To Nurture and Be Nurtured

One of the things we did while in Winona for the Great River Shakespeare Festival this weekend was to visit the Minnesota Maritime Art Museum, which (surprisingly to me at least) houses some world-class impressionist and Hudson River School paintings.

I spent some time standing in front of the note accompanying a painting by the American painter Asher Brown Durand, of the Hudson River School. The painting was a beautiful landscape, and the note read that for Durand, nature and beauty were the work of the living God, and that humankind was “here to nurture and be nurtured by the land.”

A simple statement, but one that highlights the intended mutuality of humans and the world God created for us: We take care of it, and it takes care of us.

We, of course, do so much to neglect our part of that arrangement. We take and take from our earth, without anything like sufficient regard, sufficient nurturing, of what we have been given.

As I stood before the painting and the note, my thought was: Will you [God] let us destroy it completely? Will you stand by and allow us to continue to take and take until the earth has no more left to give? Until our home is no longer habitable for humans.

I didn’t hear a clear answer to that question. Or perhaps I did: What came to mind were the words of the last part of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem that I love so well, God’s Grandeur:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

I would like to trust that nature will never be spent…that nothing can destroy that dearest freshness. But I’d rather we do a better job than we are now doing to nurture our land.

The Ignatian Year XII: We are Loved Sinners

In the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius invites retreatants to get in touch with the ways we are in need of God’s healing mercy.  In the context of God’s love, he wants us to come to understand our patterns of unhealthy behavior.  The ways we fail to make a return of God’s love. 

We know there is a tremendous amount of sin in the world.  We see the results of it all around us.  Children starve.  Old people are neglected.  Governments allow torture of dissident groups and prevent aid from getting to their people. Men and women live in poverty.  All around us we see discrimination…violence…hatred.  And Ignatius invites us to use our imagination to really picture this – to get a deep sense and sorrow at the effect of sin in the world.

That raises the question:  How do we explain the existence of sin?  How do we explain the existence of acts that bring about such suffering in the world?  Over the centuries, people have created different narratives to explain the entry of evil and wrongdoing in the world.

One of the things Ignatius invites retreatants to spend time in Week 1 of his Spiritual Exercises is praying with the sin of Adam and Eve – the entry of sin in the human world. Cornell Bradley explains it in traditional biblical terms like this:

Adam and Eve want to be as God is, and so they are described as eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge.  Both try to escape the responsibility of the choice which each one has made by trying to shift the blame to someone or something else.  The effect of this one sin is not only the loss of God’s special sharing of divine life for all humankind, but also the continuing flow of evil perpetrated by people upon other people and even the various kinds of destruction inflicted by them upon God’s world.

There are some people believe that the first sin happened exactly like that.  But I can understand the moral, if you will, of this story without believing that the Genesis account is a literal one.  One need not believe that a man and a woman were tempted by a serpent to eat a piece of fruit from something called the Tree of Knowledge to be able to contemplate entry of sin into the world.  So here is Joseph Tetlow’s rendition of the entry of sin into the world.

At some point in time and on some spot on the globe, the earliest humans came into life.  They grew intellectually aware of right and wrong, and some among them – the Church has always believed it was the very first – chose to do evil.  They abused what was given them.  Then chose to use what was forbidden by their consciences.  They decided willfully to make their own value system instead of letting the Spirit of God instruct them.  From that sin came others, more and more.  From that sin came death.  So, from this earliest sin came flooding down all of the misery, wretchedness, evildoing, and death-dealing in the world today.

I spent some time on my retreat a couple of summers ago praying again with Ignatius’ exercise on the sin of Adam and Eve.  After sitting in my hermitage reflecting on this, I went out onto the lake in a paddleboat.  The day the gorgeous, and after paddling to the middle of the lake, I leaned back and gazed around me – blue sky, wispy clouds, birds singing, tree leaves dancing in the light breeze.  Beautiful.  I was totally content and at peace.

And the thought that then came to mind is (in the framework of the original Genesis story): if Adam and Even had all this (and more) in the Garden of Eden, why look for more?  And the answer that immediately came to me is: Because what we have never seems to be enough and we always want more.

Buddhists explain our always grasping for more as a function of a desire to gain a more solid sense of a self we can’t clearly grasp and therefore feel constant unease.  In Christian terms, it is perhaps best explained by the fact that we sense a hole – a hole that really only God can fill – but that we try to fill with something else.  And that means that until we grasp the depth of God’s love, until we grasp the sense of the final line of Ignatius’ Suscipe prayer – that God’s love and grace is enough of for us – there will be a craving for more, a craving that will ripen on one way or another into what we label sin.

The job of the “enemy spirit”, as Ignatius sometime terms the tempter, is precisely to hinder us from that realization and to tempt us to keep wanting more.  And one way to understand the expulsion from Eden as recounted in Genesis 3 is as a way of expressing what happens when we listen to the voice of the enemy spirit and not the voice of God: When we move away from love, there is an inevitable movement away from God and a loss of intimacy with God.  God is still there, but we experience a movement away from God.

So the question is: What does all of this look like for each of us?

Note that this is a the twelfth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

How Do We Look Back on the Last 15 Months?

Last night I led an evening of reflection for the Mom’s Group in my parish. We titled the evening Life After COVID (even as we recognize that it is not all over).

We picked the topic because while COVID affected all of us, in many ways mothers – whether of young children or adult children – often bore a particularly heavy load.  Mothers with children at home were dealing not only with their education, but their unhappiness at not being with friends, as well as own anxiety about how this was affecting them. One survey found that, among employed parents who were working from home all or most of the time, mothers were more likely than fathers to say they had a lot of child care responsibilities while working (36% vs. 16%). Working mothers with children younger than 12 at home were also more likely than fathers (57% vs. 47%) to say it had been at least somewhat difficult for them to handle child care responsibilities during the coronavirus outbreak.

I began by leading the participants in a guided meditation that asked them to reflect back over the last year and then ask themselves questions such as

  • What were some of the feelings I experienced over the last year?
  • What did I find most challenging about my experience this past year?
  • How was God with me in those challenges?  (Did I remember to turn to God at my most difficult times?)
  • What did I find most surprising about the last 15 months?
  • Were there ways relationships were weakened or strengthened?
  • What am I most grateful for about the experience of the past year?  Where did I find blessing?
  • Are there some good habits I picked up during the pandemic that it would be good for me to keep?

What I was struck by in the discussion we had following the reflection was how much the women were able to focus on the blessings of the past 15 months. To be sure, there were a lot of difficulties and anxieties (everywhere, but especially here in the Twin Cities as we faced COVID along with the aftermath of the George Floyd murder). But each mom was able to identify positive lessons and blessings from the experience, and there is no question their prayer lives and relationship with God accounted for that.

One of the women participating last night – named Catherine Lindquist – wrote this morning to tell us that the guided reflection mirrored some of the questions she has been asking herself, as she wrote an essay about the experience. In it, she talks about the loss, but also about the hope, the joy, the creativity, and the gratitude. Here is an excerpt from the essay, which I share with her permission:

2020 was also joy. The slower pace of life allowed me to notice the little things— how going outside, even for just five minutes, lightened my children, transforming frowns into smiles and complaints into giggles. Watching the immense joy with which my six-year-old stopped to pick up fallen leaves, kicked at chunks of snow, or jumped in a puddle filled me with joy, too. I found joy in the smiles on my children’s faces while they played, in the compassion they showed to others, and in the happiness with which they experience life, even with all its uncertainty and scariness.

You can read the entirety of Catherine’s essay here.

And if you haven’t reflected on questions like those above, you might consider doing so.

The Ignatian Year XI: Getting to Know Jesus

Central to Ignatian Spirituality, and to St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, is the idea that we are invited to co-labor with Christ for the building of the Kingdom, something I’ve mentioned in prior posts in this series.   Each of us is called to play a part.  So our personal relationship with God – our personal encounter with Christ – is necessary, but it is not sufficient.  Rather, we are invited to live for the life of the world.

That raises the question: Who is this Jesus who invites us to labor with him?  An important part of the goal of the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises is getting to know this Jesus who has called us to labor with him, and growing in the sense that there is nowhere for me to be other than with him. 

Even apart from its placement in Week 2 of the Exercises, whatever our individual calling is, however we are particularly called to take our place in building God’s kingdom, our ultimate model of Christian discipleship is Jesus.  And we get to know someone by spending time with them.  So Jesus is both the person we are invited to labor with and the model for us in our response. 

In the context of Week 2 of the Exercises, the grace Ignatius asks retreatants to pray for is heartfelt knowledge of Jesus, who has become human for me so that I may love him and follow him more closely.  (I sometimes refer to it as the Godspell grace, for those who remember the song Day by Day from that play: “see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly.”)

So what we seek in praying with the Second Week of the Exercises is greater awareness of Jesus.  I want to know more and more about him.  In the words of Louis Savary, Ignatius wants us to get “inside Jesus, to become so immersed in the thoughts, words, emotions and actions of Jesus that we know what it is to think and live like Jesus.”

And so we take time – a lot of time (the Second Week is the longest segment of the Exercises being with Jesus from his birth and throughout his public ministry. Walking with him, talking to him, learning from him.

How have you taken time to get to know Jesus? Really know him.

Note that this is a the eleventh in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

The Ignatian Year X: Dealing with Desolation

St. Ignatius recognizes that there will be times when we are in a state of spiritual desolation, that is where we are feeling a lack of faith, of hope and of love.  When we feel separated from God. Here is how Ignatius describes desolation:

 I call desolation what is entirely the opposite of what is described [as spiritual consolation], 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 Rules of Discernment contained in his Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises include some good advice for dealing with such times of desolation.

First: Don’t panic and don’t make any changes.  Ignatius encourages us to remain firm and strong and dependent on God’s grace even when we do not have a felt sense of God’s presence.  We do that, he suggests, by remembering our moments of consolation.  And importantly, he advises us not to make any major changes in our lives. This is important: in desolation the enemy spirit has a greater chance of being the guide, and “[f]ollowing his counsels,” Ignatius says, “we can never find the way to a right decision.”

Second, Ignatius advises us to try to move against the desolation.  So not panicking does not mean just go with the flow.  Rather it means to keep praying.  If you experiencing dryness in prayer, don’t stop praying, keep praying.

Third, Ignatius reminds us that we can resist the pull of desolation with the help of God.  That we are not alone in fighting against the desolation. Thus we need to remind ourselves that God is in control. 

Finally, Ignatius counsels patience. Hang in there – This will pass – Remember who God is.  Be patient.  Do not give up.  David Fleming’s translation of this rule says,

Patience can mitigate the frustration, dryness, or emptiness of the desolation period and so allow us to live through it a little less painfully.  We should try to recall that everything has its time, and consolation has been ours in the past and will be God’s gift to us in the future.  Patience should mark even the efforts we undertake to work against the desolation which afflicts us.

What else have you found helpful in dealing with periods of desolation?

Note that this is a the tenth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

We Cannot Serve Both God and Mammon

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples

 No servant can serve two masters.  He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and mammon. 

What does Jesus mean here?  Although we understand the term “mammon” to refer to material possessions and greed, I don’t read Jesus as saying here that we have to give up all or our money and possessions – that unless we sell our iPhone, our laptap, our books, and other belongings (my nice Italian dishware or my accordion or whatever is your favorite possession) we will be serving mammon rather than God.  Nor do I think Jesus intends to imply that the world in which we exist is not important or that we should ignore it.

Rather, Jesus is talking about maintaining a proper relationship with this world and the things of this world.

If we call ourselves Christians – and mean something by that – then our lives are oriented by God’s love made manifest in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And that orientation has consequences for who we are in the world.  The central focus of my life becomes, not what do I want, but what does God want of me?  How do I live a life consistent with my creation in the image and likeness of God?  And how does Christ’s life, death and resurrection teach me what it means to live a fully human life?  That orientation also means that this human life is not all there is – that we live now in preparation for ultimate full union with God at our own resurrections.

That doesn’t mean not enjoying the things of this world – God wants us to enjoy the things of this world.  God did, after all, create everything that is here and, for all of its faults and defects, the world bears the mark of God.  “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in one of my favorites poems.  Someone once described C.S. Lewis as possessing “a delicate blend of embracing the world while not idolizing it.”  I think that is a good way of putting it.  God doesn’t have a problem with you owning a new iPhone if that helps you perform your tasks more effectively.  God doesn’t have a problem with my going out and having sushi for dinner, even though rice and beans would be less expensive.  By all means, enjoy what we have.  But do not let it become something we idolize, something we serve.            

So when Jesus talks about our not serving God and mammon, he is talking about not letting our attachment and desire for things of this world get out of balance.  The question we each need to ask ourselves is: What is our mammon?  What are the things of this world that run the risk of becoming our second master and interfere with our proper relationship to God as we go about our tasks? 

The Ignatian Year IX: Spiritual Consolation

What St. Ignatius calls Spiritual consolation is always a movement toward God, always a movement toward greater faith, hope and love towards God, others and the self.  Spiritual consolation is always a movement to the communal, always a movement out, a movement toward, and it carries a sense of confidence in God and God’s love for me.  When we are in spiritual consolation, we are most ourselves, most capable of living, most capable of making good decisions and choosing life.

Here is how Ignatius puts it in the Spiritual Exercises:

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.

That does not mean that spiritual consolation is always accompanied by pleasant feelings or experiences;   consolation might flow from a painful experience as well as a good one.  For example, I could be feeling sadness for some sinful act, but experience consolation because I recognize presence of God there. Or I may be mourning the death of a loved one, but in that pain, be consoled by God.  Spiritual consolation can be found whenever we experience hardship and the cross, but at the same time have hope and optimism that God is with us.  So it is marked by the presence of hope in the midst of turmoil.

Ignatius suggests a few things in his Rules of Discernment in the Spiritual Exercises that can be helpful when we are experiencing consolation.

First, we should savor the moment, allowing ourselves to enjoy it. (One of my instructors in the Exercises said “party with God”) We want to store the moment in our memory to return to in times of difficulty.  We know there will be periods of desolation (more on that in my next Ignatian Year post) and it makes an enormous difference if during those periods we can clearly call to mind our moments of consolation.

Second, we should use periods of consolation as an opportunity for growth in humility.  Ignatius encourages us to acknowledge with gratitude the gifts we have received. I cannot create consolation for myself; it is always gift from God.

Finally, when in consolation, it is good to look at our patterns of desolation, to look at what can get me hooked and think of how I will want to respond.

Note that this is a the ninth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20.

Love Your Enemies

Today’s Gospel contains a command that is not easy for us. Jesus says to his disciples

You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.

That is a tall order. Especially so since we live in a society obsessed with giving people what they deserve, what we believe is their due.  It is a quid pro quo way of thinking that says: If you are good to me, I’ll be good to you. Or, if I determine you are worthy, I will give you something. (Our entire welfare system is premised on determining who is worthy of being supported). And in that way of thinking, loving your neighbor and hating your enemy makes sense. Giving people only what they deserve seems logical.

Yet, Jesus calls us to something more. As Matthieu Ricard writes in his contribution to The Sunflower Symposium,

True compassion must embrace all things and everyone: the worthy and the guilty, the friend and the foe. No matter how bad someone is, we believe that the basic goodness remains. A piece of gold, after all, is still gold, even if buried in the ground. Once the dirt is removed, the true nature of the gold will be revealed.

Here are some of the questions I invite retreatants to reflect on in connection with Jesus’ command. Perhaps one or more will be a source of fruitful reflection for you today.

What happens in me are I hear Jesus speak his words about love and forgiveness?

What interferes with my ability to love as expansively and indiscriminately as Jesus does?

Where am I tempted to treat love and compassion toward others as a quid pro quo?

Are there situations (or people) that lead me to hang onto resentments?

The Ignatian Year VIII: “But I Don’t Have Time to Pray”

We lead very busy lives, and sometimes busy is an understatement. So it is not surprising that people sometimes say some version of “between work, family, etc, it is so hard for me to find time to sit and pray.”

St. Ignatius understood that we are sometimes in a situation where sitting down to prayer with our Bible (or other prayer material) and journal at our side is not always feasible.  Anxious as he was to encourage people to continue to develop their prayer lives outside of a retreat setting, the Exercises contain a note in the Supplementary Material that outlines some simple directives that can be used when ordinary methods might not be so easy, such as when one is tired or traveling or when one is generally left to her own resources.

Ignatius suggestions for those times focus on things you already carry with you.  Thus, for example, he suggests prayerful contemplation of prayers we know by heart, like the Our Father, the Hail Mary or the Anima Christi.  (That last, the Anima Christi – Soul of Christ – was a favorite prayer of St. Ignatius.  He encouraged its use a number of times in the text of the Spiritual Exercises.  Most printed editions of the Exercises include the prayer at the beginning.) 

He suggests taking an hour to pray one of those prayers instructing that when a word of two of the prayer occupies our full attention with relish and consolation, we do not hurry on.  Rather, in David Fleming’s words, “we remain where we find devotion even though the full time for praying elapses in this way.” I am reminded of Teresa of Avila,  who used to instruct her sisters in a similar way, suggesting they engage in extended meditation of each line of the Lord’s prayer.

Similarly, Ignatius suggests extended periods of prayer with the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly sins.  With respect, for example to the First Commandment, Fleming’s version of this instruction explains: “It is good to reflect upon how we have been faithful and how we have failed in our observation of the first commandment.  In the brief time that we center our attention on the first commandment, we may become aware of our failings and so we ask pardon and forgiveness of them from God.  Before moving on to the next commandment we will pray an Our Father.  And so in the same way, we take up each commandment for consideration and for prayer.”

You get the idea: Ignatius wants us to get into the habit of using time we might not otherwise think suitable for prayer.  We all lead very busy lives and sometimes our schedule is such that perhaps we don’t have time for our normal morning or evening daily prayer period.  But we all have occasions when we are waiting for a phone call, sitting in traffic, waiting for an appointment – What difference might it make if we resolve to use those periods  Ignatius gives us some suggestions for how we might do that.  I’m sure you can come up with others.  But it does require some intentional planning.

Note that this is a the eighth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20.

Pushing Back Against Privatizing Tendencies

Twenty years ago, William Byron, S.J., wrote in his book Sharing the Ignatian Spirit with Friends and Colleagues,

With the rise of affluence in [many] parts of the world…there has been a proliferation of socially atomizing appliances. We think it not at all unusual to have a private car, a single-family home, a personal phone (on your desk, in your car, and in your pocket), a stationary or portable fax, computer, radio, television set, and iPod. Most of us have ready access to a freezer, a microwave oven, and a host of other appliances. An automatic washer and dryer are ready and nearby. We rarely have to ask anything for anything to meet our daily needs. Without a conscious choice on anyone’s part, we are no, for all practical purposes, sealed off from the human interaction previous generations enjoyed at the village well, the general store, the daily food market, the bus or train depot, and the public gathering places for recreation, worship, and communication. Not so very long ago, these points of contact were routine – even indispensable – parts of ordinary life. Now, in their absence or diminished presence, a commercially sanctioned culture of loneliness, isolation, and alienation has set in.

The privatization and atomization of which Byron speaks has only intensified in the last two decades – with the proliferation of online ordering of good from stores and an increased number of technological devices at our fingertips – even before Covid sent us all indoors.

This current time – when we are slowly emerging from our Covid precautions – is a good time to ask ourselves how we might push back against the isolation of which Byron wrote.

Byron suggests that the best way to do that is to take opportunities for service to others, which might take the form of assisting neighbors and others or might take the form of some other kind of volunteer work.

We might also consider less online purchasing (which I confess I love the convenience of) in favor of more excursions to our neighborhood stores.

We are never going to go back to the village well or the general store, but while many of us might not yet be ready for large indoor venues, surely we can come up with creative ways to enhance our point of contact – and not just with our friends and family, but with our broader community.