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.