Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Ignatian Accompaniment Through Grief

I've had a lot of time in the past fifteen months to reflect on what it means to accompany someone through terrible loss ~ what it means in general, what it means for me as a devastated mother, what it means for me as a spiritual director, as a would-be pastor or hospital or hospice chaplain. What is good and helpful and considerate? What is not?

This post, I do believe, is going to turn into a paean to Ignatian spirituality and to those whose lives it shapes, whether Jesuits or others who do spiritual direction in the Ignatian tradition. In my case, it means two Jesuits in particular: my former director, who had the temerity to move away after helping me for two years, but has remained one of my great supporters through seminary and has been a source of wisdom and challenge via email and occasional visits during this past awful year, and my current director, who thought two-and-one-half years ago that he was signing on for a monthly hour of support and guidance for a seminary student, and had to turn into a consistent and faithful source of compassion, prayer, presence ~ and, yes, wisdom and challenge, too ~ during a year of such harsh and time-consuming need that I cannot even begin to describe it.

(And that description doesn't even take into account the many others in my life who have brought their Ignatian experience to bear upon our conversations and friendships. Maybe some other posts someday.)

What is so distinctive about this spirituality that makes it so pertinent to accompanying someone through the journey of grief?

In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius suggests a wide variety of types and forms of prayer. Some lend themselves more to certain situations or meditations than others, but I've never had a director suggest that I should limit my prayer in one way or another. Flexibility ("accomodation" is Ignatius' term) is key, and I have been graced by finding directors who are fearless in their willingness to venture into unfamilar territory.

Given the range of prayer in the Exercises, it is nontheless the case that imagination is a significant hallmark of the Ignatian understanding of encounter with God. When a person makes the formal Exercises, there are many opportunites to pray, or meditate (Ignatius usually uses the term contemplation here ~ not to be confused with the emptying form of prayer so popular in contemplative prayer practice today) imaginatively throught the life of Jesus. Imagine the place, imagine the sights and sounds, imagine yourself as a person among his followers or family, on the edge or in the midst of his circle. Imagine yourself watching, listening, speaking, participating. Who are you? Who might you be called to be? Imagine Jesus into the circustances of your own life. What does he say; how do you respond?

You might be able to guess where I am going here. If you're a regular reader, you know that I have often bemoaned the statement so frequently made to me after our son died: that "I can't imagine" sentence. In fact, its repetition by a few individuals has resulted in my consistent avoidance of them. (The Lovely Daughter tells me that people are trying, and that I could be more generous, but I have my own problems with imagination ~ I find it difficult to imagine either that they are or that I could.) As a statement of intended solace, "I can't imagine" is not as bad as "I know just how you feel" ~ but it's close.

This past week it suddenly dawned on me why my Jesuit and other Ignatian friends have been such a source of help to me. Steeped in the practice of imaginative prayer, it never occurs to them to say, "I can't imagine." They seem to slide into imaginative accompaniment effortlessly. They don't have to be parents or to have suffered this degree of loss or faced this kind of horror; they can imagine it, at least well enough.

It's not effortless, of course; even as a neophyte director, I know that it takes considerable intentionality and attentiveness to imagine yourself into someone else's life and concerns. It also takes great generosity of spirit: as you share the Scriptural and prayer lives of others, you begin to understand how differently we all respond to, understand, and encounter God. You seek, always, to reverence both the other person's experience and your own; to absorb the similarities and the differences, to recognize that God is reaching out to each of you, and and to know that you can listen contemplatively and imaginatively even if what you are hearing is nothing at all like what you yourself would have come up with. It's not effortless at all.

But there it is. Just as even I, with some considerable practice, can access the notes to a simple Bach composition on the piano and with them, an entire tradition of music, so someone practiced in imaginative interaction with Scripture can access a tradition of prayer that makes it possible to walk with someone through the universal and yet endlessly unique pathway through grief.
I don't think I've ever heard someone well versed in Ignatian practice say, "I can't imagine." I know that these are people whose imaginations are at work all day, who are accustomed to drawing on their interior resources in all circumstances, and to allowing them to expand whenever they seem inadequate to a particular situation. God's gift of imagination is how we find God in all things, even ~ somewhere, someday ~ in this wilderness of sorrow.

(Cross-posted from Desert Year.)


Mompriest said...

Ignatian spirituality has been a part of my journey. I appreciate this wonderful summary of the imagination prayer - I totally get how it enables one to imagine with the other...

I have mentioned this before, but for those who do not have access to an Ignatian Spiritual director there is a series of books, the Take and Receive series by Jacqueline Syrup Bergen and S. Marie Schwan offer a guided approach to Ignation prayer. There are five books: Love,Forgiveness, Birth, Surrender, and Freedom. Each offer a six week prayer guide based in scripture and Ignatian spirituality.

Surrender is the book that considers suffering and how we can surrender to it and perhaps grow spiritually and holistically.

Michelle said...

I remember thinking early on last fall that when people said, "I can't imagine" what they really meant was "I don't want to imagine."

But Ignatian spirituality doesn't readily recognize "can't imagine" as a response, instead it's "what do you imagine."

I, think, too, that the concept of repetition is part of what makes someone with an Ignatian bent a graced companion in grief. There is a fundamental recognition that there is always more to "get" and that returning to a contemplation in that Ignatian sense implies an increasing openess to the affective dimensions.

Gannet Girl said...

Mompriest, thank you for reminding me that I still need to order those books.

Interesting ~ I got a long email a few weeks ago on the topic of surrender. . .

Gannet Girl said...

You are so right about repetition, Michelle. I hadn't even thought of that. I have found it to be such a rich aspect of my prayer life, and I have also found it to be one of the greatest challenges for many people in spiritual direction. As a culture we do not take kindly to a leisurely, repetitive approach to anything.

And perhaps that is a partial explanation for why we as a culture do so poorly with grief -- a process that by its very nature demands leisure and repetition.

On the humorous side, I wish you had mentioned this before I started Hebrew last summer! Perhaps I might have made more of a spiritual experience of it had I been able to think of the endless repetition required for memorization as a form of prayer!

Purple said...

"imaginative accompaniment"...I am keeping this phrase. Thanks GG.

We did a stint of the Ignatian excercises in my last year of my spiritual direction program. It seemed very "un-imaginative" to me...however I am resonating quite deeply with the way you are experiencing it.

Any suggestions for helpful reading in addition to Mompriest's recommendations?

Michelle said...

GG - LOL about the Hebrew!!

Gannet Girl said...

Purple -- off the top of my head - anything by William Barry:

Jennifer said...

I'm a product of Jesuit education, in which Ignatian thought figures greatly. Sometimes the simplest practices are the most profound.
Thank you for this eloquent post.