The importance of putting the best construction on another’s words

Every field has its fundamentalists and every person has their blindspots.

In the last month or so there has been a conversation on Twitter between a few chemists. I am not sure whether it has resolved, or indeed how it resolved if it did. But the spark was a paper published in a well respected journal which had a rather dodgy comment in the supplementary information. The comment seemed to suggest that the senior author was asking the first author to make up some data. What ensued began to look a little like a witch hunt – more papers with ‘dodgy’ data were revealed in other journals and the hunt was on.

I’m sure that there are real problems in the reporting of chemical data – precisely because of some of the pressures which now characterise academia. But the vitriol and assuming of the moral high ground which was so quickly adopted was a little disturbing (all this from the most objective and rational of beings – the scientists!! – as a scientist myself I feel I can make this gibe)

It has made me pause – in all areas of life we get those who will so quickly adopt an attitude of superiority totally justified – in their own minds – by the fact that they are unearthing something which is not absolutely right. But failing to consider the possibility that the person they are busy ‘exposing’ may not have had the malicious intent they presume. So quickly reputations are ruined and careers trashed. And the whistleblower is left smugly satisfied with the role they have played.

Obviously I’m painting a rather extreme picture – I certainly have been the whistleblower at times, and it is an important role, but discernment is always necessary. I always need to be sure of my own motivations and the motivations of the other before publicly damning them.

At the start of The Spiritual Exercises Ignatius offers simple advice – every good Christian should be more willing to presume the best in a statement made by another rather than the worst. If you cannot see the good in it, then question the person directly in order to ascertain whether you have understood correctly or not. Only once you are absolutely sure that the other intended something which is erroneous or wrong, should you attempt to correct the other in love.

Our public debate would be quite different if we could all start from this presupposition.

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.

Ignatian indifference

Ignatian indifference is not an easy concept – it is the capacity to hold the desire for something along with a sense of freedom with respect to the same thing. When I am trying to explain indifference, I usually use the example of sitting in the Loyola Hall chapel the night before I was going to be interviewed for a job there. As I sat talking to God, I recognised that I wanted this job more than anything I had ever wanted in my life before – this was the dream that I had thought I would be working towards for at least another decade suddenly within my grasp. As I sat and talked to God about my desire for the job, I began to notice that even with the intensity of desire, that God and I would be okay if I didn’t get the job. Of course I would have been disappointed, but I was willing to let God be God in the process. On that night, I really was able to see that I might not get the job, but that had nothing to do with my giftedness as a spiritual director, or my sense of call to that ministry. In other words, that failure to get the job would not have been a personal failure.

I believe that the experience of that kind of indifference or freedom is grace. It is not a state I can will myself into and it is usually temporary. Nonetheless it is vitally important because it allows for the healthy separation between success in particular venture and my relationship with God. Even if we consciously avoid the prosperity gospel messages which suggest that material wealth is indicative of a right relationship with God, it is easy to fall for the more subtle message that success is somehow predicated upon or linked to the quality of my relationship with God. So failure becomes very difficult, because not only do I have to deal with the reality of failure, but it has a major impact on the very place I would turn for solace – prayer. It also allows for the separation between success and my image of myself. It is a place of real humility, knowing my own giftedness and the capacity to avoid taking the rejection or failure personally.

Ignatian indifference then, is not about a lack of passion. But it is opens the space to let God be God. It reminds me that however much I may think I know what is good for me, I don’t see the full picture. It also allows for the reality that we live in a broken world, and many circumstances require the cooperation of people, anyone of whom (including me) may be focusing on shoring up our own egos rather than focusing on the greater glory of God.

The more I explore and teach Ignatian spirituality the more I recognise the real genius of Ignatius. I am ever grateful for those who opened this door for me.

A life of faith

What does it mean to live a life of faith? Living a life of faith is more than simply admitting allegiance to a particular belief system. It is more than regular attendance at some form of communal worship. To have any real meaning, faith must be a significant factor in life, rather than just a hobby which happens to provide a social circle. I know that many people focus on the hereafter. It is a very Christian idea that professing faith in Jesus is start of salvation. It is our entry into heaven. I understand where that thinking comes from, and certainly there was a time in my life when my faith was a bit like an insurance policy. At that stage my faith life had a fairly minimal impact on how I lived my life, and I was not sure whether God existed or not, so I figured, practising faith did not cost me terribly much but it could have very serious consequences in the hereafter so on balance I was better off continuing as I was, attending Mass on Sunday and doing a quick five minutes of prayer just before I fell asleep at night. To me, that kind of faith now seems a little pointless.

After making the Spiritual Exercises, my faith shifted from being something important but peripheral in my life, to being central. Relationship with God became my primary concern. Having practised faith in this way, supported by having a daily prayer time for more than a decade has borne wonderful fruit in my life. I have learnt an enormous amount about myself in the process, and I know that this practice has shaped and changed my interaction with others. It has changed the value system I hold within my life. Not necessarily in terms of what is important to me, but the ordering of those significant things. I have come to value my relationships with others far more than my personal achievements for example. In this way faith is shaping my daily reality. To me, this is a life of faith rather than any particular declaration or assertion of beliefs. The reason I continue to believe is that it continues to provide the best framework for my experience, and through practising my faith, my being has been enriched beyond anything I imagined possible. In this way it has a profound impact on my life on a daily basis. What happens in the hereafter will take care of itself.

What is faith to you and how does it impact your life?

Loyola Hall

Ten years ago today I entered the gates of Loyola Hall, a Jesuit Spirituality Centre in Merseyside in the UK. It was grey winter’s day. I was carrying a backpack on my back and small bag in my hand. That day I was beginning a training program in spiritual direction which was to last about seven weeks.

I still remember the sense of relief as the gates slowly swung open and I began to walk down the driveway, the house only partially visible through the naked trees. The previous six months had been the most emotionally challenging and draining periods I had experienced up until that time. I had no idea where I would go or what I would do after the course was over. I just knew that this is where I needed to be. My prayer journal entry from that evening reads:

My Lord, it is difficult to believe I am actually here at Loyola Hall. It was a dream for so long and suddenly I am here. I have no doubt that you have brought me here. What I don’t know is why: who is here that I need to talk to? What have I to learn? There is only one thing I can do – to be present and to allow your Spirit to guide me.

It is extraordinary to me to look back at these words with the grace of hindsight. The training course turned into a permanent job and it was four years before I left.  A single conversation with a woman named Ruth Holgate ten days later would lay the groundwork both for the job and for real friendship. What I learnt in those years will shape the rest of my life.

I am deeply indebted to the community who taught me so much. I am enormously grateful to those retreatants and directees who trusted me to hold their spiritual journeys. In their trust of me, I learnt to trust God.

But mostly on this day, I am struck by the resonance of my prayer of that day. It is as true today as it was then.

I have no doubt that you have brought me here. What I don’t know is why: who is here that I need to talk to? What have I to learn? There is only one thing I can do – to be present and to allow your Spirit to guide me.

I would choose slightly different words now for the last phrase – to be present and to allow God to be God.