Praying for grace

There is a very useful practice in Ignatian spirituality: each prayer period begins with praying for a particular grace. In the context of the Spiritual Exercises these graces are clearly defined, but as we go about living our daily lives beyond the Exercises it is helpful to  try to articulate a grace which is directly relevant to where we are on any given day.

In recent years I have discovered that the idea of praying for the grace is incredibly powerful at those points in our lives where we find ourselves to be stuck in some way – that kind of interior ‘stuckness’ which we find difficult to shift. At those times we are usually stuck because although we may be able to see where we want to be, a part of us is unwilling to give up an aspect of where we are now. At these times being able to sit with ourselves in honesty before God, to hold both our desire to move and our desire to hold on and to pray first for the grace to desire to let go we will begin to notice the willingness to let go emerge. And as our willingness to let go grows, we can begin to pray for the grace to actually let go.

The amazing thing about this way of praying is that the end result never seems to look quite as we expected it to. There is always an element of surprise. The interior place beyond the stuckness is usually not quite what we thought it would be. Some elements which we thought we had to let go of are still there and other elements which didn’t seem to be a problem are either absent or have been rearranged. I have yet to meet anyone who can successfully will themselves through such places of stuckness, and I think this is, in part, precisely because whilst we usually have some inkling of the problem, we don’t have the full perspective.

Somehow praying for the grace frees us from trying to control the outcome. We can let God be God and allow ourselves to be surprised. It isn’t something magical, and it isn’t something that we can control. All we can do is to be willing to admit our stuckness; to hold it before God and ask God to show us what we need to see. Over time, it will become clear what grace we need to pray for. And as pray for that grace over time things begin to shift and freedom emerges.

The challenge and invitation is to be willing to admit our stuckness and to let go of trying to dictate the nature of the outcome.

The roots of desire

Music holds a unique place in my life. I don’t listen to music much apart from the offerings of Fine Music Radio on my daily commute. But music and liturgical worship are somehow inextricably linked in my soul. Perhaps the best experience I have had of the integration of music and liturgy was in Taize. The music is easy to sing but there are layers of complexity which can be added. And I continue to yearn for the richness of the deeply meditative liturgy which was carved out by the combination of music and silence.

I continue to make my contributions on my flute to the church band with my thoroughly mediocre musical ability. I enjoy playing in the band, and I play well enough to make a positive contribution. But somehow music making is an area in which I am totally comfortable with my own level of performance. I am surrounded by much more talented musicians but I feel no need to try to raise my game. It is both a space of incredible freedom to simply be myself as I am, and yet the absence of the desire to improve means that my standard of playing will not improve.

I am tremendously grateful for the freedom that affords me. It means I can give my humble offering without shame, guilt, embarrassment or self-consciousness. It is probably the only space in my life where I have that degree of freedom. But at the same time, I am aware that I have no motivation to improve. I don’t practice on my own, and I have no desire to. It is a space in which I am also completely unambitious.

I find the juxtaposition of those two ideas interesting. It makes me realise that for me the will to improve or to expend further effort usually requires some kind of driver. When I was younger the main driver was the desire to prove myself. Now, I think the driver is shifting to something a little less fear based and a little more positive – the desire to make a meaningful contribution.

Maybe in the context of the church band I feel I don’t need to expend any more effort because it wouldn’t make all that much difference to the quality of my contribution, and so I  can simply relish my contentment. Nonetheless I find it helpful to look at the things which motivate me and to recognise that there has to be a desire to do better for any change to occur. The question I will need to return to periodically is whether the desire to do better has its roots in fear (in my case trying to make myself acceptable) or love (in my case making my contribution).

Choosing integrity

I came across an article in the UK Independent a few days ago which highlighted the problem of falsifying research results. The proposed response to this kind of fraudulent behavior is to punish the university. I suppose the idea is that it should force each institution to be a little more vigilant about the quality of research published by its own academics.

But it seems to me that this problem of falsification of research results is actually just a symptom of a far wider societal problem which will not be solved by increasing punishments. The question to ask is – why would an academic falsify results? There may be more complex answers but essentially it is to make their work look better, so it can be published in a higher impact journal which can then leverage research funding and ultimately lead to an increase in the profile of the person in their field and/or a promotion within the university.

This kind of choice is not limited to academia. We live in a world which increasingly values extrinsic things – money, power and status.  It is evident in politics – where retaining power becomes more important than service to the people.  We wrangle with each other over these things trying to get ahead even if it is simply within our small social circle.

The real danger though is the presumption that the problem is simply ‘out there’ with ‘other people’ who have no integrity. Integrity isn’t a quality that magically appears when it is most needed. It is something we need to practice on a daily basis. For each of us the point of temptation will be different. It may be that we are willing to let others carry us along doing minimum work. It may be that we charge things to business accounts that we really shouldn’t. It may be that we simply avoid facing painful choices, because if we procrastinate long enough they will go away. It may be that we fail attend to our own shortcomings when relationships become strained.

Integrity is not something that is rewarded in our society. But if we want to live in a good and just society we all have to pull our weight. Nobel prize winner Kary Mullis writes of the experience of realizing that he was one of the ‘elders’ in his field – there was no further body to oversee the field and make sure that things were being done appropriately. We cannot look to others to be the people of integrity. We need to step up. if we want to live in a world of integrity we need to be prepared to examine our own actions, to recognize where we may be falling a little short and to make the changes we need to.

When inspiration fails

I have noticed over the last week or so that I have found it increasingly difficult to be creative. Sitting down in front of a blank page to write this blog post is a major challenge. I was tempted on my last post to write about lack of inspiration, but here I am five days later, and I am glad I can at least write about this because there really is nothing else!

I think I am just tired. The end of the semester has happened, there are a few admin tasks left, but the major stress is over. I planned this week rather badly in that I have an overdose of spirituality related engagements – two talks in two different churches, a reading group and the final two days of a spiritual direction course. In case it isn’t clear I am leading all of those. Somehow the week didn’t look so bad when I was agreeing to all these things!

So now I sit writing because I have committed myself to this rhythm of posting and I think it is important for me to show up even if my message is pedestrian at best. Maybe it is important to be clear about the fact that I don’t always feel inspired. Nobody does! We all go through times where the creative process feels easier than others. The challenge is to keep going through the tough times. It is way too easy to hold off until the next wave of inspiration.

If I had waited for inspiration to strike I would have posted at all this week. Now blogging is just a hobby for me, but the commitment to show up even when I don’t really feel like it seems like a good thing – even if the post is less than inspiring. I do this because I trust that inspiration will return and if my routine is still in place it will be far easier to harness the energy.

One day at a time

I always begin my day with a time of prayer. It is mostly discursive kind of a prayer where I think about what is going on in my life and I talk to God about that. It works well for me, and it has done for a long time. But this morning I finished my prayer in a less happy space than I had begun it because I began to think about all the things I needed to address this week.

Currently I am going through that happy transition that academics go through twice a year, when the marking is mostly behind us and we can shift our focus back to research. The strange thing about life as an academic is that nothing is ever finished. You never leave work with an empty in-tray. There is always more that can be done and more that should be done. There are always things pending; always more things that could be done.

The completion of marking is perhaps the one rare exception to that. It marks an actual end. It is a time to be celebrated. But as I look forward to my week ahead, my head is filled with the things I have temporarily put off until I got the marking out of the way. By tomorrow the course admin will be behind me, but the wave of work which I have been gently ignoring for a couple of weeks can no longer be put off.

The challenge for me is to fight the temptation to paralysis. To recognize that there are small bites which can be taken which will slowly get the momentum going. To trust that if I attend to what I can each day, that in time things will get done and progress will be made.

The really strange thing about academia is that most of the pressure is self-imposed. How can I become paralysed by pressure that is essentially self-imposed?? It is something of a mystery to me.

As I take a step back I am able to see once more that I am deeply grateful for the freedom that academia grants me. There are pressures, but for the most part I am able to choose the way in which I spend my time. I am able to focus on different things at different times, and do those things which are most meaningful to me. So for today I pray for the grace of perspective coupled with the desire to take a small step towards my desired goals.

On suicide

This is one of those posts I did not envision when I started my blog, but I think I need to put it out there. It is a topic we don’t normally talk about, and I feel it is important.

In the last week I have had conversations with two unrelated people who have been faced with having to deal with the attempted suicide of someone they cared deeply about. And I have been struck again by how little we talk about suicide, and yet most of us will have to deal with it one way or another.

The first time I really encountered suicide in a personal way was several years ago. The person had been a colleague – someone for whom I had a great deal of affection and respect. We hadn’t had contact for a few years prior to her suicide, so I had no real insight into why she would have made this choice.

Her death brought the complexity of suicide into my world. I was forced to think about what death by suicide might mean in faith terms. Historically the church would not bury someone who had committed suicide on consecrated ground. And this choice certainly goes against the idea of the sanctity of life. So what then for my colleague? In considering her death I discovered in myself a sense of compassion – I did not know what had precipitated her choice, but I could not help but feel tremendous sadness that she could not see any way through.

Thinking about the meaning of suicide in processing the death of my colleague helped me a great deal, when just a few months later, one my relatives took his own life. This time the reasons for his choice were a little less opaque in retrospect. But it was no less shocking.

When we think of the meaning of suicide, it is important to remember that the reasons that people take their own lives are many and varied. These two instances certainly taught me that. There is a gamut of emotion around the way in which it is done, the reasons for it, how it is discovered and so on. But I think, as people of faith, it is important to think about what it means – how do we think God responds? I suspect God is far more understanding than some of our older traditions may suggest.

In a similar way our responses to suicide may be widely variable. In families this can be particularly evident. Two people with a similar relationship to the deceased may experience the suicide completely differently. In conversing with suicide survivors it is really important to allow them the space simply to be true to where they are emotionally.

There are no right answers and no correct responses. There is only prayer for grace and compassion.