Prayer Pot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laurence Freeman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 43:1

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

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

St. Patrick’s Breastplate

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

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

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

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

Diary of a Sunflower: 23 August, year 2.

            I tried to meditate on the Annunciation this morning (Luke 1: 26-38) but I couldn’t get with it. Perhaps I put up barriers before I even went in. I find the way Mary has been portrayed  really hard to take. She is held up as the “perfect woman” and since there is no way the rest of us are going to measure up, we are set to fail before we even start. I don’t even like her ( the her in the common images that is). She is so holy and untouchable, such a martyr, and seemingly so pliable that she doesn’t have a mind of her own. I find it difficult to respect even her passive obedience when she is being held up as an unrealistic example to follow, and the subsequent doormat is then there to be abused by men? (those with more power) and who would take it all and be holy and sanctimonious about it. Playing the martyr. We do not make ourselves martyrs. Martyrdom is the consequence of standing up, against the grain, for what you know to be right, even if you can’t explain it rationally. I don’t like the images of Mary because, from the story on Anger by Kate Saunders in “The Seven Deadly Sins”:

They all think they have a right to that.

I think she is a misogynist’s  woman and to that end, I find her unreal and difficult to accept. I much prefer the woman in the picture I have in my bedroom at home.

            JC and I talked a little about it though. He asked me what I would have said, apart from telling Gabriel to:

Shut up and get a life!

I’d probably say:

I’ll think about it.

Would He ask me again? Probably; nag me and shout at me like He usually does. I asked Him:

What if she had said no?

I would have asked someone else to do it. Jesus would have been born anyway.

But what about Mary?

She would have missed the opportunity to do something amazing. She might never have known this, or she may always have regretted it. But that’s the likely outcome of saying no – you miss the chance of doing something amazing.

            That’s why being open to God is important. Even though I may be reluctant sometimes, there is the blank cheque I gave him a while ago. He’s still claiming on that.

            I also said I might be more open to Gabriel if he was a woman, to which Jesus replied:

Who said Gabriel was a man anyway?

I think JC did last year when we were talking about football.

            Sometimes I do act immediately, on the prodding of my subconscious.

Lectio Divina: Psalm 51

First Sunday of Lent, 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 51:3-4,5-6,12-13,17

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence

and blameless when you pass judgement.

Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;[a]
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing[a] spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    and sinners will return to you.

17 The sacrifice acceptable to God[a] is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Lectio Divina Psalm 51: Guided prayer.

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

A beautiful musical version of this psalm by Sons of Korah.
Perhaps one to have stuck in your head to keep this prayer with you.

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich: Day 12

What I am up to here.

And with the beholding of [Jesus’ passion]…I did not see sin, for I believe that it has no kind of substance, no share in being, nor can it be recognised except by the pain caused by it. And it seems to me that this pain is something for a time, for it purges and makes us know ourselves and ask for mercy; for the Passion of our Lord is comfort to us against all this…And because of the tender love which our good Lord has for all who will be saved, He comforts readily and sweetly, meaning this: It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain, but all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. These words were revealed most tenderly. showing no kind of blame to me, or to anyone who will be saved. So I saw how Christ has compassion on us because of sin.

Reading: Matthew 11:28-30

Psalm 65:4-5

The Paradigm Shift

The Paradigm Shift 1 : Reading of this post

…formed the pattern and the script for your remaining days.

Robin Laing, The Summer of ’46
The Paradigm Shift 2 : Reading of this post

Having left my mp3 player at work this week, I have resorted to playing CD’s in the car, old favourites I have not listened to for a while. “Walking in Time” by Robin Laing is one of those, especially “The Summer of ’46” and “When Two Hearts Combine”. These two songs have been haunting me all week. One of the exercises we were asked to do during my formation as a spiritual director was to write a life psalm. We were invited to draw on music, poetry, scripture – anything that had had an impact on our lives. There are elements of both of these songs in mine.

Life Psalm

I belong to my God and His desire is for me

To open up to Him so that He may gaze upon me.

I met Him in the mountains and lochs,

His footprints on the grass and His mist upon my skin.

I met Him in the silence and the secret places.

I called Him with His sign.

I belong to my God and His desire is for me

To open up to Him so that He may gaze upon me.

But I was distracted and looked away.

I don’t want to talk about it because every

Day without Him hurt just a little bit more

And I had probably been crying forever.

I belong to my God and His desire is for me

To open up to Him so that He may gaze upon me.

He met me in the quiet of the morning.

He took my hand and danced with me,

Leaving only the memory.

He told me this will heal

Because Love is here, and Love is real.

I belong to my Love and His desire is for me

To open up to Him so that He may gaze upon me.

How beautiful is my Love; how amazing.

I yearn for my Love; to be only His.

He forms the pattern and the script of my days.

His desires are mine; my desires are His.

It is given. He is mine, I am His.

I belong to my Love and His desire is for me

To open up to Him so that He may gaze upon me.

There are moments of conversion in our life of faith, and there is the paradigm shift. A paradigm shift is when something that happens changes our whole way of looking at the world: it is not a little change of opinion, mind or heart, it is more fundamental than any of those, it is a change of perspective. We cannot live the way we did before when it happens. And we do not necessarily know how to live with the change within us. It may take some time to adjust.

I remember clearly the first time I experienced such a thing. I was on retreat, and I was overwhelmed by God. I had considered infinity before in wonder; I had lain on the grass and looked at the sky, both in the day time and at night and contemplated how long the sky went on for, and where did it end; I had stood at the edge of the sea and pondered its depth, its violence and its apparent lack of borders, but I had never experienced this drop in an ocean that was a drop in a bigger ocean that was a drop in a bigger ocean; knowing that what I was sensing barely even scratched the surface of what I knew was there. I was a barnacle on a ship, clinging to the surface that was everything other than the water buffeting against me; it was everything to me, my whole world, my refuge, and it had no beginning and no ending, and had always been there, and always would be there, of that, I was certain. And the experience was exhausting: I slept a lot for the next three days. Big, big, big God. All I could do was ask:

How do I live with this?

So, how did I live with it? Before this point I had been a go to mass on Sunday, cradle Catholic, getting involved in doing things, being on committees, being active, playing in the music group – all good stuff, and by the way, I really ought to pray every day. Some days I even did. But my perspective on setting aside time for formal prayer shifted from the first kind of humility to the second and I found myself acting on that deeper desire to pray by getting up earlier to make sure I had time for morning prayer; only ten minutes to begin with, but then twenty, thirty and more, forty five minutes or a full hour when I do not have to balance it with getting to work, or when I am taking some extra time in the evening. It was like rolling a snowball down a hill, once it started, it grew and took on a momentum of its own; the desire being fulfilled and augmented simultaneously.

My candle holder.
The Paradigm Shift 3 : Reading of this post

Of course, the paradigm shift is not pain free, it usually comes with a cost. I have heard it said that if you hear the same thing said about yourself from three independent sources, then it is probably true. So, drawing from that, here are three independent sources attesting to the fact that the paradigm shift is not pain free.

He fumbles at your spirit
As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on;
He stuns you by degrees,

Prepares your brittle substance
For the ethereal blow,
By fainter hammers, further heard,
Then nearer, then so slow

Your breath has time to straighten,
Your brain to bubble cool, —
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul.


Emily Dickinson

For were the soul not strengthened by its own endeavours, it would be unable to withstand the pain that the awareness of its own existence brings.

The Cloud of Unknowing
Becoming, Buffy The Vampire Slayer
The Paradigm Shift 4 : Reading of this post

Nothing is the same afterwards, everything has changed. Life as it was before seems superficial and unsatisfactory, without really being able to explain how or why. There is the awareness that something must change: not a task list of things to do. It is knowing that the path that was visible before is not the one to stay on, and that the new path, which is not visible, has only one stepping stone from here – the next one, and trusting enough to step onto it and take the next step, in the hope that the next stone is in place before your foot makes contact with the ground. The path is laid down as we walk it.

Neither was this first time the last paradigm shift: each one brought me deeper into God, and perpetuated a change which enhanced the process: I sought a spiritual director to support me, I started drawing and painting mandalas – compulsively to begin with – to try to express my experience of prayer: I gradually became an artist. My friend the art teacher is smiling right now because I dared to say that. Finally, in the “Song of Songs” retreat the year before I wrote my life psalm and made The Spiritual Exercises, there was a complete and total surrender, leading to an election which was confirmed in the process of doing The Exercises. I had been of the opinion that I was already surrendered to God – I had handed Him a blank cheque which I had signed, had I not? But when you still reserve the right to negotiate the price, you are not really surrendered. There is a movement from:

How much? Why do you need all of that? Well, okay, I suppose so.

to an unhesitant yes.

It is given.

It is what Ignatius means by The Suscipe Prayer:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess.

Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will.

Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
Trebuchet, Urquhart Castle
The Paradigm Shift 5 : Reading of this post

It is finally, after a lot of difficult and hard work digging, holding the pearl of great price in your hands, the immortal diamond, a great gift He has given you, your free will, your self: it is holding all of this in your hand, considering Him for a moment, and with the ultimate act of free will, you hand it as a gift back to Him, for Him to do with as He chooses. No more negotiating, only discerning what is His desire, and then following through with it. I say that like discernment is easy, it is not, and it is where the struggle remains but once it is understood that it is God who says:

I desire it.

there is no struggle, even if His desire is for Morris Dancing! It is a once and for all, and an everyday surrender. All paradigm shifts in our spiritual journey are steps to this one. We can always keep hold of our free will, it is ours to keep or to give, once and for all, every day: it is not something that He will take from us by force or coercion, it is a gift already given by Him. Yet it is the sweetest, most blissful liberation to gift it back to Him, no matter what it costs. Doing so does indeed form the pattern and the script of your remaining days.

Robin Laing: When Two Hearts Combine

Diary of a Sunflower: 22 August, year 2

Taking a bit of time to get into it. In my first meditation JC wasn’t there; the second time He was though. We talked a lot about my marriage break up and the question of annulment was raised again. Leaving that one here. I feel quite tired. I’m not sure about my companion. Perhaps he’s too nice, or a bit syrupy in the religious dimension. I don’t know. He’s given me the call of Samuel to meditate on – seems like a good place to start. 

I’m getting into this now. I managed to sit for fifty minutes this time – meditating on the call of Samuel. 

I went to the well to start with, but there was no-one there. I threw a stone down the well and called:  

Hello…

but there was no answer. I lay on the seat and looked at the sky through the trees. I was feeling a bit agitated but I tried to go to sleep like Samuel in the reading. The next thing I was sleeping on one of the beds at the Samaritan centre (the one with the window and the desk in it) and the phone was ringing. When I answered it, it was silent. This happened twice more, but on the third call, instead of just saying 

Samaritans, can I help you?

I then added:

I am here, I’m listening.

JC came into the room then. He told me it’s about being there – that’s the important thing. I know this. No matter what happens in the course of a duty, it’s important to be there. I saved a life the other night. The caller, when he first came on the phone, intended to take his life that night. By the time he went, he wasn’t going to – at least, not that night. He realised that he had lots of stuff to sort out – reasons to stay alive another day – and I was there to help him through that crisis.

When I went round to see English Rose, there was nothing I was going to say or do that could take her pain away, or to bring her husband back, but being there was important. It gave her the space and an opportunity to talk about him, and to remember him and some of the good times that they had had. JC also pointed out that it was possible for two spirits to entwine, it just hadn’t happened to me.

He also asked me why it always took me so long to answer the call, why He practically has to shout at me before I would respond. I said it was because I needed to exert my own free will. Even if my doing something is inevitable, I still had to feel that I had “chosen” this, even if reluctantly so: resistance may be futile but to a certain extent, necessary. Commitment is a big thing. Being here is what is important now. So much of my life is focused and driven – and even last year I made a lot of progress before I could just be. He said: 

You should climb some trees, sing, look at the sky through the branches. Be a child again, be open and just enjoy being here. There is no need to resolve anything or move on. Just stay here for a while with me.

Sounds like a good plan. I did picture spirits entwining and thought perhaps it’s what me and Sedation were beginning to do. Perhaps that is not what is actually happening, merely my desire for it; but perhaps it is what is happening. No wonder He says:

Wait and see.

Praying with Images: 1 Corinthians 3

Seventh 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.  

Emergence. Jen Delyth

1 Corinthians 3:16-23

16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?[a] 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

18 Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,

‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’,

20 and again,

‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
    that they are futile.’

21 So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Praying with Images: 1 Corinthians 3: Guided Prayer

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

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich: Day 11

What I am up to here.

Then our good Lord put a question to me: Are you well satisfied that I suffered for you? I said: Yes, good Lord, all my thanks to you…Then Jesus our good Lord said: If you are satisfied, I am satisfied. It is a joy, a bliss, an endless delight to my that ever I suffered my Passion for you; and if I could suffer more, I would suffer more…For although the sweet humanity of Christ could suffer only once, His goodness can never cease offering it…The love which made Him suffer it surpasses all his sufferings, as much as heaven is above earth.

Reading: John 13:1b

Psalm 103:1a, 4-5

Positive Penance

Positive Penance 1: Reading of the post.

Here I would like to describe the context and ideas I presented at the retreat day yesterday on Positive Penance: Preparation for Lent.

It occurred to me that many of us have in the past, and perhaps still do, view penance as being a self inflicted punishment for sins committed, a bit like Dobby, before he became a free elf: I would call him a penitent elf:

Positive Penance 2: Reading of the post.

I have felt very dissatisfied with this underlying perspective of penance when I heard it in church, or listening to people. This albeit subconscious understanding of it seemed to me to lead to anger, resentment or self loathing and not to spiritual consolation. Dobby is not expressing sorrow and a heartfelt desire to do and be more in the scene above. When I was studying the Spiritual Exercises, it was skimmed over uncomfortably and pointed out that it was of the time. Again, it left me feeling frustrated and with a sense of there being so much more to it than all of this. So, I chose to study the Tenth Addition of the Exercises on Penance and to write my theory paper in the second year of my course on what I had learned. The retreat I led yesterday is the fruit of that work.

The Catholic Church gives the reasons for making Lenten observances in the Catechism:

…in contrast to those who had once provoked God during forty years in the desert, Christ reveals Himself as God’s servant, totally obedient to the Divine will.

Catechism of the Catholic  Church; (539)

By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.

Catechism of the Catholic Church; (540)

And has drawn the traditional Lenten practices of fasting, alms-giving and prayer from scripture:

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16 for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 And the world and its desire[a] are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

1 John 2:15-17

Where fasting is a means to acting against the desire of the flesh; alms-giving a means to act again the desire of the eyes, and prayer to act against the pride in riches. To act against spiritual desolation is the principle of “agere contra”, which is also described in the Spiritual Exercises, and there is no contradiction with what I am presenting: I am looking for the more in it.

Ignatius describes three powers of the soul that we employ in our spiritual lives: the first memory and imagination together, the second the understanding and thirdly, the will, where the latter is the heart, rather than our modern day interpretation of mind over matter. Have you ever felt:

I know what I should do here, but I just don’t have the heart to do it.

I believe that to be the difference, and meaning of the will in this context, what it is that is in the heart to do, even if it does not seem to make much sense.

On the imagination, I have frequently heard it questioned, or where other people have questioned what another means when they talk about God speaking to them. The conversation between the inquisitor and Joan of Arc sums it up for me:

“You say God speaks to you, but it’s only your imagination.” These are the words spoken by the inquisitor to Joan of Arc during her trial for heresy.

“How else would God speak to me, if not through my imagination?” Joan replied.

and of course, there is the idea Ignatius describes in the Three Kinds of Humility, which I wrote about before.

Ignatius gives reasons for doing penance:

The principal reason for performing exterior penance is to secure three effects:

(i) To make satisfaction for past sins;

(ii) To overcome oneself, that is, to make our sensual nature obey reason, and to bring all of our lower faculties into greater subjection to the higher;

(iii) To obtain some grace or gift that one earnestly desires. Thus it may be that one wants a deep sorrow for sin, or tears, either because of his sins or because of the pains and sufferings of Christ our Lord; or he may want the solution of some doubt that is in his mind

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

In another translation of The Spiritual Exercises, by Michael Ivens, he uses the word reparation, rather than satisfaction. The sense of this latter word is more, because it goes beyond punishment, beyond evening the score, to making it right. I gave an example from my own experience.

I can be a bit work obsessed and years ago I was marking some coursework on a Sunday afternoon – I shiver in horror at the thought of doing that now – and my younger child had an invitation to a birthday party. I was trying to get the work finished by three thirty to get her to the party on time at four. She came through several times asking if it was time to go yet; she must have been around six or seven. I finished marking the last piece at three thirty and asked her to bring the invitation with the address on it and we would go, but to my horror and grief I saw that the party finished at four, not started. We would get there in time for the end. I was immediately distraught as the neglect I had shown my own child overwhelmed me; it broke my heart and I started to cry. It was a third power of the soul response. I told her I was sorry, I asked her to forgive me and I offered her to choose something else we could do instead. So we went out for pizza. My penance showed her the sincerity of my remorse and the intensity of my desire to make it right with her, to repair the damage I had done to our relationship with my negligence. I could have been angry and resentful that she had inconvenienced me with a party invitation when I had so much work to do; I could have beaten myself up with self loathing for being a bad mother; but to express my deep and sincere sorrow, to ask for forgiveness and to do what was in my power to do to repair the situation, was the more loving response. And with her generosity of heart, she forgave me and allowed me to make it right with her, to the extent that she had forgotten all about it until I reminded her recently when I was preparing for this retreat.

Door to Capely Coed, St Beunos.
Positive Penance 3: Reading of the post.

On the second reason Ignatius gives, Gerard W. Hughes sums it up beautifully in God in All Things:

Self denial is life giving and a doorway to freedom when it is understood in terms of denying our superficial desires the right to dominate our lives and determine our actions. The self that we are asked to deny is, in fact, the false self, the self of superficial desires which has the power to frustrate and dominate our true self, which is drawing us into the life and love of God. This true self must never be denied.

Gerard W. Hughes, God in All Things

The first sentence of this quote was a complete revelation to me when I first read it. It caused a paradigm shift in my understanding and experience of lent, and is the basis of my dissatisfaction thereafter, with the perspectives I described at the beginning. In The Immortal Diamond, Richard Rohr gives an insight into what is meant by the false and true self:

Positive Penance 4: Reading of the post.

I perceive the movement of penance as a deconstruction of the false self, and a reconstruction of the true self, when we focus our attention on God. I visualise it in the artistic composition of The Ecstasy of St. Francis, a great penitent of the third order of humility, by Caravaggio, by all accounts, a renowned sinner. The downward movement represents the deconstruction of the false self, and the upward movement, the reconstruction, focused on God, that draws us nearer to our true self.

The Ecstasy of St. Francis, Caravaggio
Positive Penance 5: Reading of the post.

The third reason Ignatius gives for doing penance is not to be understood as a bargaining with God, but more as a pleading; it is the means of expressing the sincerity, depth and intensity of our desire for the grace for which we are asking. In the party incident with my youngest, my tears and offer of a treat of her choosing, were expressing the profundity of my remorse, and my sincerity and the depth of my desire for her forgiveness, and to make the relationship right again.

From the end of the presentation at this point, retreatants were invited to do the One Man and His Dog reflective exercise. I have made the worksheet from an exercise described by Gerard W. Hughes in God in All Things. The shepherd represents God, the dog alert and focused on the shepherd represents the soul and the sheep represent our scattered desires. The idea of the exercise at this point is to name our desires, without any judgement or resolution, just to notice what they are.

One Man and His Dog: my worksheet inspired by an exercise described in God in All Things, Gerad W. Hughes
Positive Penance 6: Reading of the post.

Then we spent some time in prayer with an imaginative contemplation, using the Ignatian structure of preparation, prayer and review; and then in paired sharing. After lunch, laying down some context for the afternoon continued in a second, shorter presentation.

Ignatius separates penance into interior and exterior:

Interior penance consists in sorrow for one’s sins and a firm purpose not to commit them or any others. Exterior penance is the fruit of the first kind.

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

And I suggest that the movement can be in either direction: I can feel remorse and sorrow (interior) as I did with my daughter, and that initiates an external response: or, with my reason I can recognise that I am not the person God is calling me to be in an aspect of my life: for example, I was a coffee addict at one point drinking five of six cups a day. I recognised that it led me to be dismissive of children in school and irritable and impatient, because I needed a cup of coffee. I decided I needed to give up coffee one year (exterior) because it was driving my behaviour in a way that took me away from who I was called to be. Now I mostly limit it to one a day, with the occasional two cup day as a special treat. I am unable to drink three cups because it makes me feel sick. It is a long time since I dismissed someone, or delayed doing something because I needed coffee. So, the exterior penance, the action or behaviour, sinks deeper until the internal desire falls into line. It is effectively being the change you want to make.

On The Nature of Penance, I have summed it up in the diagram:

Positive Penance 7: Reading of the post.

Living modestly between the extremes of harm and superfluous is described by Ignatius as temperance and is more of a general lifestyle recommendation. Penance is something that should not cause harm if practiced in the short term. As a scientist I am aware that the body has mechanisms to deal with mild, short term disruptions to its needs in terms of food, sleep and pain, but should any of these become extreme or chronic then deeper health problems ensue. Ignatius suggests that we do a little more, and adjust until we find the right level for us. Ignatius himself practiced extreme penances and had to be nursed back to health, and it may be this reason that the tenth addition is dealt with as being of its time, and a little uncomfortably. In my opinion, what he has written in the Exercises is the fruit of his experiences and radically moderates the extreme practices of his time, and also demonstrates principles that are still relevant to us today.

After this point, we again spent some time in prayer, with another imaginative contemplation, which took off from where the morning one left off. Again, the structure of preparation, prayer and review was followed, and then by paired sharing. The One Man and his Dog reflection was brought back into play. The purpose of the dog (soul) is to be attentive to God, and to gather up all of the scattered sheep (desires) in an ordered arrangement and have them moving in the direction God desires them to go. Then there was a personal reflection on My Unruly Sheep:

Positive Penance 8: Reading of this post.

Retreatants were asked to pick up one or more of the little characters above and to try to name any pertinent disordered desires that might have come to the surface during the day. They were encouraged to ponder how this desire may be getting in the way of their deeper personal relationship with God, and to resolve to amend it during lent by making a decision on an action they could take, an exterior penance, that would help them draw closer to God. At least one person left the retreat, after the group sharing and closing prayer, having identified a habit to give up for lent that would open up the time and space for more spiritual reading, contemplation and prayer. It is consistent with the purpose of the retreat day and with what Ignatius has to say about our choice of penance:

Now since God our Lord knows our nature infinitely better, when we make changes of this kind, He often grants each one the grace to understand what is suitable for him.

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

On a personal level, I was extremely tired after the day and being used to teaching teenagers all day, I was not expecting that. It was a blissful, contented tiredness, replete with God’s pleasure and joy. I am as yet unaware of all the graces I received myself, and I am grateful for the graces received by those who came, some of which were evident. I look forward to noticing the fruit these seeds bear in the future.

So , here is a question for you:

What personal penance are you planning for the forthcoming lent?

If you have not thought about it, or decided yet, maybe you could try, with prayer, the One Man and His Dog exercise, and then contemplate your Unruly Sheep. Something relevant to you and your relationship with God may very well surface. I wish you a fruitful and holy season of lent.

Diary of a Sunflower: 21 August, year 2

Here I am again for another retreat. It’s comfortingly familiar, yet different, all at the same time. I have a male companion this time. He seems nice enough, but I’ll have my first meeting with him tomorrow. My room is bigger than the one I had last year, and the bed is firmer. I doubt I’ll have to put the mattress on the floor this time. The walls are bare, so perhaps I’ll do some paintings to make them more interesting. I brought my prayer cloth and icons with me, so I’ve set up a little shrine in my room. They didn’t have any of those scented candles they had last year, so I’ve bought one of the oil burners and a fragrant oil. I don’t think this companion will set up a display like the one last year did. I wonder how much different it will be with a man. Tonight, I’m just going to get myself prepared and tomorrow, we start.