And thus I saw that He wants us to know that He takes the falling of any creature who will be saved no harder than He took the falling of Adam, who, we know, was endlessly loved and safely protected in all the time of his need, and now is blissfully restored in great and surpassing joys. For our Lord God is so good, so gentle and so courteous that He can never assign final failure to those in whom He will always be blessed and praised. I saw and understood that very surely in each soul which will be saved there is a godly will which never assented to sin and never will. Therefore our Lord wants us to know…that we have all this blessed will whole and safe in our Lord Jesus Christ, because every nature with which heaven will be filled had of necessity…to be so joined and united in Him that in it a substance was kept which could never and should never be parted from Him.
I have been feeling ill recently and I was offered a test for COVID-19 because of the combination of symptoms I was experiencing, and because I am a teacher and on the rota to go into school to look after children of other key workers and our vulnerable children. The test came back negative, so I do not have coronavirus: either I had some other virus, or I had gone past the point of being actively infectious. I guess I would need the antigen test to know for sure whether it was or was not. The test was conducted by the army on one of the mobile testing stations that have been set up around the United Kingdom, and you know it is serious when the army are involved. My daughter commented that it was all very post apocalyptic when we arrived. It was a sobering experience.
The first soldier asked me not to roll the window down and spoke to us through the glass. On driving to the second point, they threw the test kits in the back window onto the back seat of the car and we parked up and did the tests ourselves. Not pleasant. The completed tests had to be double bagged, the second bag not being sealed until another soldier at the checking out point made sure they were done properly. They were then dropped into a lined bin from the window. Of course, all of the soldiers were wearing masks and gloves and at no point was there any contact with us or our vehicle. It was hard and upsetting, although perfectly understandable, to be on the receiving end of the attitude of a Scottish insult:
I’m not coming anywhere near you, I might catch something.
and for it to be real. It brought to mind this scene from The Chosen:
Please, please don’t turn away from me.
Now that just made me cry. If I found my fairly civilised experience difficult, what must it be like for those who live with this kind of ostracism, without hope of becoming well again? And my mind went to all those who are dying sick and alone in hospital at the moment, not being able to see their loved ones in case they infect them. And I also thought of the medical staff taking care of them, wearing masks, gloves, whatever PPE they actually have and showing the sick humbling compassion, despite the risk to themselves: and I cried some more.
I also beat myself up before I got the results while I held the possibility that it was coronavirus. How had I contracted this disease? Where did I deviate from the protocols? What did I do wrong? I narrowed it down to putting petrol in the car and delaying too long to wash my hands – for a variety of reasons. Yes, there was some self blame going on, it was my own fault I was sick. Subconsciously, I had made a connection: sin makes you sick, you did it wrong and you got sick. I felt guilty and a little ashamed about being ill, and I felt stupid. There was a critical Pharisee voice in my head. It brought to mind another Gospel scene from The Chosen.
I love the interplay between desolation and consolation in this scene. The Pharisees, (excepting Nicodemus) are critical, lacking in love and faith, and negatively judgemental whereas the paralytic and his friends have complete faith that Jesus can heal him if He chooses to. Jesus’ response to both is worthy of note: the faith of the woman He affirms as beautiful, and the Pharisees, He faces them boldly and challenges them. It reminds me of one of the ways Ignatius advises us in the Exercises of dealing with spiritual desolation:
…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.
I am perplexed by those who flout the recommendations regarding lock down and social distancing, who insist that it is their right to worship (it is, I do not disagree with that), and continue defiantly to pack into church, insisting that God will protect them, and by implication, prevent them from getting the disease. I am not sure of their thinking on passing it on to others. Worship and prayer do not cease to be worship and prayer if we go into our room alone with God and close the door, or, if we use a video conferencing app to pray with others if we still want to have our community with us while we pray.
St. Ignatius describes three powers of the soul: the memory and imagination, reason and the will, where the understanding of the latter is about what is in the heart. Ignatius is often quoted as saying:
Pray as if everything depends on God and work as if everything depends on you.
Reason suggests that we take every measure we possibly can to prevent spreading this disease, which has proved to be fatal to many people. Jesus answers Satan’s selective and twisted use of scripture (the part after where Satan stops refers to trampling on the serpent’s head):
‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’
And in both the healing stories in the video clips, the supplicants acknowledge that it was if He was willing. It is not ours to command God to our will, to demand a specific outcome, the one we desire.
Julian of Norwich has an interesting take on God’s perspective on suffering when she talks about the Lord and His servant:
I saw…a lord and a servant….[The Lord] looks on his servant very lovingly and sweetly and mildly. He sends him to…do his will. Not only does the servant go, but he dashes off and runs at great speed, loving to do his lord’s will. And soon he falls into a dell and is greatly injured; and then he groans and moans and tosses about and writhes, but he cannot rise or help himself in any way.
…And the loving regard which [the lord] kept constantly on his servant, and especially when he fell…could melt our hearts for love and break them in two for joy.
This parable that Julian tells in her revelations has stayed with me over the years since I first read Revelations of Divine Love. And the clips of The Chosen I have shown exemplify beautifully the loving regard we are held in, especially when we fall, and we see the hearts of those being healed melting for love and breaking in joy.
…we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.
Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.
So, what is my point? Sickness and spiritual desolation are not the same thing, just as health and spiritual consolation are not the same thing. As human beings, we will experience both, they may come and go, we are going to fall and it is going to hurt. It is inevitable. It is not ours to decide what God’s will is and to try to force Him to prove it to us and the rest of the world. It is ours to desire and choose His will. Loving the leper may mean that we have to look tenderly and lovingly, as God does, at the servant injured in the dell, whether they have fallen there because of their own enthusiasm, carelessness, negligence or by an apparent and random accident. And that servant may be ourselves or someone else.
In the servant is comprehended the second person of the Trinity, and in the servant is comprehended Adam, that is to say, all [persons]. And therefore…when I say “the servant”, that means Christ’s humanity, which is the true Adam. When Adam fell, God’s son fell; because of this true union which was made in heaven, God’s son could not be separated from Adam…Adam fell from life to death, into the valley of this wretched world, and after that into hell. God’s son fell with Adam, into the valley of the womb of the maiden who was the fairest daughter of Adam, and that was to excuse Adam from blame in heaven and on earth; and powerfully He brought him out of hell. For all [human] kind which will be saved by the sweet Incarnation and the Passion of Christ, all is Christ’s humanity, for He is the head and we are His members…for Jesus is in all who will be saved, and all who will be saved are in Jesus, and all is of the love of God…[For] I saw that only pain blames and punishes, and our courteous Lord [is]…always kindly disposed to the soul.
I saw…a lord and a servant….[The Lord] looks on his servant very lovingly and sweetly and mildly. He sends him to…do his will. Not only does the servant go, but he dashes off and runs at great speed, loving to do his lord’s will. And soon he falls into a dell and is greatly injured; and then he groans and moans and tosses about and writhes, but he cannot rise or help himself in any way. And …the greatest hurt I saw in him was lack of consolation, for he could not turn his face to look on his loving lord…This is a great sorrow and a cruel suffering to him, for he neither sees clearly his loving lord, who is so meek and mild to him, nor does he truly see what he himself is in the sight of his loving lord. And I know well that when these two things are wisely and truly seen, we shall gain rest and peace…by God’s plentiful grace …And the loving regard which [the lord] kept constantly on his servant, and especially when he fell…could melt our hearts for love and break them in two for joy.
As you walk into my school, this quote from John 10 is written on the front of reception and it is regular referred to in day to day school life. It is our motto. And it is used as a reference point and to back up what we do and why we are doing it. There are a lot of underlying assumptions when it is invoked, and as a spiritual director, I find myself sometimes challenging those assumptions, at least internally, if not explicitly. We see in the gospels where Satan tempts Jesus in the desert that Satan is also an expert in scripture and quotes it in order to justify his own ends. The full John 10.10 quotes is:
10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
To my ears and understanding, Jesus is eloquently summing up spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation. Ignatius takes a few more words to explain it:
Spiritual Consolation. I call it consolation when an interior movement is aroused in the soul, by which it is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and as a consequence, can love no creature on the face of the earth for its own sake, but only in the Creator of them all. It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears that move to the love of God, whether it be because of sorrow for sins, or because of the sufferings of Christ our Lord, or for any other reason that is immediately directed to the praise and service of God. Finally, I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.
Spiritual Desolation. I call desolation what is entirely the opposite of what is described in the third rule, as darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord. For just as consolation is the opposite of desolation, so the thoughts that spring from consolation are the opposite of those that spring from desolation.
Consideration of these points lead to discernment questions in spiritual direction, either internally or externally:
Where is this coming from?
Where is it leading to?
Is this life giving? How?
Is this death dealing? How?
What is the more life giving choice here?
A preliminary understanding of life giving is around what makes you feel good, or happy. Elle, in Legally Blonde sums it up neatly:
Ignatius does list interior joy as one of the effects of spiritual consolation and the sense of contentment might be considered manifestations of peace and quiet. It is a simple equation that Elle describes: sensible consolation = spiritual consolation, where sensible consolation is about what makes you happy: it must be good then, right? Brooke is a happy person, therefore she is not likely to have committed the mortal sin of murder. And then, must the opposite be true? If it doesn’t feel good, if it makes us feel unhappy and sad, sensible desolation, then it must be bad: sensible desolation = spiritual desolation.
But the equations are not that simple. Ignatius defines spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation in terms of whether something leads us towards God, or away from God: it is not about feeling good or bad, it is firstly, noticing what we are feeling and then observing what is prompting that particular emotion, and where that leads us, in terms of our relationship with God. Consider the recent journey through Holy Week and the Passion of Jesus. The third week of the Spiritual Exercises aligns with this journey and the grace that Ignatius encourages us to ask for is:
Here it will be to ask for sorrow, compassion, and shame because the Lord is going to His suffering for my sins
Sorrow, compassion and shame do not feel good: to feel these things is heartbreaking and brings “copious amounts of tears” as Ignatius writes frequently of his own prayer. Notice above (in bold), he has listed tears that move one to the love of God as spiritual consolation. The world seeks to fix sorrow and shame, and perhaps even overwhelming compassion for another which leads to tears, considering these things as pathological. I’m not saying that this may not sometimes be true: I am saying that sometimes these emotions are appropriate, and when they are leading to a deeper love of God, then they are spiritual consolation.
And sometimes, it is that simple: what makes us feel good is also leading us to God, and when we feel bad it may be because something is leading us away from God. The latter might be manifested as the “sting of conscience”. For example, perhaps I might feel bad about having gossiped unpleasantly about someone behind their back and I would identify such gossip as spiritual desolation, and the unpleasant sting of conscience the consolation inviting me to turn back to God.
If I were Satan’s advisor… I would suggest that Satan ensures that Christian leaders emphasise the danger of human desire, and the need to subject it totally to the will of God, constantly warning their flock that anything they desire must be rooted in their own selfishness, which they must constantly oppose. This will ensure that they always feel bad about feeling good….
and while I cannot remember the exact context – they may have been asked to teach a subject they had not trained in (it happens) – I do remember thinking what a brilliant way of expressing their dissatisfaction about it; the idea that we are designed for something, a purpose, and the desire for that purpose is written into our design: it brings us to life when we are fulfilling that purpose, our own personal vocation, both in the big things of the election, our state in life, and in the little day to day things which help us to fulfill that election. The spiritual consolation is that what we do is in the praise, reverance and service of God.
In thinking about all of these things, and the slow burn of Easter Sunday, The Upper Room and lockdown, I’ve been considering the question posed at the top of the post. What does it mean for me?
Julian of Norwich considers that there are only two sins (sin being spiritual desolation, what leads us away from God): anxious fear and despairing fear or, want of faith and want of hope as described by Ignatius. Ignatius believed that ingratitude was the root of all sin. (Reimagining the examen App: Gratitude). These are a few of the key ideas and also Just for Today, that I am holding onto during this period of lockdown when it would be easy to succumb to fear, despair and anxiety at the state of things. I have myself a list of things that I know are lifegiving for me and I check it off every day (mostly) which reminds me to be grateful for the many blessings in my life and which challenges me to maintain my conscious contact with God.
Certainly, some of it is about endorphins and feeling good, and I might go for exercise or a hot bubble bath with candles and music (usually something spiritual), or even sleep, especially when I feel that creeping darkness weighing on my spirit. Self pity is a particularly distasteful manifestation of ingratitude and it is something I cannot stand within myself whenever I notice it.
So here are my questions for you:
How are you doing right now?
What are the things that bring you to life?
My suggestion is that you make a list of these things and put it on the fridge or somewhere prominent so that the next time you notice that creeping desolation within you, you already have a range of strategies to help you to act against it – all you have to do is choose one and do it.
Good Lord I see in you that you are very truth, and I know truly that we sin grievously all day and are very blameworthy; and I can neither reject my knowledge of this truth, nor see that any kind of blame is shown to us. How can this be? For I know by the ordinary teaching of the Holy Church and by my own feeling that the blame of our sins continually hangs upon us…This then [caused me] astonishment, that I saw our Lord God showing no more blame to us than if we were as pure and as holy as the angels are in heaven…I [felt] great fear and perplexity, thinking that if I were to take it that we are not sinners and not blameworthy, it seems as if I should err and fail to recognise the truth. And if it be true that we are sinners and blameworthy, good Lord, how can it be that I cannot see this truth in you, who are my God, my maker in whom I desire to see all truth?
In God there can be no anger. In all [my] contemplation it was necessary to see and know that we are sinners and commit many evil deeds which we ought to forsake, and leave many good deeds undone which we ought to do, so that we deserve pain, blame and wrath. And despite all this I saw truly that our Lord was never angry, and never will be. Because He is God, He is good, He is truth, He is love, He is peace; and His power, His wisdom, His charity and His unity do not allow Him to be angry. For I saw no wrath except on [our] side, and He forgives that in us, for wrath is nothing else but a perversity and an opposition to peace and to love. and it comes from a lack of power or a lack of wisdom or a lack of goodness, and lack is not in God, but it is on our side. For we through sin and wretchedness have in us a wrath and a constant opposition to peace and to love; and He revealed that very often in His lovely look of compasssion and pity.
But when our courteous Lord of His special grace shows Himself to our soul, we have what we desire, and then for that time we do not see what more we should pray for, but all our intention and all our power are wholly directed to contemplating Him. And as I see it, this is an exalted and imperceptible prayer; for the whole reason why we pray is to be united into the vision and contemplation of Him to whom we pray…with so much sweetness and delight in Him that we cannot pray at all except as He moves us at the time…And then we can do no more than contemplate Him and rejoice, with a great and compelling desire to be wholly united into Him, and attend to his motion and rejoice in His love and delight in His goodness…And [ultimately] we shall all come into our Lord, knowing ourselves clearly and wholly possessing God, and we shall all be endlessly hidden in God, truly seeing and wholly feeling, and hearing Him spiritually and delectably smelling Him and sweetly tasting Him. And there we shall see God face to face, familiarly and wholly.
I learned some ballroom dancing when I was a university student and one of the most memorable moments of that dancing was at the social “practice” evening. I was about eight lessons in, and had only just learned the basics of the waltz, with the pivot turn being the subject of the previous lesson, when they played a “snowball” waltz. The way it works is that a couple, who were partners on the university team, would waltz for a bit, and then they would separate and each choose a new partner from the crowd gathered around the floor. This process would continue until everyone who wanted to dance was on the floor. After a bit, I was asked to dance by a PhD student, a few years older than me, who was part of the University dance team and from my perspective, a phenomenal dancer. As we got onto the floor, the music stopped and the DJ put on a new song: this one was a Viennese waltz! I was horrified. I told my partner that I was just a beginner, and that I did not know this dance. He smiled softly, told me just to relax and follow him, that it was his job to lead me, and asked me to trust him. I struggled for a bit, trying to work out what to do, to anticipate what the next steps were and I could feel the tension in my body as it put up some resistance. That is until a few bars in when it clicked – I did not have a clue, why was I trying to work it out? He knew what he was doing, all I had to do was stop trying to control where we were going, to stop over thinking it, and to give myself over to him in cooperation and trust. So I did. The next few minutes were absolutely amazing, and forever imprinted on my soul: I learned to trust, I learned to follow, I learned to dance. We went whizzing round the floor, round and round, then slow on the spot almost, and then round and round in the other direction: I was giddy, breathless and euphoric. It occurred to me how fantastic this was, and immediately I became self aware, my right heel caught in the front of my left shoe and we both went sprawling across the floor. My partner got up and offered his hand to help me up saying:
I am so sorry, that was my fault. Please forgive me.
I tried to tell him that it was really all mine, but he would not hear of it. And then it was time for us to change partners again.
Of desolation and consolation in the Exercises Ignatius says:
He who enjoys consolation should take care to humble himself and lower himself as much as possible. Let him recall how little he is able to do in time of desolation, when he is left without such grace or consolation.
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.
Dancing with God, in a variety of different ways, is a frequent theme of consolation in my prayer. I have stored up many, many memories of dancing with God in my prayer life which sustain me when the going gets tough. As when dancing with the PhD student above, I have to relax, cooperate and trust, to let God lead and to follow where He leads. When I do it allows the flow and the magic happens. When I hold back, when I resist and try to control the movement, it is stilted and laborious. Dancing with a partner in this way is about relationship, communication and sensitivity; it is about call and response. In his book, The Divine Dance, Richard Rohr says:
Now we are prepared to say that God is not, nor does God need to be, “substance” in that historic Aristotelian sense of something independent of all else but, in fact, God is relationship itself.
In the inner experience of my prayer, dance is indeed an excellent metaphor for my relationship with God.
For example, I was always very comfortable, familiar and friendly with Jesus and although there was a “God the Father”, who I just called God, He did seem very far away and formal, and the Holy Spirit, well, to be very honest, I did not really have much idea what the Holy Spirit was like at all: ethereal, intangible, mysterious – who can get a handle on the Holy Spirit really? And then on one of my annual retreats, I bought my little traveling icon of Rublev’s “The Hospitality of Abraham”, AKA The Holy Trinity, and I started to have it in front of me every day while I was painting mandalas. Over the retreat I began to realise that I did know the Holy Spirit, and that I had always distinguished between Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It was the scene from the film “The Prestige” that surfaced in my mind that made this revelation to me:
Here, Sarah is not consciously aware that it is not her husband she is talking to, but his identical twin brother. Her husband is the one lifting their daughter away from the argument, ostensibly Alfred’s assistant. They are living their trick, and not even the respective loves of their lives are in on it. Earlier she had said to him:
Some days I think you love me, and some days I think you don’t.
Or words to that effect. So here, when he answers her:
No, not today.
he is being very honest, because he is not her husband. Her husband does love her.
What was it that this scene revealed to me? While Sarah might not have been conscious of it, she was able to perceive differences between her husband and his identical twin (and she did not know there was a twin). It dawned on me that sometimes in my prayer journal I wrote “Jesus” and sometimes I wrote “JC”, and I always had done, even when I kept a diary as a teenager. I realised that I was intuiting subtle differences in the aspect of God that I was perceiving from my prayer, and that I was distinguishing between Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Some people I know do not experience the Holy Spirit as a person, but I definitely do. JC is what I call Him by.
This revelation made God the Father seem even further away than before: I had in mind those distant, English Victorian fathers, of the sort depicted in Mary Poppins. When I talked to the spiritual director guiding me on my retreat about this, he suggested that I ask the Father in prayer, what He would like me to call Him. When I did, He asked me to call Him by His name:
The most personal name of God revealed to Moses, and treasured as a sign of intimacy and favour.
And He invited me to slow dance: He invited me into intimacy with Him. Suddenly, He was not so far away, but up close and personal as in the picture featured at the top of the post. I could sense His strength, incredible strength, and a poignant loneliness which touched me: even as He said with a deep longing:
I have waited for this moment for a long time.
Imagine, God is lonely for us! All of God is longing for intimacy with us. It is as Julian of Norwich says in Day 8 of the 40 Day Journey:
God’s thirst is to have [us], generally, drawn into Him…
In the Spiritual Exercises, through use of our memory and imagination in prayer, Ignatius invites us to experience and live with God and to grow into a deeper intimacy with Him. It is to enter wholeheartedly into the Divine Dance.
Another time I might tell you about morris dancing with the Holy Spirit, but for now I will leave you with a song that I understand God is especially fond of. Enjoy.
But still our trust is often not complete, because we are not sure that God hears us…for often we are as barren and dry after our prayer as we were before. [Here Jesus says]: Pray wholeheartedly, though you may feel nothing, though you may see nothing, yes, though you think that you could not, for in dryness and in barrenness, in sickness and in weakness, then is your prayer most pleasing to me. [W]e ought to pray…that He may rule us and guide us to His glory in this life, and bring us to His bliss…So He means us to see that He does it and to pray for it. For…if we pray and do not see that He does it, it makes us depressed and doubting…And if we see that He does it and do not pray, we do not do our duty…It is our Lord’s will that we pray for everything which He has ordained to do, either in particular or in general. And so I saw that when we see the need for us to pray, then our Lord God is following us, helping our desire.