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The attentiveness of Ignatius

The attentiveness of Ignatius

Over the past year, I have found myself simultaneously learning about and pondering that surely the Saints are amazing and holy but could they possibly connect with my life today?  I am a mom of teenage triplets, with a wonderful husband, a home, a minivan, and a part-time job.  I spend a lot of time doing laundry, shopping for groceries, and loving on my family.  I prepare meals and wipe down counters.  I go for walks and share mugs of tea and coffee.  I drive endlessly back and forth to school, practice, and games.  I snuggle, hold hands, and listen.  And yet, throughout the business of my life, I hear a whisper calling me to notice.  A call to attentiveness.  I love to travel and find it quite easy to notice the beauty, the hand of God from the top of Mt. Fuji, or the Pictured Rocks-but to notice the hand of God as I go about my daily life?  Really?  The answer I learned over the course of this year is a resounding yes.  And so, I now go about my life with the attentiveness of Ignatius {Spanish priest and theologian, 1491-1556}. 

My very first experience with Ignatius came in October 2016 when I attended my first silent retreat.  I was nervous and unsure of what to expect.  I am an avid reader and arrived at the Dominican Center with a suitcase full of books.  What else might I do on a silent retreat but read?  As an introvert, I recharge and prefer times of silence.  I was actually excited to experience that but when I found out that reading the entire time would just ‘fill my mind with other people’s words,’ I panicked.  I had no idea how I would fill the time.  A couple of hours in, I met with my spiritual director for the first time.  Over the course of our first conversation, she invited me to experience ‘imaginative prayer.’  Parker Palmer speaks of finding threads of our current vocation way back in our childhood.  And for me, the word imagination or imaginative is a thread.  As a child, I loved to imagine.  Perhaps this was my yet unnamed introvert-ness.  I had an imaginary friend with the unique name of, “Shicka.”  I played school and house, imagining elaborate scenarios.  My mom fueled this by planning make-believe adventures. It was not unusual for chairs to be set up in the living room in rows like an airplane to ‘fly’ us off to a new destination.  One such trip found us in (make-believe) Hawaii. Upon arrival we were greeted with leis, grass skirts and fresh pineapple.  Imagination also came out in my writing.  I loved to write long and elaborate stores, filled with conversations.  My mom would painstakingly type them for me on our typewriter, often commenting on how many times she typed quotation marks!  I lived in a world of make believe.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that I could pray using this same imagination, although as a 40+ year old I had to shake off some dust from this said imagination.  My everyday life as a mom did not leave much room for imagination, save my passion for books and stories.  My spiritual director thoughtfully ‘assigned’ me Mark 1: 35-38. I left that meeting nervous, but excited.  The unease I felt previously about not having my books to comfort me had evaporated.  I spent the rest of that day sharing in a beautiful prayer with my Jesus:

“Today, while walking at a hurried pace a man in front of me paused, turned around, and with kind eyes and a smile asked, “What are you looking for?”  He apologized for seeming to interrupt me, but my rushed clip, and when he turned, my darting eyes reminded him of the squirrels he could see from his window-frantically digging tiny holes under the giant pines looking for the acorns that would sustain them.  My initial surprise at the question turned to warmth and I answered honestly that I was tired, and looking for a place to rest.  His eyes lit up, and he explained that he was a teacher nearby so he knew the neighborhood well.  He said, “You just have to come and see this wonderful place.”  While it is not my habit to follow strangers, this delightful soul made it nearly impossible to refuse.  We began walking side by side-much slower than I was accustom to walking.  I found my breathing slowing down and my shoulders relaxing.  He seemed to be able to sense however that I was still slightly uncomfortable with the slower pace.  “Everyone is in such a hurry these days,” he said.  “Rushing to squeeze in just one more thing, it makes me wonder if anyone truly notices anything anymore?”  I began to think about how true this statement was.  Not only did the hurried pace so valued by our society wear me down, it also functioned as horse blinders.  In all the rushing, I so rarely paused to take in a sight, or a smell, or to touch or even on occasion to savor a taste.  As we rounded the next corner, at this newly slowed pace, an amazing aroma seemed to envelop me in a warm embrace.  It was a cocoon of sugar and yeast like no other.  At that moment, I noticed the small bakery and café just ahead.  It appeared to have been a home in a previous life.  A long roughly painted porch wrapped around the front, scattered with rocking chairs and porch swings.  We entered through a wooded screen door which I paused to appreciate as it slammed gently shut.  That sound transported me back to a childhood of games, sand, and cups made of tin with a little sand in the bottom from the well-my grandparents’ cottage.  Once my eyes adjusted from being outside, I saw that this bakery retained much of the charm from it’s days as a home.  Cozy sitting areas with oversized chairs seemed to open their arms to the guests.  We followed the scents as they got stronger the closer we got to the kitchen.  This space was clearly, and must always have been the heart of the home.  A woman was kneading bread on a large marble island.  A series of glass fronted cabinets displayed a variety of that day’s specials.  We talked to the baker about the seasonal and local ingredients she gently folded in to her delicate creations.  Today she featured apple bread, pumpkin spice cakes and maple scones.  She explained the relationships she had formed over time with the farmers.  It was a slow process, but one that has yielded so many delicious creations.  We each selected a treat, and checking my watch, I asked for mine to go.  The kind man, and the baker gently told me that the special confections were best eaten right here in this house.  I conceded, knowing here would be things I would not get done today because of this delay-but I sensed that it would be ok.  I watched as she tenderly removed our selections and placed them each on a mismatched plate-mine with a tiny chip out of the side.  She handed us each a fork that closely resembled the silver of my grandma that I store under the bed.  We added mugs of warm chai cider and found two velvet chairs in front of the homes’ wood burning fireplace.  The taste of the spices and local fruit in the apple bread was sublime.  Each bite I seemed to sink deeper into the chair.  The warmth from the cider, the flavors and the fire lulled my body in to a state of relaxation I had not ever known.  The company of the kind man with a very easy laugh nourished a hunger I had not known existed.  I gazed around the room and noticed how the fire cast shadows that seemed to dance around.  I took in the sounds of baking coming from the kitchen-clanging of metal measuring spoons, clanks of baking pans being removed from the oven.  As we ate the remaining crumbs from our plates and tipped the mugs back to savor the last drops of cider I thanked the kind man.  I let him know how refreshed I felt, how nourished.  I even wished out loud that I could spend a few hours each day in this very spot.  He laughed softly and said, “balance, it’s about finding balance, a pace that nourishes your soul while still allowing you to accomplish the important things in your life.”  He went on to talk about how finding this balance will not allow me to say yes to everything or to do all of the things I am doing now.  “It’s not easy, but think of how attentive this slow time allowed you to be.  Think of all you delighted in.”  As I reflected on this time, I noticed the sky changing, singling the coming of evening.  The entire afternoon had passed.  We walked out of the café together and as we prepared to part ways at the end of the walk, I asked the kind man his name.  How had the ours gone without me knowing this vital information.  As he opened his mouth to speak, a car roared past and the word was swallowed by the sound.  As I began walking home, much slower, I could have sworn he said his name was Jesus.”

 I never knew I could use my childhood imagination to experience Jesus.  Author Ronald Rolheiser in his book The Holy Longing calls it, “God with skin” (Rolheiser, 1998) The human, relational, connected to my life Jesus.  This, I learned, was how Ignatius wanted me to experience Jesus.  While imaginative prayer as set out by Ignatius does not necessarily involve placing the story in a modern context, this was how it came to me.  It more commonly involves placing yourself in the story as it is written.  Ignatius had a vivid imagination, and during his long recovery process from a war injury his insights from his reading on the life of Christ is said to have filled a 300-page notebook.  When experiencing prayer in an imaginative way, Ignatius suggests we hone in our senses, and should be attentive to the small details of the experience.  In the scenes from the gospels that Ignatius recommends for this experience, he often selects scenes of Jesus acting, rather than Jesus teaching.  In his book What is Ignatian Spirituality, David Fleming suggests this is because he wants us, “to see Jesus interacting with others, Jesus making decisions, Jesus moving about, Jesus ministering.  He doesn’t want us to think about Jesus.  He wants us to experience him.  He wants Jesus to fill our senses.” (Fleming, 2008).

As a ‘HSP’ Highly Sensitive Person, my senses are highly tuned.  For good or for evil, this is a part of my daily life.  Learning that through Ignatius I could use these highly tuned senses to ‘seek and find God in all things.’ I felt something click in to place in my soul.  This phrase is often connected to Ignatius because through the Spiritual Exercises, he strives to help us do this very thing.  Rolheiser says, “The opposite of depression is delight, being spontaneously surprised by the goodness and beauty of living.”  He goes on to refer to the title of the work Surprised by Joy, by CS Lewis saying, “delight has to catch us unaware, at a place where we are not rationalizing that we are happy.”  Part of seeking and finding God in all things is this notion of being surprised, delighting in.  The summer of my 41 birthday I had the word ‘delight’ tattooed on to my right forearm.  The reason I selected this word was that I had been reading about the beauty of being frivolous and really savoring the things that we love, the things God has given us. God wants me to remember that. He wants to encourage me to pay attention to the things I love, the beauty that He has given me, and to not only see it-but to truly delight in it.  Noticing and delighting are not the same thing.  Dictionary.com defines delight as a high degree of pleasure or enjoyment; joy; rapture.  Clearly more than simply noticing.  Noticing and being thankful is a step closer, but what about reveling in it?  What about really stopping to experience it joyfully-full of rapture for heaven’s sake?  That is what God is asking me to do.  And this is what truly seeking and finding God in all things means to me.  Author Andy Otto in his wonderful book, God Moments, says that “Each and every day God appears to us in ways so plain and ordinary that we often miss them.”  He goes on to say that it is often only after, “we reflect back on our day, looking for signs of God, that those daily theophanies become more noticeable.”  (Otto, 2017) Otto quotes Simone Weil who writes of beauty, “as an ‘incarnation’ of the divine in our world, like the sacraments.  Just as the word became flesh to bring God’s salvation to the world, God communicates grace with us through sensory experiences.  Beauty is one medium by which God communicates with humanity.”  God communicates grace with us through our senses.  These highly tuned senses I have, that often lead to troubles as I pick up on a nuanced tone of voice and wonder if I made someone angry, or a shift in facial expression and wonder if I made a mistake.  The senses that pick up the faintest smell.  The senses that cause near panic when a loud noise becomes too much.  Since learning of my HSP-ness, I have also learned that these senses can help me provide consistent empathy.  They also help me to notice the minute splashes of beauty throughout my day.  Most of my Instagram feed and the topic of many of my blog posts revolve around noticing beauty in the ordinary, the routines of my day.  Again, Andy Otto says, “I cannot go up to heaven to encounter God.  I have to locate God within the boundaries of the created world I’m in….God uses our bodies-our feelings, emotions, and senses-to communicate with us.” 

According to Sister Winifred Morley in the book Journey to the Heart, Saint Ignatius experienced and then later wrote down the ‘Spiritual Exercises’ to help followers to “make new choices for our lives, or reform the way of life we have already chosen.”  She says that Ignatius called them exercises because it is practice we need to carry on just like moving our body to stay healthy.  Sister Morley talks about his use of the word ‘relish’ as a way to ponder, ‘what God has given us during the day.’  (Nataraja, 2011) Ignatius’s exercises merge beautifully in to my present day, ordinary life.  This year has been a start, but I would love to continue to grow and connect more deeply to this beautiful experience.  One of the exercises that requires daily practice for me is the prayer of the senses.  While I have very heightened senses, I also live in a ‘go, go, go’ culture.  We wear busy like a badge and when I am multitasking it is nearly impossible to focus on my senses, to really register what they are taking in-and to truly delight.  Ignatius wrote these exercises in a different time, and practicing them in the year 2018 is a different, yet equally as important experience.  For me, this involves slowing down.  I often refer to the idea of holding a mug of tea or coffee in both hands when I am enjoying it.  It cannot be done while rushing, multi tasking, or generally being busy.  This two handed posture requires slowing down and truly paying attention to the moment.  It allows me to use my senses, to feel, smell, taste, see, and hear everything going on around me.  This feeling is one I strive to carry in to my days.  Otto says, “Prayer is simply a conscious awareness of (that) connection.  There does not need to be words, just focused awareness of the moment, the feelings, the experience.”  By using my senses, being attentive to the beauty that surrounds me whether on a hike, folding laundry, or wiping down the counters, I am aware of the gifts God has placed for me in that moment.  This attentiveness allows me to see God all day, without ceasing.  I also love the idea of the Examen, the thought of coming back at the end of the day to examen all of the ways that God’s love appeared in my life.  Andy Otto suggests that, “the spirit of a reflective disposition is often inspired by Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Luke’s gospel says, ‘Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart’ (Luke 2:19)” This exercise allows me to keep all the moments of beauty and grace in my heart, and reflect upon them at the end of the day.  It sharpens the attention to detail, hones the focus on beauty.  The Ignatian Exercises require presence.  In Isaiah, God says, “Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago.  Watch for the new thing I am going to do.  It is happening already-you can see it now” (Is 43:18-19).  The awareness of the present moment allows me to be more connected to God.  By reflecting back at the end of the day, I can see more clearly the ways in which he is working in my life, which then makes me more aware for his movements the next day. 

Andy Otto discussed Ignatius’ profound moment of God on the banks of the river Cardener in Spain.  “His autobiography says that ‘the eyes of understanding were opened.’” Otto believed that, “Ignatius had, in that moment, an insight of God’s ordinary miracles.  I think he was captivated by the fact that all he had learned and experienced before-the ordinary stuff-now had miraculous meaning, divine meaning.”   Through this experience, Ignatius became attentive to the small, ordinary workings of God in his day.  The rest of his life, the creation of his Spiritual Exercises, all reflect this new way of seeing.  Which brings me back to today, previously I am not sure I could have expected such profound connection with people who lived in such different time and places than I.  Surely the Saints are amazing and holy, but how would that possibly connect with my life today?  I am a mom of teenage triplets, with a wonderful husband, a home, a minivan, and a part time job.  I spend a lot of time doing laundry, shopping for groceries, and loving on my family.  I prepare meals, and wipe down counters.  I go for walks and share mugs of tea and coffee.  I drive endlessly back and forth to school, practice, and games.  I snuggle, hold hands, and listen.  And yet, throughout the business of my life, I hear a whisper calling me to notice.  A call to attentiveness.  I love to travel, and find it quite easy to notice the beauty, the hand of God from the top of Mt. Fuji, or the Pictured Rocks-but to notice the hand of God as I go about my daily life?  Really?  The answer I learned over the course of this year is a resounding yes.  And so, I now go about my life with the attentiveness of Ignatius. 

*Would you like to learn more about the attentiveness of Ignatius?  I recommend starting with Andy Otto's new book, God Moments.  I was honored to receive a copy of this book from the Publisher (all words and thoughts are my own though!) and I devoured it.  If you know me, you know I mark up books I love with washi tape and notes.  This book is well loved, you can tell by looking at it.  It connects Ignatius to today.  It is readable and capturing.  It would be the perfect place to start your journey.  

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