Loving the Leper

Loving the Leper 1: Reading of this post

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:

Loving the Leper 2: Reading of this post

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.

Loving the Leper 3: Reading of this post

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.

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

I am also reminded of Psalm 91, when Satan quotes from it to tempt Jesus in the desert. He says:

“He will command his angels concerning you”,
    and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’

Matthew 4:6

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.”’

Matthew 4:7

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.

Loving the Leper 4: Reading of this post

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.

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, edited Lisa A. Dahill

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.

Loving the Leper 5: Reading of this post

I wrote about indifference and The First Principle and Foundation previously:

…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.

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

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.

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich: Day 17

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.

Reading: Luke 18:1

Psalm 28:1,7

Eden is Not the Only Garden.

Penhurst, garden seat.
Eden is Not the Only Garden 1: Reading of this post.

As I was raising my two daughters, we had a saying in our house at the end of a film. I would say, to their annoyance:

“Sexy kiss!!!! All the best stories have one.”

And they would respond with an eye roll and:

Except Mulan. Mulan doesn’t have a sexy kiss.

But we acknowledged that it was implied in the “stay for dinner” scene at the end:

Eden is Not the Only Garden 2: Reading of this post.

My youngest has taken to watching analysis of films on You tube at the moment, and the other day she was deep in thought at the most recent one which had looked at the whole “will they, won’t they?” question in films like “When Harry met Sally” and in “Star Wars” (Han Solo and Princess Lea), and how this psychology is played out in real life. It resonated with her own situation.

I was also reading an article in The Guardian about how increasingly, people, especially, but not only women, are choosing to reject dating and sex for a period of time and it reminded me of a point in Christopher Jamison’s book, “Finding Sanctuary”, where he comments on the pressure on young men to always be sexually available. It is not just young men. How we conduct our sexual relationships is, always has been, and always will be an issue in society.

The article in The Guardian resonated with me, and my daughter’s comment on “hetero-normative relationships”, both occurring on the same day this week. As a little girl growing up society presented me with the ultimate ideal of finding “Mr Right”, getting married, settling down, having children and living happily ever after. It is presented everywhere: Fairy Stories, Disney, film, family and the church – Adam and Eve, The Holy Family, the sacrament of marriage. As female children, we are brought up to internalise this ideal and to aspire to it. It is a classic joke – the new boyfriend overhearing his girlfriend telling her friends that she thinks he is “the one” and him freaking out because she already has him walking down the aisle with her after maybe only a few dates. Maybe it is also true of male children. I read somewhere so long ago now that I cannot remember where, that the convent was the one place that had always presented women with an alternative to marriage. To be neither wife nor nun is to be something else entirely, and may bring assumption, judgement and derision for being the wrong sort of woman. Except that, in my lifetime, secular society has become more tolerant and forgiving of the spaces in between.

Of course, the priesthood and the monastery have also presented as alternatives to marriage for men. Richard Sipe comments that while he has met celibate priests who have missed their vocation to be married, he has also met plenty of married people who have missed their vocation to be celibate. It has given me much food for thought.

Cloisters, Norwich Cathedral
Eden is Not the Only Garden 3: Reading of this post.

I am drawn to the spirituality of The Beguines, medieval communities of lay women whose spirituality was based on The Song of Songs. They lived as celibates for as long as they remained in the community, in spiritual solitude, near each other and they worked in the wider community. They did not take formal religious vows and were free to leave at any point. In The Song of Songs, there is a garden; it represents the ground of the soul, the place where the soul unites with God. In this garden, there is one solitary soul and God; not an intertwined twin flame of souls, but one single soul. And in Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich speaks only of Adam, not Adam and Eve.

Which brings me to a frequently heard phrase:

“God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”

as an attack on relationships that are not hetero-normative. Did God not also create Steve? I am both disturbed and ashamed at the vitriol that some Christians pour out on the LGBT+ community, and on Fr. James Martin, because of his loving engagement with people for whom their own, or the sexuality of those they love, falls in this area. Secular society at least is more tolerant here.

Eden is Not the Only Garden 4: Reading of this post.

Did Jesus not say:

Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.

John 8:7

And:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?

Matthew 7: 1-3

How many of us can actually claim perfection in our sexual behaviour, attitudes and thoughts? How many of us are and have always been chaste in our thoughts and actions when it comes to our sexuality, completely innocent of lust, inordinate desire for another, masturbation, fornication, use of pornography, adultery? How many married people abstained from sex and did not live together before they married? How many abstain from using contraception (if they are members of the Catholic Church) in order that every sexual act is open to procreation? I know for sure that I cannot claim perfection in chastity, so who am I to condemn anyone because they sin differently from me? Who am I to criticise another because they do not achieve perfection in chastity when I have not been able achieve that myself? I refuse to be that hypocrite.

Boot remover at entrance to St. Beunos
Eden is Not the Only Garden 5: Reading of this post.

St. Ignatius places the choice of a state in life in the second week of the exercises and calls it an Election. He encourages us to make such a serious decision free from inordinate attachments and if we are already in an unchangeable state, such as marriage or holy orders, even if that choice had been made with a lack of freedom from inordinate attachments, that we discern how best to live now within that state. This whole process takes time, prayer, discernment and grace.

I am not claiming to have any solutions to the problems around sexuality and sexual behaviour, far from it. It is such a powerful issue of desire and identity, and so easily corrupted, and it is messy. How we relate to others on a sexual level is a part of our intimate and vulnerable self, as is our sinfulness. When we bring it all in front of our loving God, no matter who we are, it is fertile ground for Him to work His miracles, no matter how long it takes and what it looks like. It may be that the garden we find ourselves in is not Eden, but somewhere else. If God brings us to that place and meets us there, how is it for anyone else to say we do not belong there and to deem us too sinful for a place at the table, when God Himself invites us with open arms?

Gardens, Bodwellian Castle

All things in a hazelnut.

Reading of All things in a hazelnut part 1

I went to the Saturday retreat day at St Julian’s Church (below) and found an oasis in space and time. There has been a lot of stress in my life recently, and to stop in the midst of it all was, literally, a Godsend.

I was, and was looking for, quiet, and at least until lunchtime, I maintained a quiet solitude within myself. And then to my surprise, I found myself engaged in easy conversation with a variety of different people, who brought me out of myself, in spite of myself.

Reading of All things in a hazelnut part 2

When I was studying to be a Spiritual Director, in the first year, we spent some time learning about all sorts of different spiritualities, not just the Ignatian Way. We spent a day looking at Hermits and Anchorites, Solitaries and the Beguines were also mentioned. In the meditation at the end of that day we were asked to notice our own internal response to what we had been learning. I noticed that I had found it extremely interesting, and in my reflective log later commented that I found it interesting that I had found it interesting. I have since recognised my own solitary nature, and that the longing in my own spiritual journey is for solitude: to go into my room alone with God and to close the door. I had observed a few years before that the more time I spent alone, and alone with God, the more open I was, in a non attached and free way, to other people. It seems a strange paradox, but was evident at the retreat day. I am drawn to Julian of Norwich, partly for this reason, partly because she was a woman writing about God and something of the non-patriarchal attitude in her writing is attractive, and in a similar way to St. Ignatius, she comes at our createdness from the perspective that we are like God “in nature”, that:

The soul…is accorded with God.

A Revelation of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich.

rather than the common perspective than we are doomed sinners. Please do not get me wrong, there is no denial of sin either from Julian or from Ignatius, it is just that holding that our true nature is in God, and that we are completely loved by Him, is hopeful and opens us more freely to allow ourselves to accept the love of God, and to love Him more fully in return. It is the process by which we are transformed. I listen to people who begin from the point that they are doomed and they are so full of guilt that it gets in the way, or they have a subtle nuance in their thinking that they can achieve their own salvation by being good. They seem defeated before they even start, and I am sure I have felt like that at times too.

Reading of All things in a hazelnut part 3

There was a guided meditation on a hazelnut.

Then He showed me a little thing, no bigger than a hazelnut, as it seemed to me, lying in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought:

What can this be?

And I was answered generally:

It is all that is made.

I gazed with astonishment, wondering how it could survive because of its littleness. It seemed to me that it was about to fall into nothingness. And I was answered in my mind:

It lasts and always will last because God loves it.

And so, everything receives its being from the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three truths:

God made it.

God loves it.

God keeps it.

A Revelation of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich.

I was reminded of an imaginative contemplation I had during the exercises on The First Principle and Foundation, where I had been praying with Psalm 139, and pondering my own creation, and I found myself in a repetition of that prayer, focusing on a consolation I had received at that time. I was my small inner child, around four years of age, in the garden with God, wearing my purple sparkly wellies and a simple white dress: I kid you not. Who would put a child in a white dress to do gardening? With my nose running like a burn, as they say where I am from, we were planting sunflowers in a large round flowerbed. He had shown me how to do it, and was over on the other side of the flower bed working, when I stopped to stare at the seeds in my hand. The phrase from the psalm repeated again and again in my mind:

when I was being formed in secret,

textured in the depths of the earth.

Psalm 139: 15b
Reading of All things in a hazelnut part 4

I remember He noticed me standing transfixed, and asked me tenderly:

Sunflower, are you okay?

I whispered to Him in awe:

You made me. Just like this, you made me.

I imagine Julian’s astonishment as she contemplated the vision of the hazelnut to be something similar. In this repetition, I heard those words directed to me:

I made you.

I love you.

I keep you.

I am keeping you very safe.

The last sentence here is another from Revelations of Divine Love, and it is one I hold close to me regularly. Previously I wrote about how Ignatius has said that we should store up the experience of consolation to strengthen us in periods of desolation. This last phrase is one of my consolations that I bring to mind when I notice that I am feeling fearful. Julian says that there are only two sins: anxious fear and despairing fear. Both are a lack of trust in God. Ignatius identifies both the want of faith and the want of hope as signs of desolation, of being pulled away from God. I said earlier that there has been a lot of stress in my life recently, and it has certainly led to me feeling unsafe and fearful at times, and despairing. To hear Him affirm me this way in prayer has shifted my perspective since the retreat day. I spent some time considering the people who have been, and still are, supporting me: friends, family, at Church and particularly my colleagues at work, and for their kindness and tenderness towards me, I am deeply grateful.

It was also mentioned on my course that Revelations of Divine Love could be used as a prayer programme or retreat, in a similar way to The Spiritual Exercises. That possibility I found extremely interesting and wondered how it could work in practice. What would the process be? I thought that when I had finished my training I might go back to that idea and look at it more closely. At the Julian Centre on the day of the retreat, I found the book “40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich”, Lisa E. Dahill, editor. There are a whole series of 40 Day Journey with… books with a selection of inspirational people. So, feeling inspired by what I have found, it is my intention to go on this 40 day journey with Julian, as a sort of 19th annotation, like in The Exercises, where one day in the journey takes a week of everyday life. I intend to begin at the beginning of the liturgical year: the beginning of advent, so I have some time to ready myself for the journey. Wish me Bon Voyage!

Calming the storm.

I was praying with Pray As You Go yesterday morning and the scripture for the prayer was Matthew 8:23-27, when Jesus is asleep during the storm and the disciples wake Him up in their fear. The music played was Calm me, Lord – Fire of Love performed by Kevin Mayhew. The question was asked:

Do you ever feel that the Lord is asleep to the dangers and difficulties in your life?

Pray As You Go, Tuesday July 2, 2019

I found myself entering into the story imaginatively and the storm I imagined myself in was like the maelstrom in Pirates of the Caribbean:

Maelstrom – Pirates of the Caribbean: at Worlds End

Scary stuff! The last time I did an imaginative contemplation with this passage, which was some years ago, Jesus did wake up to calm the storm. Here however, when I observed that He was sleeping through all of the chaos, I noticed how peaceful He was, and I felt the desire to be able to do likewise: to be able to rest and feel secure, regardless of what was going on around me. I lay down beside Him, and snuggled into Him and closed my eyes. He pulled me closer and whispered to me:

I am keeping you very safe.

Revelations of Divine Love – Julian of Norwich

And I did feel safe as I sank into a deep, warm, restful sleep, being held close by Him. This consolation has remained with me since the prayer. On sharing it out loud with my own Spiritual Director, I realised that this is material for repetition. Of repetition, St Ignatius says:

In doing this, we should pay attention and dwell upon those points in which we have experienced greater consolation or desolation or greater spiritual appreciation.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, first week, third exercise: trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.

An analogy would be like taking a photograph (digital) of something, say a church, and noticing that when you look at it, there seems to be something of interest in the bell tower. You then put a more powerful lens on the camera to focus more closely on the point of interest so that you can see a lot more detail and up close. Making a repetition of a prayer in the way suggested by St Ignatius allows the experience to deepen, and to filter down to extract the essence, to savour the spiritual fruit of it. So, the focus on my next prayer period will be this consolation I experienced during the calming of the storm.

And now this. Enjoy.