I will be making a decision on when to run this on WEDNESDAY, so if you want to contribute, please do so before then. Thank you.
It is my intention to run an Advent version of my Exploring Personal Prayer course live online. I would have the first session, a presentation on The Spiritual Exercises, in the week beginning Sunday 22 November, the week before the first Sunday of Advent. In each of the consecutive four weeks I would guide a session on Lectio Divina, Imaginative Contemplation, Praying with Images and the Examen respectively.
Here, I would like to gauge interest in such a course and find the optimium time to present it, so that as many people who want to attend can attend. You may want to, but know you are unable to commit to all of them: please do not let this deter you from joining the ones you can. I am also prepared to offer more sessions in the week, should there be sufficient interest.
Please complete the polls below if you are interested, to aid me in planning an appropriate time.
Please add anything else that you think would be helpful for me to know in the comments.
Thank you for taking the time to complete the polls, and I hope to see as many of you as possible. It would be lovely to put some talking faces to their names, and to meet and pray with you – albeit virtually.
The Jerusalema Dance Challenge on Facebook has been filling me with deep joy recently, especially this version of it:
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:
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
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:
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,
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.
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:
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.’
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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 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.
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.
‘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.’
Here, I am adding a new feature to my blog: interviews with spiritual directors. I am starting with myself, since I think I should not ask people to do something I am not prepared to do myself, and using questions I have been asked, or I have asked, or people have suggested I ask in response to my request for questions. I hope you find it enlightening, and if you do have other questions you would like to ask spiritual directors, please add them to the comments for this post.
When people ask you what a spiritual director does, how do you respond?
I always find this one a bit tricky and never really feel that I get it “right”, especially when I’m talking to people who don’t have a religious faith. I usually say that it is a bit like counselling, except that we talk about the person’s prayer life, their personal relationship with God and the way they live their faith. With non-believers, the usual response is for the eyes to glaze over; for believers who believe themselves do be doing fine in that department there is a polite nod or explanantion to that effect. Sometimes though, with other believers, it makes a connection within someone for more and they start to ask more questions, becoming more thoughtful. Often, these are the ones which will go on to seek ongoing spiritual direction in their lives – not necessarily from me, I hasten to add. I am not necessarily the most appropriate person for them.
What’s the difference between spiritual direction and counselling?
If I were to sum it up, and based on my own experience of receiving both – I have talked to counsellors during periods of crisis and stress in my life – I would say it is about the purpose and the effect. Even though spiritual direction might overlap a little with counselling, it is not the same thing. I would say counselling is when you are having trouble functioning “normally” in everyday life, when there are issues getting in the way of day to day living. Counselling can help us back onto our feet when we are in crisis. With spiritual direction, on the other hand, we may be ticking along quite nicely, working, living, socialising but we have a sense of there must be more to life than this. Spiritual direction helps us to focus more on those subtle nuances, to improve our day to day conscious contact with God, to deepen our listening and gently and gradually, we begin to live more intimately with God amd more in tune with ourselves, in what He designed us for. It is extremely liberating to live in this way, in my experience.
What made you become a spiritual director?
I would say it was a “first time choice” as St. Ignatius describes in The Spiritual Exercises. I was on retreat at St. Beunos one summer and during mass, at the quiet bit around communion, I was pondering my own spiritual director in life, and the director who was working with me on the retreat – both wise and gentle people who were making a difference to me. I felt a wave of gratitude for them, and for every other director who had contributed their wisdom to my faith journey, and I expressed this sentiment in a prayer. I then “heard” or “felt” the words whispered:
You could be a spiritual director.
I was immediately calm and curious, because I recognised that I had a desire to do that, even though it had never occurred to me before, and I knew who to ask about doing it.
How did you go about training to be a spiritual director?
My own director was involved with the Ignatian Spirituality Course which was running at The Centre for Spiritual Direction in Lombard Street in London. The course has moved to Mount Street recently. After sitting with the idea for a bit, on the second meeting with him after my retreat, I told him about my experience on retreat. I had a sense that his response might give me an indication of whether I would be a suitable candidate for the course or not. He beamed at me when told him about it, and responded very positively, which to me was very affirming. I had a few things to work out, like going part time in my day job and how I was going to finance it, but the rest is history as they say. I started the course at the next intake.
What is it that draws you to Ignatian Spirituality in particular?
I remember an adult of my parent’s generation in the church saying to me when I was a teenager:
It’s dangerous to think.
and I knew I didn’t agree with them; I vehemently disagreed with them. Silently, of course, because it would have been deemed as insolent if I had spoken out at that time. I was curious as a student, and well into chemistry at this point. There were more questions than answers, and the interest and questions were self perpetuating. St. Ignatius describes our reason, our ability to rationalise as the second power of the soul: he encourages us to engage our brains with our lived faith, not turn them off. I might not have known that explicitly, but I felt comfortable around Jesuits and enjoyed the sermons whenever I heard them because they stimulated my brain. Imaginative Contemplation is also something I really get into and I started to experience this form of prayer on retreats when I was a student. I’ve been told that I have a very vivid imagination, and this form of prayer connects me deeply to living with God. Ignatian spirituality suits my personality at the end of the day; I feel at home there.
What do think are the benefits to receiving spiritual direction?
Receiving spiritual direction raises our conscious contact with God. We become better at listening and noticing where God is calling to us, and our desire for God increases. It is a safe place to say things that we might not be confident about saying out loud, even to those we are close to, because it could invite critcism, or people think we are weird, or worse. If you say things like “I heard God say…” in the real world out there, it can be received with derision and hostility and that is not a safe environment in which to explore what is going on. Sure, the spiritual director might ask “How do you know it was God?” and that is an important part of the discernment process. They are not unbelieving in the idea that God speaks to us through our imagination, thoughts, dreams and experiences. Personally, at the beginning of my Ignatian journey, I found it difficult to talk about what was happening within me. I worked with sceptical scientists after all and even the fact that I believed in God was often regarded as a curious anomaly, even though it is not really that rare to believe in science and in God. Being able to open up about my personal relationship with God in spiritual direction, and to explore it openly and safely in this way, has literally changed my life and to find out who I really am and who I am created to be at a profound level. I would definitely recommend it.
When starting on a session or series of sessions with a client, do you like them to begin by talking about how they feel and what they are hoping for from the experience, or do you prefer to let this emerge gradually, perhaps with the help of imaginative prayer?
I always start my sessions the way my directee would like them to start. With most of them, they like to start with a prayer, so I use an informal prayer around the preparatory prayer and the presupposition of the Spiritual Exercises and the annotations, bascially asking for open and honest discussion, for each to presuppose the good intentions of the other, and for where there is a lack of clarity, to ask. I think this format is helpful in reminding us both of the purpose, and that if the communication is not quite flowing, that no judgement or ill is meant by it, and that asking for clarification is the way to go to open things up. When people are sharing deeply and of painful things, it is important to know that I am not sitting in judgement of them. I am aware that I can sound like my “teacher voice” and I furrow my brow when I am thinking, which can also leave people wondering if they have said something wrong! Not my intention at all, so asking for clarity is always open. Otherwise, I am there in service of my directee, so I allow things to emerge, and I will lead in an imaginative contemplation as appropriate, usually by prior arrangement.
Do you start your sessions with a prayer?
I do , as I said in the previous question, if that is the preference of my directee. Interestingly enough though, I do not like to start with a prayer when I am receiving spiritual direction. When the director does that, I feel that I have to be a “good girl” in the session, and it limits my expression of negative feelings and attitudes, thus not allowing me to explore deeply what is going on. Whenever that happens, my sense of the process is superficial. Fortunately, my director in life does not start our sessions that way and it has allowed me to fully explore the good, the bad and the ugly. God, after all, sees it all.
Why do you have supervision as a spiritual director?
At the very least, we pray not to get in the way.
Gerard W. Hughes, Loyola retreat, 2009
I was fortunate to go on this retreat that Gerry Hughes led in Loyola, and this is what he said about spiritual directors in his introductory talk on the first evening of the retreat. For me, it sums up the role of supervision. I have my own feelings, issues and biases – I am a human being, and some of these may be subconscious. The spiritual direction conversation is between the directee and God, and I am the channel that seeks to facilitate that conversation. Supervision helps me to be aware of what is going on inside me that might be helpful or detrimental when I am directing, so that I can adjust and maintain that position of equilibrium in order that God can work with the directee, without me getting in the way.
How do you feel about online spiritual direction?
Online spiritual direction has been one of the surprises of the pandemic for me. I was sceptical at first, thinking it would be better that nothing but I was dubious about how well it would work. I still believe face to face to be better, but in both receiving and giving spiritual direction online, as well as receiving supervision, it has changed my opinion. I think it has value in itself and may be the way forward for people who would like to receive spiritual direction, but live too far away from any directors to make it practically possible to travel. I travel for 2 1/2 hours to see my director and it takes up most of the day. Not everyone is able to do this, but online makes it possible, even for the busy working person or parent who might not catch a break until the evening. I’m excited about it as a possibility for widening the reach of spiritual direction.
Do you charge for spiritual direction?
I do ask for a donation in line with earnings. I firmly believe that the labourer deserves their wage, and that if the Levites were not sustained by the people’s tithes, they would not be able to look after the temple, but would have to be working in the market places and farms in order to live. I do pay my own director. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to make a living as a spiritual director. Most do it as part of a paid ministry, or have some other form of income – a day job. I teach in a school. I have directed people for free when I knew they were not in a position to pay. It is the work that is important after all. At the most, I hope to at least break even, after I have paid for supervision and ongoing CPD courses to support my work. Over the course of a year, I will generally have received more than I have spent.
If someone wanted to receive spiritual direction from you, how could they go about contacting you?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
I am planning a feature in future posts, to “interview” some spiritual directors I know, and possibly to feature contributions from them by way of blog posts. This is an idea in its infancy, and to be developed. As a first step, my request is of you to put forward questions you would be interested in asking a spiritual director. My intention is to offer the directors twenty questions for them to choose ten to answer for the feature. So, as an example, my question might be (and indeed, has been):
When people ask you “What does a spiritual director do?”, how do you respond?
I will interview myself first to try it out and because I wouldn’t ask anyone to do what I am not willing to do myself. So, if you have a question you are curious about regarding spiritual direction, or prayer, or God in All Things, or Spirituality…and so on, please put it into the comments and I will begin to put together my questionnaire, and my own repsonses. I look forward to hearing from you, and to pondering your questions.