Today counts

We never get to a point when how we choose to spend our time or where we choose to focus our attention doesn’t matter.

How we choose to show up, and what we choose to focus on, does matter. It matters because it shapes tomorrow.

I have been struck recently that I have reason to be proud of what I have managed to achieve in my life. I’m not a candidate for any ‘hall of fame’ or the equivalent, but I think I can say that I have put in a good solid performance.

But I can’t rest on that.

I need to keep showing up and keep doing what is appropriate to my stage of life. I want to be proud of what I have managed to achieve when I look back from 2025. The only way I get to do that is by choosing to show up today.

I don’t mean to say that I need to work manically every day – I am a tortoise who likes to nap! I am firm believer that rest and down time are vitally important to productivity. And I am not a believer in productivity which is simply ‘busy work’. But producing anything worthwhile takes concentrated effort – whether it is academic research, or raising a family, or building a business.

None of it happens by accident – you may get a few lucky breaks along the way, but luck isn’t enough – there is grit, determination and a willingness to be uncomfortable on occasion.

Real connection

I have been thinking about connection for the last few months. The idea was spawned reading Johann Hari’s book on addiction. His fundamental premise is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety – it is connection.

The important of real connection is vitally important in my own life. Two encounters have reminded me of that in the last few days.

The first, meeting a Facebook friend who is also a chemist and Ignatian spirituality enthusiast. Both of us are strong introverts and are indebted to an extroverted mutual friend for organising the meeting. Nonetheless, I was struck by how easy the conversation was. Over the last two or three years since we have been connected on social media I really have got to know her a little. The tenuous cyber connection is actually real.

It isn’t a substitute for spending time together, but it does mean that when you do meet there is a real recognition.

The second, my four year old nephew trying to make sense of his family. I am currently staying with my sister and brother-in-law so quite where ‘Aunty’ fits in the picture is something of a conundrum. Am I a ‘parent’? Or an ‘aunty’? His sweet young mind isn’t classifying things the way we do. He finally settled on ‘special aunty to me and Matthew’ (Matthew is his younger brother).

Neither of those connections happens overnight. It happens through repeated, persistent, showing up. The titles and labels we cling to don’t mean a whole lot in the absence of the willingness to be present.

Interior freedom

I have spent the last week or so gently working my way through Jim Finley’s book Merton’s Palace of Nowhere. It has made a good companion for my daily commute.

It has left me wondering whether one of the hallmarks of spiritual maturity is not interior freedom. Interior freedom is something we cannot fake. It has nothing to do with what one chooses to do or not, it is simply about the inner disposition. The flavour has to be both compassionate and empathetic.

It is impossible to describe, but we know it when we see it. Not through the ‘holiness’ of the person but through the unmistakable aura of something real and trustworthy. And the overall movement is towards inclusive connection.

Such people are at once deeply attractive and profoundly unsettling. Something in us does not want to spiritual maturity to be packaged like this. It is too simple, too ordinary, and perhaps too honest.

As Jim writes elsewhere on healing:

Shortcomings, both real and imagined, when deeply seen and accepted, are an important part of the transformative process of learning to let go. If we do not let go of the need to be perfect, our need to be perfect will get in our way. Likewise, if we do not let go of our fear of failing, our fear of failing will get in the way. But as we learn to let go of the need to be perfect and the fear of failure, the intimate, earthy stuff of being a vulnerable, loving human being begins to shine through. In an ongoing process of learning to let go we bear witness to the great truth that the master limps. The mastery of life is intermingled with the ongoing weaknesses and limitations that gives life its rich and many layered texture and meaning.

Most of us don’t want the limping master. What if that means that I need to accept my own limitations, weaknesses and imperfections?

Interior freedom comes at the cost of acceptance of all of that. It is a price few are willing to pay.

We pay lip service to it, but when the rubber hits the road, the letting go is not easy.

You don’t know what you don’t know

It’s suicide prevention week here in the United States. I am grateful that I have never been suicidal.

It was never something I thought about much. But having had the experience of two people in my immediate circle commit suicide in the space of months some years ago – it is now far more present. Add to that a few friends who have suffered the loss of immediate family members in this way and I realise the importance of standing up and speaking.

The loss of someone through suicide is terrible – not only does one have to cope with grief, but there is a whole gamut of other emotions – anger, guilt, fear, shame – which quickly raise their heads. And those emotions themselves cause further confusion.

I have no advice for how to deal with those who are suicidal or with those who are suffering with the loss of someone through suicide. All I can say is dare to present. And recognise what you don’t know.

Offer a hand, a shoulder to cry on, companionship in the dark. If you haven’t walked those dark passages, don’t pretend to know. Dare to show up and know that you cannot fix anything.

I know enough of the way my own mind occasionally warps reality to recognise that ‘objectivity’ is an illusion. There is only compassion; only the willingness to sit in the unknowing.

Hearing through one’s paradigm

I have often heard it said that we hear things at the level we are ready to receive them. Instinctively I have felt that this is probably true and certainly, I have had the experience of talking to someone and realising that they simply were not able to understand the point I was trying to make. But I don’t think I have ever consciously observed a transition to a fuller understanding in myself.

Over the last week I have had precisely that experience. It has happened in a number of subtle ways, but the clearest example has been recognising the central role of forgiveness in achieving spiritual integration.

Whatever spiritual growth pattern one favours, the higher levels requires integration of all that has gone before. I had never really considered before that forgiveness plays a major role in the process of integration. It is only because I have spent so much time thinking about forgiveness in recent months that I was attuned to the word.

When I heard it mentioned twice by both Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault in separate talks in different ways in a matter of hours I realised its significance. We cannot integrate if we are not able to let go of the past. And letting go of the past requires forgiveness.

It requires forgiveness of others who have wounded us. It requires us to ask forgiveness of those whom we have wounded. And it requires forgiveness of our younger selves. Without the release granted by forgiveness we will get occasional glimpses of integration but we will not be able to reside there for long.

There are other factors, I am sure, associated with the threshold to integration. For the moment, for me, this is the one that is uppermost.

I know that if I had heard these same talks a year ago I wouldn’t have noticed the significance of the mention of forgiveness. If I had noticed the word at all, I would have accepted it as self-evident. I would not have thought that forgiveness would be part of the threshold to integration.

It is deeply humbly to me to recognise that my own capacity to hear is so shaped by my own experience.

 

Surrender

I spent much of the morning reading part of Cynthia Bourgeault’s book ‘Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening’. What struck me was her central point on surrender.

As she described some of the experiences of awakening which she clearly associates with the practice of centering prayer, I couldn’t help but identify. In the book she is clearly advocating the method which has led her to inner awakening which she clearly aligns with an apophatic spirituality. As a long time practitioner of cataphatic spirituality I wondered about this…

And then the penny dropped – it is the central pillar of indifference in Ignatian spirituality which potentially affords the same surrender. For me, that takes its form as a spiritual practice in praying for grace. For me, praying for a grace is the white flag of surrender. I have hit my head against the brick wall of reality and I know my will is not up to the task of changing either reality or myself. It is a space of compassionate honesty.

Any prayer method, any prayer school can become a barrier to the very thing we desire. Every method is susceptible to corruption by the ego. And in every method which has survived the test of time, there is wisdom.

This book is a gem – it cuts right through the present popular notion that to be ‘spiritual’ is somehow to be at ‘peace’ with the world. A crucial phase of the spiritual journey is confrontation of unconscious parts of the self. It is turbulent, confusing and profoundly challenging. Peace does ensue, but only when reality – as it actually is – is embraced.

Honesty and acceptance – two of the hardest things we can achieve – seem to be the key. I suppose the real surrender comes when I can say that the truth I think I perceive is not the whole the truth and I am willing to have my eyes opened so that I can begin to accept.