Month: July 2015

Feast of St Ignatius Loyola

Finding God in all things.

I first encountered the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola when I did eight-day retreats as a convert to the Catholic Church. The dynamics weren’t easy for me to grasp but I began using the Daily Examen to help structure my prayer life and develop some awareness of  how God might be at work in my life and how I was responding to what I perceived as the presence or absence of God.

1. Place yourself in God’s presence. Give thanks for God’s great love for you.

2. Pray for the grace to understand how God is acting in your life.

3. Review your day — recall specific moments and your feelings at the time.

4. Reflect on what you did, said, or thought in those instances. Were you drawing closer to God, or further away?

5. Look toward tomorrow — think of how you might collaborate more effectively with God’s plan. Be specific, and conclude with the “Our Father.”


I began to work with spiritual directors, not always easy, and also benefited  from problem-solving therapy. The more clearly and unsentimentally I could see myself, the more I became aware of the subtle movement of Grace in my psyche and daily life.


A book that influenced my understanding of how the Spiritual Exercises help us grow closer to God was The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William A Barry and William J Connolly.


  • Spiritual direction focuses on religious experience. It is concerned with a person’s actual experience of a relationship with God.
  • Spiritual direction is about a relationship. The religious experience is not isolated, nor does it consist of extraordinary events. It is what happens in an ongoing relationship between the person and God. Most often this is a relationship that is experienced in prayer.
  • Spiritual direction is a relationship that is going somewhere. God is leading the person to deeper faith and more generous service. The spiritual director asks not just “what is happening?” but “what is moving forward?”
  • The real spiritual director is God. God touches the human heart directly. The human spiritual director does not “direct” in the sense of giving advice and solving problems. Rather, the director helps a person respond to God’s invitation to a deeper relationship.

For some years I was involved with my local Christian Life Community, a troubled organisation at that time, but that involvement taught me a great deal about Ignatian discernment, the motivations, awareness  and choices that lead to greater freedom in Christ.

Discernment is the God-focused intuitive and experiential skill  of recognising the motives attracting or repelling us toward or away from any given option.  Ignatian discernment then isn’t so much about what to do but about who to become.  It’s about becoming a person in tune with the movements that lead one closer to God. The doing will flow from the becoming and being.

On day-long retreats and longer times away, I kept journals and sketchbooks, drew the journey of the mustard seed that became a tree, stayed with object meditations, myths and dreamwork. The conflict with a certain director, the tensions within the group, the brokenness in my own life and the lives of many in the country at that time were hard but fertile times in which to reflect on God’s loving will for us there and then.

In years to come I would find myself drawn away from actively imaginative modes of prayer towards more contemplative wordless prayer, but the groundwork of Ignatian understanding has stayed with me for decades.


Yddrasil, autumn in Auvergne -- Anselm Kiefer


Discerning with Inigo

The Feast tomorrow of St Ignatius of Loyola:

I use the word “consolation” when any interior movement is produced in the soul that leads her to become inflamed with the love of her Creator and Lord, and when, as a consequence, there is no created thing on the face of the earth that we can love in itself, but we love it only in the Creator of all things. . . . “Desolation” is the name I give to everything contrary to [consolation] . . . , e.g., darkness and disturbance in the soul, attraction to what is low and of the earth, anxiety arising from various agitations and temptations.

(Spiritual Exercises, nos. 316–17)




Feast of Blessed Titus Brandsma

Titus Brandsma was born in the Netherlands in 1881 and became a Carmelite monk. He was arrested in January 1942, when he tried to persuade Dutch Catholic newspapers not to print Nazi propaganda (as was required by the law of the Nazi German occupiers). He had also drawn up the Pastoral Letter, read in all Catholic parishes, by which the Dutch Roman Catholic bishops officially condemned the German anti-Semitic measures and the deportation of the first Jews. After this Pastoral Letter, the first few thousand Jews to be deported from the Netherlands were all Jewish converts to Roman Catholicism, including St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). Titus Brandsma was killed by lethal injection in Dachau on July 26, 1942.


“Do not yield to hatred. We are here in a dark tunnel, but we have to go on. At the end, an eternal light is shining for us.”


Titus Brandsma

Life of a poet revisited

July 28 is the birthday of Gerard Manley Hopkins, born in 1844, a Catholic convert who became a Jesuit and a great nature poet as well as what  we would call a sacramental poet. His observation of the countryside and seasons was astonishing in its detail and appreciation of ‘inscape’ and I suspect this has to do with his early desire to become a painter, deciding against it finally because he thought it was too “passionate” an exercise for someone with a religious vocation.


Hopkins in a letter: “a white shire of cloud. I looked long up at it till the tall height and the beauty of the scaping–regularly curled knots springing up if I remember from fine stems, like foliage on wood or stone–had strongly grown on me…. Unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is…. if you look well at big pack-clouds overhead you will soon find a strong large quaining and squaring in them which makes each pack impressive and whole.” 

While studying at Oxford, Hopkins was strongly influenced by the poetry and  Catholic medievalism of Christina Rossetti. In July 1866 he decided to become a Catholic, and he traveled to Birmingham in September to consult the leader of the Oxford converts, John Henry Newman. Newman received him into the Church in October. Gerard Manley Hopkins then became a Jesuit priest. Afterwards he made a bonfire of his poems and gave up poetry for seven years. He became estranged from his Anglican family, his parents appalled by his conversion to Rome.


Just writing down the bare bones of his life moves me — thinking of the suffering endured, akin to the heavy price paid by John Henry Newman and other English converts at a time when to be Catholic was to be alien, not really Christian, no longer wholesome, decent or English, to slip into thrall to the “wolf of Rome’.


A letter from Hopkins: “The great aid to belief and object of belief is the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Religion without that is sombre, dangerous, illogical, with that it is–not to speak of its grand consistency and certainty–loveable. Hold that and you will gain all Catholic truth.”


His poetry began again as sacramental poetry and one of the first poems published was The Wreck of the Deutschland on the drowning at sea of five Franciscan nuns, a poem that would influence Robert Lowell during the latter’s shortlived conversion to Catholicism. As he developed as a poet, Hopkins worked out his innovative ‘sprung rhythm’ and  emphasis on Anglo-Saxon rather than Latinate words and phrases. Many of his nature poems were inspired by the Welsh landscape around St Beuno’s College in the Vale of Clwyd.


Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;
   Only the inmate does not correspond:
God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales,
Complete thy creature dear O where it fails,
   Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.


A letter from Hopkins: Christ’s “hidden life at Nazareth is the great help to faith for us who must live more or less an obscure, constrained, and unsuccessful life.”


He spent many of the years of his ministry in what ere then dank polluted industrial cities of the north (Birmingham, Manchester), struggling with his own ‘dark night of the soul’ and died at 44 of typhoid in Dublin, still unreconciled with his family.


No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”‘


    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.



GN Hopkins in 1888

Hadewijch, Catholic mystic and poet

The medieval Beguine and mystic, Hadewijch.

Love Has Seven Names
by Hadewijch

English version by Willis Barnstone and Elene Kolb
Original Language Dutch

Love has seven names.
Do you know what they are?
Rope, Light, Fire, Coal
make up its domain.

The others, also good,
more modest but alive:
Dew, Hell, the Living Water.
I name them here (for they
are in the Scriptures),
explaining every sign
for virtue and form.
I tell the truth in signs.
Love appears every day
for one who offers love.
That wisdom is enough.

Love is a ROPE, for it ties
and holds us in its yoke.
It can do all, nothing snaps it.
You who love must know.

The meaning of LIGHT
is known to those who
offer gifts of love,
approved or condemned.

The Scripture tell us
the symbol of COAL:
the one sublime gift
God gives the intimate soul.

Under the name of FIRE, luck,
bad luck, joy or no joy,
consumes. We are seized
by the same heat from both.

When everything is burnt
in its own violence, the DEW,
coming like a breeze, pauses
and brings the good.

LIVING WATER (its sixth name)
flows and ebbs
as my love grows
and disappears from sight.

HELL (I feel its torture)
damns, covering the world.
Nothing escapes. No one has grace
to see a way out.

Take care, you who wish
to deal with names
for love. Behind their sweetness
and wrath, nothing endures.
Nothing but wounds and kisses.

Though love appears far off,
you will move into its depth.



The enigma, Graham Greene

Greene: “Goodness has only once found a perfect incarnation in a human body and never will again, but evil can always find a home there. Human nature is not black and white but black and grey.”

We were travelling together in the early 1980s and I was reading the latest Graham Greene (The Human Factor?) and scandalised, as a convert might be, by the heresies about the imagined and improvised Mass. You said, “Poor man.” And it did not occur to me that you were in a similar place, not wanting to change anything and knowing it was all wrong and would not end well.

The End of the Affair was what made sense to me. Something  for which I could give up everything, something that lay beyond renunciation. “I’ve caught belief like a disease. I’ve fallen into belief like I fell in love”


And I too was a convert who could not account for my belief. I would study the arguments and  want to think this was rational, this was what thousands of men and women much cleverer than myself had come to believe though steady unemotional thought. But there was a lure called mysticism and that was what drew me closer.

“You see, I wasn’t in the position of a Protestant who is searching for an alternative. I believed in nothing. Father Trollope and I saw each other regularly for six months, sometimes at the cathedral, sometimes on the open upper deck of a bus, when we’d pursue our arguments for the entire journey! (When I was baptized, I made it clear that I had chosen the name of Thomas to identify myself not with St. Thomas Aquinas but with St. Thomas Didymus, the doubter.) I eventually came to accept the existence of God not as an absolute truth but as a provisional one.”

This too: that you had grown up in am oppressed and impoverished Ireland, you had gone to Rome to become a priest just after WWII. I had lived in Africa all my life, I had grown up in an older and more magical, even terrifying culture.


Greene “I still believe in magic, even in the art of writing. If Catholicism has succeeded in reaching the remotest corners of Africa, it’s no doubt because of certain magical characteristics. Its sense of magic is closer to the African than the abstractions of the Methodists and Anglicans. I’m inclined to find superstition or magic more ”rational” than such abstract religious ideas as the Holy Trinity. I like the so-called primitive manifestations of the faith.”

He died at La Providence Hospital in Vevey, near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. He was 86 years old. You would die back in Dublin in your 60s of cancer and I would not see you before your death or write to you. I would henceforth consider myself lapsed or believing and not belonging. And the journey back would continue…


“No . . . I’ve broken the rules. They are rules I respect, so I haven’t been to communion for nearly thirty years . . . . In my private life, my situation is not regular. If I went to communion, I would have to confess and make promises. I prefer to excommunicate myself.”

Evelyn Waugh’s insight into sanctity

Evelyn Waugh responding to John Betjeman who didn’t think his St Helena was saintly:

Saints are simply souls in heaven. Some people have been so sensationally holy in life that we know they went straight to heaven and so put them in the calendar. We all have to become saints before we get to heaven. That is what purgatory is for. And each individual has his own peculiar form of sanctity which he must achieve or perish. It is no good my saying: “I wish I were like Joan of Arc or St. John of the Cross.” I can only be St. Evelyn Waugh” after God knows what experiences in purgatory. I liked Helena’s sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she wasn’t poor and hungry, she didn’t look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it. And she snubbed Aldous Huxley with his perennial fog, by going straight to the essential physical historical fact of the redemption.