By Sarah Signorino
On a blustery afternoon in the fall of 2020, I crept into our attic, my husband’s Covid office, right as he was finishing a work call. He looked stressed. “I just can’t deal with any more change!” he said.
I responded, “I think I need to take a pregnancy test.”
Later that day, I took the test. It was positive. I had no idea what to do or think. This was not part of my prayer. This was not part of our plan. Our two daughters, then 6 and 8, were a delightful age, and we were excited to do more “grown-up” things with them. It was also during the first fall of Covid, pre-vaccinations. How was I going to say yes to this with my head and heart? I was scared.
Only a few months before my annunciation, I had been full of easygoing gratitude, even with the changes of the early pandemic. In June, my journey with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius ended with a Zoom call with my spiritual director. I had prayed and journaled daily and met with a spiritual director each week for about 10 months, moving through the Exercises in my daily life.
For that final session, I had escaped the chaos of my virtual schooling daughters for a peaceful conversation on our front porch. I remember sobbing, in gratitude, for the graces and grieving taking place in my life. My neighbor was cutting his grass, completely oblivious to the fact that I was having an important spiritual conversation on Zoom. He saw that I was crying and asked if I was ok. I looked up and responded, “I’m just so grateful for my life! Yes!” I fist pumped. He nodded politely and went back to mowing.
Looking back at the journal that I kept during my experience, I ended my prayer that day with a Harry Potter reference: “I open at the close.” This is the inscription written on the golden snitch that Harry wins during his first Quidditch match. At the close of my own reflective time, walking with Jesus, I felt open.
My journal also ended with a drawing: my body, stretched in a heart-opening yoga pose, my chest exposed, light pouring out of me into the world. I was vulnerable and open but also safe and secure with where I was.
Entering the Exercises in 2019, I didn’t have an important question or big discernment going on in my life to bring to my prayer. My life felt content as it was. The personal, professional and spiritual components of my personhood were all deeply rooted and growing well. I’d spent the last 14 years working in ministry. I celebrated my 15th wedding anniversary with my husband, and we were growing in our marriage. This was all confirmed in my prayer, meditations and conversations with my spiritual director.
In the months following my rather uncomplicated (yet still very powerful and meaningful) walk with Jesus in the Exercises, I became a completely different person. My easygoing gratitude dissipated. I was almost 40 when I got pregnant. When I told God I was open, I did not mean this. This would change everything.
We went on an even stricter lockdown to keep everyone as healthy as possible. We opted to keep our older daughters in virtual school for the year. I unexpectedly shifted from my career in higher education to be a stay-at-home parent right before our son was born.
Then, my little cannonball came into the world almost exactly a year after my porch conversation with my director. All the confirmations that I had received in my prayer only one year earlier seemed contrived. I remember reflecting to a friend about how I once felt so open to change until things started to actually change in ways that were not anticipated.
Gone was my sense of light and vulnerability. While I was immensely appreciative for my son and the ability to be with my family more, I felt anger, resentment and distance. I saw these changes as “nos” from God where I had previously heard “yeses.” Gratitude did not come easy in the darkness.
Whenever I get the chance to tell a new person about St. Ignatius of Loyola, I like to emphasize not just the cannonball that began his journey, but the many cannonballs that continued to hit him throughout his life. St. Ignatius was a constant pilgrim, constantly seeking out God’s path, in both the light and the darkness. He often stumbled on the path. He once made a decision of whether or not to kill a man based on which way the direction the animal he was riding turned. (He didn’t kill him.)
I’m quite sure when Ignatius was dreaming about being like the saints as he recuperated, he most definitely did not envision himself ending up an administrator to a new religious order in Rome. The path of St. Ignatius was bumpy and full of twists and turns. It was imperfectly holy. He continued to remain open and vulnerable to God, to the light, even when his path took him into darkness.
Yet, the nos, the absolutely nots, the nevers can also be holy. The absence of light on our pathway forward can inspire us to make different, even better, choices. Maybe we will rest. Maybe we need a reset. Maybe we will seek counsel from a new source. Maybe we revisit the place we built our foundations and find it in need of repair. Maybe the cracks will let new light in. This mental reframing of my cannonballs was an essential shift for me to return to a space of gratitude and openness in my prayer.
Keeping in mind the imperfect journey of Ignatius, I invite you to consider the following questions as we settle into the restful darkness, waiting for the birth of Jesus:
- How can we recognize the imperfect cracks of light in our shadows?
- How do both the lights and shadows illuminate our journeys?
- How can we shift our prayer from seeking out confirmations to seeking out consolations, from hearing “no” to identifying where our desolations lie?
Sitting with questions like these in my own prayer and journaling has brought back gratitude for both my graces and grieving. My once-exposed heart is now covered by a sleeping baby. New consolations and desolations move me forward, on an imperfectly holy path. I am grateful that the journey is ongoing.
Sarah Signorino has been a proud member of the Ignatian family for over 20 years, working in mission and ministry, organizing immersion experiences, and leading retreats. She lives in Buffalo, New York, with her husband, three children, and two cats (all of whom were cannonballs in their own right).