Santa isn’t real

I’ve had an odd week. My underlying character has been revealed to me very gently in three different circumstances.

1. A friend posted a class photo from Grade 1 which prompted various memories. One friend remarked that she remembered when I told her that Santa wasn’t real. Apparently I was that kid.

2. A male friend of mine dropped by to tell me that he and a female friend of mine have begun dating. I then had a conversation with the female friend wishing them well. A few days later the female friend was talking about how various people had responded. Apparently I was only one who said ‘Good luck!’ which had the effect of pulling her slightly back down to reality. Apparently I am that friend.

3. I had a most enjoyable evening a good friend and some people I have known a little, but who I hope will become friends. The husband remarked that if he had a band-aid that needed to be removed quickly he wouldn’t come to me. This after watching my banter with my friend. Apparently I am that person.

The thing about all of these, is that each of them makes me laugh – that deep belly, knowing laugh. I recognise that they are all true. I am not sure what the implications of all of these are, except perhaps I am a little less gentle than I would have liked to believe, and a little more wedded to reality than most. Oh well!!

I guess the thing that catches me about all of these, is that I am not used to thinking of myself as someone that others think about. Yet in each case there has been a lasting effect. (Some for longer than others!!)

I can’t explain why that is important in a few words, but it strikes a chord deep within me. I am deeply grateful for the odd confluence of events which brought all these comments to my attention at this time. (I am also just a little apologetic to my childhood friend – I really didn’t mean to shatter that illusion!!)

Discerning between the good and the better

One of the important ideas that comes through the Ignatian tradition is the importance of learning to discern the better from the good. The underlying presumption here is that the one discerning is actively trying to live a good Christian life. The one discerning is therefore able to distinguish good from bad. And is actively trying to make good choices.

Inevitably the choices one makes become more subtle – how does one choose between two ostensibly good things? Here it is useful to look at what happens when I interact in with the two situations – which one actually brings more life, which one seems more appealing, which one has greater potential, etc.

But it has occurred to me recently that there is something else to examine – my motivations. Is my choice made out of a desire to ‘be good’ or is it made in interior freedom?

As I begin to recognise the limitations of my own interior freedom, I am also beginning to recognise the small areas where interior freedom actually exists. It is tremendously exciting. I feel as if I have stumbled into a much more reliable touchstone for discernment.

It is my great prayer at the moment, that I may grow in interior freedom. I have tasted interior freedom before, and I have managed to make some good decisions rooted in interior freedom. But for the first time I am beginning to glimpse the possibility of having a state of interior freedom that persists.

Freedom and inner peace

I have been thinking a great deal about inner peace since encountering Roshi Joan Halifax in Santa Fe. She radiates an extraordinary sense of peacefulness. I have been pondering why this should be so.

The more I sit with it, the more I begin to think that inner peace is not something we can aim for. I may be wrong, but I suspect it is the byproduct of interior freedom.

The obvious question then to ask is where are the places where I am not yet free? And as I sit with that question I am almost immediately struck by the realisation that examining my fears and insecurities will lead me in the right direction. Not because I can root them out, but rather because it gives me ideas of where to actively begin to commit to developing new habits.

Any fears and insecurities I have really have to do with the ways in which I think I am perceived by others. So actively beginning to combat some of the behaviours which are about living up to an idealised version of myself seems a good place to start. This means operating out of a space of greater transparency.

There are a couple of small simple behaviours which I have identified as being important in presenting myself as more authentic. Authenticity is not simply being aware of my own thoughts. It requires that I do not hide that inner world. (Note: that not hiding is subtly different from actively revealing!). But if my silence is interpreted in a way in which I know is not true to the position that I hold, then I must speak up.

I hope that I am taking the right steps towards interior freedom. Regardless of the outcome, the experiment seems worthwhile.

What is freedom?

I have been thinking about the idea of freedom a lot recently. Most of us think of freedom as being able to do what we want when we want and with whom we want.

We have just navigated another national election process here in South Africa. As conversation after conversation has come around to the elections it is clear that there is much to be celebrated. It wasn’t that long ago that participation in such an election was not possible for all South Africans.

I can’t help thinking, though, that we are a long way from real freedom. Yes, when a person enters the voting booth they can mark their cross alongside any one of the many parties. But how many people could have made the choice to vote for a different party? Not because of any threat or fear of retribution, but because they lacked the interior freedom.

This question is not unique to South Africa. I recall several conversations with people in the UK who were clearly carrying emotional baggage from decisions made decades ago into the voting booth.

I must confess immediately that I have never voted. As an adult I have never lived in the country of my citizenship during an election so I have never had the opportunity (Voting outside the country has never been possible).

Nonetheless, I find it striking that many of the people I have talked to that old allegiances trump more recent developments.

The voting example is just a small example of a much question – how much does our past influence the choices that we make? How much does our concern for ‘fitting in’ shape the way we live our lives?

I don’t think it is possible to get to a place where one is truly ‘free’ from these kinds of considerations, but we are most certainly not free when we are unaware of the factors which heavily influence the choices that we are making.

Real freedom is so much more than the absence of exterior constraints.

On science and spirituality

Earlier this week a piece I had written on discovering my creativity in a chemistry laboratory appeared on dotmagis. (You can find it here). A friend of mine commented that she didn’t understand why there was a conflict between being a chemist and being a spiritual director. (My own particular version of the science/spirituality debate). I thought I would take the opportunity to write at greater length about the challenge I face.

There are two different layers to this question – how do ‘people’ do this? and what is my personal challenge.

Spirituality and science use entirely different epistemologies. Epistemology is a theory of knowledge. Science knowledge requires some kind of verifiable evidence. What we put forward as ‘facts’ are pieces of information which consistently emerge from the same experiments and which fit into a broader theory. ‘Knowledge’ in a spiritual sense is entirely subjective. It is not verifiable in any way which is scientifically acceptable.

There is no problem with holding these two different paradigms in a single human person. And hence in this sense my friend is correct. There is no necessary conflict, provided we don’t blur the lines.

In a strange way I do believe I have been called to hold these two worlds together (at least for the moment). And herein lies my particular challenge – what exactly does it mean to ‘hold these two worlds together’? The two have peacefully coexisted in my psyche for many years. And I am pretty well educated in both worlds, and I contribute intellectually to both worlds. (I have a PhD in chemistry and I have authored a book on Ignatian spirituality).

Nonetheless, up until now, these two worlds have not really intersected much. Rather they run as parallel tracks. Close companions, but never connecting.

Because spirituality takes account of my whole being, the fact that I am a chemist is not trivial to my faith life. But my faith life is not dependent on my identity as chemist (I know this because I have lived as a full time spiritual director). Conversely, being a spiritual director does not seem to impact me in my work as a chemist in any meaningful way. My faith doesn’t make me more dedicated, more studious, more ethical, or more anything than any of my colleagues.

When people ask me how my spirituality affects my chemistry or vice versa, my only answer is that I don’t really know. Chemistry and spirituality happen to intersect in my being, but I do not know how that affects my work in either field. I cannot see any causal effect.

A question I am beginning to ask myself is whether there is a space where these two might interact more consciously. I suspect that will be the exploration of some years to come. I am not even sure that I will find an answer, but it seems important to ask the question.

On respecting other religious traditions

A week ago today I was still in Santa Fe. The Emerging Wisdom conference had just ended. As the week has worn on, and I returned first to Massachusetts then finally to Cape Town, I have had time to reflect on the experience.

I am deeply grateful for the individual connections I made while I was there, but I think there is a larger message for me in the experience. The keynote speakers were Fr Richard Rohr OFM, Roshi Joan Halifax and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. These three from the Christian, Buddhist and Jewish traditions respectively.

Several things struck me as I listened to these elders.

All were wise, warm and humble. In each case I found myself wanting to spend more time with them.

I know the writing and teaching of Richard Rohr fairly well, but the other two were new to me. I was deeply moved by both Reb Zalman and Roshi Joan. I wanted to ‘sit at their feet’ a little longer.

All three were clearly committed to their own traditions, but referred to writers and teachers from other traditions. This was no wishy washy mishmash of pick and mix spirituality. Rather each had found the source of life in their own tradition, but were willing and able to see the wisdom and grace that came through others too.

All these three have known suffering, and yet bring a message of such hope.

This conference was my first real experience of what an interfaith meeting can be. I suspect it may end up being something of a watershed experience for me. I have discovered the value of being true to my own tradition. I see that my understanding of God is mediated profoundly through my faith tradition. The whole system is a framework through which the grace of God flows.

Nonetheless, I do not think that my faith tradition is the only system in which God chooses to operate. I may well find resonances in other traditions.

I do think though, that most of us need some framework to hold us. The more fully we engage with framework, the more likely we are to encounter the mystery which we call God.

I don’t think any of our religious traditions are fully formed yet. We are still in the process of discovery; still in the process of revealing the mystery. So some things are contentious; some things are painful. And I think they will continue to be so as long as human life continues.

There is really only one question – is the religious tradition big enough? Big enough to allow for the enormous complexity of the human experience? Big enough to allow the grace of God to flow freely?