Integration 1: Reading of this post.

In my last post, I said that I was ready for my retreat at home – well, that was famous last words! It was certainly the most challenging retreat I have ever done, and the beginning of it, the most stressful. Not at all what I had prepared for or anticipated. I did not manage to get a food shop in after doing a lot of unexpected running around the day before, so, after speaking with my spiritual director on the first morning of the retreat, planned to do that, shower and then begin proper. Except that when I went out, my car had a flat tyre (I thought it wasn’t handling properly the night before – even though it did not look flat when I checked it, miles from any garage) and just as I finished changing the wheel, my neighbour decided that it was a good time to come over and be unpleasant, aggressive and threatening. I may have remained calm, reasonable and rational externally, but it caused no end of disruption to my internal serenity. I thought about the two monks I wrote about last time:

Brother, I dropped that woman at the river. Are you still carrying her?

Anthony de Mello, Song of the Bird

And I am so glad that I did write that, because it was my hook through the week when I found my thoughts drifting to the conflict with my neighbour and the spiritual desolation that it brought. It pulled me up short and reminded me of where I really wanted my focus to be, so when I noticed that my thoughts had strayed, I turned my attention to the little icon of Jesus that I was carrying around and placing everywhere I was, and I brought to mind the consolations I have been storing up to help me in times of desolation.

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.
Ely Cathedral
Integration 2 : Reading of this post.

So, enough talk of that and onto spiritual consolation, I have long understood that God uses everything about where we are and who we are to draw us closer to Himself, to transform us into who He would have us be. Our role in this process is our cooperation. A persistent theme for me in my spiritual journey is integration, to reconcile the fire and water, active and contemplative parts of my personality, or rather, to allow the flow from one to the other without the resistance and negative feelings about that resistance that go along with the change of state. Since writing about Tai chi and Three Kinds of Humility in February, the momentum of this developing theme has increased in my discussions with my own director, and through lockdown, where I found that I really enjoyed working at home. It has been:

…the question that drives us (me)

Trinity, The Matrix
Integration 3: Reading of this post.

For me, the question is:

How do I live here, in my house with God, as He would have me live?

As it turned out, being in retreat at home, talking to a spiritual director every day, was the perfect opportunity to thoroughly explore that question. Prior to lockdown, I mostly tried to leave work at work, although inevitably, there were times I had to bring work home, there was a clear demarcation by virtue of physical location, between work and home. In my room, and in my prayer spot in particular, I had a clear demarcation between contemplative and active at home. During lockdown, I learned how to work at home, how to structure it to build time in between and to ensure that I do not overwork – I would identify obsessive workaholism as a danger for me. The structure was there, but how do I let go, and move from the active state to a contemplative state and vice versa? to allow the flow from fire to water and back to fire again? It took four days of turmoil of spirits during my retreat at home to let go of the responsibilities at home that were a constant distraction.

My Leviathan Mandala
Integration 4: Reading of this post.

It is the story of the two monks. To begin with, I was the scandalised monk, berating myself constantly, even though my desire was to be the other monk, the serene one, who had let go of the activity he had engaged in. Towards the end of the retreat, I had moved to be more like the serene one, although I have a long way to go still. How did it happen? In this retreat, I spent more time being active and “in the world” than I have ever done on retreat; I spent the least time in formal contemplative prayer than I have ever done on retreat, and yet a profound shift happened in my psyche which will reverberate as ripples in a pond throughout my life. It became clear, as observed by my spiritual director, that day to day life was not suspended in this retreat as it might be when I get in my car and drive away to a retreat centre as I normally do, that the invitation was to find God in All Things, as I live at home; more of a joined up, integrated way of being. The focus shifted to the transition. I noticed that, although I was active during my retreat, the activities I was engaging in were things that I just felt like doing: making candles, washing bottles, making aromatherpy blends for the oil burner, painting, even the odd job or bit of housework in the house. And I also went out and about, for dinner, for lunch – I would say solo, but I brought my icon with me and placed it discretely where I could see it. I was not alone.

My travelling Icon of Jesus.
Integration 5: Reading of this post.

The realisation gradually dawned: when I put some of these activities on my “to do” list, they felt like chores, and low priority tasks that my active “task girl” always put off as being not important enough compared with the other work I had to do today. They were also low priority for my “contemplative girl”, because they were not being still; contemplative prayer; formal time set aside to be just me and God. I recognised that these were activities that I did not set a definite time period for, they were finished when they were finished or I did not feel like doing them anymore. What was important, I recognised, was the movement within me as I engaged with them: I move from an active state of mind to a contemplative state of mind: flow. In the story of the two monks, it takes two hours for the berated monk to finally respond to the criticism of the other: there is a transition period. During lockdown, I had built into my day, time periods where I was away from “work”, but I struggled in how to use that time, other than to do more of what needed to be done and my mind was constantly racing over my to do list, and how to manage and accomplish the things that were on it. While being active with God on this retreat, I have come to know myself better and to stop berating myself for my apparent resistance to flow. It is not reasonable to expect to slow down from 120mph to 5mph instantly – it takes time. I would not expect it of anyone else, why should I expect it of myself, and then be frustrated that it does not happen like that? I also notice that moving the other way is less of a problem – turning the computer on, filling up my water bottle, checking emails, writing my “to do” list, are all activities that move me gently from contemplative and slow, to active and fast. I might criticise myself for displacement activities prior to getting down to work, but here, now, I am recognising that they are transtion activities.

Transition activities are the missing jigsaw piece that links the two aspects of my personality, that assist the flow from fire to water, and back to fire again. You might be reading, and thinking that it is just mindfulness that I am talking about, and that it might seem a bit obvious. It was not obvious to me until recently. Teresa of Avila describes it as:

Finding God in the pots and pans.

Teresa Avila: The Interior Castle

And I would not necessarily disagree with you that it is mindfulness, except to say that I am coming at it from the other direction, in terms of cause and effect. Rather than focusing my awareness on being mindful of the activity I am doing which results in bringing me into that meditative state, I am focusing on the activity I am doing which results in a state of mindfulness and brings me into that meditative state. For flow to happen, activities are well within one’s capabilities so as not to impede or block engagement, and also present with a little bit of challenge to motivate and interest. In trying to live at home with God this week, my understanding of how to live at home with God has deepened, and I put several transition activities on my daily to do list. It is not my intention complete them as tasks that day, merely as a stimulus. When I come to a transtion period in the day, I look at those things on the list and ask myself:

What do I feel like doing right now?

And I choose based on what I feel, maybe even something I have not written down.

Reflecting on my week of retreat at home I am grateful. Is it not generous that He gives us the graces we ask for, even – and maybe even especially – if not in the ways we envisaged when we ask for it? It reminds of the scene with Morgan Freeman as God, in Evan Almighty:

Integration 6: Reading of this post.

So, here is my challenge to you. What graces have you been asking God for in prayer? And do you notice the opportunities for those graces in your life? If, like me, there is tension between your active and contemplative sides, your Martha and Mary, as it is somethimes described, what are the transition activites for you? those things that facilitate moving from one state of being to another? If you feel like sharing…please post in the comments.

Sanctuary in a Carmelite Hermitage

Sanctuary in a Carmelite hermitage 1: Reading of this post.

While I have been making annual individually guided retreats for nineteen years now, since I returned from the thirty day spiritual exercises three years ago, it has no longer been enough: a year between one and the next is too long to wait. My answer to this longing to be alone and silent with God is to spend a weekend, every three months, in a hermitage. At first I went to All Hallows Convent in Ditchingham, which was only a fifteen minute drive from where I live, but since the community was disbanded there, I started going a little further away to the Carmelite Monastery at Quidenham. I was there last weekend.

I said previously that we had studied a little bit about different spiritualities on the first year of my course when I was training to be a spiritual director, and Carmelite spirituality was one that we had a look at. I was amazed to learn about “Nocturnal” mysticism and “Solar” mysticism, and that these were different in their perception of how we know God. Nocturnal mysticism comes from the direction that God is unknowable, that we cannot know God, and the more we think we know, the less we actually know. Solar mysticism comes at it from the other angle, that we can know God, and we can come to know Him more intimately in our journey of faith: at least, this is what I understood of the distinction. St. Teresa of Avila, the founder of the Carmelite order, along with St. John of the Cross and the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” fit into the former category, while Origen and Gregory the Great fit into the latter. I would suggest that Julian of Norwich also fits into the latter, but I am not an expert. I read The Life of St Teresa of Avila by Herself some years ago, and I have to be honest, I do not think that I really understood much of what she was saying. I felt much the same about “The Cloud of Unknowing“, and I have not felt particularly drawn by St. John of the Cross. I used to keep a notebook of all the things that had struck me when I was reading, but these days my “to read” pile is so high I highlight and write annotations in my own books. It is easy to tell how deeply the book spoke to me by the quotations in my notebook, or by how much colour I have added to it. One point I did write down from “The Cloud of Unknowing” is:

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

The Cloud of Unknowing

I remember reading this on retreat at Loyola Hall and being struck by it: it puzzled me, I did not completely understand it. The first part made some sense, I recognised that making the time to pray and go on retreat strengthened me and my relationship with God but the second part was outwith my experience. A couple of years later though, again on retreat, there was an imaginative contemplation I made with the Garden of Gethsemane, and the words I heard Jesus say in His prayer were:

May my will be in accordance with your will.

and I had the image of a mirrored box, both on its inside and outside, so that you were looking in a mirror through a mirror: infinity. And I heard Him say:

You can’t put my love in a box.

Then nothing: no images, sounds, movements, no sensations. I have no idea how long it lasted and I was overwhelmed by it. And I realised that this “nothing” that completely overwhelmed me barely scratched the surface of God. It was a drop in an ocean that was a drop in another ocean that was a drop in another ocean and so on. I was a barnacle on a ship becoming aware that the surface I was clinging to went on in all directions around me, and had no ending. Emily Dickinson’s poem reminds me of how it felt:

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

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

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

Emily Dickinson: He Fumbles at your Spirit

After that prayer, I was exhausted and I slept a lot in the next two to three days. I knew something had changed in me, I had felt some sort of searing pain within me, and it was like my soul had simply been slashed with an instrument as precise as a scalpel, leaving a single, fine cut that would never heal. I do not know if it is what the Nocturnal mystics speak of, I’m not sure that it is, but it resonates with the quote from “The Cloud of Unknowing” and stands out as being different from my other “up close and personal” experiences of God.

Sanctuary in a Carmelite hermitage 2: Reading of this post.

Nevertheless, there is something perfect for me as a visitor at Quidenham. I have described myself before as a spiritual solitary, and the Carmelites are a closed order, so I am not invited into the monastery itself: I stay in the hermitage outside of the enclosure. I am not a part of the community. I am invited to their prayers, and to be in their visitor’s chapel, which is across the altar from where the nuns are. It is separate from both the enclosed Carmelite community, and on Sunday mass, the Parish community that congregates there, so I am not part of that community either. I am both alone with God and part of the bigger community of my church at the same time. When I was making the exercises, during the second and through the third week, I often appeared in imaginative contemplation as one of the unknown women described in the gospels, who followed Him, and provided for them out of their own resources. In keeping with the sixth – ninth additions, where we seek to keep our environment conducive to what we are praying:

I should rather keep in mind that …

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

I started to cover my head with a pashmina during my prayer, and have continued with this practice since then, when I am alone with Him in my room. I laugh at the irony in covering my head because as a child, there was pressure to wear a mantilla at mass, and I resisted furiously, and well as railing against the use, or misuse, of Corinthians when Paul answers a question form that gentile community by saying:

For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

1 Corinthians 11:6

When I do this in the intimacy of my room and in my prayer I am promising Him:

I will serve you in obedience and humility.

I do not pray like this in public. It would feel ostentatious and a bit like those pharisees beating their breasts, showing off how devout they are. Ignatius says in the exercises, with reference to position in prayer, in the fourth addition:

The fourth Direction is never to be followed in the church before others, but only in private, for example, at home.

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

It is a personal thing, between me and God, and it continually confirms the choice I made and the path I walk when I made my election and it was confirmed in the Exercises. Somehow, in this space in the visitor’s chapel at Quidenham, I can be more as I am alone at home. I might feel a little shy about it, but it does not feel inappropriate when sitting across from those who have given their lives so generously to humility and prayer.

Sanctuary in a Carmelite hermitage 3: Reading of this post.

The first time I went to Quidenham I was moved by the simple beauty of the Church there, and by the Stations of the cross. My sense of God’s feelings about the community there was one of absolute joy and pleasure. Here is something that He treasures, something He takes pride in and holds close to His heart. It was like He was saying to me:

Here I want to show you something that is very special to me.

And I felt very privileged, like you do when someone has shared something intimate and important with you. The Carmelites at Quidenham, by offering hospitality in their hermitage, provide me with a sanctuary, a place where I can withdraw from the world for a short time and share quiet moments with God in a way that is different from day to day life: a weekend break, as opposed to a summer holiday. My question to you is where, how and with whom do you find sanctuary within your day to day life? How do you find and spend your quiet moments?Where might there be a desire in you for more? And how could you facilitate that desire?

Sanctuary in a Carmelite hermitage 4: Reading of this post.

As for me, I think I’m going to put some books about St Teresa of Avila on my reading pile, maybe even try reading her own story about her life again, this time with my highlighters and coloured pens, rather than my little notebook of quotations.

Entrance to the Church at Quidenham.