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.

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.

Imaginative Contemplation: Matthew 11:2-11

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 11:2-11

Messengers from John the Baptist

When John heard in prison what the Messiah[a] was doing, he sent word by his[b] disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers[c] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

Jesus Praises John the Baptist

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone[d] dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?[e] Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.”

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Imaginative Contemplation Matthew 11:2-11, guided prayer

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

Christ the King and The Two Standards

Christ the King and the Two Standards 1: Reading of this post.

I have been referring to the different ways the enemy works that Ignatius describes in The Spiritual Exercises. He underpins these rules of discernment in two key meditations: The Kingdom of Christ and The Two Standards. Given the Solemnity of Christ the King this week, and my recent guided imaginative contemplation on the gospel for this feast day, a reflection of these meditations in context of this great feast seems appropriate.

Christ the King
Christ the King and the Two Standards 2: Reading of this post.

The meditation on the Kingdom of Christ comes in the space between the first and second week of The Spiritual Exercises, after considering sin and knowing myself as a loved sinner, and before the contemplations on the life of Christ; before coming to know Him more deeply and connecting with our desire to follow Him, and perhaps make an election, a choice as to a way of life. The military, patriarchal and hierarchical language of these meditations can be problematic depending on background: it was for me, on all accounts, but by maintaining a sense of fluidity, and a focus on the essence of each one, these initial barriers can be deconstructed until the imagery itself no longer gets in the way.

The Kingdom of Christ meditation firstly brings to mind an earthly king, or with a modern perspective, a leader or role model: someone we admire and respect, someone we may, or may not, choose to follow. The model of a knight serving a monarch as Ignatius knew it, may be akin to the representation of these relationships as depicted in the television series “Merlin”, between Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Christ the King and the Two Standards 3: Reading of this post.

This particular scene for me, depicts very well what Ignatius means when he says:

Consider what the answer of good subjects ought to be to a king so generous and noble minded, and consequently, if anyone would refuse the invitation of such a king, how justly he would deserve to be condemned by the whole world, and looked upon as an ignoble knight.

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

I would like to say, if you are not familiar with the series, Merlin is joking in his answer: it is characteristic of his intimate relationship with Arthur and he did not need to be asked.

When I made the Exercises myself, I found myself choosing Martin Luther King, and I smiled at the realisation that I had indeed chosen an earthly “King”. As we ponder our choice of leader, it connects us to what it is that is moving in us, what our values are and what inspires us. For me, I was drawn to Martin Luther King’s courage and purpose; his conviction in standing his ground, even to the detriment of his family life, and the physical violence the activists he inspired had to endure; his refusal to accept his “inferiority” as the critical voices would have him believe, and his persistent challenging of the established authorities of the day. Mostly though, as depicted in the bridge scene from the film Selma, was that he connected through prayer to God: all of his actions were grounded in faith. This scene is very powerful and still moves me, even though I have watched it several times.

Christ the King and the Two Standards 4: Reading of this post.

Then we are asked to consider:

…Christ our Lord, the Eternal King…

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

and how much more we might be prepared to do or give to follow Him than we would for the human king or leader. At this point, we are not being asked to make any decisions or commitments, just to consider the possibility of such. This key meditation ends with the prayer:

Eternal Lord of All Things

Eternal Lord of all things, in the presence of Thy infinite goodness, and of Thy glorious mother, and of all the saints of Thy heavenly court, this is the offering of myself which I make with Thy favor and help. I protest that it is my earnest desire and my deliberate choice, provided only it is for Thy greater service and praise, to imitate Thee in bearing all wrongs and all abuse and all poverty, both actual and spiritual, should Thy most holy majesty deign to choose and admit me to such a state and way of life.

Knight. Bodwellian Castle, North Wales
Christ the King and the Two Standards 5: Reading of this post.

The meditation on The Two Standards comes in the middle of the second week of The Exercises and assumes that we have already chosen our side, that of Christ the King, and it contrasts the modus operandi of those aligning themselves with Satan, and those aligning themselves with Christ. For the former, Ignatius uses strong language: deceit, summons, goads, lay snares, bind with chains. All of it speaks of coercion and force. He tempts us first to:

…riches, the second honour, the third pride. From these three steps the evil one leads to all other vices.

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

For those under the standard of Christ, we hear that Christ our Lord is beautiful and attractive, that He chooses, recommends, attracts, servants and friends, and Ignatius uses the word desire, such an important word in Ignatian spirituality. He outlines three steps in opposition to the enemy:

…the first, poverty as opposed to riches; the second, insults or contempt as opposed to honour of this world; the third, humility as opposed to pride. From these three steps, let them lead men to all other virtues.

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

The Two Standards meditation imagines a battleground between the two sides, and it is our own souls that are that battle ground. When I have been describing the movements of discernment in previous posts, the way the enemy works, the imagery of the darnel and the wheat, as described by Aschenbrenner, it is to examine how this battle is being conducted in myself. Where am I being bullied, harrassed or driven into thoughts, feelings and actions? And where am I being attracted and drawn? Where might there be misdirection, where something seems to be good, but the underlying sense of the movement is of water on a stone, rather than as water on a sponge? Discernment of spirits, discerning God’s voice from that of the enemy is both simple and complicated, obvious and subtle, clear and confusing. It will always be a battleground, no matter how deeply we advance on our spiritual path. It is always asking the questions where is this coming from and where is it leading to? Having an understanding of how the enemy works in us in our own particular situation and way is important in enabling us to be able to resist, with the grace of God. We explicitly ask for this grace in the Two Standards meditation:

I ask for what I desire. Here it will be to ask for a knowledge of the deceits of the rebel chief and help to guard myself against them; and also to ask for knowledge of the true life exemplified in the sovereign and true Commander, and the grace to imitate Him.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
Cross. Bodwellian Castle North Wales
Christ the King and the Two Standards 6: Reading of this post.

Through prayer, with a daily Examen, and with the understanding and discerning ear of a spiritual director, we have the tools to help us to identify where and when we are being driven, rather than drawn: where our desires, thoughts, feelings and actions are leading us towards God rather than away from God. It is the freedom given here that moves us to worship Him and to accept His invitation.

Draw me after you, let us make haste.

    The king has brought me into his chambers.

We will exult and rejoice in you;

    we will extol your love more than wine;

    rightly do they love you

Song of Songs 1:4
Incarnation Mandala

Sanctuary in a Carmelite Hermitage

Sanctuary in a Carmelite hermitage 1: Reading of this post.

While I have been making annual individually guided retreats for nineteen years now, since I returned from the thirty day spiritual exercises three years ago, it has no longer been enough: a year between one and the next is too long to wait. My answer to this longing to be alone and silent with God is to spend a weekend, every three months, in a hermitage. At first I went to All Hallows Convent in Ditchingham, which was only a fifteen minute drive from where I live, but since the community was disbanded there, I started going a little further away to the Carmelite Monastery at Quidenham. I was there last weekend.

I said previously that we had studied a little bit about different spiritualities on the first year of my course when I was training to be a spiritual director, and Carmelite spirituality was one that we had a look at. I was amazed to learn about “Nocturnal” mysticism and “Solar” mysticism, and that these were different in their perception of how we know God. Nocturnal mysticism comes from the direction that God is unknowable, that we cannot know God, and the more we think we know, the less we actually know. Solar mysticism comes at it from the other angle, that we can know God, and we can come to know Him more intimately in our journey of faith: at least, this is what I understood of the distinction. St. Teresa of Avila, the founder of the Carmelite order, along with St. John of the Cross and the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” fit into the former category, while Origen and Gregory the Great fit into the latter. I would suggest that Julian of Norwich also fits into the latter, but I am not an expert. I read The Life of St Teresa of Avila by Herself some years ago, and I have to be honest, I do not think that I really understood much of what she was saying. I felt much the same about “The Cloud of Unknowing“, and I have not felt particularly drawn by St. John of the Cross. I used to keep a notebook of all the things that had struck me when I was reading, but these days my “to read” pile is so high I highlight and write annotations in my own books. It is easy to tell how deeply the book spoke to me by the quotations in my notebook, or by how much colour I have added to it. One point I did write down from “The Cloud of Unknowing” is:

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

The Cloud of Unknowing

I remember reading this on retreat at Loyola Hall and being struck by it: it puzzled me, I did not completely understand it. The first part made some sense, I recognised that making the time to pray and go on retreat strengthened me and my relationship with God but the second part was outwith my experience. A couple of years later though, again on retreat, there was an imaginative contemplation I made with the Garden of Gethsemane, and the words I heard Jesus say in His prayer were:

May my will be in accordance with your will.

and I had the image of a mirrored box, both on its inside and outside, so that you were looking in a mirror through a mirror: infinity. And I heard Him say:

You can’t put my love in a box.

Then nothing: no images, sounds, movements, no sensations. I have no idea how long it lasted and I was overwhelmed by it. And I realised that this “nothing” that completely overwhelmed me barely scratched the surface of God. It was a drop in an ocean that was a drop in another ocean that was a drop in another ocean and so on. I was a barnacle on a ship becoming aware that the surface I was clinging to went on in all directions around me, and had no ending. Emily Dickinson’s poem reminds me of how it felt:

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: He Fumbles at your Spirit

After that prayer, I was exhausted and I slept a lot in the next two to three days. I knew something had changed in me, I had felt some sort of searing pain within me, and it was like my soul had simply been slashed with an instrument as precise as a scalpel, leaving a single, fine cut that would never heal. I do not know if it is what the Nocturnal mystics speak of, I’m not sure that it is, but it resonates with the quote from “The Cloud of Unknowing” and stands out as being different from my other “up close and personal” experiences of God.

Sanctuary in a Carmelite hermitage 2: Reading of this post.

Nevertheless, there is something perfect for me as a visitor at Quidenham. I have described myself before as a spiritual solitary, and the Carmelites are a closed order, so I am not invited into the monastery itself: I stay in the hermitage outside of the enclosure. I am not a part of the community. I am invited to their prayers, and to be in their visitor’s chapel, which is across the altar from where the nuns are. It is separate from both the enclosed Carmelite community, and on Sunday mass, the Parish community that congregates there, so I am not part of that community either. I am both alone with God and part of the bigger community of my church at the same time. When I was making the exercises, during the second and through the third week, I often appeared in imaginative contemplation as one of the unknown women described in the gospels, who followed Him, and provided for them out of their own resources. In keeping with the sixth – ninth additions, where we seek to keep our environment conducive to what we are praying:

I should rather keep in mind that …

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

I started to cover my head with a pashmina during my prayer, and have continued with this practice since then, when I am alone with Him in my room. I laugh at the irony in covering my head because as a child, there was pressure to wear a mantilla at mass, and I resisted furiously, and well as railing against the use, or misuse, of Corinthians when Paul answers a question form that gentile community by saying:

For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

1 Corinthians 11:6

When I do this in the intimacy of my room and in my prayer I am promising Him:

I will serve you in obedience and humility.

I do not pray like this in public. It would feel ostentatious and a bit like those pharisees beating their breasts, showing off how devout they are. Ignatius says in the exercises, with reference to position in prayer, in the fourth addition:

The fourth Direction is never to be followed in the church before others, but only in private, for example, at home.

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

It is a personal thing, between me and God, and it continually confirms the choice I made and the path I walk when I made my election and it was confirmed in the Exercises. Somehow, in this space in the visitor’s chapel at Quidenham, I can be more as I am alone at home. I might feel a little shy about it, but it does not feel inappropriate when sitting across from those who have given their lives so generously to humility and prayer.

Sanctuary in a Carmelite hermitage 3: Reading of this post.

The first time I went to Quidenham I was moved by the simple beauty of the Church there, and by the Stations of the cross. My sense of God’s feelings about the community there was one of absolute joy and pleasure. Here is something that He treasures, something He takes pride in and holds close to His heart. It was like He was saying to me:

Here I want to show you something that is very special to me.

And I felt very privileged, like you do when someone has shared something intimate and important with you. The Carmelites at Quidenham, by offering hospitality in their hermitage, provide me with a sanctuary, a place where I can withdraw from the world for a short time and share quiet moments with God in a way that is different from day to day life: a weekend break, as opposed to a summer holiday. My question to you is where, how and with whom do you find sanctuary within your day to day life? How do you find and spend your quiet moments?Where might there be a desire in you for more? And how could you facilitate that desire?

Sanctuary in a Carmelite hermitage 4: Reading of this post.

As for me, I think I’m going to put some books about St Teresa of Avila on my reading pile, maybe even try reading her own story about her life again, this time with my highlighters and coloured pens, rather than my little notebook of quotations.

Entrance to the Church at Quidenham.