
I’m going to end with a song I posted before and a scene from Wallander, which I have been watching on my “Film Fridays”. I recognised myself in Wallander and realised, as Ignatius suggests, that it is the advice I would give to that imaginary person who spoke to me about what I myself was feeling, and the spirits that were moving in my soul.
I should represent to myself a man whom I have never seen or known, and whom I would like to see practice all perfection. Then I should consider what I would tell him to do and choose for the greater glory of God our Lord and the greater perfection of his soul. I will do the same, and keep the rule I propose to others.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl S.J.
There is no perfect end, just time to leave.Maggie Said, Natalie Merchant.
In my last post, I said that I was ready for my retreat at home – well, that was famous last words! It was certainly the most challenging retreat I have ever done, and the beginning of it, the most stressful. Not at all what I had prepared for or anticipated. I did not manage to get a food shop in after doing a lot of unexpected running around the day before, so, after speaking with my spiritual director on the first morning of the retreat, planned to do that, shower and then begin proper. Except that when I went out, my car had a flat tyre (I thought it wasn’t handling properly the night before – even though it did not look flat when I checked it, miles from any garage) and just as I finished changing the wheel, my neighbour decided that it was a good time to come over and be unpleasant, aggressive and threatening. I may have remained calm, reasonable and rational externally, but it caused no end of disruption to my internal serenity. I thought about the two monks I wrote about last time:
Brother, I dropped that woman at the river. Are you still carrying her?Anthony de Mello, Song of the Bird
And I am so glad that I did write that, because it was my hook through the week when I found my thoughts drifting to the conflict with my neighbour and the spiritual desolation that it brought. It pulled me up short and reminded me of where I really wanted my focus to be, so when I noticed that my thoughts had strayed, I turned my attention to the little icon of Jesus that I was carrying around and placing everywhere I was, and I brought to mind the consolations I have been storing up to help me in times of desolation.
When one enjoys consolation, let him consider how he will conduct himself during the time of ensuing desolation, and store up a supply of strength as defense against that day.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
So, enough talk of that and onto spiritual consolation, I have long understood that God uses everything about where we are and who we are to draw us closer to Himself, to transform us into who He would have us be. Our role in this process is our cooperation. A persistent theme for me in my spiritual journey is integration, to reconcile the fire and water, active and contemplative parts of my personality, or rather, to allow the flow from one to the other without the resistance and negative feelings about that resistance that go along with the change of state. Since writing about Tai chi and Three Kinds of Humility in February, the momentum of this developing theme has increased in my discussions with my own director, and through lockdown, where I found that I really enjoyed working at home. It has been:
…the question that drives us (me) …Trinity, The Matrix
For me, the question is:
How do I live here, in my house with God, as He would have me live?
As it turned out, being in retreat at home, talking to a spiritual director every day, was the perfect opportunity to thoroughly explore that question. Prior to lockdown, I mostly tried to leave work at work, although inevitably, there were times I had to bring work home, there was a clear demarcation by virtue of physical location, between work and home. In my room, and in my prayer spot in particular, I had a clear demarcation between contemplative and active at home. During lockdown, I learned how to work at home, how to structure it to build time in between and to ensure that I do not overwork – I would identify obsessive workaholism as a danger for me. The structure was there, but how do I let go, and move from the active state to a contemplative state and vice versa? to allow the flow from fire to water and back to fire again? It took four days of turmoil of spirits during my retreat at home to let go of the responsibilities at home that were a constant distraction.
It is the story of the two monks. To begin with, I was the scandalised monk, berating myself constantly, even though my desire was to be the other monk, the serene one, who had let go of the activity he had engaged in. Towards the end of the retreat, I had moved to be more like the serene one, although I have a long way to go still. How did it happen? In this retreat, I spent more time being active and “in the world” than I have ever done on retreat; I spent the least time in formal contemplative prayer than I have ever done on retreat, and yet a profound shift happened in my psyche which will reverberate as ripples in a pond throughout my life. It became clear, as observed by my spiritual director, that day to day life was not suspended in this retreat as it might be when I get in my car and drive away to a retreat centre as I normally do, that the invitation was to find God in All Things, as I live at home; more of a joined up, integrated way of being. The focus shifted to the transition. I noticed that, although I was active during my retreat, the activities I was engaging in were things that I just felt like doing: making candles, washing bottles, making aromatherpy blends for the oil burner, painting, even the odd job or bit of housework in the house. And I also went out and about, for dinner, for lunch – I would say solo, but I brought my icon with me and placed it discretely where I could see it. I was not alone.
The realisation gradually dawned: when I put some of these activities on my “to do” list, they felt like chores, and low priority tasks that my active “task girl” always put off as being not important enough compared with the other work I had to do today. They were also low priority for my “contemplative girl”, because they were not being still; contemplative prayer; formal time set aside to be just me and God. I recognised that these were activities that I did not set a definite time period for, they were finished when they were finished or I did not feel like doing them anymore. What was important, I recognised, was the movement within me as I engaged with them: I move from an active state of mind to a contemplative state of mind: flow. In the story of the two monks, it takes two hours for the berated monk to finally respond to the criticism of the other: there is a transition period. During lockdown, I had built into my day, time periods where I was away from “work”, but I struggled in how to use that time, other than to do more of what needed to be done and my mind was constantly racing over my to do list, and how to manage and accomplish the things that were on it. While being active with God on this retreat, I have come to know myself better and to stop berating myself for my apparent resistance to flow. It is not reasonable to expect to slow down from 120mph to 5mph instantly – it takes time. I would not expect it of anyone else, why should I expect it of myself, and then be frustrated that it does not happen like that? I also notice that moving the other way is less of a problem – turning the computer on, filling up my water bottle, checking emails, writing my “to do” list, are all activities that move me gently from contemplative and slow, to active and fast. I might criticise myself for displacement activities prior to getting down to work, but here, now, I am recognising that they are transtion activities.
Transition activities are the missing jigsaw piece that links the two aspects of my personality, that assist the flow from fire to water, and back to fire again. You might be reading, and thinking that it is just mindfulness that I am talking about, and that it might seem a bit obvious. It was not obvious to me until recently. Teresa of Avila describes it as:
Finding God in the pots and pans.Teresa Avila: The Interior Castle
And I would not necessarily disagree with you that it is mindfulness, except to say that I am coming at it from the other direction, in terms of cause and effect. Rather than focusing my awareness on being mindful of the activity I am doing which results in bringing me into that meditative state, I am focusing on the activity I am doing which results in a state of mindfulness and brings me into that meditative state. For flow to happen, activities are well within one’s capabilities so as not to impede or block engagement, and also present with a little bit of challenge to motivate and interest. In trying to live at home with God this week, my understanding of how to live at home with God has deepened, and I put several transition activities on my daily to do list. It is not my intention complete them as tasks that day, merely as a stimulus. When I come to a transtion period in the day, I look at those things on the list and ask myself:
What do I feel like doing right now?
And I choose based on what I feel, maybe even something I have not written down.
Reflecting on my week of retreat at home I am grateful. Is it not generous that He gives us the graces we ask for, even – and maybe even especially – if not in the ways we envisaged when we ask for it? It reminds of the scene with Morgan Freeman as God, in Evan Almighty:
So, here is my challenge to you. What graces have you been asking God for in prayer? And do you notice the opportunities for those graces in your life? If, like me, there is tension between your active and contemplative sides, your Martha and Mary, as it is somethimes described, what are the transition activites for you? those things that facilitate moving from one state of being to another? If you feel like sharing…please post in the comments.
I made my first eight day individually guided retreat in 2001 at Loyola Hall. I have been writing about my journey from that point in the Diary of a Sunflower. It was a lifetime ago, and I feel like a completely different person now compared to who I was then. My retreat this year, which was booked for next week at St. Beunos in North Wales, has been cancelled due to the pandemic, and this will be the first summer since that first retreat that I will not have gone away to spend eight days in silence with God, as I promised all those years ago. It would be easy to be upset about it, but to be honest, I was not surprised by the cancellation and I have accepted it. I am still going to do a retreat this week, at home, starting today, Sunday, and I have found a director who will meet with me online every day.
I have to say, doing spiritual direction online, both giving and receiving, has been one of the wonderful surprises of lockdown and I would never have imagined it to work as well as I have experienced it. So much so, that I am intending to expand into giving spiritual direction online as a matter of course from September, regardless of any lockdown situation or easing, so watch this space!
I have reservations about all the distractions at home of course, and since my daughters live with me, complete silence might be an issue. But, they are prepped and cooperative, and I can go into my room and shut my door. I have room to sit and be, and a prayer corner in there. I have prepared meals in the feezer, and my laundry done, and I have a garden. My computer will go in the drawer, and I will have my artboard on my desk instead.
While the nitty gritty of my preparations are probably uninteresting and do not really need to be shared, the point here is that I am creating a space – physical and psychological – to encounter God, to spend some time in deep with Him and away from all the distractions, and I am creating an environment that is conducive to that process. It is the principle described from the sixth to the ninth additions of the Spiritual Exercises:
I should not think of things that give pleasure and joy, as the glory of heaven, the Resurrection, etc., for if I wish to feel pain, sorrow, and tears for my sins, every consideration promoting joy and happiness will impede it. I should rather keep in mind that I want to be sorry and feel pain. Hence it would be better to call to mind death and judgment.The Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius of Loyola, trans Louis J Puhl
For the same reason I should deprive myself of all light, closing the shutters and doors when I am in my room, except when I need light to say prayers, to read, or to eat.The Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius of Loyola, trans Louis J Puhl
I should not laugh or say anything that would cause laughter.The Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius of Loyola, trans Louis J Puhl
I should restrain my eyes except to look up in receiving or dismissing one with whom I have to speak.The Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius of Loyola, trans Louis J Puhl
Ignatius gives these additions on the context of the First week, when we are contemplating sin and the grace we are asking for is sorrow and shame for our sins. The general idea is to make our enviroment conducive to our prayer.
So, here I am, I have finished my work for a bit and prepared my environment and my mind to spend this time alone with God in these unusual circumstances. I am up to date and taking a pause from my Journey with Julian of Norwich to be open to the process with the director. Am I concerned about distractions? about the world crowding in? Yes I am, and I am already prepared for how I might handle that. It comes in the form of a story in Anthony de Mello’s book, The Song of the Bird, called The Monk and the Woman:
Two Buddhist monks, on their way to the monastery, found an exceedingly beautiful woman at the riverbank. Like them, she wished to cross the river, but the water was too high. So one of the monks lifted her onto his back and carried her across.
His fellow monk was thoroughly scandalised. For two hours he berated him on his negligence on keeping the rule: Had he forgotten he was a monk? How did he dare touch a woman? And worse, carry her across the river? What would people say? Had he not brought their holy religion into disrepute? And so on.
The offending monk patiently listened to the never-ending sermon. Finally, he broke in with:
Brother, I dropped that woman at the river. Are you still carrying her?
So, I will not be despondant that this is not the ideal situation in which to make my retreat: I will not listen to the desolating voices seeking to disrupt this time and I will not hold on to the noise around me, or the distractions, or any interruptions, if my daughters do not quite understand and ask me something, or if I have to answer the door. I am doing all that I can to be available to the One who loves me as if I were the only person in the whole world, and if it is enough for Him, it is enough for me. I am looking forward to it as much as I have any other retreat.
I will see you on the other side. There will be no Journey with Julian or Reflection next week, but the Prayer and the Diary entries are already scheduled, and I will be back to normal after next Sunday.
I have been thinking a lot about my dad recently. Perhaps it is because I have been writing about the aftermath of his death so many years ago in the Diary of a Sunflower, perhaps it is because I have been thinking and writing about Al Anon and the Twelve Steps, or perhaps it is because in the Journey with Julian of Norwich that I am praying with, the Mother God imagery is so prevalent, that it is also stimulating a dwelling on the image of Father God, and subsequently, thoughts of my own dad. It is probably all of these things that bring memories of him to the forefront of my mind. My eldest brother did the eulogy at the requiem mass for my dad and as he was preparing it, he asked each of us, my brothers and sisters, for a memory of my dad that was special to us. Mine was that my dad was always singing: he had an extensive knowledge of Scottish poetry and folk music, and he was always singing out loud. But he did not sing whole songs, just a couple of lines of many songs. So I have in my head the words to many Scottish songs, but not the whole song. It is a voyage of discovery when I hear a familiar tune, a few familiar lines, to then listen to the whole song. Here is an example, where the chorus and the first line were very familiar to me, but I had to find the full song, and even what it was called. This video clip has interjections from the excellent series “Outlander”, and other scenes from Scotland: although, the Outlander scenes are not about a woman losing her baby, or it being taken metaphorically by fairies, which is what the lullaby is about, based on Celtic mythology, I think. Outlander does have a scene in a later episode where a woman leaves her sickly child in the woods for the fairies to take, but that is a whole other story that is not really relevant here.
My children told me once that sometimes they would have a conversation about both parents, and the subject of one of those conversations was what quirky things they would miss if that particular parent died. They told me that they both agreed that what they would miss of me was that, sometimes when we were driving along playing music, a song would come on and I would turn it up and exclaim:
I love this song! This is about a conversation with God. Can’t you just imagine Him saying this to you?
Here is one of those songs, which expresses the joy and delight God takes in loving us, just as we are:
I have written before about how St. Ignatius encourages us to apply our senses to our imaginative contemplations, to use our memory, imagination and reason to help ground our experience in our bodies, to bring God more deeply into our reality. We call it the Application of the Senses, and it is a feature of repetition described in The Spiritual Exercises.
After the preparatory prayer and three preludes, it will be profitable with the aid of the imagination to apply the five senses to the subject matter of the First and Second Contemplation…The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
Since I have written about one of the senses explicitly before, it feels about time to dwell on another, and in particular, the aspect of hearing that is music. Like smelling fragrance, hearing music is very powerfully evocative and is also very much in the language God uses to speak to us. I am in complete agreement with Aldous Huxley here:
After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.Aldous Huxley
I remember clearly the imaginative contemplation where “Jamming with God” became a regular feature in my prayer. The director had suggested I pray with the part of the gospel where John the Baptist points out the Lamb of God to two of his followers:
The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39 He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day’John 1: 37-39a
When I went with Him to the place where He lived, we went to a house, constructed in a golden rectangle, with an arrangement of rooms as a golden spiral within that, and the Father and the Holy Spirit were there. This place appears often as the location of my colloquies in prayer, the conversation with God, as one friend speaks to another. Together, we spent the afternoon playing music, and there was also coffee and triple chocolate cake. But more of the latter another day, when I write about another of the senses. In my imagination, we played this following piece of music together:
In “The Fragrance of God“, I described the Father as the base note (Jasmine), Jesus as the middle note (Lavender) and the Holy Spirit as the top note (Ylang Ylang). I was talking about essential oils then, and I included myself as cedarwood, the combination making a single fragrance that is my relationship with, and my place in God, where nuances can be distinguished amidst the whole. So it is with music. In the piece by Sky, I imagine Jesus playing the piano – I have mentioned that I imagine Him playing piano before – and drums, The Father is on the bass, and the Holy Spirit is playing the acoustic and electric guitar. I am playing the melody on classical guitar, and it is my life, my soul, my story we are describing here. There are no words, the music is expressing it.
When I read Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich some years ago (rather than the present Journey I am doing), I developed an understanding of what I call “God time”. When she talked about the servant falling into the pit, in Revelations of Divine Love, she describes this as the Fall, not just the original Fall of our first parents in the garden of Eden, but also, simultaneously, the fall of Jesus into humanity, and so to bring about our redemption. I may of course, have oversimplified what Julian said, but what is significant in my understanding in what she said is that I realised that God was outside of time: to God, the past, present and the future are happening all at the same time. As the child planting sunflowers, seeing them grow was like watching time lapse photography, but instead of everything moving at speed, only the thing you were looking at moved, everything else stayed as it was – time only affecting what you are looking at is an aspect of God time.
It is like this also listening to music and jammimg with God. When I pick out something to listen to in the piece, a particular voice, I see that player, at that time. There can be more than one aspect of God playing simultaneously, but if I am listening to the drum part, I see Jesus playing drums. I may be aware of the piano playing, but when I switch my attention to the piano, I see Jesus playing piano. I can only be in the present, seeing and hearing the now, where I am, but God is not: God is everything and everywhere, all at the same time, and music is an expression of it.
Perhaps you could close your eyes and listen like this to the next piece of music? I imagine the Father on both the cello and the lute, and Jesus on the hapsichord. The Holy Spirit is on all of the violins. Pick out one voice at a time and focus on it, follow the flow of it, move to the next. Notice the movement within you.
To experience music is one way of applying our senses to allow our soul to hear the voice of God. My invitation to you is to notice exactly how it is that music connects you to God, both in prayer and in your life in general. And maybe, if it is relevant, to offer a grateful prayer.
I posted a while back on The Spiritual Exercises and The Twelve Steps and I notice that it is one of my most consistently read posts. I have been talking a lot about the steps recently with someone who is new to the program, and these two things are making me think more deeply yet about the steps myself, and about how they integrate with The Spiritual Exercises, and my with spirituality and how I find God in all things. I will say at this point that the opinions expressed here are my own and not representative of AA or Al Anon as a whole. The full first step is:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/About-AA/The-12-Steps-of-AA
In Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr draws a connection between addiction and sin, and makes four basic assumptions about addiction:
- We are all addicts.
- “Stinking Thinking” is the universal addiction – we are all addicted to our patterned way of thinking.
- All societies are addicted to themselves and create a deep codependency on them.
- Some form of alternative consciousness is the only freedom from this self and from cultural ties.
Some years ago I went to a talk given by Laurence Freeman organised by the Norwich Christian Meditation Centre, and his talk made a deep impression on me in lots of different ways. One part of it that stays with me was that he explained that the desert fathers saw sin as compulsions, and when I researched Dante’s nine circles of hell for the Redemption mandala that I was creating, I was taken by the fact that the first seven circles equated to the seven deadly sins. These stimuli gradually changed my thinking on sin from being a single event – something that I did, or failed to do – to a pattern of events, a path that I walked on that led me away from the one God lays down for me. In “The Me I want to Be”, John Ortberg talks about our signature sins. He says:
We do not get tempted by that which repulses us….It starts close to home with the passions and desires that God wired into us and tries to pull them a few degrees off course. That subtle deviation is enough to disrupt the flow of the Spirit in our life, so coming to recognise the pattern of sins most tempting to us is one of the most important steps in our spiritual life.The Me I Want to Be. John Ortberg
Our sin takes a consistent and predictable course….the pattern of your sin is related to the pattern of your gifts.The Me I Want to Be. John Ortberg
Put in this context, it might be easy to see how difficult it can be to notice that we are being pulled off course. We can be walking along steadily, in tune with God, and we come to a fork in the path. It might not be obvious immediately which fork is the one God is calling us to since the enemy is a deceiver, we do not always recognise him as the imposter. Ignatius himself warns us in the Spiritual Exercises:
It is characteristic of God and His Angels, when they act upon the soul, to give true happiness and spiritual joy, and to banish all the sadness and disturbances which are caused by the enemy.
It is characteristic of the evil one to fight against such happiness and consolation by proposing fallacious reasonings, subtilties, and continual deceptions.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl
It is a mark of the evil spirit to assume the appearance of an angel of light. He begins by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul, and ends by suggesting his own. For example, he will suggest holy and pious thoughts that are wholly in conformity with the sanctity of the soul. Afterwards, he will endeavor little by little to end by drawing the soul into his hidden snares and evil designs.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl
There is tell of Ignatius spending hours in the night contemplating a glorious vision instead of sleeping, night after night, before recognising that it was making him too tired the following day to carry out the work he knew God was calling him to. By noticing where it was leading, he was able to recognise it for the spiritual desolation that it was. The scene of his vision at the Cardoner river, as depicted in the film Ignacio de Loyola, moves me and strikes me as particularly relevant here, when Jesus says to Ignatius:
Do you think your sins would have any power over me had I not chosen it to be so?
Distilling these thoughts down brings out the essence of “I am powerless”. Our strengths are also our weaknesses, and our weaknesses can be our strength. It is in noticing the movement within us, the discernment of where our thoughts, feelings and actions are coming from and where they are leading to, that is the admission of our powerlessness. St. Paul says:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.Romans 7:15
In the second exercise of the first week of The Spiritual Exercises, we spend time meditating on our own sins. The desire we ask for is:
…a growing and intense sorrow and tears for my sins.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl
and the movement leads to:
…a cry of wonder…How is it that the earth did not open to swallow me up, and create new hells in which I should be tormented forever!The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl
Here, in the cry of wonder, is the movement in the first of the twelve steps. In the twelve step program, we may be talking about alcohol, drugs, food, our codependency on an addict we love…fill in your own blank here. In the Exercises, we have already spent some time, deepening our relationship with the God who we already know loves us from the Principle and Foundation, and we have come to recognise our own pattern, our own signature sin. In the cry of wonder, we are admitting our powerlessness over it, and that in our being pulled along that particular path, it is getting in the way of our living fully, with God, and as the person He created us to be. The First step, like the First week, is about having the scales removed from our eyes and recognising it, and the effect it is having on our lives.
I make it sound simple, but it is not. We stumble along blindly, not always or easily recognising the path we are walking on, or where it leads us, but thinking we are heading in the right direction. Have you ever been lost? You will know what I mean. There is always another fork in the path to lead us away. However, if we do happen to go down the wrong one, there is always another fork encouraging us back onto the path God would have us walk. Every temptation is another opportunity to choose God. The feeling of powerlessness can be in itself a source of fear, or lead to the abdication of responsibility. That might be spiritual desolation and is not the movement I am referring to here. The consolation of powerlessness allows us to let go of the perceived control we do not actually have; to recognise that these things around us are outwith our control and that we do not have to try to control them. We cannot prevent spiritual desolation: we cannot prevent the fork in the path, the temptation to follow our compulsions, our signature sin, and sometimes, we may well take the wrong path. It is who we are. The first step, the cry of wonder, allows us to put that hard headed will power down. We are not in control of it, we cannot manage it, and there is great consolation in admitting it and being able to put away our efforts to try to control something we have no power to control. It is a relief to let it go. To be in this place, to take the first step, to release the cry of wonder, opens a window and allows God’s light into that dark area in our soul. It is the beginnings of a wondrous transformation.
I read the book “Quarantine” by Jim Crace for the second time at the beginning of lockdown. You may remember that lockdown began during Lent, and this book is a story about what happened when Jesus went into the desert to spend His forty days and forty nights, and faced His temptations. It seemed an appropriate read for that time and that situation.
Some years ago I spent some time working with “A Way in the Wilderness”, the first Chapter of the Spirituality Workbook by David Runcorn. He says:
In the desert, driven by the Spirit, we too will enter into tough battles with our allegiences and priorities, our passions and longings and the discerning of evil.Spirituality Workbook, David Runcorn
And he talks about waiting:
Nothing happens fast in the heat of the desert. There is a different understanding of time and it involves a lot of waiting. A world addicted to ever faster ways of doing things finds such a place deeply frustrating – a waste of time in fact.Spirituality Workbook, David Runcorn
I do not like being too hot – I have a very low threshold for even the temperatures we call a heatwave in the United Kingdom, so please believe me when I say that I am not at all attracted to the desert and do not want to spend any time there if I can avoid it. What struck me about Quarantine though, was that the pilgrims sought out caves to spend their time of the desert in, and I had never thought of that on a conscious level before, although rationally, it makes sense. Perhaps it is because one of the first films I ever saw at the cinema as a child was “Lost in the Desert”, and the young boy who was lost, spent most of his time in the open desert, as far as I can remember. This film made a long lasting impression on me. So, while the image of the desert is prevalent as an image of the spiritual journey, the image of the cave, although it is around, is less commonly talked about in my experience.
It is the cave that is capturing my imagination at the moment, partly because we have been in lockdown, or quarantine recently, and partly because of the Mother God imagery that has been coming up in my journey with Julian of Norwich. Let me explain the connection: some years ago, I did an imaginative contemplation with the Healing of Jarius’ daughter. In that prayer, I was the young girl who was sick and dying. In the part of the prayer where, in the outside world, the girl had died, I lay down in my imagination in what was a tomb, a sealed up cave, which had a stone shelf carved into the wall. As I lay there, drifting off to sleep, I became aware that the walls of the cave were warm, and living. I was no longer in a cave, but in a womb. Hence my linking of Mother God and the image of the cave.
So what do these two images have in common that I would put them together in this way? One of the essentials David Runcorn suggests for desert spirituality is stability, and he says:
Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.Spirituality Workbook, David Runcorn
and in “Quarantine”, and indeed with the Desert Fathers of the church, the Cave equated to the Cell, it was a stable place, a place of shelter from predators and the heat of the day and the cold of the night: a place of safety, of seclusion, isolated from the world and its relentless distractions. The same might be said of the womb.
In “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat”, John Ortberg describes the cave as a place of transformation, of growth. Here, hidden away from the world, in a place of relative safety, we undergo changes in our being and we become different, emerging at the end of our quarantine to face the world afresh, where things will never be the same again. It is certainly true of the characters in Jim Crace’s book, including Jesus. And of course, in the womb, changes take place from the implantation of the fertilised egg, to the embryo, foetus and full term baby to emerge at birth. Both the time in the desert caves and gestation are periods where nothing happens fast: it feels slow, and little evidence of change might be seen, but nevertheless, the changes taking place are deep and lasting. There is no going back to how it was before.
But the cave and the womb are also not the same: the cave is a hard, difficult place and dangers may have to be faced in claiming it as your space – wild animals for example, as well as the spiritual battle which ensues. St. Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises while living in the cave at Manresa, and there was a cost to it, a great turmoil of spirits and struggle with spiritual desolation. The film, Ignacio de Loyola, depicts this struggle in a gruesome, physical way and is not a watch for the faint hearted.
Within the novel, for one of the characters, the cave is not respected and she is violated within that space. Jesus Himself might have experienced intrusion from the “devil” of the piece, had He not chosen a cave that was in the extreme of difficult and dangerous to get to. Even then, it did not stop the harassment. The cave, as St. Ignatius experienced, is a place conflict and struggle with evil, as David Runcorn says in his book. The womb on the other hand, is warm and living, and life giving: a place of just being – who can remember their time in the womb? – and of being in another who is greater and more powerful than myself. It is a place of safety and protection like the cave, but unlike the cave, it is nurturing rather than challenging, at least until the term of the pregnancy. When the time comes, the pressure forces the birth, the emergence from the womb in what at times, is a difficult and traumatic experience for the one being born, as monitors of a baby’s heart rate during labour will testify.
It is the emergence from quarantine that is playing on my mind. In the relative safety of lockdown, I have changed and grown. There is a profound recognition of what I was becoming aware of before, and there is a rising pressure for a change, but it is for a change who’s time has not yet come. There is a sense of being thrust into the world again, before I am quite ready, a premature birth if you like. My rational brain, on being back in school last week, is supportive of the measures my school is taking to reduce the risk of transmission of coronavirus and have a full return to school in September – it is what staff were preparing the physical environment for last week. My reptile brain is not happy; my reptile brain is so unhappy that it is telling me to run away as fast as I can. And true to the discernment process, I need to sit with God and allow His light to shine upon this anxious fear that is presenting itself. On the one hand, the threat is real. The virus has not been eliminated, and so many people in close contact increases the risk of further transmission. It is not unreasonable to be cautious, and that fear at the level of an uncomfortable reptile brain is a valid response to the situation which will foster respect and attention to due protocols, for the safety of everyone. What may or may not be the other hand are the changes that need to be made to the day to day working procedures – teachers moving between classes with our own trolleys, rather than the students for example. What bothers me the most though, is that I will not be able to sit down next to a student when they are stuck, to give them those minutes of close, one to one or small group attention, that will make all the difference to their learning and to their wellbeing. How do I do that with social distancing? When I think about returning to the classroom, it is this thought that is plaguing me. It is this type of interaction that is the most valuable, not that it is the only one, and I am pondering strategies to achieve it within the context of social distancing.
On being out and about, there is a strange mix of more like it used to be, and not quite how it used to be. It does not feel like a new normal. It feels a bit like stumbling blindly out of the darkness, and our eyes have not yet adjusted to the light. Perhaps we are emerging too soon, too quickly. Like childbirth, the pressure is compelling us out and there is no resisting it. Perhaps our cave has become our womb, and is too comfortable; that we have grown so much that it is time and only the discomfort that will force us out to live in the world as required, rather than hide away safe. Perhaps we are rushing out of our caves, ready to take on the world because it is time, and we learned what was needed; perhaps we are rushing out of our caves because the darkness, loneliness and difficulty of it were too much for us to bear and to breathe in the daylight and feel the sun on our skin is a relief, in spite of the invisible dangers.
In “Quarantine” there was a sense of it being the right time when the pilgrims emerged from their caves and made their way back to the world renewed: there was a sense of it being done. I do not feel that way quite yet. I am looking out of my cave with a little trepidation, sticking my toe out to see what will happen, and then maybe standing just outside the mouth of my cave for a short time. I am grateful for the school summer holidays, which have given me more time to prepare, more time to emerge slowly and to be ready to leave. In the meantime, I am enjoying this refuge, this space and time and the challenges it presents. God is with me in this place, working with me, preparing me. My cave is a womb, and I am not yet at full term. Sure, there are increasingly strong pangs, Braxton Hicks if you like, and perhaps last week even a false labour. We are nearing the due date, but we are not there yet.
Featured image is of an illustration by Francisco Miranda from Good Goats by Dennis Linn, Shiela Frabricant Linn, Matthew Linn.
I have been challenged in my prayer recently, with the 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, together with the scripture from Pray As You Go this week (Thursday 9 July), to contemplate the image of God as Mother, rather than as Father. I do not have any rational objection to the idea, quite the contrary: any time I have encountered the image I have been in favour of it. I just have some trouble getting into it. It might be argued that my upbringing has conditioned me to view God as male, with Father as the predominant image. Certainly, whenever I appear as a child in my imaginative contemplation, the image of God as Father is around at times, but even more so there is the sense of God being as a big brother, or cousin, or grown up friend, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, certainly as a friends, regardless of what age I am in the particular prayer. I am also very much at home with the imagery from the Song of Songs, where God appears as the lover of the soul and given my heterosexuality, it is quite natural for me to experience God as male in that context. There may also be a contributing factor that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is held up as the mother image in the church I belong to, and the patriarchal representation of her womanhood and motherhood, the motherhood of sons rather than daughters, is problematic for me. So while I do not object to Mother imagery of God in a purely rational sense, it is not an image that has penetrated very deeply into my pysche. Until now, when I find myself pondering it in prayer.
Loving, giving, nurturing, protecting – all of these attributes can be given to fathers as well as mothers. I am not well versed in gender studies; I am aware of the nature versus nurture arguments, predominantly from my scientific background, and while I do not want to reduce the argument purely to reproductive biology, I think that there is a key to unlocking my understanding and engagement with the image of God as Mother in the science of human reproduction and my role as a woman within that.
If I were to sum up the essence of the difference between nurturing fatherhood and motherhood, it would be visceral, literally in the blood and guts and gore of motherhood. My purpose in exploring this aspect of the image is not to exclude everything else about motherhood, or to deny everything else as motherhood if it is without the actual childbirth. That would be to imply that step mums and adoptive mums, and those who suffer the desire of the screaming womb and bear the pain of not being able to have children of their own are not real mothers. I do not stand there, and I do not think that, nor would I say it, or even have it construed from my words. I would never dream of distributing hurt from my words in that way, and would be sincerely regretful if I did. My own experience of screaming womb, of not being pregnant when I wanted to be is very brief, and I can and did only imagine living with it all my life. I am sure the sorrow and pain I imagined does not even scratch the surface of the experienced anguish. Scripture contains its own stories of women who understand this pain: Sarah, Rachel, Elizabeth, to name a few. And as for the pregnancy that ends in miscarriage, I know this pain and it is impossible to forget. My own mum still grieves and mentions those little ones she lost, and she is ninety. I get where she is coming from. I explore the images of pregnancy, childbirth and of nursing a child here, as a subset of everything else, to draw out the more from using the image of Mother specifically, as opposed to Father, or Parent. Julian says:
We know that all our mothers bear us for pain and for death….but our true Mother Jesus…alone bears us for joy and for endless life, blessed may He be. So He carries us within Him in love and travail, until the full time when He wanted to suffer the sharpest thorns and cruel pains…40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, Edited Lisa E. Dahill
and the reading that has been put with that day on the 40 Day Journey says:
…one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.John 19:34
To be carried within, to bear, to suffer cruel pains and a sudden flow of blood and water – these are images associated with childbirth, and while we all have been born, to literally bear a child is the experience of biological mothers, of pregnancy and childbirth. In my own experience of labour, I remember a moment, when I was so exhausted, and the pain of the contractions were so excruciating that I just wanted it to stop, and the only price I was not prepared to pay for that was harm to my yet unborn baby. I would have sold my granny, and risked myself, just to make it stop.
In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius encourages us to bring our prayer experience into the body through The Application of the Senses and he describes the process at the beginning of the contemplations in the Second week, one of which is the nativity itself. To use the memory and the imagination in our prayer grounds our prayer in our reality, it makes God corporeal. Bringing my experience of childbirth into my prayer this week has deepened my understanding of this image of God as Mother, but it is not just childbirth itself. In the reading from Hosea used in Pray As You Go, it says:
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love….
…and I bent down to feed them.Hosea 11: 1-4, 8-9
The use of the word “cord” as a “tie”, again, is reminiscent of pregnancy and childbirth by way of the umbilical cord, but the bending down to feed extends the image to that of suckling a child. Again, it is not my intention to dismiss or disparage bottle feeding in any way, there are numerous positives and areas of overlap with breast feeding, and anyone can do it, meaning that parents who are not biological mothers are included in nourishing and nurturing children. As with the image of pregnancy and childbirth itself, I am looking for the more in the image of God as mother, and I am drawing and reflecting on my own experience as a biological mother. As one who breast fed and has experience of bottle feeding, I feel qualified to comment on the worst kept secret of breast feeding mothers. It is this: once you get past the stress and the pain of latching on and the cracked and sore nipples, breast feeding your baby is blissful. I remember reading a long time ago something about a biological positive feedback loop and the reality is, it is blissful when it goes right, for both the mother and child. You experience your replete child calm and quieted, as the soul is described in Psalm 131:
But I have calmed and quietened myself,Psalm 131: 2
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
And the feeling is reciprocated in the mother who has fed her child. The tension of full breasts is soothed and the mother relaxed. There is a warm bond of intimacy and contentment between the mother and her baby. It is a feeling of everything being right with the world. In the first months of the baby’s life, she is completely dependant on this source of nourishment and trusting of the source. The mother who breast feeds is, for a short time, the absolute centre of that child’s world, without reservation. That might seem like a huge responsibility, but there is a ferocious strength that comes with it. I remember feeling that I could tear apart a lion with my bare hands should it so much as look at my child as if she were dinner. We were at the zoo at the time, let me just place that image in its proper context.
What am I left with? When we are as dependent on God as a baby on the mother who feeds her; when our world revolves around Him in absolute, unquestioning trust; when we drink fully of the nourishment and protection He gives freely and generously, we become blissed out in Him. My contemplations on the Motherhood of God has distilled into this one idea. In spite of all the suffering and gore that goes creation:
God is blissed out by our bliss in Him.
At the moment it is a shocking and awesome idea that is located in my rational, thinking brain. It has yet to penetrate more deeply, to meet with the same knowledge in the heart of my soul. And Julian herself has said:
And when He had finished, and had so borne us for bliss, still all this could not satisfy His wonderful love…40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, Edited Lisa E. Dahill
It is not enough, enough and more than enough, all at the same time. I will contemplate the image of Mother God some more.