Morris Dancing with the Holy Spirit

Morris dancing with the Holy Spirit 1: Reading of this post.

The Jerusalema Dance Challenge on Facebook has been filling me with deep joy recently, especially this version of it:

Jerusalema Challenge from the catholic Cathedral of Montreal
Music: MASTER KG – JERUSALEMA [FEAT. NOMCEBO]
Morris dancing with the Holy Spirit 2: Reading of this post.

It reminds me of morris dancing with the Holy Spirit. Let me explain. There is surrender, and then there is surrender! One of the funniest things one of my friends has ever said to me on the subject of surrendering to God is:

I am surrendered to God! He drags me screaming and kicking to do His will!

(I am sorry, you know who you are, and it is too good not to share)

While it makes me laugh, it also illustrates what I am trying to say. We make partial surrenders and think that we are open, and doing what God calls us to do, when in reality, we are in denial about our own resistance. I read an analogy once that to surrender to God was like handing Him a signed, blank cheque that He could draw on; it is a promise, a commitment to give whatever was asked. I liked this analogy and had considered myself as having done just that for a long time. Little did I know that I was like Oda Mae Brown in Ghost:

Morris dancing with the Holy Spirit 3: Reading of this post.

Sure, He might claim on that signed cheque. Maybe we both knew and accepted that whatever He asked would be given, but like my friend I quoted above, I put up a good fight for someone who was surrendered. Perhaps at this point it is the state Ignatius makes the prayer at the end of the first week of The Spiritual Exercises:

Eternal Lord of all things, in the presence of Thy infinite goodness, and of Thy glorious mother, and of all the saints of Thy heavenly court, this is the offering of myself which I make with Thy favor and help. I protest that it is my earnest desire and my deliberate choice, provided only it is for Thy greater service and praise, to imitate Thee in bearing all wrongs and all abuse and all poverty, both actual and spiritual, should Thy most holy majesty deign to choose and admit me to such a state and way of life

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

We may have the desire to surrender, but it does not necessarily mean that we have completely surrendered.

To understand the difference, as I experienced it, let me tell you about the morris dancing. I really like dancing, I have used it as a metaphor for the relationship with God before, but morris dancing? nooooo…not my thing. If you are not familiar with the concept, and you might not be, it is an English thing as far as I understand it (Scottish folk dancing is quite different); here is an example:

Morris dancing with the Holy Spirit 4: Reading of this post.

Please understand, I have friends who do morris dancing, I am not mocking it, but it is definitely not for me. So with this in mind, there was The Song of Songs retreat the year before I did The Exercises. This retreat has its own name, out of the twenty or so I have ever done, because it was so significant. I had been praying with a passage from the Song of Songs as suggested by my spiritual director on the retreat and while speaking to him afterwards, I read out to him the colloquy from my imaginatve contemplation, which was pretty much a monologue from me. It was my own personal suscipe prayer:

My God, my God. I surrender everything to You, I surrender completely to You. I am lost to You, I am lost in You. I have given You my right to choose. I have no will but Your will, no choices but Your choices, no desires but Your desires, no strength but Your strength. I am completely dependent on You. I surrender everything.

As I read it out to the director, I slipped into silence as it dawned on me just what had happened, quietly and certainly in that imaginative contemplation: I had surrendered completely to God, nothing held back. I had admitted it to God, and now I was admitting it to myself and to another human being. My director also recognised the significance of it because he allowed the silence for it to sink in during my session with him and the next day, he gave me a copy of the Suscipe Prayer from The Spiritual Exercises. It was real. You cannot pray like this and not live it. And still, it had yet deeper to go. There was a subsequent imaginative contemplation towards the end of that retreat where I was standing with the Holy Trinity and we were watching some morris dancers. Please do not ask me why…such is the world of imaginative contemplation. The Holy Spirit invited me to join in the dance with Him, and I resisted, saying that it really was not my thing. He stood His ground, looked me straight in the eye and said:

I desire it.

My response to this expression from God is now, automatically:

It is given.

So I joined the Holy Spirit in the dance, while Jesus and YHWH were crying with laughter on the sidelines because the Holy Spirit had invoked the irrefusable request in order to go morris dancing with me. And yet, still I resisted, like Oda Mae, holding onto that cheque and being grumpy, even after it was handed over. I resisted, until I saw the expression of delight and pure, unadulterated joy on the face of the Holy Spirit when I was banging sticks with Him. He was stomping hard to make those bells ring loudly and He was just so happy. I realised that I was being churlish; that to join reluctantly was not surrender, I had to abandon myself freely to this dance, no matter how foolish I thought it was. It was the third kind of humility:

I desire to be accounted as worthless and a fool for Christ,

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

So I threw myself into the dance and Jesus and YHWH also joined in. No matter how difficult and dark things seem to be at times, the experience of being a part of this divine flow of joy still fills me whenever I recall it, five years later. In the Spiritual Exercises, regarding such spiritual consolation, St. Ignatius says:

When one enjoys consolation, let him consider how he will conduct himself during the time of ensuing desolation, and store up a supply of strength as defense against that day.

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

What I learned from morris dancing with the Holy Spirit is that to give up all resistance and to surrender joyfully and freely to God is the most liberating thing to do. It is a once and for all surrender, and an everyday surrender. It takes constant prayer, listening and discernment, and patience, to know that it is indeed God who is saying:

I desire it.

The irrefusable request, to which the only response is:

It is given.

And there is no need to beat ourselves up because we are not there yet. The Holy Spirit was full of joy simply because I had joined the dance, despite me being reluctant and grumpy about it. Each desire for, and each little surrender is a step towards complete surrender. It is the movement in The Spiritual Exercises from the Eternal Lord of All Things to the Suscipe Prayer:

Mary, a Feminist?

Mary, a feminist? 1: Reading of this post

So here is a bit of a confession for a Catholic: I have struggled and wrestled for a long time with what I feel about Mary. There were those porcelein statues around, and this image of perfection which immediately condemned me as a failure as a woman: virgin or mother, you cannot be both, so choose one and know that you will always only be half a woman. It is the message I was receiving as I grew up as a female. And of course, she is the mother of Jesus, He loved her, He listened to her – the miracle at Cana? I am sure you know what I mean. So, I felt guilty and ignored the issue. Evangelicals are often critical of Catholics, saying that they worship Mary, and there is only one God, and while I might concede that to them, that might indeed be what it looks like, but from a Catholic perspective, if life in God is eternal, then praying to Mary (and the saints) and asking her and them to pray for me is not really that much different from asking my friends and church community to pray for me. Why would you not? No, It is not the “You Catholics worship Mary, and that is blasphemy” accusation that bothers me about Mary, and yes, that has been said to me more than once: it is more the passive, bland , vanilla image of her and how it is held up as the ideal for women who love God. Is this really who His mother is?

I read a couple of short stories which featured Mary, or an image of her, that resonated with me and made me think more deeply about the images we are presented with. One of them in The Seven Deadly Sins, on Anger, says:

…On the opposite wall above the sink there was a reproduction of a medieval Virgin and Child. The Virgin in her jewelled head-dress knelt in dazed adoration before the cradle, her hands meekly folded in prayer.

‘That’s what he wants,’ she thought, ‘That’s what they all think they have a right to.’

She Went of Her Own Accord, Kate Saunders, The Seven Deadly Sins

And another, where she appears to a black man on the run and asks him to melt her:

I could never cry after that day for His loss. Since I was made marble, wax, sculpted wood, gold, ivory, I’ve had no tears. I had to carry on living this way, with a lie of stupid smiles painted on My face. Tristan, I was not what they have painted. I was different, certainly less beautiful. And I have come to tell you something.

The Fall, Armonia Somers in Other Fires: Stories from the Women of Latin America , edited by Alberto Manguel

The first quote illustrates my frustration with the images we are offered as women, and the second, scandalous hope. If you want to know more about that , I recommend Armonia Somers’ story. It is not for the faint hearted.

The Great Mother, Jen Delyth
Mary, a feminist 2: Reading of this post

I was so much ill at ease with images of Mary that it got in the way when I was making the Exercises. During the first week, Ignatius suggests a triple colloquy at the end of the prayer sessions:

The first colloquy will be with our Blessed Lady, that she may obtain grace for me from her Son and Lord for three favors:

A deep knowledge of my sins and a feeling of abhorrence for them;

An understanding of the disorder of my actions, that filled with horror of them, I may amend my life and put it in order;

A knowledge of the world, that filled with horror, I may put away from me all that is worldly and vain. Then I will say a Hail Mary.

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

I could not get on with this practice at all. When I tried, my conversation with her was stilted and awkard, like I was trying too hard to be polite and to like her – I realised that she was a bit of a stranger to me. And when Jesus appeared with us in the second part of the colloquy, I just looked at Him agog – it was like even He was on His best behaviour, and not behaving like Himself at all! My director at the time wisely suggested leaving the triple colloquy alone since it was getting in the way, and to do the colloquy as before.

A photo of the picture of a young pregnant woman. It is one of the pictures around the house at St. Beunos. I prayed with it over the course of a day, with Psalm 63, after I had medidated on The Annuciation during The Spiritual Exercises.
Mary, a feminist 3: reading of this post

Ultimately though, it was at the beginning of the second week of the Spiritual Exercises that I felt inspired to really examine my perceptions and images. My director, again, wisely encouraged me to spend extra time on the space between the first contemplation and the Nativity, and more time with Mary during the hidden life meditations.

In the first prelude of the first contemplation of the second week, Ignatius encourages us to imagine the Holy Trinity looking upon the Earth and humanity, and coming up with a plan:

Here it will be how the Three Divine Persons look down upon the whole expanse or circuit of all the earth, filled with human beings. Since They see that all are going down to hell, They decree in Their eternity that the Second Person should become man to save the human race. So when the fullness of time had come, They send the Angel Gabriel to our Lady.

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

In my imagination, the Holy Trinity were discussing the hows and when of putting the salvation plan into actions and had agreed that it would be inititated when:

She prays psalm 63.

In the next contemplation, The Annunciation, I was an invisible observer, watching and listening to Mary at prayer, and when she prayed psalm 63, it completely blew me away! In The New Jerusalem Bible, which is the one I normally use for prayer, the first part translates as:

God, you are my God, I pine for you;

my heart thirst for you,

my body longs for you,

Psalm 63…The New Jerusalem Bible

The moment I heard her say the words in bold, there was what seemed to me at the time, a scandalous and shocking revelation that I recognised as “screaming womb”. Such was the ferocity of her desire and love of God, that it went far beyond the sexual imagery of desire of The Song of Songs, which of itself, can make uncomfortable reading. It is a young woman saying:

I want to have your baby.

And the answer to her biological question of how can it be, the mystery of it, is given in the psalm:

…and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.

My soul clings to you;

Psalm 63: 7b-8a

So I began to see her in a new light, as an audacious woman who loved and trusted God to the exclusion of everything else: social propriety and the thoughts and feelings of her betrothed included. As Grandmother Widow (myself as an Old Woman) said to her in a later imaginative contemplation:

You never even gave Joe a second thought, did you?

I developed a friendship with her from there: as the mother of my own inner child, little Sunflower, I brought her over for “playdates” with Jesus, and while they played in the garden fountain at the age of three, laughing and splashing, Mary and I talked. When I was overcome with tiredness, she looked after the children and let me sleep. She became for me, a real person and not an alabaster statue.

I do not know who created this image. If anyone is able to enlighten me, please do, because I would like to attribute it properly.
Mary, a feminist 4: reading of this post

I went to the Ignatian Spirituality Course Triennial lecture given by Jerrfey John, an Anglican Theologan. It was about Mary in scripture, and we were presented with different images of her. My favourite, Che Maria, was put with The Magnificat and presented her as Mary the Revolutionary. John talked about Henry Martin, who went out to Calcutta as a chaplain:

When he got there, he was astonished to find that the local Governer had ordered the Magnificat to be ripped out of the Prayer Book, and forbade it to be used in church services, because he was convinced that if the natives heard it they would be inspired to rebel.

Jeffrey John, Mary in Scripture, ISC Triennial lecture 2019.

John also pointed out:

…in 1978 in Beunos Aires, the mothers of all the ‘disappeared’ people who had been kidnapped and killed by the military junta in Argentina, gathered tohether in the Plaza de Mayo to fight back. One of the ways they did it was by plastering the text of the Magnificat everywhere, and endlessly singing it in front of Government headquarters until in the end the Government, very stupidly, tried to ban it.

Jeffrey John, Mary in Scripture, ISC Triennial lecture 2019.

And he asserted that the song the punk band Pussy Riot sang in the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour in Moscow in 2012, and were jailed for, was a prayer to Mary to drive Putin away, and was very much in the spirit of the Magnificat.

Dallas Jenkins (The Chosen), talks about the care he took in the portrayal of Mary in Episode 5 of Season 1.

Mary, a feminist 5: reading of this post.

Dallas asks towards the end of this discussion:

How did we do?

I think they did a great job. Here is a woman I can relate to.

On our spiritual journey, I have learned that it is important to consider our image of God. Sometimes we can cling to unhelpful images of God that prevent us from moving into deeper intimacy with Him. I have come to understand, since I did The Spiritual Exercises, that the same is true of His mum. Getting to know her better has allowed me to indeed see her as an example and role model, but not in the way that others tell me to see her. To see her audacity, a woman who submits to God’s authority regardless of what the patriarchy tells her that looks like. Does that make her a feminist? To me it does. She believed that her free will allowed her to make a choice without first running it past a societally approved man; she made that choice, trusted God and lived with the consequences of it. In my eyes, she is an awesome role model for this reason and I am pleased to call her my friend.

The Magnificat

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

Mary’s song of Praise. Luke 46b-55

Came to believe. Step 2 and The Spiritual Exercises

Came to believe. Step 2 and The Spiritual Exercises 1: Reading of this post.

Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/About-AA/The-12-Steps-of-AA
At the centre of the labyrinthe at St. Beunos
Came to believe. Step 2 and The Spiritual Exercises 2: Reading of this post.

I can honestly say that the last two weeks have been hectic in a way that I have not at all enjoyed. I would go as far as describing it as the First of the Twelve Steps:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/About-AA/The-12-Steps-of-AA

I am not specifically speaking about alcohol here, but the powerlessness I have experienced over my life is real and with it, the sense that it is completely unmanageable. Very quickly, I started to realise that I am living step two, that amidst this turmoil of spirits I have been experiencing, I am reaching out to God and believing that He can indeed restore me to sanity, and that in fact, it is exactly what He has been doing since I made the Exercises, and for a time even before that. So, I am making a discernment about my life.

In Breathing Underwater, in the chapter on Step 2, Richard Rohr writes:

The immediate embrace is from God’s side, the ineffectiveness is whatever time it takes for us to “come to believe”, which is the slow and gradual healing and reconnecting of head, heart and body so that they can operate as one.

Breathing Underwater, Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Richard Rohr

He makes the point that there is a process here, a lag time. We do not suddenly believe that God can restore us to sanity, as it says in step two, without a precursor to that belief. The first step may come as a revelation, where there is a desire and a possibility for change, and no doubt about it; what Ignatius describes in The Spiritual Exercises as First Time Choice:

When God our Lord so moves and attracts the will that a devout soul without hesitation, or the possibility of hesitation, follows what has been manifested to it. St. Paul and St. Matthew acted thus in following Christ our Lord.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl S.J.
Sundial, Penhurst
Came to believe. Step 2 and The Spiritual Exercises 3: Reading of this post.

The second step is not quite the same thing as it is lived. I have heard a lot of people share and talk about reaching their “rock bottom” and tell that they felt that this recognition of their own powerlessness and the unmanageability of their lives had come from outwith themselves. In step two though, there is more of a struggle: with some, it is in accepting a Higher Power, where there was no belief in God previously, and with others, where there is already a faith in God, it is in deeply believing that God can restore us to sanity and living according to that belief. I include myself in this latter category.

I read somewhere, a while back, words to the effect of:

If Christians believe that they are truly saved by the sacrifice of Jesus, why do more of them not live more joyfully, as if it were true?

I do not remember where I read this, or the exact quote: it may have been Richard Rohr or James Martin who said it in one of their books, it may have been Anthony Flew in “There is a God”. Nevertheless, the sense of it has remained with me and it connects me now to this second step. We can believe in God, but to trust Him and live completely in that trust is a different thing, not least because we have to discern the movements within us, our desires and our fears. God’s voice is not the only one speaking to us, either through the people we meet, the events in our lives or within our own minds and hearts. Discernment takes listening, and listening takes time and consideration, and noticing the effect of these different voices on our soul. Ignatius describes it as turmoil of spirits and calls it second time choice:

When much light and understanding are derived through experience of desolations and consolations and discernment of diverse spirits.

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

I would say that I am generally a fairly decisive person. I joined Al Anon for the first time when I was seventeen, and one of the tools of the program that I have worked with a lot over the course of my life is the Just For Today card. One of my favourites from this card is:

Just for today I will have a program. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. I will save myself from two pests: hurry and indecision.

Al Anon : Just For Today

It is a curious back and forth I am describing here. I have some control over the decisions I make, and yet I am powerless, and I come to believe that God can restore me. The process that links the powerlessness of the first step and the believing that God can restore me is in the discernment, the sitting with and noticing the push and pull in the turmoil of spirits. When I have made a decision, and I am resolved in that decision, I do act “decisively” to carry it out. Sometimes, it is only the action that people see from me, and not the process that has gone into that decision. This Just for Today focus highlights two pests in the process of making a change and in trusting God in making a change: hurry and indecision, both of which we might attribute the label “spiritual desolation”:

I call desolation… 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.

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

The time it takes to “come to believe” allows for this discernment process, a growing into faith and trust in God. We do not need to beat ourselves up that we do not enter at this point of somehow magically trusting God, for to do so may lead to self loathing, or even believing that we do really trust God may of itself be pride, a lack of humilty, that our trust is all our own achievement:

Am I not so good? Of course I trust God completely!

Memento Mori, Vanitas. “Pride” From my series on The Seven Deadly Sins.
Came to believe. Step 2 and The Spiritual Exercises 4: Reading of this post.

Spiritual consolation, as described by Ignatius, is the movement towards deeper trust in God:

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.

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

When I talk to my own Spiritual Director, he is sometimes very interested in hearing what I feel about what I feel. What we feel is what we feel, and is a sign post to what is going on within us. What we feel about what we feel suggests something about our own self judgement and being aware of it may indicate a movement of spiritual desolation or spiritual consolation. This conversation, whether it is with a spiritual director, or with a sponsor in a twelve step fellowship, can be helpful in highlighting these deeper movements within us, and bringing them into the light so that we can see with greater clarity.

To me, the second of the twelve steps is describing a process of discernment and spiritual consolation. It is where I have been sitting these last few weeks, and relates to me making a second time choice about my life. It has been a long time coming, and was put on the shelf when I made The Exercises, to be dealt with another day, when the time was right. That right time is now, and I have made a decision, with God, in how to live more deeply and for His greater glory. Ignatius suggests that when we do make a choice, we offer that choice to God and listen for His response. It is where I am now, and to fulfill this choice will take a deeper trust in God and a belief that following through on it will restore me to sanity. I notice His smile and the growing sense of peace and certainty within me:

…the one who has made it must turn with great diligence to prayer in the presence of God our Lord, and offer Him his choice that the Divine Majesty may deign to accept and confirm it if it is for His greater service and praise.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl S.J.
Morning. My prayer spot one weekend I spent in a hermitage.
Came to believe. Step 2 and The Spiritual Exercises 5: Reading of this post.

I did begin this post two weeks ago, but got no further than the first line and the featured image. Being in it is not conducive to writing about it, and neither was it conducive to writing about anything else. Hence my absence from blogging these last two weeks. I am hoping to be back to my usual routine this week.

I’m going to end with a song I posted before and a scene from Wallander, which I have been watching on my “Film Fridays”. I recognised myself in Wallander and realised, as Ignatius suggests, that it is the advice I would give to that imaginary person who spoke to me about what I myself was feeling, and the spirits that were moving in my soul.

I should represent to myself a man whom I have never seen or known, and whom I would like to see practice all perfection. Then I should consider what I would tell him to do and choose for the greater glory of God our Lord and the greater perfection of his soul. I will do the same, and keep the rule I propose to others.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J Puhl S.J.
Maggie Said, Natalie Merchant

There is no perfect end, just time to leave.

Maggie Said, Natalie Merchant.
Wallander hands in his badge.

Integration

Integration 1: Reading of this post.

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

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

Anthony de Mello, Song of the Bird

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

When one enjoys consolation, let him consider how he will conduct himself during the time of ensuing desolation, and store up a supply of strength as defense against that day.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
Ely Cathedral
Integration 2 : Reading of this post.

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

…the question that drives us (me)

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

For me, the question is:

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

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

My Leviathan Mandala
Integration 4: Reading of this post.

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

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

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

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

Finding God in the pots and pans.

Teresa Avila: The Interior Castle

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

What do I feel like doing right now?

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

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

Integration 6: Reading of this post.

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

IGR 2020

IGR 2020 1: Reading of this post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Admitted we were powerless: Step 1 and the Spiritual Exercises

Step 1 and The Spiritual Exercises 1: Reading of this post

I posted a while back on The Spiritual Exercises and The Twelve Steps and I notice that it is one of my most consistently read posts. I have been talking a lot about the steps recently with someone who is new to the program, and these two things are making me think more deeply yet about the steps myself, and about how they integrate with The Spiritual Exercises, and my with spirituality and how I find God in all things. I will say at this point that the opinions expressed here are my own and not representative of AA or Al Anon as a whole. The full first step is:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/About-AA/The-12-Steps-of-AA

In Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr draws a connection between addiction and sin, and makes four basic assumptions about addiction:

  1. We are all addicts.
  2. “Stinking Thinking” is the universal addiction – we are all addicted to our patterned way of thinking.
  3. All societies are addicted to themselves and create a deep codependency on them.
  4. Some form of alternative consciousness is the only freedom from this self and from cultural ties.
Redemption mandala
Step 1 and The Spiritual Exercises 2: Reading of this post

Some years ago I went to a talk given by Laurence Freeman organised by the Norwich Christian Meditation Centre, and his talk made a deep impression on me in lots of different ways. One part of it that stays with me was that he explained that the desert fathers saw sin as compulsions, and when I researched Dante’s nine circles of hell for the Redemption mandala that I was creating, I was taken by the fact that the first seven circles equated to the seven deadly sins. These stimuli gradually changed my thinking on sin from being a single event – something that I did, or failed to do – to a pattern of events, a path that I walked on that led me away from the one God lays down for me. In “The Me I want to Be”, John Ortberg talks about our signature sins. He says:

We do not get tempted by that which repulses us….It starts close to home with the passions and desires that God wired into us and tries to pull them a few degrees off course. That subtle deviation is enough to disrupt the flow of the Spirit in our life, so coming to recognise the pattern of sins most tempting to us is one of the most important steps in our spiritual life.

The Me I Want to Be. John Ortberg

and further:

Our sin takes a consistent and predictable course….the pattern of your sin is related to the pattern of your gifts.

The Me I Want to Be. John Ortberg

Put in this context, it might be easy to see how difficult it can be to notice that we are being pulled off course. We can be walking along steadily, in tune with God, and we come to a fork in the path. It might not be obvious immediately which fork is the one God is calling us to since the enemy is a deceiver, we do not always recognise him as the imposter. Ignatius himself warns us in the Spiritual Exercises:

It is characteristic of God and His Angels, when they act upon the soul, to give true happiness and spiritual joy, and to banish all the sadness and disturbances which are caused by the enemy.

It is characteristic of the evil one to fight against such happiness and consolation by proposing fallacious reasonings, subtilties, and continual deceptions.

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

It is a mark of the evil spirit to assume the appearance of an angel of light. He begins by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul, and ends by suggesting his own. For example, he will suggest holy and pious thoughts that are wholly in conformity with the sanctity of the soul. Afterwards, he will endeavor little by little to end by drawing the soul into his hidden snares and evil designs.

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

There is tell of Ignatius spending hours in the night contemplating a glorious vision instead of sleeping, night after night, before recognising that it was making him too tired the following day to carry out the work he knew God was calling him to. By noticing where it was leading, he was able to recognise it for the spiritual desolation that it was. The scene of his vision at the Cardoner river, as depicted in the film Ignacio de Loyola, moves me and strikes me as particularly relevant here, when Jesus says to Ignatius:

Do you think your sins would have any power over me had I not chosen it to be so?

“Discernment”; St. Beunos
Step 1 and The Spiritual Exercises 3: Reading of this post

Distilling these thoughts down brings out the essence of “I am powerless”. Our strengths are also our weaknesses, and our weaknesses can be our strength. It is in noticing the movement within us, the discernment of where our thoughts, feelings and actions are coming from and where they are leading to, that is the admission of our powerlessness. St. Paul says:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Romans 7:15

In the second exercise of the first week of The Spiritual Exercises, we spend time meditating on our own sins. The desire we ask for is:

…a growing and intense sorrow and tears for my sins.

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

and the movement leads to:

a cry of wonder…How is it that the earth did not open to swallow me up, and create new hells in which I should be tormented forever!

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

Here, in the cry of wonder, is the movement in the first of the twelve steps. In the twelve step program, we may be talking about alcohol, drugs, food, our codependency on an addict we love…fill in your own blank here. In the Exercises, we have already spent some time, deepening our relationship with the God who we already know loves us from the Principle and Foundation, and we have come to recognise our own pattern, our own signature sin. In the cry of wonder, we are admitting our powerlessness over it, and that in our being pulled along that particular path, it is getting in the way of our living fully, with God, and as the person He created us to be. The First step, like the First week, is about having the scales removed from our eyes and recognising it, and the effect it is having on our lives.

Bodwellian Castle
Step 1 and The Spiritual Exercises 4: Reading of this post

I make it sound simple, but it is not. We stumble along blindly, not always or easily recognising the path we are walking on, or where it leads us, but thinking we are heading in the right direction. Have you ever been lost? You will know what I mean. There is always another fork in the path to lead us away. However, if we do happen to go down the wrong one, there is always another fork encouraging us back onto the path God would have us walk. Every temptation is another opportunity to choose God. The feeling of powerlessness can be in itself a source of fear, or lead to the abdication of responsibility. That might be spiritual desolation and is not the movement I am referring to here. The consolation of powerlessness allows us to let go of the perceived control we do not actually have; to recognise that these things around us are outwith our control and that we do not have to try to control them. We cannot prevent spiritual desolation: we cannot prevent the fork in the path, the temptation to follow our compulsions, our signature sin, and sometimes, we may well take the wrong path. It is who we are. The first step, the cry of wonder, allows us to put that hard headed will power down. We are not in control of it, we cannot manage it, and there is great consolation in admitting it and being able to put away our efforts to try to control something we have no power to control. It is a relief to let it go. To be in this place, to take the first step, to release the cry of wonder, opens a window and allows God’s light into that dark area in our soul. It is the beginnings of a wondrous transformation.

On Being in the Cave

On being in the Cave 1: Reading of this post.

I read the book “Quarantine” by Jim Crace for the second time at the beginning of lockdown. You may remember that lockdown began during Lent, and this book is a story about what happened when Jesus went into the desert to spend His forty days and forty nights, and faced His temptations. It seemed an appropriate read for that time and that situation.

Some years ago I spent some time working with “A Way in the Wilderness”, the first Chapter of the Spirituality Workbook by David Runcorn. He says:

In the desert, driven by the Spirit, we too will enter into tough battles with our allegiences and priorities, our passions and longings and the discerning of evil.

Spirituality Workbook, David Runcorn

And he talks about waiting:

Nothing happens fast in the heat of the desert. There is a different understanding of time and it involves a lot of waiting. A world addicted to ever faster ways of doing things finds such a place deeply frustrating – a waste of time in fact.

Spirituality Workbook, David Runcorn

I do not like being too hot – I have a very low threshold for even the temperatures we call a heatwave in the United Kingdom, so please believe me when I say that I am not at all attracted to the desert and do not want to spend any time there if I can avoid it. What struck me about Quarantine though, was that the pilgrims sought out caves to spend their time of the desert in, and I had never thought of that on a conscious level before, although rationally, it makes sense. Perhaps it is because one of the first films I ever saw at the cinema as a child was “Lost in the Desert”, and the young boy who was lost, spent most of his time in the open desert, as far as I can remember. This film made a long lasting impression on me. So, while the image of the desert is prevalent as an image of the spiritual journey, the image of the cave, although it is around, is less commonly talked about in my experience.

On Being in the Cave 2: Reading of this post.

It is the cave that is capturing my imagination at the moment, partly because we have been in lockdown, or quarantine recently, and partly because of the Mother God imagery that has been coming up in my journey with Julian of Norwich. Let me explain the connection: some years ago, I did an imaginative contemplation with the Healing of Jarius’ daughter. In that prayer, I was the young girl who was sick and dying. In the part of the prayer where, in the outside world, the girl had died, I lay down in my imagination in what was a tomb, a sealed up cave, which had a stone shelf carved into the wall. As I lay there, drifting off to sleep, I became aware that the walls of the cave were warm, and living. I was no longer in a cave, but in a womb. Hence my linking of Mother God and the image of the cave.

So what do these two images have in common that I would put them together in this way? One of the essentials David Runcorn suggests for desert spirituality is stability, and he says:

Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.

Spirituality Workbook, David Runcorn

and in “Quarantine”, and indeed with the Desert Fathers of the church, the Cave equated to the Cell, it was a stable place, a place of shelter from predators and the heat of the day and the cold of the night: a place of safety, of seclusion, isolated from the world and its relentless distractions. The same might be said of the womb.

In “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat”, John Ortberg describes the cave as a place of transformation, of growth. Here, hidden away from the world, in a place of relative safety, we undergo changes in our being and we become different, emerging at the end of our quarantine to face the world afresh, where things will never be the same again. It is certainly true of the characters in Jim Crace’s book, including Jesus. And of course, in the womb, changes take place from the implantation of the fertilised egg, to the embryo, foetus and full term baby to emerge at birth. Both the time in the desert caves and gestation are periods where nothing happens fast: it feels slow, and little evidence of change might be seen, but nevertheless, the changes taking place are deep and lasting. There is no going back to how it was before.

But the cave and the womb are also not the same: the cave is a hard, difficult place and dangers may have to be faced in claiming it as your space – wild animals for example, as well as the spiritual battle which ensues. St. Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises while living in the cave at Manresa, and there was a cost to it, a great turmoil of spirits and struggle with spiritual desolation. The film, Ignacio de Loyola, depicts this struggle in a gruesome, physical way and is not a watch for the faint hearted.

On Being in the Cave 3: Reading of this post.

Within the novel, for one of the characters, the cave is not respected and she is violated within that space. Jesus Himself might have experienced intrusion from the “devil” of the piece, had He not chosen a cave that was in the extreme of difficult and dangerous to get to. Even then, it did not stop the harassment. The cave, as St. Ignatius experienced, is a place conflict and struggle with evil, as David Runcorn says in his book. The womb on the other hand, is warm and living, and life giving: a place of just being – who can remember their time in the womb? – and of being in another who is greater and more powerful than myself. It is a place of safety and protection like the cave, but unlike the cave, it is nurturing rather than challenging, at least until the term of the pregnancy. When the time comes, the pressure forces the birth, the emergence from the womb in what at times, is a difficult and traumatic experience for the one being born, as monitors of a baby’s heart rate during labour will testify.

Cave at Mellieha, Malta
On Being in the Cave 4: Reading of this post.

It is the emergence from quarantine that is playing on my mind. In the relative safety of lockdown, I have changed and grown. There is a profound recognition of what I was becoming aware of before, and there is a rising pressure for a change, but it is for a change who’s time has not yet come. There is a sense of being thrust into the world again, before I am quite ready, a premature birth if you like. My rational brain, on being back in school last week, is supportive of the measures my school is taking to reduce the risk of transmission of coronavirus and have a full return to school in September – it is what staff were preparing the physical environment for last week. My reptile brain is not happy; my reptile brain is so unhappy that it is telling me to run away as fast as I can. And true to the discernment process, I need to sit with God and allow His light to shine upon this anxious fear that is presenting itself. On the one hand, the threat is real. The virus has not been eliminated, and so many people in close contact increases the risk of further transmission. It is not unreasonable to be cautious, and that fear at the level of an uncomfortable reptile brain is a valid response to the situation which will foster respect and attention to due protocols, for the safety of everyone. What may or may not be the other hand are the changes that need to be made to the day to day working procedures – teachers moving between classes with our own trolleys, rather than the students for example. What bothers me the most though, is that I will not be able to sit down next to a student when they are stuck, to give them those minutes of close, one to one or small group attention, that will make all the difference to their learning and to their wellbeing. How do I do that with social distancing? When I think about returning to the classroom, it is this thought that is plaguing me. It is this type of interaction that is the most valuable, not that it is the only one, and I am pondering strategies to achieve it within the context of social distancing.

On being out and about, there is a strange mix of more like it used to be, and not quite how it used to be. It does not feel like a new normal. It feels a bit like stumbling blindly out of the darkness, and our eyes have not yet adjusted to the light. Perhaps we are emerging too soon, too quickly. Like childbirth, the pressure is compelling us out and there is no resisting it. Perhaps our cave has become our womb, and is too comfortable; that we have grown so much that it is time and only the discomfort that will force us out to live in the world as required, rather than hide away safe. Perhaps we are rushing out of our caves, ready to take on the world because it is time, and we learned what was needed; perhaps we are rushing out of our caves because the darkness, loneliness and difficulty of it were too much for us to bear and to breathe in the daylight and feel the sun on our skin is a relief, in spite of the invisible dangers.

St. Mary’s Church, Startson.
On being in the Cave 5: Reading of this post.

In “Quarantine” there was a sense of it being the right time when the pilgrims emerged from their caves and made their way back to the world renewed: there was a sense of it being done. I do not feel that way quite yet. I am looking out of my cave with a little trepidation, sticking my toe out to see what will happen, and then maybe standing just outside the mouth of my cave for a short time. I am grateful for the school summer holidays, which have given me more time to prepare, more time to emerge slowly and to be ready to leave. In the meantime, I am enjoying this refuge, this space and time and the challenges it presents. God is with me in this place, working with me, preparing me. My cave is a womb, and I am not yet at full term. Sure, there are increasingly strong pangs, Braxton Hicks if you like, and perhaps last week even a false labour. We are nearing the due date, but we are not there yet.

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.

I Am Not Alone.

I Am Not Alone 1: Reading of this post.

I have been walking quite a difficult path for a while now – you know, one of those rocky paths where there are stones and potholes where you could easily turn over on your ankle; or it narrows until there are thorn bushes on one side and a precipice on the other and it is a very tight gap to negotiate through. And of course, this path is uphill. There are interludes along the way: green, grassy valleys, flower meadows and cool fresh streams to drink, rest and bathe in. These nurture points are all appreciated with a deeper gratitude because the rest of the way is difficult.

So on this journey one day, I came around a sharp bend to a fork in the path. My feet were sore and blistered inside my boots from the walking I had already done, and my back was aching and my knees buckling with the weight of the rucksack I was carrying. I stared in dismay at the fork in the path: I had no idea which one to take. It mattered which one I took, because, while both were difficult and painful to travel by, the wrong one was treacherous, and not just for me. The problem was, I did not know which path was the wrong path, they both seemed as dangerous as each other.

“Discernment”: Path to the Rock Chapel at St. Beunos.
I Am Not Alone 2: Reading of this post.

In the Rules of Discernment in The Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius uses metaphor to describe the different ways the evil spirit works. Of one he says:

The conduct of our enemy may also be compared to the tactics of a leader intent upon seizing and plundering a position he desires. A commander and leader of an army will encamp, explore the fortifications and defenses of the stronghold, and attack at the weakest point. In the same way, the enemy of our human nature investigates from every side all our virtues, theological, cardinal and moral. Where he finds the defenses of eternal salvation weakest and most deficient, there he attacks and tries to take us by storm.

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

As I stood at the fork in the path, my castle came under attack, sustained and violent. I was bombarded with flaming canon balls, pressuring me to make a choice, telling me that the wrong choice would cause a catastrophe from which there would be no coming back and would have serious implications for those I loved. Those critical voices told me that it was all my fault, that I was worthless, and that any fallout from this decision was down to me, and in fact that there was a decision here at all was all my fault anyway because I had made mistakes in my past. Those critical voices told me that there was no time to waste, that I had to make a decision and make it quickly, because every second of delay only made it worse. Perhaps you know what I mean because you have been in a similar situation yourself?

Bodwellian Castle, Wales
I Am Not Alone 3: Reading of this post.

I remembered an image from a story I had been reading as a child. There was a Buddhist monk sitting meditating, breathing gently through a pipe or a rolled up piece of paper because he was covered in bees. The image I had of myself at this point, while trying to decide which path to take was very similar, but the bees were wasps, and I am a little phobic about wasps. Whenever one comes into my house I open the rest of the windows and leave the room, coming back later in the hope that it is gone. If one comes onto my classroom I make an incredible effort to remain calm and not show the rising panic inside me by asking one of the students to try to remove it, thanking them for being so helpful when they do. As I am sitting in this image, the wasps are calm and crawling, and as I become aware of the rising panic within me they begin to buzz around, making me feel even more fearful. Such was the anxious fear, the desolation at being faced with choosing one of these two paths.

Ignatius advises that we act against the desolation when we are aware of it, and that speaking to a spiritual person, such as a spiritual director, who is well versed in the art of discernment can help:

But if one manifests them to a confessor, or to some other spiritual person who understands his deceits and malicious designs, the evil one is very much vexed. For he knows that he cannot succeed in his evil undertaking, once his evident deceits have been revealed.

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

So, I resisted the pressure to choose quickly, and I spoke to my spiritual director and to another person I knew who was an expert in dealing with the type of situation I was facing. At the end of it, the responsibility for the decision was all mine. So, I sat down at the fork in the path and I prayed:

I Am Not Alone 4: Reading of this post.

In the First Principle and Foundation of The Exercises Ignatius suggests:

…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. Louis J. Puhl S.J.

For me, when I made The Exercises, this moment of indifference came when I imagined myself sat on a chair in the middle of a white, hexagonal room with six doors. Behind three of the doors were darkness, secrets and indiscernable material things, and fear: behind the other three doors were the three persons of the Holy Trinity. I was alone in the room and I had come there because He had called me. When I came into the room and saw that He was not there, I knew and trusted that He would come, no matter how long it took. So, I sat in the chair and stilled myself. I placed my palms upwards and said into the room:

I will wait.

And the moment I let go of all my preferences, and waited for Him in complete trust, He was there beside me; I was not alone.

They say, they being people who are experienced in working with The Exercises, that the graces received when we make the Exercises are always there. I would assert this to be true based on my own first hand experience. So, I sat down at the fork in that stony path and I prayed both with the song and in silence, and I put myself back into the hexagonal room, connected with that sense of indifference I had felt at the time and told Him the same thing:

I will wait.

I was not alone, and I knew it. I was affirming it to myself, to Him, and I was asserting it to the world. The critical voices were silenced and the wasps stopped buzzing. It is to deal with desolation as Ignatius suggests:

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.

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

And I waited. I remained in this place, still, for over two weeks in real time. Not so long in God time. Gradually, a sense of knowing emerged from deep down, and the certainty of it strengthened as I remained there in stillness. The decision was made, and I knew which path to take. There was serenity in that decision, and an affirming smile from God. So I followed the path I had been shown.

Cross along the path of Peddars Way, near Swaffham.
I Am Not Alone 5: Reading of this post.

In the Lectio Divina for Psalm 16 it says:

You will show me the path of life.

Psalm 16:11

and praying with Julian of Norwich where the psalm fragment suggested is from Psalm 139:

…and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:24

And last week I was writing about consolation and desolation. I have been pondering these things. Deepening trust in God is a theme that seems to be surfacing, especially when things get tough. Months after I followed through on my choice there was no disaster and a verbal confirmation that demonstrated that I had made the right choice from someone who knew nothing of my choice or my struggle, and who would have been badly affected had I made the wrong choice. I was immediately both grateful and humble at the impact my trust and faith in Him had had in real time.

When the situation is difficult and there is turmoil of spirits, it can be confusing to see which way to go. In the First principle and Foundation, we are encouraged to become indifferent to moving one way or another, to wait and to listen for what God would have us do. We are encouraged to trust in Him to show us the way and for that, we must be still and patient.

What brings you to life?

What brings you to life 1: Reading of this post.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

.John 10:10b

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.

John 10:10

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.

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

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.

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

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:

What brings you to life 2: Reading of this post.

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

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

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.

Water Lily, Plantation Gardens, Norwich
What brings you to life 3: Reading of this post.

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.

Gerry. W. Hughes says On Desire:

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….

God in all Things, Gerard W. Hughes

I remember a teaching colleague once said:

I’m not designed for this.

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.

The Psalm this week says:

You show me the path of life.

Psalm 16:11

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.

My “Rule for Living”; to moderate my inordinate desires and unhelpful compulsions, and try to keep my focus towards God.
What brings you to life 4: Reading of this post.

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.

Candle holder.
What brings you to life 5: Reading of this post.

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.