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Being shaped by the hand of God

As we continue our series following the online Lent Retreat created by Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Glasgow, Susan Mansfield considers the importance of having good foundations in our Faith.

One of the most prominent landmarks in Edinburgh is the neo-classical monument on Calton Hill. The row of magnificent columns, like half a Greek temple, commemorates the Scots who died in the Napoleonic wars, and is now a popular selfie spot for tourists.

It looks like half a Greek temple because, essentially, that’s what it is. Its ambitious builders in the 1820s based their design on the Parthenon in Athens but couldn’t raise enough money to finish the job. Now iconic, Edinburgh’s Disgrace, as it was known, was an immense and public embarrassment, towering above the city to be seen by all.

It was in my mind this week when I came across a passage in the Gospel of Luke which I don’t remember reading before. Reflecting on it during the Lent Retreat organised by Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Glasgow, currently being undertaken by hundreds of people in Scotland and further afield, it jumped out at me with such clarify it seemed entirely fresh.

“For which of you, [Jesus said] desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him…”

Consider what’s ahead

Jesus is talking to the ‘multitudes’ following Him, crowds of people who have seen Him heal and break bread for five thousand, who don’t understand that His journey leads not to health and prosperity but to death on a cross. Consider what’s ahead, He says to them. Are you willing to go the rest of the way? Can you finish what you’ve started?

St Ignatius asks something similar near the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, the prayer programme he devised for his own followers, and the basis of the Lent retreat. Prior to the ‘First Week’ of the Exercises, in what is known as the First Principle and Foundation, he invites us to look ahead to the journey we are taking: are we sure this is where we want to go? Are we committed to going the distance?

The First Principle and Foundation is a short text which contains some big statements about our purpose in life, and how that impacts everything else. The version used in the retreat, in which the language has been slightly modernised, begins: “God created me so that I can know, love and serve God in this life, and in the life to come live in joy with God.”

It goes on to consider how, in the light of this calling, we might regard everything else, from the world around us to material possessions, health and long life.

Reflect on our attitude

Tim Muldoon, author of The Ignatian Workout: Daily Spiritual Exercises for a Healthy Faith, writes: “[Ignatius] understood that a serious training regimen depends on a person’s developing a strong foundation, both mental and physical. And so [in the Principle and Foundation] he gives us a look at the kind of relationship one must cultivate with God in order to grow spiritually.”

It’s not that one is expected to have at the beginning of the workout the fitness one might hope to have at the end. But it is an invitation to reflect on our attitude: are we committed to this journey, which will be hard at times? Do we want the same things as God wants for us? Do we trust Him enough to go with Him into the dark places of the Exercises, and the dark places of our own lives?

I have an elderly relative who has a tendency to detail at length in the various aspects of her life with which she is unhappy, often finishing with a world-weary sigh: “But I can’t complain, we all have to live with what the Good Lord’s dished out to us.”

This never fails to call to my mind a picture of a boarding school matron ladelling thin, grey soup into bowls from an immense tureen. It’s neither appetising nor nutritious, but no one dares to complain.

Unhelpful images of God

Ignatian spirituality invites us to consider if we are holding on to unhelpful images of God. Often, they lurk in the subconscious, shaped by our early experiences of authority—parents, teachers, those who taught us about Faith (and let this be a lesson to those of us who are parents, teachers, priests and catechists!).

In prayer and reflection, we might begin to notice these images and bring them into the light where they can be scrutinised, set against the Scriptures, the person of Jesus, the qualities of God we recognise with our own hearts.

Viewed this way, the overbearing matron of the soup tureen has little in common with the Heavenly Father who wants only to give his children good gifts, or the Son who came into the world that they may have life and have it in abundance.

In this part of the Spiritual Exercises, we are encouraged to reflect on our relationship with God through passages such as Jeremiah 18, in which the prophet is instructed by God to go to the potter’s house. “So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

“Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?’”

This can be a challenging passage. I certainly found it so the first time I reflected on it. Could I let my own life be as passive as clay in the hands of God, the potter? Could I be sure He would make it into something good? What about the things I wanted to do? And if I didn’t turn out too well, would he just reshape the clay into someone else?

God’s will is our freedom

Returning to the same passage years later can help us see how we have changed. This time, as I saw the potter reshape the pot ‘as seemed good to him,’ I felt uplifted.

Here was a picture of creation which was ongoing, which was responsive to change. If something goes wrong, the potter works with it, patiently and creatively. There are second chances. Things are made new.

Rodin’s sculpture, The Hand of God—offered on the retreat during another reflection—approaches this from a different angle. The work is a large right hand emerging from a roughhewn block of marble, holding a clod of earth from which two figures are struggling to push themselves free.

Freeing the form

Many sculptors, Michelangelo included, have described their work as freeing the form which already exists within the block of stone. As they chip and polish, the figure which was always there emerges.

The Scottish Jesuit Gerard W Hughes, a pioneering figure in offering the teachings of Ignatius to the modern world, wrote this in his best-selling book God of Surprises about the great thorny question of God’s will: “If we were able to discover what we really want, if we could become conscious of the deepest desire within us, then we should have discovered God’s will.

“God’s will is not an impersonal blue-print for living forced on us by a capricious God and contrary to almost every inclination in us. God’s will is our freedom. He wants us to discover what we really want and who we really are.”

To take part in the Lent retreat or find out more about Ignatian spirituality, visit or contact Ignatian Spirituality Centre at 35 Scott Street, Glasgow, G3 6PE, tel 0131 354 0077.

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