Dancing with God

Dancing with God 1: Reading of this post.

I learned some ballroom dancing when I was a university student and one of the most memorable moments of that dancing was at the social “practice” evening. I was about eight lessons in, and had only just learned the basics of the waltz, with the pivot turn being the subject of the previous lesson, when they played a “snowball” waltz. The way it works is that a couple, who were partners on the university team, would waltz for a bit, and then they would separate and each choose a new partner from the crowd gathered around the floor. This process would continue until everyone who wanted to dance was on the floor. After a bit, I was asked to dance by a PhD student, a few years older than me, who was part of the University dance team and from my perspective, a phenomenal dancer. As we got onto the floor, the music stopped and the DJ put on a new song: this one was a Viennese waltz! I was horrified. I told my partner that I was just a beginner, and that I did not know this dance. He smiled softly, told me just to relax and follow him, that it was his job to lead me, and asked me to trust him. I struggled for a bit, trying to work out what to do, to anticipate what the next steps were and I could feel the tension in my body as it put up some resistance. That is until a few bars in when it clicked – I did not have a clue, why was I trying to work it out? He knew what he was doing, all I had to do was stop trying to control where we were going, to stop over thinking it, and to give myself over to him in cooperation and trust. So I did. The next few minutes were absolutely amazing, and forever imprinted on my soul: I learned to trust, I learned to follow, I learned to dance. We went whizzing round the floor, round and round, then slow on the spot almost, and then round and round in the other direction: I was giddy, breathless and euphoric. It occurred to me how fantastic this was, and immediately I became self aware, my right heel caught in the front of my left shoe and we both went sprawling across the floor. My partner got up and offered his hand to help me up saying:

I am so sorry, that was my fault. Please forgive me.

I tried to tell him that it was really all mine, but he would not hear of it. And then it was time for us to change partners again.

The Plantation Gardens, Norwich
Dancing with God 2: Reading of this post.

Of desolation and consolation in the Exercises Ignatius says:

He who enjoys consolation should take care to humble himself and lower himself as much as possible. Let him recall how little he is able to do in time of desolation, when he is left without such grace or consolation.

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.

Dancing with God, in a variety of different ways, is a frequent theme of consolation in my prayer. I have stored up many, many memories of dancing with God in my prayer life which sustain me when the going gets tough. As when dancing with the PhD student above, I have to relax, cooperate and trust, to let God lead and to follow where He leads. When I do it allows the flow and the magic happens. When I hold back, when I resist and try to control the movement, it is stilted and laborious. Dancing with a partner in this way is about relationship, communication and sensitivity; it is about call and response. In his book, The Divine Dance, Richard Rohr says:

Now we are prepared to say that God is not, nor does God need to be, “substance” in that historic Aristotelian sense of something independent of all else but, in fact, God is relationship itself.

The Divine Dance, Richard Rohr

He attests that the relationship is the vehicle, and of metaphor he quotes the Canadian writer Donald Braun :

That which is belittled in plain speech finds the respect it warrants in the subtleties of metaphor.

The Journey from Ennuied, Donald Braun

In the inner experience of my prayer, dance is indeed an excellent metaphor for my relationship with God.

Dancing with God 3: Reading of this post.

For example, I was always very comfortable, familiar and friendly with Jesus and although there was a “God the Father”, who I just called God, He did seem very far away and formal, and the Holy Spirit, well, to be very honest, I did not really have much idea what the Holy Spirit was like at all: ethereal, intangible, mysterious – who can get a handle on the Holy Spirit really? And then on one of my annual retreats, I bought my little traveling icon of Rublev’s “The Hospitality of Abraham”, AKA The Holy Trinity, and I started to have it in front of me every day while I was painting mandalas. Over the retreat I began to realise that I did know the Holy Spirit, and that I had always distinguished between Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It was the scene from the film “The Prestige” that surfaced in my mind that made this revelation to me:

Dancing with God 4: Reading of this post.

Here, Sarah is not consciously aware that it is not her husband she is talking to, but his identical twin brother. Her husband is the one lifting their daughter away from the argument, ostensibly Alfred’s assistant. They are living their trick, and not even the respective loves of their lives are in on it. Earlier she had said to him:

Some days I think you love me, and some days I think you don’t.

Or words to that effect. So here, when he answers her:

No, not today.

he is being very honest, because he is not her husband. Her husband does love her.

What was it that this scene revealed to me? While Sarah might not have been conscious of it, she was able to perceive differences between her husband and his identical twin (and she did not know there was a twin). It dawned on me that sometimes in my prayer journal I wrote “Jesus” and sometimes I wrote “JC”, and I always had done, even when I kept a diary as a teenager. I realised that I was intuiting subtle differences in the aspect of God that I was perceiving from my prayer, and that I was distinguishing between Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Some people I know do not experience the Holy Spirit as a person, but I definitely do. JC is what I call Him by.

This revelation made God the Father seem even further away than before: I had in mind those distant, English Victorian fathers, of the sort depicted in Mary Poppins. When I talked to the spiritual director guiding me on my retreat about this, he suggested that I ask the Father in prayer, what He would like me to call Him. When I did, He asked me to call Him by His name:

The most personal name of God revealed to Moses, and treasured as a sign of intimacy and favour.

Theological Glossary, The New Jerusalem Bible

And He invited me to slow dance: He invited me into intimacy with Him. Suddenly, He was not so far away, but up close and personal as in the picture featured at the top of the post. I could sense His strength, incredible strength, and a poignant loneliness which touched me: even as He said with a deep longing:

I have waited for this moment for a long time.

Imagine, God is lonely for us! All of God is longing for intimacy with us. It is as Julian of Norwich says in Day 8 of the 40 Day Journey:

God’s thirst is to have [us], generally, drawn into Him…

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

In the Spiritual Exercises, through use of our memory and imagination in prayer, Ignatius invites us to experience and live with God and to grow into a deeper intimacy with Him. It is to enter wholeheartedly into the Divine Dance.

Another time I might tell you about morris dancing with the Holy Spirit, but for now I will leave you with a song that I understand God is especially fond of. Enjoy.

Glorious and Impassible

Christ of Maryknoll by Br. Robert Lentz OFM
Glorious and Impassible: prologue. Reading of this post.

NB: I have stayed with the word “impassible” as written in the 40 Day journey with Julian of Norwich. Wiktionary defines the word as meaning : unable to suffer or feel pain, unable to feel emotion, impassive, incapable of suffering injury or detriment; misspelling of impassable. For the word “impassable” wiktionary says: incapable of being passed over, crossed or negotiated; incapable of being overcome or surmounted. I acknowledge that Julian is unlikely to have misspelt the word she intended to mean – in the context of Day 8 of the journey that makes sense . However, when I prayed with it, the meaning I experienced with it was that of “impassable”. The misspelling is mine, and maybe also deliberately God’s, because of what He wanted to say to me in that prayer. I use the word in the sense of “impassable” in this post. Please excuse my poor spelling.

Glorious and Impassible 1: Reading of this post.

I bought this icon with some money I was given as a Christmas present and it has occupied my prayer spot this season of Lent. I first saw it on retreat a few years ago and spent several days praying with it. I have a deep affinity for it. It arrived on the morning when I was praying day 8 of my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, and I put it out immediately for my prayer. The words that struck me that day were;

He is glorious and impassible…

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

and I commented in my prayer journal in my review of prayer:

This image does show Jesus as Glorious and attractive, and it is impossible to get past Him in this image. I had absolutely no desire to get past Him….

In the text at the back of the icon it reads:

It strikes me that the second paragraph is also particularly pertinent to the lockdown situation in which many of us are now living. Is Christ imprisoned or are we?

Cambridge University
Glorious and Impassible 2: Reading of this post.

On day 16 of my journey, Julian writes:

For everything that our good Lord makes us to beseech He Himself has ordained for us from all eternity.

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

and:

This is the Lord’s will, that our prayer and trust be both equally generous.

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

Day 8 has resurfaced in my prayer recently because it was all about desire: God’s desire and God’s thirst to have us drawn into Him. Day 16 encourages us to ask for our desire, a common practice in Ignatian spirituality, because Julian recognises that that very desire is God given: I want it because God wants it for and of me. It is a subtle movement. How many times have you heard:

I want, doesn’t get.

In God in All Things Gerard W. Hughes writes:

If I were Satan’s adviser…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 the 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

and he also says:

Human desire is the rope attaching us to the God in whom we have every particle of our being.

God in All Things, Gerard W. Hughes
Ely Cathedral
Glorious and Impassible 3: Reading of this post.

I am sure that I would have made these connections anyway because of my direction of travel on this journey, but maybe, like many people who are currently in lockdown because of Covid-19, my reflections on what is important are augmented and my desire to change the way I live enhanced: to work more for God and less for Caesar, to live more simply and with less. I hear friends expressing the same sentiment. I have been moving in this direction for a while now, and the more it happens, the stronger my desire for it, and Him.

Of course, the critical voice is there as always, telling me that I am lazy, selfish, that I will never manage on less; that I need security – that is a big one for me. What happens if I am unable to look after myself? What then? I am just being fanciful…blah blah blah. And of course, that voice can sound very reasonable, sensible. I am a reasonable, sensible person, so I may think I am discerning with due care; and maybe I am.

But I know that when I was praying a lectio divina with Julian’s words:

For everything that our good Lord makes us to beseech He Himself has ordained for us from all eternity.

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

something in me moved and it felt like both affirmation and confirmation.

In The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius offers three ways that we might make a decision about our lives: he calls them first, second and third time choice. I have mentioned these three ways before. To oscillate backwards and forwards around a decision as I have been doing for the last few months, with experiences of consolation and desolation, Ignatius describes as second time choice:

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

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

And after this light and understanding have been derived and a choice has been made, Ignatius continues:

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

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

What does it feel like when it is accepted and confirmed? If I ask for my desire in prayer, how do I know it has been given? What if I am just convincing myself that God wants what I want because I want God to want what I want? And these are the ways the desolating spirit can tie us up in knots. I know this one from my own experience.

Julian writes of the need for as much generosity in our trust as with our prayer.

In the meditiation on the Two Standards in the exercises, Ignatius talks about the different ways the evil one acts:

…how he goads them on…

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

And of Jesus he says:

…by attracting them to the highest spiritual poverty…

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

Spiritual directors might notice or ask are we being driven or drawn?

There is no rush with God, no fear. There is God time. It seems to me that these desires He implants in our hearts are mustard seeds and they take time to grow. He gives and allows them plenty of time to grow. I read a long time ago, prior to my engagement with Ignatian spirituality, I think it was in Shiela Cassidy’s autobiography “Audacity to Believe”, that one of the ways you can tell if it is from God is that you make a decision and hand it over to Him, and you live as if that was it and it was final. What happens in the space in between making the decision and putting it into action will let you know where the decision has come from: if it is of God, it will bring peace, a deeper desire to fulfill the choice and patience; if it is not of God it will lead to restlessness, anxiety, impatience and turmoil. It is as Ignatius suggests: make the decision and offer it to God in prayer to see what happens. Listen for His response.

Mellieha, Malta
Glorious and Impassible 4: Reading of this post.

Currently, I am in the space in between; the choice to live differently and with the next step to live that choice identified, is made and offered, and I believe confirmed. It will take some time, and there is much work to do in the meantime in preparing the way. For now it is to live with it, to work to prepare the way, and most importantly, to trust and to pray and to be patient. As I continue to pray with this icon, from within my lockdown “imprisonment” (although as I have more time at home which is my sanctuary), as I do not respect the social distancing as regards to Him and I meet Him face to face at the fence, it feels like more freedom to me. I do indeed find Him Glorious and Impassible.

While I am deeply grateful for all of the gifts He has generously given to me, I grieve and pray for all who are struggling with confinement, whatever the reason.

I Am Legend

I Am Legend 1: Reading of the Post

When I was writing the post for Diary of a Sunflower the other day and describing a scene from some recurrent nightmares I had as a child, where I would be lying on a road, or a railway line, and a car or a train would be coming towards me, and I could see it and was desperately trying to get out of the way, but my legs would not work, I was paralysed by fear, it reminded me of a scene from the film “I am Legend” with Will Smith in it, where the infected dogs are after him and his dog, but they cannot cross the sunlight on the ground. The sun is going down and that ray of light is gradually disappearing.

This scene is quite scary, and a bit upsetting. If you are squeamish, maybe just skip it.
I Am Legend 2: Reading of the Post

Of course, the social distancing, social isolation situation here in the United Kingdom, and the Coronavirus pandemic is also, obviously, playing on my mind. “I Am Legend” is a film set in a post apocalyptic world, where most of the world has been infected with a virus that has turned them into Nightwalkers. The Will Smith character, Neville, is immune to the virus which affects humans in the airborne form, but dogs can only get infected by being bitten. He is a virologist, trying to find a vaccine. A topical subject. It is an excellent film, but a white knuckle ride, you need to be in the right mood I would say, and maybe, now is not the time.

Dreams of paralysing fear are quite common and can signify being stuck or restrained, from internal or external sources, or they can come from repressing stresses and feelings in our waking life. It sounds like I am describing the current situation where school has now been closed and we are working from home, setting lessons online. I might be calm and measured in my actions, but there is a small child inside me who is freaking out, a small child who knows that closing schools, and for an undefined length of time, and cancelling qualifying exams, is a last resort and means the situation is serious.

So what to do with that paralysing fear? There is no trite answer to that, and neither would I want to give one. To freeze can be a normal response to a real threat and sometimes, maybe standing still is safest action to take. Fight or flight might just make the situation more dangerous. I am thinking of where a dangerous predator might not have noticed that you are there. As a child, I loved horror films. Staying up late on a Saturday night to watch the horror double bill was a treat for us. I especially loved the Dracula films; and while I might go to bed with that adrenaline fuelled fear of:

What if there really are such creatures?

and :

What if there are monsters under my bed?

I always put my crucifix on my pillow when I went to bed and felt safe, and if I had to go to the toilet during the night, I would take a flying leap back into bed, and hold onto that crucifix tightly until my heart rate had slowed down again..

From The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
I Am Legend 3: Reading of the Post

We have become very used to the wonders of modern medical science I think, and especially in the United Kingdom with our wonderful National Health Service. It is not something we should take for granted, it is precious. We are getting a glimpse of what the world would be like without appropriate medicine, without vaccines, without antibiotics. For much of human history we did not have such wondrous technology, and there are places in the world that still do not have access to technology and medicines that are available elsewhere. To be used to depending on our own ingenuity so successfully, and to find ourselves in a position where we are not in control, but something else is, with blatant disregard to our feelings and well being; that something being invisible to our eyes but we can clearly see its effects, is sobering. I am of course talking about COVID-19. And scientists cannot decide whether or not viruses are living.

Recently, in the context of the meditation on a public sinner in the first week if the spiritual exercises, I heard someone describe sin as a virus. Hitler was presented as the public sinner, a common choice, and the contagion of his ideas spread exponentially throughout those around him who carried out his orders. It seems to me an excellent analogy, but I do not want to get into the sickness = sin equation of the Old Testament. It is to note that social behaviour driven by fear is leading to hording, fighting in the aisles, denial of the seriousness of the situation and refusing to take action by physically distancing oneself, but just carrying on as if nothing at all is happening. The disease spreading through our world is shining a spotlight on our collective sinfulness, our collective fear and lack of faith in God.

Bodwellian Castle: I visted this castle on my second repose day during the Spiritual Exercises at St. Beunos.
I Am Legend 4: Reading of the Post

But it is not the whole story. Just as there is a cry of wonder as we turn to the crucified Christ in the Exercises, there were those who stood up: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Edith Stein, Maximillion Kolbe….many people who refused, and died refusing to accept it, whose faith was tested right to the point of death. And there are those who are standing up in the wake of the pandemic: Dr. Li, who tried to warn the world of this new viral pneumonia that we had never seen before and died from it himself, all the key workers, responding to the crisis by carrying on, caring for others. There are those in local communities who are rallying round to make sure the vulnerable are looked after. There is less talk of Brexit, although it is still there under the surface its effects in this current situation are being considered, but people are caring more for each other and building communities online to support each other. Fear is not the only story, God is there in the midst of it all.

I Am Legend 5: Reading of the Post

I have been catching up with Day 14 of my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich. The words that particularly struck me from Julian in relation to the current crisis are when “our courteous Lord” says to Julian:

My dear darling, I am glad that you have come to me in all your woe….and now you see me loving.

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

and it has gone hand in hand with an image that was posted on the CCC Facebook page:

I do not know who has created this image – I would like to attribute it properly. There is only the “signature” @arte.carde, and the symbol of the little figure. Whoever you are, thank you for this image.
I Am Legend 6: Reading of the Post

Ignatius advises that when we are in a time of desolation:

…it will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against the desolation. We can insist more upon prayer, upon meditation, and on much examination of ourselves. We can make an effort in a suitable way to do some penance.

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

…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.

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

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

The image above reminds me of a previous imaginative contemplation I made on the Good Samaritan at the end of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises and by bringing it to mind, and into my current prayer, this previous consolation, I have found that my inner child is settling down and my trust is deepening. No, I do not know how we will emerge from this crisis as a world and I hope it will be different in a good way; that we will come to understand that we are all connected to each other and that we need to look after each other and our world. There will always be disease: viruses and bacteria evolve more quickly than we do and medical science is always playing catch up. Consolation, sensible and spiritual, is to be found in how we deal with it. I, for one, am grateful for all those people who have posted the positives and prayers on social media, because they have all helped me to make use of the grace offered me and to withstand the fear raining down.

On a Balcony in Barcelona.

Love and Law

Les Miserables has been playing at the Theatre Royal in Norwich this week. I love that musical, and I love the book by Victor Hugo. The interplay between Javert and Jean Val Jean, to me, is all about the question of love and law, of sin and righteousness.

In bible study we have also been looking at Matthew’s gospel and the interplay between Jesus and the Pharisees; noticing them laying traps for Jesus regarding the Law, and how Jesus deals with them deftly.

I also laughed at a picture of a cat that had been circulating on the internet. The cat had caught sight of itself in two mirrors at the same time and where the phrase “existential crisis” had been applied to it. I also caught sight of that phrase in an article somewhere this week, but I did not have time to stop and read the article immediately, and now that I want to, I cannot remember where it was. Frustrating, but there we are. The brief line I read mentioned it as being when your whole belief system was called in to question, and the suggestion was that support structures could crumble…I think. Anyway, the phrase has been on my mind.

There is a confrontation scene in Les Miserables, where Javert has recognised Jean Val Jean for the criminal that escaped his parole so many years ago and it gives us a key insight into Javert. He was born in a prison and has pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become the respectable police captain. He is also a righteous man, who believes in God and lives a moral life according to the law, which he believes is God’s law. He sees Val Jean as a criminal, a thief, and as he sings here, scum. Not very loving, granted, but that is the point. Javert is obedient to the law, and it is this structure that has prevented him being what he was born into: It has saved him from the fate and life of a criminal, the life that Val Jean lived for so long, so there is no wriggle room for Javert regarding the law. I feel a lot of compassion for Javert, he does what he believes to be right.

And Val Jean had become what Javert believed him to be after being imprisoned for years for stealing some bread to feed his sister’s child: a bitter, angry and hardened man. Until that is, he stole some silver ware from a bishop after being paroled, and the bishop showed him forgiveness, love, and challenged him to live differently. Here is Val Jean’s existential crisis, his paradigm shift, when he came to know himself as a loved sinner. We see in Val Jean 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.

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

With such persons the good spirit uses a method … 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 S.J.

Although Val Jean is experiencing great turmoil of spirits in this scene and it is both moving and painful, ultimately, his struggle is spiritual consolation: it leads to a deepened faith in God and to a resolution to live differently, an election if you like. It is to be noted that it was the forgiveness and love, and yes, the lie, of the bishop, that precipitated this crisis in Val Jean. The bishop did not adhere to the law and turn Val Jean in when Val Jean committed the theft, in fact, he gave him more silverware, and it was his choice of love above the law which led to the Val Jean’s spiritual transformation.

I love both of these characters. They show us two possibilities for living and for making choices: they show us the importance of love and its transforming power, and warn of the dangers of too strict adherence to the law, religiosity. I mentioned this before in the story of the man picking up a piece of truth and turning it into a belief. It is what happens to Javert over the years: his uncompromising belief in the law leads him to pride and to a lack of faith in God. When faced with compassion from Val Jean, who has the opportunity to kill Javert and be rid of his relentless hunting of him but instead chooses to spare Javert, and more, to hand himself over to him, Javert’s whole belief system starts to crumble and he too experiences an existential crisis. Unlike Val Jean though, Javert does not turn to God. We get the sense here that Javert has never experienced love, and has never experienced God as love, only as law giver and punisher. Here, in his suicide scene, Javert experiences the ultimate desolation of spirits:

Emotional health warning: this scene is very upsetting and depicts Javert’s suicide.

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.

Javert says:

I have nowhere left to go.

And to me, this is the tragedy, and I grieve for poor, lost Javert. If only someone had loved him, if only he had been able to recognise himself as loved, if only he had turned to God in this moment. I volunteered for a helpline some years ago whose function is to be there for people contemplating suicide. And it seems to me that when people are so deeply into desolation like that, they believe themselves to be unworthy of love. From their perspective, their loved ones love them because they are nice people, not because they themselves are worthy of love. It took more than thirty years for Javert to reach this point, and it was a path he was walking. In the case of others, how, when, how frequently are loving interventions required to encourage another soul to walk a different path?

In the gospels, one of my favourite interactions with Jesus is with the rich young man. We are told:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him…

Mark 10:21

Jesus loved him, before He said anything else, Jesus really looked at him and loved him. And we do not know what this young man did next, after going away sad. I like to think that this interaction set him on a different path, that the disturbance it caused within him led to him following, just as Jesus had invited him to. Sometimes, it takes a while for discernment to be made and commitments to be realised. But, we will never know. It is important to act out of love always, simply for that reason, we might never know the effect of our words, actions and the way we are towards people.

And so, I would end with the words from Les Miserable that once were spoken:

To love another person is to see the face of God.

Les Miserables

and with more music, offered as a prayer:

Rhythm and Religiosity

Rhythm and Religiosity 1: Reading of this Post.

I heard tell of an interview once of a septuagenarian nun where the interviewer had asked her:

Do you never get fed up getting up so early in the morning to pray?

Of course.

She replied. The interviewer then asked her:

Then why do you do it?

To which she replied:

Because the bell rings.

Rhythm or Religiosity? Is it a thing that is done because those are the rules as laid down by the organisation one is working and living in, or is it a rhythm, a habit that flows from one movement to the next without any need to think about it. All that is needed is to relax and go with the flow. Or is it both?

Rhythm and Religiosity 2: Reading of this Post.

Personally, I think that there must be a bit of both. Structures that we put in place are a support, scaffolding, to enable us to be present, to not struggle with every decision that has to be made, by constantly having to make every decision again and again as if it were the first time. I have been a teacher for over twenty five years and my working life has been governed by a timetable: so much so, that while the holidays are desired for the rest and spaciousness of time that they bring; for the break in the constant bombardment that happens in teaching; for the slowness of pace that is difficult, or at times impossible to find during the term time; that very spaciousness of time can be a little scary as it opens up in front of you. A timetable is a rhythm: we know where to be and when, without necessarily thinking about it, we know when to get up and when to go to bed to ensure enough sleep to enable us for what has to be done the next day. There is a safety and a security in it.

But structures that are designed to be supportive might also become limiting, might become the bars of a prison, rather than scaffolding. The daily, weekly, monthly, annually habit become a rut, something that either we are unable to escape from, or are too afraid to escape from; they may become something that hinder rather than help. For example, when I was making the Spiritual Exercises at St. Beunos a few years ago, I fell into a daily rhythm: night time prayer, sleep, wake, prayer, breakfast, review of prayer, meeting with spiritual director, art room – painting, break/coffee, preparation for prayer, prayer, shower, review of prayer, lunch, tai chi and so on. Each day, other than the repose days, was very much the same routine and it flowed naturally from one thing to the next. It seemed to be this way for others in the group too – the same man was in the art room at the same time as me daily; when I was doing tai chi, the same two women walked past me at about the same point each day on their daily walk. The rhythm supported the prayer and engagement with the exercises. But there were a few days when I did not want to paint, I wanted to just walk, or to walk the labyrinth; or I did not want to do tai chi, I wanted to have a long hot soak in the bath instead of tai chi and a shower. These may seem like trivial examples, but they illustrate my point, and when you have withdrawn from the world into the silence of retreat, you do become very sensitive to disruptions in your thoughts, desires and habits. And that is, in a way, the point. So, what to do when the desire is to step out of the routine? I went with what I was drawn to. Spiritual directors talk about noticing the difference between being “driven” and “drawn”. Certainly had I forced myself to paint, or do tai chi at those points because that is what I did every day, it would have been jarring to the movement within in me at those times. Other times, when maybe I did not feel like doing those things, or even dare I say it, the designated prayer, the routine was helpful, because, like the nun with the bell, it was the time to do that activity. What else was I going to do? I had an inner resistance to the “timetabled” activity, not necessarily a feeling of being drawn to something else.

Labyrinth, St. Beunos
Rhythm and Religiosity 3: Reading of this Post.

In The Spiritual Exercises, in the key meditation of the Two Standards, Ignatius invites us to consider the manner in which the enemy works, and compare it to how God works. Of Satan addressing his followers Ignatius makes the point:

Consider the address he makes to them, how he goads them on to lay snares for men and bind them with chains.

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

Of God, he 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.

The difference is in trickery, coercion and force as opposed to attraction, recommendation and essentially, choice. Discernment is about noticing the movements within us, and what is motivating or leading us to choose one action over another. It is as much in the small choices: painting or walking, tai chi or soaking in the bath, as it is in our more important life choices as to a state in life, or what work we do.

We might feel that we ought not to escape from our habits because of our deeply held beliefs. And maybe we are right in that, and maybe we are not. I told the story from “The Song of the Bird” before, about the devil being unbothered about someone picking up a piece of truth. My sense of the meaning in this story is that the devil is hoping for the person to turn the piece of truth they have found into religiosity, a belief that they must cling to, no matter what; a rigid, no negotiation point of view which refuses to consider any others, or discern that this piece of truth may not be relevant any more, or in this particular situation. It would be the jarring situation of me forcing myself to paint, instead of walking the labyrinth, or doing tai chi instead to soaking in the bath, even as I was aware that I was being drawn elsewhere; it is the anxious fear of not being able to step out of the routine that is in itself the desolation. Sometimes, when I sense this feeling in myself, in both the small and big decisions, I tell Him about it:

Dear God, I believe that you are drawing me in this direction so it is what I am going to do. If I am wrong, please forgive my lack of understanding, because my intention is to do what You desire of me.

My anxious fear becomes trust: in the temptation to choose fear and the enemy, I choose faith and God. What is temptation after all but an opportunity to choose God?

The idea of effortless rhythm does appeal to me and I wrote about my resistance to flowing from one state of being to the other. My own spiritual director has since encouraged me to notice, not necessarily my resistance to the movement, but my own negative opinion to my resistance. What is going on there? A while ago I recognised that I was trying to find, actually force, a rhythm in my life that was like a sine wave – introducing some science here – where my own natural rhythm was actually more like a damped harmonic wave.

Rhythm and Religiosity 4: Reading of this Post.

By this I mean, that my focus does not naturally shift easily from one activity to another, in the easy flow represented by the yin and yang. In the damped harmonic graph, the amplitude (intensity) decreases over time. There are also concordant waves (different frequencies for the different properties) all happening together, but there is one that is dominant (the orange one). What this looks like in my life is that there is one thing that my thoughts, desires and actions might be drawn to in the quiet moments in between all that needs to be done just for living. It may be painting, or tai chi, or cycling, or photography; any number of things that capture my imagination. I will be preoccupied with that thing for a while, and my interest will dissipate and move to something else. My director is right to invite me to consider my own negative attitude to my resistance to flow: it is a religiosity, it is telling me something important about myself. Among other things, I am trying to force myself to be something I am not, and as I realise that, I can let it go. My dominant wave recently has been survival of winter, but now that the season is turning, that wave is dissipating, and I can feel both my bike and my camera calling to me, and the garden and my tai chi patio in the garden. Something new is coming to invite me to life and I am open and trusting to what that might be. It is my rhythm. What is yours I wonder? What might you be clinging to religiously, that perhaps is hindering you rather than drawing you more deeply into God?

The Paradigm Shift

The Paradigm Shift 1 : Reading of this post

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

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

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

Life Psalm

I belong to my God and His desire is for me

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

I met Him in the mountains and lochs,

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

I met Him in the silence and the secret places.

I called Him with His sign.

I belong to my God and His desire is for me

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

But I was distracted and looked away.

I don’t want to talk about it because every

Day without Him hurt just a little bit more

And I had probably been crying forever.

I belong to my God and His desire is for me

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

He met me in the quiet of the morning.

He took my hand and danced with me,

Leaving only the memory.

He told me this will heal

Because Love is here, and Love is real.

I belong to my Love and His desire is for me

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

How beautiful is my Love; how amazing.

I yearn for my Love; to be only His.

He forms the pattern and the script of my days.

His desires are mine; my desires are His.

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

I belong to my Love and His desire is for me

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

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

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

How do I live with this?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Emily Dickinson

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

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

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

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

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

to an unhesitant yes.

It is given.

It is what Ignatius means by The Suscipe Prayer:

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

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

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

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

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

I desire it.

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

Robin Laing: When Two Hearts Combine

Tai Chi and Three Kinds of Humility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and he says of spiritual exercises:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let go of all unnecessary resistance.

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

Protect your heart,

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

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

John 8:7

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

I have sinned against heaven and against You.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, here is a question for you:

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

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

Eden is Not the Only Garden.

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

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

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

And they would respond with an eye roll and:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to a frequently heard phrase:

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

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

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

Did Jesus not say:

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

John 8:7

And:

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

Matthew 7: 1-3

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

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

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

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

Gardens, Bodwellian Castle

Does God get what God wants?

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

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

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

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

and on day 7 of the journey she writes:

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

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

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

Yes, of course He does.

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

No, He doesn’t.

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

Does God get what God wants?

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

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

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

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

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

Ignatius says of the reasons for spiritual desolation:

The principal reasons why we suffer from desolation are three:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Job 1:7

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

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

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1732

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive Penance Retreat Day:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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