What comes next

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In Whitby, trying out my jetpack

Tomorrow morning, I set off on my next experiment. ‘Experiments’ are Ignatian-speak for the mission placements, or experiences, that Ignatius thinks every novice should have. He suggests that novices should undertake a month-long period of intense prayer (the Spiritual Exercises), a month-long pilgrimage without money, that they should spend time serving the sick and dying in a hospital, practice preaching and teaching the faith to ordinary people, and spend time living in community.

So far, I’ve ticked off the Spiritual Exercises, and a stint living in community. My next experiment, from early October to mid December, will be in Manchester, working at the Cornerstone Day Centre. Based in inner city Manchester, the Cornerstone is a hub for homeless and vulnerable people, where they can come and get food, clothing, companionship, a shower, a haircut, help with job applications, a phone line so they can check benefits, and much else besides. I’ve done lots of work in homeless centres over the years, and I love it, but I know that I still have a lot to learn. Accompanying people day-in, day-out will be a challenge, and a huge privilege. I’m looking forward to it hugely. While in Manchester, I’ll be staying with the Presentation Sisters, so I’ll also get a sneak peek at another congregation!

The second experiment, from the end of January to the beginning of May, will be in Guyana. I’ll be working in the interior, with a team of Ursuline sisters and Jesuit priests who minister to a collection of Amerindian villages in the South Pakaraimas. The work is largely pastoral and sacramental, and it involves accompanying communities whose lives are changing rapidly –and not always positively– as a result of mining in the area and across the border in Brazil. I already know more about suction-dredges, Guyana mining law, hammocks and local snakes than I ever imagined I would know. Watch this space!

At the moment, it looks like my pilgrimage experiment will be in Germany and Austria, where –I hope– I will be spending some of June and July walking part of Mary Ward’s journey to Rome. I love long walks, and I love Germany and Austria, so I am looking forward to this too.

What poverty means

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Last summer I had a conversation about poverty with one of the men from the homeless shelter where I worked on Sunday nights. Clive had just moved out into a flat nearby, but he couldn’t afford electricity to cook, so he used to come back to the shelter for a hot meal. He was asking me what I did when I wasn’t working there, and so we ended up talking about religious life, and he asked what vows I would take. When I talked about taking a vow of poverty, he was not just completely nonplussed. He was actually offended.

He gestured at himself, clearly pissed off: ‘Why do you think this is good?’ I fudged something about simplicity of life reminding us that God is the most important thing, but it sounded crap to me. I wasn’t poor like he was; I wasn’t even doing a convincing impression of being poor. He couldn’t afford electricity to cook; I pressed one switch in our kitchen, and four lightbulbs came on.

I still don’t really know what it means to be poor, or what it means to choose to be poor. But I think if I bumped into Clive again today, I’d say something different.

The number one rule is that you don’t romanticise it. My volunteering work brings me face to face with poverty all the time. People living in poverty sit across the table from me, struggling, addicted, anxious, undernourished, depressed, overworked and angry. Poverty is not beautiful, it is not happy, and it is not well. Poverty makes you sick. It tears your relationships apart. It suffocates your aspirations.

The number two rule is that you don’t choose it. It’s fashionable now to upcycle, downsize, de-clutter, simplify, whittle down your clothes to a ‘capsule wardrobe’, but real poverty is not a lifestyle choice. Poverty is systemic, and all-encompassing and exhausting; it traps you, it traps your children, and it traps their children. Poverty is, by definition, something you don’t choose.

As a religious, I don’t have that kind of poverty. We’ve got limited personal cash, but we aren’t materially poor by a long stretch. In fact, in terms of food, shelter and heating, my lifestyle is wealthy, to the extent that I sometimes wish for a greater simplicity of life.

So in the face of these facts, what does it mean to take a vow of poverty? I don’t want to get so meta that I dodge the imperative of living a materially simple life in solidarity with people living in poverty. That matters and I want to reinforce it. But, at the same time, I know from people like Clive that my real poverty is not what I do choose, but what I don’t choose. Poverty is what I find limiting, stifling, systemic, what I’d most like to escape. My poverty is what I fight against, and what exhausts me.

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Poverty often isn’t consciously experienced as such. It’s not that you don’t notice its effects, just that you don’t go round all the time thinking, ‘Woe is me, I am poor’. You just carry on taking each challenge as it comes: finding the money to pay the bill, looking at when the money comes out of your account for this or that, timing the payment, checking the price, putting something back on the shelf. For lots of the people I meet when I’m volunteering, it’s only when they sit down and talk about it that they realise how all-encompassing, unrelenting and exhausting it is. And it’s only when they sit down and talk about it that they realise –sometimes, anyway– how resourceful, courageous and resilient they are in the face of it.

I don’t face anything like their challenges. But I do face my own poverties – struggles I haven’t chosen, limitations I don’t want, constant effort that is pretty draining. Most of the time, I don’t think about this as ‘poverty’: it’s just daily life. It’s only occasionally that I realise the constant effort, and how tired I can get. But it’s also in those moments that I realise that, most of the time, I manage to be generous in the face of poverty. Most of the time, I don’t let myself get to a place of passivity and defeatism where I’m thinking, this is it. I have nothing left to give. Take it or leave it. Instead, I respond by trying to overcome the difficulty, by trying be creative, by trying to be generous, or patient, or courageous, or kind, or whatever it takes.

At the weekend, I picked up a book about St Francis of Assisi, that man who was so in love with poverty. I found myself thinking about Clive, and his question: ‘Why do you think this is good?’ As I read about his desire for poverty, I found myself in tears. One line stood out: ‘For Francis, poverty was freedom to grow in the Christ-life, and he was growing by leaps and bounds.’

To choose poverty means to choose to be generous in the face of limitations, difficulties, humiliations and exhaustion that you have not chosen. To choose poverty means not to turn in on yourself in those situations, but to accept and even embrace them, as far as you can, as an opportunity to ‘grow in the Christ-life’. Sometimes I feel I have nothing left to give but, day by day, I keep on managing to give. Sometimes I feel I have run out of my natural patience, or that I have exhausted my reserves of kindness, and so I tell God I have nothing left, and he has to help. Clive was right. Poverty doesn’t feel good. It can feel tiring, all-encompassing, unrelenting. But poverty –allowing myself to experience the place where I have nothing left– gives me the freedom to grow in the Christ-life of generosity, of self-gift, and of grace. And sometimes, when I find time to sit down and write about it, I can see that I am growing by leaps and bounds.

Photo credit: Luis Felipe Salas on Flickr

 

Finding the centre

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Barbara Hepworth, Oval Form (Trezion) 1961–63

A few weeks ago, I had an interesting dream. I was in the cloisters of Durham Cathedral. Walking round, I found a small door, and went through it to find a small dark room, with circular stone benches around a Barbara Hepworth-like sculpture. People were sitting, praying quietly, and a further door led off into a space of warm, yellow light. In the dream, I knew that not many people found this room. I knew that I had been in the room before, but I had not known how to find it again. I also knew that the place was somehow ‘the centre’: it felt peaceful, steady, solid.

This week I passed the one year mark as a novice. It has been a hugely important year; it has also been a very challenging year, and at times it has felt almost impossibly difficult. Occasionally, I have found myself looking back to how life was before –wonderful friends, a beautiful city, a job I enjoyed, a parish I loved, happy and independent– and wondered what possessed me to walk away from all of it.

I spent the end of August and the beginning of September visiting what used to be my life, first seeing friends in Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Isle of Bute, and then spending time with my family in north Northumberland, and then attending the Catholic Theological Association conference in Derbyshire. In many ways, it was a return to what I have missed so much this past year. And yet, walking through Edinburgh in that beautiful, northern evening light –and it is, by the way, the most beautiful city in the UK– I felt that this, the old life, was the dream. I loved it, but I do not want it back. I know that my life now, with its joy and its struggle, is my real life. In Derbyshire, sitting out on the soft lawn at the end of the day, I found myself thinking about my life as being like the empty jars at the wedding at Cana – all kinds of potential, and so many different ways in which my capacities for life, work and love could have been happily fulfilled. But all those possible dreams of other possible lives seem just that, now: dreams. I know that my relationship with Christ is the most real thing of my life. It is the centre. Sometimes, dreaming myself elsewhere, I lose it, but less and less often now: the dreams of what was and what might have been have gradually lost their power. Christ is the centre. I have been here before, and I know it, and I will always find it again.

Jesus is finished

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Jesus is finished! I started writing this icon on my thirty days, and I finished the last corrections yesterday evening.

Writing the icon was a good process to be engaged in during the long retreat. One of the things I love about the icon I was working from, the Christ Pantocrator from St Catherine’s monastery on Mt Sinai, is the way the two sides of the face are completely different: the left side is calm, the right side quite fierce. This asymmetry means it’s hard to contemplate the icon placidly or inertly; rather, like looking at a real person’s face, you are engaged in a constant effort to read Christ’s expression. It’s a face in movement, and so it provides a nice image for the contemplative prayer of the long retreat: not just inertly looking at Christ, but actively engaging with him.

It’s painted in egg tempera, which is fast becoming my favourite medium. It’s a mixture of egg yolk and dry pigments, applied in many (many, many) layers, which means you get a lovely depth and complexity of colour. It’s also a very forgiving medium, because you can correct mistakes endlessly. (See note below about beard trouble…)

It’s possible to use egg tempera in a way that makes an icon look almost airbrushed, by using a very dry brush, but I prefer something a bit more painterly-looking, with slightly more visible brush strokes. The icon I was working from was originally encaustic, which means it was done by mixing dry pigments with wax and applying them to a wooden board. It’s a technique that was popular in Roman Egypt for sarcophagus portraits.

These are incredibly vivid, dynamic portraits of the dead, quite different in both appearance and intent from the very stylised iconographic tradition. Just as an example, in painting an icon you never put a white dot in the eye to show reflected light. It’s a way of making clear that, unlike the sarcophagus painters, you’re not painting a portrait of what a dead person looked like when they were alive, but trying to paint a new, risen and timeless kind of life. I’ve tried to draw on both traditions.

Lastly, a note on Jesus’ designer stubble: I did paint in a proper beard, but it looked very weird so I decided to paint over it, and then rather liked the result, so left it as it was!

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Freedom and resistance

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One of the things that strikes me when I read Mary Ward’s writings is her strong sense of providence. Everything that happens to her, she embraces as God’s will. We see it when she is dangerously ill, or when the little money her companions have is lost; she maintains it even in the face of accusations of heresy and imprisonment, and as her congregation is suppressed. From prison, she wrote: ‘Who knows what God hath determined by these accidents? Truly neither they nor I, nor do I desire to know, or have other than his will.’ This capacity to see God’s will in everything that befell her, to ‘christen her wildworst Best’, kept her from bitterness or resignation, and gave her the most astonishing spiritual freedom.

Frankly, I am not good at this kind of belief in providence. Generally speaking, the worse things go, the more likely I am to resist. It’s not that, looking back, I can’t see God’s hand at work in difficult times of my life, or in adverse circumstances – I can. But tell me that it had to be that way, or tell me it’s ‘God’s will’ before I’ve got there myself, and alarm bells are likely go off. After all, if we simply baptise everything that comes along as ‘God’s will’ straightaway, how do we preserve our critical faculties? What if it’s not? How do we learn from our mistakes? How do we resist the status quo and insist on social change? And hasn’t the phrase ‘God’s will’ been misused so many times, when what is really meant is ‘acquiescence’ or ‘the path of least resistance’?

I am slowly learning from Mary Ward’s attitude. I am learning to seek God’s will in every situation, even if I cannot immediately see every situation as God’s will. I am learning to be patient, and to disentangle defensiveness about my will –which is so very often involved– from resistance to God’s will. In these moments, I often find myself coming back to Mary Ward’s writings, looking at her ability to embrace God’s will in every situation, and wondering whether I will ever get there. But lately, I have recognised that she has another gift for me, too.

Mary Ward spent her whole childhood with the adults in her life –parents, family friends, even spiritual directors– trying to arrange a marriage for her. In the face of extraordinary spiritual and emotional pressure, she remained steadfast in her desire for religious life.

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All together now! We shall not, we shall not be moved…’

The Painted Life records many of these scenes: adults standing around the young Mary and gesticulating, young suitors being ushered in, all to no avail. Amidst all of this, the young Mary is not stubborn or frowning, but smiling, peaceful, steadfast. She was seriously resilient. Throughout her life, when she understood something to be God’s will, she would pursue it without sparing herself, and no amount of opposition would move her. It’s not that she decided what God wanted and then never thought about it again: her writings bear testimony to her continual seeking of God’s will, and her willingness to let go all that was hers in order to embrace it. In that sense, she remained open-minded, flexible and free, the serene young Mary of the Painted Life. But once she had understood something as God’s will, if people tried to shift her – well, it was pretty much like trying to move a concrete donkey.

 

What’s her secret? How did she balance this freedom and resilience? Her fundamental attitude seems to me to be one of generosity. Her limitless generosity towards God allowed her to pursue God’s will, without ever wresting the project into her own control, or being defensive about it, or allowing her ego to become entangled with it such that she became bitter or resigned when it failed. Her generosity gave her the freedom to find God’s will even in the most awful adversity. That attitude, generosity, has become the most important question for me in situations where I am trying to discern God’s will and disentangle my own from it. Where, in every situation, is God calling me to a deeper generosity towards him, and what is that demanding of me now? Does generosity towards God mean letting go of this idea, this project, this relationship, this dream? Then let it go, however hard it is. Does generosity towards God mean daring to hang on to it? Then hang on, however hard it is.  I may never arrive at Mary Ward’s doctrine of providence, but trying to learn from her generosity is a good place to start.

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Balance not quite right here

 

 

It’s the encounter, stupid

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A good friend of mine, a Jesuit for twenty years now, summed up the whole character of Ignatian prayer as follows: ‘It’s the encounter, stupid.’ By the end of the thirty days, I realized he was right. To coin a different (and less memorable) four-word summary, it’s about what’s real.

During the Exercises, Ignatius has you doing a lot of ‘imaginative contemplation’. The idea is that you picture whatever scene he has you contemplating as vividly as you can, imagining every detail, asking yourself what the various protagonists are doing, what they’re saying, and what you’re learning from it, and talking to assorted members of the Trinity (and others) about what you’ve found. Although it’s a characteristically Ignatian form of prayer, it’s one I struggle with. Occasionally a gospel scene will come to life almost by itself; more often I find myself straining to compose the scene, stopping and starting with various possibilities, and abandoning them when they become like West Side Story crossed with a budget Jesus film. (Think bad wigs and scenes like this.)

It was during the second week of the long retreat, after sitting for an hour with the Transfiguration frowning furiously with concentration and getting nowhere, that I realised I was completely missing the point. Yes, Ignatius gives pretty specific instructions on what to contemplate and how, but the point is not to get caught up in laboriously creating some kind of imaginative Cecil B. DeMille epic for the sake of it. Ignatius doesn’t want to know what you can imagine: he wants to know what’s real.

Reading the passage again, I decided I would jettison my usual approach to imaginative contemplation, and try it the other way round. Rather than asking where I was in the scene, I started asking where the scene was in me: where is Christ being transfigured in me? Where am I frozen with fear? Where am I like Peter, offering stupid suggestions because I have no idea what to do or say in the face of all this? All of a sudden, the passage came alive. I had touched on what was real and, at the same time, discovered all over again what imaginative contemplation is about. The point of imaginative contemplation is not to get the imagining right, or the feelings right, but to find the point where God is really moving you, whether that comes in the form of a vivid imaginative encounter, or an inchoate feeling, or a quiet discovery, or an emotion you’d rather not feel at all. It’s about who we really are in the company of Christ, and about honesty with it before God, who can take everything and transform it for his glory. That, for me, is the gift of Ignatian prayer. It’s about what’s real, what moves you, what bites, what comes alive, what makes your heart tick, both in prayer and outside it. It’s the encounter, stupid.

Photo credit: Randy OHC on Flickr

Thirty days

A fortnight ago, I arrived back from the long retreat. It was a hugely important experience, and for the moment I don’t know where to begin. So instead of the usual blogpost, here is a song that wrote itself during the last week of the retreat, as I began to reflect back on the experience. The recording comes complete with genuine York traffic/drunken reveller noise! (And lyrics after the break…)

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