Glorious and Impassible

Christ of Maryknoll by Br. Robert Lentz OFM
Glorious and Impassible: prologue. Reading of this post.

NB: I have stayed with the word “impassible” as written in the 40 Day journey with Julian of Norwich. Wiktionary defines the word as meaning : unable to suffer or feel pain, unable to feel emotion, impassive, incapable of suffering injury or detriment; misspelling of impassable. For the word “impassable” wiktionary says: incapable of being passed over, crossed or negotiated; incapable of being overcome or surmounted. I acknowledge that Julian is unlikely to have misspelt the word she intended to mean – in the context of Day 8 of the journey that makes sense . However, when I prayed with it, the meaning I experienced with it was that of “impassable”. The misspelling is mine, and maybe also deliberately God’s, because of what He wanted to say to me in that prayer. I use the word in the sense of “impassable” in this post. Please excuse my poor spelling.

Glorious and Impassible 1: Reading of this post.

I bought this icon with some money I was given as a Christmas present and it has occupied my prayer spot this season of Lent. I first saw it on retreat a few years ago and spent several days praying with it. I have a deep affinity for it. It arrived on the morning when I was praying day 8 of my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, and I put it out immediately for my prayer. The words that struck me that day were;

He is glorious and impassible…

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

and I commented in my prayer journal in my review of prayer:

This image does show Jesus as Glorious and attractive, and it is impossible to get past Him in this image. I had absolutely no desire to get past Him….

In the text at the back of the icon it reads:

It strikes me that the second paragraph is also particularly pertinent to the lockdown situation in which many of us are now living. Is Christ imprisoned or are we?

Cambridge University
Glorious and Impassible 2: Reading of this post.

On day 16 of my journey, Julian writes:

For everything that our good Lord makes us to beseech He Himself has ordained for us from all eternity.

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

and:

This is the Lord’s will, that our prayer and trust be both equally generous.

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

Day 8 has resurfaced in my prayer recently because it was all about desire: God’s desire and God’s thirst to have us drawn into Him. Day 16 encourages us to ask for our desire, a common practice in Ignatian spirituality, because Julian recognises that that very desire is God given: I want it because God wants it for and of me. It is a subtle movement. How many times have you heard:

I want, doesn’t get.

In God in All Things Gerard W. Hughes writes:

If I were Satan’s adviser…I would suggest that Satan ensures that Christian leaders emphasise the danger of human desire, and the need to subject it totally to the will of God, constantly warning the flock that anything they desire must be rooted in their own selfishness, which they must constantly oppose. This will ensure that they always feel bad about feeling good…

God in All Things, Gerard W. Hughes

and he also says:

Human desire is the rope attaching us to the God in whom we have every particle of our being.

God in All Things, Gerard W. Hughes
Ely Cathedral
Glorious and Impassible 3: Reading of this post.

I am sure that I would have made these connections anyway because of my direction of travel on this journey, but maybe, like many people who are currently in lockdown because of Covid-19, my reflections on what is important are augmented and my desire to change the way I live enhanced: to work more for God and less for Caesar, to live more simply and with less. I hear friends expressing the same sentiment. I have been moving in this direction for a while now, and the more it happens, the stronger my desire for it, and Him.

Of course, the critical voice is there as always, telling me that I am lazy, selfish, that I will never manage on less; that I need security – that is a big one for me. What happens if I am unable to look after myself? What then? I am just being fanciful…blah blah blah. And of course, that voice can sound very reasonable, sensible. I am a reasonable, sensible person, so I may think I am discerning with due care; and maybe I am.

But I know that when I was praying a lectio divina with Julian’s words:

For everything that our good Lord makes us to beseech He Himself has ordained for us from all eternity.

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

something in me moved and it felt like both affirmation and confirmation.

In The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius offers three ways that we might make a decision about our lives: he calls them first, second and third time choice. I have mentioned these three ways before. To oscillate backwards and forwards around a decision as I have been doing for the last few months, with experiences of consolation and desolation, Ignatius describes as 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.

And after this light and understanding have been derived and a choice has been made, Ignatius continues:

After such a choice or decision, 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.

What does it feel like when it is accepted and confirmed? If I ask for my desire in prayer, how do I know it has been given? What if I am just convincing myself that God wants what I want because I want God to want what I want? And these are the ways the desolating spirit can tie us up in knots. I know this one from my own experience.

Julian writes of the need for as much generosity in our trust as with our prayer.

In the meditiation on the Two Standards in the exercises, Ignatius talks about the different ways the evil one acts:

…how he goads them on…

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

And of Jesus he says:

…by attracting them to the highest spiritual poverty…

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

Spiritual directors might notice or ask are we being driven or drawn?

There is no rush with God, no fear. There is God time. It seems to me that these desires He implants in our hearts are mustard seeds and they take time to grow. He gives and allows them plenty of time to grow. I read a long time ago, prior to my engagement with Ignatian spirituality, I think it was in Shiela Cassidy’s autobiography “Audacity to Believe”, that one of the ways you can tell if it is from God is that you make a decision and hand it over to Him, and you live as if that was it and it was final. What happens in the space in between making the decision and putting it into action will let you know where the decision has come from: if it is of God, it will bring peace, a deeper desire to fulfill the choice and patience; if it is not of God it will lead to restlessness, anxiety, impatience and turmoil. It is as Ignatius suggests: make the decision and offer it to God in prayer to see what happens. Listen for His response.

Mellieha, Malta
Glorious and Impassible 4: Reading of this post.

Currently, I am in the space in between; the choice to live differently and with the next step to live that choice identified, is made and offered, and I believe confirmed. It will take some time, and there is much work to do in the meantime in preparing the way. For now it is to live with it, to work to prepare the way, and most importantly, to trust and to pray and to be patient. As I continue to pray with this icon, from within my lockdown “imprisonment” (although as I have more time at home which is my sanctuary), as I do not respect the social distancing as regards to Him and I meet Him face to face at the fence, it feels like more freedom to me. I do indeed find Him Glorious and Impassible.

While I am deeply grateful for all of the gifts He has generously given to me, I grieve and pray for all who are struggling with confinement, whatever the reason.

What do you find attractive about Jesus?

What do you find attractive about Jesus? 1: Reading of this post.

Previously I wrote about The Two Standards Meditation from the Spiritual Exercises and illustrated something of the modus operandi of Jesus and of the enemy. In this key mediation Ignatius makes the first point:

Consider Christ our Lord, standing in a lowly place in a great plain about the region of Jerusalem, His appearance beautiful and attractive.

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

The Two Standards Meditation appears in the second week of The Exercises, as does the Imaginative contemplation on The Nativity. The grace asked for in the second week is:

…for an intimate knowledge of our Lord, who has become man for me, that I may love Him more and follow Him more closely.

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

There is a convergence in these two points in a question asked by Gerard W. Hughes in God In All Things, which I have paraphrased in the title because it is how the question has ingrained itself into my heart. He asks:

What do you find attractive in the teachings of Jesus?

God In All Things ,Gerard W. Hughes

And he goes on to say:

Focus your heart on these things. An attraction is a sign that you are being called to live out those qualities in your own way, in your own circumstances.

God In All Things ,Gerard W. Hughes
What do you find attractive about Jesus? 2: Reading of this post.

Going back a period of years, I spent some weeks pondering just this question from Gerard Hughes, along with a question my own spiritual director had asked me which niggled at me. It is an experience I often have in with my director, and while I attempt an answer there, on the spot, my dissatisfaction with my answer leaves me pondering more deeply, subsequent to my meeting with him. Around about the same time I was also reading Choice, Desire and the Will of God: What More do you want? by David Runcorn and The Alchemist by Paul Coelho. There was definitely a theme going on and the feeling of it was as if there was something on your tongue that you needed to say, but every time you made to speak, the words were lost: or that there was a shape emerging out of the mist, and just as you were about to recognise it, it sank back again into obscurity. In retrospect I know that the process was about discovering the deepest desire of my soul, and at the end of it, when I had articulated it, it was as if I had found the place where my pearl of great price was buried and I had only just acquired the field. I was ready now to start digging.

I paraphrased the question because my answer to it was more to do with Jesus Himself, how He was, how He manifested His teachings. I have heard it said that:

The best sermon is a good example.

and Jesus exemplified what He taught: His actions matched His words, He practiced what He preached. For me, other than His authenticity, what I find most attractive about Him is that He always responded to people in the way that they needed in order for them to come closer to God: He always knew what to say and what to do with any given person or situation. He knew when to challenge, when to heal, when to teach.

For example, the rich young man who went away sad. We are never told what happened after that, but I like to think that he could not remain unchanged after Jesus looked at him and loved him, before throwing down the gauntlet, before giving the young man the challenge of his life, which he had actually asked for. I like to believe that after time and discernment, the young man did take up the challenge and effected a change in his life.

And the woman with the haemorrhage, who sought healing and received even more. After so many years of being an outcast because of her bleeding, He not only healed her, but claimed her as His kin, drawing her out, to speak up. I went to a talk by Elaine Storkey when I was a student and I vividly remember her take on this particular Gospel story. She told us that in the context of the time, this woman could have been stoned for defiling a religious leader, hence her fear in speaking out. So not only did He heal her physical ailment, but also the effect of years of erosion of her self esteem: spiritual healing as well as physical.

There are so many more examples I could give; these two are only a sample of my favourites and they show me something of my attraction to Jesus. At the end of my period of pondering, the deepest desire of my soul which I finally managed to express was:

To have the freedom to be who He would have me be.

And I realised how clever God is, because it describes a process, in two parts, of constant discernment; and I already understood that it is the process that draws us closer to God. The first part is:

Who would He have me be?

and the second part is:

What is limiting my freedom to be who He would have me be?

What do you find attractive about Jesus? 3: Reading of this post.

The process is consistent with the movement of the Exercises, through the Principle and Foundation to the Contemplation to Attain Love.

Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition.

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

The first is that love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.

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

Then I will reflect upon myself, and consider, according to all reason and justice, what I ought to offer the Divine Majesty, that is, all I possess and myself with it. Thus, as one would do who is moved by great feeling, I will make this offering of myself:

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

In The Alchemist, Santiago meets a crystal merchant whose desire is to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, but he only made it so far in his journey when he stopped to run his crystal shop and effectively got distracted by the business of the world. The merchant reasons:

Because it’s the thought of Mecca that keeps me alive…I’m afraid that if my dream is realized, I’ll have no reason to go on living…I’m afraid that it would all be a disappointment, so I prefer just to dream about it.

The Alchemist, Paul Coelho

Earlier, when he first meets Santiago, the merchant laughs at Santiago’s expression of his own dream and the impact on Santiago is desolating:

There was a moment of silence so profound that it seemed the city was asleep…It was as if the world had fallen silent because the boy’s soul had.

The Alchemist, Paul Coelho

The merchant still had his desire, but gradually, his soul became quieter in expressing it because the pain of not progressing towards it was unbearable. It is the manifestation of the phrase:

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.

Henry David Thoreau

In my 40 Day journey with Julian of Norwich (Day 4) Julian says:

For this is the reason why those who deliberately occupy themselves with wordly business, constantly seeking worldy well-being, have not God’s rest in their hearts and souls;

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

and in the personal reflections the question is asked:

In your faith tradition, what is the appropriate balance between a “this worldly” investment in human life and one’s total commitment and allegiance to God? Can both be lived simultaneously? Explain.

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, edited Lisa E. Dahill.
Page from Jesus’ Day Off, one of my favourite books.
What do you find attractive about Jesus? 4: Reading of this post.

They are important questions. How do we live in the world and stay true to our calling? Understanding what it is that attracts us, what it is that is calling to our soul, what it is that brings us to life, and constant discernment, is necessary to help us to keep our souls from becoming sad, one of the descriptions Ignatius gives of spiritual desolation. Asking ourselves what we find attractive in Jesus and His teachings, and focusing our hearts on those things may be, as Gerard Hughes suggests, a signpost in how we, personally, can live in the appropriate balance between our worldly investment in human life and our total commitment and allegiance to God; and live both simultaneously.

IGR: Individually Guided Retreat

I have recently returned from my annual IGR, this year at Penhurst Retreat Centre in Kent, and I have been reflecting on conversations I have with a variety of people who have never had this experience.

I’ve been going on this type of retreat ever year for such a long time now (this year was my 19th IGR) that perhaps I take the process, but never the opportunity, a bit for granted.

As a PhD student, I was involved with the Catholic Student Council (CSC) and was the secretary on the Team for a year. As part of our preparation, we did a team retreat for three days, which started off in silence. I took to the silence as if I was designed for it. After a day and a half though, I had a chat with someone, not involved in the retreat, who told me that it was okay for me to talk. I lost something in that conversation: I can only describe it as if I had been in a dreamlike state that you might enter walking alone along a beach, where hours can pass and it seems like minutes, and then I had been forcefully brought back into the noise, chaos and pressure. It was something that I was unable to get back at that time, and I longed for more of it for years afterwards.

Over ten years later, I booked into Loyola Hall for an eight day IGR, and looked forward to spending that time alone with God. When you remove yourself from the world in this way, it is like the world stops turning, until you enter back into it at the end of the retreat. Certainly, you arrive there with your agenda and concerns, the things you want to talk to God about, and you may want Him to address, but after a day or two, you move onto His agenda. And often, the things that were so important when you arrived, seem less so at the end: you have a whole different perspective, even perhaps when you have not thought about them, other than at the beginning of the retreat. It is also a common experience that problems have resolved themselves, and answers have presented themselves without dwelling on them at all, once they are handed over to God at the beginning. Letting go and trusting Him are not to be underestimated.

So, what happens? Usually, there is time to settle in, including a house tour if you have not been to that place before, and dinner in the evening, which is a talking affair. It gives a little time to introduce each other in the group making the retreat at the same time. It is amazing how much you can get to know someone after eight days without speaking to them! Then there is a meeting where housekeeping is presented, and most importantly, you are introduced to your spiritual director for the week. You are shown to where you will meet with them and choose a time slot for your daily meeting. They may, or may not, suggest something from scripture to look at to help you settle into an attitude of prayer and silence, and after this point the silence begins. Each day, you meet with your director and share what is happening in your prayer, and usually, the director will make suggestions what you might pray with next, or they might ask you what you feel drawn to pray with. For me, this year, the director made no suggestions at all to me, and it felt a little scary initially, until I spoke to myself about my own formation as a spiritual director, and that I was more than capable of choosing myself, since I am well able to do it for others. She smiled when I told her of this initial feeling and said:

You seemed to know what you were doing.

It would be an example of the eighteenth annotation of the Spiritual Exercises in practice:

The Spiritual Exercises must be adapted to the condition of the one who is to engage in them, that is, to his age, education, and talent.

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

In teaching terms, it is effective differentiation. And speaking of difference, not every retreat, and not every director is the same. And so too for the impact. I have come back from some with a few changes I knew I needed to make; and I have come back from others different, with no idea about how to respond, but just the certainty that life was never going to be the same again, because I had fundamentally changed. After my fifth IGR, the shift was so significant that by the October half term I was feeling that my life as it was was unmanageable and that I had to find a way to live differently within my context. It was at this point that I sought out a spiritual director in everyday life, and his support since then is invaluable to me, and is one thing I am deeply grateful for. With some directors I have felt well met, others less so but we have been able to communicate effectively, and one or two, I have to admit, have brought out my rebellious, stubborn steak. One so much so, that I texted my director in life to ask:

What is wrong with the way I pray?

One year, I went to Loyola itself: Gerry W. Hughes had organised an ecumenical IGR there, and I was very fortunate to get a place on it. In his preamble on the first evening, on talking about the role of the director, he said:

At the very least, we pray not to get in the way.

Gerry W. Hughes, Loyola IGR, 2007.

In answer to my question, my director in everyday life affirmed me about my prayer and told me to trust myself, and also reassured me that it would be appropriate for me to ask for a different director if I felt unable to work with the one assigned to me. I decided to work with the one I had, and focused on my relationship with God, not with the director. In the fifteenth annotation, Ignatius says of the director that they:

…should permit the Creator to deal directly with the creature, and the creature directly with his creator and Lord.

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

I remember this particular point both when I am listening to others and when I am being listened to. Only once have I asked for a specific director: I usually try to remain open and trusting. I once met someone who had done the Spiritual Exercises in the thirty day retreat format and had not connected with her director at all. She continued to work with him for the duration however, and said that in the end, it was irrelevant, because the process was between her and God, and happened regardless. The best situation is where we get the director we need, which may not always be the director we think we want.

Regarding the location, I made myself very much at home at Loyola Hall before it closed, and since then at St. Beunos, where I made The Spiritual Exercises a few years ago. Every so often, circumstances have moved me to a different location, Penhurst this year, which has always been refreshing. The best locations, in my experience, are situated a bit out of the way, withdrawn from the world, where it would take a deliberate effort to put yourself out there. Both Penhurst and St Beunos are in beautiful, quiet, settings, well away from the business of the world. In two places I have been – Loyola and Dunblane – the town was right on the doorstep, and this made it more difficult, but not impossible, to sink deeply into silence and remain there. The business of the world, the shops, coffee shops, cars and streets were always calling, and the temptation to walk out on the silence when it was difficult was always there and easy to give in to. But on the other hand, temptation is just another opportunity to choose God, so choosing to remain in the silence in this situation is a huge deal and a movement towards greater spiritual maturity. It is good training to hold onto our centre when we are back in the world.

The day on an IGR follows a rhythm of its own, punctuated by structured periods of communal prayer, liturgy, mass, exposition, the meeting with the director and mealtimes. I’m quite at home with the concept of a timetable, and I usually factor in painting, tai chi and a shower, the latter happening at a different time of day from my usual routine for an unknown reason, but which feels quite natural on retreat. And of course, formal prayer periods. I aim for three one hour periods, but I often have to build up to that, or can only only manage two, or shorter prayer periods. There is a balance between discipline and flow – it is something to neither avoid nor force: it is about noticing how you are feeling and what is drawing you. If I felt I wanted to walk the labyrinth after lunch, instead of tai chi, that is probably what I would do; forcing myself to do tai chi at this point, simply because it was the designated activity on my self designed timetable and I must be disciplined in my spiritual life, may well prove to be unproductive. If I felt like I did not want to go to the communal liturgy in whatever format it took, and I have, quite a lot, I would take careful notice of what was moving in me, before I decided whether to go or not. Discernment is key, even in what we choose to do on retreat, and often, spending time sitting staring into space is required.

As for mealtimes, suffice to say, quite often the inner battles people have manifest themselves in the dining room with either too much or not enough eating, crying, sighing, inappropriate laughing, staring, coming in late…all manner of ways, that perhaps we might consider rude. It is best to be kind in our inner attitude, because we have no concept of how others are being challenged by God, or how the spirits opposed to God are whipping up an internal cacophony within them. And when it is our own struggle, it is still best to be kind in our inner attitude towards ourselves.

Window, Penhurst Church

So, why do I do this kind of retreat every year? First and foremost, I promised God on the the first one that I would. Secondly, I need to. During the year in between, my edges become a little frayed by the constant bombardment and sensory and emotional overload of the world in which I live and work and the retreat allows me to rest in God for a significant period of time that I cannot replicate in my day to day life. I sink deeper into Him on retreat, and it re-orientates me. Sometimes, the shift is paradigm, like an earthquake, where the plates have been moving gradually for a while, and the tension is such that a huge movement occurs. And sometimes, it is simply much needed rest within His love, where I come back to myself again. If it is not something you have ever done, and you have the opportunity, I thoroughly recommend that you give it a try for yourself.