…reverent contemplation … marvelling with great reverence …my spirit rejoices in God…He has looked with favour…
I remember vividly my imaginative contemplation of The Annunciation from when I made The Spiritual Exercises going into the second week. Mary had the audacity to desire to have God’s child. I spent a lot of time in this prayer with the word reverence and reverent, on what it means to regard something or someone with reverence: wonder and awe. And it dawned on me, in recent sprayers when He has been holding me, this has been His demeanour: reverence. I was gobsmacked (or Godsmacked!) when that sank in. How could He possibly view me with reverence? Yet there it was: love, tenderness and reverence. I am precious and sacred to Him; He looks at me with wonder and awe. Like Mary, my response was for my spirit to rejoice because He looks at me with such favour. Here, I am just like her marvelling with great reverence at His greatness when faced with my own littleness.
In the “Questions to ponder” section day 5, I made note of some things. The first is that Julian’s vision of Mary is one my faith tradition can embrace. My church likes the idea of her meekness. What is special about her for me though, is her audacity, and that in seeing her in this way, I might come to regard her as my friend. I’m still a little shy on that one though. The second is that our culture understands humility as weakness and treats it with contempt. By looking at Jesus, I understand it as truth, honesty and strength; to know who you are and to be unafraid to live by it.
…with great reverence that He was willing…
To me, this is the phrase that recast the understanding of humility to mean degrading. The other perspective is that humility is a liberating gift from God because it frees us to live as we truly are in Him to be our true self in God, rather than try to fit ourselves into the uncomfortable mould of worldly expectations.
When praying the second part of this journey with day 5, these are the phrases that stood out for me in the prayer:
I lift up my soul… teach the lowly your way… teach me Your way…
I saw myself sitting on the ground where I had just dug up my treasure from the field – my immortal diamond: my soul, my free will. I handed it to Him, saying the first phrase over and over:
I lift up my soul
The freedom to be who he would have maybe – the deepest desire of my soul. I said my own suscipe prayer to Him and asked Him to teach me His way. Still within and part of the prayer, I then seemed to be distracted then by all the chores I had to do, and about getting my things ready for work the next day, except, I noticed that there was an absence of the usual stress and anxiety around all of that. I understood that it was Him showing me his way: to just do, without thinking about it, to be in the present, preparing, but not worrying about tomorrow. It was a “just do it” sort of feeling. It is for me to just do what has to be done in a relaxed “being the moment” way – no drive or push; no pressure, just as it is. After the prayer, I sorted my clothes for work the next day and I cleaned the kitchen. I had my well-being plan. It was just to do it, simple things. I had been watching a Chinese internet star, her films of a simple rural life. It was her demeanour, just to do. He was smiling at me then.
As I reflected on this prayer and on the journal reflections suggested in the 40 Day Journey book, I noticed that I experienced myself as little at work. When other people saw me just a classroom teacher” when I have had so much more experience than that and they don’t know it. It was okay though, because putting myself in that position was all part of the stepping back, ruined for life experience of The Spiritual Exercises and my rejection of being overstretched by my pride. I struggled with the second reflection, not sure I can accept the premise of being pregnant with God. From praying with the Song of songs, I can relate to Him as a lover but can’t get my head around him being my child. Maybe it is an image to pray with another day. The third point, on the prospect of total availability to God, provoked the same feeling of desire in me and yearning for Him, to be able to live always and fully in that state of saying yes. I can pray:
I’ve received a text message this week from an organisation that I do some work for. Here is what it said:
We are really impressed by your past experience and your background. We firmly believe that you are a valuable asset to our college.
It reminded me of another email I received a few months ago from another organisation I was doing some work for. The email began
Thanks again for your excellent sample chapter- we were really impressed with how well you understood the brief and the quality of your content.
I started to think about my previous job, and I tried to remember the last time someone in my previous job told me they were impressed with my work. I’m sorry to say I can’t remember when that happened. Here in my new job, I’ve heard it twice in the last three months. It made me feel quite sad. I’m thinking about the teachers who have just voted to strike in the UK and how undervalued they are. I was part of the union that has voted to strike and would have voted with the 90%.
I am also currently involved in “The 40-day Journey with Julian of Norwich” with the Friends of Julian of Norwich. In this last month we have been praying with Day 13 to Day 16 of the journey and on Day 15 the reading from Julian says:
God also showed me that sin is no shame but honour to us… shame is no more in the bliss of heaven – for there the tokens of sin are turned into owners.
As all these thoughts swirled around my brain I found myself thinking of the feeling of not being good enough and of spiritual desolation. I found myself thinking of the critical voices, those voices that tell us that we are worthless, unworthy, it’s all our fault: the “mea culpa” that has us feeling guilty and ashamed.
What does it feel like when someone tells us that they are impressed by something we have done? Is the temptation to dismiss what has been said? After all, no one likes a show off. It may be false humility.
In the first week of the Spiritual Exercises by St Ignatius of Loyola the focus of the prayer is sin: our own personal sin, original sin, the sin of the world: and the grace of the first week that we asked for at the beginning of prayer is for sorrow for our sins. Importantly, the First Week of the Exercises comes after the Principle and Foundation, and it is important to enter the first week knowing that we are loved by God. How else could we bear shame of our sinfulness?
How does it feel in the Principal and Foundation when we experience ourselves to be loved by God? Julian very famously talks about the hazelnut and how in her visions or showings she saw three properties in the hazelnut:
The first is that God made it, the second is that He loves it, and the third is that God preserves it.
I remember one day in school, in one of the after-school training sessions, there was a statement on a piece of paper which linked negative judgments by Ofsted with a teacher feeling personal shame. It made me feel very angry. I know for me personally being a perfectionist, it is uncomfortable to get things wrong, but I would stop short of declaring that a reason to feel ashamed. I might also argue that the person or organisation making the judgement may not necessarily be accurate or may have their own agenda or priorities that the teacher may not agree with.
Of course, feeling proud when someone tells you they are impressed may simply be the opposite side of the same coin: a point to be cautious of. Pride itself, for its own sake, can also get in the way.
So, what is the balance? Because self-denigration, feeling ashamed in response to unjustified criticism, or maybe even justified criticism from self-appointed judges, may be inverted pride.
The grace of the first week of The Exercises is key: it is to know ourselves as loved sinners, to hold the tension between imperfections and the harm that we may do, the lack of love in our hearts, the lack of virtue, generosity, magnanimity: to hold it in one hand and God’s love of us in the other.
Is it good to accept compliments? To feel good when people tell us they are impressed? I would say of course: when someone recognises and appreciates our gifts it allows us to recognise and appreciates the gifts that we have been given. We may have done our best job with the work we were doing, and we know our work is appreciated. That is a satisfaction in doing the work regardless of any external reward. It’s like walking outside into the mountains and exclaiming how beautiful it is to God; an appreciation of the work, an expression of the appreciation, it is to praise God. It is to give glory to God when we are exclaiming how impressed we are with God’s work. When we allow someone else to express their appreciation of our work, it connects us to our giftedness, the abilities and talents we have received from God and that we have put them to use in the service of others.
In The Spiritual Exercises in the fourth point of the Contemplation to Attain Love, Saint Ignatius says:
This is to consider all blessings and gifts as descending from above.
The danger of modesty or false humility is that it denies those gifts, diminishes them, makes them as nothing: unimportant. Sure, there is a danger in arrogance and pride when we can think of ourselves as the big, “I am” because people are impressed with us, but, as one of the tutors on my spirituality course said several times:
We can become attached to our smallness.
There are many “haters” out there in the world, on social media, on television, in the newspapers. There is criticism to be found everywhere, of anyone and everyone; a lynch mob mentality. It’s all around. It is very easy to become bogged down in fear anger, negativity: to feel a lack of faith, hope and love. Such hopelessness and fear are spiritual desolation. Perhaps we need to complement each other more, not falsely, but genuine heartfelt compliments. If we’re impressed say we’re impressed. If someone tells us that they are impressed to accept that acknowledgement of our gifts and for ourselves to also acknowledge those gifts and expressed gratitude for them.
So, the next time you are impressed with someone, tell them. Acknowledge their giftedness out loud so they can hear it and own it too. And when someone complements you on your gifts, accept it, don’t dismiss it: accept it and than God for the gifts He so generously bestows.
It seems strange to be writing about my first 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, after leading the Friends of Julian of Norwich Lenten Bookgroup this year, but nevertheless, here I am doing just that. I have been organising with the trustees of The Friends of Julian of Norwich how we intend to continue the journey, since several people who attended the lenten course requested more. The format of Continuing the Journey will be more as I made the journey myself the first time, taking a week to pray with the material for each day of Lisa Dahill’s book, just like the 19th Annotation of The Spiritual Exercises. The Zoom meetings for Continuing the Journey will be on the third Wednesday of the month, starting in September, so watch out for more details here and especially on the Friends of Julian of Norwich website and newsletters.
Day 4 of the 40 Day Journey continues the contemplation the hazelnut:
The first is that God made it, the second is that He loves it, and the third is that God preserves it.
The first phrase connected me immediately to the Song of Songs. This particular book from scripture was the focus for my prayer on retreat in the summer before I started my Spiritual Direction course. It had a profound impact on my life, and my active engagement with the book lasted for a least two years. I’m still not done with it yet, but suffice to say it was the trip switch for a great deal of upheaval in my life. The Song of Songs is a love poem which can be understood as the relationship between God and the Church, or the relationship between God and the individual soul. To pull this phrase from Julian’s writings here connected me to God’s desire for me and my desire and longing for God. It became more personal and more intimate:
God is my lover.
The “no created thing” became “nothing” and I wanted nothing to get in the way. I wanted to let go of every inordinate desire I had and I started to name them, to recognise the habits and behaviours that dissipated my spiritual energy. As I imagined God pulling me closer to Him, I could feel that His desire for me was irresistible and I asked Him to help me remove or overcome all those things that get in the way. To know deeply that He has made me to love Him and to be loved by Him – this outpouring and knowing was the grace of this prayer for me.
… have not God’s rest in their hearts and souls;…and in which there is no rest…
With the inordinate desires that swam before my eyes like a conveyor belt in “The Generation Game”, it resonated with how Julian described the effect of the “wordly business”:
It was all about my tendency to overwork, and I have written about that before. It is very interesting to read about this now that I am living with ME/CFS! The drive to work, to have a career and to be successful in it, the drive to perfectionism – in this prayer on Day 4 of the journey I recognised how these things were getting in the way of my being close to God. And yet, at the same time, in response to one of the questions to ponder that Lisa Dahill asks I wrote:
Both wordly investment and allegience to God can be lived simultaneously – and the balance is prayer.
The questions to ask ourselves regarding our work, and our relationships, to my mind are:
Am I doing the work that God wants me to do?
Am I loving well those I am in relationship with?
On pondering the meaning of “substantially united to God”, I noted:
To be substantially united to God is a grace given by Him. We might orientate our lives so that we connect with Him as much as possible but He is the one who gathers us up into Himself in that eternal moment.
St. Ignatius invites use to converse with God “as one friend speaks to another” and the conversation with God at this point in my prayer was intimate and loving.
I am your rest.
You are my rest.
I am the God that heals you.
I am the one to make the wars to cease within you, the one who burns the shields with fire.
You are my love, my treasure. In all of creation I love you more.
When I asked how that could be, His response was:
You are precious to me, you are my treasure.
St. Augustine has said:
God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.
Julian’s revelations about the hazelnut made me feel just as St. Augstine describes. I was warm and surrounded by light, and the people I love most in the world were also surrounded by light. We were protected and safe. I visualised myself as Leviathon, God’s own creature, another image of myself from another retreat.
I imagined myself flowing easily from fire to water and back to fire again, without any conflict between the two, or restriction in the movement from one to the other. For me, these represent the active and contemplative sides of my personality – how appropriate to be writing this in the 16th week of cycle C in the Lectionary, where the gospel reading is about Martha and Mary! I first sought out a Spiritual Director because these aspects of myself were in conflict. In the earlier stages of my deepening journey, I believed that the purpose was to live with them in balance. This mandala was my realisation that integrity was not about getting the balance, but in being able to flow from one to the other without resistance. I guess it is the living simultaneously worldy investment and allegience to God.
Overwork and the drive to get things sorted “once and for all” is a place where I need to be open to the healing, restorative love of God. The sense of not being able to get it all done (in time) creates a sense of panic in me, and of not being good enough.
How poignant it is for me to read those words now. Even then, the other part was also there:
I experience God as my true rest when I consciously spend time in contemplative prayer -then my head slows down and the war within me ceases.
I share the desire with Julian for there to be nothing between my God and me. The deepest desire of my soul is to have the freedom to be who He would have me be. I find myself reading back through my prayer journal now and being inspired again by the graces I received then.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my mum recently. Probably because the family have now got the house cleared, cleaned and ready to sell. My eldest came back from Scotland last weekend with some things for us from my mum’s house, including the piano, which has gone to my youngest. My mum will well pleased with that arrangement I imagine. My mind wanders to a story that she repeated many times to me in the last few years of her life. She struggled a lot with restless legs and it meant she often had poor sleep and spent the small hours “walking the floors” as she described it. She had a great devotion to the Sacred Heart – her name was Margaret Mary, like mine, so no surprises there I guess. She was constantly speaking to Him through the many pictures around the house, and one of her favourite prayers was, when driving into a car park:
Please Sacred Heart, find me a parking space.
One always opened up immediately no matter how busy the car park was, I kid you not. It happened so consistently that other members of my family, who do not necessarily believe, use it when they cannot find a parking space! Sure, we can argue about coincidence and patience and whatever rational explanation you like, I’m just telling you what I’ve witnessed. Anyway, I digress – back to walking the floors. One night, after about a week of broken sleep, when she couldn’t stand it anymore, she turned to her picture of the Sacred Heart and challenged Him with words to the effect of:
Don’t tell me to offer it up and to think about everything you went through! You only suffered for a day, I’ve been going on like this for a week and I can’t stand it any more!
An honest prayer, even though I think she believed herself to be disrespectful. She had the sense of God laughing in response and the restlessness disappeared, allowing her to get a good night of sleep.
Within this context, I also found myself reaching this point of:
regarding my own health condition – myalgic encephalomyelitus (ME/CFS). I described before how I had accepted it as a gift, and an answer to my prayers arising from the desire to live more slowly: to realise that it is the cure for my workaholism, because I was not going to let that go on my own. It’s been nearly eighteen months since I got sick, and then failed to completely recover from it. My first experience of chronic fatigue lasted thirteen months and then I got well. Maybe subconsciously I was holding onto the belief that that would happen again, especially with all the ways I am being proactive and that my energy does improve when I look after myself. But that is unlikely to happen this time…it is for life, not just for Christmas, as they say. In football, it is the last ten minutes of the game, when you are so very tired because you have given it all you have, but you have to dig even deeper to keep it going to that final whistle…you don’t want to lose the match at this point! It is where I am on my journey with ME/CFS and with God. I’ve accepted this gift horse and I’m looking in its mouth and not liking what I see, maybe even struggling with it sometimes, and I know that those dark clouds of despairing or anxious fear are swirling around in the distance. It’s like the Battle of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where they createe a defence bubble around the school that keeps Voldermort’s army at bay, but it starts to dismantle as the dark forces continue to attack it. I’m in Hogwarts, protected, but watching that protection begin to disintegrate.
There is another image from my prayer that plays alongside this one though: I’m sitting in the deep calm of the storm, leaning against Jesus, as it all swirls around above us. Both of these images for me are spiritual consolation. It might seem strange to say that about the first image because I mentioned fear, but when we apply some useful discernment questions here it will show what I mean.
Where is it coming from?
Where is it leading to?
In the Hogwart’s image, even in the midst of a community taking a stand against evil and working together for the common good, I am relying on my own magic power to protect me from the forces of darkness which are driving me into spiritual desolation:
I call desolation…as darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination towards 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.
I may be in the quiet centre of the dome, but without God, with only our own power, the safety shield crumbles and the darkness comes flooding in and I am afraid and overwhelmed. In my imagination I oscillate between both images. In the storm image, I am leaning on Jesus and the quiet centre is more than quiet, it is serene and safe. It is spiritual consolation:
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 ones soul by filling it with peace and quiet in it creator and Lord.
For me, to flip between these two images is no accident. It is like being shown desolation and consolation side by side in similar, but different images. Ignatius says of being in desolation:
When one is in desolation, he should be mindful that God has left him to his natural powers to to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy in order to try him. He can resist with the help of God, which always remains, though he may not clearly perceive it.
I do not believe that this desolation is where I am, although I can definitely feel the pull of it at times and I am guarding against it. The second image of the storm is explicitly inviting me to lean on Him, to discern the movements of spirits within me, to not try to rely all on my own strength or determination. And so I come back to the Principle and Foundation of the Exercises and the room of indifference:
Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honour to dishonour, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.
The essence of looking a gift horse in the mouth is to see its age. I guess the discouragement in doing so is in finding out that we have been given an old nag – a negative judgement of the gift. Where does it lead? Ingratitude. What if we were to accept the gift horse as a gift, regardless of what is in its mouth? I learned from the Spiritual Exercises that sorrow is a grace: uncomfortable for sure, but grace nevertheless. So, I’m looking at what spiritual desolation and spiritual consolation look like in this space and as I acknowledge my swirling emotions, I imagine myself in the quiet of the storm leaning against Jesus. I am not praying for healing from ME/CFS because I recognise it as the gift of healing of workaholism that I asked for so fervently and for so long, and believe me, that has not gone. Instead, I am praying for indifference in those “enough already” moments and serenity when I see those swirling dark clouds, knowing that He is here with me and I am leaning on Him.
I’ve been thinking a lot about angels in the last few months, ever since I prayed with “Pray as You go” on the feast of the Archangels. on September 29. I’ve been pondering angels ever since, and every time they are mentioned my ears have pricked up.
My understanding is that angels are messengers of God and since I am of the opinion that regular people can and do convey messages from and of God, it equates that people might be regarded as angels in a sense, when they are fuflifilling such a purpose. In fact, I say it out loud to people, and I am not half joking. I might say:
You are an angel disguised as a student/daughter/friend/colleague.
Try it some time – it really brings a smile to their face to hear it.
Where am I coming from with this?
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
The Book of Tobit, of which I am so fond, has it as a fundamental premise. How would it have been if Tobias had been obnoxious to the stranger he hired to guide him (the Archangel Raphael)? It seems to me to be a good rule of thumb.
When my youngest was little, perhaps around the age of nine, she was having a tough time at school with some bullying. I’d given her a notebook to use as a journal so that she could vent and get it out of her head. Things tend to spin around in there. She encouraged me to read part of it once when I was helping her to tidy up her room. She had written:
I think my mum is an angel, a real, live, actual angel.
It brought me out in goosebumps and still moves me today when I think about it.
In The Spiritual Exercises, the first exercise of the first week is a contemplation of the angels. A long time ago, when I first became aware that I wanted the do The Spiritual Exercises, I started with this first exercise of the first week. In my defence, I fully admit that I did not know what I was doing. It was really scary. In this exercise we imagine the angels reflecting God’s glory, and how some of them decide to refuse to and they began to turn dark. I’m describing it as I remember it. When I spoke to my gentle and wise spiritual director about it, he advised me to put the book away, that it was a handbook for spiritual directors, and the Exercises were to be done with a spiritual director. How wise he was, I know that now. I regard my director as one of the angels in my life.
It has been a tough year and a bit for me with a lot of upheaval and some dramatic and permanent changes in my life. I resigned from my job as a science teacher – I posted about the day I made that decision, not explicitly, but not subtly either. I started my own business as an Online Chemistry tutor, hoping that it would give me the time and flexibility to do more spirituality work – and it has. After an infection last December, which the ME/CFS specialist believes to be COVID, in spite of the negative test, I am left with this long term, permanent health condition. My mum died at Christmas and honestly, it is the strangest thing in the world not to be calling her today. The thought of calling her has been in my head all day and I’m having to remind myself that she is not there anymore.
The last big period of upheaval in my life was when I was training to be a Spiritual director and when I did the Spiritual Exercises in 2016 and this lastest series of earthquakes seems to be to be a part of the same conversation with God. Is is almost as if we had to allow the dust to settle from the first series of events before we could move on with the next part. As I look back over the last year and a bit, I can see the angels that have helped me on my journey, in practical ways in making my work transition, in drawing me into spiritual work in ways I could never have predicted, and also in the liminal space.
I am thinking of my friend Bill Stebbe who I visited when he was dying. I read the Book of Tobit to him – he had never read it. I have a friend who worked in care homes and has been at the bedside of several people as they died. She talks about the presence she senses as death approaches, even talks to. It makes my hair stand on end and I have asked her to change the subject more that once, lest I start to cry. Yet, when I was reading the Book of Tobit to Bill, I had a sense of Raphael being there, smiling, as he listened to the story of his journey with Tobias. I have it in my head that the little dog in he story is God. I might have picked that up at a lecture I went to a long time ago, but I’m not sure.
In the liminal space, I’m also thinking of my mum. If you can describe a funeral as lovely, it was. I planned it with her a few years ago. She might even have called me an angel when we were finished. We sat down together, chose the hymns she wanted. I had to cut the list down though – she really had too many favourite hymns! But we used some of the ones we cut to inspire the readings for the mass. Three of the grandaughters sang them like angels. She would have loved it – it was everything she wanted and more.
“Being with the angels” is a euphanism we use to say someone has died. Does it make it more gentle? more easy to accept? Is it a comfort? I ask these question genuinely, because I do not know the answers to them. Both the directness of my culture and my scientific background lead me to be matter of fact and use accurate, rather than colloquial language, with no intention to deny, belittle or avoid uncomfortable emotions. People do not know what to say to someone who is grieving and we have developed some appropriate expressions to awkwardly express our sympathy. Sorrow is a grace. We ask for it in the first and third week of the Spiritual Exercises.
I realise that this is a meandering post. I am contemplating the angels and they are a mystery to me. I have no tight ideas. I know I do not like stories that depict them as bad. For example, the film Constantine portrayed Gabriel as twisted; and some of the fantasy books I have read portray them as being just like people but with wings and supernatural powers. Others portray them as servants, maybe even slaves, with no perks, who are envious of humans. And in some of these stories, they seem to be punished severely by being banished from God for what appears to be even a minor expression of desire that is other than what they are perceived to be supposed to be doing. One exception perhaps is Angel-A.
Have we made angels in our own image in the same way we can try to make God in our image? Are we confused because sometimes it is other people who are our messengers from God – nothing apparantly supernatural there? I have no answers here. The only thing that makes any sense is what I experienced in the first Exercise of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises:
…recalling that they were created in the state of grace…
Currently, I have a small stone with the word “serenity” written on it sitting in the palm of this hand. It reminded me of my own definition of serenity, of being conscious and aware of God’s presence no matter what I am doing. The phrase also brought to mind the image of myself, as my inner child Sunflower, while planting in the garden with God, holding the sunflower seeds and contemplating them in awe as it dawned on me that God made me. This memory is from an Imaginative contemplation I made during The Spiritual Exercises when I was praying with Psalm 139, and is a powerful consolation I have stored up, as Ignatius suggests.
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 defence against that day.
The sunflower seeds of course, also remind me of Meister Ekhart who I quote at the top of my blog and the sunflower, of me myself, growing into God. While these thoughts were going round in my head during this prayer, I imagined myself as being curled up in the foetal position and being buried underground, being in a sort of hibernation state, a waiting phase. While contemplating my own creation, because it is what I was contemplating, the meaning behind the images I was dwelling on, I noticed my feelings. I felt so tired and weary, demotivated and lethargic. Quite the opposite of what we envisage by a process of creation. I just wanted to rest and to take refuge in Him. There was definitely turmoil of spirits going on in this prayer:
Then it is characteristic of the evil spirit to harass with anxiety, to afflict with sadness, to raise obstacles backed by fallacious reasonings that disturb the soul. Thus he seeks to prevent the soul from advancing.
Even as my desire was simply to fall into God and remain there, my head was busy berating me for my laziness. I was making lists of everything I had to do and trying to give myself a kick up the backside to just get on with it and at the same time, I was being drawn into self pity because I lacked the energy and the desire to just get on with it. Self pity is something I cannot bear: I do not tolerate it in myself for very long. I knew that prayer was the only time I felt serene and yet I experienced resistance to pray – go figure. It is an ongoing wrestling match within me, by no means something I experienced in the past, it still happens! Nevertheless, I had the sense on Day 3 of my journey that God was not too fussed about me getting on with it, that He was fine with me taking time to rest in Him, and to sleep if I needed to. I settled into the prayer and into serenity.
…everything has been through the love of God…through the love of God…
This phrase struck me in two ways. The first way – which may be how Julian meant it? – was that it was because of the love of God that everything came about. The second meaning was what I understood by it immediately, and it was what I spent the rest of my prayer contemplating. It was “to go through the love of God” in the way that we say we have been through something, usually something traumatic, that has caused a change in us. This was my understanding of the phrase and it led me to ask:
What does it mean to go through the love of God?
It may involve suffering – the cost of discipleship, a well worn phrase. As such, we might expect it to be painful to go through the love of God. When I pin point the places where I have changed as a result of my interactions with God it certainly felt that the painfulness of it was a necessary part of the process. It took me back to various times when I had prayed imaginatively with the Good Samaritan parable. Needless to say, I have always been the poor beaten up soul at the side of the road and He has always been the one to come and rescue me and to take me to a safe, comfortable place. In retrospect, even though I was unaware of it at the time, these points were threshhold moments in my life and things changed irresversibly from these moments on.
At the end of this first prayer with Day 3 of the Journey, I found myself resting in God, in spite of the difficulties and pressures of my life or maybe because of them. It was the best place to be and I was serene.
On the second day of prayer with Day 3 I was drawn by the psalm fragment and what caught my attention was the phrase:
I was very distracted again at the beginning of this prayer, there was a lot of noise in my head. However, when I became aware of the distractions and my thoughts wandering, I brought my attention back to the phrase that had caught me and I was able to let go of the other voices and thoughts and to not hold onto them. I may have fallen asleep during this prayer – although I do not think that I did. I may have been so still that I lost all track of time. I love it when prayer is like that, the eternal moment. I remember feeling amazed, awed. And I asked Him:
Who am I that you are mindful of me?
I felt myself being pulled more deeply into Him, and His response was personal and intimate. St Augustine says:
God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.
He made me feel like I was the only person in the world. In Revelations of Divine Love, Julian says:
This human example was so powerfully shown, that a man’s heart could be ravished and he could be beside himself with joy at this great friendliness.
Well, it has been a while since my last reflection, when I was writing about the need to reform my manner of living to take in the new state of being I find myself in. I have been on a discernment journey in this time. I continued working too hard for a while; I completed an activity journal for a week for the ME/CFS service and I went on retreat. I arrived at St. Beunos completely exhausted and it took about three days for my energy to even begin to pick up on the retreat so that I could walk up to the labyrinth there. I wrestled with myself on that retreat. The director suggested prayer with the passage where Jacob wrestles with the angel, since she thought I might be wrestling with God, but I knew it was myself I was fighting, not God.
The movement to accept my new limitations with this health condition had centred around the Principle and Foundation of The Exercises, as I described previously, around the grace of indifference.
…we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things…we should not prefer health to sickness…our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we were created.
And I oscillated about this point of indifference for a while. During my retreat however, something else began to happen, a different movement. I came out of my retreat perceiving that this long term health condition as a gift. Let me explain – because I am not being all idealistic and mushy here, and to see it as such is difficult and challenging. Nevertheless, it connects with Step 7, and humbly asking God to remove our shortcomings.
I have said before that I can be a bit work obsessed, and I have used the term “workaholic” frequently to describe myself. The teaching profession as it is today in the UK is conducive to bringing out the worst of the workaholic in anyone. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could survive teaching without being like that. I have seen too many good teachers buckle under the unreasonable demands, and perhaps I include myself in this group too.
I associated the River Meditation that I did during The Exercises and I used in my Positive Penance Retreat days with a conversation with God where it was understood we were talking about work. I was standing in the river in front of an outflow pipe and a black sludge, like crude oil – toxic and carcinogenic – was coming out of it. There were students I teach behind me, and I was tryng to block the black slime from getting to them. It was making me sick. And I could not stop it all, because some of it still flowed around my body and reached them. I could not protect them from the poison. At the time, my sense of it from God was:
We need to have a conversation about work sometime, but not yet. We have other things to deal with first.
Five months later, I got glandular fever and my first experience of chronic fatigue syndrome. One day, driving home from school and struggling, there was a moment when it occurred to me, and I said it out loud to Him:
One day I will look back and recognise that this is the moment I decided to leave teaching.
It is as St. Ignatius describes a 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…
From there, my desire to leave the teaching profession increased. I prayed for a slower pace, to have time to breathe and to pray, to be still and not so over worked. My sense on retreat was that this prayer was being answered here and now, at this point in my life. It is one of those be careful what you wish for moments, or as I read once:
It is laudable to ask God for what we desire, and dangerous.
In The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius talks about Exterior and Interior Penance: we can act from the interior movement within us or our actions can effect the change within us. Either way, the practice of penance is a serious expression of our desire for freedom from our inordinate desires that lead us away from God into spiritual desolation. People laugh when I say that I have to actively rest several times a day and that it is a real penance, but it is. I have been overworking for too many years and wearing my workaholism like a badge, a joke – something that is not to be taken too seriously. My soul has also been praying from release from this compulsion since that day in the car, perhaps even longer than that. I have been working Step 7 in this context for a while now, humbly asking Him to remove this shortcoming. In the few months I have already been self employed, it has become clear that I am not able to free myself from it and that here is some Divine Intervention: ME/CFS is a gift in the sense that it is freeing me from my workaholism compulsion and it is an answer to my prayers. It is not a piece of cake, it is penance – there is a part of me wrestling with sitting and resting several times a day, that is impatient to be cycling or walking around, even doing housework! There is also relief and gratitude too, I do not have to push so hard any more, I can let it go. This week, as I recorded my guided prayers for Radio Maria, I felt it acutely.
In Pray as you go this morning they used the Gospel passage, and asked if there are things you have heard Jesus say, perhaps this week, that you have found hard to accept and they asked how you have dealt with that.
Step 7 seems deceptively simple on the face of it, we humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings like it is all we have to do and then to wait to be released from them. When He answers our prayer and it may not be the light and fluffy answer we envisaged when we asked. It may be difficult and painful and we have to work through it with the support of others. It is a gift nevertheless.
My dear old mum is ninety and recently fell over and broke her hip – a common injury in people of her age. I visited her a few weeks ago, once the lock down restrictions on travel were lifted and stayed for a week. Suffice to say, she is struggling a bit and has suffered loneliness during the long months of lock down. It was nice to be there with her, even if the conversations circled round every ten or twenty minutes and the ever constant television was awful. We talked about our faith naturally enough. One of our conversations was around why God lets or makes things happen. She is a very traditional Catholic of her generation and not given to questioning perceptions and images of God handed down in the popular culture. I am not going to change that. With a certain lightness of tone, I told her that I thought it was quite simple. If we want what God wants for us then God will always give us what we want. I am aware that it sounds flippant. I centred it around the the structure of the Ignatian prayer period I use in the guided prayers. It goes like this: I ask that all my intentions and actions be directed purely to His service and praise as preparation: I place myself in His gaze and become aware of myself there to get a sense of how He is looking at me; I then contemplate His desire for me, before I ask for my desire. This order is deliberate. I ask for grace in response to His desire for me. If He is asking me to have that difficult conversation with the friend or sister who has offended me, I might ask for the grace of courage or compassion to enable me to open the conversation to make it right, and to forgive the harm that was caused.
Here I am now, a few weeks on, being challenged with this very idea. I have been feeling quite tired for a while now – since before Christmas in fact, and in a conversation with someone recently it dawned on me that it was since the last time I was ill, at the beginning of December. You may have noticed the frequency of my reflections and other posts has declined in this time. It is not all about the fact that I am setting up as a self employed online Chemistry tutor, alongside my spiritual direction work. After some normal blood test results I was finally diagnosed with ME/CFS last week. The doctor is certain that the illness I had in December was in fact COVID, even though my own test was negative, since some of my close colleagues had it, and it is this that has triggered the ME/CFS. I would not be honest if I denied that I was a bit gutted about that. I experienced it before, five years ago after glandular fever. It brings into play a conversation with God during the Spiritual Exercises during the River meditation I used in the Positive Penance Retreat Day. It raises that age old question about God allowing disease, and it would be easy to be filled with self pity. Is this really what God desires? And therefore, is this what I desire?
I am reminded of the Principe and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises:
…we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things…we should not prefer health to sickness…our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we were created.
When I put myself here, back into the Room of Indifference I found during my experience of the Spiritual Exercises, my inner dynamic changes. As a human being, I am limited and I feel pain, tiredness and I get sick. Here, I am still limited, it is just that those limitations have changed. Ignatius talks about different ways we can make a choice in our lives, and he also talks about how to live well within our situation when our freedom to choose is limited. He says:
It will be very profitable for such persons…in place of a choice, to propose a way for each to reform his manner of living in his state by setting before him the purpose of his creation and of his life and position, namely the glory and praise of God our Lord…
It raises, not the paralysing question of why does God let these things happen, but the more pertinent question of how do I reform my manner of living within my new limitations so that it praises, reverences and serves God? From shifting my focus from wanting to be well and healthy to what is God’s desire for me in this – in this moment, in this day and at this point in my life – as I say in my guided prayers, my attitude changes. I let go of self pity and my trust in Him deepens. I make it sound easy: I know that it is not. I experience fear and uncertainty just as everyone else does, and I yearn for that carefree exertion and freedom of cycling out for the day to visit a church and pray with the Pray As You Go app as I have done in the past with my Holy Trinity Cycling Tours. But the movement within me is real. What is God’s desire for me now, in this moment, in this prayer, in this day and at this point in my life? That is what I desire. It is as it was before ME/CFS, and it is as it is now with ME/CFS. The specifics might be different, but the Principle and Foundation remains.
Going forward, my posts may be shorter or less frequent, or both. They might even be less tidy and contain more mistakes – sorry, brain fog is an ME/CFS thing. I am no longer living as if I will get better tomorrow but I am looking at a way to reform my manner of living in this state, as if this is my state in life. I will still be writing and probably more frequently than I have been, because now I know I can manage my energy better. He would still have me tell my story and share my journey. Thank you for following me this far.
The wonderful thing about Step 6 is that it does not demand that we do anything about our defects yet. That can feel like such a relief when this one sinks in a bit deeper because we might be labouring under the sense that now the exact nature of our wrongs are on the table as it were, we are obliged to do something about them. This step slows down that process. No, we are not required to take action to remove our defects, the process is to be ready to allow God to remove them – in God’s own time. All we are is aware of them, and open and ready for God to work in us to remove them. What that looks like in practice will depend on the situation, our particular defect and probably many other facors we can only guess at.
I am reminded of A Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Far be it for me to be critical of a respected work of English Christian Literature, but I just could not get on with that book. I joke that is was too puritanical for me, but that is not a joke, it actually is. Bunyan was a Puritan, I am not. My problem with it is in the essence of Step 6. There is the point in the book where Christian, the Prilgrim, meets with the Saviour of the world. But then, Jesus disappears again, and leaves the Pilgrim to walk the rest of this dangerous journey on his own, under his own steam, using his own strength and talents. I guess this part was supposed to represent the Ascension, but to me it felt a bit like being left to my own devices, and woe betide me if I strayed off the path, that was all my own fault and I would get what I deserved! In short, it felt punitive, that God is distant, abstract: watching and critical, waiting to see if I measured up, judgemental. It is not how I experience Him.
I am much more of that fractious child, who wriggles in His arms and squeals to be put down. So He does and I run off to make a mess and get myself into all sorts of trouble I can’t get out of. When I run back to Him crying and scared, He scoops me up and holds me close to Him: no scolding, just safety. This image is some of the fruit of my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich.
Sometimes, when I hear people talking about their prayer, I frequently hear the phrases:
God wants me to…
And I ask:
How do you know it was God?
It is not that I doubt their experience, I ask myself the same question. Discernment is a process whereby we come to recognise the authentic voice of God amongst the cacophony of all the voices and noise we hear. We cannot necessarily assume it is God because the voice speaking says it is. How easily the deceiver could deceive us if that was all it took. It is a question of responsibilty. There is a danger of misinterpreting the Step 6 and thinking we can sit back and leave it up to God to sort it out, be passive if you like. I think that is why I also raise the question of whose voice is it we are listening to. Is this person moving through life, not being an active agent in it, where things happen to them and it is interpreted as being what God wants? It is the opposite extreme to the puritanical attitude of the Pilgrim’s Progress, where I am in complete control of my own salvation and it is all down to me.
In “Breathing Under Water”, Richard Rohr attaches an analogy of the chicken and egg to Step 6. He says:
It first recognises that we have to work to see our many resistances, excuses and blockages, but then we have to fully acknowledge that God alone can do the “removing”! But which should come first grace or responsibility? The answer is that both come first.
It is an interesting question. Ignatius questions, but does not assume, that a lack of effort on our part might be responsible for the “non-production” of God. He encourages spiritual directors to explore with their directees:
When the one who is giving the Exercises perceives that the exercitant is not affected by any spiritual experiences, such as consolations or desolations, and that he is not troubled by different spirits, he ought to ply him with questions about the exercises. He should ask him whether he makes them at the appointed times, and how he makes them. He should question him about the Additional Directions, whether he is diligent in the observance of them. He will demand an account in detail of each one of these points
In the Rules for Discernment, he gives three reasons why we might suffer from spiritual desolation:
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 questioning of the director in what “efforts” the directee is making is merely an exploration of possible reasons for the apparant “absence of God”. The dark night of the soul is recognised in itself as being profound spiritual consolation, however painful it might be to the person experiencing it. It is not my own personal experience, but people have told me of it being theirs. As Rohr has suggested and implict in what St. Ignatius is saying, both our efforts and grace are involved in the encounter with God and in making Step 6. Richard Rohr goes on to talk about paradox.
Almost all spirituality has a paradoxical character to it, which is why the totally rational or dualistic mind invariably misses the point, and just calls things it does not understand wrong, heresy or stupid.
I love paradox; how you can be neither and both at the same time. One of the books I have read that has deeply influenced me is The Way of Paradox by Cyprian Smith, which is about the spiritual life as taught by Meister Eckhart. If you are on your toes, you will know that the quote at the top of my blog is from Meister Eckhart. I loved this book. I understood some of it, but by no means all of what I read. It might be time for a re-read, after Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. Smith says of Ekhart’s spiritual way:
Two apparantly opposed realities will be brought by him into clashing confrontation until the dualism separating them is transcended and their underlying unity emerges like sunlight after rain.
Like sunlight after rain…seriously, what a beautiful, evocative image of the spiritual struggle. It describes perfectly, the battle of the Step 6. But battle is the wrong word, it is tai chi, yin and yang: softness is the necessity, not hardness.
This swinging rhythm or oscillation between unlike poles, breathing in and breathing out, speaking and remaining silent, doing and resting is the basic rhythm of the spiritual life, and it is only within that rhythm that we can know God, experience Him, think and talk about Him.
From my own experience of making the Spiritual exercises, and from listening to people as a spiritual director, I notice that in this part of the Exercises, there is an oscillation about this point of indifference, and we do not remain there once we have experienced it. It is but a moment, what I would describe as an eternal moment, because the consolation in receiving this grace remains in the felt memory of the soul and is stored up to be called upon when we are in desolation and troubled by the turmoil of spirits. I have referred to this practice before.
To me, the essence of Step 6 is in the principle and foundation, and in the end of the first week of the Exercises, moving into the Second Week. We have acknowledged our disordered attachments and our powerlessness over them, and we have become willing to learn more about where God would lead us into freedom from them. Here, I will let Cyrpian Smith sum up the journey:
But to learn to pour out while remaining inwardly detached, to be at once in movement and in repose, is largely what the spiritual life is about: to the extent that we have learned that we are true Persons, true images of God, true sharers in the swirling, glowing, energetic life of the Trinity. To live like that also means to be untiring, for it brings about accumulation, not loss, of energy.
It brought back memories of the River meditation I had done during the First Week of The Spiritual Exercises, when contemplating the sinfulness of the world. I had been in the process of planning my Positive Penance Retreat day when I was praying with Day 2, so perhaps it is not surprising that this meditation was in my mind, since I was using it on my retreat day.
During and since the Exercises, I have understood that my experience of this imaginative contemplation was a conversation with God about my work. It was as if He said:
We need to have a conversation about your work, but there are more pertinent things to deal with first.
As I notice the dates in my prayer journal now, my part one and part two of praying with Day 2 of the Journey straddle a meeting I had in my job which caused a shift in my perspective and from that moment, the writing on the wall was bright and clear, no longer invisible. Sure, it took a bit longer to make the actual decision, and then a bit longer for it to happen, but it did happen and I am living that decision now.
In the Quesions to Ponder section of the Journey, Lisa Dahil asks:
What images of Jesus’ crucifixion – scriptural, musical, or artistic – are most familiar to you? Do these images readily speak to you of love, as they do to Julian? Why or why not?
I did not find that question so easy, and I am glad she introduced the possibility of it not speaking of love, because my experience of it was both. In thinking about the standard wooden crucifix with a metal Jesus on it, I have to acknowledge a sense of horror at the torture, oppression and martyrdom. Not just the horror of what was done to Jesus, but there is a sense of irredeemable guilt and sometimes a sense of looking at it and experiencing a feeling of emotional blackmail whenever I am not being as good as I “should” be:
Look at how I suffered for you, and you cannot even do this for me?
I recognise this voice as not being of God, of how it is used to exert power and control. It is fallacious reasoning that demands an account from us, which tells us we are not good enough and it cuts us off from the sense of God’s love that Julian is talking about. We spend time in the Principle and Foundation of The Exercises coming to recognise how we are loved by God, because without knowing God’s love for us deeply, facing the full reality of our sinfulness in the First Week might just be too much to cope with.
Another response I had to this image was of anger: anger at the injustice of what was done to Him. I also felt shame and confusion that sinfulness and hatred could have any small moment of triumph, and that people can be so fickle and can be turned so easily by lies. I find that frightening. Dahill states:
For Julian, Jesus’ death is not an appeasement of God’s wrath.
I do not think I have ever seen it as God’s wrath, more the wrath of humanity. I mentioned shame and confusion, noticing that this is the grace of the First Week of The Spiritual Exercises.
Here it will be to ask for shame and confusion because I see how many have been lost on account of a single mortal sin, and how many times I have deserved eternal damnation, because of the many grievous sins that I have committed.
Then there was the other side to my conflicting emotions on praying with the material for Day 2. I imagined myself stepping into Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. In the Divine Dance, Richard Rohr tells that in Rublev’s orignal artwork, there was a mirror, which invited us to join in, to take a place within God. Julian says:
It is here that I connected with the Love she is talking about. A sense of falling at His feet, of being Veronica and wiping the blood from His face. I am struck by Mel Gibson’s film of The Passion, and how, amidst the violence and the gore, there are moments of tenderness, where Jesus is seen, and those who see Him are seen by Him. It seems to me that He draws strength from those who love Him, and whom He loves. When I was praying with His passion in the Third Week of the Exercises, it was a feature of my imaginative contemplations that the moments of connection with those who loved Him and walked with Him as He made this journey, were significant in strengthening Him so that He could fulfill His task. It was in this sense of raw openness that I understood something of the love that Julian was conveying in her description. His response to my conflicting emotions:
I am Love. Never fear, I am always here, even there.
There was a movement in me through praying Day 2 of the Journey. I noticed the changes that were taking place in my life. They seemed such small changes, but in reflecting futher back I was able to recognise how far and by how much those small things had resulted in quite big shifts.
I know this is Your doing. You have answered me. Thank you.
My response to Psalm 118:22
Sometimes in prayer, what we are talking about is not what we are talking about. While I was contemplating Julian’s image of the crucifix and experiencing conflicting emotions within me, I moved from fear to experiencing the Trinity as my bliss; an eternal moment of being lost in God, where everything disappeared and there was only God. Nothing else mattered. What I was left with afterwards was a clear sense of where and how God was with me constantly in my life, where growth was happening and my own gratitude for His presence and love.