In the Celtic tradition there is the notion of ‘thin places’. Traditionally this is meant to mean that in these places heaven and earth seem a little closer. I think I would express this as places where I find it easy to encounter God. There are certainly places that I can go to where this does seem real.
But there is another kind of thin place. A place where I find easy to connect with myself. They are places where I find deep tranquility, and a visit is always profoundly restorative on a level which is hard to describe.
I’m deeply grateful that over the last year or so I have had frequent access to one of these places. I can escape for a weekend and bask in the calm of my soul. When this first became a possibility, I thought I would bring friends here, but the more often I come, the more I realise that I crave the sanctuary of solitude when I am here.
As I recognise this quality of thinness I begin to understand why I desire to be here alone.
Last week was probably one of the most frustrating weeks I’ve experienced in a long time. It was frustrating because for reasons I simply do not understand my brain was just not functioning as it normally does. I made mistakes that I don’t normally make. I forgot things I don’t normally forget. I missed appointments. My ineptitude required my colleagues to step in in a way that I don’t normally require.
It was a hard week. And I am glad that I am where I am. The colleague most affected has the best interests of the students at heart, so went the extra mile. And other colleagues I encountered and confessed my unexpected incapacity to were kind and compassionate.
I don’t have an adequate explanation for what happened. I simply don’t know. In terms of my job it was a bad week. And yet, at the same time a paper that I wrote was finally published in Presence. I have never received such positive feedback for a paper yet. Obviously, I wrote the paper many months ago, but it was very helpful to get those responses in this week. This week when I was struggling so much, a paper I wrote some time ago was finally ‘out there’ and deeply appreciated. It was balm for my distressed system.
I hope a quiet, gentle weekend has restored the good functioning of my brain!
I finally got around to reading my way through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. At 800+ pages of fairly dense academic writing it is no mean feat. It is a truly remarkable book. In it Taylor tracks the history of faith in what he calls ‘North Atlantic societies’ (meaning the USA and Western Europe).
I found the development of his argument both compelling and fascinating. Perhaps though, the one thing which remains with me is a profound sense of gratitude for my own education. And I mean this in the broadest sense. His argument is strewn with illustrations from across the spectrum from Isaac Newton to William Blake; from Bach to Derrida.
I was acutely aware of how much more difficult it would have been to engage in reading this book if I was not culturally embedded in the world he was illustrating. So many of the references were all the more powerful because I already had the frameworks he was drawing on in my head.
I think back to one of my MTh students last year, who really struggled with the reading. At the time, I don’t think I really appreciated what her struggle was beyond the discipline of actually sitting down and focusing on words on the page. Having engaged with Charles Taylor, I am so much more aware of the deep associations I can draw on almost unconsciously. It must be a deeply disorienting experience if one cannot make those connections.
I think I can get a small glimpse of the alienation that some must suffer when they come to university.
My last blog post was on the problem with presenting ideas as being ‘truth’. There is an important follow up point to be made. I made an argument that neither the teaching of the Catholic Church nor science can be regarded unequivocally as ‘truth’.
This post is about what allows me to say ‘I reject that idea’. For Catholic teaching no defense needs to be given. One can read the catechism and say quite happily ‘I don’t think that’s correct, it doesn’t fit in with my worldview’ and really nothing more is required (at least intellectually!)
This in not the case at all for scientific information. I cannot reject scientific evidence simply because it doesn’t fit in with my worldview. The only way to intellectually refute a scientific theory is to provide and alternative with supporting data.
The consequences of producing fraudulent scientific data are significant. At the very least you will lose your job, and if it is sufficiently serious criminal prosecution may also ensue.
The default position when approaching a scientific study must be the presumption that this work is reliable. It is subject to peer review, and if it is a bold new approach, give the scientific community a few months to try to reproduce the work. The reliability will be tested.
Where there appears to be a major dispute in the scientific community (which does happen). It is always helpful to ask if there is some other agenda being served. The climate change debate is a classic example. The scientific evidence is very robust. But there is a major agenda from business interests to obscure the field.
In the absence of any evidence to the contrary I must trust that the scientific presented is reliable.
In the last couple of weeks I have found myself slightly uncomfortable with the way people are using ‘truth’ and ‘facts’. There are two places in particular that have caught my attention. It began with an email from a Catholic blog I write for insisting that we should stick to the truth. In the context what was actually meant was that all the writing should be consistent with Catholic teaching. I have no problem with the latter given the mission of the site. But to equate this with truth without equivocation is a big problem.
Don’t get me wrong I do think that for the most part Catholic teaching is pretty good. There have been a lot of wise people working on, and revising the teaching for a long time. But I hope and trust that it will continue to evolve and change as our understanding of our world and who we are grows. Some of what is official teaching does rankle and I sincerely hope in time there will be changes. In general I’m happy to say that Catholic teaching is a good solid guide, but I won’t hang my hat on it being ‘truth’.
The other sphere has been the rhetoric around the March for Science. I am a scientist and I really do want policy guided by evidence based research. But let’s not forget that all data is interpreted. Just because it is labelled ‘science’ doesn’t mean it is good science. Not only is data collection subject to a range in reliability, but we necessarily interpret through the lens of our best understanding to date.
I am sure that understanding of pretty much all physical phenomena is more accurate than it was a decade ago, precisely because we have more data, and the data has helped us hone our understanding. But we could still be missing a giant part of the picture. I do put my faith in the process of science, which does occasionally allow for the paradigm shift. It really is the best we have. But again I’m not hanging hat on it being ‘truth’.
In both cases discernment is necessary. I’m not going to upend my life based on one scientific study, or one line in the catechism. But as more information becomes available and I begin to study around these things, I will begin to see whether this is indeed trustworthy. And then I have to act, and to continue to discern.
(Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not suggesting at all that the catechism and science offer the same kind of information! That is a whole other conversation – this is simply a commentary on certainty)
Over the last few weeks I have had to face into my own insecurity in several different circumstances. In almost every case the situation has been something of a time delay between the stimulus which has triggered the sense of insecurity and the required response. Actually in my life, that happens a fair bit.
It has been useful to feel the trigger, to notice my visceral response and still have time to gather myself. The gathering for me is relatively analytical. It gives me time to look at what I am actually anxious about. Sometimes it is real, almost always there is an element of truth. This could actually go badly, and it is because of some deficiency in me.
But it also gives me perspective. It helps me to see that the triggered response is not actually a good representation of what real. The reactivity is more like the giant shadow of the little mouse in the cartoon. The mouse is real, but the size of shadow is way out of proportion to the real threat.
In each case, I have finally faced into the situation, and in each case what I face is occasionally painful, occasionally humiliating, but the light of the truth is so, so much better than the fear. Perhaps more extraordinarily, more often than not, what has been revealed is actually pleasantly surprising.
Noticing the emergence of the insecurity and approaching it with compassion and then curiosity has been tremendously helpful.
Since my retreat in January I have begun a practice of taking some time when I get home from work. I take twenty minutes to just sit and let myself be present. It isn’t a practice of active mindfulness, nor is it the stilling of Centering Prayer.
It is simply a time of allowing myself to be. To watch the evening light on the mountains. To gently sip a beverage. To just be.
Those twenty minutes somehow create an unexpected spaciousness. My life is not so full that I don’t waste time. Most of my evenings are not spent particularly productively. But somehow the intentional quietness of these twenty minutes creates a sense of peace. It removes any sense of urgency, and yet at the same time, I am more likely to spend my time in useful occupation after the investment.
It takes my mind off the hamster wheel of daily activity, and allows for more intentional effort.
These twenty sacred minutes are the most valuable time investment I have made (beyond my morning prayer).
I am a reasonably solitary person. I do have a good number of significant personal relationships which form a complex web of support. But I have never been very good at relating to others in any configuration other than one-on-one.
Consequently the insight of my last blog post on the face of evil has caught me a little off guard. To effect real positive transformation in our world it is necessary but insufficient for me to simply do my own work. I must do my own work. I must face my own woundedness. I must allow myself to enter the Pascal mystery of my own suffering, before redemption can occur.
But if I am to truly have any kind of impact on the world I must align with others. I must actively form a community of people who have a desire to make difference. And we must work together to make a difference.
This is a deep challenge to me. It is a call, a beckoning, an invitation, to step beyond my comfort zone. Quite what it will look like, I have no idea. I know only that it is time to begin seeking in earnest.
I drove home today mulling over the disappointing reversal of several ANC leaders who are now saying they should not have criticized the outrageous Cabinet reshuffle initiated by President Zuma last week. It occurred to me that this kind of allegiance to an institution might just be the face of evil.
Individuals are wounded and broken and can make awful choices, but it requires institutional support for evil. That institution can be a family, a community, a religious body, or, as in this case a political one. But for a broken person to truly have a damaging impact on the world requires collusion.
I don’t know Jacob Zuma’s story. I cannot say that would not make similar choices had I walked his path. But the ANC machinery is colluding and evil is manifest in our country.
This is not to say that the ANC has not been a real force for good in the past. It clearly has. But it has lost its way.
After I got home I read an article in News24 which quotes Gwede Mantashe as saying “what do you think the ANC is, Father Christmas? I don’t know where this notion comes from that we are a collection of individuals who have conscience. We are members of the ANC in a party political system.”
What hope of being a force for good in the world does institution have if it demands loyalty over conscience? Sooner or later a damaged person will come to power and evil will fly.
If evil is only really manifest when we come together, maybe the same is true for good. Who are your community? Who are you standing with?
It is an obvious truth – we don’t know the future. But today I reminded of that in a useful way. We stand on the cusp of history in South Africa right now. Or that is how it feels. Will we descend to the infamy, ridicule and ruin that is Zimbabwe, or will we manage to make democracy work in a traumatised, tribal, post-colonial culture? It really isn’t clear.
But today I am reminded that there is hope. Almost exactly 10 years ago I began work as a postdoc in the lab of Kelly Chibale at UCT. I shouldn’t have been there. I had been working outside of chemistry for four years (when I say outside of chemistry – I was a spiritual director in a Jesuit retreat house!). I had to relearn most of what I had known.
Today I said goodbye to my first grad student. He was with me through honours, masters’ and his PhD. He’s going to postdoc in a very good lab at a good university overseas. When I began in Kelly’s lab in 2007 this was not my dream – I don’t think I had one. And yet now, 10 years after that reentry and nearly 15 years after I submitted my PhD this is where I am.
There is real fruit. My student’s journey is his own. I cannot claim any of it, except, I gave him space. For me, I didn’t dream 10 years ago that I would end up here.
I don’t know where I will be in 5, 10, 15 years, but I do inherently trust the journey so much more now. I don’t where South Africa is going, and I don’t know whether my fate is linked to the country I have adopted. But I have hope in humanity. Because when I sit with those who are truly seeking, I see healing happening – in myself and in those who choose to share their stories with me.
There is nothing but hope.
Not blind optimism but real hope.