This informal, inspiring book teaches readers how to create a personal spiritual retreat through readings, prayer, and their own imagination. Trained by the Jesuits to accompany and guide others in prayer, Margaret Silf brings her experiences and insights to a...
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This informal, inspiring book teaches readers how to create a personal spiritual retreat through readings, prayer, and their own imagination. Trained by the Jesuits to accompany and guide others in prayer, Margaret Silf brings her experiences and insights to a guide that will help all spiritual seekerswhether they are steeped in Christian tradition or have no background in prayer, retreat, and meditationmake their own journeys of prayer. InWayfaring, Silf takes readers step-by-step through the Gospels, examining and elucidating the teachings they contain. Like a personal "spiritual trainer," she deftly encourages readers to tap into their own hearts and minds and discover how the life of Jesus can help them shape their own paths through life. Sil's previous books have garnered critical acclaim and have attracted a wide, enthusiastic audience in the United Kingdom.Wayfaring, the first of her books to be published by a mainstream publisher in America, is a valuable contribution to spiritual literature, sure to be embraced by many on this side of the Atlantic.
Margaret Silf travels widely in her work as a retreat director and speaker on Ignatian spirituality. Her books include Close to the Heart: A Practical Approach to Personal Prayer (Loyola Press) and The Gift of Prayer: Embracing the Sacred in the Everyday (Bluebridge). ý
Seeds of God
This morning I went into my daughter's bedroom. She is nineteen now and away at university. Her room at home is full of expressions of who she is. There are posters on the wall, books on the shelves, clothes in the cupboard, CDs in the rack and ornaments that she has chosen, or been given. Everything has something to say about her life, her friends, her unique presence in the world.
Beyond the few square yards of her room, the network of her life reaches, one might say, to the ends of the earth. To her family and friends in various parts of Europe, North America, Asia and Australia, and to her circle of companions whose own lives are just coming to blossom, like an exuberant springtime, to grow into their own kinds of fruitfulness.
Yet, twenty years ago, she was a single cell! She could have been examined under a microscope. She could have been placed on a pinhead, along with all her classmates. Such a short time ago she was a microscopic particle of creation, and now she is a fully developed human being on the threshold of her adult life, with the potential to do almost anything she chooses.
Everything in this room expresses relationships she has formed, and interests she has pursued. Her presence in the world has reached out in countless different ways to affect the lives of others, as their lives have affected her. Above all, she has injected a charge of her own unique power of love into the world. She has energised creation with her own enthusiasm for living. She has become an essential node in the web of life, so complex that none but God knows its detail and potential. She has inspired love. And love has inspired her.
As I stood in her room this morning I was overwhelmed by the miracle of life, that begins from almost nothing and has the potential to grow into almost everything. Each human life reflects the same pattern as the universe itself - beginning from a single point, infinitesimally small, and expanding outwards, constantly revealing more and more of its immeasurable potential.
In my purse I carry a photograph of my daughter. It reminds me of how she looked at the moment the photo was taken, and I value it. But it can never capture more than the tiniest fragment of who she really is. That has to be experienced, in real life and in genuine interaction, and even then we can only begin to touch the full reality of each other.
Perhaps what any of us knows of each other - even of our friends and closest acquaintances - is more like the photo than the reality. We experience each other in three dimensions. The reality, surely, reaches out into infinite dimensions, and is rooted deep into that first single point from which our being sprang. We hear each other's words, sighs and songs, but only on a narrow waveband that our ears can receive. The full reality of life's song is surely being broadcast on infinite wavelengths. What we think we see and hear is not only partial, but can even be very misleading. We make judgements about each other on very scant evidence, and we even pass judgement on ourselves, reducing ourselves to an image glimpsed in the distorting mirror of our own perceptions.
Before we set out on the journey mapped out by this book, we pause for a while to let God deepen that shallow picture we have of ourselves and of each other, and to open up just a little of the infinite treasure in the heart of our true selves, that only God is fully aware of.
Nathanael and the pink elephants
One of the Lord's first friends can give us a few clues about this process. Let's stop by with Nathanael, one lazy morning in the sun. Things are stirring around Galilee. A new teacher has been attracting interest and a small band of followers has been gathering. Nathanael is sitting under a fig tree (John 1:43-50). Maybe he was doing what a good young Jew should have been doing - meditating on the Scriptures. Or maybe he was up to no good at all, there under the fig tree. You can fill in the details as you wish. John leaves us free to speculate.
Whatever he is doing there, Jesus notices him, but Nathanael is unaware of this, and continues in his reverie until his friend Philip arrives on the scene, out of breath and bursting with excitement. "Nathanael", he interrupts unceremoniously. "We've found the one the prophets spoke about, the promised one. He's Joseph's son, from Nazareth".
Nathanael is visibly under-impressed by this news. "Nazareth"? he retorts. "You must be joking! When did anything good ever come out of Nazareth"? "Come and see for yourself", Philip replies. Nathanael rouses himself from his pitch under the fig tree and takes up Philip's invitation. Jesus sees them coming in the distance and his comment carries across the still air to reach them before they arrive. "This is a true Israelite", he says. "There is nothing false in him". Nathanael is justifiably taken aback. "How did you know me"? he asks Jesus. "I saw you under the fig tree", comes the simple reply. Bowled over by Jesus' ability to see straight to the heart of things, Nathanael responds in kind: "Teacher, you are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel"!
I had been reflecting on this scene from the Gospel one morning, and later in the day I happened to come across another story. I learned that there is a region somewhere in Africa that has pink elephants! The elephants are pink because there is something in the soil that gives the vegetation a pinkish pigmentation, and this in turn turns into pink elephant. They are what they eat. And if what they eat is pink, so are they!
I couldn't help connecting this useless piece of information with the story of Nathanael. He had decided in advance that "nothing good could come out of Nazareth". Have we never made that kind of judgement ourselves? Don't expect much of him, he's from a broken home, or she's from an immigrant family. He's disabled, he won't be able to help, or she's "only a housewife" so don't expect intellectual leaps from her! Not to mention our own pet regional prejudices! Yet, like the elephants, we are formed and coloured by the circumstances in which we are planted. The contrast between Nathanael's attitude and Jesus' insight is a crucial one. Nathanael sees just one fact and builds up a whole wrong picture from it. Jesus sees just one "snapshot" of a human person and sees the whole, true picture deep inside that person's being.
Read the story of Nathanael's meeting with Jesus, in John 1:43-50. Try to imagine that you are personally present to the scene. Where do you find yourself? How do you feel? Listen to the conversations, between Nathanael and Philip, and between Nathanael and Jesus. Is there anything you would like to say yourself? Suppose Jesus had noticed you there under the fig tree? What do you think he might have said about you?
Like the pink elephants, the visible "you" is coloured by the circumstances in which you live. But God sees the true colours of your invisible being. Others see just the snapshot view of you. God sees the true reality, not only of who you are, but of the person you have the potential to become. How do you feel about these two different "pictures" of yourself? Is there any area of your life where you feel you are being judged by an outer image that is not a true reflection of your real self? You might ask God, in your prayer, to open the eyes of your heart to see the deeper reality of those close to you, and also to glimpse, and to cherish, the deeper reality of your own true self, which is known fully only to God.
The way that lies ahead of us is a journey of the heart - the journey of our true selves towards the true centre and source of all Being. God has already recognised us in our true colours and in the fullness of our potential. He invites us to "come and see" what he is about, just as Nathanael was invited. For our part, he asks us to say "Yes" to the presence of God within us and to the growth of that particle of his presence - perhaps no bigger than the single cell from which we sprang - into everything that God alone knows it is capable of becoming. We can only say that "Yes" when we have glimpsed the infinite value and beauty of the treasure of Godself within us.
In practice, this "Yes" often turns out to be far harder to say than we could have imagined. We begin by looking at some of the reasons behind our reluctance to acknowledge the Godseed in our hearts.
Paying life's rental
Why am I always so busy? What am I actually always so busy doing? What happens to the passing days, so that when I write to a friend I always seem to start off by apologising for the fact that I haven't written for I don't know how many weeks?
I've often asked myself questions like these and I've often heard others ask them too. But I haven't very often sat still for long enough to begin to hear any kind of answer. The other day it was different. A friend was telling me how busy he had been, and how little time there had been for any kind of prayer or reflection since we had last met. The busy-ness, he realised, came about largely because he found it very difficult to say "No" to whatever anyone might ask of him. I found myself listening to what could just as well have been my own inner self speaking. Then I surprised myself by responding with some more questions: 'Why do we do it? Why do we fill up our every minute with busy-ness? Why do we keep on and on saying "Yes", when sometimes it might be wiser to say a loving "No"'?
A longish silence ensued. We sat pondering the real roots of our frenetic activity, and we came to some rather shocking conclusions.
* We discovered something inside us that suggested we were only worthwhile, as human beings, if we were constantly pleasing people.
* We found that we felt guilty if, at the end of the day, we had nothing to show for our twenty-four hours' lease of life.
* We realised that we felt that we were only entitled to occupy our little plot of earth on the condition that we earned our rental.
Then my friend put his finger right onto the pulse of the matter. "I guess", he said, "that I can't imagine that there is anything of intrinsic value within me just as I am. I only feel I have any value when I can count my takings in the currency of "jobs well done", "people more or less well pleased" and "affirmation earned".'
The "No" beneath all the "Yesses"
This was actually a quite terrifying admission, yet, as I well knew, it was one that many, if not all of us, would have to acknowledge as a characteristic of the shaky foundations upon which we build our lives. Underneath all those eager (or sometimes resentful) "Yesses", there lurks a deeper "No".
This uneasy relationship between my tendency to say "Yes" to everyone and everything, until I become totally overloaded, and the deep-down "No", was brought home to me quite dramatically one afternoon. I was visiting a friend who was dying. As I sat down at his bedside he completely took the wind out of my sails by telling me how sorry he was to hear that I had not managed to take the few days' break I had been planning the previous week. It didn't feel like an important issue to me, and I dismissed it. I hadn't been able to go because such-and-such had cropped up, and I had needed to do this, that and the other. He listened patiently while I offered my "excuses" for not having had a holiday. Then he looked straight into my eyes and said: "Margaret, sometimes too many 'Yesses' are concealing a deeper 'No' "! For just a fleeting moment, I had the feeling that not just my friend, but God himself was looking into my soul. We both recognised something of the hidden nature of the deep-down "No". He took my hands in his. I knew that he was reading me like a book, yet still completely loving all he saw. The words were simple: "I know, my love, I know", he murmured.
The two possibilities, of knowing and loving, side by side, sliced open my defenses and my eyes filled with tears. I realised then that it was an even more awesome thing to be unconditionally loved, than to be totally known.
I think that it was on that afternoon that I began to glimpse the real nature of the "No". It was about that deep-rooted conviction that nothing in me has intrinsic value, and I am only worth what I can do, and, moreover, what I am seen to be doing! "Conviction" is the right word. I was beginning to see that I had convicted myself of worthlessness. No one else had convicted me, least of all God. On the contrary, all the people I was so busy trying to please were equally busy justifying their own existence and implicitly convicting themselves of worthlessness.
I remembered the look in the eyes of my dying friend, the look of knowledge enfolded in love. I remembered how often I had heard the affirmation of God's love, in Scripture, in liturgy, and from wise counselors. Why did such affirmation lodge solidly in my head and refuse to move to my heart? Why was this stubborn atheist deep in the heart of me so determined to reject the possibility that at the core of my being I might be an object of God's unconditional love, with no requirement to prove myself!
Read and reflect on God's promise expressed in Isaiah 43:1-7. Listen to these words, spoken directly and personally to you by the God who created you and sustains you in being. How do you wish to respond?