I have been pondering the line between self protection and self sacrifice this week. My dad was a generous man: it was said of him that he would give you the shirt off his back, that he was generous to a fault. He also had his own demons. These are traits that run in my family.
I brought my eldest home from the flat she was staying in this week because she had incurred the wrath of the residents who live in the flats around their communal, gated courtyard. She has a generous, loving and compassionate heart, a gift for ironic sarcasm, especially when she has had some Dutch courage, and she has more than enough of her own demons to fight. They did not like that she had invited a homeless person in through the gate to let him shower in her flat, while she washed his clothes and gave him some clean ones to wear. When he was challenged by one of the residents on leaving, he was impolite and they later rounded on my daughter like a pack of wolves. As I said, she has a gift for ironic sarcasm and did no more than add fuel to the blaze already burning.
In God of Surprises, Gerard W. Hughes writes an uncomplimentary reference for a Mr E. Manuel who has been applying for the priesthood. It it he says:
Three years ago he gave up his job and took to the road, returning occasionally with an unsavoury group of companions…a man can be judged by the friends he keeps.
This is the most perfect kind of humility. It consists in this. If we suppose the first and second kind attained, then whenever the praise and glory of the Divine Majesty would be equally served, in order to imitate and be in reality more like Christ our Lord, I desire and choose poverty with Christ poor, rather than riches; insults with Christ loaded with them, rather than honors; I desire to be accounted as worthless and a fool for Christ, rather than to be esteemed as wise and prudent in this world. So Christ was treated before me
In the Rules for Discernment, on the way the enemy works Ignatius also says:
The conduct of our enemy may also be compared to the tactics of a leader intent upon seizing and plundering a position he desires. A commander and leader of an army will encamp, explore the fortifications and defenses of the stronghold, and attack at the weakest point. In the same way, the enemy of our human nature investigates from every side all our virtues, theological, cardinal and moral. Where he finds the defenses of eternal salvation weakest and most deficient, there he attacks and tries to take us by storm.
These are the ideas swirling within me as I contemplate my daughter’s predicament, and her sensitivity to the hostility she has provoked by her actions and by her response to the hostility they provoked. It is not for me to tell her what she should do, or what she should have done. I can see where her castle wall was unprotected and I feel a deep sorrow and compassion for the suffering she experiences. I also see the grace in what moved her to act the way she did in the first place. She always shows empathy to the homeless person on the street and helps in whatever way she is able. She knows many of the homeless in the city by name, she looks them in the eye and speaks to them as friends, because she understands the saying:
There but for the grace of God go I.
There is a line between self protection and self sacrifice. I do not always know where to draw it for myself, I do not think my dad knew where to draw it either, and I believe it to be also true of my daughter. God inhabits that space. My daughter may be looking for a new place to live, and the homeless man? He apologised, and was gutted, that his impolite response to the resident who challenged him had rebounded on her. In addition, because he had been able to get cleaned up, he managed to get himself a job after leaving her flat. What else can I say, other than that I am proud of her?
How well have you loved?”
“Lord, why did you tell me to love?
I have tried, but I come back to you, frightened…
Lord, I was so peaceful at home, I was so comfortably settled.
The Second…it if my attitude of mind is such that I neither desire nor am I inclined to have riches rather than poverty, to seek honor rather than dishonor, to desire a long life rather than a short life, provided only in either alternative I would promote equally the service of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul.
The Third… I desire and choose poverty with Christ poor, rather than riches; insults with Christ loaded with them, rather than honors; I desire to be accounted as worthless and a fool for Christ, rather than to be esteemed as wise and prudent in this world. So Christ was treated before me.
Or, to express it more colloqually, the first because I should; the second because I want to, and the third, because I want to be like You. It is not to be critical of the first or second kind of humility, Ignatius is describing a deepening in our motives and movement, and we may operate with differing kinds of humility depending on the situation and our particular experiences at different points in our lives.
The first time I ever heard about Tai Chi, I was a student on a chaplaincy retreat in Walsingham in Norfolk. The retreat was called “God Games” and Fr. Gerry, a Marist father who was leading the retreat, gave a session on different ways of praying and introduced tai chi as a means of bringing the body into prayer. He taught us what I now recognise as the Preliminary Exercise in Tai Chi and had us practicing it for about ten minutes or so. I never forgot this session, and when I had the opportunity to learn tai chi some years later, I took it. There was also another bodily exercise of walking blindfold for a mile over a track to get to the Shrine at Walsingham, putting our trust in another person we had only just met that weekend. It is another session I will never forget!
Tai chi is an important part of my spiritual practice and my prayer, but I will confess here and now, that I am not a good student of tai chi. There are different aspects to tai chi: the form, standing postures, push hands, qi gong, sword form; but I only engage with the form and occasionally standing postures. A few months after I had begun learning it, I was stunned to learn that it was a martial art! I had understood it to be “meditation in motion” – one of my teachers had that motto on his tee shirt – and of course, my first introduction to the art had been in the context of it being a means of using the body in prayer. This opinion does seem a bit naive to me now, but then, that is it how it was. I did, and still do, not want to learn literal fighting. I do not want to brandish even a wooden sword- even though I would quite like a replica sword for my vanitas photography projects, and I feel too awkward for push hands: being drawn to spiritual solitide, I am not keen on the dance of shared internal energy around this practice, and yet, I understand the need for connection. Qi Gong I have only watched others do with a wild eyed curiosity. What can I say? I am a creature of paradox.
So why do I do it? as I have already explained, it is a means to bring my body into prayer, and it brings with it a completely different kind of peace, of bliss, that anything else. It is the same as and different from contemplative prayer, both at the same time. Ignatius discusses the use of the body in prayer in the fourth addition:
I will enter upon the meditation, now kneeling, now prostrate upon the ground, now lying face upwards, now seated, now standing, always being intent on seeking what I desire.
By the term “Spiritual Exercises” is meant every method of examination of conscience, of meditation, of contemplation, of vocal and mental prayer, and of other spiritual activities that will be mentioned later. For just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises, so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.
The practice of the tai chi form for me, is prayer: it is spiritual exercise, plain and simple. The three kinds of humility describe three levels of my prayer experience with this practice and my movement through the different levels at different points in my life and practice.
The first kind of humility is where I am situated mostly in the ordinary time of my life. I have always found tai chi a struggle because it requires a completely different mindset to my day to day existence. Secondary school teaching is a demanding, pushy environment, it is all yang, aggressive, forceful, hard, outgoing energy, extrovert, fire. This side of my personality has to dominate to get things done. Tai chi asks me to shift, to be more yin, yielding, soft, inward, introvert, water. I find this shift difficult and I resist it. I always found the evening classes a struggle in the middle and at the end of the week after a day at school, and my head fought with me the whole time. I am sure I was a frustrating and disruptive student.
So, much of where I am at regarding my practice of tai chi is that I should do it more, and more regularly. I have a wonderful patio in my garden where I can practice, but I do not use it nearly often enough or habitually, for many reasons: it is too cold, dark (even though I have a movement activated light out there), I am too tired, stressed or busy. The autumn and winter litter around the edges displays my neglect, and does not reflect the amazing consolation in this practice; only the desolation of my resistance to it.
When I go on retreat however, I have established the habit of doing tai chi for about an hour after lunch and it very quickly moves from I should, to I want to – the second kind of humility. And it can be seen in the ease of the flow of movement in my practice. I move in a couple of days from doing tai chi to being in the flow. I am aware of where there is resistance and by putting my consciousness there, it begins to relax. I am speaking here physcially, of my muscles and joints, and also spiritually, of my prayer. I cannot describe the bliss of this state of practice, or the closeness of my experience with God. He is there throughout, talking, laughing, being all at once mischievous and then tender. Sometimes, in my imaginative contemplation, I imagine myself doing the tai chi form, and Jesus or the whole Holy Trinity are there in the room doing it with me. My desire is for this level of practice in my ordinary life, but I resist it. I have talked about resistance in prayer before.
And then there is the third kind of humility and tai chi. During tai chi classes my teacher would say:
Let go of all unnecessary resistance.
When I made the Spiritual Exercises by the twentieth annotation, the thirty day retreat, I maintained this daily habit throughout the thirty days of the retreat, with only one or two days rest from it. Being in the flow became the normal level for most of the time. I started to bring phrases from my prayer into my form; placing particular phrases from scripture with movements that fitted with the rythym or meaning. For example, “ward off ” I put with:
Protect your heart,
Which were words I heard during my colloquy when praying with the woman caught in adultery and Jesus saying:
Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.
and “fair lady works the shuttle” I put with my prayer to Him, from The Prodigal Son meditation:
I have sinned against heaven and against You.
Putting scripture and the words of my prayers into my tai chi form in this way broke down resistances I was experiencing in the exercises, these examples in particular coming from the first week when contemplating sin. There were a few times when the tai chi moved to a level I have never experienced before, or since, when I was not being in the flow: I was the flow; there was no unnecessary resistance – only that needed to move and be upright. I was tai chi, metaphor not simile. I can only describe it as being both unaware and aware of myself as a physical body, of being purely energy moving, flowing, responding. I would liken it to the third level of humility Ignatius describes: it is to be like God, and it seems to me to be grace. As in tai chi and prayer itself, I can only put my awareness there and let go; it is not something I can make happen. It might look like Master Jiamin Gao doing tai chi – on the inside though, I do not look like this when I am practicing tai chi.
My closest friend is an artist, and was working through a life drawing course where she was to draw people moving, and holding postures. I agreed that she could do this while I was doing tai chi practice, and I can see the differences in her drawings around what was happening within me during my practice. She could see the difference from watching me. She has been inspired to learn tai chi herself.
The director on a retreat a few years ago gave me a sequence of movements to go with The Suscipe Prayer from the exercises, and I add them onto my form whenever I do it, with tai chi energy and style. It is very powerful.
I drew this yin and yang mandala a few years ago on that retreat. It represents the dual aspects of my personality, the active and the contemplative. Since I have been working with my own spiritual director, I have been trying to balance these aspects of myself and so reconcile my split spirituality. I realised when I did this painting that it was not the right balance that I needed, but to be free to flow from one to the other without resistance: to be able to go from teaching to tai chi without the internal struggle that entails, to be busy one moment, and then able to go to my prayer spot without having to give myself a motivational talk; and to be able to go in the opposite direction, also without resistance, to move from prayer to housework, or just work, without the reluctance, or the negative feeling and resentment that I just want to stay here where I am now, in this prayerful space. So, here I am practicing what I have learned from tai chi: I am putting my awareness where the resistance is in the hope that I will relax and move into a deeper level of humility in my prayer and in my life.
So, here is a question for you:
Where are you resisting God calling to you in your own life?
Maybe putting your awareness in that place will gently bring about a release from that resistance, with His grace. I am holding you in my prayers.