Celebrating life

One of my cousins died suddenly and unexpectedly last weekend. He was 53 years old.

He and I were not particularly close, but I had seen him and his wife a few times a year when I was living the UK. He was a good and generous man. His handiwork remains a part of my daily reality, as the dental bridge he constructed for me twenty years ago still resides in my mouth.

A life cut short too soon.

His death makes me ever so much more aware of the danger of my tendency to procrastinate. I saw a short quote a couple of months ago which suggest that procrastination is more about fear than laziness. This is certainly true for me. But an untimely death is a stark reminder that I do not have unlimited time. I may not have the time I think I do, and there things I don’t want to leave undone.

It’s not to say I am now in a rush to tick off the list of contributions I feel I want to make. Because one of pieces of wisdom I am being to grasp is that there is a right season for some things. Some ideas need a far longer percolation time than others. And rushing is as unhelpful as procrastinating.

So I guess, I am writing this as a reminder to myself – when the time seems right, I need to act. I need to keep my fear of failure or appearing foolish in the broader perspective of the potential of not being able to fulfill my goal.

For now, I choose to celebrate the life and contribution of my cousin, Ryk. I mourn his passing, and pray for those whose lives will be far more deeply affected by his death than my own.

Ignatian indifference

Ignatian indifference is not an easy concept – it is the capacity to hold the desire for something along with a sense of freedom with respect to the same thing. When I am trying to explain indifference, I usually use the example of sitting in the Loyola Hall chapel the night before I was going to be interviewed for a job there. As I sat talking to God, I recognised that I wanted this job more than anything I had ever wanted in my life before – this was the dream that I had thought I would be working towards for at least another decade suddenly within my grasp. As I sat and talked to God about my desire for the job, I began to notice that even with the intensity of desire, that God and I would be okay if I didn’t get the job. Of course I would have been disappointed, but I was willing to let God be God in the process. On that night, I really was able to see that I might not get the job, but that had nothing to do with my giftedness as a spiritual director, or my sense of call to that ministry. In other words, that failure to get the job would not have been a personal failure.

I believe that the experience of that kind of indifference or freedom is grace. It is not a state I can will myself into and it is usually temporary. Nonetheless it is vitally important because it allows for the healthy separation between success in particular venture and my relationship with God. Even if we consciously avoid the prosperity gospel messages which suggest that material wealth is indicative of a right relationship with God, it is easy to fall for the more subtle message that success is somehow predicated upon or linked to the quality of my relationship with God. So failure becomes very difficult, because not only do I have to deal with the reality of failure, but it has a major impact on the very place I would turn for solace – prayer. It also allows for the separation between success and my image of myself. It is a place of real humility, knowing my own giftedness and the capacity to avoid taking the rejection or failure personally.

Ignatian indifference then, is not about a lack of passion. But it is opens the space to let God be God. It reminds me that however much I may think I know what is good for me, I don’t see the full picture. It also allows for the reality that we live in a broken world, and many circumstances require the cooperation of people, anyone of whom (including me) may be focusing on shoring up our own egos rather than focusing on the greater glory of God.

The more I explore and teach Ignatian spirituality the more I recognise the real genius of Ignatius. I am ever grateful for those who opened this door for me.

The power of true humility

I recently attended the silver jubilee of ordination to bishop of a friend of mine. Although he and I have worked together a fair bit over the last five or six years but I have never had occasion to hear him preach. It was a very good sermon – weaving together the message from the readings he had chosen and a reflection on his life’s journey. As he was speaking I was struck forcibly by the unusual tone for such a celebration.

True humility is being able to hold my giftedness and my woundedness. It is allowing God to use me as I am. It is the knowledge that my efforts whilst necessary are insufficient in themselves. Sometimes I will make a truly inspired contribution and sometimes I will crash and burn. I can be proud of myself for being willing to show up and make the contribution that I am able to, but oftentimes success or failure are beyond my control.

I guess what I am trying to say is that it seems to me that it is important to take credit for what is truly my effort, but not to claim the wild successes as being due my brilliance, and not lamenting the unforeseen failures as though I was to blame. Clearly there is need for discernment and probably impartial feedback in all of this. The goal is real self-knowledge.

Most of us seem to err on one side or the other. Either we tend to assume credit for achievements which were not solely ours and successes which were in excess of expectation. Or we tend to beat ourselves up for failing to adequately foresee problems. We need to find the middle road, where we know our own real value – its usually a bit a mixed bag.

I pray for the grace of humility.

Reading my fatigue

I have always struggled with fatigue. I have always understood that to be primarily my genetic makeup. A complex combination of low blood pressure, a tendency towards insomnia and being highly introverted among other things. But a few years ago I suddenly noticed that my fatigue also has an emotional component. It was a real shock – one of those ‘scales falling from your eyes’ moments. My world fell into a new relief as I realised that fatigue is an escape mechanism for me.

A few years on, I can read my fatigue a little better. I beginning to be able to discern the qualitative difference between genuine fatigue (like the end of semester fatigue I feel right now) and the fatigue which is about avoidance. The physical experience is slightly different, and most importantly, the avoidant fatigue doesn’t really go away when I hibernate.

Recognising the difference is a bit of a pain sometimes, it means that it is harder to kid myself that an afternoon bonding with my bed with make me feel better when I have acknowledged that I am in the midst of an emotional reaction rather than genuine fatigue. It often takes me a while to figure out what the real issue is, and I am more likely to do that if I go for walk than if I curl up in a ball.

The point is simply this, something that I took for granted as being an inherent part of me turns out to be, at least in part, a coping mechanism. And as I grow in my capacity to read the subtle differences, I think I am living better – dealing stuff a little more directly, and being a little more honest with myself.

So, my question is simply this – what are your warning signals that things are little off kilter?


Sacred spaces

A young friend of mine is working on an assignment. She asked me to respond to a couple of questions about my living space, and it got me thinking…

I love where I live. I’m sure it wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice but it works very well for me. Aside from the convenience and security afforded by the situation, it is a happy space for me. I get to watch the sun rising over the mountains as I sit in my bed for my morning prayer. I have magnificent view of the Table Mountain range from my study.

My lounge is a sacred space too. It is a space where I get to have good conversations. Conversations with friends which last long into the night, over all sorts of things. Conversations with those who come for spiritual direction and supervision – which are much more focused.

I am not the kind of person who needs my living space to look ‘just so’. I have bought furniture that I like, and haven’t quite got around to hanging my pictures. And yet somehow my living space is my sanctuary. It is a place where I feel entirely myself.

There are other spaces in my life which I would consider sacred – being immersed in nature is always reviving for my spirit. And there are a few places which are deeply laded with particular memories – the Kolbe library and chapel, the chapel at Loyola Hall, the chapel at St Beuno’s. I am deeply appreciative of those spaces, and the memories associated with them.

But for now, I am most grateful that my home provides me with such a sanctuary: A space both of retreat and of rich encounter.

Growing into spiritual direction

In the midst of teaching a course on spiritual direction, I find myself once again reflecting on my own journey. Spiritual directors tend to be older. There is a wisdom that come with having lived a reflective life over decades and seeing God at work in all of that. I began working full time as a spiritual director at the age of 27. Ten years on, I am still significantly younger than most spiritual directors.

I am deeply indebted to those who journeyed with me in my early twenties. They helped to lay a substantial foundation in teaching me how to notice and how to name the feelings that were going on in me. Occasionally, I encounter people who remind me of the person I might have been if I had not had the opportunity to explore this field. I am reminded of my early struggles to answer that most simple question ‘How are you feeling?’ I really didn’t know how to access that information and I was determined to be ‘fine’.

I would not be who I am today without the years of both giving and receiving spiritual direction. There has been a great gift in growing up as spiritual director. I don’t mean that literally, but certainly the kind of maturation process that takes place as a direct result of grappling with whole complex reality that is life is a real gift. I am grateful that I have been able to watch myself growing into the role, and that I have had the tools of spiritual direction at my disposal as I have grappled with some major life challenges. I am not sure whether I am a better spiritual director now or not, I suspect that I am though, because I am not afraid of sitting through the pain and confusion of life. I understand that it is important to engage with and process the pain, and to engage with and process the joy. It has been a great blessing to be able to watch myself grow into this role. Sometimes I look back to starting at Loyola Hall ten years ago and I wonder what audacity I had, but all that is useful to do now is to look back in gratitude for all that I have learnt along the way.

This brings me to the two most important tools of spiritual direction – the capacity to sit with one’s own journey, and a fundamental belief that God will show up. I believe that both are crucial, and both require vigilant discernment. And I learnt both from sitting with people and listening to their journeys.

Why do you share things on social media?

I’ve written before about the issues surrounding comments and the general phenomenon of the polarised vitriol http://www.magsblackie.com/2013/01/25/what-happened-to-civility/. But this is something a little different. This week two of my Facebook friends shared articles that stopped me in my tracks, and not in a good sense. Both were clearly propaganda pieces, and I think the intent of both of these friends was to reveal a little of the ‘truth’. Both pieces were shocking to me. The one was clearly a very distorted version aimed at getting political power. The other, could possibly be true, but the source suggests that it probably isn’t, but again will aid the political campaigning of a particular political party. The problem is that the creators of these political myths intend precisely that they should be shared. They strike the right chord and outrage (of one flavour or another) predominates and suddenly the article goes viral.

So, to return to my initial question – why do you share things on social media? I am prolific ‘sharer’. I have about 20 really interesting Facebook friends – from spirituality, chemistry, education and church circles. These friends post interesting articles and I often share them. But I am discerning in what I share. I won’t share information that comes from dodgy sources. If there is a controversial opinion being punted back and forth I usually try to find something written by the original person – rather than an interpretation of what was said. If that is not possible, I try to make sure that the news source is reliable.

I know that there are a good few people who have long since blocked me from their news feed, because I do post a lot. But I do try to be discerning in what I post. I also have diverse friends and some will appreciate a subsection of what I post, gently ignoring the other stuff. I also post occasionally as a way of archiving something. If it is on my timeline, then I can find the link again.

I guess I am writing this, because I think what I put there matters. It matters because in choosing to post or to gently ignore I am casting my vote in a way. I realise that in writing this I totally open myself up to the judgements of others. But I hope that at least one person will stop and think about which voices they are choosing to amplify and which to dampen.