Thursday, February 28, 2013

Postcards from the Exercises: Reconciliation Redux

I'm retracing the Spiritual Exercises in an adapted form (though I think you could argue that the Exercises are always adapted) using the materials posted at The Ignatian Prayer Adventure and writing weekly reflections on my experience for's DotMagis blog. I joked with the editor of that series that I felt like I was sending her weekly postcards from my trip with Ignatius. Since I have more to say than fit on those virtual postcards.... 

As the First Week of the Exercises draws to a close, Ignatius suggests you might feel moved to make a general confession, to take even those sins already confessed and absolved to the sacrament of reconciliation.  Last weekend, when I pulled the copy of the Exercises I'd taken along on the 30-day retreat, I found the slip of paper on which I written a note to one of the Jesuits in residence at Eastern Point, asking if he would hear my general confession (and his response, written frugally on the same sheet), repurposed as a book mark.

As the third week of my Ignatian Adventure wound down, with its contemplations of brokeness — the world's and my own — I recognized a desire to sacramentally deepen the graces of this time.  General confessions, though, are not to be undertaken lightly, or frequently (and as practical matter, never without an appointment!)  In the spirit of this 8-week adaptation and Ignatius' notion of repetition as a tool to sharpen our focus, I decided to use an evening walk as a time to prepare, and take one single thread of brokenness to confession.

The experience knitted some of the "crushed bones," leaving me ready to welcome a steadfast spirit and walk on the journey of the Second Week.

Make me hear rejoicing and gladness, that the bones you have crushed may revive. From my sins turn away your face and blot out all my guilt. A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me. — Psalm 51:10-12

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

On the Ignatian Adventure: In the heaving of the sea

In the silence of the stars,
In the quiet of the hills,
In the heaving of the sea,
                  Speak, Lord.

— David Adam, Speak, Lord

This is a view from the rocks near Eastern Point Retreat House (on a warm summer day just after dawn).  I spent a many hours looking out at the cold, heaving seas when I was there making the Spiritual Exercises.  David Adam's poem evoked so many memories of that retreat, of the sharply cold and clear night hours, the quiet calm of the house, the heaving of the seas — and the longing of my heart.

Listen to Margaret Rizza's gorgeously clear setting of Adam's poem here and read my reflection on praying with music amid the second week of an Ignatian Prayer Adventure at DotMagis.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Postcards from the Exercises: Grace in an eggshell

I'm retracing the Spiritual Exercises in an adapted form using the materials posted at The Ignatian Adventure and writing weekly reflections on my experience for Ignatian Spirituality's DotMagis blog. There's more to say than fits there, so...

If you are looking for grace in a nutshell, you could try the Baltimore catechism (Q. 145:  What do you mean by grace?  By grace I mean a supernatural gift of God bestowed on us, through the merits of Jesus Christ, for our salvation.) or Julian of Norwich's hazelnut.

This week, I found the grace I was seeking in prayer, not on my knees, but later, on Facebook.  Contemplating the world through the eyes of the Trinity...grace in an eggshell.  We are small, broken and shatteringly beautiful.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Another Ignatian Adventure: Peripatetic prayer

I traveled almost as far on the second week of my Ignatian adventure as Ignatius himself did to get to Jerusalem from Rome.  It just didn't take as long!

Travel often upsets my ideas of what my prayer life should look like.  I fear I tend to want to approach God gracefully, well collected, silently sweeping into a quiet chapel in the middle of the night and kneeling before an exquisite altar, the light from the Presence lamp spilling onto my head.  As if.

Instead my reality looks more like it did a few weeks back, where I found myself in Charlotte's airport late at night, my swollen foot propped on my suitcase, praying with one ear cocked for the boarding announcement for my delayed flight, harried and rumpled from a long day that still has several hours to run.  Hi, God.  I'm here.  Mostly.

God to Michelle, "I'm here.  Always and everywhere."

You can read the (less snarky) reflection at DotMagis!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Postcards from the Exercises: Getting in position to pray

I'm retracing the Spiritual Exercises in an adapted form (though I think you could argue that the Exercises are always adapted) using the materials posted at The Ignatian Adventure and writing weekly reflections on my experience for's DotMagis blog. I joked with the editor of that series that I felt like I was sending her weekly postcards from my trip with Ignatius. Since I have more to say than fit on those virtual postcards...

There is much good advice about prayer in general tucked into Ignatius' Exercises, advice that I have returned to again and again since my time at Gloucester, and that I'm revisiting with particular interest on this Ignatian adventure.  At the end of the First Week there is a section entitled "Helps for Prayer" which includes a section on posture in prayer, and (in typical Ignatian fashion) suggestions for how to discern which position might be best.  

For some weeks my ankle limited my choice of prayer positions, which I found frustrating, annoying, and distracting.  After about a week of wishfully trying to figure out a way to fold myself into an approximation of my preferred posture, I finally recognized that my preference was more about habit than anything else and perhaps I should not "fix my desires" on one position or the other, except as it was bringing me what I desired in prayer.

I ended up writing this piece for Phaith:

"Faced with all these choices, I thought of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s advice regarding posture: experiment. Kneeling, lying on the sofa, prostrate on the ground — be attentive to what leads you to God. Once you have found what you seek, noted Ignatius, don’t fidget, and above all do not be anxious, but be at rest in God."

Read the rest here.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Postcards from the Exercises: Inflicting Sensible Pain

I'm retracing the Spiritual Exercises in an adapted form (though I think you could argue that the Exercises are always adapted) using the materials posted at The Ignatian Adventure and writing weekly reflections on my experience for's DotMagis blog. I joked with the editor of that series that I felt like I was sending her weekly postcards from my trip with Ignatius.  Since I have more to say than fit on those virtual postcards....

There was a compelling conversation at People for Others a few weeks back on this paragraph from the Spiritual Exercises, which appears in the instructions for the First Week (which I've just finished):  The third kind of penance is to chastise body, that is, to inflict sensible pain on it. This is done by wearing hairshirts, cords, or iron chains on the body, or by scourging or wounding oneself, and by other kinds of austerities. [85.3, Louis J. Puhl's translation; David Fleming's is less stark and, to my ear at least, more nuanced.]

In Ignatius' time this would have seemed a far less shocking passage than it is today.  Extreme austerities, even if not practiced by the bulk of Christians, certainly featured prominently in the hagiographies of the saints, particularly the mystics.  The broader cultural context, too, is very different.  I suspect that what someone living in the 16th century might have considered an ordinary annoyance, we might consider an unacceptable penance.

When I taught the course on contemplation in the West a couple of years back, we read some of these contemporary accounts, as well as some present day scholarly analysis (a fascinating paper on The Spiritual Uses of Pain in Spanish Mysticism by Maureen Flynn still sticks in my mind).

By sensible pain, Ignatius meant merely (!) a penance you can feel.  I've been thinking about a slightly different sort of "sensible pain" these last few weeks as I work to rehab my ankle.  My physical therapist explained carefully to me at our first meeting that physical therapy would not be pain free.  If I wasn't hurting a bit, it wasn't working.   She was also clear that what she was after was sensible pain: not so much that it kept me from doing the exercises prescribed, nor so little that I wasn't gaining range of motion or strength.

So these days I hurt a bit all the time (though I should say I'm very glad to trade some pain for losing the boot and increased mobility), and at times more than a bit.  In The Body's Poetic of Illness Thomas Moore suggests that science seeks (desires) a single reading of phenomena but that poetry acknowledges a multiplicity of meanings can be held within a single text.  Why not then read our illnesses and injuries as having layers of meaning, physical and metaphysical? Is there a spiritual subtext to be uncovered in my sensibly inflicted pain?  Is it one I'm willing to read?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Diving into an Ignatian Adventure

This morning this image was on a friend's Facebook stream (thanks, Tim!) — and I thought, what a perfect illustration for the first of my reflections for IgnatianSpirituality's Lent 2013 Ignatian Prayer Adventure retreat.

When I stood on that platform in the hills outside Oaxaca, it felt like I was standing in the sky.

Read the reflection at DotMagis to see what leaps I'm contemplating 40 years later.  And if you want to taste, or re-visit, the Spiritual Exercises, the materials there are a warm and gentle way to do so.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

The Zen of Comments

It's been a crazymadbusy — though fun — week.  But not one that has left me much time to blog (though I've been writing up a storm).

Last week/weekend's conference (ScienceOnline13) was great.  I learned that I can draw clear and useful sketches for my students, a skill my kindergarten teacher apparently thought I had in me, but that remained unrealized all these years.  Two pieces of advice that were helpful:  slow down, and you don't have to capture every detail in this one frame, less is more.  It's advice I could use in many realms.

I got back on Sunday (at 1:45 in the morning) and plunged into what turned out to be a week even more wild than the conference.

Midweek I got an invitation to write a piece for Slate Magazine, responding to a recent article in the NY Times Magazine (The Boy with a Thorn in his Joints).  Cool.  But this week was already pretty tightly scheduled, with regular teaching, a make-up lecture for the class missed while I was at the conference, a board of trustees meeting, and some writing projects.

I ended up staying up most of Tuesday night writing the article, revised it between the next morning departmental meeting and my noon class and sent it off to the editor after office hours and before my evening physical therapy appointment.  It was back in my inbox the next morning with a few queries and revisions, which I responded to, then returned my revised piece to the editor on my way to quantum mechanics class.  Then not quite 48 hours after I'd opened the first email — it was up at Slate:  Curing chemophobia:  Don't take medical advice from the NY Times magazine.

And then came the comments.  The article has more comments on it at the moment (over a thousand) than both my blogs put together get in a year.  In two years.   And then there are the tweets and the emails.  Not all of them are complimentary (though interestingly, the tweets and emails are running more supportive than the comments on the article itself).  I needed a generous portion of contemplative grace to delve into the comments at all.  In a week where I have been praying with the Examen in a particularly focused way (for The Ignatian Adventure retreat that kicks off tomorrow at DotMagis), this sort of listening to, sorting through, reflecting on and responding to feedback has been interesting.

I'm still hoping for a week with a more contemplative pace.

Illustration is mine from the class.  XKCD has nothing to worry about.  (But my students do report that my drawings are better.)

Friday, February 01, 2013

The Myers-Briggs Guide to Conferences

I'm at a conference on science writing (it's a place where someone in the room can say that they don't want to contradict someone, they want to be orthogonal, and everyone will nod and smile). It's a perfect conference for me, a mix of scientists, editors, writers, journalists, artists all passionate about science and many who like me, have a tough time answering the questions, "what do you do?" and "where do you work?" (There is even a session on this!)

I've never been to this conference before and am struck at how little down time there is. Yesterday things kicked off at 7:40 am and officially ended at 11:00 pm and there were only 30 "unscheduled" minutes in the day - between one bus and another. The food here has been great (there is BOILING water for to make tea, I'd come back for that alone, and lunch today featured an amazing chocolate cake), and I've really appreciated the number of channels information is broadcast on (Twitter, wiki, signage) and the ways that the information gets tagged up. It's making me wish that conferences came tagged with their Myers-Briggs best matches. This is an ESTP/ENTP/ENFJ conference. Extrovert, extrovert, extrovert. No time to process; toss tweets; produce now; edit later (maybe); meet, greet.

I suspect that there are many introverts here(there is a quiet room reserved for those who need silence to work, or just to sit) but you absolutely need to put on your extrovert suit to "do" this meeting effectively. I'm drinking from the firehose, but I am looking forward to returning to a rhythm that switches between data input and processing time more frequently.

What would a conference tagged INTJ/INSP look like? Would we all just sit together in a room and quietly work for a set time, then tack our work up onto the wall and head out?

This blog post was written in five increments.