BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: Notes for a Zoom workshop on ‘Praying your way to peace and positivity’, which took place on Saturday 24 October.
Awareness Exercise (10 minutes)
A simple meditation on this is: stop, find a quiet place, even pretend to be listening on headphones. Ask yourself how you feel. Notice that there is a small gap between you and your feelings. Stay with that gap. In it, all is quiet and empty – full of possibilities. Rest in this gap for a few minutes each day. Train yourself to watch your feelings come and go, like clouds do, no matter how strong they are. This will help you when you hit a crisis and may even save your life. (Body scan, what you’re feeling, tension, breathing into it.)
The 10 Ignatian Tips
1. Life is messy (Covid especially: world-wide mess, winter weather, weariness)
The lived experience of life is what makes us who we are. If we lived in a perfect existence we would never grow. Life is not always a smooth ride. It is, in fact, by its very nature messy at times. Knowing this can help us attain a kind of freedom to examine the messes we find ourselves in without getting wrapped up wondering ‘why me’ or ‘what have I done to deserve this’. Remember God didn’t send Covid like an Old Testament plague, so forget about conspiracy theories or superstition. Faith doesn’t protect you from the storms of life but it gives you courage to steer a course.
2. God is in the mess with you (i.e. the Covid pandemic)
St Ignatius said that God deals directly with us and is always trying to reach us, so our job is to recognise where God is present in our everyday lives. Even in the mess of things, in the dirt and muck of things at times, God is always there (making ‘honey’ out of this mess). That may be unexpected but it is liberating. Our job is to spot where God is calling and learn to respond, helping us transform the situations where we find ourselves.
We’ve seen God at work in these Covid times: the community sense, helping others, Frontline workers’ commitment, the re-emergence of the Common Good, focusing on important things: God, family, relationships, kindness, reaching out.
3. There are two forces working on us (one of light and one of dark)
The key insight of Ignatius is that there are two voices speaking to us at any moment: one is from God and leads to life, while the other he calls the ‘enemy of human nature’ and leads to ‘death’. While this is primarily a spiritual insight, it obviously has huge implications for mental health and psychological well-being. Ultimately, it boils down to consistently making life enhancing decisions, tackling the seductive demons and unmasking them. We can’t afford to be naive, listening to the wrong voice leads to destructive consequences.
4. Learn how to discern (tune in to God’s guidance)
In terms of Ignatian decision making or discernment, it is about identifying what is the unhelpful inner movement (anxiety, shame and paralysis; desolation) and moving towards a more positive one (connection, reconciliation, positive action; consolation). God is normally calling us through our humanity, our deeper feelings, not normally in miracles and ‘signs’. Using these movements of consolation and desolation (called ‘discernment’ in Ignatian language), we can tune in to what God is saying and make the adjustments necessary to align ourselves with God’s plan and live a more rewarding life. This was St. Ignatius’ insight while recuperating: he discovered there was something going on inside him, his feelings or moods. Covid is a time to look deeper, there are gifts or blessings in it, you can respond more maturely, find God in it, how to respond, live in the reality, and make good choices.
5. The answer lies within us (God in our deepest feelings, not superficial ones)
Life is tough and feelings can be the toughest things of all. Learn to befriend them, understand them and realise that you are much more than your feelings; you’re not your feelings. Everything in life passes – savour the good and let go of the bad. Feelings come and go. Learn to watch them like clouds coming into your life, and remember just as you can’t hold onto a cloud, your job is to let your surface feelings go too.
At a deeper level, there are desires or impulses within us towards God (consolation, life-giving) or away from God (desolation, dryness). We need to wake up to what brings us real life, and a lasting sense of peace/fulfillment). In these Covid times this becomes critical, how to keep well and falling into despondency, a hole. The rule of thumb is to act against desolation and try to keep oneself in consolation as much as possible.
6. Fear or anxiety is not a good counsellor (fear around Covid, illness, work, safety etc.)
The trap for people with a tendency to be fearful is to canonise that emotion such that it dominates all decision making. Of course, there is an opposite understandable reaction which sees us override all fear and behave recklessly. The point is that both are driven by fear and lack balance – fear can be a useful indicator to be cautious about some undertaking but taken to an extreme it is crippling and immobilising. The best formulation might be ‘feel the fear and do the best thing anyway’. (Act against the fear/anxiety; Have the courage to implement your best decisions, get back your peace & power).
7. The paradox of suffering (the experience of the Cross)
This ‘U’ shaped curve pattern seems to apply to almost any human process of change: things get worse before they get better. This is also the spiritual process sometimes called ‘the dark night’ or the ‘Way of the Cross’. Understanding this process helps a lot in terms of keeping hope alive, knowing what to expect, getting your head right, and crucially how to pray in really tough times, as Jesus did on the Cross, such that you come through and experience the light at the end of the tunnel. Through faith our hope is strengthened, we learn how it is possible to pray our way through dark lockdown times. Remember especially, if you are feeling abandoned and empty, God is carrying you (‘footprints in the sand’), God is close to you, but we need to learn how to interpret these times and pray through them as Jesus does (the use of the Psalms in particular: 16:9-10, 22:1, 31:5, 139). Generally, you have to pass through the experience of the Cross or Passion to appreciate the light.
8. Prayer is about finding God’s will
This is the most challenging thing as it demands prayer is not about my needs, rather I need help from a higher power to face situations and make good decisions. A bit like charging a battery, there is no shortcut for being plugged into the source for a certain time and frequency. This prayer has to result in some positive, practical action, acting more like Christ, reaching out to others for example. It becomes easier with practice.
9. It’s about God working through us
St Paul says that the Spirit prays within us (Romans 8:26-27). God needs priority access to our hearts and time to make great instruments of us. It’s more about listening and learning, God will meet us more than halfway. In any close, loving relationship, people find a way to relate through words, gestures, signs or symbols. It is about finding some way that works; each of us are different and different things will work. As Pope Francis says each of us has our own path to God based on how we are uniquely made. Some of us use sight, some actions, some words, some gestures to communicate our love for others. Our job is to try out different ways of praying and learn what works in terms of God becoming more and more the center of our lives.
10. You always have a choice
If we are created by God, and we are in constant communication with our creator, then God has a plan for us. Like a GPS buried inside us, it is possible to get guidance and direction by stopping being busy, creating a space, and looking at what is coming up within us. It was only in reflection, looking back over the experience, that St. Ignatius was able to sort out what was genuine. Similarly, for us, feelings and moods are messy, but with practice and some guidance it is possible to find a way of getting a good GPS reading and moving forward. We have to allow ourselves to be guided, finding the way like pilgrims on the road.