Celebrating Ignatius Day

Today is the feast of St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits and the author of the Spiritual Exercises.

It is a special day.

I choose this day each year to thank a small number of people for the role that they have played in my life in the previous 12 months. The people who I choose to thank vary from year to year. It depends a great deal on what has been happening in my life.

I celebrate the feast of Ignatius because I know that I would not be the person I am today if I had not made the Spiritual Exercises. That can be said of many things of course, but somehow I feel that making the Exercises has shaped my being in a particular way.

So today I remember and gives thanks for Ignatius. I give thanks too, for the committed lives of the Jesuits, the various orders which spring from Mary Ward, and for all those lay people who give the Spiritual Exercises. Every grace and blessing to you all in your ministry.

 

What are you willing to commit to?

I am a comfort junkie. The lure of the couch (or my bed) often wins in the daily battle of what am I going to get done on any given day. I am far too quick to shy away from the hard slog. I am a terrible procrastinator – tomorrow I will feel like doing this more than today – except of course tomorrow arrives and it is no easier! I have written about that here.

So when I stumbled across this post by Seth Godin I felt a little like I had been punched in the stomach. (you can find the original link here)

‘We know what you want to accomplish. We know how you’d like everything to turn out.

The real question is, “what are you willing to push through the dip for?” What are you willing to stand up for, bleed for, commit to and generally be unreasonable about?

Because that’s what’s going to actually get done.’

It’s a theme I have been toying with for a few weeks, but in the ‘out there’ sense. Meaning, I have been looking for the heroes, those who are willing to stand up and fight, but failing to notice my own pathetic efforts. Failing to notice that I choose Club Duvet over anything more substantial far too often.

To be fair to myself, it has been a tough year. There has been a lot to process, to grapple with, to grieve, but still…

What am I willing to sacrifice for?

How do I respond?

The news this week has been filled with horror after horror. The shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines plane over the Ukraine. The violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And the Christians who are being forced to flee from Mosul under the threat of death.

What is this world that we are living in? And how do I respond?

One response is simply to try to ignore it all. To get on with my own peaceful life, but somehow that seems inadequate. Besides, the fact that where I am living now is relatively peaceful (in my narrow corridor of life) is just how it happens to be right now. It may not be this way forever. Actually, looking at history, it probably won’t be this way forever!!

So burying my head in the sand seems not to be a good option. But what then? Continually reading news feeds simply escalates emotional response but doesn’t achieve terribly much more than that. I have plenty of my own feelings, I don’t really need the help of sensationalism!!

There is prayer, of course. And I do believe in the power of prayer – although don’t ask me how I think it ‘works’. And I do pray. But somehow praying for situations which are so far removed from my reality can feel a bit empty.

My friend and fellow blogger, Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, wrote about all of this earlier in the week (you can find her post here). Her answer or perhaps better her quest is to focus on finding peace in her own life. To me that seems like a challenge worth taking on.

To me, this means not only looking into myself for areas where I am not at peace. But also being attentive to my being in the world. Are there places, situations or relationships where I cause disruption? Am I the bearer of destruction in any way? Am I sowing the seeds of discontent? Are there any circumstances in which I take pleasure in another person’s pain?

When I start combing through my experience using this frame, I realise that perhaps I am not quite so innocent as I would like to believe. There are times when I operate out of my own unresolved woundings in such a way as to spread the destruction.

On Mandela Day I wrote on my Facebook wall that I was going to let go of old woundings. It occurs me that this may be the project of lifetime, but it seems a project worth doing!

Another loss

My heart is heavy and spirit is sad. Yesterday morning I read of the death of an academic whom I knew a little. I have known him for six years and I was on a three day writing retreat with him less than a month ago. I delighted in hearing the stories he and another participant shared of their expeditions and holidays together. He was a good man who will be sorely missed by those who knew him far better than I did.

His untimely death is yet another reminder of the fragility of life. It seems that this a theme for this year. There have been too many deaths, too many losses already this year. And when I am able to raise my eyes to gaze on the wider world, there are the two Malaysian Air disasters and the horrors of the Middle East. What is it with this year??

When I am able to stop and simply be I feel my grief. I am slightly torn, because I did not know Duncan all that well. If I had not seen spent time in his company so recently I would not feel his loss as I do. I am sure there is also an echo of Greg’s death which I haven’t quite laid to rest.

I am left with two thoughts – it is time to prepare properly for the possibility of my own death. Something that I have been meaning to do for a good four or five years. And that I need to live – I do try to do that, and in some ways I have managed to accomplish things I would have regretted not doing (writing and publishing Rooted in Love is top on that list).

It occurs to me that I don’t have a ‘bucket list’ – things I wish I could do, but rather a ‘some other cool name list’ that may be worth compiling – the things I know I will regret not doing.

The physiological impact of emotion

I don’t experience anger very often, but the other day, for just a couple of minutes I was utterly outraged.

My colleague and I were exiting a paid parking lot. The woman in the car ahead of me was having trouble – the machine was not accepting her ticket. So she pulled ahead of the machine to the side where there is a bay for just such situations. I pulled up to the machine feed in my ticket and the boom duly opened. But the woman who had pulled over then pulled off and exited. The boom closed behind her and I was now trapped without a ticket.

I hooted loudly, and shook my fists. Fortunately a parking attendant was close at hand, I explained what had happened and he let me exit. As we were driving down the exit ramp discussing what had happened, we saw the woman again, driving back up the ramp. Clearly she had had second thoughts about her actions.

The whole thing unfolded in two or three minutes. As we drove back to work we chatted about what had happened. But the thing I was most aware of was my physiological response. I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my body. Because the woman had returned, it was clear she was remorseful. So the anger no longer had a legitimate focus.

I was left with the physiological residue of anger, but the emotion had gone. I didn’t know what to do except to continue with my day. About an hour later I found myself feeling utterly exhausted and in need of chocolate peanuts. After self-medicating in this way I felt a bit better.

The thing that I found kind of fascinating though, was the strength of the physiological response. Once the adrenaline was coursing through my body there was nothing to be done but to let it run its course. I would never have noticed the physical response had it not been for the fact that the trigger was over so quickly.

I’m left with a few questions:

1. How often does the physiological response continue to fuel the emotional response?

2. What impact do other emotional responses have on my body?

3. What is the long term impact of living in emotionally challenging circumstances?

Exploitation of the vulnerable

Over the last few weeks I have become aware of several different situations:

1. That the squatters who were evicted from the land at Lwandle several weeks ago had ‘purchased’ the right to squat there from R2500. The entire transaction both meaningless and illegal, but people desperate for a place to erect a shack were preyed on by those who had a little more power.

2. A medical doctor specialising in care of cancer patients started peddling Amway products to these same patients. This doctor is apparently not the only one. But these doctors are clearly actively enriching themselves by preying on the fears of their patients.

3. Amazon’s alleged behaviour towards small publishers.

In all cases there is an imbalance of power. And in all cases, the more powerful agent is blatantly manipulating the more vulnerable party for their own benefit.

Whilst I am not involved in any of these activities, and my daily job is such that it is unlikely ever to encourage such behaviour, I cannot help but wonder how often I inadvertently support such systems.

I am not a vulnerable member of society. I have a good job and I am healthy. But are there circumstances in which I use the power that I do have in ways that are exploitative of the vulnerable. Maybe not directly, but do I support those who exploit others?

Perhaps even more importantly when I encounter someone who is vulnerable do I engage with their humanity or do I try to distance myself? Sometimes it seems that we fear engaging with the vulnerable as though power were a limited resource. If I walk alongside this person for a while maybe I will ‘catch’ vulnerability myself.

It occurs to me that perhaps the most important first step is not to offer the help the vulnerable person, rather to start by seeing them as fully human. To imagine for a moment what it would be like to live their life. The second step is to talk to them as I would talk to someone I would regard as an equal. I suspect that a little bit of dignity will go a long way. Both in their lives and in my own!

Perhaps one day I will capable to seeing individuals simply as human beings. I confess that I am not there yet. I am still influenced heavily by social circumstances.

Understanding some of the pieces

Often when I am asked to introduce myself I say that my day job is as an academic in the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science at Stellenbosch University, but that I moonlight as a spiritual director. (The phrasing appeals to my sense of humour).

About eight years ago I was talking about leaving full time ministry as a spiritual director to return to chemistry. I developed a metaphor for myself about the handedness of spiritual direction and chemistry, saying that I felt as though chemistry was my right hand and spiritual direction my left. Being right handed it said something about my natural ability. A spiritual director colleague of mine challenged me on the placing of those skills. He argued that spiritual direction was my more dominant gift.

In these years since returning to chemistry I have occasionally returned to that image and that conversation. I am a perfectly good chemist, but my passion lies in spiritual direction. That has caused some interior conflict with the pervasive idea that one should be passionate about one’s work. I feel a little guilty that I am not more passionate about chemistry.

But in the last little while I have come to understand that chemistry serves a vital role in my life. There is something about the structure, the method and the gentle productivity which feeds my soul. It isn’t inspirational or terribly exciting, but it does provide a strong foundation, or perhaps a fertile ground, in which the rest of the things in which I am involved can thrive. (And I manage to do some good chemistry along the way)

I have found it very useful to see the importance of chemistry in my life. Perhaps making career choices aren’t just about following your passion, perhaps it is important to understand what provides the grounding for your life. For some people those things might coincide in one particular choice. But perhaps there are others like me too, who need different aspects to what they do in order sustain the passion.

I suppose I would say before leaping for your passion, ask yourself what gives a sense of satisfaction at the end a day? What are the things that you look for to say – today has been good or worthwhile? Would following your passion give you a regular supply of those kinds of things?

I guess what I am really trying to ask is – does your passion also feed the more pedestrian side of your soul?

Patience

I spent much of twenties and early thirties in a fog of existential angst. I was desperate to figure out my place in the world. My path was not straightforward and it required learning to live with with tension of a strong pull both into spirituality and into science.

Just under five years ago that tension was resolved, somewhat, in finding a position in academia where I could be a chemist and entertain my intellectual curiosity in philosophy. At first, the interest in philosophy was expressed through education, but over the years I have found myself coming closer to integrating spirituality into my work life. This came to fruition about nine months ago with a research associateship in the Faculty of Theology.

I had a very strong sense when I accepted the job at Stellenbosch that I was somehow answering a vocational call. By this I felt strongly that I was in the place I was meant to be, doing the job I was meant to be doing. It wasn’t clear then either how long I would be here, or quite how the different elements would combine. But I developed a picture which represented to me the integration of the different elements.

REPS

 

At the time I wrote the following:

‘The logo is three benzene rings. 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. In starting this research initiative I intend to bring together my background in spirituality, my knowledge of chemistry, my enjoyment of philosophy and my passion for education. Quite what that will end up looking like, I am not sure. But for the first time in my life I feel like I have a job that doesn’t require me to ignore half of my being. I truly believe that I have found a project for which I am uniquely qualified, and a space in which to explore the possibilities that it brings.’

Almost five years on I think I have finally stumbled into an intellectual space which just may afford the integration I envisioned then. It is truly exciting.

I am reminded once again of the importance of attending to discernment. Paying attention to the subtle clues and trusting the sense of ‘rightness’ when it emerges, even if it doesn’t quite make full sense just yet.

 

The way we think matters

I am just beginning to emerge from a busy and taxing semester. It has been busy because I taught on a new course (as well as continuing on with a smaller section on the course I have taught for the last four years). I have more research students. And I am beginning to discover that academic life does just continue to grow.

It has been taxing because in the midst of it all there has been a fair bit of personal stuff to deal with too. I have been grappling with grief and with the re-evaluation of the past which comes with entering mid-life.

The point of this is to say that I have had good reason (at least in my own mind) to feel a bit stretched.

I recently had a conversation with someone who is also feeling stretched. But it occurred to me as I was listening to this person was that the sense of being out of her comfort zone was entirely self-constructed. The things that were taxing her, were no longer really in her control. In some ways she had birthed the new situations and they would take on a life their own regardless of whether she continued to be involved or not.

In listening to her, I realised that I may gain a great deal by untangling the idea of being busy. I know we live in a culture in which ‘being busy’ is too often taken as meaning ‘therefore I have value’.

There are a few of projects which I wish to work on in the next six months. None of them are trivial. All of them require a fairly substantial time commitment if they are going to come to anything. But I realise that if I am to achieve what I want to in this time I need to be the tortoise steadily plodding away. Rather than the frenetic hare bouncing from one thing to another whilst at the same time telling myself I need some mental space.

I think the shift is simply one of discipline. Making sure that on a daily basis (or at least during the course of a week) that I attend to each of the projects that I want to take on. Trusting that if I keep taking a small bite that I will make progress. If I attend to the daily activities in a way that is well-paced I suspect I may feel less ‘busy’ but actually achieve more.