Ask a Spiritual Director.

I am planning a feature in future posts, to “interview” some spiritual directors I know, and possibly to feature contributions from them by way of blog posts. This is an idea in its infancy, and to be developed. As a first step, my request is of you to put forward questions you would be interested in asking a spiritual director. My intention is to offer the directors twenty questions for them to choose ten to answer for the feature. So, as an example, my question might be (and indeed, has been):

When people ask you “What does a spiritual director do?”, how do you respond?

I will interview myself first to try it out and because I wouldn’t ask anyone to do what I am not willing to do myself. So, if you have a question you are curious about regarding spiritual direction, or prayer, or God in All Things, or Spirituality…and so on, please put it into the comments and I will begin to put together my questionnaire, and my own repsonses. I look forward to hearing from you, and to pondering your questions.

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich: Day 29

Having had an unplanned rest from blogging to allow me to focus on getting school ready for a complete return in September, here I am again, carrying on with my journey with Julian and picking up my usual routine once more.

The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with Himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life; and with all the sweet sacraments He sustains us most mercifully and graciously…[And He says]: All the health and life of the sacraments, all the power and the grace of my Word, all the goodness which is ordained in the Holy Church for you, I am He…The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into His blessed breast through His sweet open side, and show us there a part of the Godhead and of the joys of heaven, with inner ceratinty of endless bliss. And that He revealed [in saying]: “See how I love you!” This fair lovely word “mother” is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of Him and to Him who is the true Mother of life and of all things.

Reading: 1 Peter 2:2

Psalm 34: 8

Mother God

Featured image is of an illustration by Francisco Miranda from Good Goats by Dennis Linn, Shiela Frabricant Linn, Matthew Linn.

Mother God 1: Reading of this post.

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.

The Great Mother: Jen Delyth
Mother God 2: Reading of this post.

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,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.

Psalm 131: 2

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.

Sheela-na-gig, Jen Delyth
Mother God 3: Reading of this post.

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.

Diary of a Sunflower: 27 January, year 3

The diary entries are extracts from my spiritual journey, going back about twenty years.

No, I tell you this because I was told to tell it – by what you might call ‘ a higher authority’ – and truth is, the thought of how to tell it has taxed me for so many years.

Miss Garnet’s Angel, Sally Vickers

I felt happy today; energetic, without that tiredness I’ve had since my dad died. 

Sunflower made this entry in the morning. Later on the same day she was knocked back when she was told that a young man she knew at work had committed suicide the previous day. She focused on work and exercise and gradually began to pick up. She did not write about God or her prayers during this time. 

Praying with Images: God’s Abundance

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

Here, as stated before, it is my intention to draw from the forthcoming Sunday liturgy and to offer a guided prayer on one of the pieces of scripture in the same way that we have been doing in Exploring Personal Prayer. I do not intend to offer any reflections on the scripture. My suggestion is that you follow the Ignatian structure: preparation for prayer by reading the scripture, going to your prayer place and doing the prayer itself, and then moving away to another place and doing a review of the prayer. Keeping some sort of prayer journal is good practice. Note any moments of consolation in the prayer, where you felt drawn more deeply into God, and moments of desolation, where prayer was disturbed, where you were distracted and pulled further away from God: feelings of attraction and repulsion should be noted. These points may provide areas for repetition of the prayer. Also, if you have a spiritual director or prayer partner, someone who can listen with an ear to where God is in this, it may be worth sharing your prayer with them. I am following the processes outline in the prayer cards above. You may print these onto A6 or A4 card to have in your prayer space to help you become accustomed to this way of praying, remembering it is more of a flow than a rigid structure.  

Psalm 65:10-13

10 You water its furrows abundantly,
    settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
    and blessing its growth.
11 You crown the year with your bounty;
    your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
12 The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
    the hills gird themselves with joy,
13 the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
    the valleys deck themselves with grain,
    they shout and sing together for joy.

Praying with Images, God’s Abundance: guided prayer

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

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich: Day 28

Jesus Christ, who opposes good to evil is our true Mother. We have our being from Him, where the foundation of motherhood begins….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…and at the last He died. And when He had finished, and had so borne us for bliss, still all this could not satisfy His wonderful love…To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom and knowledge, and this is God. For though it may be that our bodily bringing to birth is only little, humble and simple in comparison with our spiritual bringing to birth, still it is He who does it in the creatures by whom it is done…And in our spiritual bringing to birth He uses more tenderness, without any comparison, in protecting us…And from this sweet and gentle operation He will neither cease or desist, until all His beloved children are born and brought to birth.

Reading: John 19: 33-34

Psalm 71:6

Labyrinth Garden

Labyrinth Garden 1: Reading of this post.

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

Labyrinth Garden 2: Reading of this post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was always meant to be a conversation between friends.

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

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

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

Wild, wonderful and perfectly in process.

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

Diary of a Sunflower: 23 January year 3.

The diary entries are extracts from my spiritual journey, going back about twenty years.

No, I tell you this because I was told to tell it – by what you might call ‘ a higher authority’ – and truth is, the thought of how to tell it has taxed me for so many years.

Miss Garnet’s Angel, Sally Vickers

I don’t do enough meditating. I need to re-establish the habit. I think I will start tomorrow and resolve to meditate once a week to begin with. I need to build the frequency later, but that is a challenge to start with. 

Imaginative Contemplation: Matthew 11: 25-30

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

Here, as stated before, it is my intention to draw from the forthcoming Sunday liturgy and to offer a guided prayer on one of the pieces of scripture in the same way that we have been doing in Exploring Personal Prayer. I do not intend to offer any reflections on the scripture. My suggestion is that you follow the Ignatian structure: preparation for prayer by reading the scripture, going to your prayer place and doing the prayer itself, and then moving away to another place and doing a review of the prayer. Keeping some sort of prayer journal is good practice. Note any moments of consolation in the prayer, where you felt drawn more deeply into God, and moments of desolation, where prayer was disturbed, where you were distracted and pulled further away from God: feelings of attraction and repulsion should be noted. These points may provide areas for repetition of the prayer. Also, if you have a spiritual director or prayer partner, someone who can listen with an ear to where God is in this, it may be worth sharing your prayer with them. I am following the processes outline in the prayer cards above. You may print these onto A6 or A4 card to have in your prayer space to help you become accustomed to this way of praying, remembering it is more of a flow than a rigid structure.  

Jesus Thanks His Father

25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank[a] you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.[b] 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Imaginative Contemplation: Matthew 11: 25-30. Guided prayer

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

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich: Day 27.

I’ve managed to catch up on my journey again, and so I carry on.

I contemplated the work of all the blessed Trinity, in which contemplation I saw and understood these three properties; the property of the fatherhood, and the property of the motherhood and the property of the Lordship in one God…As to the first I saw and understood that the high might of the Trinity is our Father, and the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, and the great love of the Trinity is our Lord; and all these we have in nature and in our substantial creation…As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother, and He revealed that in everything…I understand three ways of contemplating motherhood in God. The first is the foundation of our nature’s creation; the second is His taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins; the third is the motherhood at work. And in that, by the same grace, everything is penetrated, in length and in breadth, in height and in depth without end; and it is all one love.

Reading: Ephesians 3: 18-19

Psalm 131:1-2