I wonder if you recognise the following words from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi: “Finally, whoever you are, whatever is troubling, whatever appals you, whatever gets right up your nose, whatever threatens to overwhelm you, get fixated about that!” Well no, of course he didn’t write that. But he was in lockdown, in prison (again) somewhere. Ali’s thoughtful piece about the daily prayer of meditation of Ignatius reminded me of the words that Paul did use: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
My problem is that when trouble comes long it easily commands my attention and focusing on whatever is good can feel like a wilful refusal to face up to reality. But reality is always complex, filled with a million fragments. When I read those words about the prayer of Ignatius I heard a call to choose my focus rather than letting some event or my own preconceptions push themselves to the front of my attention. But then how is that any different to ‘positive thinking’: the kind of thing you find in a ‘self-help’ manual pleading to be bought in airport book shop?
Maybe its less about me trying to impose my own ‘goodness’ filter on experience and more about trying to look below the surface of things, to search for glimpses of God in the world. The God who is truth, who is purity, who is love. Of course, when I look around, my eyes see people who carry burdens, who wrestle with problems and failings. But can I not also see also wonderful creations? Can I not also see lives being nurtured and developed by the power of God’s Spirit? If I look more closely at some behaviour that I do not like, can I not see some characteristic in which God can see some potential for good?
But sometimes I find it hard to imagine anyone seeing God at work in a person or a situation. It just seems too awful. I have read a couple of things from Christian sources interpreting the Covid-19 pandemic in terms of a ‘theology of disruption’: as if God was trying to shake us all out of complacency. I can’t get my head around that at all. When I read the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, I see a God who places himself in the thick of the trouble that people face, helping them to live through it and transcend it. A God who finds something to admire where I would not. A God who reserves his approbation for the posturing of the powerful – but who is also ready to have friends who belong to the ruling classes.
So maybe Ignatius and Paul are not calling us simply to look at this instead of that. They are inviting us to look below the surface and to see a world in which God is always active and always asking us to join in.