The Paradigm Shift

The Paradigm Shift 1 : Reading of this post

…formed the pattern and the script for your remaining days.

Robin Laing, The Summer of ’46
The Paradigm Shift 2 : Reading of this post

Having left my mp3 player at work this week, I have resorted to playing CD’s in the car, old favourites I have not listened to for a while. “Walking in Time” by Robin Laing is one of those, especially “The Summer of ’46” and “When Two Hearts Combine”. These two songs have been haunting me all week. One of the exercises we were asked to do during my formation as a spiritual director was to write a life psalm. We were invited to draw on music, poetry, scripture – anything that had had an impact on our lives. There are elements of both of these songs in mine.

Life Psalm

I belong to my God and His desire is for me

To open up to Him so that He may gaze upon me.

I met Him in the mountains and lochs,

His footprints on the grass and His mist upon my skin.

I met Him in the silence and the secret places.

I called Him with His sign.

I belong to my God and His desire is for me

To open up to Him so that He may gaze upon me.

But I was distracted and looked away.

I don’t want to talk about it because every

Day without Him hurt just a little bit more

And I had probably been crying forever.

I belong to my God and His desire is for me

To open up to Him so that He may gaze upon me.

He met me in the quiet of the morning.

He took my hand and danced with me,

Leaving only the memory.

He told me this will heal

Because Love is here, and Love is real.

I belong to my Love and His desire is for me

To open up to Him so that He may gaze upon me.

How beautiful is my Love; how amazing.

I yearn for my Love; to be only His.

He forms the pattern and the script of my days.

His desires are mine; my desires are His.

It is given. He is mine, I am His.

I belong to my Love and His desire is for me

To open up to Him so that He may gaze upon me.

There are moments of conversion in our life of faith, and there is the paradigm shift. A paradigm shift is when something that happens changes our whole way of looking at the world: it is not a little change of opinion, mind or heart, it is more fundamental than any of those, it is a change of perspective. We cannot live the way we did before when it happens. And we do not necessarily know how to live with the change within us. It may take some time to adjust.

I remember clearly the first time I experienced such a thing. I was on retreat, and I was overwhelmed by God. I had considered infinity before in wonder; I had lain on the grass and looked at the sky, both in the day time and at night and contemplated how long the sky went on for, and where did it end; I had stood at the edge of the sea and pondered its depth, its violence and its apparent lack of borders, but I had never experienced this drop in an ocean that was a drop in a bigger ocean that was a drop in a bigger ocean; knowing that what I was sensing barely even scratched the surface of what I knew was there. I was a barnacle on a ship, clinging to the surface that was everything other than the water buffeting against me; it was everything to me, my whole world, my refuge, and it had no beginning and no ending, and had always been there, and always would be there, of that, I was certain. And the experience was exhausting: I slept a lot for the next three days. Big, big, big God. All I could do was ask:

How do I live with this?

So, how did I live with it? Before this point I had been a go to mass on Sunday, cradle Catholic, getting involved in doing things, being on committees, being active, playing in the music group – all good stuff, and by the way, I really ought to pray every day. Some days I even did. But my perspective on setting aside time for formal prayer shifted from the first kind of humility to the second and I found myself acting on that deeper desire to pray by getting up earlier to make sure I had time for morning prayer; only ten minutes to begin with, but then twenty, thirty and more, forty five minutes or a full hour when I do not have to balance it with getting to work, or when I am taking some extra time in the evening. It was like rolling a snowball down a hill, once it started, it grew and took on a momentum of its own; the desire being fulfilled and augmented simultaneously.

My candle holder.
The Paradigm Shift 3 : Reading of this post

Of course, the paradigm shift is not pain free, it usually comes with a cost. I have heard it said that if you hear the same thing said about yourself from three independent sources, then it is probably true. So, drawing from that, here are three independent sources attesting to the fact that the paradigm shift is not pain free.

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

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

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


Emily Dickinson

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

The Cloud of Unknowing
Becoming, Buffy The Vampire Slayer
The Paradigm Shift 4 : Reading of this post

Nothing is the same afterwards, everything has changed. Life as it was before seems superficial and unsatisfactory, without really being able to explain how or why. There is the awareness that something must change: not a task list of things to do. It is knowing that the path that was visible before is not the one to stay on, and that the new path, which is not visible, has only one stepping stone from here – the next one, and trusting enough to step onto it and take the next step, in the hope that the next stone is in place before your foot makes contact with the ground. The path is laid down as we walk it.

Neither was this first time the last paradigm shift: each one brought me deeper into God, and perpetuated a change which enhanced the process: I sought a spiritual director to support me, I started drawing and painting mandalas – compulsively to begin with – to try to express my experience of prayer: I gradually became an artist. My friend the art teacher is smiling right now because I dared to say that. Finally, in the “Song of Songs” retreat the year before I wrote my life psalm and made The Spiritual Exercises, there was a complete and total surrender, leading to an election which was confirmed in the process of doing The Exercises. I had been of the opinion that I was already surrendered to God – I had handed Him a blank cheque which I had signed, had I not? But when you still reserve the right to negotiate the price, you are not really surrendered. There is a movement from:

How much? Why do you need all of that? Well, okay, I suppose so.

to an unhesitant yes.

It is given.

It is what Ignatius means by The Suscipe Prayer:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess.

Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will.

Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
Trebuchet, Urquhart Castle
The Paradigm Shift 5 : Reading of this post

It is finally, after a lot of difficult and hard work digging, holding the pearl of great price in your hands, the immortal diamond, a great gift He has given you, your free will, your self: it is holding all of this in your hand, considering Him for a moment, and with the ultimate act of free will, you hand it as a gift back to Him, for Him to do with as He chooses. No more negotiating, only discerning what is His desire, and then following through with it. I say that like discernment is easy, it is not, and it is where the struggle remains but once it is understood that it is God who says:

I desire it.

there is no struggle, even if His desire is for Morris Dancing! It is a once and for all, and an everyday surrender. All paradigm shifts in our spiritual journey are steps to this one. We can always keep hold of our free will, it is ours to keep or to give, once and for all, every day: it is not something that He will take from us by force or coercion, it is a gift already given by Him. Yet it is the sweetest, most blissful liberation to gift it back to Him, no matter what it costs. Doing so does indeed form the pattern and the script of your remaining days.

Robin Laing: When Two Hearts Combine

Tai Chi and Three Kinds of Humility

Tai chi and Three Kinds of Humility 1: Reading of this post.

One of the key meditations in the Spiritual Exercises is on Three Kinds of Humility and it outlines the different levels on which we might respond to God. Ignatius describes the different levels as:

The First…consists in this, that as far as possible I so subject and humble myself as to obey the law of God our Lord in all things …

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

The Second…it if my attitude of mind is such that I neither desire nor am I inclined to have riches rather than poverty, to seek honor rather than dishonor, to desire a long life rather than a short life, provided only in either alternative I would promote equally the service of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul.

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

The Third… I desire and choose poverty with Christ poor, rather than riches; insults with Christ loaded with them, rather than honors; I desire to be accounted as worthless and a fool for Christ, rather than to be esteemed as wise and prudent in this world. So Christ was treated before me.

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

Or, to express it more colloqually, the first because I should; the second because I want to, and the third, because I want to be like You. It is not to be critical of the first or second kind of humility, Ignatius is describing a deepening in our motives and movement, and we may operate with differing kinds of humility depending on the situation and our particular experiences at different points in our lives.

The first time I ever heard about Tai Chi, I was a student on a chaplaincy retreat in Walsingham in Norfolk. The retreat was called “God Games” and Fr. Gerry, a Marist father who was leading the retreat, gave a session on different ways of praying and introduced tai chi as a means of bringing the body into prayer. He taught us what I now recognise as the Preliminary Exercise in Tai Chi and had us practicing it for about ten minutes or so. I never forgot this session, and when I had the opportunity to learn tai chi some years later, I took it. There was also another bodily exercise of walking blindfold for a mile over a track to get to the Shrine at Walsingham, putting our trust in another person we had only just met that weekend. It is another session I will never forget!

Tai chi is an important part of my spiritual practice and my prayer, but I will confess here and now, that I am not a good student of tai chi. There are different aspects to tai chi: the form, standing postures, push hands, qi gong, sword form; but I only engage with the form and occasionally standing postures. A few months after I had begun learning it, I was stunned to learn that it was a martial art! I had understood it to be “meditation in motion” – one of my teachers had that motto on his tee shirt – and of course, my first introduction to the art had been in the context of it being a means of using the body in prayer. This opinion does seem a bit naive to me now, but then, that is it how it was. I did, and still do, not want to learn literal fighting. I do not want to brandish even a wooden sword- even though I would quite like a replica sword for my vanitas photography projects, and I feel too awkward for push hands: being drawn to spiritual solitide, I am not keen on the dance of shared internal energy around this practice, and yet, I understand the need for connection. Qi Gong I have only watched others do with a wild eyed curiosity. What can I say? I am a creature of paradox.

So why do I do it? as I have already explained, it is a means to bring my body into prayer, and it brings with it a completely different kind of peace, of bliss, that anything else. It is the same as and different from contemplative prayer, both at the same time. Ignatius discusses the use of the body in prayer in the fourth addition:

I will enter upon the meditation, now kneeling, now prostrate upon the ground, now lying face upwards, now seated, now standing, always being intent on seeking what I desire.

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

and he says of spiritual exercises:

By the term “Spiritual Exercises” is meant every method of examination of conscience, of meditation, of contemplation, of vocal and mental prayer, and of other spiritual activities that will be mentioned later. For just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises, so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.

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

The practice of the tai chi form for me, is prayer: it is spiritual exercise, plain and simple. The three kinds of humility describe three levels of my prayer experience with this practice and my movement through the different levels at different points in my life and practice.

An explanation of the principles of Yin and Yang from Taoism.
Tai chi and Three Kinds of Humility 2: Reading of this post.

The first kind of humility is where I am situated mostly in the ordinary time of my life. I have always found tai chi a struggle because it requires a completely different mindset to my day to day existence. Secondary school teaching is a demanding, pushy environment, it is all yang, aggressive, forceful, hard, outgoing energy, extrovert, fire. This side of my personality has to dominate to get things done. Tai chi asks me to shift, to be more yin, yielding, soft, inward, introvert, water. I find this shift difficult and I resist it. I always found the evening classes a struggle in the middle and at the end of the week after a day at school, and my head fought with me the whole time. I am sure I was a frustrating and disruptive student.

So, much of where I am at regarding my practice of tai chi is that I should do it more, and more regularly. I have a wonderful patio in my garden where I can practice, but I do not use it nearly often enough or habitually, for many reasons: it is too cold, dark (even though I have a movement activated light out there), I am too tired, stressed or busy. The autumn and winter litter around the edges displays my neglect, and does not reflect the amazing consolation in this practice; only the desolation of my resistance to it.

Tai chi patio – suffering from neglect and resistance, like my tai chi practice.
Tai chi and Three Kinds of Humility 3 Reading of this post.

When I go on retreat however, I have established the habit of doing tai chi for about an hour after lunch and it very quickly moves from I should, to I want to – the second kind of humility. And it can be seen in the ease of the flow of movement in my practice. I move in a couple of days from doing tai chi to being in the flow. I am aware of where there is resistance and by putting my consciousness there, it begins to relax. I am speaking here physcially, of my muscles and joints, and also spiritually, of my prayer. I cannot describe the bliss of this state of practice, or the closeness of my experience with God. He is there throughout, talking, laughing, being all at once mischievous and then tender. Sometimes, in my imaginative contemplation, I imagine myself doing the tai chi form, and Jesus or the whole Holy Trinity are there in the room doing it with me. My desire is for this level of practice in my ordinary life, but I resist it. I have talked about resistance in prayer before.

And then there is the third kind of humility and tai chi. During tai chi classes my teacher would say:

Let go of all unnecessary resistance.

When I made the Spiritual Exercises by the twentieth annotation, the thirty day retreat, I maintained this daily habit throughout the thirty days of the retreat, with only one or two days rest from it. Being in the flow became the normal level for most of the time. I started to bring phrases from my prayer into my form; placing particular phrases from scripture with movements that fitted with the rythym or meaning. For example, “ward off ” I put with:

Protect your heart,

Which were words I heard during my colloquy when praying with the woman caught in adultery and Jesus saying:

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

John 8:7

and “fair lady works the shuttle” I put with my prayer to Him, from The Prodigal Son meditation:

I have sinned against heaven and against You.

Putting scripture and the words of my prayers into my tai chi form in this way broke down resistances I was experiencing in the exercises, these examples in particular coming from the first week when contemplating sin. There were a few times when the tai chi moved to a level I have never experienced before, or since, when I was not being in the flow: I was the flow; there was no unnecessary resistance – only that needed to move and be upright. I was tai chi, metaphor not simile. I can only describe it as being both unaware and aware of myself as a physical body, of being purely energy moving, flowing, responding. I would liken it to the third level of humility Ignatius describes: it is to be like God, and it seems to me to be grace. As in tai chi and prayer itself, I can only put my awareness there and let go; it is not something I can make happen. It might look like Master Jiamin Gao doing tai chi – on the inside though, I do not look like this when I am practicing tai chi.

Master Jiamin Gao of US Wushu Center: She begins about 1 minute 8 seconds into this video clip.
Tai chi and Three Kinds of Humility 4: Reading of this post.

My closest friend is an artist, and was working through a life drawing course where she was to draw people moving, and holding postures. I agreed that she could do this while I was doing tai chi practice, and I can see the differences in her drawings around what was happening within me during my practice. She could see the difference from watching me. She has been inspired to learn tai chi herself.

The director on a retreat a few years ago gave me a sequence of movements to go with The Suscipe Prayer from the exercises, and I add them onto my form whenever I do it, with tai chi energy and style. It is very powerful.

Tai chi and Three Kinds of Humility 5: Reading of this post.

I drew this yin and yang mandala a few years ago on that retreat. It represents the dual aspects of my personality, the active and the contemplative. Since I have been working with my own spiritual director, I have been trying to balance these aspects of myself and so reconcile my split spirituality. I realised when I did this painting that it was not the right balance that I needed, but to be free to flow from one to the other without resistance: to be able to go from teaching to tai chi without the internal struggle that entails, to be busy one moment, and then able to go to my prayer spot without having to give myself a motivational talk; and to be able to go in the opposite direction, also without resistance, to move from prayer to housework, or just work, without the reluctance, or the negative feeling and resentment that I just want to stay here where I am now, in this prayerful space. So, here I am practicing what I have learned from tai chi: I am putting my awareness where the resistance is in the hope that I will relax and move into a deeper level of humility in my prayer and in my life.

So, here is a question for you:

Where are you resisting God calling to you in your own life?

Maybe putting your awareness in that place will gently bring about a release from that resistance, with His grace. I am holding you in my prayers.

Eden is Not the Only Garden.

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

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

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

And they would respond with an eye roll and:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to a frequently heard phrase:

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

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

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

Did Jesus not say:

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

John 8:7

And:

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

Matthew 7: 1-3

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

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

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

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

Gardens, Bodwellian Castle

Does God get what God wants?

Carving on the stone ledge in the entrance to the church in Tremeirchion.
Does God get what God wants? 1: Reading of this post.

In my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, on day 6 Julian writes:

…but what breaks the impasse is that Christ wants us to trust that He is constantly with us.

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

and on day 7 of the journey she writes:

Our Lord wants to have the soul truly converted to contemplation of Him and all of his works on general.

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

And it brought to mind the question, the title of this post, that was asked at the beginning of a lecture I attended for the Ignatian Spirituality Course a few years ago. My immediate response to the question was an unequivocal :

Yes, of course He does.

But imagine my surprise when my friend next to me responded with an equally unequivocal:

No, He doesn’t.

So, all is not necessarily as straightforward as it immediately seemed to me. The lecture was about discernment and moved to talk about group discernment in the church. It is not this lecture that I particularly want to discuss here, but the question posed at the beginning of it:

Does God get what God wants?

In the reading for day 6 of the journey, Julian describes an oscillation between spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation, where in one moment she was filled with joy and the sense that nothing could ever separate her from God, and then in the next she was:

…abandoned to myself, oppressed and weary of my life and ruing myself, so that I hardly had the patience to go on living…

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

If we look at the state of the world today – we only have to watch the news – and if we were to take at face value the fact that we experience spiritual desolation: separation or movement away from God, that we are sinners, that we do not always trust that He is constantly with us in every moment of our lives, and that we are not always truly converted to contemplation of Him and all of His works in general, then I can see why my friend expressed the opinion she held.

The World’s End, Edinburgh
Does God get what God wants? 2: Reading of this post.

Ignatius says of the reasons for spiritual desolation:

The principal reasons why we suffer from desolation are three:

The first is because we have been tepid and slothful or negligent in our exercises of piety, and so through our own fault spiritual consolation has been taken away from us.

The second reason is because God wishes to try us, to see how much we are worth, and how much we will advance in His service and praise when left without the generous reward of consolations and signal favors.

The third reason is because God wishes to give us a true knowledge and understanding of ourselves, so that we may have an intimate perception of the fact that it is not within our power to acquire and attain great devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation; but that all this is the gift and grace of God our Lord. God does not wish us to build on the property of another, to rise up in spirit in a certain pride and vainglory and attribute to ourselves the devotion and other effects of spiritual consolation.

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

In Julian’s description of her oscillation between spiritual consolation and desolation, we might see the third reason at work. Ignatius is clear that while God does not cause spiritual desolation, He does allow it. We also see it in the book of Job:

The Lord said to Satan,[c] ‘Where have you come from?’ Satan[d] answered the Lord, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.’

Job 1:7

He allows the enemy to walk among us, making his whispering, trying to draw us away from God, to profane Him. And, like Job, we have a choice, we have free will. The catechism of the Catholic Church says of freedom:

As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1732

We might consider that making the Suscipe Prayer, or our own version of it, is binding our freedom definitively to God.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess.

Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it.

All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will.

Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

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

It is choosing to surrender ourselves completely to Him: it is a once and for all choice and an everyday choice. It is as Julian describes, complete trust and contemplation of Him.

Does God get what God wants? 3: Reading of this post.

I have described my rudimentary understanding of God being outside of time and space before, in a visual analogy. I have another: imagine time lapse photography of a seed being planted in a flower bed and its growth is filmed. Lets keep to the theme and make it a sunflower seed, like my inner child was planting in the garden with Him. In normal time lapse photography, we would see the sunflower grow quickly, and everything else in the flowerbed too. In my imagination of God’s eye view, it is only the sunflower, the one He is focusing on, that is changing in this film. What is my point? If He is looking at me, in the intimacy of my relationship with Him, He sees all of me, throughout eternity, all at once in this one eternal moment. If this Sunflower seed is growing towards Him, if this surrender to Him and contemplation of Him occurs at any point in eternity, then He is there now, experiencing that, and He has what He wants. It is me, who is limited in this present struggle with my own resistance and failings, that may not currently believe that He gets what He wants, because from my frame of reference in the here and now, He is not getting what He wants. But every temptation is an opportunity to choose Him, and every time I choose Him, I am moving towards Him, and giving Him what He desires when He invites me to be with Him. In the whole, big eternal picture, is it not what He desires? for us to use our gift of free will to choose Him? to bind our freedom definitively to Him? As this is true for me, is it not also true for every other soul He gazes upon?

Does God get what God wants? 4: Reading of this post.

I guess that, in spite of the turmoil, war and the pain; the sinfulness, violence and brutality of humanity; everything that nailed Him to that cross, when I look at Him in prayer, and when I am still and allow Him to look at me, I hold on to the hope, courage and faith to say that yes, I do believe that ultimately, God does get what He wants. He told Julian after all that:

It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/incontext/article/julian
Salt of the Sound: It is Well with my Soul

Positive Penance Retreat Day:

During Lent, the Church encourages us to unite ourselves to the mystery of Jesus in the desert, to act against the desire of the flesh, of the eyes and the pride in riches by fasting, giving alms and prayer. The practice of such penance may feel judicial and be difficult to maintain for the whole season of lent, perhaps because of its general sense of understanding. In “The Spiritual Excercises”, St. Ignatius writes about the practice of penance in the Tenth Addition, and the discussion is often passed over uncomfortably and put into the context of his time. My discomfort with both approaches compels me to present this retreat day.  

Ignatius presents the idea of penance as a form of desire for more in our relationship with God and he makes it personal. He says: 

Now since God our Lord knows our nature infinitely better, when we make changes of this kind, He often grants each one the grace to understand what is suitable for him.

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

My intention is to provide the time, space and stimulation for each one to notice the desires and motivations for their feelings and actions; to notice the direction of the movement in those desires, whether they are towards God (spiritual consolation) or away from God (spiritual desolation); the latter being identified as inordinate desire; and, with the grace and help of God, to choose the most pertinent of our own inordinate desires and resolve to amend it or them. The resolve to amend will form the basis of our chosen lenten practice, which will be personal in the context of our own relationship with God and drawn from the desire for more in that relationship. Fuelled by this desire, may we find sustenance to maintain our lenten observance for the duration, and allow it to impact a deeper change in our lives beyond lent. 

The process will be facilitated with two short presentations, The Examen prayer, Guided Imaginative Contemplations, Personal reflection and paired and group sharing. To ensure safety, sharing should be only what you are comfortable with, and should remain confidential within the context of the person or group it is shared in. 

Our Lady of The Annunciation has excellent facilities. There is a beautiful church, with the Thirkettle Room attached, and it is here that the first presentation will be given at 10am. The Conference Centre has further space and a kitchen, where refreshments will be available from 9.30am. There is Mass in the church at 9.00am and the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be available on the day. There may also be access to the gardens, weather permitting. Plenty of parking is available on site. 

On Speaking Pleasantly.

Altar in the Lady Chapel in Ely Cathedral
On Speaking pleasantly 1: Reading of this post.

No foul word should ever cross your lips; let your words be for the improvement of others, as occasion offers, and do good to your listeners.

Ephesians 4:29; The New Jerusalem Bible

A friend of mine at church recently commented on my choice use of language on some of my social media posts (asterix’s included) and my jocular, but nevertheless aggressive expression of the violence in my heart being incongruent (my words, not my friend’s) with my practice as a spiritual director, and how I am when I am leading sessions on prayer. Quite right, I say. My friend has spoken truthfully, and with love, as Paul encourages us to do in his letters. Swearing is an issue for me, I hold my hands up to that particular fault, and it is not my intention to justify it here: it is not a good thing generally speaking and it makes nice people feel uncomfortable. There has been some discernment in my life around this subject however, and it is that process I want to share here.

I was not brought up to swear; quite the opposite in fact. It was definitely frowned upon at home growing up. I developed the habit when I started playing football in my twenties.

I say dear girl, that was rather a harsh tackle!

Is not really conducive to picking yourself up off the ground again and going after the ball. There needs to be a shorter, more motivational phrase in that situation. And where I come from, there is also the prevailing attitude that you get your studs in first, to use a contextual footballing analogy. So, there is evident a transition from who I was and from where I have come, to who I am becoming.

On my annual 8 day IGR the year before I made The Spiritual Exercises – the Song of Songs retreat, a story for another day – I discerned after a lectio divina on one of Paul’s letters, a feeling of discomfort at my own, and persistent use of uncouth language. I decided that I would stop swearing, and only “speak pleasantly” in the future. It took me about three days in the silence of the retreat to stop swearing in my self conversation. It is amazing how deeply embedded such language is when it is a habit. When I came out of the retreat, I was no longer speaking these words out loud and it was noticed by people around me. So what changed? Why has this unpleasant habit grown in me again?

My situation changed within months of returning from the Exercises a year and a half later; I found myself bombarded with persistent, aggressive and undermining hostility daily, for a sustained period of time, which was desolating to my spirit. In my morning prayer, I always asked for the graces of strength and courage to face the situation, and so I faced it, and stood against it. One of the ways the enemy works, as described by Ignatius in The Spiritual Exercises is the following:

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

I draw attention to the relevant phrase I have put in bold type. I maintained my pleasant, if firm and composed, speech throughout, both while the situation was in play, and in private, until I read, as part of my studying of the art of spiritual direction, that unexpressed anger can be turned inward and lead to depression: I immediately recognised what was happening within me, that the desolating voices were like a buzzing, flickering light bulb, destroying my faith in myself and my belief in my ability to fulfill my calling and they were using my virtue to ensure that a powerful sword against those voices was left in the scabbard.

St Patrick’s Breastplate Mandala
On Speaking pleasantly 2: Reading of this post.

Ignatius also suggests how to resist the enemy:

…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. Louis J. Puhl

Or let me put it another way through a story given in The Song of The Bird, by Anthony de Mello:

The devil once went for a walk with a friend. They saw a man ahead of them stoop down and pick something up from the ground.

“What did that man find?” asked the friend.

“A piece of truth”, said the devil.

Doesn’t that disturb you?” asked the friend.

“No”, said the devil, “I’ll let him make a belief out of it.”

The Song of The Bird, Anthony de Mello

Or, another way, concerning scruples, Ignatius says:

If one has a delicate conscience, the evil one seeks to make it excessively sensitive, in order to disturb and upset it more easily.

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

And:

A soul that wishes to make progress in the spiritual life must always act in a manner contrary to that of the enemy.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl
Ironwork from a garden seat at Penhurst Retreat Centre.
On Speaking pleasantly 3: Reading of this post.

The conversation with a spiritual director is very helpful in discerning when our own virtue and delicate conscience is being turned against us. I will never forget the moment in my meeting with my director, when I described that buzzing, flickering light bulb and how those critical voices were telling me how rubbish I was and how incapable I was for the role that God had called me to. When I verbalised this “self talk”, the foul words I was internalising, I was shocked. I understood in that moment the strength of the pull of desolation, and how important my daily pleas for the graces of strength and courage were, and how God was always there, pouring his grace out so that I was not overwhelmed by it. Neither will I forget His strength surge within me when the next time, in private, I let out a torrent of expletives and expressed my fury. Until this point, I had been a gardener in a war, and at last, I brought my warrior to the war and was now using weapons that God had not forbidden me to use.

In a different biblical translation, the phrase I began with reads:

29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[a] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

Ephesians 4:29 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition (NRSVACE)

I am reflecting that the evil talk can also be the desolating voices we listen to within ourselves. Discernment about where these voices are leading us is the point of the second part of the phrase. It is important to notice the effect these voices are having on our soul. At a bible study session I went to when I was a student, the priest leading it told us that when Jesus responded to the news of Herod beheading John the Baptist, He said:

Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.

Luke 13:32

And that the modern equivalent of calling Herod a “fox” would be to call him a “bastard”. Whether that is true or not, clearly Jesus is not speaking pleasantly about Herod, and His words here certainly inspire me with strength and encouragement in speaking out. Neither is Jesus speaking pleasantly when He says to the scribes and pharisees:

You snakes, you brood of vipers!

Matthew 23:33

So, the context matters. When we use strong language to stand up to and speak out against evil, we might not be speaking pleasantly, but it does not make it “evil talk” . When the effect is to strengthen and encourage, to build up ourselves and others in facing up to temptations boldly, then perhaps it is completely appropriate. Each occasion and context requires discernment. So as far as I am concerned, my friend at church is right, perhaps sometimes my use of strong language is inappropriate, and it is something I resolve to amend.

I’m not a feminist but…

I’m not a feminist but…1 : Reading of this post

I am kidding. I am a feminist, and I make no apologies for it. It seems to be a contentious statement though, hence people always start the sentence with a denial, and I am wondering how you are feeling right now as you are reading this post? The first time I encountered formal feminism was when I was sixteen at an Open Day for Glasgow University (I think it was Glasgow) when I visited the table run by the FemSoc, the Feminist Society. I think that is what they were called at that time. I picked up a badge which said:

Women who want to be equal to men lack ambition.

It made me laugh, and I picked up a card which read:

Standing up and fighting like a man is easier than sitting down and writing like a woman.

I did not understand that statement then, and even though I pinned this card on my notice board for years, I am still not sure I understand it. I am sitting here writing now, and I would much rather be doing this activity than fighting! Maybe, it is that I just do not agree with it.

In my 40 Day Journey this week, Julian has been considering Mary, Jesus’ mother, and how she was:

… marvelling with great reverence that He was willing to be born of her who was a simple creature created by Him.

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich; edited Lisa E. Dahill

This prayer was very fruitful for me. I have always found the familiar images of Mary problematic – she has not exactly been presented as a feminist icon, but I will pick up that story another day perhaps. For the moment, I simply want to acknowledge there is an area to talk about here. I also noticed, when I did the imaginative contemplation on the Annunciation during the Spiritual Exercises, that when she agreed to walk this particular path with God, even though she was betrothed to Joseph, at no point did she say to Gabriel:

Well, I really would like to, but I need to check it out with Joe first, just to make sure that he is okay with it.

I’m not a feminist but…2 : Reading of this post

In other words, she submitted herself to God’s authority without stopping to consider any social conventions of her being subject to a man’s authority, or even his feelings; and she had no doubts that she had a right to do so. To my mind, it makes her a feminist.

I have been very much influenced in my understanding of scripture by reading that I did when I was studying for the Catholic Certificate of Religious Education (CRE) when I first became a teacher. I studied four modules on scripture, two on the Old Testament and two on the New Testament and read further than directed because I was so thirsty to learn more. Three books that changed my perspective and how I interact with scripture were: “What’s right with Feminism?” by Elaine Storkey – I said earlier that I had attended a talk given by her; “Wives, Harlots and Concubines, The Old Testament in Feminist Perspective” by Alice L. Laffey; and “In a Different Voice” by Carol Gilligan. The latter book I had read as part of my teacher training, rather than the CRE correspondance course I did in conjunction with Strawberry Hill College, as it was then.

There is a classic hypothetical scenario, The Heinz Dilemma, designed by Lawrence Kohlberg, presented to people in psychological studies and their answers are analysed, not necessarily for their solution, but for the reasoning behind their solution. There is a video resource that I have used in science lessons that presents the scenario to prepubescent children and then follows them through puberty and presents it again three years later to demonstrate how the brain changes during puberty and we become capable of more complex reasoning and able to cope more with grey areas. The scenario goes along these lines:

A man has a wife who is very ill and is dying from her illness. The pharmacist down the street has a medicine that can cure her, but it is expensive. The man is poor and cannot afford to buy the medicine. Should he steal it? Discuss.

Traditional psychologists used answers and reasoning given to this scenario by boys and girls to surmise that men were rational and logical and that women were emotional, with the underlying assumption that rational was superior. Gilligan offers a different interpretation of the results than traditional male psychologists. She argues that men and women reason differently and that their reasoning was based in part on how they were defined by society and how they defined themselves. Men, she points out, were more likely to define themselves in terms of position and status, whereas women were more likely to define themselves in terms of their relationships. I spent a short period noticing it whenever people introduced themselves to me at the time, or when they introduced themselves on quiz shows on the television. Men might say:

I’m James, and I’m an engineer from London.

and women might say:

I’m Mary, wife of David and mother of two fantastic teenage boys.

I notice it less so these days, nearly thirty years later, but then again, I am not looking out for it so much and I got rid of my television. We can see this bias in scripture too: many women are unnamed and are identified in terms of their husbands or sons, for example Bathsheba is simply referred to as the wife of Uriah in Matthew’s genealogy, the woman with the haemorrhage is unnamed. On the other hand, men are named, and defined in terms of their position in society: Luke defines Zaccheus as the chief tax collector. Men are rarely defined in terms of their relationships, without any reference to their position or status, the Roman centurion whose servant was ill, for example. Of course, there may be many contradictory examples on both points,and there are also the gender roles of the time to take into context too. I am not offering it here as a hard and fast rule.

The point Gilligan makes regarding the moral dilemma is that men argued from a position based on status and position, and sought a solution to the problem from a legalistic perspective, whether the man should or should not steal the medicine. Women generally refused to accept that premise, and sought a solution around building a relationship with the pharmacist in order to find an arrangement to obtain the medicine.

I’m not a feminist but…3 : Reading of this post

In my engagement with scripture, subsequent to my reading, I started to notice that there were women, like Mary, who accepted God’s authority, without making any reference to male authority figures – Samson’s mother for example. When her husband does get involved and makes a fuss around all sorts of protocols regarding burnt offerings, and asking questions regarding what had already been discussed with the woman, I imagine the angel looking at her and rolling his eyes as he says to him:

Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her.

Judges 13:13

I also notice that when Jesus interacts with people, it is always from the perspective or relationship. I mentioned the woman with the haemorrhage before. From a legalistic perspective, this woman could have been stoned for defiling a religious leader, but He draws her into relationship and claims her as kin. The Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 – from a legalistic perspective, this conversation should not have taken place: she is a woman not of his kin, he is a man; she is of a different social group where there are tensions with Jesus’ people; but again, He draws her into conversation and relationship. And we are familiar with Jesus being critical of the legalism of the scribes and the pharisees. It seems to me that from the psychological perspective, Jesus reasons like women do with emphasis on loving and cooperative relationship. It is not surprising, given the idea of the Holy Trinity: relationship is where it is at.

I’m not a feminist but…4 : Reading of this post

The most striking affirmation that Jesus gives to my mind is in the story of Martha and Mary. Mary takes on what might be considered as the man’s role, sitting and talking with Jesus, while her sister, Martha, runs around, doing all the women’s business by making sure the practicalities and hospitality are sorted out. How often do we see this pattern today? For me, the most fantastic and liberating thing happens when Jesus says:

It is Mary who has chosen the better part, and it is not to be taken from her.

Luke 10:42

He makes it clear, that a woman does have a choice in her own life and that others have an obligation to accept those choices and to not try to exercise control over those decisions. I am a feminist because He affirms my belief that I have autonomy in my soul and free will: I have a right to choose to surrender myself to His authority once and for all and every day and it is for me to discern my choices through prayer and my relationships with others and the church. And if it brings me into conflict with any man who is insisting I accept his authority first, what then? Should I obey a man and disobey God? I am a feminist, because my answer to that question is no, and I believe that I have every right to give that answer. It is my right to make Ignatius’ suscipe prayer my own:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

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

I make no apologies for it.

I have linked to this film clip before, but since it is entirely relevant here, I will link to it again.

Retreat Day: Positive Penance. 15 February 2020

I am running this retreat day, based on the tenth addition of The Spiritual Exercises, to prepare for lent. If you are thinking that you would like to enter more deeply into this special season of the church and you are able to get yourself there, you are most welcome. Please let me know, by leaving a comment or email, if you do intend to be there (not written in stone) just to help me to estimate the numbers of resources I need to prepare. And please do share with anyone you think may be interested. Thank you.

What do you find attractive about Jesus?

What do you find attractive about Jesus? 1: Reading of this post.

Previously I wrote about The Two Standards Meditation from the Spiritual Exercises and illustrated something of the modus operandi of Jesus and of the enemy. In this key mediation Ignatius makes the first point:

Consider Christ our Lord, standing in a lowly place in a great plain about the region of Jerusalem, His appearance beautiful and attractive.

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

The Two Standards Meditation appears in the second week of The Exercises, as does the Imaginative contemplation on The Nativity. The grace asked for in the second week is:

…for an intimate knowledge of our Lord, who has become man for me, that I may love Him more and follow Him more closely.

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

There is a convergence in these two points in a question asked by Gerard W. Hughes in God In All Things, which I have paraphrased in the title because it is how the question has ingrained itself into my heart. He asks:

What do you find attractive in the teachings of Jesus?

God In All Things ,Gerard W. Hughes

And he goes on to say:

Focus your heart on these things. An attraction is a sign that you are being called to live out those qualities in your own way, in your own circumstances.

God In All Things ,Gerard W. Hughes
What do you find attractive about Jesus? 2: Reading of this post.

Going back a period of years, I spent some weeks pondering just this question from Gerard Hughes, along with a question my own spiritual director had asked me which niggled at me. It is an experience I often have in with my director, and while I attempt an answer there, on the spot, my dissatisfaction with my answer leaves me pondering more deeply, subsequent to my meeting with him. Around about the same time I was also reading Choice, Desire and the Will of God: What More do you want? by David Runcorn and The Alchemist by Paul Coelho. There was definitely a theme going on and the feeling of it was as if there was something on your tongue that you needed to say, but every time you made to speak, the words were lost: or that there was a shape emerging out of the mist, and just as you were about to recognise it, it sank back again into obscurity. In retrospect I know that the process was about discovering the deepest desire of my soul, and at the end of it, when I had articulated it, it was as if I had found the place where my pearl of great price was buried and I had only just acquired the field. I was ready now to start digging.

I paraphrased the question because my answer to it was more to do with Jesus Himself, how He was, how He manifested His teachings. I have heard it said that:

The best sermon is a good example.

and Jesus exemplified what He taught: His actions matched His words, He practiced what He preached. For me, other than His authenticity, what I find most attractive about Him is that He always responded to people in the way that they needed in order for them to come closer to God: He always knew what to say and what to do with any given person or situation. He knew when to challenge, when to heal, when to teach.

For example, the rich young man who went away sad. We are never told what happened after that, but I like to think that he could not remain unchanged after Jesus looked at him and loved him, before throwing down the gauntlet, before giving the young man the challenge of his life, which he had actually asked for. I like to believe that after time and discernment, the young man did take up the challenge and effected a change in his life.

And the woman with the haemorrhage, who sought healing and received even more. After so many years of being an outcast because of her bleeding, He not only healed her, but claimed her as His kin, drawing her out, to speak up. I went to a talk by Elaine Storkey when I was a student and I vividly remember her take on this particular Gospel story. She told us that in the context of the time, this woman could have been stoned for defiling a religious leader, hence her fear in speaking out. So not only did He heal her physical ailment, but also the effect of years of erosion of her self esteem: spiritual healing as well as physical.

There are so many more examples I could give; these two are only a sample of my favourites and they show me something of my attraction to Jesus. At the end of my period of pondering, the deepest desire of my soul which I finally managed to express was:

To have the freedom to be who He would have me be.

And I realised how clever God is, because it describes a process, in two parts, of constant discernment; and I already understood that it is the process that draws us closer to God. The first part is:

Who would He have me be?

and the second part is:

What is limiting my freedom to be who He would have me be?

What do you find attractive about Jesus? 3: Reading of this post.

The process is consistent with the movement of the Exercises, through the Principle and Foundation to the Contemplation to Attain Love.

Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition.

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

The first is that love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.

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

Then I will reflect upon myself, and consider, according to all reason and justice, what I ought to offer the Divine Majesty, that is, all I possess and myself with it. Thus, as one would do who is moved by great feeling, I will make this offering of myself:

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

In The Alchemist, Santiago meets a crystal merchant whose desire is to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, but he only made it so far in his journey when he stopped to run his crystal shop and effectively got distracted by the business of the world. The merchant reasons:

Because it’s the thought of Mecca that keeps me alive…I’m afraid that if my dream is realized, I’ll have no reason to go on living…I’m afraid that it would all be a disappointment, so I prefer just to dream about it.

The Alchemist, Paul Coelho

Earlier, when he first meets Santiago, the merchant laughs at Santiago’s expression of his own dream and the impact on Santiago is desolating:

There was a moment of silence so profound that it seemed the city was asleep…It was as if the world had fallen silent because the boy’s soul had.

The Alchemist, Paul Coelho

The merchant still had his desire, but gradually, his soul became quieter in expressing it because the pain of not progressing towards it was unbearable. It is the manifestation of the phrase:

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.

Henry David Thoreau

In my 40 Day journey with Julian of Norwich (Day 4) Julian says:

For this is the reason why those who deliberately occupy themselves with wordly business, constantly seeking worldy well-being, have not God’s rest in their hearts and souls;

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

and in the personal reflections the question is asked:

In your faith tradition, what is the appropriate balance between a “this worldly” investment in human life and one’s total commitment and allegiance to God? Can both be lived simultaneously? Explain.

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, edited Lisa E. Dahill.
Page from Jesus’ Day Off, one of my favourite books.
What do you find attractive about Jesus? 4: Reading of this post.

They are important questions. How do we live in the world and stay true to our calling? Understanding what it is that attracts us, what it is that is calling to our soul, what it is that brings us to life, and constant discernment, is necessary to help us to keep our souls from becoming sad, one of the descriptions Ignatius gives of spiritual desolation. Asking ourselves what we find attractive in Jesus and His teachings, and focusing our hearts on those things may be, as Gerard Hughes suggests, a signpost in how we, personally, can live in the appropriate balance between our worldly investment in human life and our total commitment and allegiance to God; and live both simultaneously.

Ever in my Mouth.

Ever in my mouth 1: Reading of this post.

When I made the Exercises a few years ago, I did an imaginative contemplation on the nativity at the beginning of the second week. I remember being my inner child, around the age of three or four, and I was the daughter of the innkeeper and his wife. It was late in the evening and my mother was out in the shed with the guests, helping to deliver the baby. I remember hearing a new born baby cry, and I ran to the shed, in my white pillow case dress, and sandals, calling out excitedly:

Can I see the new baby? Can I see the new baby?

My mother tried to calm me down and to usher me away – probably as much to protect me from witnessing the aftermath of childbirth as to protect the new mother and baby from an over excited child who is unable to contain herself, but Mary said it was fine and allowed me to come close to her and the baby, with a warm smile. I sat calmly beside her and looked at the baby, with His unfocused eyes, and I asked:

Can I smell Him? Can I touch Him? Can I hold Him?

She said yes to all of the above and so I breathed Him in deeply, I touched His forehead softly, and I leaned against the wall and sat still as she placed Him on my lap and I held Him carefully in my arms.

And I asked her softly:

What’s his name?

His name is Jesus.

She replied. I sat there with Him in my lap and repeated it again and again. An over excited child – stilled and in awe.

Ever in my mouth 2: Reading of this post.

I have noticed that since The Spiritual Exercises, my experience of the liturgy has deepened. Whenever there is part of the gospel during the year that I had prayed with then, I am again placed in the story and interacting once more within it and experiencing the spiritual consolation I received at the time. The graces of the Exercises remain. Ignatius advises us to store up such consolations to sustain us during times of spiritual desolation. It is also worth noting that times of desolation are to be expected and cannot be avoided. What is within our power is to do what we are able to in order to deal with them. It might be a bit like dwelling on memories of the times of tenderness and love shown with a loved one when they are not there and you miss them. He 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, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.

And Ignatius also says:

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.

Sometimes, when I find that I have again placed myself in a particular contemplation I made during the Exercises it is like a repetition and there is something new, something relevant for the situation today and a deepening of understanding: the story or conversation may change in the small details or emphasis. The original consolation is still there and there is even more given on top of it. Often there are tears. Ignatius frequently references copious amounts of tears as spiritual consolation. For someone who prefers to go into her room and close the door to pray, it feels awkward to cry in public, but sometimes, impossible to hold it back.

I am aware that I have made two contradictory points about names in the past. On the one hand:

That which we call a rose

by any other name would smell as sweet.

Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

and that to know the true name of something or someone is to have power over it or them. To hold both of these ideas as true is perhaps paradoxical and I am drawn to paradox. The name “Jesus”, or “Yeshua” as He was actually called, means:

God saves.

Ascension press, Matthew: The King and His Kingdom bible study program.

Jesus is as Jesus does, or Jesus does as Jesus is. If I say His name again and again as I did as a small child in the imaginative contemplation I described above, does that mean I have power over Him as happens in fantasy fiction or as was the belief in His time? Quite the opposite I would say. In repeating His name, I gradually relinquish power I may have in the gift of free will and surrender myself to His desires for me: I accept His power over me. It is as if, by repeating His name again and again, I am calling on the seed of God within me to grow.

The seed of God is in us. Now the seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree; and a hazel seed grows into a hazel tree; a seed of God grows into God.

Meister Eckhart

Some years ago I went to another event run by the Norwich Christian Meditation Centre. Lawrence Freeman delivered a talk and a practice session on Christian meditation. It basically involved taking a sacred word, phrase or name as a mantra, and repeating it over and over in the mind. Possibilities he suggested: Maranatha; Come Holy Spirit; Jesus. The Jesus prayer, or Centering prayer involves a similar process:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

In the film “Layer Cake” – it is a violent gangster movie, so if you are sensitive, here is my health warning – there is a scene where one of the gangsters takes apart a gun: they are getting ready to go into battle. He tells the other gangster that it is like meditation and describes meditation as:

…concentrating the front of your mind on a mundane task so that the rest of the mind can find peace.

Warning: swearing and weapons scene, allusion to violence and murder. I’m not advocating violence here.
Ever in my mouth 3: Reading of this post.

Personally, I think that it is an excellent description of meditation- although I would refute His name as being something mundane, obviously. If His name is ever in my mouth, if it is the conversation I have with my own mind, I become as my small inner child did when holding the baby Jesus on her lap: stilled and in awe. The back of my mind is freed up not to worry because I surrender to Him and I trust in Him completely. To me, it is the meaning of serenity.