Hope is an Act of Defiance

I went to see “The Old Oak” at the cinema a few weeks ago. It is a Ken Loach film. I have a lot of respect for Ken Loach, even though I have to confess to it being the first film of his I have gone to see. He makes films that tell the stories of ordinary people living in Britain today and he shows the impact of the policies of the current government on people here who have the least. His films are not easy viewing.

The Old Oak is set in a village in Northern England, not far from Durham in 2016, prior to Brexit. The story is about the settling of some Syrian refugees into the village and the impact of it on the local people and the refugees themselves, and the relationships that develop. I’m not sure exactly why I was moved to see this film but avoided his other films on account of the anticipation that they would be gruelling, all I know is that I was moved to see it and I was deeply moved by it.

I felt angry at the blatant racism of the villagers towards the refugees and the bitterness that they espoused:

I’m not a racist but….

I felt angry at the lack of compassion and the spite that they showed to people who had been displaced from their home and who had nothing. I also felt angry at the deprivation and the hopelessness that the villagers themselves felt at being trapped in poverty in their own lives. And most of all I felt angry that these feelings had been stoked and amplified by the corruption and lies of those in the Brexit leave campaign who later came to form our government. I felt ugly inside and ashamed to be British – a strong, repulsive response. I recognise myself in the first week of the Spiritual Exercises at this response as I contemplate sin and the sins of the world.

A platonic relationship develops between Yara, one of the refugees and the publican Tommy Joe (TJ). In response to an idea from Yara, who was inspired from photos of how the community held together during the miners strike:

When you eat together, you stick together.

He opens up the backroom of his pub to cook community dinners for anyone and every one. The community pulls together to fix up the back room to make it functional for the purpose. However, some of his regulars who had asked for the back room to be opened and he had turned down due to the extensive work needed, sabotaged the room in a pique of spite and the dinners stopped.

The scene that moved me the most in the film took place in Durham Cathedral. We see a small part of that scene in the trailor for the film. Yara and TJ had gone there to collect some food that had been donated. Yara wandered into the cathedral during choir practice and the space, beauty and peace of it contrasted with the apparent bleakness in the rest of the film. She had a conversation with TJ about how her father had been abducted and imprisoned by the Syrian regime. She believed he was still alive at this point because they had had reports that someone had seen him in prison a few weeks previously. Yara talked about how this hope for him to be alive caused her despair. She conveyed that if they knew he was dead, they would know he was no longer suffering, or being tortured and that they would be able to mourn, to move on and live their lives. This conversation broke my heart, and even now as I write about it weeks later it still has the power to move me to tears. How can hope be the source of despair? An yet, there was truth in her words.

I remember the incident in London Bridge some years ago when the driver of a van deliberately ploughed through pedestrians. I’d read an article later somewhere where a mother had commented on her child asking where was God in such a thing. She had told him to look for the helpers, always to look for the helpers. This one simple response has stayed with me since then. It is the helpers and the hope for better that defies the violence that would otherwise overwhelm us.

I read somewhere – I think it was in “God in All Things” by Gerry Hughes – that as long as one person remains who stands up for what is right then evil will not prevail. As St Francis of Assisi puts it:

When I did the Spiritual Exercises, there was a meditation in the first week whereby I imagined myself in a river, seemingly teeming with life, but I was standing in front of an outflow pipe with what was effectively crude oil pouring out of it. I was trying to block it from reaching the children behind me but it was clinging to me and making me sick, and some of it was still managing to flow past me. More recently, I was in this river and in front of the outflow pipe again. This time my body was anointed in a different oil, fragranced with God and the black oil could not cling to me because of it. The words that accompanied this image in my prayer were:

Satan cannot take what belongs to God.

Evil and sin is tricky. Much has been written about it and I certainly don’t have the answer to it. The first week in the Exercises is spent in meditation of it and on contemplating the cross, Ignatius cries out in wonder:

This is a cry of wonder accompanied by a surge of emotion as I pass in review all creatures. How is it that they have permitted me to live, and have sustained me in my life? Why have the angels, though they are the sword of God’s justice, tolerated me, guarded me and prayed for me! Why have the saints interceded for me and asked favours for me!…How is it that the earth did not open and swallow me up, and create new hells in which I should be tormented forever!

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

Like many others around the world, I am completely horrified by the violence currently being perpetrated in the Middle East. As a species, we have an intrinsic tendency towards violence. This point never hit more deeply as when I watched the jubilation portrayed in the film Oppenheimer after the bombs had been dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was sickening. I identified with the man shown vomiting in the bicycle sheds. In God in All Things, Gerry Hughes, who took a stand against violence in his life, talks about our destructive belief in redemptive violence:

Supporters of active non-violent resistance are generally considered to be romantic idealists, who are out of touch with the realities of the violent world in which the weak and oppressed will be trampled on by the ruthless unless the ruthless are deterred by violence.

God In All Things, Gerard W. Hughes

He also says:

Our advocacy of violence is not seen as being in conflict with fundamental Christian belief. If we believe in redemptive violence, we may find ourselves in strange company; in agreement with tyrants, dictators, totalitarian regimes and terrorists throughout the ages.

God In All Things, Gerard W. Hughes

I went on a retreat to Loyola in 2009 which had been organised by Gerry Hughes and I was, and still am, impressed by this quiet, gentle Jesuit priest who held such seemingly radical views. At least, by the response they would illicit in some, you would think they were radical. You would think that condemnation of violence and calling for peace would be obvious, logical, a common desire for everyone. Apparently not. I am proud to be Scottish this week because of the call by Scottish MPs for a ceasefire in the Middle East, and I am ashamed to be British because parliament voted against calling for a ceasefire. I genuinely do not understand it – how can anyone seriously vote against calling for wanton violence and destruction to stop? I may be one of those romantic idealists that Gerry Hughes was referring to, and I may be politically naive without a solution to the problems, but still. Surely the first step to stop the killing is to stop the justification of the killing?

When the scapegoat mentality takes hold in a country it destroys any sense of proportion, threatens to banish the rule of law, tends to demonise any who are suspected, and frightens people from speaking the truth, lest they are accused of colluding with the accused.

God In All Things, Gerard W. Hughes

While I recognise a grain of truth in Yara’s words in Durham Cathedral, and agree within the context in which she spoke them, I don’t agree in a general sense. Hope is the defiance of the violence we see. It is the message of the cross, it is the message of all of those who stand for peace. We dare to hope for more than the violence we are capable of, and while there is one person alive who advocates for love, there is hope. There are many of us and the darkness cannot extinguish this light. This hope is our defiance and we dare to speak it out.

40 Day Journey’s End: Day 6

I have now made this 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich three times. These reflections are from my first time making the journey. The second and third time I shared my reflections directly in the online sessions I led with The Friends of Julian of Norwich. Current day retrospective reflections on the journey are in italics.

…filled full of everlasting surety…

…weary of my life…

…God gave me…


I will fill you full of surety.

This was an interesting prayer. Julian is describing the oscillation between desolation and consolation, and notes that this is how life is. I am writing this review the morning after the prayer and noticing that I am not feeling the same consolation , the surety, that I did during the prayer and immediately afterwards. I am feeling more weary of my life.

I have been asked to consider standing for a position on a spirituality network and I have oscillated from “I can’t possibly” (it would mean taking days off school) to “I can ask and leave the discernment up to school” to “I can’t possibly ask because they are threatening me with “formal” attendance procedure because I have had more than ten days off sick this year. In my prayer, there felt like a surety , that I should ask, that it was the answer to a prayer, more spirituality work and less teaching. Even if it only amounts to five days, it is in line with what I asked for and the discernment is up to to Head in the end.

This reflection on my prayer was written in January 2020, before the pandemic and the changes it wrought on the world at large and personally. For me it is fascinating to look back on the previous paragraph now that I have moved some distance away from it. I can see clearly the flattery and appeal to my pride in my work, the underlying message of “we think you would be really good at this and we need someone to take it up”; the temptation to overwork. I can see clearly the desire for more of God by asking for more spirituality work and less of the education system which was making me sick. Even the seeds of my poor health now were sprouting at that time. As I reflect on this passage now, I feel a deep sense of peace and joy at how this prayer has been answered in my life, yes, even though I have a permanent health condition.

Questions to Ponder

What is the danger of relying too heavily on one’s present mood or feelings on gauging God’s love for you?

The danger of relying too heavily on one’s mood or feelings in gauging God’s love is evident on the above reflection. I’m not gauging God’s love on my mood, only trying to discern His will for me.

In Ignatian spirituality, it is important to notice our feelings and moods, because they are telling us something about what is going on deeply within us and discernment is helped by noticing. In this day of the Journey, Julian in describing what Ignatius calls turmoil of spirits.

…I call consolation every increase in faith, hope and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly…

…I call desolation…darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations…

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

It is not just about feeling good or bad though, sorrow can also be spiritual consolation:

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.

Our moods and feelings are our own, an indicator of what is happening within us, not a projected conclusion about God’s regarding of us. Discerned listening to our emotions is the conversation, as one friend speaks to another, that cements our relationship and intimacy with God.

How do we help people in depression?

I went through a period of depression once, so I answered this question in terms of how I wanted to be treated during that time. I do not know if it generally true, but I expect at least some of it might be.

Just be a loving presence, making no demands of them; just letting them know that you are there; including them in things – even if they regularly refuse, ask- ; not criticising them or getting upset by their abruptness. (I remember trying to make light-hearted jokes when I was depressed, but they came out as sarcastic and acerbic.)

…I seek refuge…rescue me…be a rock…a strong fortress…

I’ve been feeling tired and low, and desperate to get out of teaching. Even though I’ve decided that I need to stay for another two years, I want to leave. I want to be rescued from it. But He asked me:

What do you want to be rescued from?

And I replied:

The destructiveness of my job; what is destructive to the kids and to me.

It felt like asking to live well within this election, while at the same time knowing that the choice is already made about when to leave. Then I was standing on the rock with the sea swirling all around but I was grounded and safe. The choice is between a rock and a hard place and I will always choose the rock. To wear it as a strong fortress is to live well within this election. I am not a dewey eyed NQT – I have grown cynical of the system within which I work, but I will stay and work the best I can within it, without being open or giving my heart to it. I will protect myself: or, He will protect me actually. Time to be the warrior in the garden.

Again, reading about this first journey now that I am a little removed from it in time and experience, I am still amazed how God hears us and answers us; how when we accept the here and now and express our feelings and desire to Him as part of the ongoing conversation in our relationship with Him; how when we hand over ourselves in trust to Him, He delivers us. Maybe by strengthening us in where we are now, or maybe by answering our prayer directly to save us or fulfill our desire, or maybe a combination. In retrospect, I didn’t stay for the two years that I had discerned was necessary at the time I made this prayer, I stayed for just over half of it. It reminds me of something I read once that stuck in my head:

It is laudable to ask God for what we want. And dangerous.

I would liken it to a monkey trap or the hand in the sweetie jar situation. While we are holding on too tightly to how we want or think it ought to be, we are stuck. But when we ask and trust and then let go, we get out of God’s way, we are free. Sometimes it is then that our desires are fulfilled, but in God’s way, not necessarily how we imagined it.

Journal Reflections

Write about your times of highs and lows in prayer.

Highs in prayer:

The feeling of safety and that absolutely nothing else matters but this; the experience of the eternal moment; God time.

Lows in prayer:

Not being in it; waiting for the alarm to go off and feeling physically uncomfortable or bored with it.

When you experience despair or need are there any biblical stories or characters whose experience echoes yours?

Does it help to find your experience in the Bible?

Experiencing despair or need:

Job; Jeremiah when he laments that God has overwhelmed him; Psalm 31 -Out of the depths. These are the places of scripture that I find my experience. Also The Good Samaritan and the Woman at the Well are among my favourite places. It does help to find my own experiences in scripture and imaginative contemplation is excellent for that.

What helps to anchor your experience of God beyond your changing moods or shifting perceptions of yourself?

Prayer helps to anchor my experience of God beyond my moods; and sometimes carrying a prayer card or a business card with and excerpt from scripture (or Al Anon) on it also helps, as well as a totem eg. holding cross or my travelling icon.

The Female Election

After writing about Barbie making an election, and in general with questions I’m asking about myself and my life, together with conversations with my own spiritual director, I have been thinking a lot about my own election. I made my election, my choice for a way of life a few months before I did The Spiritual Exercises and it was confirmed during the Exercises. I wasn’t aware at the time I was making an election, just wrestling with life, which to be honest, is a regular state of affairs, but in the conversation with my director he asked a very rare, and very deliberate closed question:

This sounds to me that you are making an election here. Is that what you are doing? Are you making an election?

I was already training to be a spiritual director so he knew I knew what it meant. My director very rarely asks closed questions like this and if he notices he has, he reframes the question to make it more open. Not here though: this felt deliberate and as such, I knew it was important. No matter what I answered here, yes or no, it would change my life. A denial would not be honest and would be a turning away from what I was being called to, and admitting it would (and did) bring about an avalanche that turned my world upside down. It’s not my intention here to go into the nitty gritty details of my own election, simply to offer a contemplation of the choices of a way of life from the female perspective. As with the Barbie post, yes, men do make elections and here, I am reflecting on the choices from the position of female as norm.

The featured image on this post is a photograph I created after being inspired by a Vanitas/Memento Mori painting in the Kelvingrove Art gallery in Glasgow about six months after I returned from The Exercises. I don’t remember the name of the artist or the painting, but I was captivated by it. In an interesting convergance, it was that very day that I came down with glanduar fever which first triggered the ME/CFS I experience now. I can relate that to something in my experience of The Exercises – maybe I will write about it another time. Up until today, I have never explained what this picture is about to anyone other than my art teacher/artist friend and my director.

The first thing to notice is the darkness surrounding the image, and how difficult it is to see some aspects around the edges. It is intentional; to suggest that our choice for a way of life emerges from a lack of vision and clarity, and even from the darkness of the “wrong” choices we make on our journey to get there. To go back to how Barbie describes election:

Not someone I become, but who I discover I am.

Barbie, The Barbie Movie

When my attention was drawn to the painting in the Kelvingrove, my art teacher/artist friend was unenamoured by it. I told her the painting was about sex and she asked me increduously:

How are you getting sex from that?

So I explained. My photo is also about sex on the surface, but like the painting that inspired it, it is about so much more than that. So let’s look at the details more closely, moving from left to right, bearing in mind that the picture is a contemplation – lots of questions, but not necessarily answers.

In the original painting in the art gallery, there was a set of armour, sword(s) and a half open jewellery box with pearl beads pouring out of it. In the language of memento mori, such things represented power and wealth and the images are inherently masculine and patriarchal, with the allusions to war and “ownership” of women. Here in my photo, I have used a corset and high black leather high heels as symbols of female sexual power. The riding crop and whip serve as replacements for the swords in the original painting and further emphasise female sexual power by their explicit reference to sexual bondage and the image of the dominatrix. The rope and chains drive that image home. The ropes and chains are also representative of what binds and enslaves us, be it patriarchy, sin etc. – fill in the gaps here for yourself. In the first instance, the question or intention is to subvert male power and to put the female in control of her election, it is not a choice to be made in submission to patriarchal authority.

The rose in this part of the image symbolises two things. The first is eternal life. This is a motif used by Seiger Koder, an artist whose work I love. The second is romantic love – the secular understanding of a red rose. The rose is facing away, to the back, which suggests that the meaning is perverted or negated; this is not eternal life or romantic love. To the right of this section there is a bottle of erotic oil, a glass bauble with red fractured glass and a purse spilling out thirty pieces of silver. The oil is reminiscent of the woman of ill repute in scripture anointing Jesus’s feet while he dined with the pharisees. Is this an erotic act? In the film Pulp Fiction, the John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson characters spend some time at the beginning of the film arguing about whether their gangster boss beating someone for massaging his wife’s feet was or was not an overreaction.

NB: There is a lot of swearing in this scene, so if you are sensitive or offended by such, please don’t watch it.

The appropriateness of it is open to question. And there is also the implict understanding that when Mary anointed Jesus feet at the last supper, that she was anointing him for death. The red in the image is symbolic of desire and the black of sin and death. The bauble is standing in for a bubble, which in the language of Vanitas means something transient, temporary, short lived and the fractured red glass is suggesting the fragility of our desires, especially sexual desire, and their incoherent and unintegrated nature. The thirty pieces of silver of course, represent betrayal with their implicit reference to Judas Iscariot, but in the context of everything else in the image, they suggest prostitution, a women selling her body, trading in her sexuality for material gain. This part of the image speaks about a certain type of woman or the sexuality of all women, and how woman are judged and criticised in the patriarchy for being the “wrong sort of woman” whether they are or are not. How many women reading have been called those names, and by men (and other women) in the church? I know I have. This part of the picture is about female sexuality, where we are strong, where it is used against us, where we are betrayed by it, even possibly by our own sexual desire.

The central part of the photo provides the counterpoint. The triangulation of the purse spilling out the thirty pieces of silver, the broken pestle and mortar and the key on the pillow raises the question of marriage. In memento mori language, a key on a pillow symbolises marriage. They key is held by a red ribbon, red again being symbolic of desire. I suggested earlier that the purse and the money pointed to betrayal, so the proximity of these items in the overall picture is to question the betrayal of marriage with respect to women. In our not so distant past – and still with some in the present – the dictat was that the husband “owned” the wife; he kept her and she served and obeyed him. It is in the traditional marriage vows a woman might take in the church. The purpose of the woman was to secure a good husband, where the emphasis of “good” was around material wealth. It was only in the year after I moved to England that it became legally possible for a man to be accused and tried for raping his wife. The pestle and mortar represent male and female. The empty mortar suggests female virginity – something to aspire to (although that’s a contradiction in itself) but not for too long: wife and mother is the ultimate suggested reality for women. The broken pestle may be suggestive of a broken patriarchy, although it was not what I intended when I created the photo. It was more to represent the rejection of sexual relationships with men and with it the rejection of marriage, and to present an alternative choice of celibacy in this image. Women rejecting marriage is on the increase I hear and I acknowledge that in my contemporary culture at least, there is a wider range of choice open to woman, but again, not without its pressures. I read something a long time ago that stuck in my mind. It was in praise of convents and the religious life because historically they offered a woman a respectable and acceptable alternative to marriage. Marriage is one of the key choices to be made in the election.

There are some things which fall under unchangeable election, such as are the priesthood, marriage, etc. There are others which fall under an election that can be changed, such as are to take benefices or leave them, to take temporal goods or rid oneself of them.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola translated by Elder Mullan

For a woman, to marry is a huge social pressure point: the church tells us we should, Disney tells us we should, the fairy stories tell us we should, Rom Coms, the whole of society tells us we should. But what if we were to say no? The traditional choices as presented when I was growing up were to marry or become a nun. The latter was not the desirable choice and held the unspoken undercurrent that it was a waste of a life. It might even have been spoken out on occasions, it was definitely a palpable opinion.

Also on the pillow or cushion is a copy of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. It is the actual book that was given to each of us as a gift when we had completed The Exercises. It is open on the page of the election and represents the choice being made. The open padlock on the pillow is suggestive of freedom – the freedom from those chains and ropes that bind us in some form of slavery, and the freedom to be who God is calling us to be.

The positioning of the guitar at this point was inspired by a set of classical guitar music books I have that line up a guitar with a woman lying down.

The positioning of it behind the marriage cushion is to make the often made link between “wife and mother” with the implication of roundness in the abdomenal area. Again, questions around the choices and societal positions of women around childbirth. Even this issue of reproduction was raised in the Barbie movie and in Barbie’s election.

Before looking at the last section of the photo, I just want to connect the structure of the image in a similar way as I did when I was looking at the Ecstasy of St. Francis by Caravaggio. In the Positive Penance post I likened the downward movement to a deconstruction of our false self and the upward movement as a reconstruction, bringing us closer to our true self in God. In Caravaggio’s image, the gaze of Francis is to God, even though his eyes are shut. In my photo, the counterpoint is in The Spritual Exercises, specifically in The Election. It is where the movement changes from deconstruction of the false self on the left to reconstruction of the true self in God on the right of the image. So, let’s look in more detail at the elements on the right hand section of the photo.

The sunflower is opposite the backward facing rose with the purpose of opposing it. It is upright and is facing forward, the “right” way. The sunflower symbolises devotion, and it’s uprightness and forwardness indcates that it is the intended meaning, rather than inversion or perversion. The intention is that it is devotion to God. It is beginning to open, suggestive of awakening. Sunflower is also, obviously, one of my spiritual alter egos and was the name I was called by in many (but not all) of the imagnitive contemplations I did during The Exercises. It’s inclusion here for me is personal and intimate, and by extension, The Election is personal and intimate for everyone who makes it. The white vase, the holding vessel, symbolises the purity of the intention with which the choice is made when the conversation throughout the process is with God. The page is a copy of the front page of the Exercises, which emphasises this process and that it is for the greater glory of God. The necklace is on a purple ribbon which reaches back to the open page on the pillow. The purple signifies suffering, or the price of discipleship, which is the theme that develops more deeply through the third week of the Exercises after the Election is made as we walk with Jesus through His passion and death. We begin to understand a bit more deeply the meaning of our undertaking. The necklace is an image used in The Song of Songs to mean the yoke of God and it is in this picture a spiral, which I visualise as one path leading more deeply into God. The image of the spiral path is one of the central themes in my mandalas.

The skull represents contemplation in memento mori art, and this one I have and use in my Vanitas photos has roses on it. I said earlier that I am using the rose as a symbol of eternal life, inspired by the artwork of Seider Koder, so this skull in my Vanitas photos means contemplative prayer. The books it sits on are previous diaries of mine – they represent “before” in this image. Obviously there are many personal details of my life in those books that have led me to this point. The book on top of the diaries is an old illustrated bible history I found when I was a child around the age of seven years old and I kept. I remember it clearly as a touchstone experience. The upright book behind the skull is a blank notebook of the type I use for my diaries. It is the new way of being after The Election, that is yet to be written.

The candle represents the soul, and here it is on fire. The “hour glass” (actually minutes) represents time, eternity, the fleeting moments of this mortal life and God time, which to my understanding is every moment all at once. The wine represents everything that we are familiar with: the covenant with God and in the language of the mystics, spiritual wisdom. The glass I have used here was a gift from a friend and it has my name etched onto it. Again, The Election is our own personal covenant with God. Part of the rope from the bindings on the other side of the photo appears here, and the meaning in the context of the items on this side of the picture is freedom from what enslaves us.

To take in the image as a whole then is to recognise that the choices of a way of life for women are loaded with expectations and judgements that may pressure us one way or another to live lives where we are not being our authentic selves because we have absorbed the limitations that patriarchal institutions and society have placed on us. The Exercises and the Election contained within allow us the sacred space to have the conversation with God about who we are in Him, who He is calling us to be (not necessarily do), or in the immortal words of Barbie:

Not someone I become, but who I discover I am.

Barbie, The Barbie Movie

My photo is my visual expression of that journey and my experiences of the pressures to be a particular way as a woman in the society in which I live. The point of the election, the moment when you understand who you are is the most liberating feeling in the world because you can confidently put down everything that is not you. There may be painful changes to be made as a result but His yoke is indeed light.

Dualism, Dichotomy and Discernment

The first time I became aware that I didn’t know what “dichotomous” meant was when I was beginning my PhD in Atmospheric Chemistry and part of the project was described as collecting “dichotomous rain and aerosol samples”. Of course, I looked it up in the dictionary:

Dividing or branching into two pieces.

In the context of my research project, these dichotomous samples were to be collected simultaneously to get a deeper understanding of what processes were going on with trace metals in the atmosphere. My online dictionary elaborates on such a division as involving apparently incompatible or opposite principles, a duality. But other definitions of dichotomy include:

The division of a class into two disjoint sub-classes that are together comprehensive (logic)

The division of a genus into two species: a division into two subordinate parts. (biology, taxonomy)

There is a subtle difference between duality and dichotomy and if I were to sum up what I mean by the title of this post I would say it is about discernment when we have two opposite things going on at the same time, when we are split in two. In Ignatian terms, discernment in such conditions is most likely to be second time choice – involving turmoil of spirits – or third time choice, where there is indifference. Ignatius gives a very useful tool for making decisions by third time choice.

This will be to weigh the matter by reckoning the number of advantages that would accrue to me…solely for the praise of God our Lord…I would do the same with the second alternative, that is, weigh the advantages and benefits as well as the disadvantages and danger of not having it.

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

Third time choice can be worked out using a table:

I should apply for the job at School. I should NOT apply for the job at School.
Advantages Disadvantages Advantages Disadvantages

Church school – ethos  
Has a prayer room!  
Energy to pursue spiritual direction
Hassle of moving when I’m settled  
Would feel disloyal to people who have supported me  
Familiarity – established here   Good colleagues I know I work well with Have not enjoyed being here since last years stress
An partial example of making a third time choice.

While I have a few notable experiences of what Ignatius describes as first and third time choice, by far my most common experience of discernment involves wrestling with the turmoil of spirits as Ignatius describes when he is talking about spiritual desolation:

I describe desolation…as darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to the want of faith, want of hope, want of love….

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

Although we might view spiritual consolation and desolation as a duality, maybe that is an over simplification and our experienced reality is more of a dichotomy in the sense that I’m thinking about two opposite things going on at the same time. Ignatius gives some good advice for when we find ourselves in desolation:

6. Although in desolation we ought not to change our first resolutions, it is very helpful intensely to change ourselves against the same desolation, as by insisting more on prayer, meditation, on much examination, and by giving ourselves more scope in some suitable way of doing penance.

7. Let him who is in desolation consider how the Lord has left him in trial in his natural powers, in order to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy; since he can with the Divine help, which always remains to him, though he does not clearly perceive it: because the Lord has taken from him his great fervor, great love and intense grace, leaving him, however, grace enough for eternal salvation.

8. Let him who is in desolation labor to be in patience, which is contrary to the vexations which come to him: and let him think that he will soon be consoled, employing against the desolation the devices, as is said in the sixth Rule

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola translated by Elder Mullan

In the context of this post and the current turmoils in my life, I have been thinking about the fourth of the twelve steps:

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Alcoholics Anonymous: The Twelve Steps

When I did the work on this step as a young woman I used the workbook “Blueprint for Progress” that was suggested and designed for this purpose. One of the aspects in the presentation was different characteristics and their opposites, and we are invited to propose where we sit in the scale in between them. We are asked to describe examples that support our self assessment. It is not so easy as it sounds.

I know that I brought a wealth of judgement to each pair of characteristics. Take for example, selfish and unselfish. Straight away, there is the judgement that unselfish is good, selfish is bad, and I want to be unselfish. And actually I did and still do think that I am closer to unselfish than selfish on such a linear scale. But, and here is the kicker, what if being too unselfish is not a “good” thing, what if it is something that actually leads to spiritual desolation? It is a common misconception that spiritual consolation is what feels good and that spiritual desolation feels bad. Ignatius says:

We must carefully observe the whole course of our thoughts…But the course of thought suggested to us may terminate in something evil, or distracting, or less good than the soul had formerly proposed to do. Again it may end in what weakens the soul, or disquiets it; or by destroying the peace, tranquility, and quiet which it had before, it may cause disturbance to the soul. These things are a clear sign that the thoughts are proceeding from the evil spirit, the enemy of our progress an eternal salvation.

Notice, that Ignatius is talking about our thoughts and not necessarily our actions, even though these thoughts may lead to a particular course of action. How does it relate to the duality I was describing above? It comes down to those two very useful discernment questions:

Where does my impulse to be unselfish come from?

Where does it lead?

For me, sometimes, it is a critical voice in my head telling me not to be so selfish, and it is sometimes loud and sometimes quiet. It brings with it a feeling of shame, of not being good enough, and it emotionally blackmails me to over generosity, which ultimately leads to resentment and enslavement to fear. Being unselfish may be good, but if the reality of it is as I just described, I am describing spiritual desolation, not spiritual consolation. John Ortberg offers a similar dualism in “The Me I Want to Be” when he talks about signature sin in relation to our strengths and weaknesses. He describes our signature sin as being our greatest strength overreaching.

We come to know ourselves as loved sinners in the Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises and my own inner journey and listening to others has shown me that we are creatures of mixed motives: our pure motives to do the good and right thing which is more for the glory of God gets hijacked by other movements which can pull us off course from the greater good and we find ourselves in spiritual desolation as Ignatius describes it. In effect what I am suggesting is that the duality of spiritual consolation and desolation may be happening simultaneously, and may be the experience of turmoil of spirits.

I read an article on Linked In this week on The Art of Enough. (The Art of Enough; 7 ways to build a balanced life and a flourishing world). I was drawn by the diagram to begin with because it resonated with what I have been pondering and writing about.

On the one hand, there is the duality of the two extremes and on the other there is the position of balance in between the two extremes. Ignatius talks about equilibrium in the annotations:

Therefore, the directors of the Exercises, as a balance at equilibrium, without leaning to one side or the other, should permit the Creator to deal directly with the creature and the creature to deal with his Creator and Lord.

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

The things is, my subject is chemistry, and in chemistry “equilibrium” means something subtly different. It is firstly dynamic: the forward and backward reactions are ongoing, reactants turning into products and products turning into reactants at the same rate. Secondly, the equilibrium position is not necessarily in the middle of the two extremes as represented in the diagram or in popular understanding, but can be anywhere between the dualities. In terms of Ignatius’s instructions to the spiritual director, they should position themselves in the centre so as not to influence the directee to make a particular discernment, but the position of equilibrium the directee reaches may not be in the centre. In chemistry, when a reversible reaction is set up, it takes some time to reach equilibrium and if it is disturbed in some way by changing conditions, it settles back into its equilibrium position, wherever that was. What if turmoil of spirits is a bit like this? What if turmoil of spirits is a multi faceted process where we oscillate between spiritual consolation and desolation in our discernment process until we finally come to our equilibrium point which may be indifference in the centre, but closer to one duality than the other in terms of the decision or action we take? To be selfish rather than unselfish, angry rather than meek, soft rather than hard? My work on Positive Penance has deeply impacted my thinking here.

I used to do a review of my year at the end of the year by picking a mood or process word to summarise each month and I would make some sort of summary picture from it. One year, the word I chose was oscillation and when I googled it for an image it gave me a paisley pattern.

Blue paisley background, traditional Indian pattern illustration vector

I imagine discernment of spirits as being like this pattern, with the oscillation beginning in the wide section and moving gradually ever closer to the the point where a decision is made and there is peace. It is the final point of consolation where we are indifferent and have decided, with God, on our course. It may not be in the centre of our duality, but we are at our equilibrium position.

We are not two dimensional creatures however and the Al Anon book I referred to earlier set up many such dualities covering a lot of different personality traits and leading to many different equilibrium positions. Moreover, like a chemical equilibrium, our position may change depending on our circumstances at any given time so we are always in movement. Discernment ultimately is about being sensitive to those movements, to connect with God to notice whether the movement is leading us closer or further away from Him: spiritual consolation or spiritual desolation. It’s not that we can control those movements per say, it may be more like when we shine and x-ray on electrons: they absorb the energy and move away. We know where they were, but not where they are. Being aware of how we moved into spiritual desolation, with the grace of God, can be enough to turn us around and to guard against something similar in the future.

Barbie Makes an Election

Like half the rest of the population, I went to see the Barbie film. Twice, actually. Once to see it and as I pondered it this post began to formulate in my mind, I realised that I needed to see it again for clarity on what I was thinking. Suffice to say I enjoyed it in the fluffiest and most feminist of ways and I found it provoking deeper thoughts around the role of women in society, as it was intended to do. That very naturally led to election in The Spiritual Exercises, and my own election that I made just before I did the Exercises and which was confirmed for me during them.

What about men? They make elections too. Let’s get that one out of the way before getting into it. There has been much commentary on social media about Ken and the place of the Ken’s in the movie. I’ve been exploring the spirituality of the Beguines recently and a man reassured me that there were male Beguines too. It’s the same point. In the patriarchal world in which we live, male is norm. Ken realised that patriarchy worked better for him and he wanted it and then actively sought to take over Barbieland. So in the spirit of The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed, I am putting the male norm on the shelf and focusing on how and where it might be different from the female perspective. Sure, you may be a male reading this post and finding similarities and common interests. I celebrate the Alan in you, and invite you to step into our frame of reference where female is norm. I’m not going to argue against the patriarchy, I’m simply taking the point of view that female is norm.

I’m not going to try to avoid spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen the film yet and you want to, you might want to stop reading at this point and come back later. I’ll leave that up to you.

In the film, Barbie experiences an existential crisis and her belief system crashes. She meets her creator twice and has what can be described as a colloquy about her choice for a way of life. She can no longer live as she did before and she makes her election. We see her begin to live it in the last scene.

I have to confess that I found the last scene disappointing and unsatisfying on my first viewing. I thought:

What exactly does that mean?

Greta Gerwig addresses ‘mic-drop’ ending in Barbie movie

My eldest also didn’t appreciate the ending that much either. For me though, it was exactly the point because I was left questioning. I now think it is a very clever ending.

The journey towards the election, and it is represented as a journey, begins with unease, sadness and confusion. It’s a movement from a superficial eternity of perfection (a loaded word) and peace for Barbie to disturbance, conflict and the sense of not being good enough; a movement from a place where she is affirmed and loved to where she is surrounded by critical voices and people of dubious motive presenting themselves as having her best interests at heart. I’m thinking about Mattel as I say this. I didn’t like Mattel from the off and I found Barbie’s implicit trust of them a little disconcerting. It has taken me a while to unpack it. In spite of the pink shirt and tie on the CEO and the heart shaped conference table, the board were all men. Empowerment of girls was given lip service as it was stated explicitly:

What we are really about is sparkle.

They exemplified the conversation Ken had with one man in the real world:

You guys are not doing patriarchy very well.

To which the man replied:

We are. We are just hiding it better.

Barbie moves from trust in Mattel to mistrust as the men of the board try to persuade her to “get back in her box”, to be as they prescribe she should be. I was so pleased when she ran away from them. Here she was trusting the voice inside and recognising that there was something not quite right in the coercive behaviour of those who were supposedly looking out for her. As we grow more deeply in our own faith journey, whether we are at the beginning of a conversion experience or living with the consequences of our conversion, when the dust has begun to settle, we may find ourselves experiencing pressure from our loved ones to have things go back to the way they were before, for us to “get back in our box”. In the scene I have just described, Barbie is fairly near the beginning of her conversion process, but there is another scene towards the end of the movie, just before she definitively makes her election where Mattel, again, seek to define her by telling her that she is in love with Ken. Barbie denies it outright and looks to her Creator.

She first meets her creator when she runs away from Mattel and although she doesn’t recognise Her explicitly, she finds an oasis of peace in Her presence, and she trusts Her implicitly. Barbie is able to be her now imperfect self and her Creator helps her to escape from Mattel. It is in her next meeting with the Creator that Barbie makes her election. As I said earlier, she is unable to live as she did before: she cannot simply get back in her box. As a result of the journey she has made and the turmoil of spirits she has experienced, she is different, no longer stereotypical Barbie. So what does she do now? -my favourite bit – she takes a walk with her Creator and has a conversation. To me, she expresses the nature of The Election in the second week of the Spiritual Exercises beautifully. She says to her Creator:

Not someone I become, but who I discover I am.

In the introduction to the consideration of different states of life, St Ignatius closes with this paragraph:

Therefore, as some introduction to this, in the next exercise, let us consider the intention of Christ our Lord, and on the other hand, that of the enemy of our human nature. Let us also see how we ought to prepare ourselves to arrive at perfection in whatever state or way of life God our Lord may grant us to choose.

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

In talking about being real meaning she will no longer be perfect and that mortality leads to death, the Creator tells Barbie that she could not let her make the choice without being fully aware of what it meant. Making an election in the second week of The Exercises immediately precedes the third week , where we walk with Jesus to His passion and death, contemplating the price of discipleship in the process. The result of the conversation with her Creator is that Barbie makes the election to become a real woman and the film ends with her making a visit to her gynaecologist, the implication being that she now has a full reproductive system. The symbolism in this final realisation is multi layered and coming at it from a culture war, gender politics perspective is not in my remit or area of expertise and it is a bitter battleground as far as I can tell from what I read or see on social media. Here I choose to remain consistent in my theme of my analysis of the Barbie movie in the context of the Spiritual Exercises and of the Election process within that context. Quite simply it represents to me that Barbie, after her journey and a deep conversation with her Creator, has made the life giving choice: she has stepped away from the misguided direction of those who would keep her as she always was; she has drawn inspiration from her friends who have supported and encouraged her in her journey and has committed to a new way of life, fully aware of the price of it.

I enjoyed this film because it is so much more than superficial pink and sparkle. It is a clever film that is multi faceted and multi levelled, and has something important to say whatever your perspective. In the true Ignatian tradition of God in all things, God is there too in that life changing colloquy as one friend speaks to another.

40 Day Journey’s End: Day 5

Here I am still presenting my reflections from the first time I made the 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich from Lisa Dahill’s book of that name. On day 5 of the journey, on the first part of it, the phrases that stuck with me while I was praying were:

…reverent contemplation … marvelling with great reverence …my spirit rejoices in God…He has looked with favour…

I remember vividly my imaginative contemplation of The Annunciation from when I made  The Spiritual Exercises going into the second week. Mary had the audacity to desire to have God’s child. I spent a lot of time in this prayer with the word reverence and reverent, on what it means to regard something or someone with reverence: wonder and awe. And it dawned on me, in recent sprayers when He has been holding me, this has been His demeanour: reverence. I was gobsmacked (or Godsmacked!) when that sank in. How could He possibly view me with  reverence? Yet there it was: love, tenderness and reverence. I am precious and sacred to Him; He looks at me with wonder and awe. Like Mary, my response was for my spirit to rejoice because He looks at me with such favour. Here, I am just like her marvelling with great reverence at His greatness when faced with my own littleness.

In the “Questions to ponder” section day 5, I made note of some things. The first is that Julian’s vision of Mary is one my faith tradition can embrace. My church likes the idea of her meekness. What is special about her for me though, is her audacity, and that in seeing her in this way, I might come to regard her as my friend. I’m still a little shy on that one though. The second is that our culture understands humility as weakness and treats it with contempt. By looking at Jesus, I understand it as truth, honesty and strength; to know who you are and to be unafraid to live by it.

…with great reverence that He was willing…

To me, this is the phrase that recast the understanding of humility to mean degrading. The other perspective is that humility is a liberating gift from God because it frees us to live as we truly are in Him to be our true self in God, rather than try to fit ourselves into the uncomfortable mould of worldly expectations.

serene woman in colorful headscarf
Photo by Dids on Pexels.com

When praying the second part of this journey with day 5,  these are the phrases that stood out for me in the prayer:

I lift up my soul… teach the lowly your way… teach me Your way…

I saw myself sitting on the ground where I had  just dug up my treasure from the field – my immortal diamond: my soul, my free will. I handed it to Him,  saying the first phrase over and over:

I lift up my soul

The freedom to be who he would have maybe – the deepest desire of my soul. I said my own suscipe prayer to Him and asked Him to teach me His way. Still within and part of the prayer, I then seemed to be distracted then by all the chores I had to do, and about getting my things ready for work the next day, except, I noticed that there was an absence of the usual stress and anxiety around all of that. I understood that it was Him showing me his way: to just do, without thinking about it, to be in the present, preparing, but not worrying about tomorrow. It was a “just do it” sort of feeling. It is for me to just do what has to be done in a relaxed “being the moment” way – no drive or push; no pressure, just as it is. After the prayer, I sorted my clothes for work the next day and I  cleaned the kitchen. I had my well-being plan. It was just to do it, simple things. I had been  watching a Chinese internet star, her films of a simple rural life. It was her demeanour, just to do. He was smiling at me then.

As I reflected on this prayer and on the  journal reflections suggested in the 40 Day Journey book,  I noticed that I experienced myself as little at work. When other people saw me just a classroom teacher” when I have had so much more experience than that and they don’t know it. It was okay though,  because putting myself in that position was all part of the stepping back, ruined for life experience of The Spiritual Exercises and my rejection of being overstretched by my pride.  I struggled with the second reflection, not sure I can accept the premise of being pregnant with God. From praying with the Song of songs,  I can relate to Him as a lover but can’t get my head around him being my child. Maybe it is an image to pray with another day. The third point,  on the prospect of total availability to God,  provoked the same feeling of desire in me and yearning for Him, to  be able to live always and fully in that state of saying yes.  I can pray:

Here I am Lord.

Are you impressed?

ornamental dome of grand catholic cathedral

I’ve received a text message this week from an organisation that I do some work for. Here is what it said:  

We are really impressed by your past experience and your background. We firmly believe that you are a valuable asset to our college. 

It reminded me of another email I received a few months ago from another organisation I was doing some work for. The email began 

Thanks again for your excellent sample chapter- we were really impressed with how well you understood the brief and the quality of your content. 

I started to think about my previous job, and I tried to remember the last time someone in my previous job told me they were impressed with my work. I’m sorry to say I can’t remember when that happened. Here in my new job, I’ve heard it twice in the last three months. It made me feel quite sad. I’m thinking about the teachers who have just voted to strike in the UK and how undervalued they are. I was part of the union that has voted to strike and would have voted with the 90%. 

I am also currently involved in “The 40-day Journey with Julian of Norwich” with the Friends of Julian of Norwich. In this last month we have been praying with Day 13 to Day 16 of the journey and on Day 15 the reading from Julian says: 

God also showed me that sin is no shame but honour to us… shame is no more in the bliss of heaven – for there the tokens of sin are turned into owners. 

40 day Journey with Julian of Norwich, edited Lisa E. Dahill
close up photo of splashed water
Photo by Ave Calvar Martinez on Pexels.com

As all these thoughts swirled around my brain I found myself thinking of the feeling of not being good enough and of spiritual desolation. I found myself thinking of the critical voices, those voices that tell us that we are worthless, unworthy, it’s all our fault: the “mea culpa” that has us feeling guilty and ashamed. 

What does it feel like when someone tells us that they are impressed by something we have done? Is the temptation to dismiss what has been said? After all, no one likes a show off. It may be false humility. 

In the first week of the Spiritual Exercises by St Ignatius of Loyola the focus of the prayer is sin: our own personal sin, original sin, the sin of the world: and the grace of the first week that we asked for at the beginning of prayer is for sorrow for our sins. Importantly, the First Week of the Exercises comes after the Principle and Foundation, and it is important to enter the first week knowing that we are loved by God. How else could we bear shame of our sinfulness? 

How does it feel in the Principal and Foundation when we experience ourselves to be loved by God? Julian very famously talks about the hazelnut and how in her visions or showings she saw three properties in the hazelnut: 

The first is that God made it, the second is that He loves it, and the third is that God preserves it. 

Revelations of Divine Love: Julian of Norwich

I remember one day in school, in one of the after-school training sessions, there was a statement on a piece of paper which linked negative judgments by Ofsted with a teacher feeling personal shame. It made me feel very angry. I know for me personally being a perfectionist, it is uncomfortable to get things wrong, but I would stop short of declaring that a reason to feel ashamed. I might also argue that the person or organisation making the judgement may not necessarily be accurate or may have their own agenda or priorities that the teacher may not agree with. 

Of course, feeling proud when someone tells you they are impressed may simply be the opposite side of the same coin: a point to be cautious of. Pride itself, for its own sake, can also get in the way. 

So, what is the balance? Because self-denigration, feeling ashamed in response to unjustified criticism, or maybe even justified criticism from self-appointed judges, may be inverted pride. 

The grace of the first week of The Exercises is key: it is to know ourselves as loved sinners, to hold the tension between imperfections and the harm that we may do, the lack of love in our hearts, the lack of virtue, generosity, magnanimity: to hold it in one hand and God’s love of us in the other. 

Is it good to accept compliments? To feel good when people tell us they are impressed? I would say of course: when someone recognises and appreciates our gifts it allows us to recognise and appreciates the gifts that we have been given. We may have done our best job with the work we were doing, and we know our work is appreciated. That is a satisfaction in doing the work regardless of any external reward. It’s like walking outside into the mountains and exclaiming how beautiful it is to God; an appreciation of the work, an expression of the appreciation, it is to praise God. It is to give glory to God when we are exclaiming how impressed we are with God’s work. When we allow someone else to express their appreciation of our work, it connects us to our giftedness, the abilities and talents we have received from God and that we have put them to use in the service of others. 

achievement confident free freedom
Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

In The Spiritual Exercises in the fourth point of the Contemplation to Attain Love, Saint Ignatius says: 

This is to consider all blessings and gifts as descending from above. 

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

The danger of modesty or false humility is that it denies those gifts, diminishes them, makes them as nothing: unimportant. Sure, there is a danger in arrogance and pride when we can think of ourselves as the big, “I am” because people are impressed with us, but, as one of the tutors on my spirituality course said several times: 

We can become attached to our smallness.

There are many “haters” out there in the world, on social media, on television, in the newspapers.  There is criticism to be found everywhere, of anyone and everyone; a lynch mob mentality. It’s all around. It is very easy to become bogged down in fear anger, negativity: to feel a lack of faith, hope and love. Such hopelessness and fear are spiritual desolation. Perhaps we need to complement each other more, not falsely, but genuine heartfelt compliments. If we’re impressed say we’re impressed. If someone tells us that they are impressed to accept that acknowledgement of our gifts and for ourselves to also acknowledge those gifts and expressed gratitude for them. 

photo of women hugging each other
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

So, the next time you are impressed with someone, tell them. Acknowledge their giftedness out loud so they can hear it and own it too. And when someone complements you on your gifts, accept it, don’t dismiss it: accept it and than God for the gifts He so generously bestows.

40 Day Journey’s End: Day 4

It seems strange to be writing about my first 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, after leading the Friends of Julian of Norwich Lenten Bookgroup this year, but nevertheless, here I am doing just that. I have been organising with the trustees of The Friends of Julian of Norwich how we intend to continue the journey, since several people who attended the lenten course requested more. The format of Continuing the Journey will be more as I made the journey myself the first time, taking a week to pray with the material for each day of Lisa Dahill’s book, just like the 19th Annotation of The Spiritual Exercises. The Zoom meetings for Continuing the Journey will be on the third Wednesday of the month, starting in September, so watch out for more details here and especially on the Friends of Julian of Norwich website and newsletters.

Day 4 of the 40 Day Journey continues the contemplation the hazelnut:

The first is that God made it, the second is that He loves it, and the third is that God preserves it.

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich edited Lisa E. Dahill
Ripening hazelnuts
Ripening hazelnuts by Evelyn Simak is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

And Julian asks:

But what is that to me?

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

For me, the phrases that stood out when I first prayed with this material were:

…God is the lover…there can be no created thing between my God and me…He has made me for this…

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

The first phrase connected me immediately to the Song of Songs. This particular book from scripture was the focus for my prayer on retreat in the summer before I started my Spiritual Direction course. It had a profound impact on my life, and my active engagement with the book lasted for a least two years. I’m still not done with it yet, but suffice to say it was the trip switch for a great deal of upheaval in my life. The Song of Songs is a love poem which can be understood as the relationship between God and the Church, or the relationship between God and the individual soul. To pull this phrase from Julian’s writings here connected me to God’s desire for me and my desire and longing for God. It became more personal and more intimate:

God is my lover.

The “no created thing” became “nothing” and I wanted nothing to get in the way. I wanted to let go of every inordinate desire I had and I started to name them, to recognise the habits and behaviours that dissipated my spiritual energy. As I imagined God pulling me closer to Him, I could feel that His desire for me was irresistible and I asked Him to help me remove or overcome all those things that get in the way. To know deeply that He has made me to love Him and to be loved by Him – this outpouring and knowing was the grace of this prayer for me.

… have not God’s rest in their hearts and souls;…and in which there is no rest…

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

With the inordinate desires that swam before my eyes like a conveyor belt in “The Generation Game”, it resonated with how Julian described the effect of the “wordly business”:

It was all about my tendency to overwork, and I have written about that before. It is very interesting to read about this now that I am living with ME/CFS! The drive to work, to have a career and to be successful in it, the drive to perfectionism – in this prayer on Day 4 of the journey I recognised how these things were getting in the way of my being close to God. And yet, at the same time, in response to one of the questions to ponder that Lisa Dahill asks I wrote:

Both wordly investment and allegience to God can be lived simultaneously – and the balance is prayer.

beautiful beauty blur close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The questions to ask ourselves regarding our work, and our relationships, to my mind are:

Am I doing the work that God wants me to do?

Am I loving well those I am in relationship with?

On pondering the meaning of “substantially united to God”, I noted:

To be substantially united to God is a grace given by Him. We might orientate our lives so that we connect with Him as much as possible but He is the one who gathers us up into Himself in that eternal moment.

It reminds me of something that struck me years ago when I read “The Cloud of Unknowing“:

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

The Cloud of Unkowing

The grace of this prayer knocked me to the floor and it was only the first prayer with day 4.

My second day praying with the material started with the last four words of the passage given and then moved onto the psalm fragment (Psalm 46:9-10):

…He is true rest.

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

Be still and know…that I am God.

Psalm 46:10
sportive woman with bicycle resting on countryside road in sunlight
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

St. Ignatius invites use to converse with God “as one friend speaks to another” and the conversation with God at this point in my prayer was intimate and loving.

I am your rest.

You are my rest.

I am the God that heals you.

I am the one to make the wars to cease within you, the one who burns the shields with fire.

You are my love, my treasure. In all of creation I love you more.

When I asked how that could be, His response was:

You are precious to me, you are my treasure.

St. Augustine has said:

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

St. Augustine

Julian’s revelations about the hazelnut made me feel just as St. Augstine describes. I was warm and surrounded by light, and the people I love most in the world were also surrounded by light. We were protected and safe. I visualised myself as Leviathon, God’s own creature, another image of myself from another retreat.

I imagined myself flowing easily from fire to water and back to fire again, without any conflict between the two, or restriction in the movement from one to the other. For me, these represent the active and contemplative sides of my personality – how appropriate to be writing this in the 16th week of cycle C in the Lectionary, where the gospel reading is about Martha and Mary! I first sought out a Spiritual Director because these aspects of myself were in conflict. In the earlier stages of my deepening journey, I believed that the purpose was to live with them in balance. This mandala was my realisation that integrity was not about getting the balance, but in being able to flow from one to the other without resistance. I guess it is the living simultaneously worldy investment and allegience to God.

Overwork and the drive to get things sorted “once and for all” is a place where I need to be open to the healing, restorative love of God. The sense of not being able to get it all done (in time) creates a sense of panic in me, and of not being good enough.

How poignant it is for me to read those words now. Even then, the other part was also there:

I experience God as my true rest when I consciously spend time in contemplative prayer -then my head slows down and the war within me ceases.

I share the desire with Julian for there to be nothing between my God and me. The deepest desire of my soul is to have the freedom to be who He would have me be. I find myself reading back through my prayer journal now and being inspired again by the graces I received then.

You can find a guided Lectio Divina prayer with the material for Day 4 of the Journey here or as a Podcast on my channel: Sunflower Seed Spirituality.

Looking the Gift Horse in the Mouth

I’ve been thinking a lot about my mum recently. Probably because the family have now got the house cleared, cleaned and ready to sell. My eldest came back from Scotland last weekend with some things for us from my mum’s house, including the piano, which has gone to my youngest. My mum will well pleased with that arrangement I imagine. My mind wanders to a story that she repeated many times to me in the last few years of her life. She struggled a lot with restless legs and it meant she often had poor sleep and spent the small hours “walking the floors” as she described it. She had a great devotion to the Sacred Heart – her name was Margaret Mary, like mine, so no surprises there I guess. She was constantly speaking to Him through the many pictures around the house, and one of her favourite prayers was, when driving into a car park:

Please Sacred Heart, find me a parking space.

Photo by MART PRODUCTION on Pexels.com

One always opened up immediately no matter how busy the car park was, I kid you not. It happened so consistently that other members of my family, who do not necessarily believe, use it when they cannot find a parking space! Sure, we can argue about coincidence and patience and whatever rational explanation you like, I’m just telling you what I’ve witnessed. Anyway, I digress – back to walking the floors. One night, after about a week of broken sleep, when she couldn’t stand it anymore, she turned to her picture of the Sacred Heart and challenged Him with words to the effect of:

Don’t tell me to offer it up and to think about everything you went through! You only suffered for a day, I’ve been going on like this for a week and I can’t stand it any more!

An honest prayer, even though I think she believed herself to be disrespectful. She had the sense of God laughing in response and the restlessness disappeared, allowing her to get a good night of sleep.

Within this context, I also found myself reaching this point of:

Enough already!

regarding my own health condition – myalgic encephalomyelitus (ME/CFS). I described before how I had accepted it as a gift, and an answer to my prayers arising from the desire to live more slowly: to realise that it is the cure for my workaholism, because I was not going to let that go on my own. It’s been nearly eighteen months since I got sick, and then failed to completely recover from it. My first experience of chronic fatigue lasted thirteen months and then I got well. Maybe subconsciously I was holding onto the belief that that would happen again, especially with all the ways I am being proactive and that my energy does improve when I look after myself. But that is unlikely to happen this time…it is for life, not just for Christmas, as they say. In football, it is the last ten minutes of the game, when you are so very tired because you have given it all you have, but you have to dig even deeper to keep it going to that final whistle…you don’t want to lose the match at this point! It is where I am on my journey with ME/CFS and with God. I’ve accepted this gift horse and I’m looking in its mouth and not liking what I see, maybe even struggling with it sometimes, and I know that those dark clouds of despairing or anxious fear are swirling around in the distance. It’s like the Battle of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where they createe a defence bubble around the school that keeps Voldermort’s army at bay, but it starts to dismantle as the dark forces continue to attack it. I’m in Hogwarts, protected, but watching that protection begin to disintegrate.

There is another image from my prayer that plays alongside this one though: I’m sitting in the deep calm of the storm, leaning against Jesus, as it all swirls around above us. Both of these images for me are spiritual consolation. It might seem strange to say that about the first image because I mentioned fear, but when we apply some useful discernment questions here it will show what I mean.

Where is it coming from?

Where is it leading to?

In the Hogwart’s image, even in the midst of a community taking a stand against evil and working together for the common good, I am relying on my own magic power to protect me from the forces of darkness which are driving me into spiritual desolation:

I call desolation…as darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination towards what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.

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

I may be in the quiet centre of the dome, but without God, with only our own power, the safety shield crumbles and the darkness comes flooding in and I am afraid and overwhelmed. In my imagination I oscillate between both images. In the storm image, I am leaning on Jesus and the quiet centre is more than quiet, it is serene and safe. It is spiritual consolation:

Winter storm over the Northeast (night time thermal image)
Winter storm over the Northeast (night time thermal image) by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

I call consolation every increase of faith, hope and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of ones soul by filling it with peace and quiet in it creator and Lord.

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

For me, to flip between these two images is no accident. It is like being shown desolation and consolation side by side in similar, but different images. Ignatius says of being in desolation:

When one is in desolation, he should be mindful that God has left him to his natural powers to to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy in order to try him. He can resist with the help of God, which always remains, though he may not clearly perceive it.

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

I do not believe that this desolation is where I am, although I can definitely feel the pull of it at times and I am guarding against it. The second image of the storm is explicitly inviting me to lean on Him, to discern the movements of spirits within me, to not try to rely all on my own strength or determination. And so I come back to the Principle and Foundation of the Exercises and the room of indifference:

Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honour to dishonour, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.

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

The essence of looking a gift horse in the mouth is to see its age. I guess the discouragement in doing so is in finding out that we have been given an old nag – a negative judgement of the gift. Where does it lead? Ingratitude. What if we were to accept the gift horse as a gift, regardless of what is in its mouth? I learned from the Spiritual Exercises that sorrow is a grace: uncomfortable for sure, but grace nevertheless. So, I’m looking at what spiritual desolation and spiritual consolation look like in this space and as I acknowledge my swirling emotions, I imagine myself in the quiet of the storm leaning against Jesus. I am not praying for healing from ME/CFS because I recognise it as the gift of healing of workaholism that I asked for so fervently and for so long, and believe me, that has not gone. Instead, I am praying for indifference in those “enough already” moments and serenity when I see those swirling dark clouds, knowing that He is here with me and I am leaning on Him.

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich: Day 6

Lenten Book Group 2022 | by The Friends of Julian of Norwich

Prayer material and guided prayer.

In [all] this delight I was filled full of everlasting surety, powerfully secured without any painful fear.This sensation was so welcome and so spiritual that I was wholly at peace, at ease and at rest, so that there was nothing upon Earth which could have afflicted me. This lasted only for a time, and then I was changed, and abandoned to myself, oppressed and weary of my life and ruing myself, so that I hardly had the patience to go on living…And then presently again God gave me comfort and rest for my soul…And then again I felt the pain, and then afterwards the delight and joy, now the one and now the other, again and again, I suppose about twenty times. and in the time of joy I could have said with St. Paul: Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ; and in the pain I could have said with St. Peter: Lord, save me, I am perishing. And so we remain in this mixture all the days of our life; but [what breaks the impasse is that Christ] wants us to trust that He is constantly with us.

Reading: Romans 8:38-39

Psalm 31: 1a, 2

40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich: Day 6. Guided prayer.

You can still join the Lenten book group making this journey by signing up here.

The guided prayer is also available as a podcast on the channel: Sunflower Seed Spirituality

A suggestion was made during our introductory and orientation session that for some people, journaling might not be the best way to review their prayer. I commented that Praying in Colour might be a good alternative – it is what I intend to do. I have written about it before and if you would like to read more about it, you can find that information here.