Facing the past

The idea of exploring our past to come to some kind of inner healing is not that old. Depending where you are in the world, it is probably only those who are just now becoming grandparents who really began to explore in a systematic or therapeutic setting how the past has shaped them.

That process tends to follow a similar pattern to grieving – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

We seem to be at a new phase now where we are having to face into the way the past has shaped us collectively. We seem to be caught in a perpetual loop of denial and anger. For some the pain is too evident to deny and the anger drips from every word. For others, the individual response – ‘I wasn’t there’, ‘It wasn’t my action; my choice’ predominates.

The question I have is how do we learn to move through all of this as a society together? Each country, each community has its own pain. This is work for humanity. This seems to me to be the work of the 21st century. Who will be our leaders?

Low expectations

Over the last year there have been three instances where I have been blessed with low expectations. I know that we are accustomed to thinking of that in a negative sense. But what I am trying to convey is that I have been willing to simply show up and let the experience and interactions unfold as they may.

The three instances I call to mind are all significant. Not one is trivial in any sense. All were potentially fairly high stakes. And yet, I was able to simply show up and let it unfold.

There is tremendous freedom in low expectations. I guess as I reflect on the essence of the attitude, I realise that it is that I don’t need anything in particular from the encounter. I am willing to receive whatever comes my way.

Such an attitude is a grace – I cannot will myself to desire anything other than that which I desire.To be open to receive whatever comes in the absence of specific desire is a real gift. I can be present to what unfolds as it is, without it needing to be other. As a result I am able to notice the gifts of what is, without regretting that which I hoped for.

I hope the grace of low expectations will take root in my life.


David Whyte is a writer of poetry and prose. He writes on things which deeply move the human spirit. In his book ‘Consolations’ he writes about honesty.

‘Honesty is reached through the doorway of grief and loss…┬áThe ability to speak the truth is as much the ability to describe what it is like to stand in trepidation at this door, as it is to actually go through it and become that beautifully honest spiritual warrior, equal to all circumstances, we would like to become. Honesty is not the revealing of some foundational truth that gives us power over life or another or even the self, but a robust incarnation into the unknown unfolding vulnerability of existence, where we acknowledge how powerless we feel, how little we actually know, how afraid we are of not knowing and how astonished we are by the generous measure of loss that is conferred upon even the most average life.’

a robust incarnation into the unknown unfolding vulnerability of existence

This certainly rings true for me. It seems to me that there are two different levels at which we can engage with honesty. The simpler level at which we can choose to reveal what we know to be true or we can conceal it or actively deceive. This is not complex.

But it is clear, to me at least, that there is also a subtler level. And here there is a spectrum. The degree to which I am able to be honest is the degree to which I am willing to enter my own wounded spaces, my own vulnerability. It speaks directly against any kind of ‘brutal honesty’. Whyte goes on to write:

‘Honesty is not found in revealing the truth, but in understanding how deeply afraid of it we are. To become honest is in effect to become fully and robustly incarnated into powerlessness.’

I pray for the grace of courage, I desire to be ever more honest. This quality of honesty cannot help but be clothed in compassion.

Asking questions

I’m not quite sure why I find asking questions difficult. I have a theory, but mostly it is a story I have told myself to make sense of some of my quirks.

In the last year I have begun to ask questions. The last month or so has taught me that my default of trying to operate out of my assumptions is just a recipe for distress.

I am beginning to recognise that actually whatever I may have to say will be far better received if I begin by inquiring about the current paradigm.

Before I offer my solution, to say: I think we have a problem, what do you see?

Before I offer my insightful advice, to ask: where do you think you are?

It is ridiculously simple, but sometimes subconscious messaging can mean we overlook the glaringly obvious.


Contemplating presence

I’ve just come back from a pilgrimage in the Holy Land. We spent some time in Jerusalem, but it was at the Sea of Galilee that I had a greater sense of presence.

Ignatius of Loyola wanted to go to the Holy Land to touch the physical places that Jesus had touched. The image I have in my head is of Ignatius at the site of the Ascension (or at least that which is claimed to be such…) touching the rock. I was more aware of Ignatius in Jerusalem than Jesus.

In Jerusalem I had very little sense of walking where Jesus walked. Even the mass inside the tomb in the Holy Sepulchre – touching the rock on which he was supposed to be laid was somehow silent.

But as I sat with my feet in the water of the Sea of Galilee, I couldn’t help but think about the water molecules. It is possible that water molecules that were in this body of water 2000 years ago are still present today.

As I looked across the lake to hills of the Golan Heights, that view would have been much the same. My feet in the water, which itself is the same and not the same as it was then.

It was in the water molecules that presence came. And with presence, for a moment, peace.

Blessed are the truth tellers

The last ten days have been an exquisite and excruciating blend of challenge and grace. I am deeply grateful for more than I can say. But for now, I want to simply say

Blessed are the truth tellers…

I’m not sure of the second half of that beatitude. In the midst of significant distress I found myself among a handful of people who were willing to come along side me.

They were willing to hold my hand and yet not try to make me feel better by offering false encouragement.

They were willing to say yes, you could have handled this one situation better. Now how can we support you in making the next step.

They were willing to say yes, you need to take time, but sooner or later you will need to speak.

They were willing to say, I know this is not what you want to hear, but this is what I see.

In each instance, there was deep compassion, deep concern, and a willingness to stand in the discomfort of truth, all the while standing right beside me.

This is not truth telling borne of anger or bitterness or resentment. The kind that is flung at you like a slap in the face. This is a truth telling borne of deep love.

Blessed are the truth tellers…

To tell the truth in love and compassion is a rare quality, but it truly is the greatest gift.


So far 2017 has proved an interesting year. It has been the crossing of the threshold into myself. Over the past few years I have really entered into acknowledging, accepting and letting go of, the things that once wished hadn’t shaped me. It has been a time of deeply accepting the limitations of who I am, and coming to the beautiful freedom which emerges.

It has also been a year when I seem to have made more mistakes than ever before. I have failed in friendship, I have let down my colleagues, and I have precipitated pain among those I love.

It has also been a year, where I have been invited to speak in so many new communities about things of faith.

This afternoon I begin a journey of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I will get to stand in the places where Jesus stood. But perhaps more importantly, I will follow the journey which so many people of faith have taken before. And as I embark on this journey, I come as I am, so aware of the blend of giftedness and failure that I am.

I carry with me every person whom I know I have caused distress this year.

Not a reconciliation project

I’m spending the best part of the week at the Winter School hosted by the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University. The overarching theme is on ‘Reforming the church, society and ourselves’. It is interesting to see a strong thread of ‘reconciliation’ woven through some of the talks in the parallel sessions. I happen to have chosen to go to these.

It has been inspiring and eye opening to hear of some of the work that is going on. But I am left with the comment made by one participant. She said ‘We cannot reconcile. Reconciliation is for those who know one another. Our task is to get to know each other’. Her point was very clear, in South Africa today, in no small part because of the physical separation of communities along racial lines, we don’t know one another.

It is such an important and powerful point. How do we begin to cross divides? I am deeply challenged myself on this point. How do I step out of my corridors of comfort?