Rob Marsh SJ is a friend and former colleague of mine. I learnt a good deal of what I know about discernment and about spiritual direction in the countless conversations we had over the four years we lived in the same community.
His latest piece in Thinking Faith is well worth gently savouring (You can find it here: http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/discernment-good-bad-%E2%80%A6-ignatian)
It is a timely reminder for me not to get too distracted by trying to ferret out the reasons why I have gotten caught. To simply turn my attention and allow that to lead.
We find it so hard to simply turn towards the light. But that is the invitation.
Over and over and over again.
I found myself reflecting this morning on the phrase ‘The truth will set you free’. As South Africans watch the political landscape shifting, and we see a thoroughly corrupt system falter it is a useful counterpoint.
It slightly sickening to see the dramatic shift in allegiance of those who are politically expedient, trying desperately to align themselves with the new seat of power. I am sure many have good reason to fear.
I’m not sure any of us have access to the truth. But we all have the capacity to choose honesty or not.
Not long ago I was tempted to cover over a mistake I had made. It would have been easy to do, but the long term consequences if the cover up had been exposed would have been substantial. I had to step out into the light and expose my omission, and take the short term discomfort. The short term cost turned out to be significantly less than I expected, it could have been far more serious.
But I get now, in a way I didn’t before, how people can make unbelievably bad choices. If I hadn’t had a real perspective of the long term consequences I could well have made the unethical choice.
I pray for all of us in South Africa in these days. I pray that we will all commit to greater honesty. I pray that we will learn to tread the tricky path of holding people accountable for their actions and rewarding honesty.
Pause and notice the God who is with you…
Ignatius of Loyola makes a simple suggestion in one of the additional instructions he gives in the Spiritual Exercises. Where it appears in the text suggests it is an after thought; one of those things that perhaps he automatically did himself and just forgot to mention earlier on.
Pause for the space of an Our Father and notice how God our Lord is looking at you.
Some people do have a mental image of a face with a facial expression they can describe. Some people can name a qualitative sense of a feeling – God is looking on me with compassion, God is looking on me with concern, occasionally God is gently amused. Some people notice a physical sensation of God’s presence.
Don’t over think it.
Just pause and notice….
And notice what you noticed.
Don’t worry about what it looks like – what did you notice?
The power of that little exercise is that it can be done anywhere at any time. Immediately we are brought into the awareness that we are not alone, that God is indeed here, now. That God is indeed, real. And that God is present and responsive to me.
Perhaps the greatest pain in our world at the moment is the profound sense of alienation. What if we take xenophobia as a symptom of the depth of our fear of not belonging?
Since I stumbled across James Alison’s presentation of the work of Rene Girard and the power scape goating in 2003/2004 it has provided a powerful lens through which to view the tensions in society.
The mini takeaway version which will suffice here – we all suffer the anxiety of not belonging, but when I stumble across someone who appears to belong less than I do, and the group to which to which I am desperately trying to belong also perceives that person as being more problematic than me. As long as they are around to pick on and remain clearly different, I am safe. So those who most insecure are often the ones who are most violent (physically, verbally, anonymously) to those who appear to be even less secure.
It is a tragic vicious circle.
How do we move through it? By acknowledging our own insecurity.
How often have we heard a version of the ‘gospel’ preached which is really about defining who is in and who is out? Let’s not settle for a gospel which perpetuates violence against someone who is seen as ‘other’. The gospel does demand everything but not because it asks to conform to some image of belonging. It asks to face the our sense of isolation, to own our own pain, and to dare to be vulnerable.
Do we dare to kneel before a God who is unconditionally loving and requires we face the things we most fear?
I was introduced to the delightful little book ‘Tales of a Magic Monastery’ by Carolyn Metzler from the CAC. I dip into it every now and then. Yesterday this was the nugget I stumbled across:
‘I walked up to an old, old monk and asked him. “What is the audacity of humility?” This man had never met me before, but do you know what his answer was? “To be the first to say ‘I love you.'”
I guess what struck me is the gift of being able to say ‘I love you’ in freedom. Not needing any particular response, but being able to own the depth of my own affection.
To be able say ‘I love you’ with open hands, not clinging to other. But in deep appreciation for relationship.
To be able to say ‘I love you’ without needing to dictate how this declaration should be reciprocated.
I feel the gentle invitation to explore which relationships in my life have this level of freedom.
Interior freedom is not something you can fake. You know it if you have it. It is also neither static nor comprehensive.
I have more conscious in recent years of the areas of unfreedom in me. I suppose this is because small areas of freedom have been etched out. Knowing what true freedom is even in a very small interaction means I have a touchstone. I know the flavour and texture of interior freedom, so I know it when I don’t have it.
As I have uncovered a space where I know I am not free, I have begun to simply pay attention. To become curious about the hooks. What is it that has me fearful or defensive? What is the invitation?
Gently leaning into the discomfort, having the conversations I need to have, praying for grace where I need it, and holding the stories I have told myself to make sense of my world very lightly. Slowly, slowly, slowly, there has been an increase in interior freedom.
It isn’t an easy journey, and no one can do it on your behalf. But it really is well worth it.
I’ve been thinking about the idea of truth telling. We encourage our kids to tell the truth. But maybe we need to think about our vocabulary. One of the images I use in The Grace of Forgiveness is given below.
I must have stumbled across this image some time in late 2015 and I am still chewing on it.
I think it is beginning to dawn on me that actually not one of us is capable of speaking the truth. Yes, we should be honest. Yes, we should exact as much honesty as we can muster from the depths of our being.
But my commitment to honesty will only ever give me the best approximation of the orange square or the black circle. I need someone else speaking from their perspective to begin to glimpse the bigger truth.
Can it be that I will never see the complexity of the cylinder?
What happens if I surrender to that possibility and commit myself to both seeing and articulating the orange square to the best my ability, and to listening to you as you describe the black circle.
What happens then?
I think it is the beginning of something truly exciting.
Over the last couple of weeks I have been slowly savouring Larry Kaufmann’s book ‘Keep it light: Praying through suffering into joy’. In his chapter on forgiveness he likens the phrase from the Our Father ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ to the terms and conditions of a contract.
As I mulled over this idea alongside another which has been with me a few days since a friend and I were talking about forgiveness. What struck me in the conversation with the friend is that one cannot truly forgive and assume the moral high ground. The two are actually mutually exclusive.
For me, the major key to unlocking my own capacity to forgive was discovering that I had caused harm to another. I learnt to forgive in no small part because I knew I was culpable of harming someone.
The combination of these two ideas seems to me to indicate the reason that this is a part of the Our Father. Once we learn how to forgive seeking the moral high ground loses its appeal. Forgiveness requires a level of honesty and humility which is incompatible with judgement.
If we are called to grow towards unconditional love, surely forgiveness (both giving and receiving) is the gateway.
One of the things I think we deeply desire and deeply fear as humans is to be seen for who we are. This year for me has been one where I have been invited into that vulnerable space of revealing myself over and over and over again.
In almost every circumstance I have discovered compassion, love and acceptance. More importantly, the choice to allow myself to be vulnerable has proved a pivotal moment certainly for me, but oftentimes for those with whom I am interacting.
In the end I have discovered, in a way I never expected, that I can be myself, fully myself, in all my quirky awkwardness, and be deeply loved and appreciated. The deep truth is that no one expects any more of me. The pain of the desire for me to be more than I am is mine. I am profoundly limited, as are we all.
2017 for me has been learning that if I can own my limitations, others can own theirs. And once we get there, then we can really benefit from each others giftedness.
I’ll sign off with a picture – it was taken by my friend Kate – I got to see her for 36 hours which included 2 hours at 4 year olds birthday party (not her child). I sat outside the party room reading a book. And Kate and I and her son all had a good time. I could be myself, and Kate could do the thing she needed to do for her family. In that moment, neither of us needed the other to be other. This is the gift of real friendship.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learnt this year is that I will never get to a point where I am not emotionally triggered under particular circumstances.
For a long time I think I have been trying to get to place where I can roll with the punches regardless of what is thrown at me. I thought that getting to a point of equanimity meant getting to place where my old buttons could be pushed and I would be unaffected. I think this is cloud cuckoo land. It may exist in some mythical perfect reality but it probably will never be my life.
No, rather the point is to be able to know when I am triggered, to find the support I need to unhook my emotional response, and face back in to the situation to achieve what was hoped for in the first place.
When I find myself triggered by someone I have two choices. If the person is someone close to me it is probably worth explaining that I find that particular circumstance more emotionally charged than may be expected. But if it is someone I only interact with occasionally, it is probably better to simply find a way to recover my equilibrium.
Perhaps the greatest gift for me this year has been the discovery that I have people in my life who can and will help me recover my equilibrium. And with this discovery I no longer have to be afraid of being triggered – I can recover. I no longer have to wait for the dawn of the era of cloud cuckoo land. I can live a beautiful, rich and wholehearted life right now.