I finally finished my 40 day Journey with Julian of Norwich on Shrove Tuesday, just in time for the beginning of Lent. While the time since then has certainly been very full – I have left the classrooom and I am setting up as an online tutor – I have been pondering the Journey in the back of my mind. Here feels like the suitable point to make an Examen of my journey and the fruits that it has borne. I began the journey on Thursday 5th December 2019 and in that time, completely filled the prayer journal that I had started at the beginning of the third week of the Spiritual Exercises, and I finished the journal with the last entry of the Journey, the day before the beginning of Lent! A strange convergance: endings an beginnings. It had been my intention, in preparation for writing this post, that I read through my journey and summarise it all here, in a nice tidy blog post, a beautifully wrapped package; a wonderful display of the glory of God and the graces He so generously gives. And then I read my journal entries for Day 1 of my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich. I realised immediately how impossible it would be to do that – there is too much. Each day warrants its own post. I will endeavour to do that as I continue posting on this blog. So, I closed my journal and decided to write an Examen here from my memories of this time on the Journey.
I am grateful for all of the graces that I have received in this journey: the intimacy with God and the deepening trust; the fulfilment of the conversation about my working life which began during The Exercises and the courage to take that path. I am grateful for the affirmations of my work received through the people I am directing, through my guided prayers with Radio Maria England and through the retreats I have led. I am grateful for the friendship of Bill Stebbe, which grew in the time of that retreat day where I bought the 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich and made the decision to make this pilgrimage. I am also grateful that I was able to accompany Bill in his dying, and for the grace of humility which I received during that time. And as Julian herself lived in the time of plague, and the current pandemic was an event waiting to happen at the time I picked up the book and began this journey, I am grateful for the relative safety in which I have been able to live and work throughout, and continue to be able to do so, even as I am weary of it.
I ask God for the grace to see my journey as He sees my journey.
The predominant image I have from the Journey, and also from The Spiritual Exercises, is of myself as a child: not the memories of me as an actual child, but of my inner free child, Sunflower. I described her in the post All Things in a Hazelnut, where I picked up the book. This child is always open and honest with God. She says things as she sees and feels them, without dressing them up to make them palatable or acceptable. Even when she is restless and fractious, refuses to be held and wriggles in His arms saying:
Put me down! put me down!
He does, with some amusement, and watches over her tenderly as she does her worst and comes running back to His open arms when she realises her trouble and her need. And God loves and adores her, and regards her as precious. This is where God has been for me in this journey, and how I have turned away to those inordinate attachments that are self destructive to me, and then turned back again when I recognised that I had messed up again. As always, my tender loving God has picked me up and held me close once more.
The free child is also open and honest when she recognises her mistakes. She does not try to justify or explain. Moved by her sorrow, her desire is simply to repair the relationship that she sees she has hurt by her behaviour. Asking for forgiveness is her expression of that sorrow. He listens and forgives.
Resolve to Amend
From here, the world is different. Things have changed.
And they have – I have been writing about the changes taking place in my life throughout this last year. It is not to say that these inordinate desires have been vanquished – they most certainly have not. I am still wrestling with the same distractions and resistances that I was dealing with at the beginining to the Journey. Sometimes, I am that little girl planting sunflower seeds with Him in the garden, full of wonder and awe. Sometimes I am still that fractious child, wriggling in His arms, trying to break free to do those naughty things that are not good for me and cause me, and perhaps others around me, pain and harm. To me on a bad day, it may feel that I have not made much progress, but to Him, well, maybe that Sunflower stalk is just a little bit taller as it reaches for the sun.
As if Step 4 was not hard enough, Step 5 is also difficult and sore, and at the same time, pours a soothing balm into our self inflicted wounds. Our wrongs, by their very essence, are those things that we identified as being faults and failings: places where we did not live up to being the person we were created to be; the dark corners where we hide away those things about ourselves that we are embarrassed and ashamed of; we are now being asked to bring out onto the light of day, not just to show them to God, not just to look at ourselves, but to show them to someone else. To be appropriately and openly honest about the bad and the ugly within us. Daunting work.
It is worth remembering, that we have not come to this point in isolation – we have already been journeying in the steps and are walking here with God. At this point, we have submitted to our Higher Power in Step 3, and have committed to this work: we trust Him enough. To try to this step without having made the journey to it would be like doing the first week of The Spiritual Exercises, without firstly having prayed with the Principle and Foundation – not to be recommended. I did try that once a long time ago. I really wanted to do The Spiritual Exercises, but my children were too young for me to go away for thirty days to do them. I had not heard of the nineteenth annotation, where you could do them in every day life, at that time. Not that that would have made a difference. I think I had too much on my plate to be able to devote myslef completely to them at that point in my life. I know that now, but then – I naively thought I could pray my way through each of these meditations. So, I started with the first contemplation of the first week – that seemed logical enough. That meditation is about the fall of the angels and it left me in a very dark place, full of fear and anxiety, like having had a nightmare, and God was not there! When I talked to my spiritual director about it, he was firm in his suggestion of me putting those books away, that the Exercises were a guidebook for directors who were accompanying people as they made them, they were not intended to be done alone.
The same is true for a Twelve Step program. While we do the work ourselves, we are not alone in it, and we cannot do it alone. There is too much room for dishonestly, denial and delusion when we go it alone: we are too close to our faults and cannot see the wood for the trees. When we share our turmoil and the traps and turns with an experienced and caring other, when we bring God into that conversation and allow Him to shine His light on us, these malicious whisperings lose their power to hurt us.
St. Ignatious describes the different ways the enemy works in us in vivid analogy. The particular one I am thinking of here is as a “false lover”:
He seeks to remain hidden and does not want to be discovered. If such a lover speaks with evil intention to the daughter of a good father, or to the wife of a good husband, and seeks to seduce them, he wants his words and solicitations kept secret…In the same way, when the enemy of our human nature tempts a just soul with his wiles and seductions, he earnestly desires that they be received secretly and kept secret.
And Ignatius does not just describe the problem, he offers us the solution:
He is greatly displeased if his evil suggestions and depraved intentions are revealed by the daughter to her father, or by the wife to her husband. Then he readily sees he will not succeed in what he has begun…
But if one manifests them to a confessor, or to some other spiritual person who understands his deceits and malicious designs, the evil one is very much vexed. For he knows that he cannot succeed in his evil undertaking, once his evident deceits have been revealed.
It is uncomfortable, but ultimately life giving, because it helps to free us from those traps which ensare us, often repeatedly, when we act on our compulsions and our signature sin, in spite of ourselves.
Ignatius mentions two people we can talk to about our faults: a confessor and another spiritual person who understands. I would equate a spiritual director as the second person here , and the first, in the Roman Catholic tradtion, to which I belong, as the priest who hears our confession. In my experience, these two conversations are very different. In Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr writes on Step 5:
What humanity needs is an honest exposure of the truth and true accountability and responsibility for what has happened.
I would say that the most honest confessions I have ever made in my life – forget the five minute shopping list – are when I have been on an individually guided retreat and have already spent six days in silence, speaking only to a spiritual director, and the confession is made in a face to face conversation, no hiding behind the grid of the confessional box. At the end of the honest exposure, the accountability and responsibility, there is forgiveness. I am also able to forgive myself.
Rohr contrasts two models: the juridical model
sin–> punishment –> repentence –> transformation
and the restorative model:
sin –> unconditional love –> transformation–> repentence
God shocks and stuns us into love. God does not love us if we change, God loves us so that we can change.
In my second year of training to be a Spiritual Director, I was drawn to write my paper on the Exercises on penance, and my understanding of it is in this light. It is about reparation, not punishment, it is about making it right when I have messed up, and I do and will mess up. I am a sinner after all.
Rohr sums it up:
Step 5 is far from any notion of retributive justice, which the sacrament of “penance” too often became, and returned it to the much more biblical notion of restorative justice – to restore relationships themselves, to restore integrity with myself, and to restore a sense of communion with God.
It feels very appropriate to be writing about step 5 at this point, given the retreat day on Positive Penance which I ran last weekend. The movement was very much to encourage a more personal, restorative approach to doing penance in Lent, rather than just picking up from the usual three, without necessary pondering their relevance to my own relationship with God. The point is to notice where am I not fully being in my relationship with God, and then seeking to act against the desolation and so express my sincere desire for reparation. I am currently acting against my tempation to workaholism, which had indeed led me and my soul to be:
I am acting against the symptoms and the root cause this Lent; all those areas where I make the easy, lazy choice. And I set the timer when I am working. I am allowed one ten minute snooze on the alarm to finish off, in an effort to prevent me from carrying on until it is too late to cook, exercise or even go to bed in a timely fashion, because my head is still spinning round. Since that snooze on the alarm is now beeping at me, I know it is time to switch off the computer.
Last year to prepare for Lent, I led a Retreat Day for my Diocese. I would like to offer this day again, as an Online Event (Times are GMT). What I said previously still stands:
During Lent, the Church encourages us to unite ourselves to the mystery of Jesus in the desert, to act against the desire of the flesh, of the eyes and the pride in riches by fasting, giving alms and prayer. The practice of such penance may feel judicial and be difficult to maintain for the whole season of lent, perhaps because of its general sense of understanding. In “The Spiritual Excercises”, St. Ignatius writes about the practice of penance in the Tenth Addition, and the discussion is often passed over uncomfortably and put into the context of his time. My discomfort with both approaches compels me to present this retreat day.
Ignatius presents the idea of penance as a form of desire for more in our relationship with God and he makes it personal. He says:
Now since God our Lord knows our nature infinitely better, when we make changes of this kind, He often grants each one the grace to understand what is suitable for him.
My intention is to provide the time, space and stimulation for each one to notice the desires and motivations for their feelings and actions; to notice the direction of the movement in those desires, whether they are towards God (spiritual consolation) or away from God (spiritual desolation); the latter being identified as inordinate desire; and, with the grace and help of God, to choose the most pertinent of our own inordinate desires and resolve to amend it or them. The resolve to amend will form the basis of our chosen lenten practice, which will be personal in the context of our own relationship with God and drawn from the desire for more in that relationship. Fuelled by this desire, may we find sustenance to maintain our lenten observance for the duration, and allow it to impact a deeper change in our lives beyond lent.
The process will be facilitated with two short presentations, The Examen prayer, Guided Imaginative Contemplations, Personal reflection and paired and group sharing. To ensure safety, sharing should be only what you are comfortable with, and should remain confidential within the context of the person or group it is shared in.
If you want to have a sneaky preview of the material, you can find it in a previous post. And please share with anyone you think might want to do Lent positively this year, with a different approach than before perhaps. Here is the outline for the retreat:
There is no formal charge for this event and registration is not conditional on making a donation. If you would like to support me in my work however, that would be very much appreciated, and you can to that by clicking the “support me” button below.
Due to illness, the sessions of Exploring Personal Prayer were delayed after the Lectio Divina. We will be doing the session on the Examen tomorrow at 6.30pm GMT and you are welcome to come along, even if you have not attended any of the other sessions. The period we will be looking at is our Advent this year, and Christmas so far. I hope you will be able to join us.
I read the book “Quarantine” by Jim Crace for the second time at the beginning of lockdown. You may remember that lockdown began during Lent, and this book is a story about what happened when Jesus went into the desert to spend His forty days and forty nights, and faced His temptations. It seemed an appropriate read for that time and that situation.
Some years ago I spent some time working with “A Way in the Wilderness”, the first Chapter of the Spirituality Workbook by David Runcorn. He says:
In the desert, driven by the Spirit, we too will enter into tough battles with our allegiences and priorities, our passions and longings and the discerning of evil.
Nothing happens fast in the heat of the desert. There is a different understanding of time and it involves a lot of waiting. A world addicted to ever faster ways of doing things finds such a place deeply frustrating – a waste of time in fact.
I do not like being too hot – I have a very low threshold for even the temperatures we call a heatwave in the United Kingdom, so please believe me when I say that I am not at all attracted to the desert and do not want to spend any time there if I can avoid it. What struck me about Quarantine though, was that the pilgrims sought out caves to spend their time of the desert in, and I had never thought of that on a conscious level before, although rationally, it makes sense. Perhaps it is because one of the first films I ever saw at the cinema as a child was “Lost in the Desert”, and the young boy who was lost, spent most of his time in the open desert, as far as I can remember. This film made a long lasting impression on me. So, while the image of the desert is prevalent as an image of the spiritual journey, the image of the cave, although it is around, is less commonly talked about in my experience.
It is the cave that is capturing my imagination at the moment, partly because we have been in lockdown, or quarantine recently, and partly because of the Mother God imagery that has been coming up in my journey with Julian of Norwich. Let me explain the connection: some years ago, I did an imaginative contemplation with the Healing of Jarius’ daughter. In that prayer, I was the young girl who was sick and dying. In the part of the prayer where, in the outside world, the girl had died, I lay down in my imagination in what was a tomb, a sealed up cave, which had a stone shelf carved into the wall. As I lay there, drifting off to sleep, I became aware that the walls of the cave were warm, and living. I was no longer in a cave, but in a womb. Hence my linking of Mother God and the image of the cave.
So what do these two images have in common that I would put them together in this way? One of the essentials David Runcorn suggests for desert spirituality is stability, and he says:
Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.
and in “Quarantine”, and indeed with the Desert Fathers of the church, the Cave equated to the Cell, it was a stable place, a place of shelter from predators and the heat of the day and the cold of the night: a place of safety, of seclusion, isolated from the world and its relentless distractions. The same might be said of the womb.
In “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat”, John Ortberg describes the cave as a place of transformation, of growth. Here, hidden away from the world, in a place of relative safety, we undergo changes in our being and we become different, emerging at the end of our quarantine to face the world afresh, where things will never be the same again. It is certainly true of the characters in Jim Crace’s book, including Jesus. And of course, in the womb, changes take place from the implantation of the fertilised egg, to the embryo, foetus and full term baby to emerge at birth. Both the time in the desert caves and gestation are periods where nothing happens fast: it feels slow, and little evidence of change might be seen, but nevertheless, the changes taking place are deep and lasting. There is no going back to how it was before.
But the cave and the womb are also not the same: the cave is a hard, difficult place and dangers may have to be faced in claiming it as your space – wild animals for example, as well as the spiritual battle which ensues. St. Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises while living in the cave at Manresa, and there was a cost to it, a great turmoil of spirits and struggle with spiritual desolation. The film, Ignacio de Loyola, depicts this struggle in a gruesome, physical way and is not a watch for the faint hearted.
Within the novel, for one of the characters, the cave is not respected and she is violated within that space. Jesus Himself might have experienced intrusion from the “devil” of the piece, had He not chosen a cave that was in the extreme of difficult and dangerous to get to. Even then, it did not stop the harassment. The cave, as St. Ignatius experienced, is a place conflict and struggle with evil, as David Runcorn says in his book. The womb on the other hand, is warm and living, and life giving: a place of just being – who can remember their time in the womb? – and of being in another who is greater and more powerful than myself. It is a place of safety and protection like the cave, but unlike the cave, it is nurturing rather than challenging, at least until the term of the pregnancy. When the time comes, the pressure forces the birth, the emergence from the womb in what at times, is a difficult and traumatic experience for the one being born, as monitors of a baby’s heart rate during labour will testify.
It is the emergence from quarantine that is playing on my mind. In the relative safety of lockdown, I have changed and grown. There is a profound recognition of what I was becoming aware of before, and there is a rising pressure for a change, but it is for a change who’s time has not yet come. There is a sense of being thrust into the world again, before I am quite ready, a premature birth if you like. My rational brain, on being back in school last week, is supportive of the measures my school is taking to reduce the risk of transmission of coronavirus and have a full return to school in September – it is what staff were preparing the physical environment for last week. My reptile brain is not happy; my reptile brain is so unhappy that it is telling me to run away as fast as I can. And true to the discernment process, I need to sit with God and allow His light to shine upon this anxious fear that is presenting itself. On the one hand, the threat is real. The virus has not been eliminated, and so many people in close contact increases the risk of further transmission. It is not unreasonable to be cautious, and that fear at the level of an uncomfortable reptile brain is a valid response to the situation which will foster respect and attention to due protocols, for the safety of everyone. What may or may not be the other hand are the changes that need to be made to the day to day working procedures – teachers moving between classes with our own trolleys, rather than the students for example. What bothers me the most though, is that I will not be able to sit down next to a student when they are stuck, to give them those minutes of close, one to one or small group attention, that will make all the difference to their learning and to their wellbeing. How do I do that with social distancing? When I think about returning to the classroom, it is this thought that is plaguing me. It is this type of interaction that is the most valuable, not that it is the only one, and I am pondering strategies to achieve it within the context of social distancing.
On being out and about, there is a strange mix of more like it used to be, and not quite how it used to be. It does not feel like a new normal. It feels a bit like stumbling blindly out of the darkness, and our eyes have not yet adjusted to the light. Perhaps we are emerging too soon, too quickly. Like childbirth, the pressure is compelling us out and there is no resisting it. Perhaps our cave has become our womb, and is too comfortable; that we have grown so much that it is time and only the discomfort that will force us out to live in the world as required, rather than hide away safe. Perhaps we are rushing out of our caves, ready to take on the world because it is time, and we learned what was needed; perhaps we are rushing out of our caves because the darkness, loneliness and difficulty of it were too much for us to bear and to breathe in the daylight and feel the sun on our skin is a relief, in spite of the invisible dangers.
In “Quarantine” there was a sense of it being the right time when the pilgrims emerged from their caves and made their way back to the world renewed: there was a sense of it being done. I do not feel that way quite yet. I am looking out of my cave with a little trepidation, sticking my toe out to see what will happen, and then maybe standing just outside the mouth of my cave for a short time. I am grateful for the school summer holidays, which have given me more time to prepare, more time to emerge slowly and to be ready to leave. In the meantime, I am enjoying this refuge, this space and time and the challenges it presents. God is with me in this place, working with me, preparing me. My cave is a womb, and I am not yet at full term. Sure, there are increasingly strong pangs, Braxton Hicks if you like, and perhaps last week even a false labour. We are nearing the due date, but we are not there yet.
As you walk into my school, this quote from John 10 is written on the front of reception and it is regular referred to in day to day school life. It is our motto. And it is used as a reference point and to back up what we do and why we are doing it. There are a lot of underlying assumptions when it is invoked, and as a spiritual director, I find myself sometimes challenging those assumptions, at least internally, if not explicitly. We see in the gospels where Satan tempts Jesus in the desert that Satan is also an expert in scripture and quotes it in order to justify his own ends. The full John 10.10 quotes is:
10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
To my ears and understanding, Jesus is eloquently summing up spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation. Ignatius takes a few more words to explain it:
Spiritual Consolation. I call it consolation when an interior movement is aroused in the soul, by which it is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and as a consequence, can love no creature on the face of the earth for its own sake, but only in the Creator of them all. It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears that move to the love of God, whether it be because of sorrow for sins, or because of the sufferings of Christ our Lord, or for any other reason that is immediately directed to the praise and service of God. Finally, I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.
Spiritual Desolation. I call desolation what is entirely the opposite of what is described in the third rule, as darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord. For just as consolation is the opposite of desolation, so the thoughts that spring from consolation are the opposite of those that spring from desolation.
Consideration of these points lead to discernment questions in spiritual direction, either internally or externally:
Where is this coming from?
Where is it leading to?
Is this life giving? How?
Is this death dealing? How?
What is the more life giving choice here?
A preliminary understanding of life giving is around what makes you feel good, or happy. Elle, in Legally Blonde sums it up neatly:
Ignatius does list interior joy as one of the effects of spiritual consolation and the sense of contentment might be considered manifestations of peace and quiet. It is a simple equation that Elle describes: sensible consolation = spiritual consolation, where sensible consolation is about what makes you happy: it must be good then, right? Brooke is a happy person, therefore she is not likely to have committed the mortal sin of murder. And then, must the opposite be true? If it doesn’t feel good, if it makes us feel unhappy and sad, sensible desolation, then it must be bad: sensible desolation = spiritual desolation.
But the equations are not that simple. Ignatius defines spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation in terms of whether something leads us towards God, or away from God: it is not about feeling good or bad, it is firstly, noticing what we are feeling and then observing what is prompting that particular emotion, and where that leads us, in terms of our relationship with God. Consider the recent journey through Holy Week and the Passion of Jesus. The third week of the Spiritual Exercises aligns with this journey and the grace that Ignatius encourages us to ask for is:
Here it will be to ask for sorrow, compassion, and shame because the Lord is going to His suffering for my sins
Sorrow, compassion and shame do not feel good: to feel these things is heartbreaking and brings “copious amounts of tears” as Ignatius writes frequently of his own prayer. Notice above (in bold), he has listed tears that move one to the love of God as spiritual consolation. The world seeks to fix sorrow and shame, and perhaps even overwhelming compassion for another which leads to tears, considering these things as pathological. I’m not saying that this may not sometimes be true: I am saying that sometimes these emotions are appropriate, and when they are leading to a deeper love of God, then they are spiritual consolation.
And sometimes, it is that simple: what makes us feel good is also leading us to God, and when we feel bad it may be because something is leading us away from God. The latter might be manifested as the “sting of conscience”. For example, perhaps I might feel bad about having gossiped unpleasantly about someone behind their back and I would identify such gossip as spiritual desolation, and the unpleasant sting of conscience the consolation inviting me to turn back to God.
If I were Satan’s advisor… I would suggest that Satan ensures that Christian leaders emphasise the danger of human desire, and the need to subject it totally to the will of God, constantly warning their flock that anything they desire must be rooted in their own selfishness, which they must constantly oppose. This will ensure that they always feel bad about feeling good….
and while I cannot remember the exact context – they may have been asked to teach a subject they had not trained in (it happens) – I do remember thinking what a brilliant way of expressing their dissatisfaction about it; the idea that we are designed for something, a purpose, and the desire for that purpose is written into our design: it brings us to life when we are fulfilling that purpose, our own personal vocation, both in the big things of the election, our state in life, and in the little day to day things which help us to fulfill that election. The spiritual consolation is that what we do is in the praise, reverance and service of God.
In thinking about all of these things, and the slow burn of Easter Sunday, The Upper Room and lockdown, I’ve been considering the question posed at the top of the post. What does it mean for me?
Julian of Norwich considers that there are only two sins (sin being spiritual desolation, what leads us away from God): anxious fear and despairing fear or, want of faith and want of hope as described by Ignatius. Ignatius believed that ingratitude was the root of all sin. (Reimagining the examen App: Gratitude). These are a few of the key ideas and also Just for Today, that I am holding onto during this period of lockdown when it would be easy to succumb to fear, despair and anxiety at the state of things. I have myself a list of things that I know are lifegiving for me and I check it off every day (mostly) which reminds me to be grateful for the many blessings in my life and which challenges me to maintain my conscious contact with God.
Certainly, some of it is about endorphins and feeling good, and I might go for exercise or a hot bubble bath with candles and music (usually something spiritual), or even sleep, especially when I feel that creeping darkness weighing on my spirit. Self pity is a particularly distasteful manifestation of ingratitude and it is something I cannot stand within myself whenever I notice it.
So here are my questions for you:
How are you doing right now?
What are the things that bring you to life?
My suggestion is that you make a list of these things and put it on the fridge or somewhere prominent so that the next time you notice that creeping desolation within you, you already have a range of strategies to help you to act against it – all you have to do is choose one and do it.
In the fifth annotation, the introductory notes at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius says:
It will be very profitable for the one who is to go through the Exercises to enter upon them with magnanimity and generosity toward his Creator and Lord, and to offer Him his entire will and liberty, that His Divine Majesty may dispose of him and all he possesses according to His most holy will.
The bold is mine because when I read this annotation, I think:
How could you not?
and given the journey of the last week, effectively the third week of the exercises, and this glorious day in which we begin the fourth week, this sense might best be summed up with some music:
After the pain of betrayal, the excruciating carnage of Good Friday and the empty stillness of Tomb day, we wake to Easter Sunday, and the world turned upside down. During the Spiritual Exercises, I found the movement into the fourth week from the passion of the third week, disorientating. I was very much the doubting Thomas – it was impossible, obviously they were lying to me, but why? It seemd a cruel trick to play, and I could not comprehend what they would get out of it. Even when I came face to face with the truth of it, I could not comprehend it. The magnitude was too much to bear.
In the fourth week, the grace that Ignatius would have us ask for is:
This will be to ask for what I desire. Here it will be to ask for the grace to be glad and rejoice intensely because of the great joy and the glory of Christ our Lord.
We are invited to share in the joy and gladness of Jesus, not our own joy and gladness, His. It is to be noticed that He comes as consoler to His friends, not to the Romans and the High Priests saying;
See, I told you so!
Easter is not just one day, it is not to be rushed. Ignatius outlines thirteen apparitions to meditate on during the fourth week, leading up to the feast of the Ascension, and then leads to the Contemplatio, sometimes called the fifth week, where he presents his suscipe prayer:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess.
Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it.
All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will.
Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.
and there will be others, still living in the pain of crucifixion and death, with the emptiness of tomb day, with the confusion of loss and grief, and being unable to say the proper goodbyes to loved ones who have died alone and in hospital. In the experience of the Spiritual Exercises, Easter is not experienced as a glorious and dramatic burst where suddenly everything and everyone in the world lives happily ever after. It is confusing. It is more of a slow perculation of something extraordinary; it very gradually brings with it the graces of God’s joy and gladness, and of hope – no matter what the wordly circumstances are. It is to sit with it, to not rush, to just be.
Here I offer something of the flavour of it as I experienced it. Imagine a room with a piano in it, much like the one in the image:
and then, the Risen Jesus walks in, takes a seat at the piano and begins to play, and as He does, the shutters and the windows begin to open:
I pray that God’s joy and gladness will sink into our hearts in this most holy of seasons.
When I was writing the post for Diary of a Sunflower the other day and describing a scene from some recurrent nightmares I had as a child, where I would be lying on a road, or a railway line, and a car or a train would be coming towards me, and I could see it and was desperately trying to get out of the way, but my legs would not work, I was paralysed by fear, it reminded me of a scene from the film “I am Legend” with Will Smith in it, where the infected dogs are after him and his dog, but they cannot cross the sunlight on the ground. The sun is going down and that ray of light is gradually disappearing.
Of course, the social distancing, social isolation situation here in the United Kingdom, and the Coronavirus pandemic is also, obviously, playing on my mind. “I Am Legend” is a film set in a post apocalyptic world, where most of the world has been infected with a virus that has turned them into Nightwalkers. The Will Smith character, Neville, is immune to the virus which affects humans in the airborne form, but dogs can only get infected by being bitten. He is a virologist, trying to find a vaccine. A topical subject. It is an excellent film, but a white knuckle ride, you need to be in the right mood I would say, and maybe, now is not the time.
Dreams of paralysing fear are quite common and can signify being stuck or restrained, from internal or external sources, or they can come from repressing stresses and feelings in our waking life. It sounds like I am describing the current situation where school has now been closed and we are working from home, setting lessons online. I might be calm and measured in my actions, but there is a small child inside me who is freaking out, a small child who knows that closing schools, and for an undefined length of time, and cancelling qualifying exams, is a last resort and means the situation is serious.
So what to do with that paralysing fear? There is no trite answer to that, and neither would I want to give one. To freeze can be a normal response to a real threat and sometimes, maybe standing still is safest action to take. Fight or flight might just make the situation more dangerous. I am thinking of where a dangerous predator might not have noticed that you are there. As a child, I loved horror films. Staying up late on a Saturday night to watch the horror double bill was a treat for us. I especially loved the Dracula films; and while I might go to bed with that adrenaline fuelled fear of:
What if there really are such creatures?
What if there are monsters under my bed?
I always put my crucifix on my pillow when I went to bed and felt safe, and if I had to go to the toilet during the night, I would take a flying leap back into bed, and hold onto that crucifix tightly until my heart rate had slowed down again..
We have become very used to the wonders of modern medical science I think, and especially in the United Kingdom with our wonderful National Health Service. It is not something we should take for granted, it is precious. We are getting a glimpse of what the world would be like without appropriate medicine, without vaccines, without antibiotics. For much of human history we did not have such wondrous technology, and there are places in the world that still do not have access to technology and medicines that are available elsewhere. To be used to depending on our own ingenuity so successfully, and to find ourselves in a position where we are not in control, but something else is, with blatant disregard to our feelings and well being; that something being invisible to our eyes but we can clearly see its effects, is sobering. I am of course talking about COVID-19. And scientists cannot decide whether or not viruses are living.
Recently, in the context of the meditation on a public sinner in the first week if the spiritual exercises, I heard someone describe sin as a virus. Hitler was presented as the public sinner, a common choice, and the contagion of his ideas spread exponentially throughout those around him who carried out his orders. It seems to me an excellent analogy, but I do not want to get into the sickness = sin equation of the Old Testament. It is to note that social behaviour driven by fear is leading to hording, fighting in the aisles, denial of the seriousness of the situation and refusing to take action by physically distancing oneself, but just carrying on as if nothing at all is happening. The disease spreading through our world is shining a spotlight on our collective sinfulness, our collective fear and lack of faith in God.
But it is not the whole story. Just as there is a cry of wonder as we turn to the crucified Christ in the Exercises, there were those who stood up: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Edith Stein, Maximillion Kolbe….many people who refused, and died refusing to accept it, whose faith was tested right to the point of death. And there are those who are standing up in the wake of the pandemic: Dr. Li, who tried to warn the world of this new viral pneumonia that we had never seen before and died from it himself, all the key workers, responding to the crisis by carrying on, caring for others. There are those in local communities who are rallying round to make sure the vulnerable are looked after. There is less talk of Brexit, although it is still there under the surface its effects in this current situation are being considered, but people are caring more for each other and building communities online to support each other. Fear is not the only story, God is there in the midst of it all.
Ignatius advises that when we are in a time of desolation:
…it will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against the desolation. We can insist more upon prayer, upon meditation, and on much examination of ourselves. We can make an effort in a suitable way to do some penance.
The image above reminds me of a previous imaginative contemplation I made on the Good Samaritan at the end of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises and by bringing it to mind, and into my current prayer, this previous consolation, I have found that my inner child is settling down and my trust is deepening. No, I do not know how we will emerge from this crisis as a world and I hope it will be different in a good way; that we will come to understand that we are all connected to each other and that we need to look after each other and our world. There will always be disease: viruses and bacteria evolve more quickly than we do and medical science is always playing catch up. Consolation, sensible and spiritual, is to be found in how we deal with it. I, for one, am grateful for all those people who have posted the positives and prayers on social media, because they have all helped me to make use of the grace offered me and to withstand the fear raining down.
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?
And it brought to mind the question, the title of this post, that was asked at the beginning of a lecture I attended for the Ignatian Spirituality Course a few years ago. My immediate response to the question was an unequivocal :
Yes, of course He does.
But imagine my surprise when my friend next to me responded with an equally unequivocal:
No, He doesn’t.
So, all is not necessarily as straightforward as it immediately seemed to me. The lecture was about discernment and moved to talk about group discernment in the church. It is not this lecture that I particularly want to discuss here, but the question posed at the beginning of it:
Does God get what God wants?
In the reading for day 6 of the journey, Julian describes an oscillation between spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation, where in one moment she was filled with joy and the sense that nothing could ever separate her from God, and then in the next she was:
…abandoned to myself, oppressed and weary of my life and ruing myself, so that I hardly had the patience to go on living…
If we look at the state of the world today – we only have to watch the news – and if we were to take at face value the fact that we experience spiritual desolation: separation or movement away from God, that we are sinners, that we do not always trust that He is constantly with us in every moment of our lives, and that we are not always truly converted to contemplation of Him and all of His works in general, then I can see why my friend expressed the opinion she held.
Ignatius says of the reasons for spiritual desolation:
The principal reasons why we suffer from desolation are three:
The first is because we have been tepid and slothful or negligent in our exercises of piety, and so through our own fault spiritual consolation has been taken away from us.
The second reason is because God wishes to try us, to see how much we are worth, and how much we will advance in His service and praise when left without the generous reward of consolations and signal favors.
The third reason is because God wishes to give us a true knowledge and understanding of ourselves, so that we may have an intimate perception of the fact that it is not within our power to acquire and attain great devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation; but that all this is the gift and grace of God our Lord. God does not wish us to build on the property of another, to rise up in spirit in a certain pride and vainglory and attribute to ourselves the devotion and other effects of spiritual consolation.
In Julian’s description of her oscillation between spiritual consolation and desolation, we might see the third reason at work. Ignatius is clear that while God does not cause spiritual desolation, He does allow it. We also see it in the book of Job:
7 The Lord said to Satan,[c] ‘Where have you come from?’ Satan[d] answered the Lord, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.’
He allows the enemy to walk among us, making his whispering, trying to draw us away from God, to profane Him. And, like Job, we have a choice, we have free will. The catechism of the Catholic Church says of freedom:
As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning.
It is choosing to surrender ourselves completely to Him: it is a once and for all choice and an everyday choice. It is as Julian describes, complete trust and contemplation of Him.
I have described my rudimentary understanding of God being outside of time and space before, in a visual analogy. I have another: imagine time lapse photography of a seed being planted in a flower bed and its growth is filmed. Lets keep to the theme and make it a sunflower seed, like my inner child was planting in the garden with Him. In normal time lapse photography, we would see the sunflower grow quickly, and everything else in the flowerbed too. In my imagination of God’s eye view, it is only the sunflower, the one He is focusing on, that is changing in this film. What is my point? If He is looking at me, in the intimacy of my relationship with Him, He sees all of me, throughout eternity, all at once in this one eternal moment. If this Sunflower seed is growing towards Him, if this surrender to Him and contemplation of Him occurs at any point in eternity, then He is there now, experiencing that, and He has what He wants. It is me, who is limited in this present struggle with my own resistance and failings, that may not currently believe that He gets what He wants, because from my frame of reference in the here and now, He is not getting what He wants. But every temptation is an opportunity to choose Him, and every time I choose Him, I am moving towards Him, and giving Him what He desires when He invites me to be with Him. In the whole, big eternal picture, is it not what He desires? for us to use our gift of free will to choose Him? to bind our freedom definitively to Him? As this is true for me, is it not also true for every other soul He gazes upon?
I guess that, in spite of the turmoil, war and the pain; the sinfulness, violence and brutality of humanity; everything that nailed Him to that cross, when I look at Him in prayer, and when I am still and allow Him to look at me, I hold on to the hope, courage and faith to say that yes, I do believe that ultimately, God does get what He wants. He told Julian after all that:
It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.