Labyrinth Garden

Labyrinth Garden 1: Reading of this post.

Abundance. That is the word that comes to mind whenever I go out into my garden. It is so abundant in fact, that I simply cannot keep up with it! It reminds me of a scene from “The Shack” where Mack goes into the garden to talk to Sarayu (The Holy Spirit):

Labyrinth Garden 2: Reading of this post.

I have not always been a gardener. It is something I have picked up out of necessity in the last few years. I dug over the top third of my back garden about four years ago, thinking that if I planted a wild flower garden, it would take care of itself a bit, that I would not have so much grass to cut and it would make life a bit easier. I could not have been more wrong! The first year was absolutely splendid – and I missed a lot of the summer being away doing The Spiritual Exercises. After that, I was ill for about a year and nettles encroached, trying to reclaim it for themselves. I spent the last two years claiming it back, and this year has been maintenance, in that respect.

I have learned a lot in my time spent in the garden. The first, and most important lesson I learned is that I am not in control of it. I may have gone out there with a plan, but in no way has it happened the way that I thought it would. There are plants I have not seen since the first year I planted them – the scarlet pimpernel, for example. Such beautiful little flowers, I see why they are called elusive.

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.

Sir Percy Blakeney, Baronet (ch.12); The Scarlet Pimpernel Baroness Orczy

I discovered during that first year that the best time to catch them with the flowers open was mid morning, so I took to taking my coffee break (I still call it that, even though I now limit my one coffee a day to breakfast time) at the top of the garden, looking for the scarlet pimpernel.

Scarlet Pimpernel – close up from the Spiritual Direction Mandala.
Labyrinth Garden 3: Reading of this post.

I generally left things alone for a while, to see what they would do, and I gradually became able to discern the difference between a plain old bramble, a raspberry and a blackberry. I did not plant any of these, but, there they were, in abundance. I am not so cavalier as Sarayu in removing things; in fact, I am as shocked as Mack is at the way she attacks that flower bed with such gusto, and I am tentative, but gradually becoming less so, about uprooting plants in my garden.

The strategy of waiting to see has paid off though. In the first year, as I was walking down the lanes near my house, I noticed some thistles growing on the verge at the side of the road. Being my national flower, I am quite partial to thistles, but I did not recall ever seeing their seeds on sale in the garden shops, and I wondered how I might get some in my garden. A few weeks later, I was sitting on the bench in the wild flower garden and I noticed that that spiky plant I had left alone was a big thistle and it was in flower. This was the second thing that I learned about gardening, that you get presented with many unexpected gifts. My garden has been growing trees – from scratch. As far as I can identify, beeches, hornbeam, black poplar and elderflower. These are challenging, problematic gifts because there is not the space for them there, from their perspective and mine, but what to do about it? I sat on that problem for months, until I noticed that some of them were lined nicely and could form a hedge, delineating the footpaths I have been putting in to prayer spots at the edges. I moved some of the others to form a little grove, leading to a meditation point, and I am coppicing them to form a hedge. I only lost three out of sixteen that I moved. I also planted some sunflowers in the first year, and those were glorious.

Spiritual Direction Mandala
Labyrinth Garden 4: Reading of this post.

This was always meant to be a conversation between friends.

Why am I telling you about my garden? Some of you experienced gardeners might even be shaking your heads thinking:

What is she talking about? She really doesn’t know much about gardening.

And you would be absolutely correct to think so. But I am not really talking about gardening: I am talking about the spiritual journey. Sometimes in our spiritual lives, something begins to emerge, fresh shoots, and we may not know what it is at first. It is like the darnel and the wheat, or in my case, the brambles, the raspberries and the blackberries, the thistles and the trees. God gives graces and gifts freely. Some of these, we desire, and maybe do not even know that we desire them -for me, the thistles. Some of these gifts and graces may be problematic, and we have to sit with them, to work through what it is He is giving, and what He would have us do with them – the trees. Some may be gifts we deliberately asked for, but we have to simply be, and at the right time, in the right place, we will notice their flowering – the scarlet pimpernel. And the sunflowers? Sometimes He gives exactly what we ask for and in the most generous and exuberant way. There are also times to uproot what was there before, even if it seems good, in order to prepare the ground for new growth. We may see a mess on the ground, but from the viewpoint of God, as Sarayu says, of the garden and of us:

Wild, wonderful and perfectly in process.

The mandala I have featured here is an assignment I did in the second year of my formation as a Spiritual Director. I have added the assignment as a page in its own right. It is too long to include everything I have learned since my initiation to gardening. As a celebration, particularly relevant since the churches have opened again in the United Kingdom this weekend, I offer this joyful prayer, featuring some of God’s abundant gifts as they appear in my garden.

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.

Sanctuary in a Carmelite Hermitage

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

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

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

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

The Cloud of Unknowing

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

May my will be in accordance with your will.

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

You can’t put my love in a box.

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

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

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

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

Emily Dickinson: He Fumbles at your Spirit

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

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

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

I should rather keep in mind that …

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 11:6

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

I will serve you in obedience and humility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrance to the Church at Quidenham.