Occasionally when I read I stumble across a phrase which stops me in my tracks this is one of them:
‘The capacity to suffer through to joy’
It is profoundly resonant for me. We cannot avoid pain in life. It happens. Sometimes pain is simply to be endured and sooner or later it begins to dissipate.
I don’t want to say at all that all suffering must somehow be a good thing. I don’t believe that. I think we should do what we can alleviate suffering wherever we can.
But occasionally there are those excruciating circumstances which require attendance. In almost all of these kinds of times it is so tempting to try to avoid the pain. And yet, if we have the courage to stay with it, sooner or later something new emerges. Something which would not have been possible without the crucible of the pain.
It is these moments which are truly transformational. It is in these moments that our real hope lies. It requires discernment to figure out what kind of pain we are in. We should try to remove as much of the superfluous pain that we can. When turns out that the pain is actually essential, then we dare to embrace it rather than resist it, it can and it usually will give way to joy in the end.
For those who want to find the origin of the phrase – authorship belongs to Holmes Rolston III in a paper entitled Kenosis and Nature – you can find it here.
Someone I am enjoying getting to know ended our last encounter by saying ‘Next time we meet, I’d like to know what you think about x’.
I met her again recently and after we had caught up, she asked me the question again.
I had thought about it before we met, and I didn’t have a coherent response. I knew my gut response, but I didn’t actually have a real answer. We spoke a little. I gave my gut response, she explained her own position – different and not different to mine. Similar in essence, but we come from quite different viewpoints.
It was only as I was driving home that I was finally able to put into words what was at stake for me. It may not make any sense at all to anyone else, but I understand my gut response now.
All because of a question, and the willingness of have a conversation.
My position isn’t set. Now that I understand my driver, I can engage with the same question again at a deeper level. Maybe the position will hold, maybe it won’t.
I don’t think the actual position is nearly as important as the willingness to explore with a spirit of discernment.
There is a verse in Matthew’s gospel:
‘You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless’
I don’t think I had ever really spent any time thinking about this. I presumed the metaphorical reading to be fair.
But I was doing a lectio divina on this passage yesterday when it struck me that reading with my chemist lens offers a new spin.
Sodium chloride is sodium chloride is sodium chloride. Salt can’t lose its saltiness. You can add weird flavour to it (something reasonably common in South Africa that I just hate), but even then, as a good chemist I can extract the pure salt from the horrible mix, just give me a little time.
Salt can’t lose its saltiness. And we can’t lose the love of God. We cannot lose the dignity and inherent value we have simply by being a human.
I think when most people are on the receiving end of a gift or support we tend to respond as though gratitude and indebtedness are correlated. And most of us tend towards one end of the binary. Either we are grateful and feel indebted or, perhaps wishing to avoid indebtedness we cannot allow ourselves to be grateful.
Grateful and indebted Ungrateful and free
But what if those two are not on opposite ends of a single spectrum. What if they are related but not correlated?
The sweet spot is when we can be both grateful and free.
It is truly possible to feel deep gratitude and yet not feel like I have to try to repay the kind action in any way.
Being able to receive with grace is an important part of being fully alive.
I confess I am not good at getting home repairs done. There is no doubt the fact that I have 40 minute commute to work plays a significant role in this. I can’t just pop back home when the people doing the repairs say they are on their way. It takes planning.
But that isn’t the real issue. The activation barrier lies with the fact that I live in a large building that has preferred contractors. You can use anyone you like, but life really is better if you use the people who are known. This sounds simple enough, but it requires talking to the building supervisor and asking who I should be calling.
As I usually leave for work before she begins her day, days quickly turn into weeks. And unless the repair is on something that is highly inconvenient, I learn how to work around the problem, and then the urgency simply falls away.
So this week I decided to spend some time working from home tackling some of the domestic repairs that need doing. I feel quite triumphant! (I won’t admit to how long one or two of the problems have been lurking…). No doubt my sense of triumph is directly related to the degree of procrastination!
I went to a talk recently that I found profoundly disturbing. When I say that I felt like my mind needed a ritual cleanse afterwards, I’m not exaggerating. What amuses me though is my response. The very next day I sent a message to fellow attendee who is well schooled in the subject matter. I asked him for some good reading material to balance the perspective.
What amuses me is that for the first time I realise how powerful and reflexive the drive to seek information is. I know that I gain security from knowledge and understanding, but I had never before seen it for what it was almost as it was happening.
I know many people are driven by the desire to control. That’s never been my thing, and I have never really understood it. Until now. I still don’t have a felt sense of need to control, but I do see how the compulsion works now. I recognise my own version – the need to understand.
Illuminating and amusing… I’m still going to read the material that I asked for…
Whale watching is really such a beautiful metaphor for the spiritual life. I spent a good part of the weekend gently watching Walker Bay. As I walked along the cliff paths; as I sat having brunch; as I sat watching the sun go down. And I was rewarded frequently with a water spout, a bit of flipper action, a full tail, and just occasionally a breach or two.
What struck me this time was that the whale sightings were wonderful, but not essential to the deep joy of being there. Simply gently watching the ocean was the thing that was working its magic on my soul. I probably wouldn’t have been watching if the whales hadn’t been a possibility, but the sightings this time weren’t particularly spectacular. But this time even the odd water spout was enough to retain my attention. Because actually the thing that was proving balm to my soul was watching the ocean.
I used to need much more to keep my attention. I think I used to need more in prayer too. Now the possibility of encounter is enough to keep me showing up. Because the thing that really matters, the thing that is really shaping me is the showing up.
Let’s presume we accept the idea that most religious traditions are trying to uphold something which is quite beautiful, inspiring and potentially truly transformative. Certainly as I pause and think of most major religions and most Christian denominations I can think of particular examples of people who are genuinely beacons of light. And the people I am thinking of would all say unequivocally that their practice of faith and prayer had been instrumental in making them the people that they are.
Let’s presume we also accept that most religious traditions have a shadow side. In most major religions and in most Christian traditions I can think of people who have been profoundly wounded by institutional religion. And likewise the people I am thinking of will all say unequivocally that it was the church that caused the problem.
And I know that this is why many end up choosing the ‘spiritual but not religious’ route.
But what if take seriously the possibility of a shadow side of the institution. What if those of us who have chosen to remain also choose to acknowledge the shadow. What if we open ourselves to the possibility of working with the shadow in the institution. In the same way that any committed relationship will require work with shadow material.
I guess part of the reason we haven’t so far, is that I have to be open to dealing with my own shadow material. If we use the analogy of committed relationship – the shadow material I really have to confront is my own. Maybe far to many of us who persist in institutional religion are there because it promises an escape from work we’d rather not do.
Ken Wilber talks about the ‘cleaning up’ aspect of spirituality – by this he means the psychological work of facing the shadow. I hope we can begin this work in our churches. So that the beauty which is there can once again be brought to the light.
Take a moment and image yourself pushing your hand through water. It doesn’t take much effort and the water yields.
That image seems a little incongruous with the image of stalactites and stalagmites. Or potholes carved into rock by the persistent drip, drip, drip.
It is time which is the factor which is hard to perceive. We know this place has been here a long time, but we have no experience of that passage of time in this place.
I spent some time recently browsing through the blog posts herein. It’s been nearly five years since I began this endeavour. The average word count per post is just under 350. With a little over 330 posts in that time that washes out at just under 115 000 words, just under 250 typed pages. I’m astounded I really didn’t think I had created that much!
But it is not the number of words which really moves me. It is the fact that in these brief snapshots, I can see that I have grown. I can see that I have learnt some good stuff along the way. It is a relief I suppose. When I am in the midst of the craziness of life, I hope things are shifting and occasionally it feels like they are. But in these posts I finally see it is true.
Writing a few hundred words a couple of times a week doesn’t feel like much effort. And yet over time, it has become something substantial.
Jim Finley speaks of ‘a peace that can be found that does not depend on the conditions of peace.’ It is an interior condition which doesn’t require external circumstances to look like anything.
When we are searching for peace or interior freedom it is often relatively easy to find the source of our disquiet. Happily located outside of ourselves. And I am tempted to think one of two things. ‘I will not find peace until that changes’ or ‘If I can just change that then I will at peace’.
One aspect I love about Ignatius’ teaching on discernment is that it is clear that most things are in themselves are actually neutral. What is significant is what happens in me when I come into contact with that thing. Couple this with Jim’s idea that there is a peace that can be found which transcends my interaction with that thing, and I realise that the source of my disquiet may not be the thing, but my reaction to it.
The question then becomes why I am reacting to this thing which is not inherently harmful. What is it in me that is activated in an unhealthy way? What is my ‘hook’? When I can identify that the spectre of the thing loses much of its power. I may still need to be cautious, but I can be cautious and peaceful. I can be cautious and interiorly free.