Danger Ahead: Praying For Humility

This article was written as a part of the series “Living As Contemplative Leaders” in Becky Eldredge’s Into the Deep Blog.


Let me have too deep a sense of humor ever to be proud.

Let me know my absurdity before I act absurdly.

Let me realize that when I am humble I am most human,

most truthful,

and most worthy of your serious consideration.

—Daniel A. Lord, SJ, in Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits

As contemplative leaders, we can find it difficult to admit when we are wrong or that we do not have the answers.  As a follower, I most appreciate leaders who have been willing to learn from their peers, the people they serve, and the world around them.  I feel disempowered and frustrated when a leader hands down a mandate that is uninformed or based on a lack of understanding of the situation. 

Another difficulty we often face as leaders is admitting when something that once thrived has ceased to serve its purpose…. That a beloved ministry has reached its conclusion. Or that something we once believed in and built, has passed to a new generation of leaders with their own ideas and vision.  A ministry or opportunity that seemed invaluable to us or our community is no longer a place where we thrive.  Admitting any of these feelings requires a great deal of humility, a willingness to name our own limitations while allowing God to reveal Godself more fully.  

As a recent college graduate, I worked with a team of Jesuits and lay ministers to help Jesuit colleges form Christian Life Community (CLC) programs on their campuses. CLC has a 500 year history in the Jesuit world, a 100-year history in the United States. Who was I, a 22-year-old theology grad student to make recommendations on how the program could best serve more people in the 21st century? Many older adult leaders could not hear my suggestions or could not move past “the way we have always done it.” 

Yet, the members of the National Formation Team listened to me with respect, encouraged my ideas, and shared them with other groups.  I recall deep conversations with elders in the Vietnamese-American community, who had themselves established young adult CLCs in their post-war diaspora.  I experienced similar collaboration with CLC and Ignatian leaders from a wide range of backgrounds. Although it was not always easy, I appreciated how many people allowed me and other young adult leaders to forge our own programs within the wider context of this lay movement. I recognize now the humility it took for each one of us to bring our experiences forward and listen for what we might learn from one another. 

In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius offers a meditation on Three Degrees of Humility, a deepening, humbling to God’s will. The first degree is simply being obedient to God’s will and desiring to follow God. In the second, a sense of freedom not to desire wealth or success over poverty and struggle. The third degree is to actually choose the struggle and pain that Christ himself experienced. The primary goal is not to suffer, but to be so near to Christ you feel all that he endured. Ignatius himself struggled with putting aside his ego and desire for honor and glory.  While it is possible to receive accolades and success in the service of God, our own accomplishments should not overshadow our desire to remain faithful to God. 

It can be easy to slip into the routine of crossing things off my list. I move from one task to the next, from one item on the calendar or strategic plan to the next. How often have I stopped to ask God: Where do you want to reveal yourself in this work today? Where can I make your love more known to those I encounter? Perhaps it is in the article I write, the social media content calendar I edit, or the data I compile for a grant report. 

God might also be revealing love, light, and hope through an opportunity not in my strategic plan. God may be stirring something within my own heart, and it may take a great deal of humility and faith to respond to that nudge. 

Go Deeper:

Review all the qualities of a Contemplative Leader 

Pray with St. Ignatius and the Three Kinds of Humility  
Reflect on the sentiment “I Am Not Worthy” 
Reflect on humility

Distorted Mirrors

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Three kids, a pandemic, and nearing the “late thirties” stage of not-so-young adulthood… Suddenly, shopping is not as fun as it used to be. Fall has brought a few occasions that require me to ditch my uniform of mom jeans and Ann Taylor Loft T-shirts. The most important of these is my sister’s long-delayed wedding celebration. In the midst of back to school preparations for the kids, my own work schedule, and my husband’s promotion at work, I snuck in a few quick shopping trips.  I  frantically grabbed anything off the rack that might fit me (or the color scheme for the wedding). Everything turned out to be a bad shape, the wrong size, or an unflattering cut. No matter where I looked, I could not find the right fit. I felt discouraged and hopeless. 

It was time for a serious intervention. No more quick browsing when I had an extra 30 minutes between obligations. Enough of the ordering things online that end up looking nothing like the pictures when they arrive. I was done with the picked over racks in a near-empty mall. My best friend and I blocked out an entire afternoon. We left our kids with babysitters and drove 30 minutes away to a bigger, better stocked shopping center. We were committed and we were not leaving without a dress. We spent 4 hours and I tried on dozens of dresses in two stores.  I actually ended up buying the first thing I saw when I walked in the door. What did this experience tell me about Ignatian discernment?

I realized how many similarities there are between a successful shopping trip and the process of prayerful decision making with the Lord. These tools can assist us during an individual discernment that affects our families or livelihoods (a move, a career change, a new ministry opportunity) or a communal discernment that involves more stakeholders. In healthy ministry settings, leaders use these and other techniques to truly listen to the needs of the people involved and assess the gifts and limitations of the staff and volunteers in order to better discern where God might be revealing a response.

So my rules for buying an important dress OR making a major discernment in life…

  1. A Dedicated Time
    When faced with an important decision, it is important to set aside time to allow the key questions to emerge. Oftentimes I find myself “reacting” and grabbing at whatever solutions seem to be available, rather than taking the time to step back and think about what I really want or what my family really needs. By not allowing proper time, I limit myself to whatever ill-fitting dress is on the discount rack rather than choosing what truly works best for me. 
  2. A Safe Place
    The pandemic exacerbated a general feeling of “never being alone” and constantly having my kids hanging on me and clamouring for attention. As I tried to fit dress shopping into our busy schedule, I was only focused on the outcome of getting a dress quickly and cheaply. I did not have the space to process my dissatisfaction with what I was seeing in the mirror or frustrations regarding the lack of options in the stores. In discernment, we require a “space” where we can allow ourselves grief, disappointment, joy, and apprehension. Sometimes our physical space helps facilitate mental and spiritual space. These can include going on a weekend or week-long retreat, taking a day off for recollection and rest,  or just allowing a set time for prayer each day. These types of “safe spaces” make it easier to recognize the voice of God communicating to us. 
  3. A Companion You Trust
    A friend, spiritual director, therapist, or mentor can provide companionship that encourages honest discernment. Oftentimes we are so close to the situation that we either struggle to see clearly what is going on, or encounter resistance to accept the truth in some way. This compassionate listener can be one part of creating a safe environment for discernment. A companion raises questions, reflects back emotions, points out assumptions, and offers support. These individuals offer a sense that “we are not alone” or a reassurance that even if we fail, we are loved. 
  4. A Clear Mirror
    When I finally showed my friend the very first dress I saw, she stared at me in disbelief. “It’s perfect. How did you not see it was perfect? It looks exactly like you.” As I tried on dress after dress, I had begun to doubt what I saw in the mirror. My perception had become warped by disappointment and self-doubt. I did not trust that beauty was reflecting back at me, I only saw the lumps and rolls. My friend provided the encouragement I needed to both make a decision, as well as reconnect with my own instincts. 

Sometimes we sense that deep down, we have the answers we seek, but we need to wade through the emotions, doubts, and fears in order to arrive at a conclusion. The Ignatian way of discernment can provide helpful tools to break through those barriers, see more clearly, and take a step forward with greater trust in God. In A Friendship Like No Other, William Barry, SJ describes that as we discern with God, “we allow the Spirit to transform us into people who are more like the images of God we are created to be—that is, more like Jesus, who was clearly a contemplative in action.” The Gospels show us example after example of Jesus as a leader who listens to people, hears their fears and concerns, and moves them towards greater life. 

Each day, we are presented with similar opportunities to listen to God’s unique way of speaking to us as leaders in our families and work. The setting could be anywhere: a Board of Directors meeting for a non-profit, the spiritual direction room on a silent retreat, a Zoom screen, a playdate at the park, a department store fitting room.

Go Deeper

Learn more about St. Ignatius and Contemplative Leadership here

Be inspired by Stephanie Clouatre Davis as she tackles her own discernment.

This post was written as part of a series on Contemplative Leadership for the blog Into the Deep.

Searching for Our Umbrella

My Ignatian Moment: Ignatius and the Donkey. This post was written as a part of Becky Eldredge’s series on Ignatian Spirituality. See more at https://beckyeldredge.com/intothedeep/.

While the baby and I play in the sand, the older kids ride wave after wave into the shore on their boogie boards. My husband stands guard in the shallow water. He shows them and my niece how to watch the waves approach, let the small ones pass, and then ride into shore on the stronger currents. Over and over again, all afternoon. They swim out, wait, and “catch” the waves. 

Every so often, they stand on the sand, their eyes dart around, scanning over the various multicolored umbrellas and E-Z ups. They take in the man pulling a wheeled ice cream cart; pass over the family fully dressed and opening sand toys from a package; ignore the teenagers who brought their puppy to see the ocean for the first time. They are seeking out our “set-up” in the collage of umbrellas and towels dotting the beach. Sometimes they need a drink of water, or just to wipe the sand out of their eyes. They race over to this temporary home just long enough to satisfy their immediate needs. And then the ocean calls them back. 

How could this beach umbrella really be an Ignatian moment? 

Although St. Ignatius of Loyola became a masterful expert in discernment, he did not start out that way. His youth was filled with self-serving choices and his “home base” was not God. As he went out into the world, fought in battles, and cavorted with other soldiers and courtiers, the truth he returned to was the honor and glory of his family and his country. The truth he continued to seek was his OWN comfort, pride, and success. 

After his conversion experience while convalescing in the castle at Loyola, he was energized and ready to give his life over to God. On the road to Jerusalem, he had a disagreement with a Moor over key matters of theology regarding the Virgin Mary. Filled with righteous indignation, Ignatius’s first instinct is to defend Mary’s honor at all cost. Our newly converted Ignatius was considering murdering the Moor over this disagreement. Unsure whether this was TRULY what God was calling him to do, Igntatius let the donkey walking ahead of him make the decision for him. If the donkey took the same route as the Moor, then Ignatius would follow and kill the man. Thankfully, the donkey took the path towards Jerusalem and Ignatius continued on his way.

Instead of relying on the insights in prayerful decision making that God had already begun to reveal to him, Ignatius demanded that God “send a sign” that he was doing the right thing. How often have I done the same thing? When I demand that God send a quick answer, I ignore the voice of God that has already been murmuring in my ear. I block out the invitation to trust, and allow fear to be amplified. I allow the doubt to become a cycle that feeds itself.

My donkey is fear and indecision.  I allow the fear to drive me where it wants to take me. I become caught up in its energy. Once exhausted, I abdicate control. The donkey tramples over grace, barreling through the path God had already prepared for me. The past 18 months of global pandemic has only increased the cycle of doubts. I revisit decisions already made. What instincts can I trust? Did I make the right decision? Hindsight is not 20/20 right now. In hindsight, I find more reasons to doubt myself. 


I am like my children, standing on the sand looking for the right umbrella.  In discernment, I stop and look around me. I take in the cacophony of distractions.  I remind myself of where I have been and where I am trying to go. I retrace my own steps.  God has also come down to the beach. God has set up God’s umbrella, and brought cool water and snacks.

Will I sit down and enjoy this time with God?

Go Deeper

Consider praying with John 21:1-14 //Jesus appears to the disciples on the beach

Get in touch with how God speaks to you.  
Listen for how God might be inviting you to take a step towards greater love.

Photo Credit: Herson Rodriguez on Unsplash
https://unsplash.com/photos/-a0v4owqUUM

When the Road Forks: Recalculating Route

This is written as a part of a series for the Ignatian Year on Ignatius’ Cannonball Experience and life transformation. See more at: https://beckyeldredge.com/author/jcoito/

With 650 miles of freeway and 22,000 miles of surface streets, Los Angeles County offers an almost unlimited number of roads to travel. I have been known to miss my exit or get on the onramp heading Eastbound when I want to go Westbound. I do not always plug my destination into the GPS.  I somehow missed the fact that planned construction has condensed 6 lanes down to 1 lane on my intended route… there was probably a detour that was recommended. The road forks, not just once but countless times. There are an unlimited number of roads to travel, and countless ways for me to get lost in my own backyard. In discernment, the question is often: am I truly lost, or just moving at my own pace? Am I still on the way, but just taking a circuitous route to get there?

The Reroute

In his autobiography, St. Ignatius described a pivotal fork in the road on his own journey to Montserrat. After his “cannonball experience” and subsequent recuperation at the castle of Loyola, Ignatius had a disagreement with a Moor on some key points of faith (particularly around the Virgin Mary).  Ignatius had to make the decision to either let the matter rest (and continue on his journey) or follow the man and seek vengeance in defence of Mary’s honor. Not sure what the right answer was, Ignatius allowed his donkey to make the choice for him.  This was perhaps not his greatest moment… Thankfully, the donkey chose the path away from murder and violence, and towards the new life that Ignatius had already begun to imagine for himself. 

Like coming up on an unexpected road closure, some discernments involve a massive recalculation. What would have happened if Ignatius had not been hit with the cannonball? The valiant soldier was probably content with his life. Without such a life-altering injury, he may never have spent time in deep discernment, nor had the courage to forge ahead on this different path. Some of my dear friends have had completely life-altering recalibrations in recent years: a cancelled engagement, leaving a religious order, an unexpected death of a loved one. Each transition involves grieving the loss of the life that was and seeking out alternate roads. 

The “Faster” Route

Sometimes the recalibration our lives need is more subtle. Have you ever had the navigation alert pop up that says “faster route” has been identified? At least in Los Angeles, the vast majority of the time the route does not turn out to be faster. The “better” route involves me making a challenging left turn from a narrow alley across six lanes of traffic. The “faster route” leads me on a wild goose chase to shave mere minutes off of a ninety minute drive.  

Particularly in times of difficulty or desolation, I can feel tempted to seek any route that looks better than the one I am on. If only I was not trying to work across so many time zones…if only my mom hadn’t broken her hand right after we all got vaccinated. If only our school had gone back in person full time instead of staying in a hybrid part-time mode. I keep looking for something external to fix the things that are bothering me. Something outside of me must be able to free up more time, streamline my life, get me faster to where I want to be. I am stuck in gridlock, desperate for a way out that is not coming. 

When the mocking tone on the GPS tells me there is a better route, a faster route, most of the time I realize it is just an illusion of control. There is no faster route in LA. I take these alerts as a warning to settle down and prepare for the long haul…find a podcast to listen to, call a good friend to keep me company while I drive, enjoy the peace and quiet away from my kids. 

The Slow Merge

Usually the impetus for change does not happen instantly. My husband often asks me, “if what you are doing is not working, why do you keep doing it?” Recently he has asked this question about my approach to our son’s distance learning during the pandemic and the purgatory that is cleaning the house up after three little kids. I express frustration with the results (or lack thereof), but without a better solution I stay stuck in my old routines.  

Like Ignatius, something about my current way has ceased to give me life or energize me. I then need time (sometimes a long time) to ruminate about the dis-ease I am feeling. I move to the stage of trying to ignore the changes that are needed, because such a change is difficult, uncomfortable, scary or confusing. If I were Ignatius I would probably have spent a few extra days in bed reading, just so I did not have to force a decision yet. Finally, at some point the desire for change overpowers the desire for comfort and stability. After hanging out between two lanes for a while, I finally make the merge (much to the relief of everyone around me).

It may take a long time. I may need to reroute on numerous occasions. I might take multiple roads before finding the correct one. I may spend time in the slow lane, letting the more confident drivers pass me. As long as I keep my inner GPS oriented to God, I know I will get there someday. For now, I am just “recalculating route”… 

Going Deeper
Here are some other great resources on discernment from the Into the Deep team:

Discernment at Different Stages of Life  by Vinita Hampton Wright

Listening for God When We’re Stuck by Becky Eldredge 

For a guided prayer prompt on identifying your own cannonball experiences:

An Ignatian Pilgrimage Week #2: The Injury That Changed Everything 

Easter Sunday: Empty Clothes

Empty Clothes 

He went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, 

and the cloth that had covered his head, 

not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.

Then the other disciple also went in, 

the one who had arrived at the tomb first, 

and he saw and believed.

For they did not yet understand the Scripture 

that he had to rise from the dead. – John 20:5-9

“Your memories are like sadness and that keeps you cold. These memories will make you happy and that can make you feel warm.” My seven year old, Paul, lovingly ran his hands along the quilt. Our neighbor had it made out of her late husband’s favorite shirts. It has been just over a year since he died from cancer and my kids are still grieving the loss of this larger than life grandpa figure to them. These empty clothes told a story of adventure, generosity, and family. They told the story that his suffering has ended and that he is at peace now. 

In today’s Easter Gospel, the disciples arrived at the tomb to empty clothes that told a different story. Like my son gently stroking the flannel and cotton, I imagine the disciples touching the empty clothes in front of them. “We just wrapped him in these two days ago… we saw him, we touched him, we felt him in these clothes?” Painful memories of Jesus’ beating and death on the cross would have flooded back, “the memories that make you feel cold inside” as my son Paul said. They “saw and believed” that something good was still coming from this experience. They did not understand fully, but the empty clothes told them that death was not the end of the story. The warmth of hope can begin to replace the cold of our sadness.

In the past year, our relationship with the liturgy became even more detached. We learned about spiritual communion as we participated from afar, via livestream or recordings. Even once Churches reopened a bit more, many of us still found it difficult or perhaps unsafe to return. We continued to watch on a screen, to receive Communion in drive-thru lines or not at all. I had to ask myself the difficult question: does anyone care if I am here or not? Does it matter to anyone if I ever attend Mass? We have proven that we, the Body of Christ, are dispensable when it comes to the celebration of the liturgy. These thoughts can fill me with sadness and regret. 

The empty clothes tell another story, though. Jesus is not bound by time or space. I can be on the altar, in the pew, in my car, or at home on the couch. While I may not be able to physically receive Communion in each of these physical places, I am struck that Jesus has promised his Body and Blood to me in all of them. Death is not the end. Loneliness is not the finale. I have learned in new ways that the physical spaces we create or enter into for prayer are aids to clear our minds and hearts. The community gathered, the collective experiences of grace, are tangible and real ways that the Sacraments come alive. Despite MY struggles to fully enter into these strange spaces for prayer, Christ has no similar difficulty.  

Today I feel like an empty tomb. I am awaiting my own encounter with the Resurrected Lord. I trust that the emptiness within me is a reminder that new life is stirring.  

The Walking Dead

Fifth Sunday of Lent

“I will open your graves and have you rise from them…I will put my spirit in you that you may live.” –Ez 37:12-14

I have been walking around dead for a while. No, I am not a ghost or a Zombie. But  parts of me have been dead inside for over a year. The part that laughs while meeting up with a friend for coffee, the part that engages in casual conversation, the part that sits at lunch and listens to the wisdom of the older Sisters in the convent. There is a part of me that comes alive in meaningful, spontaneous connections. While the REST of me is so thankful to be alive and healthy, this part of me has been killed by social distancing, Zoom, and isolation. It has been buried under the constant weight of decision making, and the anxiety of making the wrong decisions. 

I recently watched my son run in the backyard with a friend after our first in-person Cub Scout meeting since November. My fully vaccinated aunt and uncle came for dinner. Today, our children will hug their great-grandparents for the first time in over a year. With each of these firsts, a little piece of me is coming alive again. We have all been “managing” and “hanging in there” and “making the best of things.” The family members that have gotten sick have recovered. Many of us are vaccinated now. We are so grateful that we have been safe.

Yet, I am also starting to recognize spontaneous joy in ourselves and in our kids. These little pieces of us that have been missing slowly sliding into place again. I realize that at other times in my life I have lived this way: being “satisfied” with settling. I have accepted the death of my dreams, my hopes, my visions for a better way. They get buried under “making it work” and “the way things are.”  Perhaps as things slowly reopen, we can pause and reassess. Maybe God is calling me to be something new and more fully alive today as well? 

What in my life has reached an impasse and seems ready to be laid to rest?

What parts of me are yearning for a resurrection? 

How might God be breathing new life into me this Lent? 

Unwashed

Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.  – Eph 5:8-9

Driving slow in the fast lane, noisy chewing, nails on a chalkboard,  blocking the grocery store aisle while talking, incorrect mask usage. We all have things that irritate us and trigger reactions that are over the top. We swear at the offending driver, we post memes online about these irritating people, we complain on a text chain with our friends and family. Our response is a bit overblown to these quirks that irk. Some of us also have things that trigger an above normal level of anxiety. For me it’s small spaces, heights, and my kids getting sick. 

When faced with the pressure to make decisions in these settings, I am paralyzed by fear and over-thinking. I lose confidence in my own instincts.  I do not trust myself to gage whether I am overreacting.  Even before COVID, I had visions of illness sweeping through our family and throwing off all our plans.  I have not embraced the section from St. Ignatius’ First Principle and Foundation: 


“We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God. Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening his life in me.” 

I am not indifferent to my family’s health nor am I indifferent to my own anxieties. I do not want any of us to be physically or mentally unwell.  I DO desire a stable, balanced reaction to stressors. St. Ignatius and today’s Gospel both remind us that God meets us precisely in these places where we feel lacking. In the Gospel, Jesus heals a man born blind by mixing saliva with dirt to form a clay. He then “smeared the clay on his eyes.” As Jesus, does this the man’s physical impairment is healed and his faith in God is affirmed. 

When I imagine myself in the Gospel scene, I feel like the clay is caked to my eyes and I keep trying to see through it. I sense God’s presence, feel His healing touch, and yet I don’t fully believe in its power. I am still trying to interpret reality and make decisions through a lens that is obscured. I convince myself that if only I can “get over” these insecurities, I will be able to respond better in faith. Once I am “cured” then I can trust more in God’s plan for my life and my family. Yet, Jesus does not wait for me to “be better” or “do better” in order to act. God continues to meet me in these painful places and transforms them.  

What happens if I take a step towards the pool of healing and wash the clay from my eyes? Am I ready for what I might see? 

Driving Out

Thursday of the Third Week of Lent

March 11, 2021

Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute, and when the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke and the crowds were amazed. – Luke 11:14

As soon as we hear the tell-tale rumble coming down the street, we must run out to greet the trash truck. We watch the mechanical arm reach out and grab the cans to dump. Since we live on a cul-de-sac, as soon as the truck finishes, we get to patiently watch for it to loop around and do the same on the other side of the street. The whole ordeal takes less than 5 minutes, but the kids cheer as our cans get emptied and wave to the drivers. The dirty diapers, junk mail, kitchen scraps, and the rest of the mess from the previous week disappears.  Without children, I would never watch my trash get routinely carted away. And yet there is something freeing about the ritual cleansing of the excess in our lives.  

In today’s Gospel, Jesus “drives” out the demon that prevents the man from living his life fully. The crowd is awed by the miracle, but it is another example of how easily Jesus can cure our physical ailments. Our spiritual struggles, the demons that keep us from God, are even more difficult to cast aside.  We put up armor around our hearts, this “hardening” we are warned against in Jeremiah and Psalm 95. In our attempts to stay in control, we shut out God’s voice.  We hoard our coping mechanisms and defenses and are unwilling to relinquish them to make space for something new. The goal is not to fill my trash cans to the brim each week, but rather to use them to rid myself of things that we no longer need. In Lent when we “give something up” or add on a new habit or practice, the sacrifice itself is not the end goal. Like the trash can, sacrifice is a useful tool as we clear space so we can live more freely and fully. 

Some of the excess that needs trimming away right now is not trash, but rather things that have served their purpose in my life and are now ready to move along. Like a worn out sweater, toxic friendship or stale loaf of bread, in Lent we have the chance to clear space for what truly gives us life.  Sometimes our ways of praying have become dry and tasteless, and the longer we hold onto them, the more we miss the chance to encounter God’s generosity in new, dynamic ways. 

So many times I fall asleep discouraged and frustrated with how little I have accomplished, how poorly I responded to my kid’s tantrums, and how hopeless the world seems right now. I keep reminding myself that the same God who drives out the demons that cause blindness and deafness in the Gospels is also driving out my self-doubt, fear, and false sense of control. This week I am going to imagine these demons riding away on the trash truck (along with the contents of the diaper pail) while I stand on the curb waving goodbye. 

Shards of Glass

This post was written as a part of a series on “Praying When It’s Hard” on https://beckyeldredge.com/intothedeep/

Our 1-year-old has obtained the height and just enough dexterity to reach above his head and swipe at things on the kitchen counter.  Surprises come raining down: a sleeve of crackers, a banana, a full cup of water. Most of the time he squeals with delight at his new-found ability. A few weeks ago, he knocked a glass measuring cup to its death. It shattered on the tile around him. Terrified, he cried out and tried to run to me; I desperately coaxed him into standing still and waiting for my help. For several seconds he sobbed amidst the broken pieces of glass. Alone, scared, trapped. I was so close, and yet to him I may as well have been on Mars. 

My prayer has felt this way: alone, scared, trapped. 

Sometimes I can pinpoint a moment of “shatter,” when my faith was recklessly flung off the counter: a betrayal by a close friend, an unexpected loss, senseless death. Although I may have a vague awareness that God is “out there” in the world, my immediate circumstances have isolated me, leaving me raw and broken. Other times, tiny fissures have been forming over time. The integrity of the glass has been slowly compromised.  When something seemingly small happens (a comment from a busybody neighbor, a lost cable for the laptop, a cold that makes its way home from preschool), it can feel insurmountable. It was not one shatter, but thousands of little shards breaking off every day. 

This image of shattered glass captures what living and praying in a state of desolation feels like for me. St. Ignatius depicts desolation as movement away from God, goodness, community and faith. In consolation we sense God walking with us and accompanying us in our sadness and struggles. Even the most stalwart and faithful pray-ers find themselves in moments or states of desolation at some point in life. No matter where you find yourself today- in desolation, in consolation, or somewhere in between- God wants to meet you there.

Like my baby standing amid the sharp pieces of glass, when in desolation I find myself fearful of taking any steps. Any movement- to pray, to make any small change in my life, to seek help from friends or loved ones- risks further injury. If I allow this pain to emerge in prayer, will it become more pronounced, its edges more jagged and damaging? If I name this resentment I feel, will I be unable to ignore it as I go about my day-to-day life? In desolation I am paralyzed with helplessness, not knowing which way to turn. I am still gripping tightly to the very parts of myself in need of healing. 

So what do I do first?

Triage the Situation

When we recognize that we are in such a state, whether we arrived there gradually or abruptly, the first step in prayer is often a recognition that Christ alone will heal us. From my vantage point, all I see is shattered glass. In desolation, I remind myself that God has never led me to a dead end before. God has always offered a way forward. Instead of rushing ahead, I may just need to sit with that reassurance for a while. It can be helpful to spend time praying with my own memories of how God has intervened in the past, paying attention to any patterns of how God has worked in my life. Reconnection with my own experiences of God’s love provide the solid ground I need to begin moving forward out of desolation. 


Stop the Clock

I also need to be patient with myself, and with God. Often cracks in my faith life have been forming over time. Any repair is also going to take time. Any pressure to return to “perfection” is coming from me, not from God. Recognizing the source of that desire helps me reorient my gaze on the One calling the shots. Jesus knows my deep desire, however imperfect, and also knows that I may only be capable of receiving a small piece of His response at once. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus heals the blind man gradually. At first, the images the man sees are hazy and indistinct. Only after Jesus heals him a second time can he see clearly. Oftentimes, as old pains resurface, God brings about deeper, lasting healing.

Bring in Reinforcements

God has created us for community. Each time I have faced significant struggles in my prayer, good friends have supported me. I have been consoled by their faith in God’s promise to me. I have been encouraged by their perseverance in prayer.  Reinforcements have come as Spiritual Directors, faith sharing groups, and mentors. Sometimes the best sounding boards are the friends and family who know me the best, and are not afraid to challenge my way of thinking. Each of these people have reminded me that I am not alone. I have been reassured that the God who loved me yesterday, loves me today and will love me again tomorrow. 


Go Deeper

Identifying what is leading us towards or away from God: First Principle and Foundation of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises

Am I in Desolation or Consolation? Into the Deep blogger Vinita helps us disciper where we are.

8 Tools for Combating Desolation 

Find a community that helps you grow spiritually. 

Capturing Joy

Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.”
-Mark 9:5-7

We are isolated. Yet our 4-year-old has created an entire “invisible world” where she gets to go places and do the things she misses right now. Recently, she commented that when she goes to the invisible world two of her closest friends get to live with her in the same house and see her all the time. There is no doubt that playing with them in real life would be better than playing with them in the invisible world. She is doing everything she can to capture things that bring her joy. 

In today’s Gospel the Apostles are terrified and amazed as Jesus appears before them alongside Moses and Elijah. In awe, they try desperately to contain the experience before them. They had been experiencing hardships and rejection along the way, and Jesus had begun warning them of his impending death. They are encouraged by this glimpse into Jesus’ glory. Like Abraham in the Old Testament readings, they are reassured that God continues to be with them. When everything we treasure is stripped away, God’s mercy will still provide. God will take care of us tomorrow, just as he has taken care of us for generations. Finally, some good news for poor Peter and the others!  

Our human instinct is often to latch onto these positive memories. We commemorate it on a cave wall, in a tapestry, or in our oral tradition. As a teenager I would have scrapbooked the moment.  Now, I spend time and money taking, storing, and occasionally printing photos. The painting, the antique, the photo and video evidence. The memory itself does not live in these things, they are merely tools to help trigger our interior response to the initial connection. 

I open the drawer to my grandmother’s old desk, rifle through the newspapers my grandfather printed on an old moveable-type printing press, or sit on the sofa that used to be in their den. Each of these objects reminds me of them, but nothing brings back their smell, their touch, the feeling of being with them. I would give anything to sit in the basement in my grandfather’s workshop with him one more time…to make pancakes on the griddle of my grandmother’s 100-year-old gas stove… to visit the giraffes at the San Francisco Zoo with them.  

On my last trip to their nearly-empty house just before it was sold, I was struck by the feeling that as much as I loved that house they were no longer there. Their memory is more present in time spent with my family, both those who knew and loved them and those who have only heard the stories of what they were like. I imagine the Apostles wanting to capture their time with Jesus, Elijah and Moses in this same way, as if the tent would keep the memories safe. 

I suspect that if they did build a shrine for this sacred mystery, it would feel as empty as my grandparent’s vacant house. The miracle of the Transfiguration would remain, but there would be no way of containing it in physical time and space. Like the love my grandparents infused in my family, this gift was meant to be shared through the very being of those who encountered it. 

Has God created such a sacred space for love to dwell within me?