Daring to live and love

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

~ Mary Oliver ~

 

‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’ If we can just dare to love, we will discover what is truly important. We will be able to distinguish the things that are truly important from the things that cry out for our attention.

Irenaeus is attributed with saying that the glory of God is the human person fully alive. How do we live to the full? Henry David Thoreau put it this way:

‘I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived’.

If we live in fear of getting it wrong, we will discover that we missed out on the essence of life. We need to dare to love passionately. What I most love and value in Ignatian spirituality is that it is a spirituality which teaches us to deal with desire. Ignatius is not afraid of the chaos of daily life. Rather he is utterly convinced that God is present in all of it. If we can just bring ourselves to pause for long enough to notice, we will not be able to miss the God’s presence in our lives.

Living life with passion and with enthusiasm is no guarantee against loss and against pain. I have often found myself wondering why some people seem to have such a tough row to hoe whilst others seemingly swim through life unscathed. I do not know why this is, and contemplating this question does not seem to help me much. But I have come to know that whatever happens and however tough it gets, that God really is in the midst of the chaos. If Jesus had the courage to go through the Passion, what tribulation of ours would he shy away from? He was rejected by those he was trying to help, denied by his closest companions and put through unimaginable torture. When we are having a tough time, he is in the midst of it. We are not alone. It may be scary and it may be overwhelmingly painful but we are not alone. In God, in the mystery of Easter, we have the promise of redemption. We have the promise of resurrection.

We do not know what the next world will look like. And I find the concept of salvation as being a gateway to the next world a little abstract. I am a bit too pragmatic to live my life by that kind of idea. What will happen in the world to come will take care of itself. Rather, I put my faith in redemption because I have seen it happen in my own life. I have seen the unbelievable healing power of God at work in my own soul. There have been at least three or four occasions in my adult life where I have looked back and wondered what on earth happened. How did the place of pain grow into this place of joy?

Ignatius offers us the simple tools of discernment – notice those things which draw you closer to God and those things which draw you further away from God. Notice those things which help you to move towards greater authenticity and greater personal integration, and those things which must remain hidden and lead to fragmentation. Notice those things which lead to deeper relationships and those which foster shallow passing acquaintance. Give time, space and energy to those things which enrich relationship with God, which foster authenticity and which deepen relationships. Set aside those things which do not. Know that as you do that, you will uncover more areas of unfreedom, areas of brokenness, and areas of woundedness. Know too, that God is with you, and God wants to heal you. Healing does not mean that the wounds will disappear, but rather that through the grace of God you will come to see that the wounding is not something to be ashamed of, but rather it is the seedbed of compassion and wisdom.

What happened to civility?

The Southern Cross, the South African weekly Roman Catholic newspaper announced that it was suspending the comments section on their website. The editorial states: ‘The comments section was intended to serve as a forum in which readers could exchange ideas on topics within the Church. Perhaps invariably, these discussions frequently became marked by intolerable levels of hectoring polemic; sometimes accompanied by calumny and distortion.’

http://www.scross.co.za/2013/01/scorched-earth-catholics/

Coincidentally, several other Facebook pages and articles I happened across appeared to be struggling with the same issue. The existence of such exchanges has been a problem on the Facebook page of the church I belong to, so in essence it is not news to me. However, my concern is that this quality of exchange appears to ubiquitous in any space which trades in strongly held opinions. I would love to understand the reason for this.

One possibility is this strange new world of social networking. Comments are not usually made with anonymity (at least not of Facebook), but the lack of immediacy of having to actually look one’s discursive partner in the eye seems to diminish one’s capacity to self-censor. There is a forthright nature to social networking which means one can spout one’s opinions without any need to support one’s statements. Worse than this, is the presumption that one can personally attack someone who holds a differing opinion. I certainly have learnt the hard way that trying to reason with those who are comfortable with this kind of approach through social media simply doesn’t work.

Nonetheless, it seems that simply ascribing this behaviour to a negative aspect of social media is insufficient. There seems to be something else stirring. It is exemplified in this commentary on recent political statements in South Africa. The general polemic orbits around what it means to be truly ‘African’.

dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2013-01-16-careful-mr-mthembu-the-re-emergence-of-apartheids-volksvreemdes-mentality  

It is true that relativism may be problematic if one is trying to establish some kind of group identity. But there is a fundamental difference between relativism and pluralism. Not everyone needs to see things in exactly the same way in order to hold the same basic ideals. More importantly though, there is no recognition in this kind of polemic that we see only partially. The ‘truth’ which we are so vigorously defending today may be revealed to be not quite right in time to come.

There is tremendous hubris (and a very poor knowledge of history) in this kind of absolutist attitude. And yet, it seems to be the most obvious defense against uncertainty. If I just shout loud enough maybe, just maybe, I can ward off the fear and avoid feeling the insecurity. Is this, in part, a reaction to postmoderism?

I don’t know the root of these issues, it may be that I simply expect too much from people. Regardless, it seems to me that our discussions would be far more fruitful if we were take the words of Ignatius of Loyola seriously. In his preamble to the Spiritual Exercises he states:

‘That both the giver and the maker of the Spiritual Exercises may be of greater help and benefit to each other, it should be presupposed that every good Chris­tian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved.’

The complexity of desire

Wings of Desire

People are distracted by objects of desire,
and afterward repent of the lust they’ve indulged,
because they have indulged with a phantom
and are left even farther from Reality than before.
Your desire for the illusory could be a wing,
by means of which a seeker might ascend to Reality.
When you have indulged a lust, your wing drops off;
you become lame, abandoned by the fantasy.
Preserve the wing and don’t indulge such lust,
so that the wing of desire may bear you to Paradise.
People fancy they are enjoying themselves,
but they are really tearing out their wings
for the sake of an illusion.

Rumi

We have such a complex relationship with desire. Most of us, brought up in strong Christian traditions, are taught to be deeply suspicious of desire. If we are to steer clear of the road to perdition, then desire is to be quietly dismissed. But this is gross misunderstanding. Even Augustine of Hippo, who has shaped so much of our tradition with respect to sexuality, is famous for the quote: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.’ What is restlessness if not some form of desire?

This poem by Rumi holds that tension so beautifully. Not only can our desire lead us to destruction, but it is also the vehicle which will take us to Paradise.

In Ignatian spirituality desire is not the problem. It is disordered desire which trips us up. It’s not quite as simple saying the stuff labelled ‘God’ will lead us in the right direction and everything else should be held at arms length. A key tenet of this spirituality is that God can be found in all things.

What matters then, is what happens within me as I interact with this particular person, or job, or object. It requires a habit of reflection; a commitment to noticing my internal response; and a willingness to gently set aside the things that do not lead towards deeper relationship with God.

It isn’t a single choice, but a daily commitment. The process of discernment is never perfect. There is no guarantee that I will not mess up. I take my full self into the process, and as a result I cannot escape my flawed humanity. But with practice, over time, I begin to taste the difference between the sweet nectar of the life giving choice and the saccharine of the illusion.

For anyone wanting to explore more about Ignatian spirituality here are a few suggestions:

http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/

http://www.pray-as-you-go.org/

http://www.sacredspace.ie/

http://www.loyolapress.com/

http://www.jesuit.org.uk/spirituality.htm

Forgiveness

In the midst of the media storm which has accompanied the interview of Lance Armstrong by Oprah Winfrey, there is an interesting piece in America magazine.

http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/should-we-forgive-lance-armstrong

The article is written by well known Jesuit author James Martin SJ and explores the question of whether we should forgive Lance Armstrong. It is an interesting read and the middle section gives a very useful commentary on the different elements necessary in the sacrament of reconciliation.

However, it has got me thinking about a slightly different question – what does it mean for me to forgive Lance Armstrong (or any person entirely unrelated to me and my life circumstances)? Yes, I did read It’s not about the bike and Every second counts three or four years ago. Yes, I found his story engaging and interesting. But I have known disappointment of this sort before. As a child I had to write a short essay on someone I found inspiring. This is around the time of the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, and I chose the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. After a long rivalry with Carl Lewis, Johnson finally triumphed taking the gold in the 100m final. The ink was hardly dry on my essay when the news broke of his use of performance enhancing drugs.

I suppose my issue here is with the choice of the word ‘forgiveness’. I know what it is to forgive. I know it is not something that I can will myself to; is it not something I can rationally argue myself into; nor is it something I can choose. Forgiveness is not something which crosses my path on a daily basis. Rather it is something which I discover I am in need of when I begin to recognise that I am hooked onto something in my past. I am still holding onto the identity which an old wound has given me. Sooner or later (sometimes after far more time has elapsed than I would care to admit!) I begin to see that I am jeopardising my future wellbeing by continuing to cling to the wound. At this point I pray for the grace of forgiveness, and after a period of time I find the interior freedom that I had lost.

Lance Armstrong’s appalling behaviour doesn’t even feature as blip in this way of understanding. So forgive him I cannot, because I don’t quite understand what forgiveness would mean. This does not mean that there are not those who will need to pray for this particular grace, I am just saying, I don’t think I am one of them.

Rather, I choose to look on him with compassion. He has made a monumental screw up. I hope he manages to find redemption in the years to come. By that I mean I hope he is able to look himself in the mirror, to own what he has done, and to find a way to make a meaningful substantial contribution to the community in which he resides.

The tension with Tradition

I am a Roman Catholic. I was baptised shortly after my birth into this church, and I have marked the rites of passage and coming of age with the sacraments ever since. In my early twenties, I went through some serious questioning in the end I discovered that God did exist, and that my spiritual home was the church I had been raised in.

The spiritual heritage in the Roman Catholic Church provides a depth and a wisdom which is often far too well hidden in the recesses of the religious orders. And yet, I must confess that there are aspects of the Church’s teaching with which I struggle enormously. Nowadays, if this affiliation comes up in conversation I am more frequently confronted with the latest scandal. In my teens and twenties the response was more likely to be concern for the salvation of my soul (Roman Catholics are not apparently true Christians). I found the latter conversations easier to handle than I do the former. Doubtless, in part, because when I was younger I was much more comfortable touting absolute answers. The practice of spiritual direction has taught me that God is far more generous than I am, and against such a backdrop absolutes don’t wash quite so easily.

Nonetheless my struggles with certain aspects of the Church have led me to wonder if it wouldn’t be so much better to just do my own thing? I have an established prayer practice, I go regularly to spiritual direction. I have enough confidence in my own discernment to know that I need the tempering of a spiritual director. Would that not be sufficient?

As tempting as it sometime is, I don’t think so. In as much as I do think I have a well established relationship with God, I also know that there is enormous wisdom in the tradition. The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t change easily or quickly. It isn’t easily manipulated by the latest fad, or a strong personality. It also responds very slowly to things that have long since become socially acceptable. (It took from the Reformation to the Second Vatican Council for the Church to finally acknowledge that maybe the Protestants were talking to the same God – and perhaps even more radically maybe God had time for them!) Some of the current hot issues have only been grappled with in wider society in the last 50 years.

So, I continue to draw on this rich tradition, but at the same time, I believe that it is part of my own faith journey to grapple with the challenges that exist too. It is important that I do have intelligent conversations about these things. The church is not a democracy and it won’t change by popular vote or public pressure, but I have to believe in the value of people of faith seeking truth and living a life rooted in discernment. And I have to believe that ultimately the Holy Spirit will prevail, although I cannot dare to presume the outcome!

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…

An article published recently in the New York Times has given me some pause for thought. The main argument presented is that whatever age we are, we think we have finally ‘made it’. We look back on our youthful past and unpolished preferences with some disdain. Never quite recognising that at some point in our future, we will look back on our current taste in music or clothes or entertainment with feelings ranging from mild embarrassment to total mortification.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/04/science/study-in-science-shows-end-of-history-illusion.html?_r=0

It has occurred to me that this is probably true too for the opinions I hold. It is a thought that is a little daunting for someone embarking on writing a blog. I am throwing out my opinion freely and shamelessly for anyone to read. Will I look back on what I have written here in years to come and cringe?

I hope so.

I hope that the at least some of the ideas and opinions I hold today, will not be the same as those I will hold in five or ten years. This is not to say that I do not fervently believe that I have something of value to say today. I wouldn’t make the effort to write these shorts pieces if I did not believe they were not of value in some way. But I want to continue to grow, to continue to mature, to continue to have my eyes opened to new perspectives. Quite where I will end up ideologically, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, I don’t know. I’m looking forward to the unfolding story.

For today, I am doing the best that I can. My investment in tomorrow is to make sure that I have contact with those who love me, those who will challenge me, and those who will allow me to grow. I commit myself to reading and learning; to thinking and reflecting.

Nonetheless, for today, I think I do have something to offer. It isn’t the final answer, but in education circles, there is an increasing emphasis on peer learning. One of the advantages of peer learning is that the kid who has just understood a new concept is often far more able to understand the struggles of the kid who hasn’t quite made the necessary connections precisely because the first kid has just made that leap. Those of us who have been intellectually immersed in these concepts for decades sometimes can’t get back to that small step. Likewise, there will be things that I write today, that I may not continue to hold tomorrow. But those small steps are important development processes. And as I reveal a little of my own process in this way, maybe, just maybe, I can help someone take another step.

For those ahead of me – please show me your process! I want to learn!

I don’t want to echo the despair of Macbeth:

‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.’

William Shakespeare – Macbeth

What is the question you will use to guide your choices this year?

Some years ago a friend commented that it seems to matter to me what I do (I mean in terms of my work). At first, I simply agreed because of course it matters. A week or so later I realised that I had missed her point, she was actually paying me a compliment. Not all people are so invested in the nature or purpose of their work. And in that came the recognition that not all people are as invested as I am in the purpose of their work. I remain slightly mystified by that, not in the abstract, but in meeting people around me, who seem not to really care how they make their money as long as their pay cheque is sufficiently large to meet their desires.

Recently though, I had a conversation with a close friend. She and I share many personality traits and a fairly fundamental belief system in that we both have been practicing Ignatian spirituality for most of our adult lives. As we were driving through a small village in Cheshire, I commented that my driving motivation is to make a contribution to society (and yes, I used this vague phrase that is laden with value for me). Given our many similarities, I presumed that she would share this motivation. To my utter shock, she said, ‘I’ve heard you say that before, but that is not what drives me.’

In starting the new year, I have reflected a great deal on this. Because it seems that my desire to make a contribution is a part of my being. It is not just a confluence of personality and training – if that were the case my friend would surely share this desire. (This is not to say she doesn’t want to make a contribution, simply, that this is not her driving motivation!!) I realise that this desire is not trivial, it is something that I need to consider.

As I have slowly ruminated on this, I have come to understand that roots of this desire. I understand that it has been there in different forms throughout my life. It is probably in one of its more healthy incarnations at the moment. In the past it has drawn significant energy from the need to be accepted. At times I have felt I have needed to be able to do something  or to ‘bring something to the table’ to be acceptable. I don’t experience that level of neediness at the moment. Nonetheless, I feel the desire to make a contribution.

As I start the new year, it occurs to me, that consider my activities in terms of whether they aid my contribution, may be a good tool for discernment this year. It incorporates both what is for my greater good and for what might be the greater good of the community in which I serve. The discernment lies in murky midst of all of that.

So, what for you will be the guiding question for 2013?