The importance of perspective

Perspective is important. The place from which we view things is not trivial.

I am employed as a chemist. My job entails teaching and research in chemistry. But I do a fair bit of spirituality related work on the side. This has been the case for the last three and a half years. Because of the time investment in spirituality I have felt at times that I have been short changing chemistry a little. Mainly because I don’t invest as much after hours or over weekends as many of my colleagues do. The record playing in my head is that I am lazy.

But…in the last month or so I have been given a position in the faculty of theology at my university which means that my spirituality work doesn’t need to be ‘hobby’ but can be counted an academic contribution. Just last week I started to look at my work contribution as a whole – not summarily discounting the spirituality portion, and I began to see that actually when I look at the whole I do work quite hard.

I will never be accused of being a workaholic. I value my down-time too much for that. But I am grateful for the shift in perspective. It allows me to recognise the full contribution I do make, and to let go of self-recrimination. From this angle I can celebrate the whole of my life. And I know that I am more likely to be more focused and more productive when I feel contented with what I am already producing. (I am sure this is not a universal truth, but it is true for me!)

The shift in perspective means I can breathe, that I can step up to the challenge of tomorrow with all that I am – as chemist, spiritual director and author – that this crazy mix of gifts is all that is asked of me and that I am equal to the task! For this I am tremendously grateful.

Whale watching

Last Sunday I drove along the coast road from Muizenburg down to Simonstown. I had just one goal – to spot at least one whale this year. (I confess that all too frequently spring slips into summer and I realise I have missed the whales on their annual sojourn in False Bay). I was rewarded for my efforts in two different spots.

At one particular place, the whales seem to enjoy hanging out quite close to shore. As I stood there watching the ocean, waiting for a whale to pop out a flipper, or better yet a tail, it occurred to me that whale watching is a good image for that elusive experience of ‘finding God in all things’.

That oft quoted Ignatian phrase is bandied about (by me as much anyone else!) often without much explanation. So, why is whale watching a good metaphor?

Firstly, in order to see the whales you need to be looking at the ocean. You can’t just sit somewhere in the proximity and hope you’ll see something out of the corner of your eye.

Secondly, you need to be focused on whale watching – if you are distracted by checking what happening on Facebook or Twitter (or whatever else is dividing your attention) you are likely to look up as the people around you gasp or comment, only to see ripple closing around the now disappeared whale.

Thirdly, you need to be patient, there is absolutely nothing you can do that is going to make the whale appear.

But… if you are watching and waiting, knowing that the whales are there but unable to see them, you are rewarded time and time again.

Most of us are not able to ‘find God in all things’ on the fly. We need to stop, to be attentive, and to trust that if we wait long enough we may catch a glimpse. We need to put away the cellphone, to take a few deep breaths and to notice the God who is with us. We need to ask God to show us where God has been, and then as we let our minds wonder over the day we have had to keep watching the ‘surface of the water’ – don’t get too distracted by the things you haven’t done, or things you wished you hadn’t done, or the things which other people hadn’t done. Let them roll over you, keeping you eye out for the moments of connection, the moments of joy, the moments of peace, the moments where God was just a little more tangible.

There is one more aspect of whale watching – there are some places where the whales are easier to spot. The more frequently you go to try to see them the more you get to know their favourite haunts. So too, the more frequently you try to spot God, the more you begin to recognise where God seems to be a little more tangible. Start off looking in those places, once you have caught a glimpse of God, you can raise your eyes to the other spaces in your life.

The launch

So ‘Rooted in Love’ is finally ‘out there’ in print. We had a wonderful celebration last night for the launch. For me it was a real gift to have people from all the different spheres of my life represented.

The kindle version is available for purchase from anywhere in the world (click on this link Rooted in Love), and in South Africa the print version is also available

Sarah Rowland Jones gave a wonderful talk – I’m going to cheat today and use some of Sarah’s words from last night.

“Between Introduction and Epilogue, we have 13 chapters, written with great carefulness and clarity, their explanations illustrated with specific, often personal, examples.  And we know that Mags is a skilled teacher, because strewn throughout the book you will find little blocks of exercises to follow.  Mags knows we learn best if we put our reading into practice – though I have to admit that I haven’t done all my homework, so I’m planning to go back and read it all slowly, and digest it properly, and perhaps even use it in parish ministry when I move to Wales later in the year.  But I can say I followed Mags’ other instruction, which was to write down all the insights that the book prompted – indeed, the margins are full of emphases and big ticks!

But though in one sense all this makes Rooted in Love an easy book to read, in fact, if you read it properly, you will find it full of daunting challenges. This is not a book for those who want the life of faith to be simple and straightforward, a matter of clear rights and wrongs, with one-size-fits-all rules to follow.  No.  This is a book for those who have grasped, or are wanting to dare to grasp, that life should be lived as an exciting an adventure, into which we are invited by the God who creates each of us a unique and beloved individual with our own specific vocations to explore, uncover, and pursue – so that we might become more fully our flourishing, unique, true selves.

In pursuing this journey, with the God of unfathomable love inviting us to fathom as deeply as we dare, Mags takes us through a number of themes.  First, we start by taking stock of where we are – because it is in our here and now that God addresses us.  Then we explore who this God is, and how it is that we can indeed expect to find him ‘in all things’.  She reflects on what it is to dare to live with desire – responding to how God plants and nurtures within us yearnings that will help draw us into greater experiencing of what it means to become our true selves.  She writes of what it means to seek to live by grace, and ask for specific graces in specific circumstances.  She considers discernment, decision-making, finding our longer term purpose in life (even if it is for a season, and then can change, as Mags herself has found), and the goal of holy indifference – where we acknowledge our motivations and our left-to-ourselves choices, but even so can still say to God ‘even more, I desire for myself what you desire for me, knowing that it is my best’.  It can feel mad at first, but in time, writing God such blank cheques becomes remarkably freeing.

In all this, we find the book circling around to return to various aspects of the Christian life, inviting us to go deeper – as if we are peeling the layers off an onion.  There is the challenge to face up to self-deception; and not to be precious about our ‘holiness’; and not to get so caught up in our inner journey that we neglect the call to follow Christ in a life of service in action.  We are also encouraged to make our journey in the accountable companionship of a spiritual director or soul friend.

This is a book utterly rooted in the difficult realities of life.  Later chapters address ‘When things are tough’ and ‘Dealing with hurts in personal relationships’. Often, circumstances are not as we’d like – perhaps we face issues of health or mortality; or are disappointed in our career expectations.  We also all have to face up to the fact that, in various ways, we are broken and flawed, and so all our relationships will also be, to some degree broken and flawed.  As is often said, hurt people hurt people.  In other words, we have to acknowledge that we are all sinners, and in need of God’s help.

And yet to recognise this is to find the source of great freedom and liberty, which are hallmarks of the grace-filled gospel of Jesus Christ.  For this is not one of those self-help books that offer and impossibly idealistic way of living that just makes one’s heart sink as one reads, knowing that one will just fail from the word go.  This is a book that addresses what it means to be ‘only human’ and reminds us that it is in our humanity that God loves us and meets us and desires to walk with us.”

The kindle version is available for purchase from anywhere in the world, and in South Africa the print version is also available

Rooted in Love


The gift of being challenged

A week ago I was at a workshop to discuss the vision for an organisation with which I am involved. I only knew about a third of the people who attended. The work the organisation does is close to my heart and I have fairly strong opinions about one aspect of the work.

As the day progressed I found myself increasing being the voice of caution or dissent. It is not a role I usually play in such gatherings. Near the end of the day, as we were engaged in our final task, one of the people sitting at the table with me made a comment in passing about something I was doing. I can’t quite remember the phrasing, but he clearly viewed me as someone who is stubborn.

I’ve been ruminating on that for the week. I have never really thought of myself as being stubborn, and yet I can see how he might have got that impression that day. The remark was really not a personal attack, it was quite simply an observation. It has stopped in me in my tracks and forced me to examine the way in which I do hold opinions and offer them. I need to be careful because I think my voice carries authority, at least in some circles, and I am no longer the precocious youngster.

It made me realise how little real, honest feedback I get on a day to day basis. My initial presumption is that it a deficit associated with being single, but I am not sure that is necessarily true. Nonetheless, I realise that it is something that I crave. I’m not suggesting that I am now open for criticism on anything you fancy. But that I recognise that I am not always capable of seeing my own weaknesses; I am not always capable of appreciating the way in which I am coming across. Having someone else who cares sufficiently for me to point out my strengths and weaknesses in love would be a real bonus.

I do have people who are willing to point out my strengths, but I think I would be better off in the long run, if there were a few more people who were willing to point out my weaknesses.

In writing this I feel I am opening myself to all sorts of unwarranted criticism, so I would ask that anyone who wants to rise to this challenge to be attentive of their own motivations. And I would caution that I am not used to this, so you may have to be a bit patient with me. (There are a couple of people in my life who do do this for me – but the ones who immediately come to mind live a long way away)

Finding common ground

I found myself quite moved watching the short clip on Saturday’s peace vigil in St Peter’s Square. (You can watch it here). What moved me was the presence of people from different religions gathering in one place to pray for peace. It strikes me that this is the purpose of inter-religious dialogue. To be able to pray alongside one another – each in our own way but for the same thing. To do requires that we trust that each person will be true to themselves and not require conversion from anyone else.

We live in a world which seems to be obsessed by the extrinsic – to be considered successful has particular markers in different environments. How many papers you have published; the kind of car you drive; the neighbourhood you live in; where you go on holiday. But sustainable satisfaction comes from the intrinsic – doing something to the best of your ability; holding your nerve through turbulent times; encountering God in the everyday.

To truly respect another person, I find I have to trust their intrinsic motivations; I have to trust their authenticity; I have to trust that they will follow the path they are called to. None of these things is directly measurable. Some of them may not even be observable.

I have faith in these things, because I think that if a person is listening to the movements inside themselves and is striving to be true to themselves, that they cannot help but become more aware of the humanity of the ‘other’. And in that awareness is the start of compassion and empathy.

If we can start in that place – rather than in trying to proclaim our allegiances – we may find connection and resonance in surprising places. If we can leave the shape of the outcome in the hands of God and commit to being discerning – what emerges may be truly redemptive.

Overcoming oneself

I am tremendously grateful that I don’t struggle with my weight. There have only been two times in my life when I have been slightly overweight – on both occasions when I tried to diet I gained more weight. And I have found a similar pattern when I have tried to overcome other minor issues – things that I feel I should do less of – in all cases the intent to do something less means that I end up thinking about it more and it ends up being a bigger issue!

It’s crazy, but it is the way my mind seems to work. I still occasionally fall into this cycle when I am trying to rid myself of something or reduce something, but I am beginning to learn that I am much better off if I take a more positive route. Rather taking on something which will probably achieve the same end.

I find that the more attention I give to something the more energy it seems to gain. A small issue can quickly escalate into something which begins to look a lot like an insurmountable problem. But if I can just focus on something else which will help me achieve the same end I can maintain a healthy perspective.

So I remind myself once more that it really is better if I give myself a new positive focus. It reminds of a comment a spiritual director of mine once made: Is your goal not to sin or to try to love? You are never going to achieve ‘not sinning’, but you can become more loving, and in becoming more loving you will probably do a bit better on the ‘sin’ stakes.

I feel better when I am taking note of the times that I managed to do something more healthy, than I do when I take account of the things times that I managed not to do something unhealthy. Making the healthy choice 4 days out of 7 feels like a success. Only managing not to make the unhealthy choice 4 days out of 7 feels like a failure.

Objectively there is no difference, but I am far more likely to sustain making healthy choices over time if I find a positive way to approach the issue.

The importance of putting the best construction on another’s words

Every field has its fundamentalists and every person has their blindspots.

In the last month or so there has been a conversation on Twitter between a few chemists. I am not sure whether it has resolved, or indeed how it resolved if it did. But the spark was a paper published in a well respected journal which had a rather dodgy comment in the supplementary information. The comment seemed to suggest that the senior author was asking the first author to make up some data. What ensued began to look a little like a witch hunt – more papers with ‘dodgy’ data were revealed in other journals and the hunt was on.

I’m sure that there are real problems in the reporting of chemical data – precisely because of some of the pressures which now characterise academia. But the vitriol and assuming of the moral high ground which was so quickly adopted was a little disturbing (all this from the most objective and rational of beings – the scientists!! – as a scientist myself I feel I can make this gibe)

It has made me pause – in all areas of life we get those who will so quickly adopt an attitude of superiority totally justified – in their own minds – by the fact that they are unearthing something which is not absolutely right. But failing to consider the possibility that the person they are busy ‘exposing’ may not have had the malicious intent they presume. So quickly reputations are ruined and careers trashed. And the whistleblower is left smugly satisfied with the role they have played.

Obviously I’m painting a rather extreme picture – I certainly have been the whistleblower at times, and it is an important role, but discernment is always necessary. I always need to be sure of my own motivations and the motivations of the other before publicly damning them.

At the start of The Spiritual Exercises Ignatius offers simple advice – every good Christian should be more willing to presume the best in a statement made by another rather than the worst. If you cannot see the good in it, then question the person directly in order to ascertain whether you have understood correctly or not. Only once you are absolutely sure that the other intended something which is erroneous or wrong, should you attempt to correct the other in love.

Our public debate would be quite different if we could all start from this presupposition.