On Being in the Cave

On being in the Cave 1: Reading of this post.

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.

Spirituality Workbook, David Runcorn

And he talks about waiting:

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.

Spirituality Workbook, David Runcorn

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.

On Being in the Cave 2: Reading of this post.

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.

Spirituality Workbook, David Runcorn

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.

On Being in the Cave 3: Reading of this post.

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.

Cave at Mellieha, Malta
On Being in the Cave 4: Reading of this post.

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.

St. Mary’s Church, Startson.
On being in the Cave 5: Reading of this post.

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.

What brings you to life?

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

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

.John 10:10b

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

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

John 10:10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is this coming from?

Where is it leading to?

Is this life giving? How?

Is this death dealing? How?

What is the more life giving choice here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gerry. W. Hughes says On Desire:

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

God in all Things, Gerard W. Hughes

I remember a teaching colleague once said:

I’m not designed for this.

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

The Psalm this week says:

You show me the path of life.

Psalm 16:11

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

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

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

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

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

So here are my questions for you:

How are you doing right now?

What are the things that bring you to life?

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

The Generosity of God

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

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

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

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

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

How could you not?

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

The Generosity of God 2: Reading of this post.

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

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

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

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

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

See, I told you so!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Generosity of God 4: Reading of this post.

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

I Am Legend

I Am Legend 1: Reading of the Post

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

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

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

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

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

What if there really are such creatures?

and :

What if there are monsters under my bed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Am Legend 5: Reading of the Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a Balcony in Barcelona.

Rhythm and Religiosity

Rhythm and Religiosity 1: Reading of this Post.

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

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

Of course.

She replied. The interviewer then asked her:

Then why do you do it?

To which she replied:

Because the bell rings.

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

Rhythm and Religiosity 2: Reading of this Post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of God, he says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhythm and Religiosity 4: Reading of this Post.

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

Does God get what God wants?

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

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

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

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

and on day 7 of the journey she writes:

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

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

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

Yes, of course He does.

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

No, He doesn’t.

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

Does God get what God wants?

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

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

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

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

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

Ignatius says of the reasons for spiritual desolation:

The principal reasons why we suffer from desolation are three:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Job 1:7

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

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

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1732

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive Penance Retreat Day:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shovin yer Grannie Aff a Bus

Shoving yer Grannie aff a bus 1 : reading of this post

Going back a few months, I was planning an assembly to give in school on the theme of “Compassion for Old People”. I found it a bit tricky at the time – how could I find anything to say that was not blatantly obvious, and maybe even dull? So, humour is always good, especially when working with teenagers. I thought that as the students enter I would play a nursery rhyme that is one of the first songs that small children in Scotland might learn:

Shoving yer Grannie aff a bus 2 : reading of this post

And after introducing the theme, I would comment on how much we love our Grannies in Scotland and provide a short video clip as evidence to that effect:

Shoving yer Grannie aff a bus 3 : reading of this post

I knew it would not be appropriate for me to show them this other clip, even though I really did want to, on account of it being a bit too fiery:

Shoving yer Grannie aff a bus 4 : reading of this post

I did not do that assembly in the end, it was rescheduled for another week with a different theme. Given that this blog is about Spirituality and about “Finding God in All Things”, you might be wondering at this point:

Where is this coming from?

and also,

Where is it leading to?

Both good discernment questions.

I have been noticing recently, conversations with vulnerable people: people who are “poor” speakers by wordly standards, and we are not very patient with poor speakers in our world.

One little old lady, who is a Gran (but not my Granny), who has had a minor stroke and stutters now, and also finds it difficult to remember the words she wants to use. She gets frustrated. There may also be dementia there, because the conversation gets recycled several times on a loop. She knows her memory is fading: it scares her, even though she puts on a brave face.

One young man who is autistic, who functions in his own specialist realm on a high level that is unfathomable to most people and yet finds simple social conversation anything but simple. It is difficult and painful and has to be consciously worked at.

Some years ago I went on a student retreat with others from the Chaplaincy, and there was a PhD student there from Zimbabwe. We spent the first session talking about ourselves, introducing ourselves so that the others could get a sense of who we were. I remember feeling impatient to begin with when this student spoke, he seemed to be telling a rambling story and I wanted him to hurry up and get to the point. And then I had a light bulb moment: his story was the point. Here was a person who knew how to just be, how to live in the moment and to appreciate all that was around him; it is who he was, considered and present, not rushing to get it all done and trying to have a mic drop moment. I was at once full of admiration and awe, as I acknowledged my own vice of impatience and aggressive drive.

There is something in the nature of the world that demands aggressive drive to be successful at life. We see it in films, television, work: everywhere. Just look around at what is honoured and respected in the world and there you will see it, and it has always been there. The world is pushy, and if we are not pushing, we are failing.

Why am I pondering an aborted assembly plan here and now? Why Scottish nursery rhymes and why Grannies? Many of the daily readings recently have been from Isaiah, as was the guided prayer I posted the other week. We have been studying Matthew Chapters 6 and 7 in Bible Study, and of course, in the UK there has been a general election for a new government. Some of the rhetoric in the election campaign has been around what kind of society we want to live in. Do we want to live in one where the desires of the wealthy to hoard their money in offshore tax havens dictate government policy and where lies and bullying of those who speak out are the means to achieve that?

St. Ignatius summarises what I am thinking of in the meditation of the Two Standards in the Spiritual Exercises:

The first step then, will be riches, the second honour, the third pride. From these three steps the evil one leads to all other vices.

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

And of course in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says:

‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Matthew 6:24
Matthew 7:20

Even Wonder Woman in the trailer for the new film sums it up:

Nothing good is born from lies.

Shoving yer Grannie aff a bus 5 : reading of this post

Or do we want to live in a society where government policy is based around the preferential option for the poor, where the wealthy contribute their fair share to the country and public services are maintained effectively for the benefit of everyone? Do we continue on this road where the treatment of the sick is in decline, where education and the mental health of our young people is deteriorating, where homelessness is on the increase, where people are working ungodly hours and are still unable to put food on the table without resorting to hand outs from the food banks and racial violence and violence against religious minorities is increasing? Do we all do what we need to do to fix it?

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:21
Isaiah 41:17
Shoving yer Grannie aff a bus 6 : reading of this post

I am thinking about how we treat the vulnerable in society. In Jesus’ day, that was the widow and the orphan: those with no male kin to claim them and no status. Who are they in our own situation? The ones we are repelled by? The ones it takes too much effort to engage with? Do we even notice those feelings within ourselves? And when we do, how do we respond?

Isaiah 40:1
Shoving yer Grannie aff a bus 7 : reading of this post

Sometimes I walk past the homeless person on the street, and I can hardly bare to look them in the eye; sometimes I give a small amount of money, and sometimes I give a generous amount that leaves me a little short, and I wish them well. All of it makes me uncomfortable and angry. I am angry that there are homeless people on our streets: I am not angry with homeless people for being there, I am angry with a society that has created the conditions conducive to homelessness, and that it is on the increase. It is a case of there but for the grace of God go I, because how many of us are just one unfortunate, catastrophic event away from such a situation? There was a young homeless man my daughter knew from school. He gave her his only five pounds late one night because she did not have enough money to get a taxi home and he was concerned to make sure she was safe. A few months later she heard that he had died alone in his tent, and had lain there for four days before being discovered.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you;

Matthew 7:12

After the results of the election, I have to say that I am ashamed to be British. I am incredulous at what the UK has voted for. It is certainly not the preferential option for the poor. I am reminded of the meditations of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises, where we are asked to contemplate the sins of the world, and our own sin. The grace we ask for in the first week is:

…shame and confusion, because I see how many have been lost on account of a single mortal sin, and how many times I have deserved eternal damnation, because of the many grievous sins that I have committed.

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

I have to acknowledge that were I to place myself in the Exercises right now, it would be here, in this place of shame and confusion. I notice the movements in me where I am not responding, even internally, in a way that is more for the glory of God: I notice my anger and where it might move me to personalise it and lash out at others and I notice the pull of despair, which has the potential to shift me from this place of spiritual consolation of shame and confusion, the grace of the first week, into spiritual desolation, where it would be all too easy to feel that God has not answered the poor and needy, and lose some faith and trust in God.

If we are using pushing your elderly relatives off of a bus as a metaphor for how we look after the vulnerable in society, then Scotland knows that it is not the done thing: it is so obvious that it does not need explaining. A three year old child could sing it to you. After the general election I will say that I am proud to be Scottish.

The Perfect Imperfect

Sunflower mandala.
The Perfect Imperfect 1: Reading of this post.

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 Hand and The Computer, A Note on the Illustrations: How the World is Made, The Story of Creation According to Sacred Geometry, John Michell
The Perfect Imperfect 2: Reading of this post.

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.

Jon Allen, Drawing Geometry, as quoted by John Mitchell, Sacred Geometry.

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.

God in all Things mandala, drawn at Loyola IGR, 2009.
The Perfect Imperfect 3: Reading of this post.

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.

The Perfect Imperfect 4: Reading of this post.

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.

St Beunos. Mandala on wood.
The Perfect Imperfect 5: Reading of this post.

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 Perfect Imperfect 6: Reading of this post.

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.

The Writing on the Wall.

Reading of The Writing on the Wall 1

In a recent post, I put a link to the video of a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s song The Sound of Silence by Disturbed. I said it haunted me the first time I saw it, and it has been haunting me again since I posted it. The words that are playing in my head are:

And the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls; and echoed in the wells of silence.

Simon and Garfunkel: The Sound of Silence

The writing on the wall occurs in The book of Daniel, one of the apocalyptic books in the Bible, where the prophet Daniel explains it to King Nebuchadnezzer:

Your days are numbered. You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting.

Daniel 5: 26-27

It is connecting with another previous post where I had commented on some things Ignatius has to say about our attitude towards the Church. It strikes me that we are living in apocalyptic times: there is the climate crisis for one, and I studied atmospheric Chemistry for my PhD: it is not to be dismissed. And it also strikes me that the writing on the wall is a righteous act of defiance against those claiming to have authority. The words from The Sound of Silence imply grafitti, and sometimes, the grafitti written on the walls in defiance of the established authority may well be prophetic. Hazel Jones, the “Grafitti Granny” was recently caught on camera making such a protest, and her activities went viral. She wrote in chalk:

Brexit is based on lies. Reject it.

Hazel Jones, chalk grafitti on walls in Wakefield.

Sometimes it may be the right thing to do to defy the established authority. I draw on the wisdom of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to illustrate my point:

Reading of The Writing on the Wall 2

In the Buffyverse, the watchers council created the slayers, and watched over and directed them. Buffy rejected their authority a few seasons back, and her watcher Giles, was sacked. In this episode, they are trying to use vital information they have about the current foe Buffy is facing, by withholding it, in order to bring the slayer back under their control. They have demanded the final showdown in the scene, imposing their own terms and conditions, and for the most part of the episode, Buffy has been downtrodden. You could say she has been experiencing turmoil of spirits, until finally we see her, claiming her identity and insisting on self determination within that. In essence, she has discerned her path, for me, for now, for good. She speaks with authority, and everyone in the room, watchers council included, recognise her authority.

And it raises the question:

Whose authority do we accept?

We read in the gospels that the people recognised that Jesus spoke with authority:

They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.

Luke 4:32

And considering the systemic problem in the Church I wrote about earlier, how do we discern its true authority from when something else is manifesting itself as that authority? How can we tell that it is the voice of God we are hearing and not that of the imposter? I get asked this question a lot when I am listening to people, I ask it of myself, and I ask it of the people I am listening to.

How do you know it is God?

One way is to compare it to a touchstone experience of God. These are moments when we know, without any doubt, that what we are sensing has come from God. If we hold the present experience in one hand, and notice how it feels and where it is leading: and on the other hand, hold the touchstone experience and do the same; we notice the sense of each. If the present experience feels similar to the touchstone one and is leading the soul to be inflamed with the love of God, we might trust that it is of God. If however, on comparing the two, the present experience feels jarring or odd, and is leading to a disturbance, we might discern that it is not of God, or has something not of God tangled up in it perhaps; the darnel sown in with the wheat. Ignatius gives a very useful analogy to help here: if the voice feels like water dropping onto a sea sponge, where it is absorbed gently and wholly, as if the water is part of its own substance, we might trust that to be God. If the voice feels like water dropping onto a stone, and it need not necessarily be noisy like a whole bucket full of water, it could be a quiet, almost difficult to hear, splash of one drop, then that voice is likely to be the evil spirit. Sometimes I notice that both are going on at the same time. There is the noisy, obvious, bucketful of water on a very large boulder, to which I might respond:

I know who you are and I know what you are doing!

And then I try to look for the misdirection, the one drop on a small stone that has been drowned out, the quiet, desolating whisper, telling me that I’m not good enough, and asking me who do I think I am? Who am I to be doing this? It is the voice that whispers to me that I am unworthy, and it sows fear, anxiety, despair, and seeks to undermine my confidence in what I am doing with my heart fixed on the greater glory of God.

Reading of The Writing on the Wall 3

There are many loud voices in our society, claiming to have authority; that others are spreading fake news, and sometimes it can be difficult to know which way is up. We can use our reason to check our facts, to ask ourselves about the credibility of the person speaking: are they an expert in what they are talking about? how are they informed? where are they coming from? what is their bias? their hidden agenda? their history and integrity? And we can look at the effects of their words and actions: we know them by their fruits. Do they bring people together in love, peace and solidarity, or do they sow division and hatred in the world? I am thinking here of the marches from both sides in the Brexit debacle, and the extinction rebellion protests, as well as the variety of responses to these different events on social media, as just a few examples from the public sphere.

I also watched the film “Official Secrets” recently, and it resonated with me in a similar way as Red Joan did earlier in the year.

Reading of The Writing on the Wall 4

Two women in breach of the Official Secrets act, breaking the law and acting from conscience and with extraordinary courage. I do not advocate breaking the law per say, but when we discern that the established world authorities are perpetuating evil, and the legal routes to challenge it are thwarted or exhausted, the prophets speak out, and the courageous stand up, no matter what the cost to themselves. I am humbled by people like Katherine Gun, because while I know what I would like to do, you never really know until you are in that position. I only hope that I would be able to hear God’s voice through the noise and that He would give me the grace I needed to act as He desires.

Reading of The Writing on the Wall 5

Towards the end of the 2016 film Ignacio de Loyola, there is the scene showing the “vision” Ignatius received at the Cardoner River, once he has left the cave at Manresa. Jesus, in the form of a boy, talks to him about the creature he defeated in the cave. He says to Ignatius:

Now you know my voice.

We can learn to recognise the voice of God more clearly, within ourselves and in the world, by praying with scripture, by praying the examen, with the rules for discernment that Ignatius describes in The Spiritual Exercises, and by talking with a spiritual director who can help us to apply them. It helps us to be more able to respond to the true authority of God in our lives, even when it means defying the pseudo authorities of the world who would demand our obedience. Just a final thought on the authentic voice of authority:

A lion will never have to tell you it is a lion.

Dedication

I would like to dedicate this post to an amazing friend of mine who is currently standing up to, and speaking out to a corrupt authority within her own situation. I salute you, and I am praying for you. You know who you are.