Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Fingers and thumbs

According to this article a dying art, but that shouldn't worry us. What do you think?
As an exercise on the first day of the course on which I teach, we ask participants to reflect on what beginnings are like for for them, and as an example we invite them to remember when they first learned to tie their shoelaces.  This always makes me smile: it's a powerful and not altogether happy memory for me. Acquiring that skill was part of a long, steep learning curve! If I were a child nowadays I suppose it would be labelled dyspraxia - not a word we knew back then. I simply Could. Not. Do. Things. 

I remember when all the other children had happily dashed off at the end of the school day I would still be in the cloakroom with a teacher standing over me as I struggled to do up the buttons on my coat. I clearly recall the feeling of puzzled frustration! It became a ritual that I would be sent out of the classroom a few minutes early to change into my lace-up outdoor shoes to give me a head start. And once, as Christmas drew near, we were making a frieze of a winter scene to decorate the classroom. Each of us had to draw, colour and cut out a simple Christmas-tree shape to stick on it. Oh, what a struggle! Everyone was finishing theirs while I still could not draw the shape that was so clear in my head. I knew what I wanted but my fingers just wouldn't do it. I was frustrated, but bewildered more than anything. And, yes, rather ashamed of my efforts when everyone else found it so easy. And then there was the time I spent a whole lesson writing a single, wobbly letter A and got told off for being slow and lazy. 

Recently I was part of a group stuffing envelopes for a mail-shot. And of course I was the one holding up the production line! Our "boss" took my pile of papers from me and said "Antonia's not doing very well, is she?"  It was meant as a kindly joke and I joined in the laughter but, oh my, the memories came flooding back!

So why am I telling you all this today? I'm not trawling for sympathy, I promise you. Maybe these memories are around because it's autumn... I still have to remember to allow extra time to dress in the cooler months when there are more garments to put on. Socks and shoes, for example, (ah, lace-ups again!) after a simply having to slide my feet into sandals over the summer. And as for tights... It makes me laugh now, but the solemn first-putting-on-of-the-tights of autumn is a real rite of passage as I find I've "forgotten" how to do it!  (Apologies if all this is too much information, or if the image is putting you off your tea).  Tiredness, hurry and distracting thoughts make it much worse. See, I still struggle, though not so much, these days. 

A question I often ask others, and perhaps don't ask myself enough, is what is the gift in this? What is the gift in my slowness and clumsiness? I'm still working on that... Maybe it's a challenge to relish moving slowly and to cultivate mindfulness. I might be being challenged about my relationship with time (not to do things at a rush and at the last minute) or not to let my butterfly mind take me away from where my body is in the sacrament of the present moment. I've been reminded of the ancient advice "age quod agis" - do what you're doing -  and I'm trying to take it to heart. When Marin Alsop was conducting at the Last Night of the Proms someone had pinned up a sign saying "multitasking area - no men allowed".  Multitasking is supposed to be a feminine virtue but I have my doubts. It might be necessary sometimes but I'm discovering it's not good for me. I'd rather learn to do what I'm doing with my whole heart and being, even if the spirit of the age tells me I should do otherwise. 

Perhaps I could even pray over my shopping as I laboriously put my change in my purse and my purchases in my bag. (Listen, I'm not Pollyanna and I'm never going to enjoy the frustration and embarrassment as the queue builds up behind me at the till and I drop coins into the display of sweets and crisps). 

And here's a scripture text I'm going to learn and use.  It's Psalm 90:17 and I love the cadences of this particular verse in the King James Version:

"And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it."

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Go baptise

Baptism in the 3rd century
Last night I watched the first Papal Audience after the summer break. It felt exciting and moving to hear the gospel "make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" proclaimed in an array of languages, one after the other, to the vast crowd gathered from all nations - so it seemed - in the hot Roman sunshine (many sheltering under Papal-coloured umbrellas or oriental paper parasols).

In my previous life, as an Anglican deacon, the command of the gospel would have been a joyfully obvious one to follow. To baptise, to welcome someone into the Church of God, was one of the most awesome and beautiful aspects of my ministry. And I still hear these gospel command addressed to me as a Catholic laywoman. The challenge is - how to obey with authenticity here and now?

In the rites of the early Church the deacon would accompany the candidate down into the waters of baptism. It's an image I've explored many times with my spiritual director as we've tried to tease out what ministry means in my life now. It seems a fitting image for what I'm privileged to do as a spiritual director myself: walking alongside the pilgrim as he or she shares in the death and resurrection of Christ. But I think the gospel offers a challenge that's not just confined to what I do in the spiritual direction room.

I've long been struck that in the gospel we're called to baptise not in the name of the Trinity so much as into the name: eis to onoma. To plunge the new member of the Body of Christ into the vast ocean of love that is God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A lovely thought, but what a scary challenge: is my life such that others may glimpse in it the loving heart of God, enough to want to be plunged in (whoever does the baptising)? Not when it's left to me to run it, that's for sure, but with God's grace..? There are echoes here for me of yesterday's post about being apostles, and indeed of the Oaks of Mamre.  How do I show the loving hospitality of God, and attract others to it, not now as an ordained minister, not just as a spiritual director, but as me?  I need to pray...

Oh, and why, in my days as a deacon, did no one ever tell me about pyramids of tassels on a dalmatic?

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Called to be apostles?

Christ calls the fishermen to be apostles (Greek icon)
When Pope Francis was tallking to some students from Jesuit schools he summed up the essence of Ignatian spirituality as "mission, mission, mission!". Not always what people might imagine it to be... On the Ignatian Spirituality Course last term we were discussing whether the Spiritual Exercises are a way of deepening the contemplative life or a formation for apostolic ministry - or indeed both! And if there is an apostolic dimension to Ignatian spirituality, does that mean it's only for those who feel called to an active life of service?

One of our students wrote to me recently asking me to say a little more. I really enjoyed thinking about the questions and, with her permission, I'm sharing my reply here.

Dear J
Many thanks for your email reminding me of our conversation.  I'm grateful to you for giving me something so exciting and important to think about as I enjoy the sunshine!
So...the "apostolic charism" of Ignatian spirituality! I suppose it starts with Ignatius' own vision - his passion and calling was always, as he put it, to "help souls". (And because for him "soul" always referred to the whole person I hope it's not too much of a gloss to see this as meaning helping people become the whole persons they are called to be). The fruit of his own mystical experiences (which always led him to service) and meticulous recording of God's dealings with him was a desire to share what he had received with others - hence the Spiritual Exercises existing at all, and us being here doing this!  And as you know, he was anxious that he and his followers should be free and at the disposal of the Pope to be sent wherever there was a need - that's why they didn't follow a monastic pattern of lengthy offices etc., though in the Rules for Thinking with the Church he insists we should praise such ways of worshipping.
Perhaps the term "apostolic" is off-putting because in these busy days we see it as primarily about doing - Martha at the expense of Mary. I prefer to see it as not so much about doing things as about the dynamic or orientation of our lives - a desire to be turned towards God and therefore to those God loves (how could we not?). A bit like paragraphs 314 and 315 of the Exercises! We are, in a lovely phrase from the Ordination of Deacons, "heralds of the Gospel" - how we live that out will depend so much on our gifts and temperament.  I'm comforted to think there's an authentic calling there for Introverts too!
I've been thinking about how the thread of apostolic spirituality unwinds through the Exercises. It's right there in the Annotations: all the stress on allowing the Creator to deal with the creature is in service of the directee's discernment of their own call to be, as Gerard Hughes says, a "unique manifestation of God" in the world - and that's apostolicity!
I suppose it's a bit harder to see on the Principle & Foundation, but it's there - how do we relate to the rest of creation? And the freedom we pray for is not just freedom FROM but freedom TO - for action.
The Kingdom is all about being called as an apostle of course... And Second Week is about seeing how Jeaus is sent by his Father and being called into our own discipleship. Third Week - the costliness of Jesus' being sent to fulfil his Father's will... Fourth Week - "go and tell", "the Lord is risen indeed", "feed my sheep".  And then the Contemplatio - walking home and reflecting on the mutuality of love and gifts. "What return can I make?" How do I pay it forward?
I don't see contemplative and apostolic spirituality as opposites. That's why I love Ignatius so much - they are perfectly balanced in his spirituality. We need both ends of the spectrum - like two lungs, or two wings. And ultimately both contemplation and apostolicity will have a unique expression in every person's life: Ignatius' Exercises are way to find out what is mine. And both are charism - gift.  We can't manufacture either, only be called to them.

Monday, 2 September 2013


Atkinson Grimshaw's Iris. She was sent to wither the flowers at the end of summer, but hesitated  because of their beauty
So September begins and, although the official start of autumn is still nearly three weeks off, there's a feel of the end of summer in the air - the days are warm still, but the mornings and evenings have that delightful crispness about them, with dewy cobwebs and those lovely slanting shadows. I feel strange urges to buy pencils and sharpen them neatly. I'm even tentatively picking up some threads of work - reading through the paperwork for the interviews we'll be starting for the Ignatian Spirituality Course next week. (Still not too late to apply - have a look here!)

There's a poem by C S Lewis on The Inklings blog today that was new to me. Do read it! It's about the song of a bird at the beginning of summer, but I found it helped me to review all that's happened over the last month or so:

...This year, this year, as all the flowers foretell,We shall escape the circle and undo the spell
Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Look, look, look, look! the gates are drawn apart
I said "This might prove truer than you know,Some year.  And yet your singing will not make it so..."

I reflect that, although I have done very little (that was the idea!) some familiar old circles have been broken open and I suspect some spells are being unravelled. Amazing grace indeed! It's exciting. And daunting. And extremely tempting to think this is my doing, and I can continue the transformation in my own strength. Which is why God's grace nudged me to find this wonderful post about prayer on the blog of the Dominican nuns of Summit, NJ.  

So how has summer proved true for you?