Integration

Integration 1: Reading of this post.

In my last post, I said that I was ready for my retreat at home – well, that was famous last words! It was certainly the most challenging retreat I have ever done, and the beginning of it, the most stressful. Not at all what I had prepared for or anticipated. I did not manage to get a food shop in after doing a lot of unexpected running around the day before, so, after speaking with my spiritual director on the first morning of the retreat, planned to do that, shower and then begin proper. Except that when I went out, my car had a flat tyre (I thought it wasn’t handling properly the night before – even though it did not look flat when I checked it, miles from any garage) and just as I finished changing the wheel, my neighbour decided that it was a good time to come over and be unpleasant, aggressive and threatening. I may have remained calm, reasonable and rational externally, but it caused no end of disruption to my internal serenity. I thought about the two monks I wrote about last time:

Brother, I dropped that woman at the river. Are you still carrying her?

Anthony de Mello, Song of the Bird

And I am so glad that I did write that, because it was my hook through the week when I found my thoughts drifting to the conflict with my neighbour and the spiritual desolation that it brought. It pulled me up short and reminded me of where I really wanted my focus to be, so when I noticed that my thoughts had strayed, I turned my attention to the little icon of Jesus that I was carrying around and placing everywhere I was, and I brought to mind the consolations I have been storing up to help me in times of desolation.

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.
Ely Cathedral
Integration 2 : Reading of this post.

So, enough talk of that and onto spiritual consolation, I have long understood that God uses everything about where we are and who we are to draw us closer to Himself, to transform us into who He would have us be. Our role in this process is our cooperation. A persistent theme for me in my spiritual journey is integration, to reconcile the fire and water, active and contemplative parts of my personality, or rather, to allow the flow from one to the other without the resistance and negative feelings about that resistance that go along with the change of state. Since writing about Tai chi and Three Kinds of Humility in February, the momentum of this developing theme has increased in my discussions with my own director, and through lockdown, where I found that I really enjoyed working at home. It has been:

…the question that drives us (me)

Trinity, The Matrix
Integration 3: Reading of this post.

For me, the question is:

How do I live here, in my house with God, as He would have me live?

As it turned out, being in retreat at home, talking to a spiritual director every day, was the perfect opportunity to thoroughly explore that question. Prior to lockdown, I mostly tried to leave work at work, although inevitably, there were times I had to bring work home, there was a clear demarcation by virtue of physical location, between work and home. In my room, and in my prayer spot in particular, I had a clear demarcation between contemplative and active at home. During lockdown, I learned how to work at home, how to structure it to build time in between and to ensure that I do not overwork – I would identify obsessive workaholism as a danger for me. The structure was there, but how do I let go, and move from the active state to a contemplative state and vice versa? to allow the flow from fire to water and back to fire again? It took four days of turmoil of spirits during my retreat at home to let go of the responsibilities at home that were a constant distraction.

My Leviathan Mandala
Integration 4: Reading of this post.

It is the story of the two monks. To begin with, I was the scandalised monk, berating myself constantly, even though my desire was to be the other monk, the serene one, who had let go of the activity he had engaged in. Towards the end of the retreat, I had moved to be more like the serene one, although I have a long way to go still. How did it happen? In this retreat, I spent more time being active and “in the world” than I have ever done on retreat; I spent the least time in formal contemplative prayer than I have ever done on retreat, and yet a profound shift happened in my psyche which will reverberate as ripples in a pond throughout my life. It became clear, as observed by my spiritual director, that day to day life was not suspended in this retreat as it might be when I get in my car and drive away to a retreat centre as I normally do, that the invitation was to find God in All Things, as I live at home; more of a joined up, integrated way of being. The focus shifted to the transition. I noticed that, although I was active during my retreat, the activities I was engaging in were things that I just felt like doing: making candles, washing bottles, making aromatherpy blends for the oil burner, painting, even the odd job or bit of housework in the house. And I also went out and about, for dinner, for lunch – I would say solo, but I brought my icon with me and placed it discretely where I could see it. I was not alone.

My travelling Icon of Jesus.
Integration 5: Reading of this post.

The realisation gradually dawned: when I put some of these activities on my “to do” list, they felt like chores, and low priority tasks that my active “task girl” always put off as being not important enough compared with the other work I had to do today. They were also low priority for my “contemplative girl”, because they were not being still; contemplative prayer; formal time set aside to be just me and God. I recognised that these were activities that I did not set a definite time period for, they were finished when they were finished or I did not feel like doing them anymore. What was important, I recognised, was the movement within me as I engaged with them: I move from an active state of mind to a contemplative state of mind: flow. In the story of the two monks, it takes two hours for the berated monk to finally respond to the criticism of the other: there is a transition period. During lockdown, I had built into my day, time periods where I was away from “work”, but I struggled in how to use that time, other than to do more of what needed to be done and my mind was constantly racing over my to do list, and how to manage and accomplish the things that were on it. While being active with God on this retreat, I have come to know myself better and to stop berating myself for my apparent resistance to flow. It is not reasonable to expect to slow down from 120mph to 5mph instantly – it takes time. I would not expect it of anyone else, why should I expect it of myself, and then be frustrated that it does not happen like that? I also notice that moving the other way is less of a problem – turning the computer on, filling up my water bottle, checking emails, writing my “to do” list, are all activities that move me gently from contemplative and slow, to active and fast. I might criticise myself for displacement activities prior to getting down to work, but here, now, I am recognising that they are transtion activities.

Transition activities are the missing jigsaw piece that links the two aspects of my personality, that assist the flow from fire to water, and back to fire again. You might be reading, and thinking that it is just mindfulness that I am talking about, and that it might seem a bit obvious. It was not obvious to me until recently. Teresa of Avila describes it as:

Finding God in the pots and pans.

Teresa Avila: The Interior Castle

And I would not necessarily disagree with you that it is mindfulness, except to say that I am coming at it from the other direction, in terms of cause and effect. Rather than focusing my awareness on being mindful of the activity I am doing which results in bringing me into that meditative state, I am focusing on the activity I am doing which results in a state of mindfulness and brings me into that meditative state. For flow to happen, activities are well within one’s capabilities so as not to impede or block engagement, and also present with a little bit of challenge to motivate and interest. In trying to live at home with God this week, my understanding of how to live at home with God has deepened, and I put several transition activities on my daily to do list. It is not my intention complete them as tasks that day, merely as a stimulus. When I come to a transtion period in the day, I look at those things on the list and ask myself:

What do I feel like doing right now?

And I choose based on what I feel, maybe even something I have not written down.

Reflecting on my week of retreat at home I am grateful. Is it not generous that He gives us the graces we ask for, even – and maybe even especially – if not in the ways we envisaged when we ask for it? It reminds of the scene with Morgan Freeman as God, in Evan Almighty:

Integration 6: Reading of this post.

So, here is my challenge to you. What graces have you been asking God for in prayer? And do you notice the opportunities for those graces in your life? If, like me, there is tension between your active and contemplative sides, your Martha and Mary, as it is somethimes described, what are the transition activites for you? those things that facilitate moving from one state of being to another? If you feel like sharing…please post in the comments.

IGR 2020

IGR 2020 1: Reading of this post.

I made my first eight day individually guided retreat in 2001 at Loyola Hall. I have been writing about my journey from that point in the Diary of a Sunflower. It was a lifetime ago, and I feel like a completely different person now compared to who I was then. My retreat this year, which was booked for next week at St. Beunos in North Wales, has been cancelled due to the pandemic, and this will be the first summer since that first retreat that I will not have gone away to spend eight days in silence with God, as I promised all those years ago. It would be easy to be upset about it, but to be honest, I was not surprised by the cancellation and I have accepted it. I am still going to do a retreat this week, at home, starting today, Sunday, and I have found a director who will meet with me online every day.

I have to say, doing spiritual direction online, both giving and receiving, has been one of the wonderful surprises of lockdown and I would never have imagined it to work as well as I have experienced it. So much so, that I am intending to expand into giving spiritual direction online as a matter of course from September, regardless of any lockdown situation or easing, so watch this space!

I have reservations about all the distractions at home of course, and since my daughters live with me, complete silence might be an issue. But, they are prepped and cooperative, and I can go into my room and shut my door. I have room to sit and be, and a prayer corner in there. I have prepared meals in the feezer, and my laundry done, and I have a garden. My computer will go in the drawer, and I will have my artboard on my desk instead.

Ditchingham Convent Church
IGR 2020 2: Reading of this post.

While the nitty gritty of my preparations are probably uninteresting and do not really need to be shared, the point here is that I am creating a space – physical and psychological – to encounter God, to spend some time in deep with Him and away from all the distractions, and I am creating an environment that is conducive to that process. It is the principle described from the sixth to the ninth additions of the Spiritual Exercises:

I should not think of things that give pleasure and joy, as the glory of heaven, the Resurrection, etc., for if I wish to feel pain, sorrow, and tears for my sins, every consideration promoting joy and happiness will impede it. I should rather keep in mind that I want to be sorry and feel pain. Hence it would be better to call to mind death and judgment.

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

For the same reason I should deprive myself of all light, closing the shutters and doors when I am in my room, except when I need light to say prayers, to read, or to eat.

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

I should not laugh or say anything that would cause laughter.

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

I should restrain my eyes except to look up in receiving or dismissing one with whom I have to speak.

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

Ignatius gives these additions on the context of the First week, when we are contemplating sin and the grace we are asking for is sorrow and shame for our sins. The general idea is to make our enviroment conducive to our prayer.

So, here I am, I have finished my work for a bit and prepared my environment and my mind to spend this time alone with God in these unusual circumstances. I am up to date and taking a pause from my Journey with Julian of Norwich to be open to the process with the director. Am I concerned about distractions? about the world crowding in? Yes I am, and I am already prepared for how I might handle that. It comes in the form of a story in Anthony de Mello’s book, The Song of the Bird, called The Monk and the Woman:

Two Buddhist monks, on their way to the monastery, found an exceedingly beautiful woman at the riverbank. Like them, she wished to cross the river, but the water was too high. So one of the monks lifted her onto his back and carried her across.

His fellow monk was thoroughly scandalised. For two hours he berated him on his negligence on keeping the rule: Had he forgotten he was a monk? How did he dare touch a woman? And worse, carry her across the river? What would people say? Had he not brought their holy religion into disrepute? And so on.

The offending monk patiently listened to the never-ending sermon. Finally, he broke in with:

Brother, I dropped that woman at the river. Are you still carrying her?

Glennfinnan Viaduct, Scotland
IGR 2020 3: Reading of this post.

So, I will not be despondant that this is not the ideal situation in which to make my retreat: I will not listen to the desolating voices seeking to disrupt this time and I will not hold on to the noise around me, or the distractions, or any interruptions, if my daughters do not quite understand and ask me something, or if I have to answer the door. I am doing all that I can to be available to the One who loves me as if I were the only person in the whole world, and if it is enough for Him, it is enough for me. I am looking forward to it as much as I have any other retreat.

I will see you on the other side. There will be no Journey with Julian or Reflection next week, but the Prayer and the Diary entries are already scheduled, and I will be back to normal after next Sunday.

The Fragrance of God

The Fragrance of God 1: Reading of this post.

I like aromatherapy: you might already be aware that I love Chemistry. Some scientists I know are quite dismissive of aromatherapy, and if it is to prevent the danger of avoiding to seek medical attention and opting for a more “natural” approach instead, I am on board with that. Those who do aromatherapy, rather than a bit of tinkering with it like me, will be the first to say that if there is a medical condition, aromatherapy is not a substitute for medical care. However, I am not able to dismiss aromatherapy as worthless because I am aware that plants have often provided the insight and the raw materials for the medicines that chemists have extracted, developed and refined: quinine for malaria treatment and aspirin being two obvious examples. From my perspective, plants are very clever at making a variety of chemicals which we are able to use for all sorts of amazing things – they are to be respected. In my bathroom, I have a poster that I bought in the house where I made my first ever eight day Ignatian IGR, and it is there as a reminder that this room for me, is a place of profound healing as experienced in some of my imaginative prayers, including one at the end of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises.

The Fragrance of God 2: Reading of this post.

St. Ignatius refers to three powers of the soul in the Spritual Exercises:

…will consist in using the memory to recall…and then in applying the understanding by reasoning….then the will by seeking to remember and understand all to be the more filled with…

So, too, the understanding is to be used to think over the matter more in detail, and then the will to rouse more deeply the emotions.

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

Since we are using our imagination in the prayer, this is linked to memory as the first power. The sense of will Ignatius describes here is not so much as “mind over matter” but more of what is in the heart. Ignatius encourages us to use all three powers of the soul in the imaginative contemplations in the Exercises and there is a type of repetition which is explained in the first day of the second week, which is frequently called “application of the senses”.

After the preparatory prayer and three preludes, it will be profitable with the aid of the imagination to apply the five senses to the subject matter of the First and Second Contemplation…

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

If you have used any of my Imaginative Contemplation guided prayers, you might have noticed that I spend some time at the beginning of the prayer in the Composition of Place part, noticing what is around in the scene in connection with all of the five senses. Although these guided prayers are not repetitions, I am applying the principles of this part of the exercises in my guided prayers to ground the prayer in the body. I think it is extremely clever of Ignatius to introduce The Application of the Senses explicitly into the Exercises when the we begin to contemplate The Incarnation (although he has already led us through the process in contemplating hell in the first week) because it makes our prayer more concrete: it brings our awareness of God into our body; it makes God corporeal. The process parallels The Incarnation itself, and there is power in it. God is not just out there, transcendent, but is up close and personal, intimate. I cannot dismiss Him as not really understanding what it is like because He is divine and is not subject to the same struggles as I am, whether I do this subconsciously or otherwise. The grace we ask for in the second week is:

… 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.

In my own experience of praying the imaginative contemplations of the second week, in the first part on the early years of Jesus’ life, before His (and my) baptism in the Jordan, I was a girl growing up with Him, maybe a little younger by a few months and we were good friends. There was one scene which I will share here from those prayers because it fills me with joy and laughter just to think of it. We were around the age of nineteen, and my mother, who had a merchant apothecary/aromatherapy stall at the market and was training me in that trade, was very close friends with Mary, His mother. I should also say that, as is the way in the imaginative world of the soul, my mother was also me. We were in His workshop and He was using a plane on a table He was making. I was drinking coffee that Mary had made for me. Our mothers were chatting in the kitchen.

He started the conversation by asking me a question, and I will relay some of the conversation between us as it went:

So, how are you keeping the matchmaker at bay?

Whenever she starts talking to me about a nice young man, I nod thoughtfully and after a suitable time, I acknowledge that, yes, he is a nice young man and that I can’t possibly accept him. When she asks me why, I put my hand on my heart and I look her straight in the eye and say quite passionately: ‘It’s a decision of the soul.‘ She then looks at my mum who says: ‘I can’t force her to accept him!’ and she continues to look at mum as if to say ‘Yes you can’ but mum won’t budge. She’s got my back. What about you, how do you keep her off your back?

I start reciting Psalm 63.

You do not!

I do (laughing). I get down to ‘My body pines for you…’ and she shakes her head and dismisses me with a wave. I’m sure she thinks ‘What an intense young man. I’ll never find a woman to accept him.’

There was a lot of laughter between us and more conversation which finished with Him promising me:

…you know that you’ll always be my little sister right? I will always claim you as my kin.

The application of the senses grounds God deeper in my reality, in my world, and enables me to dwell there. It is from here that this post has come.

The Fragrance of God 3: Reading of this post.

The sense of smell is powerfully evocative. When we suddenly come across a fragrance it places us within the situation where that fragrance has meaning for us: for example, a particular after shave or perfume may remind us of a particular person. When my children were babies I used to place the top I had been wearing that day in their cot near them at night, or sometimes lavender on the corner of their pillow when they were older as a means to help them settle. I remember my youngest asking for my shirt around the age of about six, because she had been having some nightmares and said that the smell of my perfume made her feel safe. The smell of burning grass or bonfires takes me right back to my horse riding days as a teenager; the smell of clean sheets when you climb into bed at the end of the day, or of milk parsley and elderflower in the spring…all of these have an association for me of all being right with the world. You will have your own.

The Fragrance of God 4: Reading of this post.

When I started to contemplate little distinctions in the three persons of the Holy Trinity, I began to think of each in terms of colour (this came from symbolism I was using in Mandalas), of different instrumental voices in music, and also in terms of fragrance. I assigned Jasmine to the Father, it’s deep, rich base note and association with producing a feeling of wellbeing, the anti depressant effects attributed to Jasmine essential oil. To Jesus, I felt Lavender was appropriate, the middle note. It is ubiquitous, almost common and perhaps we might take it for granted, and yet, if you were only ever to use one essential oil, this is the one to get because of its multi faceted associated effects. For the Holy Spirit, I attributed Ylang Ylang essential oil, the top note. This is a heady, sweet fragrance that has a euphoric effect and is said to :

…ease anger born out of frustration.

Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, Julia Lawless

More than you can handle will leave you feeling a bit light headed. Combining these three in one fragrance produces a wonderful, synergistic formulation to use in a base oil in the bath, or as a fragrance in a burner, or for other applications of aromatherapy. And just as Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity invites another to join in, so too does this combination. For myself, I put in Cedar oil – it has a sharpness to it, and wood from the cedar was used in the temple to show the strength and the beauty of God. It is a noble desire for me to show the strength and beauty of God when I am immersed in Him, in spite of my sharpness.

The ultimate movement of the Exercises is to love God more intimately and to praise, reverence and serve Him more deeply in the way that we live. And Ignatius is explicit in that love is better expressed in deeds rather than words. It is an idea expressed in the poetry of the Song of Songs:

Origen suggests that the “couch” is the ground of the soul, where we meet God in intimate union, and here, the nard, my nard, has no fragrance of its own. When it comes into contact with the Lover, it becomes infused with His fragrance and it is this that permeates into the world and is percieved. If I were to try to sum up my whole experience of the Spiritual Exercises, as if that were even possible, this is the closest I would be able to come. In entering deeply into relationship with God, my soul mixes its own imperceptle perfume with that of the Holy Trinity, releasing a fragrance that is both powerful and gently evocative. As people come into contact with it, some may find it attractive and will want to be drawn closer to its source; some may be repelled by it, may find it too strong, too overpowering and not to their taste; some may pause, notice, but perhaps be too busy to stop and smell the flowers, intending to search it out at another opportunity when they have more time. My role in it is simply to be fragrant.

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

IGR: Individually Guided Retreat

I have recently returned from my annual IGR, this year at Penhurst Retreat Centre in Kent, and I have been reflecting on conversations I have with a variety of people who have never had this experience.

I’ve been going on this type of retreat ever year for such a long time now (this year was my 19th IGR) that perhaps I take the process, but never the opportunity, a bit for granted.

As a PhD student, I was involved with the Catholic Student Council (CSC) and was the secretary on the Team for a year. As part of our preparation, we did a team retreat for three days, which started off in silence. I took to the silence as if I was designed for it. After a day and a half though, I had a chat with someone, not involved in the retreat, who told me that it was okay for me to talk. I lost something in that conversation: I can only describe it as if I had been in a dreamlike state that you might enter walking alone along a beach, where hours can pass and it seems like minutes, and then I had been forcefully brought back into the noise, chaos and pressure. It was something that I was unable to get back at that time, and I longed for more of it for years afterwards.

Over ten years later, I booked into Loyola Hall for an eight day IGR, and looked forward to spending that time alone with God. When you remove yourself from the world in this way, it is like the world stops turning, until you enter back into it at the end of the retreat. Certainly, you arrive there with your agenda and concerns, the things you want to talk to God about, and you may want Him to address, but after a day or two, you move onto His agenda. And often, the things that were so important when you arrived, seem less so at the end: you have a whole different perspective, even perhaps when you have not thought about them, other than at the beginning of the retreat. It is also a common experience that problems have resolved themselves, and answers have presented themselves without dwelling on them at all, once they are handed over to God at the beginning. Letting go and trusting Him are not to be underestimated.

So, what happens? Usually, there is time to settle in, including a house tour if you have not been to that place before, and dinner in the evening, which is a talking affair. It gives a little time to introduce each other in the group making the retreat at the same time. It is amazing how much you can get to know someone after eight days without speaking to them! Then there is a meeting where housekeeping is presented, and most importantly, you are introduced to your spiritual director for the week. You are shown to where you will meet with them and choose a time slot for your daily meeting. They may, or may not, suggest something from scripture to look at to help you settle into an attitude of prayer and silence, and after this point the silence begins. Each day, you meet with your director and share what is happening in your prayer, and usually, the director will make suggestions what you might pray with next, or they might ask you what you feel drawn to pray with. For me, this year, the director made no suggestions at all to me, and it felt a little scary initially, until I spoke to myself about my own formation as a spiritual director, and that I was more than capable of choosing myself, since I am well able to do it for others. She smiled when I told her of this initial feeling and said:

You seemed to know what you were doing.

It would be an example of the eighteenth annotation of the Spiritual Exercises in practice:

The Spiritual Exercises must be adapted to the condition of the one who is to engage in them, that is, to his age, education, and talent.

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

In teaching terms, it is effective differentiation. And speaking of difference, not every retreat, and not every director is the same. And so too for the impact. I have come back from some with a few changes I knew I needed to make; and I have come back from others different, with no idea about how to respond, but just the certainty that life was never going to be the same again, because I had fundamentally changed. After my fifth IGR, the shift was so significant that by the October half term I was feeling that my life as it was was unmanageable and that I had to find a way to live differently within my context. It was at this point that I sought out a spiritual director in everyday life, and his support since then is invaluable to me, and is one thing I am deeply grateful for. With some directors I have felt well met, others less so but we have been able to communicate effectively, and one or two, I have to admit, have brought out my rebellious, stubborn steak. One so much so, that I texted my director in life to ask:

What is wrong with the way I pray?

One year, I went to Loyola itself: Gerry W. Hughes had organised an ecumenical IGR there, and I was very fortunate to get a place on it. In his preamble on the first evening, on talking about the role of the director, he said:

At the very least, we pray not to get in the way.

Gerry W. Hughes, Loyola IGR, 2007.

In answer to my question, my director in everyday life affirmed me about my prayer and told me to trust myself, and also reassured me that it would be appropriate for me to ask for a different director if I felt unable to work with the one assigned to me. I decided to work with the one I had, and focused on my relationship with God, not with the director. In the fifteenth annotation, Ignatius says of the director that they:

…should permit the Creator to deal directly with the creature, and the creature directly with his creator and Lord.

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

I remember this particular point both when I am listening to others and when I am being listened to. Only once have I asked for a specific director: I usually try to remain open and trusting. I once met someone who had done the Spiritual Exercises in the thirty day retreat format and had not connected with her director at all. She continued to work with him for the duration however, and said that in the end, it was irrelevant, because the process was between her and God, and happened regardless. The best situation is where we get the director we need, which may not always be the director we think we want.

Regarding the location, I made myself very much at home at Loyola Hall before it closed, and since then at St. Beunos, where I made The Spiritual Exercises a few years ago. Every so often, circumstances have moved me to a different location, Penhurst this year, which has always been refreshing. The best locations, in my experience, are situated a bit out of the way, withdrawn from the world, where it would take a deliberate effort to put yourself out there. Both Penhurst and St Beunos are in beautiful, quiet, settings, well away from the business of the world. In two places I have been – Loyola and Dunblane – the town was right on the doorstep, and this made it more difficult, but not impossible, to sink deeply into silence and remain there. The business of the world, the shops, coffee shops, cars and streets were always calling, and the temptation to walk out on the silence when it was difficult was always there and easy to give in to. But on the other hand, temptation is just another opportunity to choose God, so choosing to remain in the silence in this situation is a huge deal and a movement towards greater spiritual maturity. It is good training to hold onto our centre when we are back in the world.

The day on an IGR follows a rhythm of its own, punctuated by structured periods of communal prayer, liturgy, mass, exposition, the meeting with the director and mealtimes. I’m quite at home with the concept of a timetable, and I usually factor in painting, tai chi and a shower, the latter happening at a different time of day from my usual routine for an unknown reason, but which feels quite natural on retreat. And of course, formal prayer periods. I aim for three one hour periods, but I often have to build up to that, or can only only manage two, or shorter prayer periods. There is a balance between discipline and flow – it is something to neither avoid nor force: it is about noticing how you are feeling and what is drawing you. If I felt I wanted to walk the labyrinth after lunch, instead of tai chi, that is probably what I would do; forcing myself to do tai chi at this point, simply because it was the designated activity on my self designed timetable and I must be disciplined in my spiritual life, may well prove to be unproductive. If I felt like I did not want to go to the communal liturgy in whatever format it took, and I have, quite a lot, I would take careful notice of what was moving in me, before I decided whether to go or not. Discernment is key, even in what we choose to do on retreat, and often, spending time sitting staring into space is required.

As for mealtimes, suffice to say, quite often the inner battles people have manifest themselves in the dining room with either too much or not enough eating, crying, sighing, inappropriate laughing, staring, coming in late…all manner of ways, that perhaps we might consider rude. It is best to be kind in our inner attitude, because we have no concept of how others are being challenged by God, or how the spirits opposed to God are whipping up an internal cacophony within them. And when it is our own struggle, it is still best to be kind in our inner attitude towards ourselves.

Window, Penhurst Church

So, why do I do this kind of retreat every year? First and foremost, I promised God on the the first one that I would. Secondly, I need to. During the year in between, my edges become a little frayed by the constant bombardment and sensory and emotional overload of the world in which I live and work and the retreat allows me to rest in God for a significant period of time that I cannot replicate in my day to day life. I sink deeper into Him on retreat, and it re-orientates me. Sometimes, the shift is paradigm, like an earthquake, where the plates have been moving gradually for a while, and the tension is such that a huge movement occurs. And sometimes, it is simply much needed rest within His love, where I come back to myself again. If it is not something you have ever done, and you have the opportunity, I thoroughly recommend that you give it a try for yourself.