It brought back memories of the River meditation I had done during the First Week of The Spiritual Exercises, when contemplating the sinfulness of the world. I had been in the process of planning my Positive Penance Retreat day when I was praying with Day 2, so perhaps it is not surprising that this meditation was in my mind, since I was using it on my retreat day.
During and since the Exercises, I have understood that my experience of this imaginative contemplation was a conversation with God about my work. It was as if He said:
We need to have a conversation about your work, but there are more pertinent things to deal with first.
As I notice the dates in my prayer journal now, my part one and part two of praying with Day 2 of the Journey straddle a meeting I had in my job which caused a shift in my perspective and from that moment, the writing on the wall was bright and clear, no longer invisible. Sure, it took a bit longer to make the actual decision, and then a bit longer for it to happen, but it did happen and I am living that decision now.
In the Quesions to Ponder section of the Journey, Lisa Dahil asks:
What images of Jesus’ crucifixion – scriptural, musical, or artistic – are most familiar to you? Do these images readily speak to you of love, as they do to Julian? Why or why not?
I did not find that question so easy, and I am glad she introduced the possibility of it not speaking of love, because my experience of it was both. In thinking about the standard wooden crucifix with a metal Jesus on it, I have to acknowledge a sense of horror at the torture, oppression and martyrdom. Not just the horror of what was done to Jesus, but there is a sense of irredeemable guilt and sometimes a sense of looking at it and experiencing a feeling of emotional blackmail whenever I am not being as good as I “should” be:
Look at how I suffered for you, and you cannot even do this for me?
I recognise this voice as not being of God, of how it is used to exert power and control. It is fallacious reasoning that demands an account from us, which tells us we are not good enough and it cuts us off from the sense of God’s love that Julian is talking about. We spend time in the Principle and Foundation of The Exercises coming to recognise how we are loved by God, because without knowing God’s love for us deeply, facing the full reality of our sinfulness in the First Week might just be too much to cope with.
Another response I had to this image was of anger: anger at the injustice of what was done to Him. I also felt shame and confusion that sinfulness and hatred could have any small moment of triumph, and that people can be so fickle and can be turned so easily by lies. I find that frightening. Dahill states:
For Julian, Jesus’ death is not an appeasement of God’s wrath.
I do not think I have ever seen it as God’s wrath, more the wrath of humanity. I mentioned shame and confusion, noticing that this is the grace of the First Week of The Spiritual Exercises.
Here it will be to ask for 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.
Then there was the other side to my conflicting emotions on praying with the material for Day 2. I imagined myself stepping into Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. In the Divine Dance, Richard Rohr tells that in Rublev’s orignal artwork, there was a mirror, which invited us to join in, to take a place within God. Julian says:
It is here that I connected with the Love she is talking about. A sense of falling at His feet, of being Veronica and wiping the blood from His face. I am struck by Mel Gibson’s film of The Passion, and how, amidst the violence and the gore, there are moments of tenderness, where Jesus is seen, and those who see Him are seen by Him. It seems to me that He draws strength from those who love Him, and whom He loves. When I was praying with His passion in the Third Week of the Exercises, it was a feature of my imaginative contemplations that the moments of connection with those who loved Him and walked with Him as He made this journey, were significant in strengthening Him so that He could fulfill His task. It was in this sense of raw openness that I understood something of the love that Julian was conveying in her description. His response to my conflicting emotions:
I am Love. Never fear, I am always here, even there.
There was a movement in me through praying Day 2 of the Journey. I noticed the changes that were taking place in my life. They seemed such small changes, but in reflecting futher back I was able to recognise how far and by how much those small things had resulted in quite big shifts.
I know this is Your doing. You have answered me. Thank you.
My response to Psalm 118:22
Sometimes in prayer, what we are talking about is not what we are talking about. While I was contemplating Julian’s image of the crucifix and experiencing conflicting emotions within me, I moved from fear to experiencing the Trinity as my bliss; an eternal moment of being lost in God, where everything disappeared and there was only God. Nothing else mattered. What I was left with afterwards was a clear sense of where and how God was with me constantly in my life, where growth was happening and my own gratitude for His presence and love.
What is interesting for me to notice as I read back over my prayer journal for the first “Day” of my journey with Julian is that I am still, even now, wrestling with the same old patterns of resistance. Sometimes they are not so strong in distracting me from my prayer, and sometimes they are. Watching films or box sets when I should be doing my Examen and going to bed. There is that word “should” : I always raise an eyebrow when I hear it in Spiritual Direction. My desire is to spend the time with Him, to live differently, more in tune with Him, and yet, there is an inertia to doing just that when it comes to it. You might know what I mean. I do not believe I am the first person to ask why I do these things that are self destructive when I want to do something different. And my head ties me up in knots. I see that I began my journey feeling a lot of resistance, not just in the arguments in my head as I fought the inertia, but I was restless and uncomfortable in my body.
Even when prayer is like this, and I drag myself to it; even if it is on the reclining seat of the sofa and not in the more alert position in my prayer spot, just by putting myself in that space, I am expressing my desire to encounter God and I am opening myself to the opportunity for connection with Him.
I heard a story once of a reporter asking Cardinal Hume how long he prayed for every day. He replied:
Oh, for about a minute.
The reporter was apparantly quite shocked and queried his lack of commitment not being commensurate with his leadership position in the Church, to which he replied along the lines of:
Yes, but it does take me about twenty nine minutes of sitting still to get to that point.
I did meet Cardinal Hume when I first moved to Norwich and I shook his hand. This does seem like the kind of thing he could say, from my brief experience of listening to his talk and shaking his hand. This story always encourages me when I am restless and resistant to prayer. I know that if I can just put myself there, I am more likely to make that intimate connection with God, to experience that eternal moment, even if my head will not stop spinning for the whole time and I was distracted by all the things I have to get through that day. It is not something He holds against me.
…our Lover desires the soul to adhere to Him…it is so preciously loved by Him…
So I acted against my restless body and my busy head, and I put myself in that space because I knew that I desired Him, and I knew that He desired me. Somewhere in that first part of The Journey, I noticed myself:
I felt it as a warmth – emotional and physical – that lingered with me for the rest of that day. It brought to mind an imaginative contemplation I had experienced when I made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I was a servant, a wine pourer, at the wedding feast at Cana, and after Jesus had turned the water into wine, YHWH and JC (the Holy Spirit as I call Him) appeared at the party. YHWH asked me to dance a rumba with Him. I became vapour, a fragrance, lost in the dance with Him.
I noticed that during this first prayer with Day 1 that I became aware of people that I interacted with in my daily life. One person in particular, where the relationship was difficult, I got a sense of the huge problems this person was dealing with in their life. I was moved to compassion for them and a desire to help, even if my ability to help was limited to regarding and interacting with them more kindly and to praying for them.
During my second prayer with Day 1, I was focused on the extract from Psalm 139. There were again distractions at the beginning of the prayer and an odd interaction with what appeared to be God, but my response to this character was to go limp and floppy like a rag doll. My spiritual director on The Spiritual Exercises had said to me in one of our conversations about what happens in prayer:
If something feels odd, it probably is odd.
I think I may have objected at the time, but I have never forgotten it, and it comes to mind whenever I realise that something is odd in my prayer. On my spiritual direction course, they talked about St. Bernard (I think it was St. Bernard) who once had a vision that “Jesus” appeared to him, dressed as a Roman Legionary. The point of discerning if this vision really was Jesus is that it did not seem like Him. In the Rules for Discernment for the Second Week, Ignatius says:
It is characteristic of the evil one to fight against such happiness and consolation by proposing fallacious reasonings, subtilties, andcontinual deceptions.
It is a mark of the evil spirit to assume the appearance of an angel of light. He begins by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul, and ends by suggesting his own. For example, he will suggest holy and pious thoughts that are wholly in conformity with the sanctity of the soul. Afterwards, he will endeavor little by little to end by drawing the soul into his hidden snares and evil designs.
The point here is that not everything that appears to be God, or of God, is God, or of God. There are times when we may be dealing with the imposter. Discernment is the process by which we learn to recognise what is of God and what is fallacious reasonings, subtilties, and deception.
When I sensed the oddity in the prayer, I imagined myself back in the Room of Indifference from the my experience of the Exercises. This was the moment of grace during the Principle and Foundation when I experienced indifference. I described this experience before. Ignatius tells us to store up these moments of consolation in order to strengthen us when we are in desolation. So I imagined myself once more sitting in the chair at the centre of the room, my palms face up, and I said:
I will wait.
And He was there, no doubts or oddness.
I recalled some conversations I had had that day. My mum is ninety now and much to her frustration, has developed a stutter. A young man in my church is autistic and finds social interactions difficult. I remembered a the beginning of a retreat as a student, where we were asked to briefly introduce ourselves. There was a student there from Zimbabwe, who told a winding story about one day when he went out on a walk back home. I remember at one point wishing he would hurry up and get to the point when it immediately dawned on me, that was the point. It was not a summary list: this was someone who was present. By telling us a story, he was revealing who he was , he was introducing himself. As I recalled my conversations with the two people who struggled to talk that day, I recognised that there had been a similar movement within me, a movement from impatience to patience, as I saw the person in front of me. The fact that someone may struggle to express themselves does not invalidate what they have to say. It only requires for them to be seen, and for the other to be patient and listen.
When I prayed the second prayer with Day 1, I said to Him:
It was You. I praise You, I am wonderfully made.
And His reply:
You are wonderfully made. I made you.
To really see the other, to see them as God sees them is the Contemplation to Attain Love. It is to love as God loves. There are moments when it cuts through into our consciousness. This was the fruit of Day 1 of my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich. It was to look at those others and recognise in my heart:
I finally finished my 40 day Journey with Julian of Norwich on Shrove Tuesday, just in time for the beginning of Lent. While the time since then has certainly been very full – I have left the classrooom and I am setting up as an online tutor – I have been pondering the Journey in the back of my mind. Here feels like the suitable point to make an Examen of my journey and the fruits that it has borne. I began the journey on Thursday 5th December 2019 and in that time, completely filled the prayer journal that I had started at the beginning of the third week of the Spiritual Exercises, and I finished the journal with the last entry of the Journey, the day before the beginning of Lent! A strange convergance: endings an beginnings. It had been my intention, in preparation for writing this post, that I read through my journey and summarise it all here, in a nice tidy blog post, a beautifully wrapped package; a wonderful display of the glory of God and the graces He so generously gives. And then I read my journal entries for Day 1 of my 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich. I realised immediately how impossible it would be to do that – there is too much. Each day warrants its own post. I will endeavour to do that as I continue posting on this blog. So, I closed my journal and decided to write an Examen here from my memories of this time on the Journey.
I am grateful for all of the graces that I have received in this journey: the intimacy with God and the deepening trust; the fulfilment of the conversation about my working life which began during The Exercises and the courage to take that path. I am grateful for the affirmations of my work received through the people I am directing, through my guided prayers with Radio Maria England and through the retreats I have led. I am grateful for the friendship of Bill Stebbe, which grew in the time of that retreat day where I bought the 40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich and made the decision to make this pilgrimage. I am also grateful that I was able to accompany Bill in his dying, and for the grace of humility which I received during that time. And as Julian herself lived in the time of plague, and the current pandemic was an event waiting to happen at the time I picked up the book and began this journey, I am grateful for the relative safety in which I have been able to live and work throughout, and continue to be able to do so, even as I am weary of it.
I ask God for the grace to see my journey as He sees my journey.
The predominant image I have from the Journey, and also from The Spiritual Exercises, is of myself as a child: not the memories of me as an actual child, but of my inner free child, Sunflower. I described her in the post All Things in a Hazelnut, where I picked up the book. This child is always open and honest with God. She says things as she sees and feels them, without dressing them up to make them palatable or acceptable. Even when she is restless and fractious, refuses to be held and wriggles in His arms saying:
Put me down! put me down!
He does, with some amusement, and watches over her tenderly as she does her worst and comes running back to His open arms when she realises her trouble and her need. And God loves and adores her, and regards her as precious. This is where God has been for me in this journey, and how I have turned away to those inordinate attachments that are self destructive to me, and then turned back again when I recognised that I had messed up again. As always, my tender loving God has picked me up and held me close once more.
The free child is also open and honest when she recognises her mistakes. She does not try to justify or explain. Moved by her sorrow, her desire is simply to repair the relationship that she sees she has hurt by her behaviour. Asking for forgiveness is her expression of that sorrow. He listens and forgives.
Resolve to Amend
From here, the world is different. Things have changed.
And they have – I have been writing about the changes taking place in my life throughout this last year. It is not to say that these inordinate desires have been vanquished – they most certainly have not. I am still wrestling with the same distractions and resistances that I was dealing with at the beginining to the Journey. Sometimes, I am that little girl planting sunflower seeds with Him in the garden, full of wonder and awe. Sometimes I am still that fractious child, wriggling in His arms, trying to break free to do those naughty things that are not good for me and cause me, and perhaps others around me, pain and harm. To me on a bad day, it may feel that I have not made much progress, but to Him, well, maybe that Sunflower stalk is just a little bit taller as it reaches for the sun.
Due to illness, the sessions of Exploring Personal Prayer were delayed after the Lectio Divina. We will be doing the session on the Examen tomorrow at 6.30pm GMT and you are welcome to come along, even if you have not attended any of the other sessions. The period we will be looking at is our Advent this year, and Christmas so far. I hope you will be able to join us.
I read in Fr. James Martin’s book “A Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” that one of the founder members of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W., had received spiritual direction from a Jesuit priest, and Andrew Garfield in his interview about the film “Silence” on the Late Show, mentioned that The Twelve Step program is based on Ignatian Spirituality. Andrew Garfield did the Spiritual Exercises by the nineteenth annotation with Fr. James Martin, so I expect it is where he learned this particular gem. I said in an earlier post that I had spent some time in a support group and I quoted the third of the twelve steps. The group to which I belonged was firstly Alateen, and then Al Anon, since my dad was an alcoholic. Alateen and Al Anon are twelve step fellowships for family members and friends of people whose lives have been affected by alcoholism. Knowing what I know about The Twelve Steps and The Spiritual Exercises, it would not surprise me in the least if the first is built on foundations of the latter. In the first year of my formation as a spiritual director, we were asked to write about other spiritualities that had influenced us in our lives: I wrote about the Twelve Steps as one of mine, because it is fundamentally a spiritual programme, without having any specific religious affiliations. It truly expresses and lives “God in All Things”. As it is Alcohol Awareness week in the United Kingdom this week, and the theme for the week is “Alcohol and Me”, it seems the most appropriate time, and the most appropriate post, for me to write, especially since I am now attending Al Anon meetings once more. The Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions are read at the beginning of each meeting.
The Twelve Steps
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics* and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
The first point to stress is that this program does not belong to any particular religion, and the mention of God can be problematic for some people. However, the phrase “Power greater than Ourselves”, or “Higher Power” is both helpful and challenging. I knew an AA member once who told me that having no religious faith, he struggled with the concept: not with accepting that he was powerless, the first step made sense to him by the time he came to AA, because he knew that alcohol was more powerful than he was by the way that it had affected his life: it was the idea of God he struggled with. In the end, he accepted GOD as an acronym for “Group Of Drunks” because he accepted the Higher Power of his AA group and knew that it helped him to sobriety, to stay sober and was ultimately life giving, leading him to better health, self esteem and reconciliation with his family.
One of the slogans used in twelve step fellowships is:
Regular use of the above slogan leads to a deeper trust in God. The enemy does not lead people into life, ultimately, and it was in Al Anon, through the Twelve Steps, when I first learned to recognise the action of God, as I understand Him, in the lives of these courageous and honest people, even if they did not call Him by the same name as me.
Where steps 1 – 3 might have echoes of the First Principle and Foundation of the Exercises, where the movement is towards indifference to created things and to seek only what God would have us do and be, steps 4-6 overlap with the First Week, where the grace to be asked for is sorrow and knowledge of myself as a sinner, and to come to know the nature and patterns of my own sinfulness, while still holding onto the knowledge that I am loved by God. Making a personal inventory, the fourth step, is no joke: it is a warts and all approach and is consistent with the movement in the first week of the Exercises. I allow light to shine on all my defects of character, to recognise the pattern of them, to feel the sorrow of them, and so come to the point of desire to be free from them.
Step 5 is important here, and probably worth repeating:
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
It is very easy to delude ourselves into thinking that we do not really have to share our wrong doings with another person, that God forgives us anyway. Absolutely, He does, but one of the ways the enemy works, according to Saint Ignatius, is as a secret lover, whispering lies to draw us away. His answer is to tell: a spiritual director or some other person well versed in discernment. In Al Anon, or another twelve step program, the other person may be our sponsor, someone who understands where we are and sees the patterns by which we can be tied up in knots. Sharing the exact nature of our wrongs is not about self abasement or self loathing, and it is not necessarily a good friend who simply comforts and affirms us in the error of our ways because they want to cheer us up and reassure us that we are not all that bad. The challenging and loving director or sponsor encourages us in our spiritual growth, and yes, while that can be painful, it is life giving and worth it. In the Roman Catholic tradition, receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation at this point in the journey may be spiritually refreshing.
Steps 7 – 11 echo the second week: they are about making a decision about how we live, and to trust it to God, being willing to be guided in our decision by His will. There is discernment involved here in all aspects of our lives and in the individual decisions we make in every day situations, and while some of our decisions can be big decisions, many of them are not. In the Al Anon book “One Day at a Time in Al Anon” the meditation for October 8 ends with a quote from Thomas A’ Kempis:
Whensoever a man desires anything inordinately, he is presently disquieted within himself.
It is an important business: it is about making the right decisions and for the right reasons, and enabling us to live peacefully with the consequences of our decisions. It brings serenity, that much used word and sought after grace of the program. Sometimes it may simply boil down to the decision to be kind and courteous in this particular conversation: to choose our attitude. Another tool the program has to help us to focus this principle in our little decisions in the course of a day is the Just for Today card, which is something I use regularly:
Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, dress becomingly, keep my voice low, be courteous, criticize not one bit. I won’t find fault with anything, nor try to improve or regulate anybody but myself.
The one above is one of my favourites, and one I find quite challenging. It encourages me to find the right balance between superficial vanity and slothfulness: to love myself and to see myself as God sees me. And of course, it also encourages me to see others as God sees them, and to love them as God loves them, and to refuse to see it as my job to fix or convert them to my way of thinking.
The Twelve Step program diverges from the Exercises at the second week however. The second, third and fourth weeks of the exercises have their focus centred on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and therefore locates them very specifically within the Christian faith. The Twelve Steps is a non religious program for everyone. In the preamble to the steps it says:
The principles they embody are universal, applicable to everyone, whatever his personal creed.
Ignatius is effectively saying, horses for courses: if beyond the first week is not appropriate, then there is no need to pursue it further. It might be considered that The Twelve Steps is in effect an Eighteenth Annotation of The Spiritual Exercises, where we:
…take what we like and leave the rest.
It is not to say that The Twelve Steps are less: in one sense they might be considered more, because of their adaptation beyond the Christian faith to all religions and none. It is analogous to the movement of Christianity itself from the Jewish faith where it began, outwards to the Gentiles, and to the whole world. I cannot help but feel that both Ignatius and God approve.
Steps 7 – 11 also incorporate within them The Examen, the purpose of which is “to improve our conscious contact with God” and Ignatius is known to have encouraged the Jesuits in that,if they only had the space in their day for one prayer, then it is this one that they should do.
In fact, steps 4-6 also echo The Examen in their movement.
The twelfth step is suggestive of the Contemplatio, where Ignatius makes the first point:
…love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.
and members volunteer for a variety of roles from maybe chairing at a meeting one week, to speaking publicly at conventions. I once spoke at a convention in Edinburgh as a member of Alateen when I was eighteen. It is an important witness, because when people living in this chaos see that it is possible to find serenity, whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not, it is powerfully attractive. Ignatius describes in the Two Standards meditation of the Exercises how those under the standard of Christ attract and draw, rather than drive, bully and coerce. The eleventh tradition states this principle explicitly:
Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion;
Both The Twelve Steps and The Spiritual Exercises offer transformative processes by which to change our lives. The former provides emergency support and hope for those living in the chaos of deeply destructive addictions, and its byte sized slogans and steps give oxygen immediately in instances of suffocating despair and desolation, securing the idea that “no unhappiness is too great to be lessened.” Continual engagement with the program, with meetings and with the help of a sponsor fosters a deepening of these principles, in faith and love, as we continue to apply them to our lives, irrespective of our religious practice. They are a great gift. I once heard Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the other founding member of AA, described as the greatest social architects of the twentieth century and I believe that there is some truth in that statement. The Spiritual Exercises provide a similar process specific to Christian faith, and for everyone in acceptance of that faith, a means to deepen their personal relationship with God and live according to His will, regardless of their personal circumstances. There are some of us who are grateful to know and have both.