Remembering Greg

This was first published a year ago as the editorial on Easter Sunday in The Southern Cross, the Roman Catholic weekly newspaper distributed throughout Southern Africa. What most readers were unaware of was that it was written in the light of the death of a close friend. Today is the first anniversary of Greg’s death. Greg was the husband of my closest friend. He was 37 years old.

‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit’ John 12:24

It struck me recently that when we are in the midst of grief following some significant loss this phrase can seem meaningless and almost cruel. The fruit is far from evident, all there appears to be is barren soil.

I think of the disciples on that brutal Friday so many years ago. The shock; the numbness; the sense of utter pointlessness of all that gone before.  And then when they finally get to the tomb to finish attending to his body it is empty. Is it any wonder that in the encounter with Mary Magdalene it took Jesus three attempts before she actually recognised him? Or indeed the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Whilst I may not have been in Jerusalem those many years ago the story of the resurrection continues to echo down the centuries. I find resonances in my own life. Not of literal resurrection, but of grace flowering in the wasteland of a fallen dream.

Much like the experience of the actual resurrection the grace is unexpected and occasionally a little unnerving. It is sometimes hard to embrace the new vision. Like the disciples we can be left for a while holed up in the upper room, sitting with the knowledge of new life, but not yet quite sure how to proceed.

And then the inspiration strikes (or perhaps gently dawns) and the way forward begins to clear. We have sufficient light for the next step. Slowly, slowly, we live our way into a new way of being. A way of living that we had not imagined possible but there is hope and grace and promise.

When our dreams fail perhaps through death, perhaps through broken relationship, perhaps through betrayal or injury, it is useful to remember the utter dejection of the disciples on Good Friday night. How can a man of such goodness, such mercy, such vision be cut down in this way? How can the Son of God be killed? There are times when our dreams feel as though they have been ordained by God. Good dreams which have come about as an answer to prayer are suddenly laid to waste. How can this be? We, too, feel lost and dejected.

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. Just like the disciples, it may demand new things from us. They had to step up from the role as followers to proclaimers of the Word. Some had to travel to new places. I have no doubt that the lives of all of them were significantly different to what they had been even when they following Jesus.

The catastrophe of the crucifixion with the terrible loss of Jesus, in the end through the resurrection, results in the spreading of the Christian message across the world. But the resurrection by itself was not sufficient. The proclamation of the Gospel required the participation of the disciples. Those men and women needed to be willing to live a new version of their lives.

This new vision was not what they had signed on for when they began to follow Jesus, but now, this was the invitation, this was what was required. So too, in our own lives, in the aftermath of catastrophe there will be an invitation to a new way of being. It takes tremendous courage to choose the new path, and for most of us the transition doesn’t occur nearly as quickly as it did for the disciples. But if we have the courage to follow it, in time, we will see the experience as being laden with grace. What we thought was wasteland now covered in green with the promise of an abundant harvest.

Surrender to grace

In the last week, this poem, by Denise Levertov, has come across my radar several times.

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.’

I spent a good part of the weekend doing the spirituality input for a group of young adults. On Saturday afternoon we had an interesting conversation about the relative importance of our effort and God’s grace. There was a strong plea for the need to ‘do your bit’. And it is hard to argue against that position. The longer I live the less I trust myself to show up with the goods. It doesn’t mean that I don’t make the effort, but I no longer trust my effort to get me to where I would like to be.

One of the concerns on Saturday, was the idea that people know you have changed by your actions. And I guess that is part of the shift in me – I am really not trying to be a good example, or bear witness. Where in the past I would have been aware of others watching me, now I care much less about that. I am simply trying to live a life of faith because I believe it is the best life I can live.

I am invested in living a life of faith because I have seen God’s grace in action in my life and I don’t want to give up on that. The generosity of God is utterly extraordinary in ways that I never expected. I’m not sure that there is any thing else to do except to surrender.

There is a prayer at the end of the Spiritual Exercises which I prayed with great trepidation the first time I encountered it

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me. To you, Lord I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.

When I first prayed that prayer I thought I was being asked to stake something significant against something so tenuous. How can the love and grace of God be sufficient?

Now I realise that what I offer in that prayer pales into insignificance in the light of the grace of God.

I think that may be a lesson we can only learn with time, and through the grace of God.

 

Forgiveness

I’ve been reading some stuff on forgiveness lately. I happened across a short book written by Jacques Derrida entitled On cosmopolitanism and forgiveness. In it he takes a fascinating position on forgiveness

In order to approach now the very concept of forgiveness, logic and common sense agree for once with the paradox: it is necessary, it seems to me, to begin from the fact that, yes, there is the unforgivable. Is this not, in truth, the only thing to forgive? The only thing that calls for forgiveness? If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, what the church calls ‘venial sin’, then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear. If there is something to forgive, it would be what in religious language is called mortal sin, the worst, the unforgivable crime or harm. From which comes the aporia, which can be described in its dry and implacable formality, without mercy: forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable. One cannot, or should not, forgive; there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself.”

I find this a brilliant starting point. He later goes on, in fact, to make this position one end of a spectrum.

I think I only discovered what forgiveness is when I stumbled into trying to forgive something which had broken me. It was only at this point that I stopped trying to will myself to forgive – my will was simply inadequate to the task – and started praying for the grace to forgive.

Forgiveness is a process I participate in, not something I can generate.

But I think we only learn this when hit up against the thing which we are incapable of forgiving – the unforgivable – that we stop believing that we can do it ourselves. It is only when we begin to truly face the thing that has broken us in some way that we recognise our need to forgive. Until then we don’t really grasp what it is to forgive.

This week Eugene De Kock – the man known as Prime Evil – was released on parole. He served just 20 years of the 212 year sentence that was handed down. And yet there were those whose family members had been murdered and tortured in the Apartheid era who spoke publicly of forgiving him (see Russell Pollitt’s article here).

How is that possible? And yet it is. I believe through grace (although that language may not work for the people who have forgiven him)

Pierre de Vos commenting on the same events speaks of the complicit silence of far too many white South Africans (his article is here). His invitation at the end I think is an important part of the process of forgiveness which ever side of the equation you are on – to dare to enter fully into the recognition of what happened.

What was the hurt? What was the harm?

Following Derrida, these are situations which have no reparation. There is no pay back, no vengence, no possible restoration. There is only forgiveness of that which is unforgivable.

And I know I am not capable of forgiving. I can only stand in my brokenness and in woundedness with my desire to forgive and trust that, in God’s good time, the grace will be given.

Acceptance

Perhaps the greatest challenge in the journey of life is the acceptance of myself as I am.

At least this is my greatest challenge.

The seeking of authenticity means that I need to be authentic to my own inner experience. This doesn’t mean that I need to be a slave to my own selfish pettiness. And act out of that regardless of consequence.

Rather it means noticing those parts of myself I do not really like and would rather not admit to – and acknowledge them. Once I am able to acknowledge how I feel and perhaps articulate it, the power it wields diminishes. I am freed to consider my response rather than simply reacting.

And the response is also an authentic part of myself. It is no less authentic than the reaction would have been.

The stripped down self is not pretty. It is less than I would have liked in so very many ways. But it is real.

At least the glimpses I get of it feel more real, more gritty, but perhaps a little braver, and just a touch more compassionate.

Knowing my own weaknesses, my own faultlines, my own capacity to be less than generous – I am far more likely to give the other the benefit of the doubt. Maybe their hurtful actions are not as brutally pointed as I presumed. Maybe they are struggling in a way that I do not understand or do not see.

Any journey can be dressed up as a journey of the soul. But if the fruit is not a growth in humility and compassion – it is probably not headed in the right direction.

For now, I simply have to accept my poverty of spirit and trust in the grace of God.

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!)

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.

Grace and gratitude

Earlier this week I was struck by Andy Otto’s piece on grace. He writes “This is a kind of prayer, but by using the grace language, we acknowledge it only as a gift”

(you can read Andy’s post here http://godinallthings.com/2013/11/18/asking-for-a-grace/)

I have written elsewhere about grace and there is a chapter of Rooted in Love devoted to the idea of praying for a grace. But in reading Andy’s post I was struck by the connection between grace and gratitude.

Gratitude is perhaps the most important mental orientation we can cultivate. It shapes how we view everything. It is the lens through which we view our daily reality.

When I look around at the various aspects of my life – my family, my friends, the people I interact with in different circles, those who come to me for spiritual direction, my job, my colleagues, my living space, my education, the things I have done, the places I have lived and worked…. and so on, and so on, and so on…. I cannot help but feel a tremendous sense of gratitude and wonder.

There are things which I could view as being ‘unfair’ or that I somehow drew the short straw. I am not the most well off among my siblings, my odd career trajectory means that my contemporaries are further along the road than I am, a car accident in my youth has left my right leg slightly misshapen…. and some other ridiculous things I could choose to focus on. But this kind of attitude is simply not helpful to me. It doesn’t get me anywhere and it just encourages dissatisfaction. Given the richness of my life – this just seems poor form!

Living through gratitude makes it far easier to celebrate the small things in life. To feel both rich and blessed, with no need for any comparison. But in the absence of gratitude one can feel hard done by or that one doesn’t have enough (yet!) even in the midst of plenty.

In my understanding gratitude and grace are inextricably linked. I am far more able to see graces when I am more grateful. And I am more grateful for graces when they appear.

The practice of gratitude is something that can be cultivated. I found it very helpful posting one thing that I was grateful for on Facebook every day for a month or so made a big difference to me. My life feels more succulent although nothing has actually changed.

A way into humility

“We must be willing to be completely ordinary people, which means accepting ourselves as we are without trying to become greater, purer, more spiritual, more insightful. If we can accept our imperfections as they are, quite ordinarily, then we can use them as part of the path. But if we try to get rid of our imperfections, then they will be enemies, obstacles on the road to our ‘self-improvement’.”

Chögyam Trungpa From The Myth of Freedom

I came across this quote on my Facebook feed last Thursday and I find myself returning to it again and again. It is clearly resonating with something deep within.

To me, this is humility. The willingness to be utterly ordinary. To live in my small sphere of influence and to offer what I can is exactly what I am called to. And I am called as I am, with the parts of myself I wish I could shake and the parts I quite like. I am called to accept the whole package. To acknowledge my limitations, and to trust that if I am able to live with them amicably that grace might just flow in these spaces too.

If we can get to that place of self-acceptance we will discover real interior freedom. At the heart of the Christian message is the idea that we are loved unconditionally by God. In my experience it is through the experience of the love of God that I find access to my own self-acceptance. But it isn’t an instant thing, it is an ongoing conversation, an ongoing discovery. So it is through the taste of freedom that I am able to be more self-accepting. It is through noticing God’s compassionate gaze that I discover self-compassion.

Too often in our attempts to help one another become ‘good Christians’ we cut through that dynamic. Putting conditions and expectations on each other, and propping ourselves up by a constructed image. If we could let go of the ideas we have of ‘right living’ and get instead with acknowledging that we are simply ordinary people trying to live in relationship with God, we may be pleasantly surprised both by ourselves and our communities.

Praying for grace

There is a very useful practice in Ignatian spirituality: each prayer period begins with praying for a particular grace. In the context of the Spiritual Exercises these graces are clearly defined, but as we go about living our daily lives beyond the Exercises it is helpful to  try to articulate a grace which is directly relevant to where we are on any given day.

In recent years I have discovered that the idea of praying for the grace is incredibly powerful at those points in our lives where we find ourselves to be stuck in some way – that kind of interior ‘stuckness’ which we find difficult to shift. At those times we are usually stuck because although we may be able to see where we want to be, a part of us is unwilling to give up an aspect of where we are now. At these times being able to sit with ourselves in honesty before God, to hold both our desire to move and our desire to hold on and to pray first for the grace to desire to let go we will begin to notice the willingness to let go emerge. And as our willingness to let go grows, we can begin to pray for the grace to actually let go.

The amazing thing about this way of praying is that the end result never seems to look quite as we expected it to. There is always an element of surprise. The interior place beyond the stuckness is usually not quite what we thought it would be. Some elements which we thought we had to let go of are still there and other elements which didn’t seem to be a problem are either absent or have been rearranged. I have yet to meet anyone who can successfully will themselves through such places of stuckness, and I think this is, in part, precisely because whilst we usually have some inkling of the problem, we don’t have the full perspective.

Somehow praying for the grace frees us from trying to control the outcome. We can let God be God and allow ourselves to be surprised. It isn’t something magical, and it isn’t something that we can control. All we can do is to be willing to admit our stuckness; to hold it before God and ask God to show us what we need to see. Over time, it will become clear what grace we need to pray for. And as pray for that grace over time things begin to shift and freedom emerges.

The challenge and invitation is to be willing to admit our stuckness and to let go of trying to dictate the nature of the outcome.

Not all people who live at the same time are contemporaries

Not all people who live at the same time are contemporaries

I came across this statement in a discussion on Karl Rahner’s theology in The Quest for the Living God by Elizabeth Johnson. It stopped me in my tracks. I don’t know enough of Rahner’s writing to offer any comment on what he intended by that statement, rather what follows is what I make of it.

I find this such a powerful idea. I am frequently baffled by the opinions that others hold. A current example would be the upset in the ultra-traditionalists blogosphere over the Pope Francis washing the feet of two young women on Maundy Thursday. The temptation for me is to divert myself into writing about my frustration at this response. But the idea that not all people who live at the same time are contemporaries gives me a way to defuse my own reaction.

Somehow this simple statement allows me to accept the fact that others will think quite differently to me. I must be true to myself and to the understanding that I have, but my task is not to convince others of that. I must be prepared to hold my opinions up for examination, and in so-doing allow for the possibility that I need to rethink and reconsider, but this is all that is required of me. The rest is in God’s hands. I need to let God be God.

Rahner is insistent on the mystery of God. Perhaps this phenomenon of the differences of thought and opinion is part of the way in which God reveals Godself. None of us hold a sufficiently large fragment to speak with certainty of the whole, but each of us holds enough of the nature of God, to be led further into it.

My task then, is to sit lightly to the detail – in Ignatian terms to use what leads deeper into the mystery and set aside that which prevents further exploration – but to hold firmly to the journey. To trust that in so-doing I will be led by God. If I can trust God’s hand in my own wanderings, perhaps I can trust that others will be led along very different paths but to the same end – even though we may never agree on the detail of description of the scenery along the way.