The last five months have been intense. There have been external pressures, but much more importantly, there have been massive internal machinations. The process began with the reconciliation of a relationship that I had long since abandoned.

The letting go of that hurt, something which has defined me in some ways, meant that I could begin to tackle some of the deeper elements of unforgiveness. Over the intervening months, one after another, I have been able to acknowledge the pain, and then to let it go.

The end result has been the emergence into far greater freedom. And with it, a sense of being able to relax.

When end this particular journey began at the beginning of Lent, I had no idea what it was going to be. In fact, I had no idea that it was going to be a journey at all. I thought it was end of a very long process of forgiveness with that particular person. I wasn’t aware that that lack of forgiveness was blocking my dealing with a couple of other things.

I have no idea quite how I ended up here. I know is that the Holy Spirit has clearly been working. And I have had a few wonderful companions. It has been a period of tremendous grace and I am deeply grateful.

My safety net(s)

I have had one of those weeks. The confluence the climax of a journey I have been on acutely since the start of the Lent this year (and more chronically for at least the last six years), and the serious illness of someone close to me has made it quite a week. In addition, as minor players, it is the start of exams and I have the third cold in as many months.

I am done in.

Yesterday was a duvet day.

It was also a day that I went to see my spiritual director. I am still astounded at God’s grace in bringing this particular person into my life.

Now, as I think back over this crazy week of emotional turmoil I realise that I have had not just one, but several safety nets.

Firstly, the email conversation with a friend. A conversation where I can speak my fears and concerns and have them held lovingly. It is a safe place where I could process the stuff in my head out loud and not fear judgement. What a grace!

Secondly, the friend and colleague who simply said – if you need to get on a plane, all you have to do is make me a list of what I need to take care of. And I know her offer was genuine, because I made the same offer to her a little over a year ago. She would have marked my exams herself if need be.

Thirdly, the two people whom I am leading a spirituality course with – I sent them an email just to say I may have a problem. The immediate response was simply thoughts and prayers with you – if I had had to drop the course I could have, they would have made a plan.

Finally, my spiritual director who painstakingly helped me untie and discern my way through the minefield of stuff.

With any one of these safety nets I would call myself blessed – that I have so many – I am astounded. How can this possibly be my life? And yet here I am.

It doesn’t change any of the detail, but it makes it all so much more manageable.

The gift of true friendship

Most friendships are built from common experience and shared interest.

We hang out at the same places and participate in the same kinds of things, and discover, almost by accident, a resonance. And for most of us, for most of the time, that is enough. Companionship through shared activity – these are our friends.

Occasionally, someone breaks through that, you start hanging out intentionally. No longer spurred on by the excuse of bumping into one another, you begin to seek one another out. And now, there is something more, a genuine friendship begins. A friendship that will survive the loss of the common space. These are the friendships which survive changes in life circumstances – the birth of children; moving cities or continents; and many more of life’s curve balls. I am blessed to say that I have at least a handful of these friends.

But, there is one step further. The friendship that will shape the person that you are. I have one such friend. We met about five and half years ago. We share both chemistry and Catholicism – an odd combination to be sure! As our friendship has developed the things we have in common remains, but as time goes on, it emerges that we are so different from each other. And yet, in the difference, and in the capacity to communicate with each other lies the gift for both of us.

This particular friendship has changed my life. For the first time, ever, I have been forced to challenge to my own way of seeing the world. This was precipitated not by my process, but by hers, initially. It began with recognising that whilst her choices were not mine, I could respect them, that she was ‘other’. Through that, some months later, I discovered that I could challenge my own unconscious way of being in the world.

The longer we are friends, the more different we recognise we are, but the more both of us value the friendship. It is a gift to be treasured


What stories are being held?

Yesterday I stumbled across a short preview of a documentary about the forced removals of the coloured community of what is now Harfield Village.

Of course, I knew about the Group Areas Act and I knew that there had been removals of people. But my idea of when things happened is clearly a little off. The removals that happened in these areas took place around about the time of the birth of my two eldest siblings.

This happened in living memory then. The people in the clip are telling their stories. It got me thinking about the violence and gang warfare in some of the areas which became their homes after their removals. (For Capetonians – there is a big difference between Harfield Village and Mitchell’s Plain!). Is it any wonder that there is such violence in these communities? If these stories have been stewing for forty, fifty, sixty years, is it any wonder that the pain has found its only possible expression in violence. Which itself creates a new cycle of pain and violence.

A few weeks ago I found myself navigating some traumatic experiences in the past of my family as the news was filled with xenophobic and anti-white rhetoric. And in the aftermath, my reaction to unwitting comments by a few friends was definitely inflamed. Some time later one of the friends said to me – you have to explain this, you can’t presume that I understand. And while she is right, I also hate having to tell an old story yet again.

As I walked across campus to get my morning cup of coffee, I found myself looking at people a bit differently this morning. The main question in my mind – what is your story?

South Africa is a traumatised nation. I don’t know what the solution is, and I don’t know where the remedy lies. But I suspect we will all get a little bit further if can learn to appreciate that there is such pain in so, so many. Some of the pain is old pain, but there is still so much violence, that much of it is new.

As my own institution begins to engage in a dialogue around transformation, I wonder whether it wouldn’t help us all to at least consider that each person speaking might just have a story to tell. Let us not make the terrible mistake of presuming that we know, or presuming that we understand.


I spent the Easter weekend visiting three of the major battle grounds in KwaZulu Natal. Blood River where the Boers triumphed over the Zulu; Isandlwana where the Zulu triumphed over the British and Rorke’s Drift where the British fought off the Zulu.

Hearing the stories told from different angles has made me acutely aware of the complexity of the history of South Africa. The ways in which each people remember these days is so different. And in each case the victors claim that the victory was evidence of the God’s favouring of their endeavour (or the ancestors support).

Each history is deeply scored on the memory of those whose ancestors lost blood on those battle grounds. The ‘truth’ lies somewhere in between it all. But the question remains – how do we make a single nation out of these (and a good few more) peoples?

It seems to me that the telling of these stories is an important part of the identity of each group. We need to allow for the retelling of the stories as they are. We need to honour the significance of these stories to each people. We also need to hear the stories of those who lost those battles. And then we need to find a way to celebrate together. We need to find a common goal.

This project of reconciliation is no different from two hurt people trying to overcome difference. It is just at a slightly more complex level. The story of the hurt that we tell is real for each person. The extent of the hurt of the victim is usually greater than the intent of perpetrator. But frequently the victim needs to tell their story as they perceived it, and to have the story heard.

Forgiveness begins with an acceptance that the story of the perpetrator and the story of the victim are necessarily different. And reconciliation is only possible once the grace of forgiveness has taken hold. It isn’t simple.

There are two distinct challenges of our time. Firstly, to find ways in which anger can be expressed without resorting to violence and destruction. Secondly, to learn to listen to the story of another’s pain without defensiveness.

On growing and changing

People do grow and change. Perhaps not fundamentally. We still laugh at the same things. We still look the same. But the living of life does shape us.

I have moved around a fair bit in my adult life, so it comes as something of a surprise to me to be living essentially the same life as I was five years ago. The job is the same, the flat is the same. But I know that in some significant ways I have shifted in my being.

I have managed to let go of some old ghosts. I have much greater interior freedom. I have forged new friendships. I know that I am not quite the same person I was five years ago. I have grown and I think I am the better for it.

But it struck me this last week, that I don’t always give others the same recognition. I work in a chemistry department, and my three nearest neighbours are all women. In the last five years, one has had twins, one has been through a divorce and one has been widowed. If I am aware of how much I have changed in this time through my simple, single life; how much more so have these three women shifted in the same time?

It occurs to me that I do not afford others the same benefit I give myself. I fail to pay attention to their growth and development and far too often continue to use old presumptions in my interactions. It is neither fair nor kind.

Any direct counter measure of making the effort to actually get to know people sufficiently well to be able to recognise the change is simply not realistic. None of us have that kind of time for more than a handful of people. But perhaps all it takes is a shift in attitude – a willingness to be surprised by those whom we think we know. An openness to the possibility of seeing them in a new light.

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?


On suicide

This is one of those posts I did not envision when I started my blog, but I think I need to put it out there. It is a topic we don’t normally talk about, and I feel it is important.

In the last week I have had conversations with two unrelated people who have been faced with having to deal with the attempted suicide of someone they cared deeply about. And I have been struck again by how little we talk about suicide, and yet most of us will have to deal with it one way or another.

The first time I really encountered suicide in a personal way was several years ago. The person had been a colleague – someone for whom I had a great deal of affection and respect. We hadn’t had contact for a few years prior to her suicide, so I had no real insight into why she would have made this choice.

Her death brought the complexity of suicide into my world. I was forced to think about what death by suicide might mean in faith terms. Historically the church would not bury someone who had committed suicide on consecrated ground. And this choice certainly goes against the idea of the sanctity of life. So what then for my colleague? In considering her death I discovered in myself a sense of compassion – I did not know what had precipitated her choice, but I could not help but feel tremendous sadness that she could not see any way through.

Thinking about the meaning of suicide in processing the death of my colleague helped me a great deal, when just a few months later, one my relatives took his own life. This time the reasons for his choice were a little less opaque in retrospect. But it was no less shocking.

When we think of the meaning of suicide, it is important to remember that the reasons that people take their own lives are many and varied. These two instances certainly taught me that. There is a gamut of emotion around the way in which it is done, the reasons for it, how it is discovered and so on. But I think, as people of faith, it is important to think about what it means – how do we think God responds? I suspect God is far more understanding than some of our older traditions may suggest.

In a similar way our responses to suicide may be widely variable. In families this can be particularly evident. Two people with a similar relationship to the deceased may experience the suicide completely differently. In conversing with suicide survivors it is really important to allow them the space simply to be true to where they are emotionally.

There are no right answers and no correct responses. There is only prayer for grace and compassion.

With gratitude to my mentors

I attended a talk some weeks ago by a retired philosopher, Augustine Shutte. As he developed his argument, he presented an idea of a particular quality of relationship which he termed the guru and novice. The essence of the relationship he was describing was one of an elder whose care for the younger allowed the younger person to become more fully themselves. This was not a relationship of indoctrination, or even necessarily, of apprenticeship in a particular way of life. Rather, the kind of relationship where an elder held the space for the younger one so that she could truly find herself.

The idea has stuck with me, not least because I am mentally preparing to teach on another course on the introduction to spiritual direction. The idea of this quality of relationship certainly resonates when I consider the people who have so generously served as my spiritual directors through my adult life. My spiritual directors have taught me a great deal, and have helped me to grow into myself. I know I would not be the person I am today if without these monthly conversations over the last 15 years.

But I have also been blessed by a number of elders. Some have been friends – some much older than I am. Some have been academic mentors. With most I have shared a common faith, but certainly not with all.

Perhaps most importantly, all have been people who are themselves growing and all have been willing to learn from me. The list is not particularly long – two hands provide fingers enough to count them off – but each one has been pivotal. Some have been part of my life for longer periods than others. Nonetheless, each has left an indelible trace on my being, and to each I am profoundly indebted.

I have had many mentors over the years, but not all fall into this particular category. The people I write of here are those who were willing to share their knowledge and way of being with me, without requiring that I necessarily will follow. They were not trying to induct me into a way of being, so much as they were opening the possibility to me. They have all been able to hold and appreciate the entirety of my experience – from the chemist to the spiritual director.

There is a tremendous gift in a relationship which clearly has a mentoring dynamic but which does not require a particular outcome or goal. It is almost as though they were willing to tend a flower bed, not knowing at all what would emerge. Perhaps the gift to me has been that they believed that there was something worthwhile in me; something worth tending to. Certainly, with one friend in particular who is well respected in her own right, the thought that she was willing learn from me gave me confidence in my own giftedness over time.

There is no way I can repay such a gift. All I can do is express my gratitude and endeavour to pass it on when occasion permits.

Dealing with conflict

My instinctual response when faced with conflict is to withdraw into myself, pull up the drawbridge and to simmer gently in the juices of my own self-righteousness. This response is partly the natural response of an introvert, but it is perhaps exacerbated by childhood experiences and the fact that I live on my own. The problem though is that it is entirely self-referential. My perspective, which includes my thoughts, feelings and experiences, is not open to scrutiny.

The obvious solution to this is to find a willing ear. But I have discovered that I need to be extremely careful about who I talk to. The temptation is to find someone who will take my side: Reassure me of the justification of my anger and the unreasonableness of the other. But this simply adds fuel to fire and does not actually cut through the opacity of my own perspective to something which may be more representative of the truth.

In the Spiritual Exercises in his rules of discernment of spirits, Ignatius writes of the importance of bringing things into the light. The enemy of our human nature thrives on secrecy, and so often simply the process of verbalising a thought which has been compelling diminishes its power. So taking my situation of conflict into conversation with another can be useful.

I have discovered several important factors. Firstly, I am most aided by those who I know care deeply for me, but who are willing to challenge my point of view, or, at the very least, to offer some thoughts on the possible perspective of the person with whom I am in conflict. Secondly, the person to whom I am talking ideally would not have any contact with the person with whom I am in conflict, or must have sufficient depth character to be able to separate my conflict from their own relationship with the person. Thirdly, I must be able to trust that the person to whom I am talking will keep the conversation confidential.

At the heart of these factors is the recognition that when such conflictual situations arise, I am not at my best. My capacity to see the other’s actions or words with generosity vanishes and inevitably the way I present my side of the story will be warped. I therefore need to limit the possibility for the spread of damage by choosing those who can actually help me discern. Those who can allow me to vent, and then help me to see the nuggets of truth in the distorted mess.