Lift your heart up to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring God for his own sake and not for his gifts. Cloud of Unknowing, Ch.3 (tr. William Johnston)
I wake up anxious, feeling layers of loss, the mess I call my life, a failure, ashamed to be me. I am sure some of these feelings are the work of what Ignatius calls ‘the evil spirit’: dis-spiriting influences within me – my own misguided thinking – and external to me. Others have basis in reality. Certainly the feelings themselves are real.
I don’t want to have these feelings. I want to sort them out, fix them or forget them.
It is a beautiful, sunny, early autumn morning. I find a chair, sit in the sunshine, get an extra layer to keep warm, sit again. Gradually I am warmed by the sun. A breeze is whispering in the trees. Birds call. A wood-pigeon reminds me of home, of childhood. I just sit here. You really couldn’t call it praying. I’m just letting thoughts and feelings swill about. I feel the depth and layers of loss.
In the end I open my Office book and read the first few lines:
O Lord, open our lips;
and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
I don’t get much further. It is enough for me to remember God; and I realise that I have forgotten to open my heart to God in the last few days. I wonder if I will ever fully shake the idea that I have to be something better than I am before I can be with God? This opening prayer reminds me that I’m all right as I am.
Gradually this turns into letting myself be. Here I am, a mixed up, messed up, sad kid; and, through some process I don’t understand, that begins to be a me I can live with. Perhaps I can sit here, any-old-how, and let myself be with God. I have these difficult feelings but I don’t have to deal with them on my own. In fact, I don’t have to “deal” with them at all. I can just let them be, with God, in a soft, undefended way. A phrase comes to me: “soft heart, trusting heart”. It describes the physical sensation I have in my chest. Ignatius would call this spiritual consolation: an increase of love towards, and trust in, God.
Soft heart, trusting heart. It is a good sensation. Here is a way to understand what the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing means when s/he says, “Lift your heart up to the Lord.” I don’t have to do the lifting; God comes ‘down’ and lifts up my heart; without any effort on my part, I allow my heart to be lifted.
A practice of this body goes like this:
- notice the feeling – and by ‘feeling’ I mean physical sensation;
- notice its qualities: where exactly it is, what it is like, its shape, how it feels;
- let the feeling deepen, take root, spread, become more solid;
- let it speak if it wishes;
- let it be;
- enjoy it;
- let it be the substance of prayer;
- take careful note so you can come back later.
We are addicted to having new experiences: the next new film, series on TV, murder mystery, soap, hospital drama, cooking programme, CD, novel, restaurant, holiday destination, smartphone, self-help programme, meditation technique. I could go on! Our society is predicated on this and encourages us in our addiction. Otherwise, what would happen to consumerism? How would anyone make money?
Spiritual life is not like this. In spiritual life we return again and again to the scene of the grace. If we have ‘found’ (or been found by) God, why on earth would we want to move on to a new experience? It is like finding gold, or crude oil, or fresh water in the desert. We sink a mine or a well. And so with consolation.
Or with love. When we love someone, we want to see them again, to spend more time with them. Is this not what we do with our loves, our children, our closest friends, or even our favourite foods, poems, pictures, music, landscapes and seascapes?
This is the principle of Ignatian repetition. Following an experience in / of / with / through / towards God, we return, perhaps over and over again, to let it sink in fully and become part of ourselves.
Attend to this body, to sensations of prayer and the presence of God. Let grace deeply into your soul.