Celebrating Ignatius Day

There has been a question circulating on social media in the last few days – how are you going to celebrate the feast of St Ignatius? I do it in two ways – It is the day I use to mark the celebration of my vocation. And in good Ignatian fashion I write a few short notes to people who have been particularly significant in the last year.

So what is my vocation?


For me – it is summarised in this picture: the blending of education, philosophy and synthesis. The symbolism is a truly chemical one. The three rings are bonded together, they exist in the same plane and the electrons which form the π-bonds (the double bonds) form a single conjugated system. It is impossible to relate specific electrons to specific π-bonds or even to a single ring. In terms of my research project this means that education, philosophy and synthesis are all interconnected. Synthesis has a dual meaning. It means both the synthesis of new molecules and the synthesis of ideas and knowledge areas.

I don’t understand quite why I seem to have been called to bring together my background in spirituality, my knowledge of chemistry, my enjoyment of philosophy and my passion for education. Quite what will emerge is not clear. I know only that I do not seem to be able to abandon any of them. (And I have several times to let go of one or other aspect). I am truly grateful to have found a place where the tension between the different aspects is manageable.

It took me many years to discover that the real life for me comes from living in the strange mixture. I think that the years of full immersion in spirituality have been vital in helping hold this all together. Quite where this path will lead I don’t know. I try to hold the essence and sit lightly to the detail.

In writing this today I want to encourage all of those who are still grappling with where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing. The search is worth it, but it will probably take longer than you think it ought to!



The waters of grace

I have written about the importance of praying grace before (http://www.magsblackie.com/2013/06/28/praying-for-grace/) It is one of the treasures of Ignatian spirituality that I have come to appreciate most in recent years.

Teresa of Avila uses the metaphor of watering a garden to describe our varying experiences of prayer. She writes that in the beginning we make great efforts akin to drawing water from a well. Sooner or later we discover a stream running nearby and no longer have to draw water from the well, but we can carry it from the stream. Then we realise that actually the stream runs through the garden and we can simply divert the stream to where we most need water. Finally we discover that it rains periodically, and watering through our own efforts is not necessary.

I am always slightly wary of any ‘hierarchy’ in prayer terms.I am wary because it can seem that we can will ourselves to next level, or if we are sufficiently good or whatever that we will be ‘rewarded’ – all of those can lead to fairly toxic experiences in faith communities. But I have been reflecting on this image this week.

I find myself wondering whether the practice of prayer doesn’t allow for some internal ‘rewiring’. I have come to believe firmly in the power of praying for grace in areas of stuckness – and I think this is a bit like the diversion of the stream. Grace (the water) flows to the area I recognise as being in need. The internal shift happens because of the grace not through my own efforts.

This week, I had a most extraordinary realisation that an internal place of stuckness had become free – not through my own efforts, not even through my praying of grace. It just happened – using Teresa’s image – the rain fell. It wasn’t an act of will, it was nothing I can claim as my own. Simply choosing to act has allowed a new pathway to exist. And I find myself wondering whether the practice of being willing to sit in the ‘stuckness’ and praying for grace over recent years hasn’t allowed an internal rewiring to happen.

I’m not claiming that such grace is now at my finger tips, and I can sit back and relax. But rather to say, maybe, just maybe the image that Teresa offers is correct. Maybe it gets easier because we learn to notice the real movements. Maybe we learn that the real benefit of prayer is that it shapes how we are in the world, rather than directly shaping the world.

I am sure I will continue to stumble along my way, sometimes it will rain and sometimes I will be lamenting the dryness of the well. But for today, I remain astounded by the extraordinary generosity of God.

On power

I find myself wanting to write about power today. I suppose it is partly because I am internally grappling with the juxtaposition of Pope Francis and the election wrangling in Zimbabwe. I’ll focus on the former, and let you make your own comparisons. I have blown away by the impact that Pope Francis has made. In the last few weeks he has been named person of the year by Vanity Fair and has been the topic of articles in popular magazines like Esquire. There are still Vatican scandals aplenty, but Pope Francis remains an inspiration.

Power, in a social sense, is the capacity to influence people.

In this sense Pope Francis seems to have tremendous power. Stories and articles about him continue to flood social media, and even mainstream media has continued to give stories with a positive flavor column inches. And yet, whilst it is difficult to tell from this distance, I get the feeling that if something were to happen which meant he had to step down that he would be happy enough to relinquish the position and to retire gracefully into obscurity and simplicity. It may be that I am projecting my interpretation of Ignatian indifference onto him, but I don’t think so.

The more important question which emerges for me is – how do I wield power in my own life? Do I cling to the scraps that I have, or do I hold them loosely? Do I use my power for the benefit of the community I serve or for my own purposes?

We don’t magically acquire integrity and authenticity once we get to positions of power, we have to exercise these things now. If we don’t attend to the needs of those below us on the ladder now, what do we think is going to change once we have more power?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt

It doesn’t matter what your arena is – just make sure that you are in there doing your bit – using the power that you do have for the benefit of the community. And when you think you could do a better job than someone else, be willing to step up and take your turn.

Learning to ask for help

I have always struggled with asking for anything. Asking for help in particular has never been my forte. I have enough understanding now of my childhood to see where the pattern came from, but simply seeing the pattern isn’t enough. It requires actually stepping out and beginning to ask others to do things for me.

I know that many people suffer from the same problem. The fears may be slightly different, but the end result is the same, that asking for help is tremendously difficult. The root is usually one of the following:

Fear of rejection

Fear of losing control

Fear of being seen to be weak or incapable

Fear of being a burden

And again, even when we understand the root, it doesn’t magically make asking easier.

In the last month I have had to ask several people for help. I have had to ask someone to write a Foreword for the book I am working on. I have had to ask a bunch of well known authors to read and write comments on my book for the blurb. I have had to ask a few people to help out with the launch. And there have been a few personal issues that I have needed help with too.

What I have found is that practice makes it easier. I recognise that I am asking people to do a lot for me – in all cases it will require substantial effort. And yet in every case I have found a willingness to step up – even from people who don’t know me. It has been an extraordinary blessing.

I know that I will continue to sweat a little and procrastinate a lot when I need to ask for help. But this period of being forced to ask and receiving such willingness will be a good place to return to when I am next faced with having to reach out to others. I don’t think it will ever be easy, but learning to ask is an important skill.

The emergence of joy

When I stop to examine my spirit
I discover that it is not as I thought it was.
As I bend to grasp the dry brittle sponge
I find it is heavy and laden with water.
Not just laden, but saturated.
I had not noticed the Spirit’s gentle soaking;
too busy straining to hear the sound
I did not notice my spirit soak up
the life giving force.
As I scanned the horizon for rain clouds
I failed to notice the tiny stream.
How often Lord, how often do I lament,
cry out in frustration
that I lack what others have
and yet on pausing to examine myself
I discover I have more than I dared dream.
The eternal becoming is true blessing.
The times of suffering in our lives often have a sharp edge to them – there is a clear cause and a distinct before and after. But the emergence of joy is often far more subtle. We don’t really notice that things have changed until something draws our attention. The dry brittle sponge of struggle is actually infused with joy – we just haven’t quite realized it. I think this happens partly because we have a specific idea of how things are supposed to be, or we have become accustomed to our role as sufferer. When things don’t appear in the guise we expect them to, we overlook them. The emergence of joy is no different. It takes us by surprise because it is rarely packaged as we would expect.

Are there places in your life where joy is taking root?

Celebrating the gift of today

There is something about getting away which helps bring perspective on life. I am not sure quite what it is. I recognise that for me the perfect getaway is somewhere quiet where I can go for long walks. Preferably with a view of some sort, but that is an added bonus.

I guess I am entering that phase of life where I am now living the life that seemed just around the corner for so long. I have a good job and I am reasonably settled. None of it is particularly earth-shattering, but the combination of life as an academic, spiritual direction and the network of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances provides a framework which I think would be hard to replicate. The blend is deeply satisfying.

When I am immersed in my life I can so easily lose sight of the tremendous blessing that it is. The daily toil of mundane tasks and minor frustrations can so easily cloud out the greater truth – the life I am living is far richer than any life I imagined for myself when I was growing up.

This is not to suggest that my life is perfect – there are things I need to work on, things I want to achieve, things I want to let go of. There are parts of myself that I still battle with, but on balance I am incredibly blessed.

So for today I am celebrating my life. Deeply grateful to all who aided me in the journey thus far. Deeply grateful for the morning sun over False Bay and the promise of another day.


Dealing with suffering

Over the last couple of days I have come across a couple articles on the ways in which spirituality has been commercialized. Whilst I am sure those who have developed spirituality programs for use in business have had good intentions, it seems that the essence has been lost in the process.

The real problem is that at the heart of any spirituality of substance is a paradox which holds both the real giftedness of the individual and the capacity for destruction in tension. This means that when we are riding high on success we are able to recognise that the success is only partly attributable to our efforts – success is always a combination of hard work and serendipity. It also means that when we face circumstances of suffering that we are able to see that again, we are only partly responsible.

Suffering is one of the great conundrums – in Christianity we have no theological argument which can contain suffering, all we have is the image of Jesus on the cross. We have no explanation for why suffering exists that can really comfort us when we are in the midst of such circumstances.

We find the spiritualities of success so alluring. The popularity of the book The Secret a few years ago is one such example. The idea that we can create our own reality, that someone we are in charge of our destiny, if we can just think right is so appealing. (In Christianity, the prosperity gospel is very similar). When things are going well, these ideologies are so provocative and feed into our ego – Look at how well we are doing, we have got it right. And it feels like we are in control.

But when things go wrong, like losing your job or cancer or an unexpected loss, we have no place to turn because we think it is all up to us. And if that were not sufficiently confusing in itself, we discover that our companions who shared our way of thinking now no longer know what to say, and don’t want to be associated with the negativity our new position. Fearful of being tainted, they shy away.

When we are able to sit with suffering in a place of compassionate care we often discover that the suffering isn’t entirely from nowhere, but it also is not usually entirely our fault. There are elements of personal responsibility and elements of this simply being a part of life. We need a spirituality which can help us pick through the rubble effectively.

Any spirituality which emphasises success rather than compassion will be toxic in the long run because such a spirituality will not have the capacity to cope with suffering.