On goal setting and discernment

A couple of days ago my brother-in-law posted a link to a column he had written. As a biologist he uses the analogy of the different ways in which certain organisms choose their environment to illustrate the importance of true navigation in our human lives. It is well worth reading.


But it got me thinking. I am a little ambivalent about the idea of setting goals. I do understand that it is useful to have goals to work towards. Goals help both in keeping us on course, and in keeping us motivated. I think though, that I am little wary of presuming that we will arrive at a place of enlightenment or fulfilment or contentment simply by pursuing and attaining our goals.

My own life path has been erratic (if one measures it by the standards of goal setting). That is not to say that I did not have purpose and distinct trajectory in the choices I was making. My goal, in as much as I had one, was to deepen my relationship with God. That isn’t a very tangible goal, and it certainly took me on a very winding road. It continues to be the thing that motivates me, and yet the markers seem mostly to appear in hindsight.

I suppose my issue, inasmuch as I have one, is that I think goals are good, but only if we are open to the possibility of rethinking occasionally. I am a firm believer in importance of discernment. The daily task of paying attention: Paying attention to what is happening internally; paying attention to the feedback from my environment; paying attention to communication from God. That is something akin to the internal feedback of checking that I am on course, which is a little different to evaluating how I am doing with respect to my goal. Or it can be.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I think the direction we are headed in is more important than the proximity of a goal (whatever that goal might be). In pursuing a particular long favoured goal we may end up on the wrong trajectory. Pursing the goal may have simply been a useful means to get to place where we have greater perspective and are thus able to make different choices and set different goals.

We need to be attention on a daily basis; to notice whether the goals we set weeks, months or even years ago, are in fact still appropriate for our primal search for meaning. Goals are important but we need to continue to be discerning.

A life of faith

What does it mean to live a life of faith? Living a life of faith is more than simply admitting allegiance to a particular belief system. It is more than regular attendance at some form of communal worship. To have any real meaning, faith must be a significant factor in life, rather than just a hobby which happens to provide a social circle. I know that many people focus on the hereafter. It is a very Christian idea that professing faith in Jesus is start of salvation. It is our entry into heaven. I understand where that thinking comes from, and certainly there was a time in my life when my faith was a bit like an insurance policy. At that stage my faith life had a fairly minimal impact on how I lived my life, and I was not sure whether God existed or not, so I figured, practising faith did not cost me terribly much but it could have very serious consequences in the hereafter so on balance I was better off continuing as I was, attending Mass on Sunday and doing a quick five minutes of prayer just before I fell asleep at night. To me, that kind of faith now seems a little pointless.

After making the Spiritual Exercises, my faith shifted from being something important but peripheral in my life, to being central. Relationship with God became my primary concern. Having practised faith in this way, supported by having a daily prayer time for more than a decade has borne wonderful fruit in my life. I have learnt an enormous amount about myself in the process, and I know that this practice has shaped and changed my interaction with others. It has changed the value system I hold within my life. Not necessarily in terms of what is important to me, but the ordering of those significant things. I have come to value my relationships with others far more than my personal achievements for example. In this way faith is shaping my daily reality. To me, this is a life of faith rather than any particular declaration or assertion of beliefs. The reason I continue to believe is that it continues to provide the best framework for my experience, and through practising my faith, my being has been enriched beyond anything I imagined possible. In this way it has a profound impact on my life on a daily basis. What happens in the hereafter will take care of itself.

What is faith to you and how does it impact your life?

Loyola Hall

Ten years ago today I entered the gates of Loyola Hall, a Jesuit Spirituality Centre in Merseyside in the UK. It was grey winter’s day. I was carrying a backpack on my back and small bag in my hand. That day I was beginning a training program in spiritual direction which was to last about seven weeks.

I still remember the sense of relief as the gates slowly swung open and I began to walk down the driveway, the house only partially visible through the naked trees. The previous six months had been the most emotionally challenging and draining periods I had experienced up until that time. I had no idea where I would go or what I would do after the course was over. I just knew that this is where I needed to be. My prayer journal entry from that evening reads:

My Lord, it is difficult to believe I am actually here at Loyola Hall. It was a dream for so long and suddenly I am here. I have no doubt that you have brought me here. What I don’t know is why: who is here that I need to talk to? What have I to learn? There is only one thing I can do – to be present and to allow your Spirit to guide me.

It is extraordinary to me to look back at these words with the grace of hindsight. The training course turned into a permanent job and it was four years before I left.  A single conversation with a woman named Ruth Holgate ten days later would lay the groundwork both for the job and for real friendship. What I learnt in those years will shape the rest of my life.

I am deeply indebted to the community who taught me so much. I am enormously grateful to those retreatants and directees who trusted me to hold their spiritual journeys. In their trust of me, I learnt to trust God.

But mostly on this day, I am struck by the resonance of my prayer of that day. It is as true today as it was then.

I have no doubt that you have brought me here. What I don’t know is why: who is here that I need to talk to? What have I to learn? There is only one thing I can do – to be present and to allow your Spirit to guide me.

I would choose slightly different words now for the last phrase – to be present and to allow God to be God.

Disordered attachments: considerations for Lent?

Pope Benedict’s resignation shows immense spiritual freedom. Rare is the person who can, and will, relinquish such power voluntarily. It is an example of what St. Ignatius Loyola meant by being “disponible,” available, free of any disordered attachments, in order to be able to follow the will of God. Pope John Paul II was free enough to carry on in the midst of a difficult illness, and in the face of having to show to the public his obvious infirmities; Pope Benedict is free enough to accept his inability to carry on as he believes God would want him to. Spiritual freedom is on display today.’ James Martin SJ

As we start the season of Lent today, it is perhaps worthwhile to consider this idea of disordered attachments. Too many of us hiccup our way through Lent giving up the old favourites of chocolate or alcohol, giving a little extra to charity and maybe throwing in a bit of additional prayer. As I talk with friends over ideas of what they will do for Lent, it is increasingly obvious that these well worn actions don’t really have much spiritual impact.

What are disordered attachments? Returning to the quote by James Martin SJ, both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II exhibited spiritual freedom. Pope John Paul by choosing to remain in power even in frailty and suffering and Pope Benedict by choosing to resign. If Pope Benedict was inordinately attached to his position as pontiff, he would not have been able to respond to the inner promptings of conscience and step down. Ultimately, he would have put retention of his position above service to God. Having said that, it is important here to note the juxtaposition of these two men. Faced with the same issues, Pope John Paul believed he was called to continue. The issue is the willingness to be led, not the outcome of the decision.

We all have things we are invested in – careers, social standing, financial wellbeing, reputation etc. None of these things is inherently problematic, unless we are a little too attached. Are we willing to compromise our ethics to get ahead? Do we hide our faith from our colleagues? Do we parade our good deeds to our church friends? Do we sacrifice our integrity to climb the next rung on the ladder? Put in melodramatic terms these are the places that we sell our souls. That is to say, with slightly less flourish, these are places where our relationship with God is put into second place. The way in which this manifests itself is a great reluctance to relinquish the thing which feeds our ego. In the end we put our own ego before relationship with God.

Ignatius, in the Principle and Foundation puts it this way:

The goal of our life is to live with God forever. God, who loves us, gave us life. Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into us without limit. All the things in this world are gift of God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily. As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God insofar as they help us develop as loving persons. But if any of these gifts become the centre of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal. In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not bound by some obligation. We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God. Our only desire and our own choice should be this: I want and choose what better leads to God’s deepening his life in me.

So maybe a useful consideration for Lent should be paying attention to those spaces where I find myself a little too attached; to pay attention to my conscience; to practice discernment to distinguish between those things which will lead me to greater authenticity and integrity and those things which feed my ego.

Forgiveness is an essential part of the gospel message

I seem to be slow to learn many of the important things in life. Or maybe, it is just that I am willing to admit my puzzlement! I am finally beginning to realise why Jesus makes such a big deal about forgiveness in the gospels. If we understand forgiveness to be an act of will, or mental choice to view a particular act differently, we won’t get it.

Forgiveness requires that I am able to see the humanity of the other. It requires that I am able to recognise that this person who has done me harm (intentionally or not!) is a wounded person: A person operating out of patterns of behaviour which are deeply etched on their psyche. Not one of us manages to escape childhood without at least a few scars. We carry unconscious desires and needs with us and shape our experience far more than we realise. Occasionally we are confronted with someone else’s stuff and those are the moments which lead to pain.

All too often we attribute the pain we have experienced to the other person, as though they intended the full extent of the pain of our experience. This is rarely the case. Most of us are far too unaware of what is happening in the experience of anyone else to be able to intentionally cause such destruction. Mostly, when we do lash out at another, it because they have failed us in some way – although often we do not even quite understand exactly why it is that we feel that we have been failed.

So, when we are the ones who are wounded, it is only when we recognise the wounded vulnerability of the other that we can begin to forgive. It is only when we can see that their actions were bound by a story far greater than the simply the interaction we have had do we begin to feel a sense of relief.

It is only when we are able to see the humanity of the other that we can begin to truly love. It is only in seeing the other as a mixed bag of giftedness and brokenness that we begin to experience compassion.

If the message of the gospel is about loving God and loving one’s neighbour, then the capacity to forgive is useful measure. Forgiveness is not an act of will. Forgiveness is the capacity to see the other as a human being.

It does not require that I try to ignore my own woundedness and continue to embrace the other despite the obvious destructiveness of our interaction. Sometimes the best we can do is to walk away.

Simple truths

Thomas Keating once wrote a series of guidelines for interreligious understanding which were developed over a series of interreligious dialogues. Amongst the ‘additional points of agreement of a practical nature’ is:

Humility, gratitude, and a sense of humor are indispensable in the spiritual life’.

What a great statement! It certainly rings true in my own experience. There is nothing quite like an over-serious piety to entirely miss the point. I sincerely believe this to be true of life in general. Indeed, I’m not quite sure how one does prevent a healthy spiritual life from permeating the whole of one’s life.

I have found over the last years that the conscious practice of gratitude has had a powerful influence over me. For two separate periods I posted something for which I was grateful on Facebook every day. I probably won’t do that again in quite the same way, because the effect it has had seems to have taken root now. Through practicing gratitude I have become more grateful. In the act of articulating just one thing for which I am grateful every day, I am far more aware of the gifts I have been given in so many different forms.

With the practice of gratitude comes a greater sense of humility. I am far more aware of the contribution of factors outside of myself to my own success. As I get older too, and I get know myself a bit better, I am beginning to recognise that  humility and insecurity seem to incompatible.

Or perhaps more accurately, it seems to me to be impossible to be truly humble and to attempt to conceal one’s insecurity at the same time. It is only with self-acceptance and a good dose of humour that I can begin to accept my own shortcomings. And with that, I begin to recognise the real giftedness of those around me – not that they are perfect and I am somehow flawed. Rather, that their gifts may complement mine.  As I have grown in my level of comfort in my own skin, I have become far more willing and eager to acknowledge the giftedness of my companions.

I realise I am not called to be all things to all people, but rather I am called to be myself, in my uniquely limited way.