Labyrinth Garden

Labyrinth Garden 1: Reading of this post.

Abundance. That is the word that comes to mind whenever I go out into my garden. It is so abundant in fact, that I simply cannot keep up with it! It reminds me of a scene from “The Shack” where Mack goes into the garden to talk to Sarayu (The Holy Spirit):

Labyrinth Garden 2: Reading of this post.

I have not always been a gardener. It is something I have picked up out of necessity in the last few years. I dug over the top third of my back garden about four years ago, thinking that if I planted a wild flower garden, it would take care of itself a bit, that I would not have so much grass to cut and it would make life a bit easier. I could not have been more wrong! The first year was absolutely splendid – and I missed a lot of the summer being away doing The Spiritual Exercises. After that, I was ill for about a year and nettles encroached, trying to reclaim it for themselves. I spent the last two years claiming it back, and this year has been maintenance, in that respect.

I have learned a lot in my time spent in the garden. The first, and most important lesson I learned is that I am not in control of it. I may have gone out there with a plan, but in no way has it happened the way that I thought it would. There are plants I have not seen since the first year I planted them – the scarlet pimpernel, for example. Such beautiful little flowers, I see why they are called elusive.

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.

Sir Percy Blakeney, Baronet (ch.12); The Scarlet Pimpernel Baroness Orczy

I discovered during that first year that the best time to catch them with the flowers open was mid morning, so I took to taking my coffee break (I still call it that, even though I now limit my one coffee a day to breakfast time) at the top of the garden, looking for the scarlet pimpernel.

Scarlet Pimpernel – close up from the Spiritual Direction Mandala.
Labyrinth Garden 3: Reading of this post.

I generally left things alone for a while, to see what they would do, and I gradually became able to discern the difference between a plain old bramble, a raspberry and a blackberry. I did not plant any of these, but, there they were, in abundance. I am not so cavalier as Sarayu in removing things; in fact, I am as shocked as Mack is at the way she attacks that flower bed with such gusto, and I am tentative, but gradually becoming less so, about uprooting plants in my garden.

The strategy of waiting to see has paid off though. In the first year, as I was walking down the lanes near my house, I noticed some thistles growing on the verge at the side of the road. Being my national flower, I am quite partial to thistles, but I did not recall ever seeing their seeds on sale in the garden shops, and I wondered how I might get some in my garden. A few weeks later, I was sitting on the bench in the wild flower garden and I noticed that that spiky plant I had left alone was a big thistle and it was in flower. This was the second thing that I learned about gardening, that you get presented with many unexpected gifts. My garden has been growing trees – from scratch. As far as I can identify, beeches, hornbeam, black poplar and elderflower. These are challenging, problematic gifts because there is not the space for them there, from their perspective and mine, but what to do about it? I sat on that problem for months, until I noticed that some of them were lined nicely and could form a hedge, delineating the footpaths I have been putting in to prayer spots at the edges. I moved some of the others to form a little grove, leading to a meditation point, and I am coppicing them to form a hedge. I only lost three out of sixteen that I moved. I also planted some sunflowers in the first year, and those were glorious.

Spiritual Direction Mandala
Labyrinth Garden 4: Reading of this post.

This was always meant to be a conversation between friends.

Why am I telling you about my garden? Some of you experienced gardeners might even be shaking your heads thinking:

What is she talking about? She really doesn’t know much about gardening.

And you would be absolutely correct to think so. But I am not really talking about gardening: I am talking about the spiritual journey. Sometimes in our spiritual lives, something begins to emerge, fresh shoots, and we may not know what it is at first. It is like the darnel and the wheat, or in my case, the brambles, the raspberries and the blackberries, the thistles and the trees. God gives graces and gifts freely. Some of these, we desire, and maybe do not even know that we desire them -for me, the thistles. Some of these gifts and graces may be problematic, and we have to sit with them, to work through what it is He is giving, and what He would have us do with them – the trees. Some may be gifts we deliberately asked for, but we have to simply be, and at the right time, in the right place, we will notice their flowering – the scarlet pimpernel. And the sunflowers? Sometimes He gives exactly what we ask for and in the most generous and exuberant way. There are also times to uproot what was there before, even if it seems good, in order to prepare the ground for new growth. We may see a mess on the ground, but from the viewpoint of God, as Sarayu says, of the garden and of us:

Wild, wonderful and perfectly in process.

The mandala I have featured here is an assignment I did in the second year of my formation as a Spiritual Director. I have added the assignment as a page in its own right. It is too long to include everything I have learned since my initiation to gardening. As a celebration, particularly relevant since the churches have opened again in the United Kingdom this weekend, I offer this joyful prayer, featuring some of God’s abundant gifts as they appear in my garden.

When was it that we saw you?

Keith Duke, Christmas Poor
When was it that we saw you? 1: Reading of this post

I have been pondering the line between self protection and self sacrifice this week. My dad was a generous man: it was said of him that he would give you the shirt off his back, that he was generous to a fault. He also had his own demons. These are traits that run in my family.

I brought my eldest home from the flat she was staying in this week because she had incurred the wrath of the residents who live in the flats around their communal, gated courtyard. She has a generous, loving and compassionate heart, a gift for ironic sarcasm, especially when she has had some Dutch courage, and she has more than enough of her own demons to fight. They did not like that she had invited a homeless person in through the gate to let him shower in her flat, while she washed his clothes and gave him some clean ones to wear. When he was challenged by one of the residents on leaving, he was impolite and they later rounded on my daughter like a pack of wolves. As I said, she has a gift for ironic sarcasm and did no more than add fuel to the blaze already burning.

In God of Surprises, Gerard W. Hughes writes an uncomplimentary reference for a Mr E. Manuel who has been applying for the priesthood. It it he says:

Three years ago he gave up his job and took to the road, returning occasionally with an unsavoury group of companions…a man can be judged by the friends he keeps.

God of Surprises, Gerard W. Hughes

Jesus, and His unsavoury group of companions; how He encourages us to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile. In the Spiritual Exercises, on the Three Kinds of Humilty, St. Ignatius says of the third kind:

This is the most perfect kind of humility. It consists in this. If we suppose the first and second kind attained, then whenever the praise and glory of the Divine Majesty would be equally served, in order to imitate and be in reality more like Christ our Lord, 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
Bodwellian Castle
When was it that we saw you? 2: Reading of this post

In the Rules for Discernment, on the way the enemy works Ignatius also says:

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

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

And in “The Me I Want to Be”, John Ortberg comments that our signature sin is born from our greatest virtues, it is just pulled a few degrees off course. He says:

The pattern of your sin is related to the pattern of your gifts.

John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be
When was it that we saw you?3a: Reading of this post

These are the ideas swirling within me as I contemplate my daughter’s predicament, and her sensitivity to the hostility she has provoked by her actions and by her response to the hostility they provoked. It is not for me to tell her what she should do, or what she should have done. I can see where her castle wall was unprotected and I feel a deep sorrow and compassion for the suffering she experiences. I also see the grace in what moved her to act the way she did in the first place. She always shows empathy to the homeless person on the street and helps in whatever way she is able. She knows many of the homeless in the city by name, she looks them in the eye and speaks to them as friends, because she understands the saying:

There but for the grace of God go I.

Christ of Maryknoll
When was it that we saw you? 3b Reading of this post

There is a line between self protection and self sacrifice. I do not always know where to draw it for myself, I do not think my dad knew where to draw it either, and I believe it to be also true of my daughter. God inhabits that space. My daughter may be looking for a new place to live, and the homeless man? He apologised, and was gutted, that his impolite response to the resident who challenged him had rebounded on her. In addition, because he had been able to get cleaned up, he managed to get himself a job after leaving her flat. What else can I say, other than that I am proud of her?

How well have you loved?” 

“Lord, why did you tell me to love? 

I have tried, but I come back to you, frightened… 

Lord, I was so peaceful at home, I was so comfortably settled. 

I was alone, I was at peace.”  

“When men came into you, 

I, your God, 

Slipped in among them.”  

Prayers of Life, Michel le Quoist

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter 1: Reading of this post.

Some years ago, I was standing in a queue to pay for some items in a shop and the man standing behind me started to chat in a friendly way, as sometimes people do. He looked a bit rough and ready, and I say that at the risk of sounding like a judgemental snob, but I chatted politely, as you do, to strangers in a shop queue. That is, until he started, explicitly, to spew out derogatory racial stereotypes about black people. I was shocked. I was so shocked that I froze like a rabbit in headlights, I am ashamed to say. I could not believe what I was hearing. I stood there with my mouth open and my chin on the floor, floundering like a fish, sweating and shifting uncomfortably until I was able to move away from him. And I was so angry with myself as I left the shop. I felt that I had really let down the friends that I had spent the previous evening with, who happened to be black. Big Boy Bloater and the Limits sum up what I wish I had said (except for the line about once thinking you were cool):

Black Lives Matter 2: Reading of this post.

It probably sounds naive, I know, I am cringing even as I remember it. I was a university student in the nineteen eighties, when the anti-apartheid sanctions were imposed on South Africa, and there was the campaign to free Nelson Mandela. Racism was being seriously challenged as a social issue. It was just not the done thing to express racist sentiments, or to even think them. The awareness and angst among my friends was that pehaps we were inherantly racist and that was why we did not have any black friends, or even know anyone who was black.

I am fortunate that in my days as a PhD student, I went to a conference held by the Catholic Student Council, and there was a young black woman there I became quite friendly with over the course of the week – amazing singer, she was leading the singing in the daily liturgies. I remember a conversation with her about all of this angst I was feeling, that I might be a closest racist because I did not have any friends that were black. She smiled gently and reassured me that it was probably because I had not had much opportunity socialise with people who were black, and that my awareness and angst about the possibility that I would be, made me less likely to discriminate against someone because of their race. She did not placate me, or deny that it was possible. For me, that is important because when our thoughts and actions are moving us away from God, Ignatius says that the good spirit:

…making use of the light of reason, he will rouse the sting of conscience and fill them with remorse.

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

and when the direction of our lives is towards God, he says:

It is characteristic of the good spirit, however, to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations, and peace. This He does by making all easy, by removing all obstacles so that the soul goes forward in doing good.

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

And I notice that I drew strength and encouragement from the conversation with that inspirational young woman.

I remember witnessing a similar, and very powerful, conversation in school. I ran an extra curricular discussion group for high achieving students and I invited my friend, one of the the ones I had been out with the evening prior to the unfortunate incident with the man in the shop queue. He had been involved in organising the events for Black History Month, and had spoken at the launch event. He sat there with these young students, and talked about racism, the Brixton riots in the eighties, folk devils…all manner of things, and they asked questions. They expressed the same fears that I had done, years before them, and asked him why, if the “n” word was so vile as they had been taught, then why did black singers use it in their music? And my friend educated them, and as he did, I saw them relax, to be less stressed, and to be able to ask everything they felt would be offensive to ask in a different context. Through my connection with him, a couple of those students were able to attend the Nelson Mandela 90th birthday concert – and they had an assignment on leadership to do for it, and others, specifically black students, had the opportunity to spend some time with black professionals in leadership positions in the local community, to raise the aspirations of these talented students beyond what they might think was possible for them.

Sign on the grass on The Pottergate in Norwich. No longer there.
Black Lives Matter 3: Reading of this post.

I , like others, had some concern about the protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, which are taking place in the time of the pandemic. Not because I disagree with the protests, I see the need for them. I once read a quote somewhere, but I am unable to find the exact quote, or who said it (not even on the internet!), which expressed the sentiment that protest was a valid means of expressing dissatisfaction when other means had been exhausted. Sikhism expresses something similar in terms of the sword, but it is not that I read.

My concern was that black and ethnic minority people are dis-proportionally affected by the coronavirus, whether those reasons are socioeconomic and/or genetic – I have not read of any clear evidence that it is only the former, the questions are being asked – and therefore, these mass protests were more risky than usual for the black and ethnic minorities taking part in them, and their families. I accept the point that that in itself, shows the strength of feeling, the importance of it, that it is a watershed moment. Then I read, and saw pictures, of the BLM protest in Eaton park in Norwich, where protesters went out in the rain, wearing face masks and bent the knee, maintaining the safe distance of the recommended two metres; similarly for the main protest at The Forum. I was, and I am still, deeply moved and I felt awe: yes, there it is, due respect for the disease that is killing people and care for our collective social responsibility to minimise that risk, together with the challenge to the structural, social and personal sin of racism. Taking the knee is a powerful statement.

Norwich Evening News
Black Lives Matter 4: Reading of this post.

I am also disgusted with, but not really surprised by, Dominic Raab’s unintelligent insensitivity this week when he said:

On this taking the knee thing, I don’t know, maybe it’s got a broader history, it seems to be taken from the Game of Thrones. It feels to me like a symbol of subjugation and subordination rather than one of liberation and emancipation, but I understand people feel differently about it so it’s a matter of personal choice.

Dominic Raab, Talk Radio

Arrogant, proud, white privilege in action; denial and making light of the legitimate concerns of a large number of people, not just in the United Kingdom, but across the world. Catholic social teaching says on The Dignity of the Human Person:

12) The Catholic social vision has as its focal point the human person, the clearest reflection of God among us. Scripture tells us that every human being is made in the image of God. God became flesh when he entered the human race in the person of Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Christ challenges us to see his presence in our neighbour, especially the neighbour who suffers or who lacks what is essential to human flourishing. In relieving our neighbour’s suffering and meeting our neighbour’s needs, we are also serving Christ. For the Christian, therefore, there can be no higher privilege and duty.

13) We believe each person possesses a basic dignity that comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment, not from race or gender, age or economic status. The test therefore of every institution or policy is whether it enhances or threatens human dignity and indeed human life itself.

The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching

And:

39) Catholic Social Teaching sees an intimate relationship between social and political liberation on the one hand, and on the other, the salvation to which the Church calls us in the name of Jesus Christ…

40)… requires the transformation of an unjust social order; and one of its primary tasks is to oppose and denounce such injustices.

The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching

And this same document suggests that it is Not an optional teaching:

41) All Catholic citizens need an informed “social conscience” that will enable them to identify and resist structures of injustice in their own society.

The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching

The Common Good statement from the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales in 1996, urges us to challenge the structures of sin in our society. Racism exists: it exists in attitudes and structures. For white privilege to deny it is to display the planks of wood in our eyes. We are also guilty of the sins of our fathers if we refuse to acknowledge them, or if we minimise them with the “All lives matter” retort. Of course all lives matter, it is what has already been said. The reason it has to be stated explicitly that “Black Lives Matter” is because implicit racism in society implies that they do not, and it is disingenuous to nullify the emphasis with a trite response. The first step to healing is to listen, to acknowledge the truth in it, and to ask forgiveness and make amends. Dominic Raab may have thought that he was being witty and clever, but he displayed only arrogance and contempt.

Part of an Art Installation in London, on Wilberforce and the Abolition of Slavery in the UK.

William Wilberforce is a better role model. He listened and he learned; he showed constancy in challenging the slave act and tenacity, as he and his fellow campaigners sought to win hearts and minds in order that this evil could be abolished. So must we.

Black Lives Matter 5: Reading of this post.

On taking the knee? Yes, I will take the knee to express my solidarity and my respect for the Black Lives Matter movement and the campaign against racism. Is it an act of subjugation and subordination, as Raab says? Perhaps it is, but when that subjugation and subordination is to the One of whom St. Augustine says:

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.

St. Augustine

I do not have an issue with it being so. I will end with Amazing Grace once more, as my prayer. And I’m going to watch this inspiring film again tonight, while I do my ironing.

Salt and Light

Salt and Light 1: Reading of this post.

On Tuesday this week on Pray as you Go the scripture used was from Matthew 5:13-16:

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

I have to be completely honest here and say, I have never really understood this part. I mean, I think I have an understanding of the point Jesus is making (on one level) but it seems like a poor analogy, and Jesus is not known for His poor analogies! I get stuck on the salt losing its taste. How can salt lose its taste? The statement contradicts itself, surely? If it no longer tastes like salt, then it no longer is salt. I am of course thinking from a Chemistry perspective. It is the ions that make the salt taste salty, and sodium chloride, salt, is chemically very stable, resistant to change. It requires the use of electricity in electrolysis to convert the sodium and chloride ions back into elements and so, destroy the saltiness, or the salt. I do not really think this is what Jesus was getting at!

So, I started to ponder salt. Quite an ordinary substance, and useful. Firstly, when you put it in boiling water for cooking, it raises the boiling temperature of the water (boiling point elevation) and so will help to cook the food more quickly. The sodium ions also insert themselves in between chains of pectin in vegetables – pectin is partly what gives raw vegetables their hardness – and so helps to soften them in the boiling cooking water. It also enhances the taste of food – it is not so much its own salty taste, but the augmented taste of the food we are after when we season it with salt. And of course, it is used as a preservative, to stop food from going off too quickly. From here, I could apply the analogy to the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking: their role, (and our role) to soften the hardness of heart in those we meet, to encourage that process by interjecting where the love of God is needed; to help to draw out God in each person we meet, to enhance their own goodness by our interaction with them; and to be a preservative, to act to slow down the movement away from God, to act against the desolation that seeks to spoil those gifts given so generously by God.

Chemical Structure of Sodium Chloride. Usborne Science Encyclopedia
Salt and Light 2: Reading of this post.

It is said that the graces received in the Exercises are always there, they are never lost, and I would testify to that from my first hand experience. I am still stuck…how can salt lose its taste? So, I consulted Wikipedia:

The most common interpretation of this verse is a reference to salt as a preservative, and to thus see the duty of the disciples as preserving the purity of the world.

…salt was a minor but essential ingredient in fertilizer,…the disciples are thus to help the world grow and prosper…indicating that the disciples are to bring new life to the world

…a common Jewish expression at the time was to call the Laws the “salt and the light” of the world, which may mean this section is an introduction to the discussion of Mosaic law that will soon commence.

In the Rabbinic literature of the period salt was a metaphor for wisdom.

Salt also played role in ritual purity and all sacrifices had to contain salt.

…the many different uses of salt show its importance in the life of the period, and it is this importance of the disciples that is being referenced.

Ancient peoples sometimes put salt on the wicks of lamps to increase their brightness.

I learned a lot here, all good stuff, although I am not clear how putting salt on the wicks of lamps can increase their brightness. I feel a home experiment coming on. I also felt vindicated at the beginning of the section on Losing Saltiness:

The issue of salt losing its flavour is somewhat problematic. Salt itself, sodium chloride (NaCl), is extremely stable and cannot lose its flavour.

It goes on to make the point that Jesus was not teaching Chemistry, and considers:

…the impossibility of what is described as deliberate, it is counter to nature that salt lose its flavour, just as it is counter to God’s will that the disciples lose faith.

There it is! Not only does Jesus know Chemistry: you must know already that I love Chemistry, He uses it to say:

You will always be mine. Nothing can ever take you away from me.

How cool is that? I am just going to pause for a moment and savour the flavour of this realisation.

It is the same promise He made to the young woman in His workshop that I described in my post last week.

Wikipedia then goes on to talk about impurities, and as I suggested at the beginning, these impurities are not salt, and therefore do not taste like salt. Perhaps it would be to extend the analogy to describe spiritual desolation, and I would point out that dissolution, filtration and recrystallisation will extract and purify salt which has been so “corrupted”. The eleven year olds in my science class know how to do that. So too then, might the impurities in our own hearts be cleansed with water, separated from that which would draw us away from God, and purified by prayer and time spent with Him until we are indeed salt of the earth in the way that Jesus intends us to be. We are in essence, not lost to Him and always retrievable by Him.

Salt and Light 3: Reading of this post.

I wrote about light in a previous post and I said:

…the warmth of the light draws us gently out of the darkness, it invites us not to remain there.

I was at that time referring to our response to God’s light, but here, it also applies when considering how the followers of Jesus might be attractive to others. In the meditation of the two standards Ignatius says:

Consider the address which Christ our Lord makes to all His servants and friends whom He sends on this enterprise, recommending to them to seek to help all, first by attracting them to the highest spiritual poverty,

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

And in the Contemplation to Attain the Love of God, which means to become able to love like God loves, not to win God’s love as it might be misunderstood, Ignatius makes two points:

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

The second is that love consists in a mutual sharing of goods, for example, the lover gives and shares with the beloved what he possesses, or something of that which he has or is able to give; and vice versa, the beloved shares with the lover. Hence, if one has knowledge, he shares it with the one who does not possess it; and so also if one has honors, or riches. Thus, one always gives to the other.

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

In other words, the relationship is reciprocal.

This is to consider how God works and labors for me in all creatures upon the face of the earth, that is, He conducts Himself as one who labors. Thus, in the heavens, the elements, the plants, the fruits, the cattle, etc., He gives being, conserves them, confers life and sensation, etc.

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

If God shines His light on the world as described previously, it is for us to do likewise, to attract and draw others to the source that is light itself. Salt and light. It is not enough to keep it all to ourselves.

Lauren Daigle: Salt and Light

The Fragrance of God

The Fragrance of God 1: Reading of this post.

I like aromatherapy: you might already be aware that I love Chemistry. Some scientists I know are quite dismissive of aromatherapy, and if it is to prevent the danger of avoiding to seek medical attention and opting for a more “natural” approach instead, I am on board with that. Those who do aromatherapy, rather than a bit of tinkering with it like me, will be the first to say that if there is a medical condition, aromatherapy is not a substitute for medical care. However, I am not able to dismiss aromatherapy as worthless because I am aware that plants have often provided the insight and the raw materials for the medicines that chemists have extracted, developed and refined: quinine for malaria treatment and aspirin being two obvious examples. From my perspective, plants are very clever at making a variety of chemicals which we are able to use for all sorts of amazing things – they are to be respected. In my bathroom, I have a poster that I bought in the house where I made my first ever eight day Ignatian IGR, and it is there as a reminder that this room for me, is a place of profound healing as experienced in some of my imaginative prayers, including one at the end of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises.

The Fragrance of God 2: Reading of this post.

St. Ignatius refers to three powers of the soul in the Spritual Exercises:

…will consist in using the memory to recall…and then in applying the understanding by reasoning….then the will by seeking to remember and understand all to be the more filled with…

So, too, the understanding is to be used to think over the matter more in detail, and then the will to rouse more deeply the emotions.

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

Since we are using our imagination in the prayer, this is linked to memory as the first power. The sense of will Ignatius describes here is not so much as “mind over matter” but more of what is in the heart. Ignatius encourages us to use all three powers of the soul in the imaginative contemplations in the Exercises and there is a type of repetition which is explained in the first day of the second week, which is frequently called “application of the senses”.

After the preparatory prayer and three preludes, it will be profitable with the aid of the imagination to apply the five senses to the subject matter of the First and Second Contemplation…

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

If you have used any of my Imaginative Contemplation guided prayers, you might have noticed that I spend some time at the beginning of the prayer in the Composition of Place part, noticing what is around in the scene in connection with all of the five senses. Although these guided prayers are not repetitions, I am applying the principles of this part of the exercises in my guided prayers to ground the prayer in the body. I think it is extremely clever of Ignatius to introduce The Application of the Senses explicitly into the Exercises when the we begin to contemplate The Incarnation (although he has already led us through the process in contemplating hell in the first week) because it makes our prayer more concrete: it brings our awareness of God into our body; it makes God corporeal. The process parallels The Incarnation itself, and there is power in it. God is not just out there, transcendent, but is up close and personal, intimate. I cannot dismiss Him as not really understanding what it is like because He is divine and is not subject to the same struggles as I am, whether I do this subconsciously or otherwise. The grace we ask for in the second week is:

… 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.

In my own experience of praying the imaginative contemplations of the second week, in the first part on the early years of Jesus’ life, before His (and my) baptism in the Jordan, I was a girl growing up with Him, maybe a little younger by a few months and we were good friends. There was one scene which I will share here from those prayers because it fills me with joy and laughter just to think of it. We were around the age of nineteen, and my mother, who had a merchant apothecary/aromatherapy stall at the market and was training me in that trade, was very close friends with Mary, His mother. I should also say that, as is the way in the imaginative world of the soul, my mother was also me. We were in His workshop and He was using a plane on a table He was making. I was drinking coffee that Mary had made for me. Our mothers were chatting in the kitchen.

He started the conversation by asking me a question, and I will relay some of the conversation between us as it went:

So, how are you keeping the matchmaker at bay?

Whenever she starts talking to me about a nice young man, I nod thoughtfully and after a suitable time, I acknowledge that, yes, he is a nice young man and that I can’t possibly accept him. When she asks me why, I put my hand on my heart and I look her straight in the eye and say quite passionately: ‘It’s a decision of the soul.‘ She then looks at my mum who says: ‘I can’t force her to accept him!’ and she continues to look at mum as if to say ‘Yes you can’ but mum won’t budge. She’s got my back. What about you, how do you keep her off your back?

I start reciting Psalm 63.

You do not!

I do (laughing). I get down to ‘My body pines for you…’ and she shakes her head and dismisses me with a wave. I’m sure she thinks ‘What an intense young man. I’ll never find a woman to accept him.’

There was a lot of laughter between us and more conversation which finished with Him promising me:

…you know that you’ll always be my little sister right? I will always claim you as my kin.

The application of the senses grounds God deeper in my reality, in my world, and enables me to dwell there. It is from here that this post has come.

The Fragrance of God 3: Reading of this post.

The sense of smell is powerfully evocative. When we suddenly come across a fragrance it places us within the situation where that fragrance has meaning for us: for example, a particular after shave or perfume may remind us of a particular person. When my children were babies I used to place the top I had been wearing that day in their cot near them at night, or sometimes lavender on the corner of their pillow when they were older as a means to help them settle. I remember my youngest asking for my shirt around the age of about six, because she had been having some nightmares and said that the smell of my perfume made her feel safe. The smell of burning grass or bonfires takes me right back to my horse riding days as a teenager; the smell of clean sheets when you climb into bed at the end of the day, or of milk parsley and elderflower in the spring…all of these have an association for me of all being right with the world. You will have your own.

The Fragrance of God 4: Reading of this post.

When I started to contemplate little distinctions in the three persons of the Holy Trinity, I began to think of each in terms of colour (this came from symbolism I was using in Mandalas), of different instrumental voices in music, and also in terms of fragrance. I assigned Jasmine to the Father, it’s deep, rich base note and association with producing a feeling of wellbeing, the anti depressant effects attributed to Jasmine essential oil. To Jesus, I felt Lavender was appropriate, the middle note. It is ubiquitous, almost common and perhaps we might take it for granted, and yet, if you were only ever to use one essential oil, this is the one to get because of its multi faceted associated effects. For the Holy Spirit, I attributed Ylang Ylang essential oil, the top note. This is a heady, sweet fragrance that has a euphoric effect and is said to :

…ease anger born out of frustration.

Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, Julia Lawless

More than you can handle will leave you feeling a bit light headed. Combining these three in one fragrance produces a wonderful, synergistic formulation to use in a base oil in the bath, or as a fragrance in a burner, or for other applications of aromatherapy. And just as Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity invites another to join in, so too does this combination. For myself, I put in Cedar oil – it has a sharpness to it, and wood from the cedar was used in the temple to show the strength and the beauty of God. It is a noble desire for me to show the strength and beauty of God when I am immersed in Him, in spite of my sharpness.

The ultimate movement of the Exercises is to love God more intimately and to praise, reverence and serve Him more deeply in the way that we live. And Ignatius is explicit in that love is better expressed in deeds rather than words. It is an idea expressed in the poetry of the Song of Songs:

Origen suggests that the “couch” is the ground of the soul, where we meet God in intimate union, and here, the nard, my nard, has no fragrance of its own. When it comes into contact with the Lover, it becomes infused with His fragrance and it is this that permeates into the world and is percieved. If I were to try to sum up my whole experience of the Spiritual Exercises, as if that were even possible, this is the closest I would be able to come. In entering deeply into relationship with God, my soul mixes its own imperceptle perfume with that of the Holy Trinity, releasing a fragrance that is both powerful and gently evocative. As people come into contact with it, some may find it attractive and will want to be drawn closer to its source; some may be repelled by it, may find it too strong, too overpowering and not to their taste; some may pause, notice, but perhaps be too busy to stop and smell the flowers, intending to search it out at another opportunity when they have more time. My role in it is simply to be fragrant.

Loving the Leper

Loving the Leper 1: Reading of this post

I have been feeling ill recently and I was offered a test for COVID-19 because of the combination of symptoms I was experiencing, and because I am a teacher and on the rota to go into school to look after children of other key workers and our vulnerable children. The test came back negative, so I do not have coronavirus: either I had some other virus, or I had gone past the point of being actively infectious. I guess I would need the antigen test to know for sure whether it was or was not. The test was conducted by the army on one of the mobile testing stations that have been set up around the United Kingdom, and you know it is serious when the army are involved. My daughter commented that it was all very post apocalyptic when we arrived. It was a sobering experience.

The first soldier asked me not to roll the window down and spoke to us through the glass. On driving to the second point, they threw the test kits in the back window onto the back seat of the car and we parked up and did the tests ourselves. Not pleasant. The completed tests had to be double bagged, the second bag not being sealed until another soldier at the checking out point made sure they were done properly. They were then dropped into a lined bin from the window. Of course, all of the soldiers were wearing masks and gloves and at no point was there any contact with us or our vehicle. It was hard and upsetting, although perfectly understandable, to be on the receiving end of the attitude of a Scottish insult:

I’m not coming anywhere near you, I might catch something.

and for it to be real. It brought to mind this scene from The Chosen:

Loving the Leper 2: Reading of this post

Please, please don’t turn away from me.

Now that just made me cry. If I found my fairly civilised experience difficult, what must it be like for those who live with this kind of ostracism, without hope of becoming well again? And my mind went to all those who are dying sick and alone in hospital at the moment, not being able to see their loved ones in case they infect them. And I also thought of the medical staff taking care of them, wearing masks, gloves, whatever PPE they actually have and showing the sick humbling compassion, despite the risk to themselves: and I cried some more.

I also beat myself up before I got the results while I held the possibility that it was coronavirus. How had I contracted this disease? Where did I deviate from the protocols? What did I do wrong? I narrowed it down to putting petrol in the car and delaying too long to wash my hands – for a variety of reasons. Yes, there was some self blame going on, it was my own fault I was sick. Subconsciously, I had made a connection: sin makes you sick, you did it wrong and you got sick. I felt guilty and a little ashamed about being ill, and I felt stupid. There was a critical Pharisee voice in my head. It brought to mind another Gospel scene from The Chosen.

Loving the Leper 3: Reading of this post

I love the interplay between desolation and consolation in this scene. The Pharisees, (excepting Nicodemus) are critical, lacking in love and faith, and negatively judgemental whereas the paralytic and his friends have complete faith that Jesus can heal him if He chooses to. Jesus’ response to both is worthy of note: the faith of the woman He affirms as beautiful, and the Pharisees, He faces them boldly and challenges them. It reminds me of one of the ways Ignatius advises us in the Exercises of dealing with spiritual desolation:

…the enemy becomes weak, loses courage, and turns to flight with his seductions as soon as one leading a spiritual life faces his temptations boldly, and does exactly the opposite of what he suggests.

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

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

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

Matthew 4:6

I am perplexed by those who flout the recommendations regarding lock down and social distancing, who insist that it is their right to worship (it is, I do not disagree with that), and continue defiantly to pack into church, insisting that God will protect them, and by implication, prevent them from getting the disease. I am not sure of their thinking on passing it on to others. Worship and prayer do not cease to be worship and prayer if we go into our room alone with God and close the door, or, if we use a video conferencing app to pray with others if we still want to have our community with us while we pray.

St. Ignatius describes three powers of the soul: the memory and imagination, reason and the will, where the understanding of the latter is about what is in the heart. Ignatius is often quoted as saying:

Pray as if everything depends on God and work as if everything depends on you.

Reason suggests that we take every measure we possibly can to prevent spreading this disease, which has proved to be fatal to many people. Jesus answers Satan’s selective and twisted use of scripture (the part after where Satan stops refers to trampling on the serpent’s head):

‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’

Matthew 4:7

And in both the healing stories in the video clips, the supplicants acknowledge that it was if He was willing. It is not ours to command God to our will, to demand a specific outcome, the one we desire.

Loving the Leper 4: Reading of this post

Julian of Norwich has an interesting take on God’s perspective on suffering when she talks about the Lord and His servant:

I saw…a lord and a servant….[The Lord] looks on his servant very lovingly and sweetly and mildly. He sends him to…do his will. Not only does the servant go, but he dashes off and runs at great speed, loving to do his lord’s will. And soon he falls into a dell and is greatly injured; and then he groans and moans and tosses about and writhes, but he cannot rise or help himself in any way.

…And the loving regard which [the lord] kept constantly on his servant, and especially when he fell…could melt our hearts for love and break them in two for joy.

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

This parable that Julian tells in her revelations has stayed with me over the years since I first read Revelations of Divine Love. And the clips of The Chosen I have shown exemplify beautifully the loving regard we are held in, especially when we fall, and we see the hearts of those being healed melting for love and breaking in joy.

Loving the Leper 5: Reading of this post

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

…we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.

Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.

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

So, what is my point? Sickness and spiritual desolation are not the same thing, just as health and spiritual consolation are not the same thing. As human beings, we will experience both, they may come and go, we are going to fall and it is going to hurt. It is inevitable. It is not ours to decide what God’s will is and to try to force Him to prove it to us and the rest of the world. It is ours to desire and choose His will. Loving the leper may mean that we have to look tenderly and lovingly, as God does, at the servant injured in the dell, whether they have fallen there because of their own enthusiasm, carelessness, negligence or by an apparent and random accident. And that servant may be ourselves or someone else.

I Am Not Alone.

I Am Not Alone 1: Reading of this post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Am Not Alone 4: Reading of this post.

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

…we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.

Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.

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

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

I will wait.

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

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

I will wait.

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

On the other hand, one who suffers desolation should remember that by making use of the sufficient grace offered him, he can do much to withstand all his enemies. Let him find his strength in his Creator and Lord.

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

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

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

In the Lectio Divina for Psalm 16 it says:

You will show me the path of life.

Psalm 16:11

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

…and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:24

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

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

What brings you to life?

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

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

.John 10:10b

As you walk into my school, this quote from John 10 is written on the front of reception and it is regular referred to in day to day school life. It is our motto. And it is used as a reference point and to back up what we do and why we are doing it. There are a lot of underlying assumptions when it is invoked, and as a spiritual director, I find myself sometimes challenging those assumptions, at least internally, if not explicitly. We see in the gospels where Satan tempts Jesus in the desert that Satan is also an expert in scripture and quotes it in order to justify his own ends. The full John 10.10 quotes is:

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

John 10:10

To my ears and understanding, Jesus is eloquently summing up spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation. Ignatius takes a few more words to explain it:

Spiritual Consolation. I call it consolation when an interior movement is aroused in the soul, by which it is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and as a consequence, can love no creature on the face of the earth for its own sake, but only in the Creator of them all. It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears that move to the love of God, whether it be because of sorrow for sins, or because of the sufferings of Christ our Lord, or for any other reason that is immediately directed to the praise and service of God. Finally, I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.

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

Spiritual Desolation. I call desolation what is entirely the opposite of what is described in the third rule, as darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord. For just as consolation is the opposite of desolation, so the thoughts that spring from consolation are the opposite of those that spring from desolation.

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

Consideration of these points lead to discernment questions in spiritual direction, either internally or externally:

Where is this coming from?

Where is it leading to?

Is this life giving? How?

Is this death dealing? How?

What is the more life giving choice here?

A preliminary understanding of life giving is around what makes you feel good, or happy. Elle, in Legally Blonde sums it up neatly:

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

Ignatius does list interior joy as one of the effects of spiritual consolation and the sense of contentment might be considered manifestations of peace and quiet. It is a simple equation that Elle describes: sensible consolation = spiritual consolation, where sensible consolation is about what makes you happy: it must be good then, right? Brooke is a happy person, therefore she is not likely to have committed the mortal sin of murder. And then, must the opposite be true? If it doesn’t feel good, if it makes us feel unhappy and sad, sensible desolation, then it must be bad: sensible desolation = spiritual desolation.

But the equations are not that simple. Ignatius defines spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation in terms of whether something leads us towards God, or away from God: it is not about feeling good or bad, it is firstly, noticing what we are feeling and then observing what is prompting that particular emotion, and where that leads us, in terms of our relationship with God. Consider the recent journey through Holy Week and the Passion of Jesus. The third week of the Spiritual Exercises aligns with this journey and the grace that Ignatius encourages us to ask for is:

Here it will be to ask for sorrow, compassion, and shame because the Lord is going to His suffering for my sins

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

Sorrow, compassion and shame do not feel good: to feel these things is heartbreaking and brings “copious amounts of tears” as Ignatius writes frequently of his own prayer. Notice above (in bold), he has listed tears that move one to the love of God as spiritual consolation. The world seeks to fix sorrow and shame, and perhaps even overwhelming compassion for another which leads to tears, considering these things as pathological. I’m not saying that this may not sometimes be true: I am saying that sometimes these emotions are appropriate, and when they are leading to a deeper love of God, then they are spiritual consolation.

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

And sometimes, it is that simple: what makes us feel good is also leading us to God, and when we feel bad it may be because something is leading us away from God. The latter might be manifested as the “sting of conscience”. For example, perhaps I might feel bad about having gossiped unpleasantly about someone behind their back and I would identify such gossip as spiritual desolation, and the unpleasant sting of conscience the consolation inviting me to turn back to God.

Gerry. W. Hughes says On Desire:

If I were Satan’s advisor… I would suggest that Satan ensures that Christian leaders emphasise the danger of human desire, and the need to subject it totally to the will of God, constantly warning their flock that anything they desire must be rooted in their own selfishness, which they must constantly oppose. This will ensure that they always feel bad about feeling good….

God in all Things, Gerard W. Hughes

I remember a teaching colleague once said:

I’m not designed for this.

and while I cannot remember the exact context – they may have been asked to teach a subject they had not trained in (it happens) – I do remember thinking what a brilliant way of expressing their dissatisfaction about it; the idea that we are designed for something, a purpose, and the desire for that purpose is written into our design: it brings us to life when we are fulfilling that purpose, our own personal vocation, both in the big things of the election, our state in life, and in the little day to day things which help us to fulfill that election. The spiritual consolation is that what we do is in the praise, reverance and service of God.

The Psalm this week says:

You show me the path of life.

Psalm 16:11

In thinking about all of these things, and the slow burn of Easter Sunday, The Upper Room and lockdown, I’ve been considering the question posed at the top of the post. What does it mean for me?

Julian of Norwich considers that there are only two sins (sin being spiritual desolation, what leads us away from God): anxious fear and despairing fear or, want of faith and want of hope as described by Ignatius. Ignatius believed that ingratitude was the root of all sin. (Reimagining the examen App: Gratitude). These are a few of the key ideas and also Just for Today, that I am holding onto during this period of lockdown when it would be easy to succumb to fear, despair and anxiety at the state of things. I have myself a list of things that I know are lifegiving for me and I check it off every day (mostly) which reminds me to be grateful for the many blessings in my life and which challenges me to maintain my conscious contact with God.

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

Certainly, some of it is about endorphins and feeling good, and I might go for exercise or a hot bubble bath with candles and music (usually something spiritual), or even sleep, especially when I feel that creeping darkness weighing on my spirit. Self pity is a particularly distasteful manifestation of ingratitude and it is something I cannot stand within myself whenever I notice it.

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

So here are my questions for you:

How are you doing right now?

What are the things that bring you to life?

My suggestion is that you make a list of these things and put it on the fridge or somewhere prominent so that the next time you notice that creeping desolation within you, you already have a range of strategies to help you to act against it – all you have to do is choose one and do it.

The Upper Room

The Upper Room 1: Reading of this post

This post is not the one I intended to write this week. I was planning to write about “The Fragrance of God”: I said in a previous post that I would at some point, and while at the beginning of the week I spent a few days pondering it and bringing it into my prayer, I have found myself unable to write it at this time. I was just not feeling it. Maybe what it is is writer’s block. I considered that perhaps I should write a different one of my planned posts, perhaps Science versus Religion, but again, I am not feeling that one either at this moment in time. So what am I feeling? I will tell you – the eight days in between Thomas hearing from the disciples that Jesus had risen and Jesus appearing to them again in the upper room. I said in my post for Easter Sunday that when I made the Spiritual Exercises, I had found the transition from the third to fourth week disorientating, and I called myself a “Doubting Thomas”. Of course, the gospel reading for this Sunday is all about Thomas, and it is what I presented my guided prayer on this week. It has been playing on my mind.

St. Mary the Virgin, Worstead
The Upper Room 2: Reading of this post

In my experience of imaginative contemplation, sometimes it is an easily missed or overlooked phrase that is magnified and becomes significant in the prayer. In the passage from John 20, where we hear about Jesus appearing again to the disciples in the upper room, and about Him speaking specifically to Thomas, it was the simple phrase:

Eight days later…

Eight days! (or a week, depending on which Bible translation you read). What went on in that time in between? I spent my prayer as Thomas, during those eight days. How was I feeling? Confused, restless, lonely, awkward. I became increasingly isolated and withdrawn from my friends, and angry with them. I was listless, trying to motivate and discipline myself, and failing miserably; I was uncomfortable in my body – both imaginatively in the prayer, and literally, in my room praying. Imaginatively, I started to sleep a lot, not knowing if it was either necessary, healing or avoidant. I went out only when I had to, and sometimes to get away from the others. I stayed in most of the time because I did not want to miss it if He appeared again, even though I thought they were lying to me and I did not understand what was going on, there was a part of me that wanted it to be the truth.

Apart from the being angry with my friends and thinking that they are lying to me, it is more or less how I am feeling these last few days in lock down. The discomfort in my body is mostly down to hay fever – I tend to suffer it between the middle of February and end of April each year, and I know that it is particularly bad when I am mildly asthmatic with it. The rest of what I imagined as Thomas is literally what I am feeling at this point: the restless awkwardness and not quite believing what is going on around me, and yet believing it at the same time. Confusion, disorientation. Up until recently I have been doing quite well, taking one day at a time, planning my tasks out carefully for the day in order to stay purposeful, and marking them off at the end of the day in order to feel a sense of achievement. I have even decided to learn something new – line dancing! You know already that I like dancing I think, and there is a woman who runs classes locally – I was thinking of joining them before lock down happened – and she has been putting them online. It is something I can do alone at home and it is making me laugh and enjoy myself so much. Here is the first dance I have learned:

Modern Line Dancing with Karen Hadley
The Upper Room 3: Reading of this post

But in the last three or four days, I am living those eight days in between!

And so, here am I asking myself, spiritual consolation or desolation? And the answer would be to say it depends where it is leading: it is not so much the feelings themselves that are the consolation or desolation. The temptation in front of me is to binge watch something on Netflix (now that lent is over), to escape, to take my mind off it, but that would be to get in the way. I recognised a while ago that television was something I used to numb the discomfort I feel within myself, so now I try to be discerning about what and when I watch anything. Temptation is another opportunity to choose God, and I notice that my feelings are directing my thoughts back into my experience of the Exercises. Perhaps there is more for me in this place; lock down being my eight days of Thomas in the Upper Room.

There is also something about knowing who I am in God. I talked before about rhythm and described myself more like a harmonic rather than a sine wave. A similar sort of restlessness can also present itself when I have been too long in the same routine and the pressure is building for it to change. The return to work and online learning this week will soon sort that out.

Church, Stalham
The Upper Room 4: Reading of this post

Otherwise, I will stay here and wait for Him in this Upper Room. So here is a question for you if you are also in lock down: spiritually, what does it mean to you?

The Generosity of God

From The Folly of God, the Art and Inspiration of Sieger Koder,
The Generosity of God 1: Reading of this post.

In the fifth annotation, the introductory notes at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius says:

It will be very profitable for the one who is to go through the Exercises to enter upon them with magnanimity and generosity toward his Creator and Lord, and to offer Him his entire will and liberty, that His Divine Majesty may dispose of him and all he possesses according to His most holy will.

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

The bold is mine because when I read this annotation, I think:

How could you not?

and given the journey of the last week, effectively the third week of the exercises, and this glorious day in which we begin the fourth week, this sense might best be summed up with some music:

The Generosity of God 2: Reading of this post.

After the pain of betrayal, the excruciating carnage of Good Friday and the empty stillness of Tomb day, we wake to Easter Sunday, and the world turned upside down. During the Spiritual Exercises, I found the movement into the fourth week from the passion of the third week, disorientating. I was very much the doubting Thomas – it was impossible, obviously they were lying to me, but why? It seemd a cruel trick to play, and I could not comprehend what they would get out of it. Even when I came face to face with the truth of it, I could not comprehend it. The magnitude was too much to bear.

In the fourth week, the grace that Ignatius would have us ask for is:

This will be to ask for what I desire. Here it will be to ask for the grace to be glad and rejoice intensely because of the great joy and the glory of Christ our Lord.

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

We are invited to share in the joy and gladness of Jesus, not our own joy and gladness, His. It is to be noticed that He comes as consoler to His friends, not to the Romans and the High Priests saying;

See, I told you so!

Easter is not just one day, it is not to be rushed. Ignatius outlines thirteen apparitions to meditate on during the fourth week, leading up to the feast of the Ascension, and then leads to the Contemplatio, sometimes called the fifth week, where he presents his 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 of Loyola trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.

The question to be asked here is where am I at this point in this great endeavour? There are plenty who are out there serving, who are living the Contemplatio:

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

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

and there will be others, still living in the pain of crucifixion and death, with the emptiness of tomb day, with the confusion of loss and grief, and being unable to say the proper goodbyes to loved ones who have died alone and in hospital. In the experience of the Spiritual Exercises, Easter is not experienced as a glorious and dramatic burst where suddenly everything and everyone in the world lives happily ever after. It is confusing. It is more of a slow perculation of something extraordinary; it very gradually brings with it the graces of God’s joy and gladness, and of hope – no matter what the wordly circumstances are. It is to sit with it, to not rush, to just be.

Here I offer something of the flavour of it as I experienced it. Imagine a room with a piano in it, much like the one in the image:

Abandoned Sanotorium: Graceful Decay
The Generosity of God 3: Reading of this post.

and then, the Risen Jesus walks in, takes a seat at the piano and begins to play, and as He does, the shutters and the windows begin to open:

The Generosity of God 4: Reading of this post.

I pray that God’s joy and gladness will sink into our hearts in this most holy of seasons.