(as told by an ex-nun/painter)
Gail G. is a woman of passion, of art. She is a painter, a beauteous one at that. Perhaps that's why she's given up the nunnery where, she says, it's not enough that you be good; you're expected to do better, if not to do your best. What's the connection of these things to her being a retreat master I don't know. What I know is that she's one heck of a retreat master. She counts among her audience priests, nuns, seminarians and doctors.
Gail has one qualm about charismatics, though she's been a member of ALNP for so many years. And it is that she thinks we need a certain "deepening". "Not that being a charismatic means having a shallow spirituality," she quickly counters.
"It is that we tend to think we already know God. We love to 'produce' the Lord," she said. "In truth, what we produce is a god of our own imagination. (I remember Bo Sanchez's term, 'hyperfaith'.) Accustomed to a life of instant highs, we ourselves end up putting God in a box. The generous graces we have received at the outset ended up into a conditioning whereby we think of the presence of God along the lines of getting that spiritual high."
In a retreat she gave to my community, she focused on prayer. She notes that we've been accustomed to our structured ACTS - adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication. "While ACTS is good in itself," she says, "our personal prayer can still be elevated into something deeper." "The answer," she points out, "can be found in Ignatian spirituality where a deepening can be provided in an experiential way through listening, through prayer as led by the Holy Sprit," not by our own formulas.
How do we know it's God we've heard? "God has a way of letting us know," she answers. But there are clues. "God speaks in peace and quiet. God speaks slowly. God speaks when and where He wants to. He loves to come by surprise."
"God is sovereign, not programmable. His presence in our prayer, indeed in our life, is a gift." We can't force it. We can only wait. Praying is not thinking much, it is loving much."
In the retreat, Ms. G. posed two leading questions (one after the other): "Lord, how do You love me?" "What is it that You like in me most? dislike in me most?"
"The first question proves that it's hard to listen to the Lord." Gail observes. "Grace should be begged for in this regard."
"The second question drives home the point that oftentimes, we realize that we cannot love as we are loved. This makes it impossible for us to evangelize. We cannot give what we don't have."
"The next step then is to know oneself as one is known to God. Knowing God goes hand in hand with knowing oneself." Gail then led us into making an autobiographical sketch where we list down our respective positive and negative traits as revealed to us by God.
"We realize that the trait God likes most in us is opposite to that trait He dislikes most in us. We as charismatics," Gail continues, "love to focus on the Lord. It is always the Lord. But we should also see the devil lurking inside us. We should talk to our own demons precisely because that's where the enemy attacks us!"
"Nevertheless, like the parable of David and Goliath teaches, we should focus on our strengths."
Gail then talked about two technical terms in reference to prayer: Consolation and Desolation.
"Desolation," she defines, "is the time when we are confused, angry, depressed, frustrated, self-pitying, losing hope, even suicidal. Even the most devoted like St. Ignatius experienced it. It comes about when, accustomed to associating God with spiritual highs, we suddenly stop our prayer life altogether when things seem to fall out of place, or when things turn out the way we don't expect. This we often interpret as God turning His back on us."
"Consolation is of course the exact opposite. It is a gift. It cannot be switched on and off. We are the people of the encounter yet we don't initiate the encounter."
"Desolation is the handiwork of the devil but the Lord permits it nonetheless. One reason is our own negligence in prayer."
"We must be wary, however, that the devil can give us false peace." Gail related her own experience of having felt an unexplainable peace after abandoning her prayer life altogether. "As time went by, however," she said, "I felt uncomfortable." "We get hoodwinked for some time, but eventually, this leads us to being disturbed. Consolation is supposedly the voice of God, 'supposedly' because it can be mimicked by the devil, especially when we get ambivalent or pleasant feelings." "Beware the tail of the snake." "Don't trust the good feeling."
Then there's the phenomenon during the afterglow - that gliding-in-the-high feeling - which the devil takes advantage of by letting us make promises we cannot keep.
Nevertheless, Gail advises never to give up our prayer time even in times of desolation. She advises us to take the proven strategy to make it even more intense. "If we used to pray for thirty minutes, then let's make it up to an hour." (This reminds me of the adage "Give the devil an inch and he will be your ruler.") Gail quickly adds however that "the experience that we are drawn to God is enough, is already a grace."
"One important thing in prayer is discernment," Gail moves on. "Discernment," she defines, "is to be in touch with our feelings. We discern not because we are choosing between good and evil ('Should I be a prostitute or not?') but because there is a tension between two competing goods."
In discerning, we must be aware of the signs. "This is how the devil works among committed Christians," Ms. Gines says by way of illustration: "He is like a noisy, nagging woman, he is like a fake lover, and he is like a military commander."
"Also, in discerning, it is important to be aware that there are two myths about God which we can fall into like booby traps as well: (1) God is a watchmaker who keeps time but whom we do not know. (2) God is a puppeteer who directs our lives down to the last detail, resulting to us becoming perpetually infantile."
If things sound complicated, it is because they are. "This is the paradox of the Cross," Gail quotes from St. Ignatius. "You'll know the love of God through difficulties, through suffering." "God's love is bittersweet."
"Filipinos," Gail notes, "are known to be poor discerners. We are onion-skinned, sensitive in the wrong way. We are shy but we are magaling magpalusot. We self-pity a lot but we are insensitive to the greater needs of society."
To those who are in desolation, Gail has one big advice: "Never, never make any life decision unless you like the devil to be your spiritual director." At this point she mentions the parable involving the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matthew 20:20-28), that scene where she asks Jesus to give her sons the choice seats in his kingdom. The woman was being sensitive for the wrong reason, thereby incurring the ire of those who had heard her. (But eventually it became a source of grace, as God - against everyone's expectations, identified that the least among the servants is the greatest in the kingdom of God.)"
"Consolation takes time to get proven. It has three parts: beginning, middle and end. If all these parts turn out good, then consolation comes from the Lord."
Wrapping up, Gail says that "the Lord wants us to discover Him in prayer. He wants us to act specifically on certain areas of our lives. Prayer requires listening, it is a dialogue; there's really no effort on our part."
"There are prayers and prayers but these are irrelevant if they turn manipulative, turning the Lord into a genie. Prayer is only relevant when we listen to God talk about our concerns. There's really no technique in prayer. God is not in our mind. He is out of it. Go beyond ACTS. Listen. God is a slow talker. There are no shortcuts to holiness. If you want a fast God, then change religions. Prayer should be personal, spontaneous, and unique for the moment."
"Look at the parable of Martha and Mary. Martha is working for God while Mary is doing God's work. Mary's path is the path to eternity."
"We are a New Testament people and, as such, we are a people in friendship with the Lord - at prayer."
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