Foreign but not outcast

A friend posted something on Facebook that stopped me in my tracks. The snip was on the vitriolic xenophobia which rears its head all too often in the Southern Suburbs of beautiful Cape Town. I find myself in an odd position. I am foreign, but few people beyond my circle know that.

It’s not a great secret. It is just that I come from Zimbabwe, so I have a similar accent and I use similar slang. Not exactly the same, but similar enough that few people notice the difference. It’s only when someone addresses me in Afrikaans and I respond with a glazed expression that my heritage is revealed. I am white, I am educated, I appear to fit in.

I do not belong here any more than those who are abused. I, too, am from another African country. I, too, have come here in search of employment and a better life. But I am not viewed in that way. Or at least I have never had to defend myself against such a view.

Whoever the scary immigrants are – I am not a part of the problem.

And yet I experience all of the tiny frustrations and bigger existential crises of not quite belonging. From having to use my passport as my identification document to being threatened that I will be evicted from my place of work if my documentation is not up to date.

If you have never been a foreigner, you will never quite understand the sense of disconnect. Of knowing you are in the right place and yet not quite belonging. I cannot begin to imagine having to bear the brunt and indignity of xenophobia at the same time!



Letting the other be other

This is one of those lessons I probably would have learnt a long time ago if I had had any kind of long term intimate relationship. Alas, I have had to wait for my friendships to mature to a place where I can finally see this truth.

A close friend of mine has made some choices in the last few months that I know I would not have made. The choice she has made is in no way inherently wrong or problematic. I only know that I would not have chosen it. Watching her I have really begun to realise that other is just other.

My way is not necessarily better. It is just my way.

I find the process of walking with her fascinating. Firstly, because it is the first relationship where I have truly encountered the complexity of what it is to be different. Too often, my friendships have been forged in a sense of commonality, and when that has broken down – or found to have limitations – I have walked away.

Secondly, because it has forced me to recognise that just because she has chosen something that I wouldn’t, doesn’t make it wrong.

As I ponder this a little longer, I begin to recognise that in similar situations I have been driven by similar forces – the quest to find my identity. The difference between us is that we locate our identity in different places. So where we search to recover it is different.

My way is not necessarily the right one! It is just my way.

At sea

I am tired. The source of the fatigue is not the usual soul-sapping emotional fatigue which I now recognise all to well. Partly it is the end of what has been an emotionally demanding year. But I think it is also that another of life’s cycles has come to end. A process which began in me five years ago is now at an end. I am tremendously grateful for the journey, but I tired.

I don’t really have the energy or the inclination to think too much about what is going on in society, but when I do raise my gaze to the wider world I see that all is not well.

This last week I have become aware of the level of disillusionment, dissatisfaction and abusive behaviour in society. Most acutely in South Africa, but there are strong echoes in other parts of the world too.

I have no idea how to respond. But I see a few signs of hope.

Russell Pollitt’s commentary on the dynamic of discernment which seems to be be taking hold in the Vatican – and creating a great deal of discomfort (You can find it here).

Lord Jonathan Sacks who served as Chief Rabbi in the United Kingdom also had some profound thoughts about marriage (You can read them

There are good people who are trying to be discerning; trying to see where the Spirit is moving.

I am sure there are more, I hope more people join them. I am not sure that there is anything else in which to hope – but good people seeking with humility for better answers.


Choose Life!

There is breath in my body

and blood in my veins.

Continuously, ceaselessly

my heart beats a rhythm

that is solely my own.

Life blood and oxygen carry out

their silent exchange.

Small molecules maintaining my existence.

Two words turn over

and over in my mind –

Choose Life!

But I did not choose to breathe

nor pace the gentle rhythm of my heart.

I did not choose the colour of my hair,

my eyes, my skin.

I did not choose where or when to be born.

So what then does it mean –

Choose Life!

Time will pass whether I use it or not.

The years will flow by whether I act and create

or whether I sit idly by.

My beating heart continues whether I reach for my dreams

or hide behind my fears.

To choose life is to dare to dream

and to risk failure,

to dare to love

and to risk rejection.

It is to see the waves;

to feel the wind on your face;

to taste the salt spray

and to risk stepping out of the boat.

Oh how I want to Choose Life!

I chose to use this poem today before I looked up where and when I wrote it. It is striking that it was written just over ten years ago on 22 October 2004. I was living at Loyola Hall in the UK at the time, working as a spiritual director. If you had told me then that I would be working as an academic chemist living in South Africa ten years later I would have thought you were crazy. Wherever my life was headed it wasn’t here.

And yet, here I am. The intervening years have required several risky choices. They have required risking failure and daring to love.

Most of all they have required living. Ploughing through minutiae, cooking food, commuting; paying attention to my inner process and being true to where I am; writing books, publishing papers, interacting with students; loving, laughing and listening.

I didn’t realise then how crucial the companions on my journey would be. I’m deeply grateful to close friends, sisters and spiritual directors who have encouraged me along the way. I have walked every step of the way, but I wouldn’t have made it here without the support.

Learning to live in liminal space

A few weeks ago I encountered a man who was utterly certain of a particular kind of theology. He claimed at one point to have been through the dark night of the soul several times. As I listened to him I found myself profoundly saddened. I was reminded of a talk I had listened to by Richard Rohr OFM, where he notes that without good guidance through such experiences we will revert to what we knew before. I had a sense that this is what had happened in the life of this man.

Over and over again he had been brought to the threshold and over and over again he had stepped backwards onto familiar ground.

In the last few days I found myself reading over a few things I had written when I was in different liminal spaces. One after the breakup of a relationship and the other after the death of friend. It is heartening to see what I wrote in both cases given where I am now. I think I was granted tremendous grace and wisdom in both cases.

In this first case, the breakup of the relationship – it wasn’t clear at the time that a complete severance was going to be necessary. Initially it as more a stepping back and waiting to see what happened. This is part of what I wrote:

No relationship has any guarantees but this one seems particularly fragile at this stage. I am left having to trust that all I can do is try to be true to myself in the process. To continue to stand on this small remnant of the relationship which existed just over a week ago and to pray that come what may I will be okay. I guess I am surprised that I don’t have any real desire to run for the hills. That desire may grow, but the escapism which has marked so much of my life isn’t functioning right now. I’m not sure how to stand in the space without defending myself against further hurt. And yet I know I have to stand here open and vulnerable if my presence is to be tolerable at all.

How do I do that? How do I dare to live in the now, because the future has only the slightest glimmer of hope. In a strange way, hope for the future gets in the way of my ability to stand in this space. I have to choose it today, simply because it feels appropriate today. Not because of any promise or hope that tomorrow will be different. It is such a strange, liminal space. It honestly feels like it is as likely to fail as it is to succeed. If I am to stand in this space it has to be for two reasons. Firstly, because I do love him and I believe that it is worth taking this enormous risk. Secondly, because life has these spaces, and learning to stand in this space will ultimately serve me well regardless of whether he and I work out or not.’

In the end I stood in the liminal space until it became clear to me that I needed to walk away. And I am deeply grateful that I had the grace and the courage to stand in that space. When I did walk away, it was in freedom. And in hindsight I am grateful that the relationship happened, but also that the relationship did not work out.

The other liminal space was the one was after my friend died. I was invited to write the editorial for the local Catholic newspaper for Easter. (You can find the full text here). In that editorial I wrote:

But again and again, as I have encountered these soul crushing experiences, if we have the courage to wait with hope, new life emerges. It always takes a little longer than is comfortable.

What strikes me today is that we need companions in the liminal space. People who are not afraid of our confusion; people who do not need us to have direction. I have been tremendously blessed that I have had such companions. I believe I have been shaped by the time in those liminal spaces – shaped for the better.

I am grateful too, that, for now, I have direction; I am no longer in a liminal space.

Gerard W Hughes

I only met Gerry W. Hughes once in passing. But his writing and his work in spirituality have had a significant impact on my life. There are a handful of books which have remained etched in my memory. I can remember which year I read them; where I was; what was happening in my life.

For each of the books that makes it onto this list – it is because they had a significant impact on my view of something. Whilst I have read all of Gerry W.’s books over the years, it was God of Surprises which had the most impact. The Uncle George caricature is perhaps the best known of his stories in this book. But for me, the lasting resonance has been the Principle and Foundation.

Reading God of Surprises was the first time I had stumbled across this short paragraph from the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. It seems strange now that this text, so much a part of my way of thinking, that there was ever a first time!

Gerry W. was also instrumental in setting up the Llysfasi workshop. This workshop made it to South Africa (brought here by Gerry W. and Graham Chadwick in 1994). Going on that workshop in 2000 was my first introduction to giving spiritual direction. The seed was planted then for my own desire to teach spiritual direction.

Gerry W. Hughes passed away yesterday, at the age of 90. His work has been a tremendous gift to so many.

Hamba Kahle Gerry! Rest in Peace.