In my previous reflection I mentioned what Ignatius had to say in The Exercises regarding the evil one as an angel of light, and I used the word “imposter”. I have been pondering this word for the last few weeks, and it is one of those occasions in life where once a thought has lodged in your head, you notice it everywhere. Here, the equation that formed in my brain is imposter = desolation. I am sure there are many stories and cases where someone was not who they appeared to be, and who they actually were is much better, but right now, I can only think of superheros: Buffy, Superman and the rest, with their secret identities. Imposter syndrome I guess is like an inverse superhero, where our secret identity, as we perceive it to be, is not the “all that” that the world perceives us to be. Throw around also the concept of humility and false humility, and we have a right old tangle.
So, where are all the dots coming from that I have joined together on the title of this post? A reading from Jeremiah during morning prayer with Pray as you Go, a skim past of a social media post, I believe on Linked In, which suggested that Jacinda Adern, the prime minister of New Zealand, frequently experiences “imposter syndrome”, the challenges I am facing in setting up my own business as an online Chemistry tutor, and the admission to the business coach I have invested in to help me, that I need to be more up front about my skills and talents, and how uncomfortable it feels to do that. I remember from my Ignatian Spirituality Course in a discussion around the book “The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed”, the tutor made a comment:
We can become attached to our smallness.”
A simple idea, that imposter syndrome is a disordered attachment and can result in us being afraid to use our talents for the greater glory of God.
I am not a follower of celebrity status as a general rule, but from what I’ve seen of Jacinda Adern, I like her a great deal and I see her to be an excellent role model. One incident alone sums her up, and it is one of the COVID broadcasts she did to her country last year. She addressed the children of New Zealand and reassured them that the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy were considered to be essential workers and would therefore be able to continue with their work during lockdown. This still has the power to move me even now as I write it. With the severity of the pandemic, and the seriousness of the measures to be taken, and in her role in leading the way, she was not too busy or too important to take notice of the concerns and fears of the little ones in her country. In my experience as a parent, children infrequently express and identify their fears explicitly: they project it onto something else or express it by doing something “naughty”. For example, I knew my eldest was stressed as a young girl when she wrote on the walls in her room or on her furniture: I knew my youngest was when she took scissors to her hair. To me, these were clear signals that I had missed something and that I needed to take time out to sit and listen to my child. The something else that children project onto might seem trivial and unimportant to adults who are bearing the responsibility for dealing with a difficult situation. In watching Jacinda Adern reassure the children of New Zealand, it was not only that she saw and heard them, she cared about them and comforted them, rather than trivialise or ignore their concerns.
In “God in all Things”, Gerard Hughes says:
What do you find attractive in the teachings of Jesus? Focus your heart on these things. An attraction is a sign that you are being called to live out these qualities in your own way, in your own circumstances.
This statement was really important for me in helping me to discover the deepest desire of my soul. For me, it is Jesus Himself that I am attraced to and what I find attractive about Jesus is that He sees people; He sees who they are and what they need, and He gives them what they need to draw them closer to God, whether it is challenge, healing or direct invitation. The gospel stories are full of Jesus’ interactions where He is doing all this. Maybe I am moved by Jacinda Adern’s address to the children because she sees their fear and gives them something they need to not be afraid in these scary times.
And then there is Jeremiah from St Patrick’s Day. When God says to Jeremiah:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew[a] you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
So here is the subtext. God tells us that this is who He created us to be, and this path is the one He asks us to walk. And our response is no way am I good enough for that! Maybe there is even a bit of what will people think in there too. And God’s response:
7…Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,…
9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.
In the place where I grew up, insults and banter were all part of the humour, although at times I do have to say there could be a sharp edge to it. I had appropriated words like “useless” and “worthless” in my self description when I did something clumsy or idiotic, until one day my own spiritual director caused me to reflect on this self dialogue simply by telling me very gently and firmly that he did not like it when I used these words about myself. When he is as direct as this, I pay attention, because he has said something very important.
St. Augustine said:
He loves each one of us as if there were only one of us.
We may experience God like that in prayer, but what if we were to truly believe it always, and live our lives as if it were true? What difference would it make? How would it be to remember the consolation we have in prayer at the moment when we feel that we are not good enough? I like Jeremiah. He talks about being overwhelmed by God, and he reveals his own imposter syndrome. I feel some kinship with him. Perhaps there is a fine line to walk. Humility is to know who I am, my own weaknesses as well as my own strengths. Perhaps the imposter syndrome, the feeling of not being good enough, is the grace that keeps my heart open to my dependence and need for God. Perhaps it is that very knowledge that enables me to walk the path with Him, because I know for sure that it is not something I can do on my own.
Abundance. That is the word that comes to mind whenever I go out into my garden. It is so abundant in fact, that I simply cannot keep up with it! It reminds me of a scene from “The Shack” where Mack goes into the garden to talk to Sarayu (The Holy Spirit):
I have not always been a gardener. It is something I have picked up out of necessity in the last few years. I dug over the top third of my back garden about four years ago, thinking that if I planted a wild flower garden, it would take care of itself a bit, that I would not have so much grass to cut and it would make life a bit easier. I could not have been more wrong! The first year was absolutely splendid – and I missed a lot of the summer being away doing The Spiritual Exercises. After that, I was ill for about a year and nettles encroached, trying to reclaim it for themselves. I spent the last two years claiming it back, and this year has been maintenance, in that respect.
I have learned a lot in my time spent in the garden. The first, and most important lesson I learned is that I am not in control of it. I may have gone out there with a plan, but in no way has it happened the way that I thought it would. There are plants I have not seen since the first year I planted them – the scarlet pimpernel, for example. Such beautiful little flowers, I see why they are called elusive.
We seek him here, we seek him there, Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell? That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.
I discovered during that first year that the best time to catch them with the flowers open was mid morning, so I took to taking my coffee break (I still call it that, even though I now limit my one coffee a day to breakfast time) at the top of the garden, looking for the scarlet pimpernel.
I generally left things alone for a while, to see what they would do, and I gradually became able to discern the difference between a plain old bramble, a raspberry and a blackberry. I did not plant any of these, but, there they were, in abundance. I am not so cavalier as Sarayu in removing things; in fact, I am as shocked as Mack is at the way she attacks that flower bed with such gusto, and I am tentative, but gradually becoming less so, about uprooting plants in my garden.
The strategy of waiting to see has paid off though. In the first year, as I was walking down the lanes near my house, I noticed some thistles growing on the verge at the side of the road. Being my national flower, I am quite partial to thistles, but I did not recall ever seeing their seeds on sale in the garden shops, and I wondered how I might get some in my garden. A few weeks later, I was sitting on the bench in the wild flower garden and I noticed that that spiky plant I had left alone was a big thistle and it was in flower. This was the second thing that I learned about gardening, that you get presented with many unexpected gifts. My garden has been growing trees – from scratch. As far as I can identify, beeches, hornbeam, black poplar and elderflower. These are challenging, problematic gifts because there is not the space for them there, from their perspective and mine, but what to do about it? I sat on that problem for months, until I noticed that some of them were lined nicely and could form a hedge, delineating the footpaths I have been putting in to prayer spots at the edges. I moved some of the others to form a little grove, leading to a meditation point, and I am coppicing them to form a hedge. I only lost three out of sixteen that I moved. I also planted some sunflowers in the first year, and those were glorious.
This was always meant to be a conversation between friends.
Why am I telling you about my garden? Some of you experienced gardeners might even be shaking your heads thinking:
What is she talking about? She really doesn’t know much about gardening.
And you would be absolutely correct to think so. But I am not really talking about gardening: I am talking about the spiritual journey. Sometimes in our spiritual lives, something begins to emerge, fresh shoots, and we may not know what it is at first. It is like the darnel and the wheat, or in my case, the brambles, the raspberries and the blackberries, the thistles and the trees. God gives graces and gifts freely. Some of these, we desire, and maybe do not even know that we desire them -for me, the thistles. Some of these gifts and graces may be problematic, and we have to sit with them, to work through what it is He is giving, and what He would have us do with them – the trees. Some may be gifts we deliberately asked for, but we have to simply be, and at the right time, in the right place, we will notice their flowering – the scarlet pimpernel. And the sunflowers? Sometimes He gives exactly what we ask for and in the most generous and exuberant way. There are also times to uproot what was there before, even if it seems good, in order to prepare the ground for new growth. We may see a mess on the ground, but from the viewpoint of God, as Sarayu says, of the garden and of us:
Wild, wonderful and perfectly in process.
The mandala I have featured here is an assignment I did in the second year of my formation as a Spiritual Director. I have added the assignment as a page in its own right. It is too long to include everything I have learned since my initiation to gardening. As a celebration, particularly relevant since the churches have opened again in the United Kingdom this weekend, I offer this joyful prayer, featuring some of God’s abundant gifts as they appear in my garden.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
Here I would like to describe the context and ideas I presented at the retreat day yesterday on Positive Penance: Preparation for Lent.
It occurred to me that many of us have in the past, and perhaps still do, view penance as being a self inflicted punishment for sins committed, a bit like Dobby, before he became a free elf: I would call him a penitent elf:
I have felt very dissatisfied with this underlying perspective of penance when I heard it in church, or listening to people. This albeit subconscious understanding of it seemed to me to lead to anger, resentment or self loathing and not to spiritual consolation. Dobby is not expressing sorrow and a heartfelt desire to do and be more in the scene above. When I was studying the Spiritual Exercises, it was skimmed over uncomfortably and pointed out that it was of the time. Again, it left me feeling frustrated and with a sense of there being so much more to it than all of this. So, I chose to study the Tenth Addition of the Exercises on Penance and to write my theory paper in the second year of my course on what I had learned. The retreat I led yesterday is the fruit of that work.
The Catholic Church gives the reasons for making Lenten observances in the Catechism:
…in contrast to those who had once provoked God during forty years in the desert, Christ reveals Himself as God’s servant, totally obedient to the Divine will.
And has drawn the traditional Lenten practices of fasting, alms-giving and prayer from scripture:
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16 for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 And the world and its desire[a] are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.
Where fasting is a means to acting against the desire of the flesh; alms-giving a means to act again the desire of the eyes, and prayer to act against the pride in riches. To act against spiritual desolation is the principle of “agere contra”, which is also described in the Spiritual Exercises, and there is no contradiction with what I am presenting: I am looking for the more in it.
Ignatius describes three powers of the soul that we employ in our spiritual lives: the first memory and imagination together, the second the understanding and thirdly, the will, where the latter is the heart, rather than our modern day interpretation of mind over matter. Have you ever felt:
I know what I should do here, but I just don’t have the heart to do it.
I believe that to be the difference, and meaning of the will in this context, what it is that is in the heart to do, even if it does not seem to make much sense.
On the imagination, I have frequently heard it questioned, or where other people have questioned what another means when they talk about God speaking to them. The conversation between the inquisitor and Joan of Arc sums it up for me:
“You say God speaks to you, but it’s only your imagination.” These are the words spoken by the inquisitor to Joan of Arc during her trial for heresy.
“How else would God speak to me, if not through my imagination?” Joan replied.
The principal reason for performing exterior penance is to secure three effects:
(i) To make satisfaction for past sins;
(ii) To overcome oneself, that is, to make our sensual nature obey reason, and to bring all of our lower faculties into greater subjection to the higher;
(iii) To obtain some grace or gift that one earnestly desires. Thus it may be that one wants a deep sorrow for sin, or tears, either because of his sins or because of the pains and sufferings of Christ our Lord; or he may want the solution of some doubt that is in his mind
In another translation of The Spiritual Exercises, by Michael Ivens, he uses the word reparation, rather than satisfaction. The sense of this latter word is more, because it goes beyond punishment, beyond evening the score, to making it right. I gave an example from my own experience.
I can be a bit work obsessed and years ago I was marking some coursework on a Sunday afternoon – I shiver in horror at the thought of doing that now – and my younger child had an invitation to a birthday party. I was trying to get the work finished by three thirty to get her to the party on time at four. She came through several times asking if it was time to go yet; she must have been around six or seven. I finished marking the last piece at three thirty and asked her to bring the invitation with the address on it and we would go, but to my horror and grief I saw that the party finished at four, not started. We would get there in time for the end. I was immediately distraught as the neglect I had shown my own child overwhelmed me; it broke my heart and I started to cry. It was a third power of the soul response. I told her I was sorry, I asked her to forgive me and I offered her to choose something else we could do instead. So we went out for pizza. My penance showed her the sincerity of my remorse and the intensity of my desire to make it right with her, to repair the damage I had done to our relationship with my negligence. I could have been angry and resentful that she had inconvenienced me with a party invitation when I had so much work to do; I could have beaten myself up with self loathing for being a bad mother; but to express my deep and sincere sorrow, to ask for forgiveness and to do what was in my power to do to repair the situation, was the more loving response. And with her generosity of heart, she forgave me and allowed me to make it right with her, to the extent that she had forgotten all about it until I reminded her recently when I was preparing for this retreat.
On the second reason Ignatius gives, Gerard W. Hughes sums it up beautifully in God in All Things:
Self denial is life giving and a doorway to freedom when it is understood in terms of denying our superficial desires the right to dominate our lives and determine our actions. The self that we are asked to deny is, in fact, the false self, the self of superficial desires which has the power to frustrate and dominate our true self, which is drawing us into the life and love of God. This true self must never be denied.
The first sentence of this quote was a complete revelation to me when I first read it. It caused a paradigm shift in my understanding and experience of lent, and is the basis of my dissatisfaction thereafter, with the perspectives I described at the beginning. In The Immortal Diamond, Richard Rohr gives an insight into what is meant by the false and true self:
I perceive the movement of penance as a deconstruction of the false self, and a reconstruction of the true self, when we focus our attention on God. I visualise it in the artistic composition of The Ecstasy of St. Francis, a great penitent of the third order of humility, by Caravaggio, by all accounts, a renowned sinner. The downward movement represents the deconstruction of the false self, and the upward movement, the reconstruction, focused on God, that draws us nearer to our true self.
The third reason Ignatius gives for doing penance is not to be understood as a bargaining with God, but more as a pleading; it is the means of expressing the sincerity, depth and intensity of our desire for the grace for which we are asking. In the party incident with my youngest, my tears and offer of a treat of her choosing, were expressing the profundity of my remorse, and my sincerity and the depth of my desire for her forgiveness, and to make the relationship right again.
From the end of the presentation at this point, retreatants were invited to do the One Man and His Dog reflective exercise. I have made the worksheet from an exercise described by Gerard W. Hughes in God in All Things. The shepherd represents God, the dog alert and focused on the shepherd represents the soul and the sheep represent our scattered desires. The idea of the exercise at this point is to name our desires, without any judgement or resolution, just to notice what they are.
Then we spent some time in prayer with an imaginative contemplation, using the Ignatian structure of preparation, prayer and review; and then in paired sharing. After lunch, laying down some context for the afternoon continued in a second, shorter presentation.
Ignatius separates penance into interior and exterior:
Interior penance consists in sorrow for one’s sins and a firm purpose not to commit them or any others. Exterior penance is the fruit of the first kind.
And I suggest that the movement can be in either direction: I can feel remorse and sorrow (interior) as I did with my daughter, and that initiates an external response: or, with my reason I can recognise that I am not the person God is calling me to be in an aspect of my life: for example, I was a coffee addict at one point drinking five of six cups a day. I recognised that it led me to be dismissive of children in school and irritable and impatient, because I needed a cup of coffee. I decided I needed to give up coffee one year (exterior) because it was driving my behaviour in a way that took me away from who I was called to be. Now I mostly limit it to one a day, with the occasional two cup day as a special treat. I am unable to drink three cups because it makes me feel sick. It is a long time since I dismissed someone, or delayed doing something because I needed coffee. So, the exterior penance, the action or behaviour, sinks deeper until the internal desire falls into line. It is effectively being the change you want to make.
Living modestly between the extremes of harm and superfluous is described by Ignatius as temperance and is more of a general lifestyle recommendation. Penance is something that should not cause harm if practiced in the short term. As a scientist I am aware that the body has mechanisms to deal with mild, short term disruptions to its needs in terms of food, sleep and pain, but should any of these become extreme or chronic then deeper health problems ensue. Ignatius suggests that we do a little more, and adjust until we find the right level for us. Ignatius himself practiced extreme penances and had to be nursed back to health, and it may be this reason that the tenth addition is dealt with as being of its time, and a little uncomfortably. In my opinion, what he has written in the Exercises is the fruit of his experiences and radically moderates the extreme practices of his time, and also demonstrates principles that are still relevant to us today.
After this point, we again spent some time in prayer, with another imaginative contemplation, which took off from where the morning one left off. Again, the structure of preparation, prayer and review was followed, and then by paired sharing. The One Man and his Dog reflection was brought back into play. The purpose of the dog (soul) is to be attentive to God, and to gather up all of the scattered sheep (desires) in an ordered arrangement and have them moving in the direction God desires them to go. Then there was a personal reflection on My Unruly Sheep:
Retreatants were asked to pick up one or more of the little characters above and to try to name any pertinent disordered desires that might have come to the surface during the day. They were encouraged to ponder how this desire may be getting in the way of their deeper personal relationship with God, and to resolve to amend it during lent by making a decision on an action they could take, an exterior penance, that would help them draw closer to God. At least one person left the retreat, after the group sharing and closing prayer, having identified a habit to give up for lent that would open up the time and space for more spiritual reading, contemplation and prayer. It is consistent with the purpose of the retreat day and with what Ignatius has to say about our choice of penance:
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.
On a personal level, I was extremely tired after the day and being used to teaching teenagers all day, I was not expecting that. It was a blissful, contented tiredness, replete with God’s pleasure and joy. I am as yet unaware of all the graces I received myself, and I am grateful for the graces received by those who came, some of which were evident. I look forward to noticing the fruit these seeds bear in the future.
So , here is a question for you:
What personal penance are you planning for the forthcoming lent?
If you have not thought about it, or decided yet, maybe you could try, with prayer, the One Man and His Dog exercise, and then contemplate your Unruly Sheep. Something relevant to you and your relationship with God may very well surface. I wish you a fruitful and holy season of lent.
Perfectionism is an issue. From my training as a scientist I know that accuracy and detail is important: it makes the scientific conclusions drawn from valid data as rigorous as possible, without overstating explanations as fact. Science is careful when it is done formally. Public perception and popular science expressing opinion are not necessarily so rigorous, and there are counter arguments presented to those opinions parading as science because the author also happens to be a scientist. My concern here is not with science, because I see no contradiction between science and religious faith. In my opinion, that argument is contrived.
I remember a distant conversation with a man, but I do not remember the occasion or circumstances, nor the man. He may have been a Muslim man, and I think that he was, and he was talking about the weavers of Persian rugs. He told me that although the patterns in the rugs are clear and logical, the weavers always weave into the rug a mistake: imperceptible, but they never make them perfect:
…because only God is perfect.
And while I do not remember the occasion or who this man was, I do remember the warmth in his voice, and the light in his eyes, when he said this. It is why the truth of it has remained with me, even when everything else around it has faded in my memory.
If you have looked at my Mandala page, and other posts where I have included a mandala image, you will know that I create these pieces of art out of prayer, and that it is a compulsion that began from an imaginative contemplation I had once on a retreat, where I was trying to express, albeit inadequately, my prayer experience: words were not enough, and neither is the art. I am still trying to express this one prayer, and it draws me deeper each time and sustains me. In the course of my journey with the mandalas, I discovered the book “How the World is Made, The Story of Creation According to Sacred Geometry“ and was struck by the contrast in the images of the Heavenly City mandala when drawn by hand and generated by computer:
The architect and geometer Jon Allen is quoted as saying:
We lose something when we use computers to draw geometry. However beguiling their mechanical precision, they lack “heart”: in some subtle way we become observers, rather than participants.
The second mandala in the above image, I have to acknowledge, leaves me feeling a bit cold: not because it is in black and white, but because it is too clinical. It does not move me, whereas the hand drawn one above it captures my interest much more. I know it is not an issue of colour, because I am a member of a mandala group on another social media site and I scroll past the computer generated ones, no matter how colourful they are. I am always more likely to pause to ponder those that have been hand drawn.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matt 5: 48
So what it is that draws me to those mandalas that are imperfect, and repels me about the ones that are perfect? For me, the essential element is process, or movement. In the retreat when I first created my mandala and I spent another day, as suggested by my director, writing down my journey to the final drawing, I finished with the realisation:
…it is the process itself that is important, because it is the process we engage in that skews us towards God, that draws us closer to Him, that transforms us so that we become more like Him.
One of the meditations during the first week of the Spiritual Exercises is on hell. Ignatius encourages us to imagine the place of fire and brimstone, as tradition describes. I imagined however, a place where nothing every changed, where there was no stimulation to the senses at all: no sound, smell, taste, no texture to feel, neither hot nor cold, and everything was white, no shadows, colour, nothing; for all eternity, nothing. And being fully conscious of that. I screamed, there was no sound, I cried, there were no tears. I could not hear my own heartbeat nor my own breathing. To feel, even for a moment, that there was no escape from such a place was indeed hellish.
When I see the triquetra, I do not see a static shape, I see a constant flow. It is also what I see when I look at Rublev’s icon of the Hospitality of Abraham, a constant flowing love between the three persons of the Holy Trinity, and with a gap, where I am invited to join the flow. It is as described by Richard Rohr in “The Divine Dance”. God is constant movement. In the Contemplation to Attain Love in the Exercises Ignatius asks us to consider:
…how God works and labors for me in all creatures upon the face of the earth, that is, He conducts Himself as one who labors.
The Spiritual exercises of St.Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
As I understand it, the perfection of God is in the eternal movement of God.
The above mandala is of the labyrinth at St. Beunos, painted on wood. Normally, I would have tidied up where the colour has spilled over onto the gold by way of finishing off the mandala, and here, even though it seems sloppy and a bit embarrassing, it was clear in my prayer, that it had to be left this way. The colour spectrum represents the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit:
…does not stay between the lines.
It represents the wildness of God, that He will not confine Himself to our expectations of Him. And this is my point. When we see a pattern, our brain knows what that pattern is supposed to do. When something is off about it, we are drawn to that imperfection, it bugs us and leads us into contemplation, from the imperfect as we see it, to the perfect, as we would like it to be: it is the process, the journey, the desire for improvement.
A computer drawn mandala has no room for improvement. Any change to it leads away from perfection. If God is perfect, moving away from perfection is a movement away from God, into spiritual desolation.
However an overdrive for perfection, into the area of the law of diminishing returns, can also be spiritual desolation. I recognise it within myself, the tendency towards pride, and it leads to obsession with work and neglect of other aspects of life, such as relationships and prayer. In his book “The Me I Want to Be”, Jon Ortberg talks about “Signature Sins” . He says:
The pattern of your sin is related to the pattern of your gifts…
…it starts close to home with the passions and desires that God wired into us and tries to pull them a few degrees off course. That subtle deviation is enough to disrupt the flow of the Spirit in our life, so coming to recognise the pattern of sins most tempting to us is one of the most important steps in our spiritual lives.
The Me I Want to Be, Jon Ortberg
Recognising our own pattern of sin is an important movement that occurs during the first week of the Spiritual Exercises.
At the other end of the scale, the push for perfection can cause paralysis, rather that obsession. For example, I was helping a child with ionic bonding recently. She was refusing to draw dot/cross diagrams into her beautifully and perfectly presented exercise book because she deemed them to be messy. The unattainabilty of perfection was getting in the way of the learning process. And so the feeling of it never being good enough can get in the way of doing anything at all. It is the process that draws us to God, not the final result.
The final result, because of its imperfection, will, if we allow it, continue to draw us into this process with God.
The mandala above was the third one I coloured on the Loyola retreat after creating this design. It was a prayer for my younger child who had been bullied at school that year by a group of three boys. The purple represents suffering, the yellow, hope; the red, faith; and the blue, love. In following the pattern, one of the shapes which should have been yellow, is in fact blue. When I realised my “mistake”, I heard Him say within me, that for a child to recover from such a thing as bullying, it takes a little more love. I knew how I needed to respond to my child when I got home from my retreat.
In our imperfection, there is God’s perfection. We live in His freedom and are open to His grace when we live in our imperfection and allow it to be the case.
I have recently returned from my annual IGR, this year at Penhurst Retreat Centre in Kent, and I have been reflecting on conversations I have with a variety of people who have never had this experience.
I’ve been going on this type of retreat ever year for such a long time now (this year was my 19th IGR) that perhaps I take the process, but never the opportunity, a bit for granted.
As a PhD student, I was involved with the Catholic Student Council (CSC) and was the secretary on the Team for a year. As part of our preparation, we did a team retreat for three days, which started off in silence. I took to the silence as if I was designed for it. After a day and a half though, I had a chat with someone, not involved in the retreat, who told me that it was okay for me to talk. I lost something in that conversation: I can only describe it as if I had been in a dreamlike state that you might enter walking alone along a beach, where hours can pass and it seems like minutes, and then I had been forcefully brought back into the noise, chaos and pressure. It was something that I was unable to get back at that time, and I longed for more of it for years afterwards.
Over ten years later, I booked into Loyola Hall for an eight day IGR, and looked forward to spending that time alone with God. When you remove yourself from the world in this way, it is like the world stops turning, until you enter back into it at the end of the retreat. Certainly, you arrive there with your agenda and concerns, the things you want to talk to God about, and you may want Him to address, but after a day or two, you move onto His agenda. And often, the things that were so important when you arrived, seem less so at the end: you have a whole different perspective, even perhaps when you have not thought about them, other than at the beginning of the retreat. It is also a common experience that problems have resolved themselves, and answers have presented themselves without dwelling on them at all, once they are handed over to God at the beginning. Letting go and trusting Him are not to be underestimated.
So, what happens? Usually, there is time to settle in, including a house tour if you have not been to that place before, and dinner in the evening, which is a talking affair. It gives a little time to introduce each other in the group making the retreat at the same time. It is amazing how much you can get to know someone after eight days without speaking to them! Then there is a meeting where housekeeping is presented, and most importantly, you are introduced to your spiritual director for the week. You are shown to where you will meet with them and choose a time slot for your daily meeting. They may, or may not, suggest something from scripture to look at to help you settle into an attitude of prayer and silence, and after this point the silence begins. Each day, you meet with your director and share what is happening in your prayer, and usually, the director will make suggestions what you might pray with next, or they might ask you what you feel drawn to pray with. For me, this year, the director made no suggestions at all to me, and it felt a little scary initially, until I spoke to myself about my own formation as a spiritual director, and that I was more than capable of choosing myself, since I am well able to do it for others. She smiled when I told her of this initial feeling and said:
You seemed to know what you were doing.
It would be an example of the eighteenth annotation of the Spiritual Exercises in practice:
The Spiritual Exercises must be adapted to the condition of the one who is to engage in them, that is, to his age, education, and talent.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
In teaching terms, it is effective differentiation. And speaking of difference, not every retreat, and not every director is the same. And so too for the impact. I have come back from some with a few changes I knew I needed to make; and I have come back from others different, with no idea about how to respond, but just the certainty that life was never going to be the same again, because I had fundamentally changed. After my fifth IGR, the shift was so significant that by the October half term I was feeling that my life as it was was unmanageable and that I had to find a way to live differently within my context. It was at this point that I sought out a spiritual director in everyday life, and his support since then is invaluable to me, and is one thing I am deeply grateful for. With some directors I have felt well met, others less so but we have been able to communicate effectively, and one or two, I have to admit, have brought out my rebellious, stubborn steak. One so much so, that I texted my director in life to ask:
What is wrong with the way I pray?
One year, I went to Loyola itself: Gerry W. Hughes had organised an ecumenical IGR there, and I was very fortunate to get a place on it. In his preamble on the first evening, on talking about the role of the director, he said:
At the very least, we pray not to get in the way.
Gerry W. Hughes, Loyola IGR, 2007.
In answer to my question, my director in everyday life affirmed me about my prayer and told me to trust myself, and also reassured me that it would be appropriate for me to ask for a different director if I felt unable to work with the one assigned to me. I decided to work with the one I had, and focused on my relationship with God, not with the director. In the fifteenth annotation, Ignatius says of the director that they:
…should permit the Creator to deal directly with the creature, and the creature directly with his creator and Lord.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
I remember this particular point both when I am listening to others and when I am being listened to. Only once have I asked for a specific director: I usually try to remain open and trusting. I once met someone who had done the Spiritual Exercises in the thirty day retreat format and had not connected with her director at all. She continued to work with him for the duration however, and said that in the end, it was irrelevant, because the process was between her and God, and happened regardless. The best situation is where we get the director we need, which may not always be the director we think we want.
Regarding the location, I made myself very much at home at Loyola Hall before it closed, and since then at St. Beunos, where I made The Spiritual Exercises a few years ago. Every so often, circumstances have moved me to a different location, Penhurst this year, which has always been refreshing. The best locations, in my experience, are situated a bit out of the way, withdrawn from the world, where it would take a deliberate effort to put yourself out there. Both Penhurst and St Beunos are in beautiful, quiet, settings, well away from the business of the world. In two places I have been – Loyola and Dunblane – the town was right on the doorstep, and this made it more difficult, but not impossible, to sink deeply into silence and remain there. The business of the world, the shops, coffee shops, cars and streets were always calling, and the temptation to walk out on the silence when it was difficult was always there and easy to give in to. But on the other hand, temptation is just another opportunity to choose God, so choosing to remain in the silence in this situation is a huge deal and a movement towards greater spiritual maturity. It is good training to hold onto our centre when we are back in the world.
The day on an IGR follows a rhythm of its own, punctuated by structured periods of communal prayer, liturgy, mass, exposition, the meeting with the director and mealtimes. I’m quite at home with the concept of a timetable, and I usually factor in painting, tai chi and a shower, the latter happening at a different time of day from my usual routine for an unknown reason, but which feels quite natural on retreat. And of course, formal prayer periods. I aim for three one hour periods, but I often have to build up to that, or can only only manage two, or shorter prayer periods. There is a balance between discipline and flow – it is something to neither avoid nor force: it is about noticing how you are feeling and what is drawing you. If I felt I wanted to walk the labyrinth after lunch, instead of tai chi, that is probably what I would do; forcing myself to do tai chi at this point, simply because it was the designated activity on my self designed timetable and I must be disciplined in my spiritual life, may well prove to be unproductive. If I felt like I did not want to go to the communal liturgy in whatever format it took, and I have, quite a lot, I would take careful notice of what was moving in me, before I decided whether to go or not. Discernment is key, even in what we choose to do on retreat, and often, spending time sitting staring into space is required.
As for mealtimes, suffice to say, quite often the inner battles people have manifest themselves in the dining room with either too much or not enough eating, crying, sighing, inappropriate laughing, staring, coming in late…all manner of ways, that perhaps we might consider rude. It is best to be kind in our inner attitude, because we have no concept of how others are being challenged by God, or how the spirits opposed to God are whipping up an internal cacophony within them. And when it is our own struggle, it is still best to be kind in our inner attitude towards ourselves.
So, why do I do this kind of retreat every year? First and foremost, I promised God on the the first one that I would. Secondly, I need to. During the year in between, my edges become a little frayed by the constant bombardment and sensory and emotional overload of the world in which I live and work and the retreat allows me to rest in God for a significant period of time that I cannot replicate in my day to day life. I sink deeper into Him on retreat, and it re-orientates me. Sometimes, the shift is paradigm, like an earthquake, where the plates have been moving gradually for a while, and the tension is such that a huge movement occurs. And sometimes, it is simply much needed rest within His love, where I come back to myself again. If it is not something you have ever done, and you have the opportunity, I thoroughly recommend that you give it a try for yourself.
I went to the meditation event run by the Norwich Christian Meditation Centre and it has given me much food for thought. The first, and maybe most obvious thing to explore is that Fr. Korko, being a Jesuit, has integrated aspects of The Spiritual Exercises with other aspects of his Indian culture. St. Ignatius tells us that:
The Spiritual Exercises must be adapted to the condition of the one who is to engage in them, that is, to his age, education and talent.
Annotation 18; The Spiritual Exercises trans: Loius J. Puhl, S.J
Fr. Korko used the specific term “Spiritual Exercises” near the beginning of the day and from his Jesuit background, and from his teaching on the day itself, we can infer that he means:
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…so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments…
Annotation 1; The Spiritual Exercises trans: Loius J. Puhl, S.J
His interweaving of the Exercises and his Indian culture was seamless, and presented as a conversation between East and West, and between West and East, a true representation of God in All Things.
For example, there was an image of Christ the Guru, not this particular one, but the video illustrates the principle I am trying to elucidate.
It reminded me of a time I visited the Westminster Interfaith project and I met the founder/director, Brother Daniel Faivre SG, one of the most inspiring people I have ever had the privilege to meet in my life. Like Fr. Korko, his mystic character, as described by Wayne Teasdale in The Mystic Heart, was evident.
And I remembered visiting the mosque, and the Sikh and Hindu temples that day, seeing how highly regarded Br. Daniel was by the other faith leaders, and how our group was welcomed into each by the communities there as guests and friends. This conversation moved me and has stayed with me all these years: as has another comment about the day from one of our group:
Yes, but all of those deities would have to go.
It saddened me. Here “Deep is calling to deep” as the psalmist sings, and the blue note was not heard by all who were there. It is the insistence that I am right, and you are wrong, and you need to come over to my way of doing things.
It’s let him live in freedom. If he lives like me.
Jim Croce. Which way are you goin’?
It seems to me that God is far more generous than this – we only have to look at how Jesus behaves towards Samaritans, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Roman centurian. Openness, listening, seeing, profound peace – these are some of the fruits of the spiritual journey.
A few years ago, I was on retreat at St Beunos in North Wales and I was wandering in the herb garden. There was a bed there that had seven different varieties of lavender: all clearly recognisable by their scent, even though each was subtly different. I had a conversation with God about it, as one friend speaks to another:
“Why have you made so many things that are very similar but are variations on a theme?” I asked Him.
“When you draw and paint mandalas, why do you do so many that are similar, but with slight variations?” He asked me.
I thought about it for a moment before answering. “Well, I have all of these ideas in my head, and I can’t decide which one I like best, so I do them all.”
“Exactly.” He said. “That is how it is for me. I have all these fantastic ideas and I can’t decide which is best, so I make them all.”
It seems to me then to be very disingenuous for one variety to turn round to the others and say:
Yes, but you’re not true lavender, are you?
When I was a teenager and in my early twenties I spent some years attending a twelve step fellowship, and I wrestled with the third step:
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Alcoholics Anonymous, Step 3 of the Twelve Steps.
There is a whole journey in this step alone, but here, I’m specifically referring to the last part: God, as we understood Him. When I listen to people in my capacity as a spiritual director I realise that everyone understands God differently, according to their own unique experience of being in relationship with Him; and I am listening for the One I know in what they are saying. When I hear of Him, my love for Him deepens, as does my love for the person telling me about Him: I get to view my beloved through the eyes of another. And I do recognise Him in the story of the other when I think: “Yes, that is just like Him.”
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare.
You might have experienced such a thing by meeting someone who is a friend of a friend. It’s natural then to swap some stories of the mutual friend, and this only enhances love for both your friend, and the friend of your friend.
I don’t consider it my place to deny or criticise another persons experience of God, wherever they are coming from; I do consider that I have a role, as a spiritual director, to listen and to help someone to discern for themselves what is of God, and what is not of God, just as others do the same for me. And here, as further food for thought, I offer Natalie Merchant’s song of the poem by John Godfrey Saxe, and a mind map of the guidelines for inter-religious understanding discussed in The Mystic Heart by Wayne Teasdale. This inter-mystical bridge is good ground from which open-hearted, respectful and loving conversations can take place with others that have a different perspective from our own. The Ignatian way is that God is found in all things, and we can ask for the grace to find Him in all things, including in conversations with others of different cultures, denominations and faiths, and even of no professed faith, as one friend speaks to another. Imagine a world where we all spoke to one another as friends.