Pilgrimage

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?

A hermeneutic of uncertainty

A couple of the conversations over the last little while around faith and truth and discernment have got me thinking. It has made me realise that I operate out of what I will call a hermeneutic of uncertainty. (For the non-theologically trained a hermeneutic is an interpretive lens).

I use the word ‘uncertainty’ here in way that is loosely analogous manner to the way it is used in science. So uncertainty is not a synonym for doubt. It is simply an acknowledgement of limitations of system. Within the frame of human consciousness I don’t this we can be sure about what is truth. The best we can ever do is to refine the probability of being in the zone of truth.

I think there is wisdom in the traditions which have been handed down. As a church goer and Roman Catholic, I do think that there is a lot in the tradition which points us in the right direction. But I cannot cast that in any absolute way.

My trust is in my relationship with God even though I am fairly certain that the image I have of God is still a crude approximation of who God really is. I know my discernment needs a healthy dollop of what William Barry SJ once called a hermeneutic of suspicion. And so I subject my judgement to scrutiny by my spiritual director and a few people very close to me. I know I am going to get this wrong from time to time, but I know God will be with me all the way. I know God will throw in opportunities to rethink poor trajectories – I’ve had to correct my course sufficiently often to trust this. And I know that my image of God will be refined from time to time.

I realise how thoroughly I have been shaped by my ministry of spiritual direction. For more than 15 years I’ve been polishing these two lenses. I think they have served me very well. It is hard for me now to see how viewing my world in any other way would be desirable.

The small things really count

I got notification that a paper I made a minor contribution to has been accepted for publication. So I opened up my cv to update it. I was struck by the reality of the way in which it just takes time to develop a reasonable academic cv. It requires steady, consistent effort over a number of years. As I am in my 8th year of my independent career I now have a track record. It isn’t the record of a superstar but it is quite solid.

I’ve been gently pondering that all day, and it has got me thinking about the things I do habitually that through doing them for 10, 15, 20 years have really shaped me. And I am pleased with the shaping.

It has also got me thinking about other things which I could have been doing over regularly over these years, and if I had where I am in my career might be a little different. I am not sure yet whether those are real regrets, or just an acknowledgement that the choices I have made, whilst almost inconsequential on a daily basis, have added up to a particular trajectory.

I don’t think it is so much a sense of regret as it is just a little sobering. Even ten or twenty minutes dedicated to one task on a daily basis can really shape your life over time. I want to be sure the shaping that is to come is helping the right trajectory. A choice made once, doesn’t matter at all. The same choice made a thousand times becomes who I am.

Reliability

I watched a YouTube video recently. It was Brene Brown speaking on the anatomy of trust. (You can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewngFnXcqao).

As usual the presentation is clear and thought provoking. She has broken trust down into seven different elements. The one that stopped me in my tracks was ‘reliability’. She goes on to say ‘Reliability means that we must be very clear about our limitations so we don’t take on too much and come up short and fail to deliver on our commitments’.

Essentially this means we must know when to say no. Or when we can’t say no, we must learn to let go of things we have held precious.

But as I reflect on this I realise that there is something more to this too. My limitations aren’t constant. They fluctuate. I am perhaps most aware of the times I have failed to deliver because of some personal upheaval.

I think for me there is a twofold message – firstly, I do need to be more aware of my own limitations. Secondly, when I know that my capacity has changed temporarily in a way which is affecting my reliability I need to communicate.

Another of the elements she mentions is being able to ask for help. I think these two things are inextricably related. I can only be reliable at a reasonably high level, if I am going to be willing to ask for help. In any long term endeavour there will be times when I need help precisely because life happens and curve balls come along. The only way to be consistently reliable without asking for help is to underfunction.

So I think I’m holding two things today – know when to say no or let go, and know when to ask for help. I feel there may be learning opportunities in my future!

A different kind of thin place

In the Celtic tradition there is the notion of ‘thin places’. Traditionally this is meant to mean that in these places heaven and earth seem a little closer. I think I would express this as places where I find it easy to encounter God. There are certainly places that I can go to where this does seem real.

But there is another kind of thin place. A place where I find easy to connect with myself. They are places where I find deep tranquility, and a visit is always profoundly restorative on a level which is hard to describe.

I’m deeply grateful that over the last year or so I have had frequent access to one of these places. I can escape for a weekend and bask in the calm of my soul. When this first became a possibility, I thought I would bring friends here, but the more often I come, the more I realise that I crave the sanctuary of solitude when I am here.

As I recognise this quality of thinness I begin to understand why I desire to be here alone.

A week…

Last week was probably one of the most frustrating weeks I’ve experienced in a long time. It was frustrating because for reasons I simply do not understand my brain was just not functioning as it normally does. I made mistakes that I don’t normally make. I forgot things I don’t normally forget. I missed appointments. My ineptitude required my colleagues to step in in a way that I don’t normally require.

It was a hard week. And I am glad that I am where I am. The colleague most affected has the best interests of the students at heart, so went the extra mile. And other colleagues I encountered and confessed my unexpected incapacity to were kind and compassionate.

I don’t have an adequate explanation for what happened. I simply don’t know. In terms of my job it was a bad week. And yet, at the same time a paper that I wrote was finally published in Presence. I have never received such positive feedback for a paper yet. Obviously, I wrote the paper many months ago, but it was very helpful to get those responses in this week. This week when I was struggling so much, a paper I wrote some time ago was finally ‘out there’ and deeply appreciated. It was balm for my distressed system.

I hope a quiet, gentle weekend has restored the good functioning of my brain!

The gift of education

I finally got around to reading my way through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. At 800+ pages of fairly dense academic writing it is no mean feat. It is a truly remarkable book. In it Taylor tracks the history of faith in what he calls ‘North Atlantic societies’ (meaning the USA and Western Europe).

I found the development of his argument both compelling and fascinating. Perhaps though, the one thing which remains with me is a profound sense of gratitude for my own education. And I mean this in the broadest sense. His argument is strewn with illustrations from across the spectrum from Isaac Newton to William Blake; from Bach to Derrida.

I was acutely aware of how much more difficult it would have been to engage in reading this book if I was not culturally embedded in the world he was illustrating. So many of the references were all the more powerful because I already had the frameworks he was drawing on in my head.

I think back to one of my MTh students last year, who really struggled with the reading. At the time, I don’t think I really appreciated what her struggle was beyond the discipline of actually sitting down and focusing on words on the page. Having engaged with Charles Taylor, I am so much more aware of the deep associations I can draw on almost unconsciously. It must be a deeply disorienting experience if one cannot make those connections.

I think I can get a small glimpse of the alienation that some must suffer when they come to university.

Unassailable truths (Part II)

My last blog post was on the problem with presenting ideas as being ‘truth’. There is an important follow up point to be made. I made an argument that neither the teaching of the Catholic Church nor science can be regarded unequivocally as ‘truth’.

This post is about what allows me to say ‘I reject that idea’. For Catholic teaching no defense needs to be given. One can read the catechism and say quite happily ‘I don’t think that’s correct, it doesn’t fit in with my worldview’ and really nothing more is required (at least intellectually!)

This in not the case at all for scientific information. I cannot reject scientific evidence simply because it doesn’t fit in with my worldview. The only way to intellectually refute a scientific theory is to provide and alternative with supporting data.

The consequences of producing fraudulent scientific data are significant. At the very least you will lose your job, and if it is sufficiently serious criminal prosecution may also ensue.

The default position when approaching a scientific study must be the presumption that this work is reliable. It is subject to peer review, and if it is a bold new approach, give the scientific community a few months to try to reproduce the work. The reliability will be tested.

Where there appears to be a major dispute in the scientific community (which does happen). It is always helpful to ask if there is some other agenda being served. The climate change debate is a classic example. The scientific evidence is very robust. But there is a major agenda from business interests to obscure the field.

In the absence of any evidence to the contrary I must trust that the scientific presented is reliable.