40 revolutions round the sun

I write this on the eve of my 40th birthday. But according to my website it’ll be published on my birthday – such is the oddness of living in today’s world!

I sat outside a little earlier watching the wind catch leaves from the autumnal trees sipping a glass of wine. Pondering this decade that has now passed.

My twenties were very much about finding out how to be myself. How to be true to the inner promptings and calling that I felt. I enjoyed living into that with some confidence in my thirties.

But as time wore on, the subconscious scripting which had driven so many of my actions and my decisions was laid bare. And so I think my thirties were about uncovering my inner motivations. It has also been a time of recognising how much of my emotional turmoil gets imprinted in my physical being.

Who knows what my forties will bring – but for today I am grateful for the foundation upon which they will be built.

I am grateful for the career I have built – I am no superstar, but I think I can be proud of the contribution I have made.

I am grateful for my spirituality work – this in many ways has brought many of my closest friends and also has borne significant fruit.

I am grateful for my relationships – as a person who is deeply defended, I am truly indebted to those who have been willing to stand by me and wait until I was ready to be vulnerable.

I am grateful for my family – every family has its own complexity and woundedness, but tonight I celebrate the love and support. Personified for me this weekend in my sweet 23 month old nephew learning to say ‘aunty’.

I am grateful for my education and for my privilege – I have never been unemployed, I have never carried debt other than a mortgage, and I have never had a job that I didn’t want.

Of course there have been struggles – there will be more to come. But for today, I’m choosing gratitude.

The longer I live the more I realise that there is real wisdom which can only be gained through years of living. Whatever I have achieved – I must still turn to the immediacy of today with as much energy as I can muster.

And so on into the next decade – with a deep awareness of my need for God’s grace and the generosity of spirit of all with whom I will make significant connections.

(Oh! Last thing – emergency ‘bubbles’ is a real thing – I keep a bottle of yummy bubbly in my fridge at all times – to be drunk in celebration and in sorrow.)

What a week!

This has been an incredibly emotional week. Starting off on Monday watching UCT students being putting in police vans. On Wednesday images of tear gas and stun grenades being used outside parliament and students being charged with High Treason.

Today watching the protestors at the Union Buildings, along with different kinds of unity across campuses. At UCT following the march which was attended by a large number of academic staff. At Stellenbosch seeing Merriman St filled with students of all races.

The hideous spectre of Blade Nzimande laughing about starting a movement called ‘StudentsMustFall’.

And now finally the announcement of 0% fee increases in 2016.

The voices of the students have been heard, but the real work begins today. How do we provide a quality education when the subsidy is dropping and our income student fees just got slashed? How do we step up to the task of creating new models when we are already strained?

It is not going to be easy, there is no quick fix solution. There can only be a willingness to change and a desire to do the work that must be done.

For the first time I relied almost entirely on social media for my updates. Twitter in particular has been the most powerful medium. It has been interesting to observe that the actions of important role models have gone almost unnoticed because they have relied on issue a ‘press release’. It isn’t enough in these kinds of situations anymore – send someone down to live tweet what they are observing. Be willing to get mucky. Be willing to be seen to be involved!

Watching history unfold

This week in South Africa there are demonstrations on the majority of university campuses. It was sparked at the end of last week by a demonstration at Wits University with students protesting at 10.5% hike in fees. The #Feesmustfall campaign spread quickly to UCT, Rhodes, Stellenbosch and UKZN and others. Most major university now have action of some sort.

On Wednesday many students gathered outside parliament.

As ever, in South Africa, peaceful protests rarely end that way. There has been some vandalism on the part of students, but the strength of the police action appears to have been excessive.

And I sit thousands of miles away from all of this commotion following the story on social media. It has been interesting watching my own response. From my initial horror at the student demonstrations through to getting better informed about the financial stakes – separating out my own anxieties from the cause of the students.

The fact of the matter is that what I think of as ‘middle class’ in South Africa is not ‘middle’ at all. I saw the figure in one of the articles I read that 4% of South Africans earn more than R500 000 (for a quick and dirty comparison that is a bit than US$ 50 000). Tuition fees for a year of university is around R40 000 (that’s just tuition) – and all universities are subsidised by government.

I am not an activist by any means. I don’t like mass political action, it makes me profoundly uncomfortable. But over these days I find myself appreciating the need for action. When I look at the figures I am horrified at how tough life actually is for most South Africans. I am also glad that we have a generation who are willing to stand up to those in authority and to ask for change.

I fear that there will be much ugliness to come. The problem with having a group which is not apathetic is that change will come. I know I’m not going to like all of it. I know that there will be violence of some sort along the way and I find that deeply disturbing.

Watching history unfolding is not pleasant. I feel the pain of those students who just want to be allowed to write their exams in peace. I fear the lack of control. But I think this may just be one of those big moments in South Africa’s history. And I respect those who are taking a stand.

Meeting William Barry SJ

I have extraordinary blessed in my life. I have had real life contact with a number of spirituality authors. I know Margaret Silf, Ivan Mann, Esther de Waal, Trevor Hudson, Denise Ackermann, Gerard O’Mahoney – meaning they would all walk across a crowded room to greet me. I have met Gerard W. Hughes (now of blessed memory), Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault. On Wednesday I got to have lunch with William Barry .

Bill Barry has been a name long associated with spiritual direction. It is hard to imagine going through any Ignatian spiritual direction program which fails to refer to ‘Barry & Connolly’ aka ‘The Practice of Spiritual Direction’. Bill was at the meeting where the idea of Spiritual Directors International was conceived. And his recent trilogy of books on relationship with God published by Loyola Press are excellent spiritual reading for anyone.

He was kind enough to write a blurb for my book Rooted in Love a few years ago. As he is based in Massachusetts, and I am here on sabbatical, I thought I would be audacious and ask if we could meet. I’m glad I did.

Meeting him condensed for me the feeling I have had in my encounters with the other spirituality authors that I know – he is wonderfully human. He has a gift of articulation in written form – but he treats it as a gift not an identity. He has used it to good effect, and credits Bill Connolly with much of inspiration for ‘The Practice of Spiritual Direction’. In this sense there is a real humility.

What struck me forcibly was his utter freedom in talking of the Center for Religious Development. The Centre, which gave birth to The Practice for Spiritual Direction, was one first places to run a program in spiritual direction formation. It existed for 25 to 30 years and then was closed as numbers dropped off. As Bill spoke about it there was no weird nostalgia for ‘good old days’, there was simply a recognition of the enjoyment of being a part of its establishment, gratitude for existence, and a genuine understanding of the decision made to close it.

It struck me that he is a very good Jesuit – totally committed to the task at hand, and totally willing to move on. The fruit of a life lived in surrender to the greater good. I have enough Jesuit friends to know the genuine surrender when I see it.

It left me wondering how to achieve such freedom as a lay person. I don’t have a good answer to that yet!

I am deeply grateful for my connection with all these contemporary literary contributors to spirituality. It has made me believe, above all else, that real connection with God is possible for everyone. The people behind these familiar names are not all that different from you and I.

Discernment

I have spent a few weeks immersed in ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. A classic of both Christian mysticism and Middle English. My guide through this process has been Cynthia Bourgeault. The Cloud is a masterpiece of apophatic spirituality. And, as is now being argued quite strongly, the pre-eminent text on non-dual consciousness in the Christian tradition.

For the last two decades I have happily accepted the clear divide between the apophatic and cataphatic spiritualities. I have taught many times that they are different paths to God. As silence is seen as being a superior way of praying – many people often assume that the apophatic way is somehow ‘better’ than the cataphatic way.

As a long time practitioner and teacher of Ignatian spirituality I have long fought against such stratification. In reading Cynthia’s writings and commentary on The Cloud and on Centering Prayer I have found myself looking for the deeper threads of both apophatic and cataphatic streams.

Cynthia uses a phrase ‘heart-centred cognition’ which she suggests is the disposition required for non-dual consciousness to take hold. ‘Heart-centred cognition’ is not at all a focus on the emotions rather than the rational. It is probably better understood as embodied cognition – where the rational is an element but doesn’t dominate.

I cannot help but wonder whether Ignatian discernment is not a training in ‘heart-centered cognition’. Certainly when I think about my own process of discernment it resonates. When I consider the phrase I repeat often on training course – you use the whole of your being as a tool for discernment’ it feels consistent.

Discernment when understood in this way, is really not about getting to the right answer or making the right decision. It is fundamentally about honing one’s being to attuning to the resonant echo of God’s presence in our world. ‘Right choice’ becomes almost meaningless – it is about fundamental disposition.

Perspective

I find it so interesting to discover that the way in which I view myself can change almost in an instant. The facts of my life are no different from one moment to the next, but the way in which I view myself changes significantly.

Last week, as I was updating my cv, it occurred that I no longer need to gloss over the four year break I took from academia. In academic terms, spending four years in a retreat centre makes me ‘interesting’ at best and at worst a freakish religious nut. So for the last eight years I have been conscious of the need to explain away that period so that I move closer to the ‘interesting’ end of the crackpot spectrum.

It is not that I am ashamed or embarrassed in any way about those years. In many ways they laid a foundation for the person I am today.

But as I sat at my computer screen last week something shifted in me. I recognised that I have reestablished myself. No one looking at my publication record now would wonder about the gap – it isn’t even that obvious. I can stand on the strength of my record again.

When I was leaving the retreat centre, I had a conversation with a few of my colleagues about handedness. I said that I felt as though I was left handed in spirituality and was returning to my (natural) right handed pose in chemistry. In re-engaging in chemistry, I have felt like I am a leftie in chemistry too for many years.

But today, I feel truly ambidextrous – I am able to hold my own in both chemistry and in spirituality. It is a tremendous grace and one for which I am deeply grateful.

It still amazes me though – nothing factual about my life has changed in the last 10 days, but I view myself so differently! Perspective – we are so oblivious to the distortion in our way of seeing until something shifts. To any of us who take pride in our capacity to see things clearly, it is profoundly humbling.

Third Force

I have been reading a fair bit of Cynthia Bourgeault’s writing recently. One of the ideas which she presents in various ways is the idea of the third force.

We are so conditioned to seeing things in a dualistic way that we get caught in a fight between two poles – light and darkness; good and evil; victim and oppressor etc. In that two-dimensional realm there is nowhere to go and usually there is never an easy resolution.

But the presence of a third force can change the whole dynamic and affords the possibility of a whole new world not possible to envision from our dualistic battle.

Furthermore, as the dynamic takes hold, how we view the three components may change.

This idea resonates deeply with me as I consider my own journey with forgiveness. For years, I struggled with my pain, hurt and confusion and I built an identity for myself around being the misunderstood victim. Of course the person who had harmed me was cast in the role of villain.

It was only when someone else cast me in the role of villain did I begin to consider the possibility that things were not quite so black and white. Maybe my old nemesis was not such a nasty person after all. Maybe the wounding had not been intentional. With that I was able to genuinely pray for the grace of forgiveness and in time the grace was granted.

This, I think is something of the dynamic at play with the third force – for me the third force was the grace of forgiveness, and the dynamic was allowed to take hold when I no longer clung to assigned roles of myself as victim and the one who had wounded me as villain.

Just a few months later the whole situation broke open in a new way – reconciliation happened. And internally I was precipitated into a new way of looking at the whole of my being. It has been unsettling, but ultimately profoundly healing.

It is the presence of the breaking open of the latter that makes me wonder whether this isn’t something of what Bourgeault is writing about. It makes me think that in any situation where we are locked into a dualistic battle that we need to stop wasting time wishing away the opposition and begin to look for the third force. The thing which may look like very little but just opens us to new possibilities.

For Bourgeault, this dynamic permeates cosmology and theology in a beautiful synthesis. I am just dipping my toes into new waters, but it feels like there may be enormous possibility here and I look forward to the exploration. It feels a little as though I am passing white light through a prism rotating in the wind – the rainbow is evident but still elusive.