“Almighty and all-merciful God, I ask for the grace of growing in awareness of human sinfulness in the world and in myself, in history and in my present. I ask to know the force of sin in all its power and complexity. Grant me the courage, holy God, to see sin in all its horror and ugliness” ~ Materials from Joseph Tetlow, S.J., Choosing Christ in the World and Carol Ann Smith and Eugene F. Merz, S.J., Moment by Moment.
Several months ago, I began what is known as the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. I’ve mentioned them before in this blog. Typically, you do the Exercises on a 30 day retreat. When I went on my 8-day retreat in January, there were about 15 or 20 people starting their 30-day retreat, most of them baby Jesuits, who were only into their second year of formation, with many more years to go. I still find myself praying for them all these months later, still filled with respect for the perseverance such prayer requires. I look forward to the day when I will get to do that myself. But for now I have an alternative called the “Exercises in Everyday Life”—the same structure for prayer, reflection and discernment, done “in place”.
I am fortunate to have a spiritual director to take this path with me; she lives in another state and is comfortable meeting me most every other week for about an hour, in the space created by Google+Hangout. R is, quite simply, a remarkable woman. The losses she has endured make anything I’ve been through pale in comparison. Her writing is stark and unrelentingly honest, a gift many of us consider powerful and generous. She is generous in her listening as well.
In my first five months engaged with the Exercises, R patiently accompanied me as I stumbled my way through what amounts to the “work before the work.” She gave me five sets of exercises that invited me to consider how God loves me, and who I am in God’s love. It’s always been easier for me to think about God as “the ground of my being”. We’ve laughed about how much I love granite and what a Nordic image that is. You need the granite under you when everything falls apart around you. But it can get awfully hard lonely if all you do is take one step after another on that unyielding ground.
This afternoon during one of our conversations, I realized that the dinner my dad and I had with our old friends, the Croneborgs, on the night before we left Sweden carries another key metaphor of my life in faith: Eucharist. I worked hard to “do right” with food on my trip; that combined with all the walking we did meant that I actually lost 2 more pounds while I was gone. The restaurant we went to on that Wednesday night was typically Swedish; I chose the healthiest meal I could find—a delicious salad with prawns. I only drank water. It could have been a host and a drink of communion wine for it’s simplicity. The abundance of memories, the sense of discovering people I thought I knew but only knew in the way a child does, the warmth all made this a banquet. At one point, Mona and I found ourselves telling each other about moments of heart wrenching anguish related to our daughters and how they seemed amplified in the absence of our mothers. I didn’t know how much I needed to have that conversation until I had it.
This sounds terribly obvious, but I really do like being a grown up and having grown up conversations. The years of struggle with my girl-child brought a lot of silence into my life and home. I still love the silence—Sherod has left town to go fishing and I am almost resentful of having to give up the quiet when he comes back late tomorrow. But I lived in a very sad silence in the past decade and now find myself filled with words and conversations I’d like to have. I suppose that’s why I keep this blog, along with my journal. It is also why that night with Mona and Fredrik meant so much to me. The oneness in time and community I experienced still fills me with wonder as I think about our meal. If I had any doubt about being loved beyond all reason, that night gave me incontrovertible proof that I live and move and have my being with a gracious, kind Friend.
It is from that place of certainty that I now really get started with the Ignatian exercises. The first week focuses awareness on sin. I started the post with the prayer I will say repeatedly as I do the exercises for this “week” (which will probably take me lots of weeks to get through–you know, the elasticity of time when you’re doing something that matters). Given what I’m going through in my ministry, it comes at an appropriate time. Engaging sin is not something I look forward to. But if I found grace in the midst of bitter loss and sorrow, surely there is much for me to find in the “week” ahead.