Amazing Grace

Part of an Art Installation in London, on Wilberforce and the Abolition of Slavery.

I watched the film Amazing Grace last week for the second time, about William Wilberforce and his long campaign leading the abolitionists to end slavery in the United Kingdom. There is much in the story that moved me, but there is one small, short, and maybe even overlooked scene, that remains with me, and indeed did so after the first viewing of the film (about 14 minutes 8 secs into the film). It takes place just after he has sung Amazing Grace to the politicians. Wilberforce is in his grounds admiring plant life and spiders webs, and has an open conversation with his butler about how God has found him. He says:

It’s God. I have ten thousand engagements of state today but I would prefer to spend the day out here, getting a wet arse, studying dandilions and marvelling at spiders webs.

William Wilberforce, from the film Amazing Grace,

And the scripture readings from last week, about Martha and Mary, also fed into my thoughts. It is the tension between contemplation and action: something I definitely feel daily, as I expect many people do in the busy, pressured world we live in. I am also reminded of The Way of Paradox, by Cyprian Smith:

When I emerge from a state of inner withdrawal and abandonment to God in prayer, and take up my duties in the everyday world, I am establishing a flow of energy whereby light, life, wisdom and power of heaven enter our world to enliven and transform it.

The Way of Paradox, Spiritual Life as taught by Meister Eckhart. Cyprian Smith

To me, the tension is necessary: it is creative. The desire for God is there, and becomes stronger, or perhaps we become more sensitive to it, as we practise prayer, and engage in the examen habitually. And this deepening relationship with God drives our action, according to our own personal vocation – there is no alternative. When we say Yes to God, it becomes our will too. It is the Contemplatio in the Spiritual Exercises:

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

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

I guess the process is to ensure that with our cooperation and as far as we are able, we maintain the balance in our lives and flow appropriately from contemplation to action and to contemplation: God’s amazing grace will do the rest.

If you want to walk on water…get out of the boat.

The Voyage of Brendan. Scanned from the Celtic Mandalas calendar by Jen Delyth. I’ve been buying and using this calendar every year for a long time, and I’ve been saving many of the images in my resource file for use in prayer. So much beauty and spirituality in her work. (Please click on the image to follow the link to her website.)

I played the Psalm 69 setting by Sons of Korah when I gave an assembly in school this week on the theme of: Facing our fears with courage. I took my inspiration from John Ortberg’s inspiring book, relating to the title of this post, and from Gerry W. Hughes S.J. from his book ” God in All Things” when he says:

Desire can only be controlled by a stronger desire.

Gerry W. Hughes S.J. God in All things

And I’m thinking here of the first being more superficial, inordinate desires born out of fear, perhaps leading to avoidance, sloth, self-loathing and other manifestations of spiritual desolation; and the stronger desire being that which is deeper, calling us into life, encouraging and strenghtening us, in other words, leading to spiritual consolation. While I talked about deeper desire and fear as something that gets in the way of it in my assembly, here, I want to focus on the video clip I showed from the film “The Shack”, (firstly a book) and to observe the movement in it in the context of an example, hypothetical or otherwise, of imaginative contemplation on the gospel passage where Jesus, and then Peter, walks on the water. (Matthew 14: 22-33)

Prayer card on Imaginative Contemplation. This may be printed onto A6 card (or bigger) to have in your prayer spot if it helps to remind you of the flow.

It might be worth filling in a little bit of background to the character. On a camping trip, Mack jumped into the lake to save his son from drowning when he got stuck in a capsised canoe. Unfortunately, Mack left his youngest daughter unattended at the camper van and she was abducted. All they found was her bloodied dress in an old shack in the forest. Mack has been tormented ever since. In this scene, Jesus has invited him to take the boat onto the lake to enjoy the peace and beauty of the place.

Mack’s imaginative contemplation of the gospel passage where Jesus walks on the water.

To begin with, we see the place: the peacefulness of the lake: we hear the birds and the paddles in the water, and can almost feel the breeze on our skin and the sun on our face. Mack is in the scene, rowing and he stops to let the peace sink in. It has been a while since he felt anything close to this peacefulness. And then the fear creeps in, anxious fear, despairing fear: and it pulls him away from the graced state of consolation he was momentarily in. In this turmoil, Jesus calls to him:

Look at me. Trust me. I’m not going anywhere.

And so Mack is interacting within the scene. Although there are recognisable elements, his experience of it does not follow the same plot as the gospel passage and that is not important; it is not something we should try to enforce. The imaginative contemplation takes a life of its own, as we trust in God to be with us, where we are; we experience Him up close and personal when we pray in this way. And of course, there is the colloquy towards the end of the scene, the conversation, where one friend speaks to another. Here, Jesus gently challenges Mack’s image of God and reveals what His desire is: to see people change by knowing Papa, to feel what it is like to be truly loved.

I would love to slow down the movement from the creeping fear to stepping out of the boat, to know more about what was going on in Mack during those moments. I would also want to know how it was for him to tell Jesus that he didn’t think he had ever felt like that. And I wonder how he felt at Jesus’ response to him saying that. I notice that these moments may be rich with spiritual fruit and that Mack might benefit from repetition of these points from his prayer.

When it is our deep desire connecting us to God that is driving us to do the things we do, fear may be present and it may even feel pervasive, but when we look at Him, and keep looking at Him, we find the courage to face those fears, and our trust in God deepens. Imaginative contemplation is one method of prayer that can help us to feel the depth of our own, and God’s desire.

More music – as a prayer to close.

Hillsong United: Oceans

How does He look at me?

The flow through an Ignatian prayer period. You can print it onto A6 card to keep in your prayer spot.

A discussion recently on the question at the beginning of a prayer period “How does He look at me?” has been occupying my thoughts. The question is posed in this way to provoke me to:

…consider that God our Lord beholds me, etc

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

and for me, it is an important addition, because it has an impact on my prayer and my response to God. Please allow me to use, by way of analogy, a creature from the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to explain my perception.

Consider infinite God, outwith space and time, represented by the occamy in it’s giant state at the beginning of the scene. He sees me in my past, present and future…who I was, who I am and who I will become. The open teapot represents me when I still myself before Him in prayer, and try to connect with how He is looking at me in the present moment, and the relative smallness of it represents my capacity for God. In order for God to meet me in the present, in my here and now, He moves from His capacious infinity, to my limited capacity: like the occamy at the end of the scene, God makes Himself small in order to meet me where I am. It’s almost as if He focuses and thinks:

Ah, this is who you are, at this moment, in this space and time.

My soul senses this movement in God, and feels the pain of it – I am not who He sees when He looks at me. It is not a desolating, self loathing “I am a worm” realisation; it is the honest and humble knowledge of myself as a loved sinner before my almighty, all loving God, who treasures me and regards me as precious, and His. It provokes in me the desire to become the person He sees when He looks at me. It is a beautiful paradox. I desire to become the person He sees and desires me to become because I sense in His movement that I am not yet the person He sees and desires me to become. For me, considering how He beholds me in the here and now, near the beginning of my prayer, is a significant practice in helping me to feel the reality of wanting to become the person He sees when He looks at me. I’m not that person, but I really want to be.