Glorious and Impassible

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

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

Glorious and Impassible 1: Reading of this post.

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

He is glorious and impassible…

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

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

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

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

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

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

On day 16 of my journey, Julian writes:

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

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

and:

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

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

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

I want, doesn’t get.

In God in All Things Gerard W. Hughes writes:

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

God in All Things, Gerard W. Hughes

and he also says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When much light and understanding are derived through experience of desolations and consolations and discernment of diverse spirits.

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

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

After such a choice or decision, the one who has made it must turn with great diligence to prayer in the presence of God our Lord, and offer Him his choice that the Divine Majesty may deign to accept and confirm it if it is for His greater service and praise.

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

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

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

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

…how he goads them on…

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

And of Jesus he says:

…by attracting them to the highest spiritual poverty…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imaginative Contemplation: The Raising of Lazarus

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Cycle A

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

John 11:1-45:

The Death of Lazarus

11 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,[a] ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus[b] was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11 After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12 The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin,[c] said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

Jesus the Resurrection and the Life

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus[d] had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles[e] away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23 Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24 Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25 Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.[f] Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27 She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,[g] the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

Jesus Weeps

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37 But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40 Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

The Plot to Kill Jesus

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Imaginative Contemplation: The Raising of Lazarus, guided prayer

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

Love and Law

Les Miserables has been playing at the Theatre Royal in Norwich this week. I love that musical, and I love the book by Victor Hugo. The interplay between Javert and Jean Val Jean, to me, is all about the question of love and law, of sin and righteousness.

In bible study we have also been looking at Matthew’s gospel and the interplay between Jesus and the Pharisees; noticing them laying traps for Jesus regarding the Law, and how Jesus deals with them deftly.

I also laughed at a picture of a cat that had been circulating on the internet. The cat had caught sight of itself in two mirrors at the same time and where the phrase “existential crisis” had been applied to it. I also caught sight of that phrase in an article somewhere this week, but I did not have time to stop and read the article immediately, and now that I want to, I cannot remember where it was. Frustrating, but there we are. The brief line I read mentioned it as being when your whole belief system was called in to question, and the suggestion was that support structures could crumble…I think. Anyway, the phrase has been on my mind.

There is a confrontation scene in Les Miserables, where Javert has recognised Jean Val Jean for the criminal that escaped his parole so many years ago and it gives us a key insight into Javert. He was born in a prison and has pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become the respectable police captain. He is also a righteous man, who believes in God and lives a moral life according to the law, which he believes is God’s law. He sees Val Jean as a criminal, a thief, and as he sings here, scum. Not very loving, granted, but that is the point. Javert is obedient to the law, and it is this structure that has prevented him being what he was born into: It has saved him from the fate and life of a criminal, the life that Val Jean lived for so long, so there is no wriggle room for Javert regarding the law. I feel a lot of compassion for Javert, he does what he believes to be right.

And Val Jean had become what Javert believed him to be after being imprisoned for years for stealing some bread to feed his sister’s child: a bitter, angry and hardened man. Until that is, he stole some silver ware from a bishop after being paroled, and the bishop showed him forgiveness, love, and challenged him to live differently. Here is Val Jean’s existential crisis, his paradigm shift, when he came to know himself as a loved sinner. We see in Val Jean the grace of the first week of the spiritual exercises:

Here it will be to ask for 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.

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

With such persons the good spirit uses a method … Making use of the light of reason, he will rouse the sting of conscience and fill them with remorse.

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

Although Val Jean is experiencing great turmoil of spirits in this scene and it is both moving and painful, ultimately, his struggle is spiritual consolation: it leads to a deepened faith in God and to a resolution to live differently, an election if you like. It is to be noted that it was the forgiveness and love, and yes, the lie, of the bishop, that precipitated this crisis in Val Jean. The bishop did not adhere to the law and turn Val Jean in when Val Jean committed the theft, in fact, he gave him more silverware, and it was his choice of love above the law which led to the Val Jean’s spiritual transformation.

I love both of these characters. They show us two possibilities for living and for making choices: they show us the importance of love and its transforming power, and warn of the dangers of too strict adherence to the law, religiosity. I mentioned this before in the story of the man picking up a piece of truth and turning it into a belief. It is what happens to Javert over the years: his uncompromising belief in the law leads him to pride and to a lack of faith in God. When faced with compassion from Val Jean, who has the opportunity to kill Javert and be rid of his relentless hunting of him but instead chooses to spare Javert, and more, to hand himself over to him, Javert’s whole belief system starts to crumble and he too experiences an existential crisis. Unlike Val Jean though, Javert does not turn to God. We get the sense here that Javert has never experienced love, and has never experienced God as love, only as law giver and punisher. Here, in his suicide scene, Javert experiences the ultimate desolation of spirits:

Emotional health warning: this scene is very upsetting and depicts Javert’s suicide.

I call desolation what is entirely the opposite of what is described in the third rule, as darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord. For just as consolation is the opposite of desolation, so the thoughts that spring from consolation are the opposite of those that spring from desolation.

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

Javert says:

I have nowhere left to go.

And to me, this is the tragedy, and I grieve for poor, lost Javert. If only someone had loved him, if only he had been able to recognise himself as loved, if only he had turned to God in this moment. I volunteered for a helpline some years ago whose function is to be there for people contemplating suicide. And it seems to me that when people are so deeply into desolation like that, they believe themselves to be unworthy of love. From their perspective, their loved ones love them because they are nice people, not because they themselves are worthy of love. It took more than thirty years for Javert to reach this point, and it was a path he was walking. In the case of others, how, when, how frequently are loving interventions required to encourage another soul to walk a different path?

In the gospels, one of my favourite interactions with Jesus is with the rich young man. We are told:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him…

Mark 10:21

Jesus loved him, before He said anything else, Jesus really looked at him and loved him. And we do not know what this young man did next, after going away sad. I like to think that this interaction set him on a different path, that the disturbance it caused within him led to him following, just as Jesus had invited him to. Sometimes, it takes a while for discernment to be made and commitments to be realised. But, we will never know. It is important to act out of love always, simply for that reason, we might never know the effect of our words, actions and the way we are towards people.

And so, I would end with the words from Les Miserable that once were spoken:

To love another person is to see the face of God.

Les Miserables

and with more music, offered as a prayer:

The Paradigm Shift

The Paradigm Shift 1 : Reading of this post

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

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

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

Life Psalm

I belong to my God and His desire is for me

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

I met Him in the mountains and lochs,

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

I met Him in the silence and the secret places.

I called Him with His sign.

I belong to my God and His desire is for me

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

But I was distracted and looked away.

I don’t want to talk about it because every

Day without Him hurt just a little bit more

And I had probably been crying forever.

I belong to my God and His desire is for me

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

He met me in the quiet of the morning.

He took my hand and danced with me,

Leaving only the memory.

He told me this will heal

Because Love is here, and Love is real.

I belong to my Love and His desire is for me

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

How beautiful is my Love; how amazing.

I yearn for my Love; to be only His.

He forms the pattern and the script of my days.

His desires are mine; my desires are His.

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

I belong to my Love and His desire is for me

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

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

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

How do I live with this?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Emily Dickinson

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

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

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

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

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

to an unhesitant yes.

It is given.

It is what Ignatius means by The Suscipe Prayer:

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

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

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

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

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

I desire it.

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

Robin Laing: When Two Hearts Combine

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 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

On Speaking Pleasantly.

Altar in the Lady Chapel in Ely Cathedral
On Speaking pleasantly 1: Reading of this post.

No foul word should ever cross your lips; let your words be for the improvement of others, as occasion offers, and do good to your listeners.

Ephesians 4:29; The New Jerusalem Bible

A friend of mine at church recently commented on my choice use of language on some of my social media posts (asterix’s included) and my jocular, but nevertheless aggressive expression of the violence in my heart being incongruent (my words, not my friend’s) with my practice as a spiritual director, and how I am when I am leading sessions on prayer. Quite right, I say. My friend has spoken truthfully, and with love, as Paul encourages us to do in his letters. Swearing is an issue for me, I hold my hands up to that particular fault, and it is not my intention to justify it here: it is not a good thing generally speaking and it makes nice people feel uncomfortable. There has been some discernment in my life around this subject however, and it is that process I want to share here.

I was not brought up to swear; quite the opposite in fact. It was definitely frowned upon at home growing up. I developed the habit when I started playing football in my twenties.

I say dear girl, that was rather a harsh tackle!

Is not really conducive to picking yourself up off the ground again and going after the ball. There needs to be a shorter, more motivational phrase in that situation. And where I come from, there is also the prevailing attitude that you get your studs in first, to use a contextual footballing analogy. So, there is evident a transition from who I was and from where I have come, to who I am becoming.

On my annual 8 day IGR the year before I made The Spiritual Exercises – the Song of Songs retreat, a story for another day – I discerned after a lectio divina on one of Paul’s letters, a feeling of discomfort at my own, and persistent use of uncouth language. I decided that I would stop swearing, and only “speak pleasantly” in the future. It took me about three days in the silence of the retreat to stop swearing in my self conversation. It is amazing how deeply embedded such language is when it is a habit. When I came out of the retreat, I was no longer speaking these words out loud and it was noticed by people around me. So what changed? Why has this unpleasant habit grown in me again?

My situation changed within months of returning from the Exercises a year and a half later; I found myself bombarded with persistent, aggressive and undermining hostility daily, for a sustained period of time, which was desolating to my spirit. In my morning prayer, I always asked for the graces of strength and courage to face the situation, and so I faced it, and stood against it. One of the ways the enemy works, as described by Ignatius in The Spiritual Exercises is the following:

The conduct of our enemy may also be compared to the tactics of a leader intent upon seizing and plundering a position he desires. A commander and leader of an army will encamp, explore the fortifications and defenses of the stronghold, and attack at the weakest point. In the same way, the enemy of our human nature investigates from every side all our virtues, theological, cardinal and moral. Where he finds the defenses of eternal salvation weakest and most deficient, there he attacks and tries to take us by storm.

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

I draw attention to the relevant phrase I have put in bold type. I maintained my pleasant, if firm and composed, speech throughout, both while the situation was in play, and in private, until I read, as part of my studying of the art of spiritual direction, that unexpressed anger can be turned inward and lead to depression: I immediately recognised what was happening within me, that the desolating voices were like a buzzing, flickering light bulb, destroying my faith in myself and my belief in my ability to fulfill my calling and they were using my virtue to ensure that a powerful sword against those voices was left in the scabbard.

St Patrick’s Breastplate Mandala
On Speaking pleasantly 2: Reading of this post.

Ignatius also suggests how to resist the enemy:

…the enemy becomes weak, loses courage, and turns to flight with his seductions as soon as one leading a spiritual life faces his temptations boldly, and does exactly the opposite of what he suggests.

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

Or let me put it another way through a story given in The Song of The Bird, by Anthony de Mello:

The devil once went for a walk with a friend. They saw a man ahead of them stoop down and pick something up from the ground.

“What did that man find?” asked the friend.

“A piece of truth”, said the devil.

Doesn’t that disturb you?” asked the friend.

“No”, said the devil, “I’ll let him make a belief out of it.”

The Song of The Bird, Anthony de Mello

Or, another way, concerning scruples, Ignatius says:

If one has a delicate conscience, the evil one seeks to make it excessively sensitive, in order to disturb and upset it more easily.

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

And:

A soul that wishes to make progress in the spiritual life must always act in a manner contrary to that of the enemy.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl
Ironwork from a garden seat at Penhurst Retreat Centre.
On Speaking pleasantly 3: Reading of this post.

The conversation with a spiritual director is very helpful in discerning when our own virtue and delicate conscience is being turned against us. I will never forget the moment in my meeting with my director, when I described that buzzing, flickering light bulb and how those critical voices were telling me how rubbish I was and how incapable I was for the role that God had called me to. When I verbalised this “self talk”, the foul words I was internalising, I was shocked. I understood in that moment the strength of the pull of desolation, and how important my daily pleas for the graces of strength and courage were, and how God was always there, pouring his grace out so that I was not overwhelmed by it. Neither will I forget His strength surge within me when the next time, in private, I let out a torrent of expletives and expressed my fury. Until this point, I had been a gardener in a war, and at last, I brought my warrior to the war and was now using weapons that God had not forbidden me to use.

In a different biblical translation, the phrase I began with reads:

29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[a] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

Ephesians 4:29 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition (NRSVACE)

I am reflecting that the evil talk can also be the desolating voices we listen to within ourselves. Discernment about where these voices are leading us is the point of the second part of the phrase. It is important to notice the effect these voices are having on our soul. At a bible study session I went to when I was a student, the priest leading it told us that when Jesus responded to the news of Herod beheading John the Baptist, He said:

Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.

Luke 13:32

And that the modern equivalent of calling Herod a “fox” would be to call him a “bastard”. Whether that is true or not, clearly Jesus is not speaking pleasantly about Herod, and His words here certainly inspire me with strength and encouragement in speaking out. Neither is Jesus speaking pleasantly when He says to the scribes and pharisees:

You snakes, you brood of vipers!

Matthew 23:33

So, the context matters. When we use strong language to stand up to and speak out against evil, we might not be speaking pleasantly, but it does not make it “evil talk” . When the effect is to strengthen and encourage, to build up ourselves and others in facing up to temptations boldly, then perhaps it is completely appropriate. Each occasion and context requires discernment. So as far as I am concerned, my friend at church is right, perhaps sometimes my use of strong language is inappropriate, and it is something I resolve to amend.

I’m not a feminist but…

I’m not a feminist but…1 : Reading of this post

I am kidding. I am a feminist, and I make no apologies for it. It seems to be a contentious statement though, hence people always start the sentence with a denial, and I am wondering how you are feeling right now as you are reading this post? The first time I encountered formal feminism was when I was sixteen at an Open Day for Glasgow University (I think it was Glasgow) when I visited the table run by the FemSoc, the Feminist Society. I think that is what they were called at that time. I picked up a badge which said:

Women who want to be equal to men lack ambition.

It made me laugh, and I picked up a card which read:

Standing up and fighting like a man is easier than sitting down and writing like a woman.

I did not understand that statement then, and even though I pinned this card on my notice board for years, I am still not sure I understand it. I am sitting here writing now, and I would much rather be doing this activity than fighting! Maybe, it is that I just do not agree with it.

In my 40 Day Journey this week, Julian has been considering Mary, Jesus’ mother, and how she was:

… marvelling with great reverence that He was willing to be born of her who was a simple creature created by Him.

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

This prayer was very fruitful for me. I have always found the familiar images of Mary problematic – she has not exactly been presented as a feminist icon, but I will pick up that story another day perhaps. For the moment, I simply want to acknowledge there is an area to talk about here. I also noticed, when I did the imaginative contemplation on the Annunciation during the Spiritual Exercises, that when she agreed to walk this particular path with God, even though she was betrothed to Joseph, at no point did she say to Gabriel:

Well, I really would like to, but I need to check it out with Joe first, just to make sure that he is okay with it.

I’m not a feminist but…2 : Reading of this post

In other words, she submitted herself to God’s authority without stopping to consider any social conventions of her being subject to a man’s authority, or even his feelings; and she had no doubts that she had a right to do so. To my mind, it makes her a feminist.

I have been very much influenced in my understanding of scripture by reading that I did when I was studying for the Catholic Certificate of Religious Education (CRE) when I first became a teacher. I studied four modules on scripture, two on the Old Testament and two on the New Testament and read further than directed because I was so thirsty to learn more. Three books that changed my perspective and how I interact with scripture were: “What’s right with Feminism?” by Elaine Storkey – I said earlier that I had attended a talk given by her; “Wives, Harlots and Concubines, The Old Testament in Feminist Perspective” by Alice L. Laffey; and “In a Different Voice” by Carol Gilligan. The latter book I had read as part of my teacher training, rather than the CRE correspondance course I did in conjunction with Strawberry Hill College, as it was then.

There is a classic hypothetical scenario, The Heinz Dilemma, designed by Lawrence Kohlberg, presented to people in psychological studies and their answers are analysed, not necessarily for their solution, but for the reasoning behind their solution. There is a video resource that I have used in science lessons that presents the scenario to prepubescent children and then follows them through puberty and presents it again three years later to demonstrate how the brain changes during puberty and we become capable of more complex reasoning and able to cope more with grey areas. The scenario goes along these lines:

A man has a wife who is very ill and is dying from her illness. The pharmacist down the street has a medicine that can cure her, but it is expensive. The man is poor and cannot afford to buy the medicine. Should he steal it? Discuss.

Traditional psychologists used answers and reasoning given to this scenario by boys and girls to surmise that men were rational and logical and that women were emotional, with the underlying assumption that rational was superior. Gilligan offers a different interpretation of the results than traditional male psychologists. She argues that men and women reason differently and that their reasoning was based in part on how they were defined by society and how they defined themselves. Men, she points out, were more likely to define themselves in terms of position and status, whereas women were more likely to define themselves in terms of their relationships. I spent a short period noticing it whenever people introduced themselves to me at the time, or when they introduced themselves on quiz shows on the television. Men might say:

I’m James, and I’m an engineer from London.

and women might say:

I’m Mary, wife of David and mother of two fantastic teenage boys.

I notice it less so these days, nearly thirty years later, but then again, I am not looking out for it so much and I got rid of my television. We can see this bias in scripture too: many women are unnamed and are identified in terms of their husbands or sons, for example Bathsheba is simply referred to as the wife of Uriah in Matthew’s genealogy, the woman with the haemorrhage is unnamed. On the other hand, men are named, and defined in terms of their position in society: Luke defines Zaccheus as the chief tax collector. Men are rarely defined in terms of their relationships, without any reference to their position or status, the Roman centurion whose servant was ill, for example. Of course, there may be many contradictory examples on both points,and there are also the gender roles of the time to take into context too. I am not offering it here as a hard and fast rule.

The point Gilligan makes regarding the moral dilemma is that men argued from a position based on status and position, and sought a solution to the problem from a legalistic perspective, whether the man should or should not steal the medicine. Women generally refused to accept that premise, and sought a solution around building a relationship with the pharmacist in order to find an arrangement to obtain the medicine.

I’m not a feminist but…3 : Reading of this post

In my engagement with scripture, subsequent to my reading, I started to notice that there were women, like Mary, who accepted God’s authority, without making any reference to male authority figures – Samson’s mother for example. When her husband does get involved and makes a fuss around all sorts of protocols regarding burnt offerings, and asking questions regarding what had already been discussed with the woman, I imagine the angel looking at her and rolling his eyes as he says to him:

Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her.

Judges 13:13

I also notice that when Jesus interacts with people, it is always from the perspective or relationship. I mentioned the woman with the haemorrhage before. From a legalistic perspective, this woman could have been stoned for defiling a religious leader, but He draws her into relationship and claims her as kin. The Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 – from a legalistic perspective, this conversation should not have taken place: she is a woman not of his kin, he is a man; she is of a different social group where there are tensions with Jesus’ people; but again, He draws her into conversation and relationship. And we are familiar with Jesus being critical of the legalism of the scribes and the pharisees. It seems to me that from the psychological perspective, Jesus reasons like women do with emphasis on loving and cooperative relationship. It is not surprising, given the idea of the Holy Trinity: relationship is where it is at.

I’m not a feminist but…4 : Reading of this post

The most striking affirmation that Jesus gives to my mind is in the story of Martha and Mary. Mary takes on what might be considered as the man’s role, sitting and talking with Jesus, while her sister, Martha, runs around, doing all the women’s business by making sure the practicalities and hospitality are sorted out. How often do we see this pattern today? For me, the most fantastic and liberating thing happens when Jesus says:

It is Mary who has chosen the better part, and it is not to be taken from her.

Luke 10:42

He makes it clear, that a woman does have a choice in her own life and that others have an obligation to accept those choices and to not try to exercise control over those decisions. I am a feminist because He affirms my belief that I have autonomy in my soul and free will: I have a right to choose to surrender myself to His authority once and for all and every day and it is for me to discern my choices through prayer and my relationships with others and the church. And if it brings me into conflict with any man who is insisting I accept his authority first, what then? Should I obey a man and disobey God? I am a feminist, because my answer to that question is no, and I believe that I have every right to give that answer. It is my right to make Ignatius’ suscipe prayer my own:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

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

I make no apologies for it.

I have linked to this film clip before, but since it is entirely relevant here, I will link to it again.

What do you find attractive about Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you find attractive in the teachings of Jesus?

God In All Things ,Gerard W. Hughes

And he goes on to say:

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

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

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

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

The best sermon is a good example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who would He have me be?

and the second part is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Alchemist, Paul Coelho

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

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

The Alchemist, Paul Coelho

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

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

Henry David Thoreau

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

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

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

and in the personal reflections the question is asked:

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

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

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

Ever in my Mouth.

Ever in my mouth 1: Reading of this post.

When I made the Exercises a few years ago, I did an imaginative contemplation on the nativity at the beginning of the second week. I remember being my inner child, around the age of three or four, and I was the daughter of the innkeeper and his wife. It was late in the evening and my mother was out in the shed with the guests, helping to deliver the baby. I remember hearing a new born baby cry, and I ran to the shed, in my white pillow case dress, and sandals, calling out excitedly:

Can I see the new baby? Can I see the new baby?

My mother tried to calm me down and to usher me away – probably as much to protect me from witnessing the aftermath of childbirth as to protect the new mother and baby from an over excited child who is unable to contain herself, but Mary said it was fine and allowed me to come close to her and the baby, with a warm smile. I sat calmly beside her and looked at the baby, with His unfocused eyes, and I asked:

Can I smell Him? Can I touch Him? Can I hold Him?

She said yes to all of the above and so I breathed Him in deeply, I touched His forehead softly, and I leaned against the wall and sat still as she placed Him on my lap and I held Him carefully in my arms.

And I asked her softly:

What’s his name?

His name is Jesus.

She replied. I sat there with Him in my lap and repeated it again and again. An over excited child – stilled and in awe.

Ever in my mouth 2: Reading of this post.

I have noticed that since The Spiritual Exercises, my experience of the liturgy has deepened. Whenever there is part of the gospel during the year that I had prayed with then, I am again placed in the story and interacting once more within it and experiencing the spiritual consolation I received at the time. The graces of the Exercises remain. Ignatius advises us to store up such consolations to sustain us during times of spiritual desolation. It is also worth noting that times of desolation are to be expected and cannot be avoided. What is within our power is to do what we are able to in order to deal with them. It might be a bit like dwelling on memories of the times of tenderness and love shown with a loved one when they are not there and you miss them. He says:

When one enjoys consolation, let him consider how he will conduct himself during the time of ensuing desolation, and store up a supply of strength as defense against that day.

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

And Ignatius also says:

On the other hand, one who suffers desolation should remember that by making use of the sufficient grace offered him. he can do much to withstand all his enemies. Let him find his strength in his Creator and Lord.

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

Sometimes, when I find that I have again placed myself in a particular contemplation I made during the Exercises it is like a repetition and there is something new, something relevant for the situation today and a deepening of understanding: the story or conversation may change in the small details or emphasis. The original consolation is still there and there is even more given on top of it. Often there are tears. Ignatius frequently references copious amounts of tears as spiritual consolation. For someone who prefers to go into her room and close the door to pray, it feels awkward to cry in public, but sometimes, impossible to hold it back.

I am aware that I have made two contradictory points about names in the past. On the one hand:

That which we call a rose

by any other name would smell as sweet.

Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

and that to know the true name of something or someone is to have power over it or them. To hold both of these ideas as true is perhaps paradoxical and I am drawn to paradox. The name “Jesus”, or “Yeshua” as He was actually called, means:

God saves.

Ascension press, Matthew: The King and His Kingdom bible study program.

Jesus is as Jesus does, or Jesus does as Jesus is. If I say His name again and again as I did as a small child in the imaginative contemplation I described above, does that mean I have power over Him as happens in fantasy fiction or as was the belief in His time? Quite the opposite I would say. In repeating His name, I gradually relinquish power I may have in the gift of free will and surrender myself to His desires for me: I accept His power over me. It is as if, by repeating His name again and again, I am calling on the seed of God within me to grow.

The seed of God is in us. Now the seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree; and a hazel seed grows into a hazel tree; a seed of God grows into God.

Meister Eckhart

Some years ago I went to another event run by the Norwich Christian Meditation Centre. Lawrence Freeman delivered a talk and a practice session on Christian meditation. It basically involved taking a sacred word, phrase or name as a mantra, and repeating it over and over in the mind. Possibilities he suggested: Maranatha; Come Holy Spirit; Jesus. The Jesus prayer, or Centering prayer involves a similar process:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

In the film “Layer Cake” – it is a violent gangster movie, so if you are sensitive, here is my health warning – there is a scene where one of the gangsters takes apart a gun: they are getting ready to go into battle. He tells the other gangster that it is like meditation and describes meditation as:

…concentrating the front of your mind on a mundane task so that the rest of the mind can find peace.

Warning: swearing and weapons scene, allusion to violence and murder. I’m not advocating violence here.
Ever in my mouth 3: Reading of this post.

Personally, I think that it is an excellent description of meditation- although I would refute His name as being something mundane, obviously. If His name is ever in my mouth, if it is the conversation I have with my own mind, I become as my small inner child did when holding the baby Jesus on her lap: stilled and in awe. The back of my mind is freed up not to worry because I surrender to Him and I trust in Him completely. To me, it is the meaning of serenity.