I have been so tremendously blessed in recent months. My brother and sister-in-law bought a holiday house in Hermanus (a town which is nestled between the mountains and the sea on the southern Cape coast). The house is close enough to the cliff paths that I can walk down from the house. And the Fernkloof nature reserve, which has paths into the mountains, is just a few minutes drive away.
I’m not quite sure why but the place is deeply restorative for me. My whole being breaths a sigh of relief when I get there. This has been a very busy semester for me for all sorts of reasons, and it has been my place of sanity.
I’ve known for a long time that walking in nature is an activity which somehow settles something deep in my being. It almost as though the rhythm of my gait combined with the gentle sensory stimulation of being in nature provides a calibration of my soul. It somehow reorients itself and settles.
The juxtaposition of the stressful semester and the happy escape has made me far more conscious of the need to take time in nature even when I am not in Hermanus. Overall, I think I am better balanced.
It has been a significant lesson. I sit with tremendous gratitude for having access to this precious space.
Ignatius of Loyola so wisely reminds us in the opening of the Spiritual Exercises that we should try to put the best possible construction on what a person is saying.
I confess that today, I failed miserably in that endeavour. All I could hear was the shaming language being used. I couldn’t get past that to the intent. And then my friend Michelle, who shares my passions for chemistry, Ignatian spirituality and blogging unintentionally came to my rescue (You can read her blog post http://quantumtheology.blogspot.co.za/2016/06/full-conscious-and-active-participation.html)
Some weeks ago I attended an event where one of the participants responded at some point in the proceedings by saying ‘I no longer use that language but…’. In this particular case the respondent had gone out of her way to attempt to engage with the image of God presented and had in fact had a good experience (inasmuch as I could gleen).
Too often though we resort to language as a kind of theological shibboleth. If you use the ‘right’ language which is somehow deemed to be more ‘evolved’ it makes you more worthy. This cannot be the truth.
Whilst I know that my image of God has evolved and the language that I use is also not what it would have been twenty years ago. There are those who still gain tremendous comfort from those images. The thing we all need to remember, is that whatever image we hold now is also limited and temporary. And that God shakes us all up sooner or later.
It is my deepest desire that I will never knowingly shame someone else for the image of God that they carry. To that end, if I ever inadvertently do so, I trust that those close to me will call me out when I fall into that particular error.
A friend of mine is facing a significant decision. The decision is essentially made, it just needs to be executed. As we chatted, something I said precipitated the response – ‘I am not sure’.
It made me realise that the idea of ‘certainty’ with respect to most decisions we make is simply not helpful. We cannot possibly know the trajectory which will be precipitated by choosing one particular course of action. We cannot know that it will be ‘good’ let alone ‘best’.
So seeking ‘certainty’ is setting up a useless ideal.
But seeking equanimity is useful. Equanimity in this context is that sense of inner peace which comes when I consider taking that particular path. Sometimes that comes with a sense of ‘rightness’. Sometimes it feels simply like the least worst!
Seeking equanimity in the midst of making a decision usually begins with noticing its absence. Almost always, a significant interior disruptor is fear. This way I can bring my fear into the light and see it for what it is. If fear is driving my decision it is unlikely to be a good one.
Take time, if at all possible to find a place interior peacefulness. It will change the way that you live in to the decision that you make, and that has the potential to have a tremendous impact on how your life unfolds.
There is real danger in investing one’s sense of identity in an external locus. It could be financial well-being; it could be career advancement; or something else. If my sense of self is located in being successful (however that is defined), sooner or later I’m going to end up in trouble.
There are several problems. Firstly, the external locus is a moving target. As soon as I have achieved one goal another almost immediately presents itself. And so I am ever in pursuit of something to myself feel valued. Nothing one attains is ever quite enough.
Secondly, life happens. Almost inevitably there will be bumps in the road which will slow one’s progression. And the system will penalise one.
All of us have areas which are slightly more externally located. For me a useful question for discernment is where do I over-react when someone sees me as less than successful? Or even where do I over-react when I am seen as being mediocre rather than excellent?
Those are the areas where I need to pray for the grace of freedom.
The pursuit of excellence is not the problem, it is my investment in being seen as being excellent which is the issue.
I’m not sure I should be writing this post. There are those who are so much more deeply affected by the death of the person I am grieving.
She was a very close friend of a good friend of mine. I had known her for 13 years, but because we lived on different continents I have seen her only three times in the last nine years. Her wedding, a visit to Cape Town, and a lunch in Manchester last year. We didn’t really have much contact in between.
She was terminally ill for some time, and I knew when we last met that it was likely that I would not see her again.
She was a wonderful woman; she was intelligent; she had a fantastic sense of humour; she was optimistic and adventurous; she was open and generous. The world has definitely lost one of its brightest lights.
I find myself wondering whether I have a right to grieve. Her death does not affect my daily life at all. And yet, and yet, as I sit and remember her wide smile and her generosity of spirit I feel tears welling up.
Grief is a strange beast – it seems to be that there is nothing to do but to be true to where I am. To offer thanks that I had the great privilege of knowing this extraordinary woman and allow myself to feel the sense of loss that I feel.
Some hours after I wrote these paragraphs, I sat with my grief as a colleague led a group in noticing the image of God that we had. Almost immediately I saw that God was weeping, as the picture filled out, I saw God was weeping as he held Catherine. And I understood that God too is weeping at a life cut far too short.
I am beginning to wonder whether our greatest challenge is actually honesty with ourselves.
There is a spectrum which runs between desire and fear. I’m using desire here in the Ignatian sense. Desire here is a tool which can ultimately lead me to my True Self and into union with God.
Too often though we cloak our fear based motivations in the guise of some desire for good.
Any choice made which is based in fear is far less likely to have a good and fruitful outcome.
The issue is not the deception of the other, but rather our lack of honesty with ourselves. We justify our choices in all sorts of convoluted ways, where we would really get so much further if we could just own our fear.
Sometimes our fear is so great that it seems that no other choice is possible other than the one we choose. That’s not a disaster, unless we try reframe our fear into some ‘good’.
The only way to diminish the power of the fear is to own it.
Last year I went through an interesting phase of undoing. The very ground within my being seemed to be changing. It was deeply unnerving and yet, at the same time I had a real sense of invitation in the midst of it.
My sense of where God was was also shifting, so the usual points of solace were not to be found, and yet, I knew God wasn’t absent.
I am tremendously grateful that I was staying with my sister at the time. In many ways her willingness to sit with me in the chaos, gave me both permission and courage to do so.
As I passed out of this phase of utter undoing, I was given an opportunity (or rather series of related opportunities) to live into a new way of being. The challenge was real enough – each ‘opportunity’ required facing into my deepest fear.
The combination of these things has been truly transformational. I don’t know how to describe the interior change that has happened except to say that it feels so much healthier.
So for those out there who are in the weird undoing of the chrysalis phase – take courage!
I came across a poem by David Whyte last week entitled ‘Start close in’ – this is the first stanza.
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third
start with that first
you don’t want to take.
This poem, reinforced by life experience made me realize that we cannot delegate the step we don’t want to take. And it is usually fear which is driving the lack of desire to take the step.
It is so tempting to try to pass it on, and there will be those who are willing to assume the burden you would rather not carry. But ultimately it doesn’t work.
We can find good partnerships with those who complement our weaknesses and our strengths. But a healthy partnership will never be founded on the avoidance of a fear – I think they call that codependency!
So for me this week the challenge and the invitation remains to take the step I would rather not take.
When people interact in a way that precipitates a negative response in us, the most common coping strategy is to create a story for ourselves which somehow explains their behaviour.
The story appears to be helpful because it gives us some semblance of control. Of course, the control isn’t real. The story too, then influences our next interaction, usually not in a good way.
The problem is – everything is happening in our own heads. And I certainly know that for me, my reactions and interpretations of what is actually happening is decidedly diminished when I am feeling threatened or belittled. So the very story that I have made up is substantially less reliable than normal precisely because I am battling feelings of rejection.
It is an urge that is almost impossible to resist. The only way out of it is truth-telling and vulnerability. When you can do that, the storm passes remarkably quickly. Once the storm has passed you can get on to dealing with what is actually important.
Too often relationships are broken over issues that are almost inconsequential. When you find yourself reacting very strongly to something – ask yourself what is actually true. More often than not, we react strongly to things because we have an insecurity and the overreaction is a self-protection mechanism. If we can just tease out what belongs to me from what the other has actually done, we can then have a conversation with the one whom we perceive to have caused us harm. More often than not, the harm they caused is not intentional and the relationship can be restored.
A few days ago I found myself answering a question posed by a friend on how one has a semblance of control in life by saying ‘what control?’ On reflection I realised that I had let go of the desperate to find my place in the world and to be able to rationally explain what that was.
It is perhaps no coincidence that I was reading some Thomas Merton this week. I stumbled across this paragraph and found it both deeply resonant and disarming.
‘Nor do I promise to cheer anybody up with optimistic answers to all the sordid difficulties and uncertainties which attend the life of interior solitude. Perhaps in the course of these reflections, some of the difficulties will be mentioned. The first of them has to be taken note of from the very start: the disconcerting task of facing and accepting one’s own absurdity. The anguish of realising that underneath the apparently logical pattern of a more or less well organised and rational life, there lies an abyss of irrationality, confusion, pointlessness, and indeed apparent chaos. This is what immediately impresses itself upon the persona who has renounced diversion. It cannot be otherwise: for in renouncing diversion, he renounces the seemingly harmless pleasure of building a tight, self-contained illusion about himself and his little world. He accepts the difficulty of facing the million things in his life which are incomprehensible, instead of simply ignoring them. Incidentally it is only when the apparent absurdity of life is faced in all truth that faith really becomes possible. Otherwise, faith tends to be a kind of diversion, a spiritual amusement, in which one gathers up accepted, conventional formulas and arranges them in the approved mental patterns, without bothering to investigate their meaning, or asking if they have any practical consequences in one’s life’ (from Notes for the Philosophy of Solitude in Disputed Questions)
Certainly my own journey into my interior has been incomprehensible and yet in the chaotic darkness of unknowing there has been a gentle drawing which was my guide. As the lived experience of the chaos recedes I find I am changed – I no longer crave control.