In my previous reflection I mentioned what Ignatius had to say in The Exercises regarding the evil one as an angel of light, and I used the word “imposter”. I have been pondering this word for the last few weeks, and it is one of those occasions in life where once a thought has lodged in your head, you notice it everywhere. Here, the equation that formed in my brain is imposter = desolation. I am sure there are many stories and cases where someone was not who they appeared to be, and who they actually were is much better, but right now, I can only think of superheros: Buffy, Superman and the rest, with their secret identities. Imposter syndrome I guess is like an inverse superhero, where our secret identity, as we perceive it to be, is not the “all that” that the world perceives us to be. Throw around also the concept of humility and false humility, and we have a right old tangle.
So, where are all the dots coming from that I have joined together on the title of this post? A reading from Jeremiah during morning prayer with Pray as you Go, a skim past of a social media post, I believe on Linked In, which suggested that Jacinda Adern, the prime minister of New Zealand, frequently experiences “imposter syndrome”, the challenges I am facing in setting up my own business as an online Chemistry tutor, and the admission to the business coach I have invested in to help me, that I need to be more up front about my skills and talents, and how uncomfortable it feels to do that. I remember from my Ignatian Spirituality Course in a discussion around the book “The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed”, the tutor made a comment:
We can become attached to our smallness.”
A simple idea, that imposter syndrome is a disordered attachment and can result in us being afraid to use our talents for the greater glory of God.
I am not a follower of celebrity status as a general rule, but from what I’ve seen of Jacinda Adern, I like her a great deal and I see her to be an excellent role model. One incident alone sums her up, and it is one of the COVID broadcasts she did to her country last year. She addressed the children of New Zealand and reassured them that the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy were considered to be essential workers and would therefore be able to continue with their work during lockdown. This still has the power to move me even now as I write it. With the severity of the pandemic, and the seriousness of the measures to be taken, and in her role in leading the way, she was not too busy or too important to take notice of the concerns and fears of the little ones in her country. In my experience as a parent, children infrequently express and identify their fears explicitly: they project it onto something else or express it by doing something “naughty”. For example, I knew my eldest was stressed as a young girl when she wrote on the walls in her room or on her furniture: I knew my youngest was when she took scissors to her hair. To me, these were clear signals that I had missed something and that I needed to take time out to sit and listen to my child. The something else that children project onto might seem trivial and unimportant to adults who are bearing the responsibility for dealing with a difficult situation. In watching Jacinda Adern reassure the children of New Zealand, it was not only that she saw and heard them, she cared about them and comforted them, rather than trivialise or ignore their concerns.
In “God in all Things”, Gerard Hughes says:
What do you find attractive in the teachings of Jesus? Focus your heart on these things. An attraction is a sign that you are being called to live out these qualities in your own way, in your own circumstances.
This statement was really important for me in helping me to discover the deepest desire of my soul. For me, it is Jesus Himself that I am attraced to and what I find attractive about Jesus is that He sees people; He sees who they are and what they need, and He gives them what they need to draw them closer to God, whether it is challenge, healing or direct invitation. The gospel stories are full of Jesus’ interactions where He is doing all this. Maybe I am moved by Jacinda Adern’s address to the children because she sees their fear and gives them something they need to not be afraid in these scary times.
And then there is Jeremiah from St Patrick’s Day. When God says to Jeremiah:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew[a] you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
So here is the subtext. God tells us that this is who He created us to be, and this path is the one He asks us to walk. And our response is no way am I good enough for that! Maybe there is even a bit of what will people think in there too. And God’s response:
7…Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,…
9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.
In the place where I grew up, insults and banter were all part of the humour, although at times I do have to say there could be a sharp edge to it. I had appropriated words like “useless” and “worthless” in my self description when I did something clumsy or idiotic, until one day my own spiritual director caused me to reflect on this self dialogue simply by telling me very gently and firmly that he did not like it when I used these words about myself. When he is as direct as this, I pay attention, because he has said something very important.
St. Augustine said:
He loves each one of us as if there were only one of us.
We may experience God like that in prayer, but what if we were to truly believe it always, and live our lives as if it were true? What difference would it make? How would it be to remember the consolation we have in prayer at the moment when we feel that we are not good enough? I like Jeremiah. He talks about being overwhelmed by God, and he reveals his own imposter syndrome. I feel some kinship with him. Perhaps there is a fine line to walk. Humility is to know who I am, my own weaknesses as well as my own strengths. Perhaps the imposter syndrome, the feeling of not being good enough, is the grace that keeps my heart open to my dependence and need for God. Perhaps it is that very knowledge that enables me to walk the path with Him, because I know for sure that it is not something I can do on my own.
I have been challenged in my prayer recently, with the 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, together with the scripture from Pray As You Go this week (Thursday 9 July), to contemplate the image of God as Mother, rather than as Father. I do not have any rational objection to the idea, quite the contrary: any time I have encountered the image I have been in favour of it. I just have some trouble getting into it. It might be argued that my upbringing has conditioned me to view God as male, with Father as the predominant image. Certainly, whenever I appear as a child in my imaginative contemplation, the image of God as Father is around at times, but even more so there is the sense of God being as a big brother, or cousin, or grown up friend, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, certainly as a friends, regardless of what age I am in the particular prayer. I am also very much at home with the imagery from the Song of Songs, where God appears as the lover of the soul and given my heterosexuality, it is quite natural for me to experience God as male in that context. There may also be a contributing factor that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is held up as the mother image in the church I belong to, and the patriarchal representation of her womanhood and motherhood, the motherhood of sons rather than daughters, is problematic for me. So while I do not object to Mother imagery of God in a purely rational sense, it is not an image that has penetrated very deeply into my pysche. Until now, when I find myself pondering it in prayer.
Loving, giving, nurturing, protecting – all of these attributes can be given to fathers as well as mothers. I am not well versed in gender studies; I am aware of the nature versus nurture arguments, predominantly from my scientific background, and while I do not want to reduce the argument purely to reproductive biology, I think that there is a key to unlocking my understanding and engagement with the image of God as Mother in the science of human reproduction and my role as a woman within that.
If I were to sum up the essence of the difference between nurturing fatherhood and motherhood, it would be visceral, literally in the blood and guts and gore of motherhood. My purpose in exploring this aspect of the image is not to exclude everything else about motherhood, or to deny everything else as motherhood if it is without the actual childbirth. That would be to imply that step mums and adoptive mums, and those who suffer the desire of the screaming womb and bear the pain of not being able to have children of their own are not real mothers. I do not stand there, and I do not think that, nor would I say it, or even have it construed from my words. I would never dream of distributing hurt from my words in that way, and would be sincerely regretful if I did. My own experience of screaming womb, of not being pregnant when I wanted to be is very brief, and I can and did only imagine living with it all my life. I am sure the sorrow and pain I imagined does not even scratch the surface of the experienced anguish. Scripture contains its own stories of women who understand this pain: Sarah, Rachel, Elizabeth, to name a few. And as for the pregnancy that ends in miscarriage, I know this pain and it is impossible to forget. My own mum still grieves and mentions those little ones she lost, and she is ninety. I get where she is coming from. I explore the images of pregnancy, childbirth and of nursing a child here, as a subset of everything else, to draw out the more from using the image of Mother specifically, as opposed to Father, or Parent. Julian says:
We know that all our mothers bear us for pain and for death….but our true Mother Jesus…alone bears us for joy and for endless life, blessed may He be. So He carries us within Him in love and travail, until the full time when He wanted to suffer the sharpest thorns and cruel pains…
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:
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.
And the feeling is reciprocated in the mother who has fed her child. The tension of full breasts is soothed and the mother relaxed. There is a warm bond of intimacy and contentment between the mother and her baby. It is a feeling of everything being right with the world. In the first months of the baby’s life, she is completely dependant on this source of nourishment and trusting of the source. The mother who breast feeds is, for a short time, the absolute centre of that child’s world, without reservation. That might seem like a huge responsibility, but there is a ferocious strength that comes with it. I remember feeling that I could tear apart a lion with my bare hands should it so much as look at my child as if she were dinner. We were at the zoo at the time, let me just place that image in its proper context.
What am I left with? When we are as dependent on God as a baby on the mother who feeds her; when our world revolves around Him in absolute, unquestioning trust; when we drink fully of the nourishment and protection He gives freely and generously, we become blissed out in Him. My contemplations on the Motherhood of God has distilled into this one idea. In spite of all the suffering and gore that goes creation:
God is blissed out by our bliss in Him.
At the moment it is a shocking and awesome idea that is located in my rational, thinking brain. It has yet to penetrate more deeply, to meet with the same knowledge in the heart of my soul. And Julian herself has said:
And when He had finished, and had so borne us for bliss, still all this could not satisfy His wonderful love…
Historically, and currently, there are many acrimonius arguments between advocates of science and advocates of, and for, religious faith. I could discuss rationally the issues around transmission of viruses such as coronavirus, lockdown/social distancing, vaccination; Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin; Intelligent Design, Evolution, The Big Bang – all the standard stuff. I could present an argument against those presented by the most evangelical of atheist scientists Richard Dawkins, but others, such as AlisterMcGrath and Kathleen Jones, have already done that a lot more eloquently than I ever could. I could quote Albert Einstein:
Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
I might suggest the movie God’s Not Dead, where a young man presents the arguments to his philosophy class in a dramatic fashion:
But I write here to tell my story, to show how God is found in all things in the ordinary human life, all we have to do is look for Him each and every day in the moments of our lives. For me, there is no conflict between religious faith and faith in science: further than that, not only is there a lack of conflict, for me, there is synergy, each augments the other, as is implied by the quote from Einstein. So, here, I am describing my experiences, my reflections, my story.
Among my earliest memories as a small child – around the age of about five or six – I remember sitting making a mud pie on a reasonably dry summers day, using little pink flowers for the fruit (I was thinking raspberries) and water fetched from the outdoor tap to mix it together. I was distracted by a large lump of dirt that I had picked up and had started to break up to mix into my pie and I started to wonder about the different sizes I could break this piece into. If I broke it again, and again, and kept going, how small could it go? I held a single grain of soil in my hand and looked at it, pondering. Was this it? Or, was this small piece made out of smaller pieces, and if so, were those smaller pieces made out of even smaller pieces? And did it ever stop? Was there a point where it did stop? And if so, how? What were those smallest of all pieces made of? How could it just stop? Then, at the age of thirteen, in third year of high school, my first Chemistry lesson happened. We were learning about atoms and boom! right there, all the lights went on and there were ten questions for every single one the teacher either asked or answered. So began my love affair with Chemistry. To me, Chemistry is full of intrigue and mystery, and it is clever: as a system, it just works beautifully.
I will pull out a few examples to illustrate what I mean. Firstly, carbon, I would argue the single, most amazing element on the periodic table. I do not say that lightly: many of the elements are amazing. Secondly, water; the most incredible compound in the world. It is so ordinary, so ubiquitous that, for those of us fortunate enough to live where there is a ready abundance of clean, usable water, we can almost take it for granted. It is of note that scripture does not. And thirdly, there is hydrogen bonding. Ah me, we do not teach about hydrogen bonding until A level Chemistry (post sixteen) and yet without it, water would be a gas, and DNA would not be able to replicate and…but I said I would pull put only a few examples.
Let me tie it together to give you the gist of it. Because of the way its atoms are structured, carbon can form four covalent bonds. This means it can form giant, 3D structures such as diamond; it can makes layers of hexagons, a bit like a honeycomb, such as in graphite where the layers are weakly held together, or take one of those layers and you have graphene and we are into the realms of nanotechnology, touch screens and all sorts of modern advances. Because of its four bonds, carbons can join together in rings and chains, and then we are into the whole area of organic chemistry: fuels, plastics, medicines; and biochemistry: proteins, chemical hormones, DNA. There is a phrase in the Start Trek Universe:
Carboniferous life forms.
Meaning living organisms whose tissues are based on the element carbon. It includes us, and life on our planet. All because carbon can form four covalent bonds and therefore has such diversity in the compounds and molecules it can make with other atoms. Sure, silicon can also make four bonds, but its atoms are a bit bigger, and the bonds a bit weaker, so, while silicon has its own special gifts, it is not able to do the same thing.
Water is a small little molecule, H2O, which contains a total of ten electrons. It is smaller than say, oxygen, O2, which has sixteen electrons, or more directly comparable to neon, which also has ten electrons. Consideration of the forces that can hold molecules together in a liquid that depend on the number of electrons (induced dipole dipole interactions) would lead us to expect water to be a gas, not a liquid, as we know it to be. The first liquid hydrocarbon which has only these forces is pentane, which has seventy two electrons, the previous one, butane, has fifty eight electrons and is a gas. If this were the whole story, water would be a gas: imagine the world with no liquid water. And, when water freezes, ice is less dense than liquid water. So what? I hear you ask, probably because my students look blankly at me when I say things like that. Well, solids are normally more dense than liquids because the particles pack more closely together. If this were true for water, ice would sink when it formed and lakes and ponds would freeze from the bottom up. Imagine frozen waterways, where the water got shallower as it froze. What would happen to the water life? And would it ever melt again? Would the heat of the sun be able to penetrate to the depths of the water to melt it? Instead, the lower density of ice means it floats on top of the water and freezes from the top down. It insulates the water beneath it so that the temperature deeper down does not drop below 4oC, and when the surface is warmed by the sun, the ice is able to melt.
Why? Why does water behave in such an unsual way? Hydrogen bonding, number three on my list. Hydrogen bonds are around ten times stronger that the weaker forces I mentioned earlier (induced dipole dipole interactions) and ten times weaker than the covalent bonds that hold atoms together in molecules. In other words, they are strong enough to hold molecules together in a structure, and weak enough to be broken easily. Water makes two hydrogen bonds per molecule which is why they stick together in the liquid. It also explains water’s high surface tension, which gives the shape of water droplets and allows water skaters to walk on water. I am sure it is not the reason Jesus could though!
Hydrogen bonding is what holds the two strands of DNA together in the double helix. What is cool about it is that these bonds are weak enough to be unzipped and the molecule replicated in order to make more DNA, which contains our genetic code, before zipping the double helix back up again. Hydrogen bonds are both strong enough to hold the strands together and weak enough to allow the process for them to be copied.
Part of me now wants to go on about the perfect conditions for the energy from the sun to be enough and not too much to sustain life on our planet, and how incredible the:
…set of fragile coincidences combine to make the pertubation effective but not overly so.
In other words, without the set of fragile coincidences he lays out in great detail (the book quoted is a degree level Chemistry textbook), without these coincident exceptions, the scientific laws of thermodynamics would not allow for life on our planet.
I know I need to stop now because there is a real danger of me getting carried away here, and if I lost you with all the Chemistry, I apologise. I really have tried to hold it back enough to illustrate my point, without lecturing you in Chemistry. And here is my point. Chemistry is just too neat, too clever, too perfect to argue with. My experience with the mud pie I now recognise as a numinous experience, a contemplation of infinity, an experience of God. In fact, it was God to whom I was addressing the questions.
God, how small does this go?
How do you create a world? How do you create life and make it work? For me, to learn about Chemistry is to learn about God. There is no conflict, there is no science versus religion. And there are no words to express the reverence and awe I feel when I am contemplating Chemistry.
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.
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;
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…
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
Going back a few months, I was planning an assembly to give in school on the theme of “Compassion for Old People”. I found it a bit tricky at the time – how could I find anything to say that was not blatantly obvious, and maybe even dull? So, humour is always good, especially when working with teenagers. I thought that as the students enter I would play a nursery rhyme that is one of the first songs that small children in Scotland might learn:
And after introducing the theme, I would comment on how much we love our Grannies in Scotland and provide a short video clip as evidence to that effect:
I knew it would not be appropriate for me to show them this other clip, even though I really did want to, on account of it being a bit too fiery:
I did not do that assembly in the end, it was rescheduled for another week with a different theme. Given that this blog is about Spirituality and about “Finding God in All Things”, you might be wondering at this point:
Where is this coming from?
Where is it leading to?
Both good discernment questions.
I have been noticing recently, conversations with vulnerable people: people who are “poor” speakers by wordly standards, and we are not very patient with poor speakers in our world.
One little old lady, who is a Gran (but not my Granny), who has had a minor stroke and stutters now, and also finds it difficult to remember the words she wants to use. She gets frustrated. There may also be dementia there, because the conversation gets recycled several times on a loop. She knows her memory is fading: it scares her, even though she puts on a brave face.
One young man who is autistic, who functions in his own specialist realm on a high level that is unfathomable to most people and yet finds simple social conversation anything but simple. It is difficult and painful and has to be consciously worked at.
Some years ago I went on a student retreat with others from the Chaplaincy, and there was a PhD student there from Zimbabwe. We spent the first session talking about ourselves, introducing ourselves so that the others could get a sense of who we were. I remember feeling impatient to begin with when this student spoke, he seemed to be telling a rambling story and I wanted him to hurry up and get to the point. And then I had a light bulb moment: his story was the point. Here was a person who knew how to just be, how to live in the moment and to appreciate all that was around him; it is who he was, considered and present, not rushing to get it all done and trying to have a mic drop moment. I was at once full of admiration and awe, as I acknowledged my own vice of impatience and aggressive drive.
There is something in the nature of the world that demands aggressive drive to be successful at life. We see it in films, television, work: everywhere. Just look around at what is honoured and respected in the world and there you will see it, and it has always been there. The world is pushy, and if we are not pushing, we are failing.
Why am I pondering an aborted assembly plan here and now? Why Scottish nursery rhymes and why Grannies? Many of the daily readings recently have been from Isaiah, as was the guided prayer I posted the other week. We have been studying Matthew Chapters 6 and 7 in Bible Study, and of course, in the UK there has been a general election for a new government. Some of the rhetoric in the election campaign has been around what kind of society we want to live in. Do we want to live in one where the desires of the wealthy to hoard their money in offshore tax havens dictate government policy and where lies and bullying of those who speak out are the means to achieve that?
St. Ignatius summarises what I am thinking of in the meditation of the Two Standards in the Spiritual Exercises:
The first step then, will be riches, the second honour, the third pride. From these three steps the evil one leads to all other vices.
‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Even Wonder Woman in the trailer for the new film sums it up:
Nothing good is born from lies.
Or do we want to live in a society where government policy is based around the preferential option for the poor, where the wealthy contribute their fair share to the country and public services are maintained effectively for the benefit of everyone? Do we continue on this road where the treatment of the sick is in decline, where education and the mental health of our young people is deteriorating, where homelessness is on the increase, where people are working ungodly hours and are still unable to put food on the table without resorting to hand outs from the food banks and racial violence and violence against religious minorities is increasing? Do we all do what we need to do to fix it?
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
I am thinking about how we treat the vulnerable in society. In Jesus’ day, that was the widow and the orphan: those with no male kin to claim them and no status. Who are they in our own situation? The ones we are repelled by? The ones it takes too much effort to engage with? Do we even notice those feelings within ourselves? And when we do, how do we respond?
Sometimes I walk past the homeless person on the street, and I can hardly bare to look them in the eye; sometimes I give a small amount of money, and sometimes I give a generous amount that leaves me a little short, and I wish them well. All of it makes me uncomfortable and angry. I am angry that there are homeless people on our streets: I am not angry with homeless people for being there, I am angry with a society that has created the conditions conducive to homelessness, and that it is on the increase. It is a case of there but for the grace of God go I, because how many of us are just one unfortunate, catastrophic event away from such a situation? There was a young homeless man my daughter knew from school. He gave her his only five pounds late one night because she did not have enough money to get a taxi home and he was concerned to make sure she was safe. A few months later she heard that he had died alone in his tent, and had lain there for four days before being discovered.
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you;
After the results of the election, I have to say that I am ashamed to be British. I am incredulous at what the UK has voted for. It is certainly not the preferential option for the poor. I am reminded of the meditations of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises, where we are asked to contemplate the sins of the world, and our own sin. The grace we ask for in the first week is:
…shame and confusion, because I see how many have been lost on account of a single mortal sin, and how many times I have deserved eternal damnation, because of the many grievous sins that I have committed.
I have to acknowledge that were I to place myself in the Exercises right now, it would be here, in this place of shame and confusion. I notice the movements in me where I am not responding, even internally, in a way that is more for the glory of God: I notice my anger and where it might move me to personalise it and lash out at others and I notice the pull of despair, which has the potential to shift me from this place of spiritual consolation of shame and confusion, the grace of the first week, into spiritual desolation, where it would be all too easy to feel that God has not answered the poor and needy, and lose some faith and trust in God.
If we are using pushing your elderly relatives off of a bus as a metaphor for how we look after the vulnerable in society, then Scotland knows that it is not the done thing: it is so obvious that it does not need explaining. A three year old child could sing it to you. After the general election I will say that I am proud to be Scottish.
Perfectionism is an issue. From my training as a scientist I know that accuracy and detail is important: it makes the scientific conclusions drawn from valid data as rigorous as possible, without overstating explanations as fact. Science is careful when it is done formally. Public perception and popular science expressing opinion are not necessarily so rigorous, and there are counter arguments presented to those opinions parading as science because the author also happens to be a scientist. My concern here is not with science, because I see no contradiction between science and religious faith. In my opinion, that argument is contrived.
I remember a distant conversation with a man, but I do not remember the occasion or circumstances, nor the man. He may have been a Muslim man, and I think that he was, and he was talking about the weavers of Persian rugs. He told me that although the patterns in the rugs are clear and logical, the weavers always weave into the rug a mistake: imperceptible, but they never make them perfect:
…because only God is perfect.
And while I do not remember the occasion or who this man was, I do remember the warmth in his voice, and the light in his eyes, when he said this. It is why the truth of it has remained with me, even when everything else around it has faded in my memory.
If you have looked at my Mandala page, and other posts where I have included a mandala image, you will know that I create these pieces of art out of prayer, and that it is a compulsion that began from an imaginative contemplation I had once on a retreat, where I was trying to express, albeit inadequately, my prayer experience: words were not enough, and neither is the art. I am still trying to express this one prayer, and it draws me deeper each time and sustains me. In the course of my journey with the mandalas, I discovered the book “How the World is Made, The Story of Creation According to Sacred Geometry“ and was struck by the contrast in the images of the Heavenly City mandala when drawn by hand and generated by computer:
The architect and geometer Jon Allen is quoted as saying:
We lose something when we use computers to draw geometry. However beguiling their mechanical precision, they lack “heart”: in some subtle way we become observers, rather than participants.
The second mandala in the above image, I have to acknowledge, leaves me feeling a bit cold: not because it is in black and white, but because it is too clinical. It does not move me, whereas the hand drawn one above it captures my interest much more. I know it is not an issue of colour, because I am a member of a mandala group on another social media site and I scroll past the computer generated ones, no matter how colourful they are. I am always more likely to pause to ponder those that have been hand drawn.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matt 5: 48
So what it is that draws me to those mandalas that are imperfect, and repels me about the ones that are perfect? For me, the essential element is process, or movement. In the retreat when I first created my mandala and I spent another day, as suggested by my director, writing down my journey to the final drawing, I finished with the realisation:
…it is the process itself that is important, because it is the process we engage in that skews us towards God, that draws us closer to Him, that transforms us so that we become more like Him.
One of the meditations during the first week of the Spiritual Exercises is on hell. Ignatius encourages us to imagine the place of fire and brimstone, as tradition describes. I imagined however, a place where nothing every changed, where there was no stimulation to the senses at all: no sound, smell, taste, no texture to feel, neither hot nor cold, and everything was white, no shadows, colour, nothing; for all eternity, nothing. And being fully conscious of that. I screamed, there was no sound, I cried, there were no tears. I could not hear my own heartbeat nor my own breathing. To feel, even for a moment, that there was no escape from such a place was indeed hellish.
When I see the triquetra, I do not see a static shape, I see a constant flow. It is also what I see when I look at Rublev’s icon of the Hospitality of Abraham, a constant flowing love between the three persons of the Holy Trinity, and with a gap, where I am invited to join the flow. It is as described by Richard Rohr in “The Divine Dance”. God is constant movement. In the Contemplation to Attain Love in the Exercises Ignatius asks us to consider:
…how God works and labors for me in all creatures upon the face of the earth, that is, He conducts Himself as one who labors.
The Spiritual exercises of St.Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
As I understand it, the perfection of God is in the eternal movement of God.
The above mandala is of the labyrinth at St. Beunos, painted on wood. Normally, I would have tidied up where the colour has spilled over onto the gold by way of finishing off the mandala, and here, even though it seems sloppy and a bit embarrassing, it was clear in my prayer, that it had to be left this way. The colour spectrum represents the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit:
…does not stay between the lines.
It represents the wildness of God, that He will not confine Himself to our expectations of Him. And this is my point. When we see a pattern, our brain knows what that pattern is supposed to do. When something is off about it, we are drawn to that imperfection, it bugs us and leads us into contemplation, from the imperfect as we see it, to the perfect, as we would like it to be: it is the process, the journey, the desire for improvement.
A computer drawn mandala has no room for improvement. Any change to it leads away from perfection. If God is perfect, moving away from perfection is a movement away from God, into spiritual desolation.
However an overdrive for perfection, into the area of the law of diminishing returns, can also be spiritual desolation. I recognise it within myself, the tendency towards pride, and it leads to obsession with work and neglect of other aspects of life, such as relationships and prayer. In his book “The Me I Want to Be”, Jon Ortberg talks about “Signature Sins” . He says:
The pattern of your sin is related to the pattern of your gifts…
…it starts close to home with the passions and desires that God wired into us and tries to pull them a few degrees off course. That subtle deviation is enough to disrupt the flow of the Spirit in our life, so coming to recognise the pattern of sins most tempting to us is one of the most important steps in our spiritual lives.
The Me I Want to Be, Jon Ortberg
Recognising our own pattern of sin is an important movement that occurs during the first week of the Spiritual Exercises.
At the other end of the scale, the push for perfection can cause paralysis, rather that obsession. For example, I was helping a child with ionic bonding recently. She was refusing to draw dot/cross diagrams into her beautifully and perfectly presented exercise book because she deemed them to be messy. The unattainabilty of perfection was getting in the way of the learning process. And so the feeling of it never being good enough can get in the way of doing anything at all. It is the process that draws us to God, not the final result.
The final result, because of its imperfection, will, if we allow it, continue to draw us into this process with God.
The mandala above was the third one I coloured on the Loyola retreat after creating this design. It was a prayer for my younger child who had been bullied at school that year by a group of three boys. The purple represents suffering, the yellow, hope; the red, faith; and the blue, love. In following the pattern, one of the shapes which should have been yellow, is in fact blue. When I realised my “mistake”, I heard Him say within me, that for a child to recover from such a thing as bullying, it takes a little more love. I knew how I needed to respond to my child when I got home from my retreat.
In our imperfection, there is God’s perfection. We live in His freedom and are open to His grace when we live in our imperfection and allow it to be the case.
With the school holidays coming to an end, and with my post last week on discerning whether to remain in work we do not want to do, I have been thinking about work and the discussion which took place at the Norwich Christian Meditation event I went to. Fr. Korko spent some time looking at Contemplation in Action (Karma Yoga). He drew on the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita (The Song of God) and the Bible to elucidate an attitude to our work that is consistent with what Ignatius describes in the First Principle and Foundation, and in the Contemplatio of the Spiritual Exercises.
3.5.2. Work with noble motive.
Yesu Nama Japan (The Practice of Jesus Prayer), Korkoniyas Moses S.J.
Whatever you eat, drink or do, do everything for the glory of God.
1 Cor 10:31
Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give away as charity and whatever austerity you perform do that as an offering unto me.
Bh. Gita 9:27
In the Principle and Foundation of the Exercises, Ignatius says:
Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.
Hence, the first thing to consider in our work is the reason we are doing that particular job: we may or may not enjoy the work we are doing, but the question for us really to consider in our hearts is how does it help, or not help us, praise , reverence and serve God. It might be we need to change our work if it leads us away from God, or we need to change our own attitude to the work we are doing. I know I said in my last post that I could not bear to watch or put clips from the Green Mile, but the ending might be relevant here (spoiler alert):
The scene, although not exactly an imaginative contemplation about what decision something might want to have made when considering it from their death bed, it has echoes of it. Had he fully appreciated what was moving in him at the time, would he have made different decisions about how he responded within his work? With respect to those not making a change to their material situation, Ignatius says:
…to propose a way for each to reform his manner of living in his state by setting before him the purpose of his creation and of his life and position, namely, the glory and praise of God our Lord and the salvation of his soul.
And it was largely around this point that the discussion took place; if I do not want to do the job I am doing, and I recognise that I am working with noble motive and for the greater glory of God, I can keep going.
I was struck recently about James Martin’s commentary in Jesus A Pilgrimage, in the chapter on Parables, where he describes a perspective on the Parable of the Talents, given by Barbara Reid. It is worth giving the detail here. He says:
The third servant, she believes, is the honorable one, because he refused to cooperate with a system in which the master continues to accrue large amounts of money while others are poor.
Reid sees the parable as a warning “about the ease with which people can be co-opted by an unjust system,” while also encouraging disciples to expose unfettered greed. She believes that the last verse shows what happens to those who “blow the whistle” on the rich and powerful.
It is the phrase of “manner of living” and these two ideas that are converging in my mind. What if we remain in our current state, or work, and look to change the manner in which we live within it? What would have happened if Paul Edgecomb (the character played by Tom Hanks in the Green Mile) had acted on the movements within him, and refused to execute John Coffey? Would it inevitably lead him to refuse to walk the Green Mile with others, and therefore put him in a position where his employment in the prison was completely untenable? Barbera Reid refers specifically to greed in her interpretation, but the principle can be applied to all areas where there are unjust power structures, where we cooperate with the structures of sin in the world.
In contrast to slaves, who live in servile fear of a greedy master who metes out cruel punishment to those who will not go along with this program for self-aggrandizement, Jesus’s disciples live with trust in God, whose equitable love emboldens them to work for justice here and now while awaiting ultimate fulfillment.
Difficult questions…where can we stand up and say no to the unjust, immoral practices we encounter in our work, without having to make the decision to walk away completely, or be made to leave? I have done it several times, and it is not comfortable.
3.5.2 Work dutifully with gratitude.
Yesu Nama Japan (The Practice of Jesus Prayer), Korkoniyas Moses S.J.
This section is grounded in the Contemplatio, or more accurately, Contemplation to Attain the Love of God, which comes at the end of the Spiritual Exercises, and the point is, not to earn the love of God, that is already given, but to learn to love as God loves. And the first point that Ignatius makes is that:
…love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.
When we collaborate with God in the work of His creation we become like Him.
Yesu Nama Japan (The Practice of Jesus Prayer), Korkoniyas Moses S.J.
I love this idea that in our work, we are collaborating with God and becoming like Him…it is the seed of God, growing into God as described in the Meister Eckhart quote in the header. Fr. Korko expresses the attitude that the ability and opportunity to work is a gift, and that when we work, we are instruments in the hands of God. It is from this context that the question from my last post was posed. I mentioned that I had had periods where I was not filled with joy and zest at going into work, but that I had kept in mind what had drawn me into the work in the first place (first time choice). I’m thinking specifically of when I had glandular fever and subsequently experienced chronic fatigue. Here, it illustrates the example of noble motive: I was struggling with the work, but focus on my reasons for being there was part of what kept me going into work. Being grateful for my job, and the support I was given to enable me to be there as much as possible, in spite of the difficulty, something that was expressed in my examen at the end of the day, was also important.
It kept me aware that health and opportunity to work were not given to everyone, and the benefits of autonomy and security were not to be taken for granted. How many people are only one decision, an illness or unfortunate occurrence away from being on the streets? Also important was the grace I always asked for in my morning prayer: the energy and the strength to do and be what He would have me do and be today. Ignatius encourages us to ask for the graces we desire at the beginning of our prayer, and in doing so, we are handing ourselves over to be instruments of God.
And again, receiving such grace was also a point of gratitude at the end of the day. And there were days when the answer was:
Not today. You need to rest today.
And I would sleep for several hours, with a sense of relief that at least for today, I did not have to fight against the lethargy in my body.
Contemplation in action, in relation to the work we do, brings God right into the heart of what we do: our work is not separate from our faith in God, it is the means by which God can act in the world when we allow ourselves to be His instruments in the world. Being mindful of God in all things and living consciously and reflectively opens us to this potential.
A journey made to a sacred place, or a religious journey.
I’m not a good traveler – I don’t like being on planes or buses, or trains for too long: I’m happy enough driving myself, but I don’t like being a car passenger. I get motion sickness and find it all a bit stressful. I’ve always been quite happy with the idea of the religious journey, and that the inner journey is in itself, a pilgrimage, without the necessity of making a literal journey. However, I have recognised something different about my cycle touring now, compared with when I was younger and something of the sign James Martin describes near the entrance of the Church of the Nativity in his book hit home with me. It says:
We are hoping that: If you enter here as a tourist, you would exit as a pilgrim. If you enter here as a pilgrim, you would exit as a holier one.
In my student days when I last did cycle touring, I visited castles and tourist attractions on my stops, but now that I’ve taken it up again in my second stage of life, I find myself less interested in that sort of thing, and more drawn to churches, abbeys and priories, and in finding a still, quiet spot so that I can pray. The difference was underlined this year when I stopped in Framlingham in Suffolk. Although I’d set my sights on visiting the castle there, when I arrived, I spent a significant time in the church, praying and soaking it in, but then swiftly moved past the castle, having lost any interest in it. There was a definite compulsion to get on the road again and to not linger any further. In God in All Things, Gerry Hughes says:
Pilgrimage is a way of projecting our inner and unmanageable hopes, longings, bewilderment, fears and confusions into an outer and more manageable form. We choose some objective that represents the undeniable longing of the inner self.
And I know I don’t have answers. There were risks on my tour…the track on Peddars way disappeared at times and it felt like I was traveling through jungle: my bike got damaged and I had to replace the back wheel. And yet, on this track I encountered the surprise of the stone carved cross:
And even though I wouldn’t want to do it again, I’m still glad I did it the first time, because I wouldn’t want to have missed it. A strange parallel: I can think of mistakes in my life that I wouldn’t want to make again, but I wouldn’t change it if I had the time again, because of what has come out of it. And again, thinking about what comes out of it, Gerry Hughes says:
…reaching my destination is of minor importance compared with the lessons I learned through the journey itself.
Again, this rings true. I have my accommodation already booked and a set number of miles to cycle in order to get there – direction and purpose. But the road is unfamiliar to me. It is mapped out, and I set off, possibly with some ideas about where and when I will stop, but it doesn’t always happen in the way I have planned. In terms of where I stopped to pray, these were left mostly to be encountered on the way, trusting that I would find Him there on the journey.
God is on the journey all the time, not just at the end of it.
I found it to be the case. There was one place I traveled through, and it was lunchtime and raining, so a good time to stop. But the place was dedicated to Mammon, and I experienced such a revulsion there that I kept on going, shaking the dust off of my feet as I left. I ate my lunch sitting in a lay by on a busy road, contemplating the strength of the revulsion I had felt passing through the previous town.
St. Ignatius himself was of course a pilgrim, and in a far more serious way than I am describing here, or that I could even aspire to. Brian Grogan S.J. in his book about St Ignatius says:
The pilgrim is one who ventures into a foreign land, who makes himself an alien, who loses contact with the familiar props of his ordinary life, and who deprives himself of all help other than the charity that people show to those whom they do not know, but who have the indications of being poor.
In the film, The Way, the father character, played by Martin Sheen, is criticized by one of his fellow pilgrims because he has the back up of his credit card and his wealth. I felt this criticism, because I am fully aware of the structures I put in place to keep myself safe on my trip.
There is a tension here, as perhaps there is in all aspects of life – the need to make plans versus complete trust in God. Perhaps the physical journey, the pilgrimage, is a fractal pattern of the movement in life itself; from self reliance to complete trust and reliance on God and those He works through on our journey. We have to recognise God in others.
Each one of us lives within this Trinity, so my life is essentially a life of relatedness: a relatedness not only to the three divine persons but to every human being and to the whole of creation.