Praying with Images: 1 Corinthians 3

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

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

Emergence. Jen Delyth

1 Corinthians 3:16-23

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

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

‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’,

20 and again,

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

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

Praying with Images: 1 Corinthians 3: Guided Prayer

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

Positive Penance

Positive Penance 1: Reading of the post.

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

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

Positive Penance 2: Reading of the post.

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

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

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

Catechism of the Catholic  Church; (539)

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

Catechism of the Catholic Church; (540)

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

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

1 John 2:15-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignatius gives reasons for doing penance:

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

(i) To make satisfaction for past sins;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gerard W. Hughes, God in All Things

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

Positive Penance 4: Reading of the post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignatius separates penance into interior and exterior:

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

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

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

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

Positive Penance 7: Reading of the post.

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

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

Positive Penance 8: Reading of this post.

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

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

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

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

So , here is a question for you:

What personal penance are you planning for the forthcoming lent?

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

Imaginative Contemplation: Matthew 5: 21-26

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

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

Concerning Anger

21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,[c] you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult[d] a brother or sister,[e] you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell[f] of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister[g] has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,[h] and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court[i] with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

Imaginative Contemplation: Matthew 5: 21-26: Guided Prayer

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

Lectio Divina: Isaiah 58:7-10

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

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

Isaiah 58:7-10

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.

Lectio Divina Isaiah 58: 7-10 Guided prayer

Background music is the album: Keith Halligan – Lifestyle Meditation, Global Journey  0

Imaginative Contemplation: Matthew 4:18-23

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

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

Matthew 4:12-23

Jesus Begins His Ministry in Galilee

12 Now when Jesus[a] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
    on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
    light has dawned.’

17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’[b]

Jesus Calls the First Disciples

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus Ministers to Crowds of People

23 Jesus[c] went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news[d] of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Imaginative Contemplation Matthew 4: 18-23, Guided Prayer

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

Praying with Images: The Baptism of Jesus

The Baptism of Jesus, Year A.

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

I am using a new microphone I bought with some vouchers I received as a gift at Christmas. I hope you find the sound quality an improvement.

The Baptism of Jesus

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15 But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,[a] with whom I am well pleased.’

Praying with Images: The Baptism of Jesus, guide prayer

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

Retreat Day: Positive Penance. 15 February 2020

I am running this retreat day, based on the tenth addition of The Spiritual Exercises, to prepare for lent. If you are thinking that you would like to enter more deeply into this special season of the church and you are able to get yourself there, you are most welcome. Please let me know, by leaving a comment or email, if you do intend to be there (not written in stone) just to help me to estimate the numbers of resources I need to prepare. And please do share with anyone you think may be interested. Thank you.

Imaginative Contemplation: The Birth of Jesus

Christmas Day

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

Luke 2:15-20

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Imaginative Contemplation Luke 2: 15-20, guided prayer

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

What's the Story?

What’s the Story? 1: Reading of this post.

As I have been contemplating this week’s post, there has been a voice in my head saying:

The stories are getting in the way!

I have thinking that this was the voice of God, and feeling a little guilty because of my resistance; I have continued to read another chapter or five of the fiction book I had picked up, or watch another couple of episodes of Grimm. I have no television, but my daughter has a Netflix account, so occasionally I succumb when I am tired, stressed or ill. I try to keep it to films, because they are complete within themselves, and box sets lure me in and I become immersed in them. I am the same way with fiction, so I usually save that kind of reading for the holidays. I bought three fiction books last weekend and I have already read two of them and the holidays have only begun. Oops.

As I was making breakfast the other morning, and thinking about the post I was trying to write and not feeling it flow, again I heard the voice:

The stories are getting in the way! You are never going to get your post written, you have nothing to say.

I noticed how jarring the voice was, how critical: water on a stone. And then I listened for the softer, gentler, more loving sound, the drop of water on the sponge.

The stories you have engaged with are about stories. It is all about the story.

What’s the Story? 2: Reading of this post.

So here is a different post to the one I had planned to write. I loved fairy tales when I was a child, and I was a voracious reader. The Grimm’s tales haunted me, they were indeed grim, with their darkness, coldness and cruelty. One time when I was talking to my spiritual director about getting lost in a book, he asked me what kind of books drew me? Rather than criticise myself for being distracted by the story, it was more to notice what it was that attracted me to what I was reading, or watching. I thought about it and realised that I was drawn to fantasy and it was about swords, magic and dragons. The fantasy genre typically has an underdog, often with unknown or hidden – even from themselves – identity, with supernatural powers, who ends up becoming a saviour, a hero. In my preferred stories, there is some moral ambiguity, something to wrestle with – the villains have redeeming qualities and the heroes have weaknesses.

I notice the parallels: a poor baby born in a stable – the underdog; the supernatural power – the miracles of Jesus; in Celtic spirituality, dragons accompanied God, so here, disciples; and of course the sword that pierced His side, or even the sword as symbol for the cross. In my mind there is always the mystery, the question – did Jesus always know His identity or was it something He had to grow into? In my prayer experience of the second week of the exercises, it was something He discovered, but I am not trained in theology, so I am not offering that as an answer, simply a description of my prayer experience.

In the book I have just finished, Strange The Dreamer by Laini Taylor, there is a key turning point where our hero, Lazlo Strange, a lowly librarian with a very vivid imagination and dreams, steps out of himself in a heartfelt plea to the warrior strangers to take him with them to the land he has always dreamt of, and where they are from. The recommendation he makes for himself, much to the palpable disapproval of his society is:

I know a lot of stories.

His words had come spilling out in answer to his own question:

Who am I ? What do I have to offer?

His self doubt came rushing in as soon as the words left his mouth: his adversary laughed, but the head of the warriors did not. They took Lazlo with them.

As a spiritual director, I listen to other people telling me their story, and it is the story of their own relationship with God. I listen for where He is moving and working in their stories, for where there is connection and transformation in response to that connection. I also listen out for the touch of that opposed to God, the critical voice, the self doubt; where the volition is to disrupt, to spoil and to slow down the movement towards God, in an effort to reverse it completely. I am aware when I am listening that it is not my story, but nevertheless, when I recognise the presence of God in the story of the person in front of me, it moves me and quite literally brings me out in goosebumps.

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

Miss Garnet’s Angel, Salley Vickers

As for my own story, I am telling of it here, in these pages. My tales are infused with my prayer and lived experience of God: the images I think in all tell of my history with Him as it has built up and ingrained itself in my memory. It is also His story, because He is at the centre of it, He is the reason for it.

And so to “the reason for the season”, as a popular caption appears at this time every year, it is part of His story, retold at Carol services, school nativity plays, at church every year. The Incarnation – His story, His intervention in our world. It is easy to grow cynical and bored with the familiar, to allow the commercialisation of Christmas to distract from and corrupt what is there at the heart of it. I remember one Christmas when I was a teenager I decided not to “do Christmas” because I felt it to be commercialised and that it had lost its meaning. It was honestly the worst Christmas I have ever experienced, because even though I sang the carols and went to mass, I had missed the whole point: love, plain and simply, love. My family had respected my rebellion and had not expected any presents from me, or complained about the lack thereof, but they had not responded in kind: they gave gifts as they would have, unconditionally, and did not alter their behaviour in any way. I was moved by their generous response to my rebellion and I was miserable. If you really do not believe that it is better to give than to receive, try not giving in one of those places where we are encouraged to stop and remember those we love especially, and notice how it feels. For me, it did not feel like an emotional blackmail at my failure to conform to social convention, it felt like a missed opportunity. No more Grinch for me.

What’s the Story? 3: Reading of this post.

The story of the Incarnation illustrates the generosity of God: He does not hold back in His gift giving. One of my friends once told me that at mass, she had had the sense that God was listening to His story being told and that He loves it: He never tires of hearing us tell it. It reminds me of the scene from The Shack, where during dinner Mack has been telling the Holy Trinity about his family, and he comments that God knows all of this anyway. Sarayu (The Holy Spirit) replies by saying words to the effect of:

Yes, but we like to see it through your eyes.

In Ignatian Spirituality, one of the great gifts to prayer is imaginative contemplation. To enter into scripture as if we were there, to bring God into our bodies as it were, allows us to participate in God’s story and allows God to participate in our story in a way that is up close and personal. By using our memory and imagination, the first power of the soul, the story becomes real within us: it is no fantasy. God moves from being transcendent to being intimate, He comes alive within us. My story becomes His story, and His story becomes my story. It is the story of the Incarnation. To share our stories with each other is relationship and it is as true for God as is it for our family and friends. Far from getting in the way, stories draw us in, and God is to be found in the story.

Praying with Images: Expectant

Year A: Fourth Sunday of Advent

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

Vermeer: Woman Holding a Balance
Praying with Images: Expectant. Guided prayer.

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