So, I have always known I am a deeply competitive person. What I didn’t realise is how powerful this can be as a motivating tool.

The gym I have been going to over the last week or so has a couple of interactive bikes. They have a screen with a simulated race. Suddenly I am able to work up a hearty sweat on a gym machine, something I fail to do with any enthusiasm normally.

Chasing riders around a course somehow motivates me in a way that simply watching my heart rate increase fails to do. It is an utterly meaningless competition and I am fully aware of that, and yet it works. I have had a few awesome workouts.

So, I am left asking myself – how do I best use my competitive spirit?

I know that it is a dangerous beast. To quickly it turns to the desire to outdo others; or I fall into the trap of thinking that my performance defines my sense of identity. Both paths are deeply destructive but curiously alluring.

How do I harness this most useful force?

I think I will do better to try to use it and fail miserably than to avoid it altogether. I’d rather keep falling off the delicate balance, than to miss out on following the drive.

Figuring Sh!t Out

This is the book I wish I had read a year ago.

I am a fan of autobiography and biography. A friend of mine remarked some months ago that I don’t seem to read much fiction. It’s true I don’t. I read some, but not much. I prefer the stories of real people.

Figuring Sh!t Out is a very real account of a very real situation. Amy Biancolli writes about the experience of losing her husband of twenty years to suicide following a six month period of mental illness.

I was expecting the book to be way more about suicide than it was. I confess that it took me several months to actually buy the book and read it precisely because I thought it would be more about processing the suicide aspect of the death. As it turns out the author is no stranger to suicide which explains why there is less soul searching more compassion than I expected.

Mostly it is book about finding her way, after the loss of her beloved. It is a book about the experience of grief following the death of a spouse.

And I wish this book had been available a year ago.

This is one of those books that everyone should read before they need to. You can’t read books on grief once you are in the midst of it. So read it now. Read it for yourself; read it for your siblings; read it for your friends.

The book is well written and very humorous in places. It is also one of the very few books that have moved me to tears.

I wish I had read this book a year ago, because I would have been able to be more present to my close friend following the untimely death of her husband in March.

I want to thank Amy Biancolli for her honesty, and her willingness to share her journey.

(I am well aware that this an odd post for Christmas Eve – but it’s all I have to give!)

Watershed year

2014 has been a watershed year for me.

There have been some significant deaths; I have taught for the first time in the Faculty of Theology; I have had a good year in terms of research; I have been invited to talk about spirituality in a wider circle. Whilst these things have made this year significant, they are not the reason it has been a watershed.

The year began with a sense of being profoundly unsettled. Something was stirring in the core of my being. I began looking around trying to figure out what I could change. And I did resolve to change some of my commitments. Were it not for the fact that I knew I needed to stay put to support a good friend, I may well have tried to change my job.

But as time wore on, it became clear, that the sense of disturbance would not be resolved through external changes. It was time for some interior work. Changing my job may have distracted me from the interior discomfort for a while, but it wouldn’t have solved the problem.

So it has been a year of doing interior work. Some of it has been about looking at my childhood and early adult years. Some of it has been about coming to see myself as I am – accepting that this is my life. This blend of science and spirituality; hard work and laziness; compassion and lack of caring; is who I am. This is the life I have created.

At the end of it, something has shifted. I can’t name it and I can’t describe it, but I know I am in a different space. I think I have been through that strange transition which called mid-life. It hasn’t been a crisis, but it could so easily have been.

In many ways I think I have been building towards this transition for at least the last five years. I feel as though I have just cross the threshold into a new phase. I have no idea what this time will bring. For the moment, I am simply grateful that some of the ghosts of my past have finally been laid to rest.

The potential in real relationships

Earlier this week I finished reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s remarkable book ‘Love is Stronger than Death’. In it she describes the powerful relationship she had with Brother Raphael Robin. Much of her spiritual teaching now, 20 years later, continues to be the fruit of that relationship. It was truly transformation and sacred. Both Cynthia and Rafe were pulled out of themselves, drawn into true love, and drawn into the mystery of God.

Against the backdrop of seeing the true potential in a love relationship, I have also been reading the continuing dialogue in the Roman Catholic Church over divorce and other issues raised in the Synod on the Family. As I read the reports of those trying so desperately to cling to the absolute truths, it occurs to me that we are looking in the wrong direction. We don’t need more sermons on the sacredness of marriage – we need to focus on the potential in relationship.

If we focus more on the sacramental nature of relationship – the power of relationship to transform us and to redeem us – we are more likely to choose better and to step up into the relationship.

Obviously, this is dangerous territory for me to be exploring – I am single! But one of my friendships has this kind of mutual transformational quality. There is a huge qualitative difference in the particular friendship – it draws me out of myself; I have been forced to face some of my shadows; I am able to challenge, and I am challenged in return. And we are both the better for it.

If we are able to focus more on the power of true, mutual relationship, all relationships would benefit. The absolute line of the evil of divorce is thrown into appropriate relief. Some relationships are better terminated.

The affirmation of the sacredness of marriage is a good thing. But not for its own sake. The sacredness of marriage lies in the nature of the relationship between the two getting married not in fact of the marriage. Too many people marry because of the attraction to the illusion of the white picket fence and two and a half kids. Marriage, at its best, will allow one to become fully oneself – which will probably mean living a life which doesn’t quite fit the image of domestic bliss.

Can we not focus more on what it is that we are truly trying to strive towards and less on the outward appearance?


Incarnation …. really?

My friend and former colleague Rob Marsh SJ wrote powerful and thought provoking piece on the incarnation a year ago. (You can find the full text here).

Rob suffers from a chronic illness. I am not sure exactly when illness began, but I met him sometime in the early throes of his health problems back in 2003. His post is entitled ‘Hating Incarnation’ and explores his struggle with and against his own body in the light of the incarnation.

What I found arresting in reading Rob’s post was his honest and painful opening declaration. ‘I hate my body’. Rob is one of the most intellectually and spiritually gifted men I have known. But the wider community has been deprived of his potential contribution because of his illness. I have felt that frustration, but only as a witness and potential partner. Never from the inside. I only have a glimpsed inkling of what it must be to live his reality.

And yet God chooses to become flesh. God chooses to immerse Godself in and express Godself through one of these most vulnerable of bodies. To embrace fatigue, hunger, limitation and acute vulnerability.

In the Spiritual Exercises there is a beautiful meditation where the Trinity discuss what to do about humanity. Looking down at all the chaos and craziness they hatch a plan – the incarnation.

I have not suffered in the way that Rob has. But for the last eighteen months I have had the double whammy of both a frozen shoulder and hip impingement. I read Rob’s post in a different way this year to the way I did last year. I begin to see the extraordinary risk in the chosen strategy in a new light.

God actually became flesh in the person of Jesus. This was the inspired plan?? Really??

And yet just as I have read Rob’s post in a slightly different way because of my own journey this year, I recognise that there was no other way. In the person of Jesus we have access to God in a new way. And in the person of Jesus, God knows what it is to be human.

I think that thought will keep me going through Advent.

The Incarnation …. Really?? Really!