Dancing to God’s beat


19 Aug 2020

God is the perfect dance partner if we learn to listen to him and follow his lead.

Over the 17 years I have been writing this editorial, I have often used the image of dance to talk about the spiritual life. Indeed, in 2014 I wrote about God as my dancing partner – borrowing the idea from Philippines Jesuit educator, Father Johnny Go. Now I want to return to this idea as one way of describing that sometimes slippery Ignatian term ‘Discernment’. 

Among several interesting books he has written, psychiatrist, Gordon Livingston, wrote one with the title And Never Stop Dancing – stemming from a piece in The Washington Post Magazine: ‘After a bomb killed two dozen young people at a Tel Aviv disco a few years ago, Israeli youth refused to be cowed. They resumed a robust nightlife. Today, outside the scene of the bombing, beneath a stone memorial listing the names of the dead, is a single inscription: Lo Nafseek Lirkod. It means, “We won’t stop dancing”.’

Light and shadow

Dancing takes many forms, of course, and I often return to some lyrical words of Daniel O’Leary’s in his book, Already Within – Divining the Hidden Spring: ‘I am now discovering that the more vulnerable I become as a human person, the more authentic I am as a priest. The light and the shadow – they need each other always; they dance together to give the colour to our lives. As Rainer Maria Rilke said, “if I manage to get rid of my demons, I fear my angels may leave as well”.’ 

Well known American Franciscan theologian, Richard Rohr, describes the Trinity as the Dance of God. 

For many centuries Hindu India has developed a beautiful image to describe the relationship between God and His creation. They talk
about God ‘dancing’ his creation. God is the Dancer, and His creation is the Dance. While the dance is different from the dancer, it has no existence apart from Him. 

In Gift from the Sea, Ann Morrow Lindbergh likens a good relationship to a good dance. ‘Lightness of touch and living in the moment are intertwined. One cannot dance well unless one is completely in time with the music, not leaning back to the last step or pressing forward to the next one, but poised directly on the present step as it comes. Perfect poise on the beat is what gives good dancing its sense of ease, of timelessness, of the eternal.’

Following the recent Black Lives Matter protest marches and riots across the globe, one conservative journalist wrote about ‘the tyranny of feelings’ attached to these events. 

Sifting our feelings

In contrast, Ignatian discernment is about sifting our feelings, acknowledging and befriending them. Discernment seeks to lead our lives to God’s beat – to be in touch with the light and shadow dancing together in our lives. 

What we call the ‘discernment of spirits’ has long been a venerable part of our Christian spiritual tradition, in which ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are described in terms of the direction our moods take us. 

Good spirits lead a person in a life-giving direction towards a good goal. Evil spirits make use of evil directions and sometimes good beginnings to accomplish an evil end. 

Writing in Finding the Still Point – Making Use of Moods, Gerald O’Mahony SJ pointed out that St Ignatius Loyola makes the following important distinction between life-sapping and life-giving feelings: ‘the moods that come from evil are things like anxiety, sadness, seeing endless snags ahead; the moods that come from (and lead us to) God are those that bring courage and strength, consolations, tears of happiness, inspiration and peace.’ 

Peace, as the Scriptures tell us, is undeniably the clearest sign of God’s presence – a peace of heart that comes from being in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing, and aware of God; the peace which makes a light burden of carrying a heavy person whom we love. For St Ignatius, ‘the thoughts that come from evil have an effect like water dropping noisily on a rock, whereas the thoughts that come from God are like a drop of water quietly entering a sponge.’

Careful listening

Discernment is a matter of careful listening. I have often thought that the best pastoral carers are those who are in touch with themselves, alert and alive to their own agenda, realising that they must be capable of listening to themselves before they can be of assistance to others. 

Each one of us has some sense of ourselves within – our ‘interiority’, if you like, to use that cumbersome word – which is my sense of personal identity, where I respond to the feelings and movements of love, hate, laughter, peace, sorrow, where I conduct a sort of running conversation or inner dialogue with myself. If I am to help others on their journeys, I must have this capacity for what Stephen Covey has called ‘listening to my language’.

As we prepare for the new life of spring, let us don our dancing pumps and partner the Good Lord in tune with the intimate rhythm of his steps. 

Let us remember Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s words above: ‘Perfect poise on the beat is what gives good dancing its sense of ease, of timelessness, of the eternal.’ As discerning people, as careful listeners, we pray that we might constantly dance to God’s beat.

This article first appeared in the Madonna magazine Spring 2020 edition.

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