Here’s a very interesting article by Eric Gaza, suggesting the possible root cause of the mess we’re in to be individual and collective trauma, stretching back over many generations. Addiction of all kinds (and most of us are addicted to something – even if it’s Facebook!) is being increasingly understood as the result of trauma, and it’s also increasingly understood that our experiences, traumatic or otherwise, affect the coding of our genes, and can affect generations following us.
(This is a blog post I wrote for the London Centre for Spiritual Direction in May 2021, in their newsletter for the spiritual direction community)
Wow, what a year! How are you doing? In particular, how are you doing as spiritual directors? How has this last year nourished (or not) your God experience and ministry, in ways challenging, gifted, questioning, theologically reflective, prayerful?
As for me, it’s been something of a long retreat: I have not suffered as many have, keeping my health and work, and a partner at home to keep loneliness at bay. Early on I heard a loving imperative in my good fortune: to dig deep into both God and myself, to open more to ‘God in me and me in God’, so that I might offer support to my clients and directees as needed, but also as preparation for whatever future challenges might arrive – as they are bound to do. As Ignatius advises: “When one enjoys consolation, let her consider how she will conduct herself during the time of ensuing desolation, and store up a supply of strength as defence against that day”(para 323). Or in more contemporary terms, “the s**t is bound to hit at some point, so use this time wisely!”
What might that look like? Here are some suggestions:
bring kindness and compassion to yourself if you are struggling.
at the same time, build resilience by keeping a reflective (Examen) eye on how and where you find nourishment, rest and enlivenment (for me, reading, studying, prayer in varied forms, playing, connecting with nature, and creativity).
trust the incarnational, intimate message of Immanuel, God WITH us, suffering with us, suffering AS us.
proclaim the goodness, presence and ongoing invitation of God even – especially – when times are tough, and practise it in our own lives.
Let me say up front: I’m not very good at all this! It’s tough stuff. But it is the prophetic nature at the heart of spiritual direction. Everywhere else (including the church) is attempting ‘business as usual, diverted to Zoomworld’, desperate for a ‘return to normal’. The dominant culture’s overconsumption and addiction to busyness and constant entertainment (present as much in the church as elsewhere) were not only contributory causes of the pandemic and its spread, but also flimsy cultural pillars, leaving us floundering when they collapsed. There is a need for the ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ that calls us to repentance (metanoia, or perhaps Joanna Macy’s Great Turning)
I’m not about to start wandering the streets wearing camel skin, living off locusts and wild honey (although with widespread predictions of impending climate and civilisation collapse, it might come to that!), but I increasingly understand our role as spiritual directors to carry a prophetic and countercultural responsibility to live in, and keep calling people into, The Bigger Picture. That is, the God who is deeply with us (as us!) in our struggles, who constantly invites us into more radical trust in and surrender to that Bigger Picture (Ignatius’ P&F describes this beautifully). Spiritual direction is not only about an individual’s encounter with God, as important as that is, nor is it best located at the comfortable centre of things. It better finds home on the edges, calling us and our directees into ‘love-mischief’ with the bigger, communal, cosmic enterprise that is God.
A postscript. Much of my reflection has grown from the ‘soil’ of these books: Walter Brueggemann’s ‘Sabbath as Resistance’ and ‘Plague as a Call to Faith’; and Cynthia Bourgeault’s ‘Eye of the Heart’. I recommend them to you.
I welcome your thoughts and responses to this post. You can email me at email@example.com
Annette Kaye is a spiritual director, supervisor, transpersonal therapist, and associate member of staff on the Ignatian Spiritual Direction course. She also plays with clay, paint and weaving, reads avidly, and enjoys Netflix!
Many of the people I talk with are struggling at the moment with letting go – of our certainties, our plans, our hopes and dreams. For ourselves, our loved ones, and the planet. Letting go of the feeling we have lived with that we can craft our own lives, holding on with our fingertips to the fantasy that we have control over our destinies. I know I am!
But after a burgeoning, blossoming spring and summer when many hoped for a miraculous ‘return to the old normal’, it is now autumn, and the trees are teaching us that we have to let go, to surrender the old life, and be open to the loss that always precedes new life. It has to be done! As someone else famously said: ‘whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it’*.
My ‘memories’ on Facebook reminded me of this poem today. It blows me away every time I read it.
“Look, the trees are turning their own bodies into pillars
of light, are giving off the rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment,
the long tapers of cattails are bursting and floating away over the blue shoulders
of the ponds, and every pond, no matter what its name is, is
nameless now. Every year everything I have ever learned
in my lifetime leads back to this: the fires and the black river of loss whose other side
is salvation, whose meaning none of us will ever know.
To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
Isn’t it stunning? I love the way she offers those heart-opening beautiful images, and then slips in that immense and profound challenge. Love, then challenge: the wisest of combinations, used throughout time by the wisest of our teachers.
This deep teaching is echoed in the book I’m reading this week: Walter Brueggemann’s latest, ‘Virus as a Summons to Faith’. In it, he brings his Old Testament scholarship to bear on our current times, telling the story of a peoples’ struggles through various challenges, and their repeated remembering and returning to a God who is faithful and loving. (Rowan Williams spoke of this too, in his recent talk.) However you understand those ancient stories, or the God they are in dialogue with, I find it enlivening and encouraging that there is a Bigger Story I can trust in that has stood the test of time, while also evolving to meet us in our different (and in many ways, not so different) times. Maybe it all comes down to a universal truth, trumpeted all around us by the natural world: “to save your life, you must first lose it”.
I am on a mini sabbatical at the moment, taking a ‘Sabbath’ break from the usual rhythm of life. It wasn’t met with encouragement from all quarters: “Is that a fancy name for a holiday?” quipped one, “Gosh, you have it easy!” quipped another.
It seems that what earns respect is nose-to-the-grindstone – until that nose is worn down to the bone! – and don’t reach beyond the culturally accepted few weeks’ holiday a year. There’s little or no encouragement to take leisurely, extended time out just for reflection and rest.
How can we know what Life is inviting if we don’t, on occasion, slow down enough to experience a contrasting rhythm, contrasting delights, to listen to the ‘still small voice’?
Enter this poem, which beautifully advocates for a Sabbath approach:
“Do not try to serve the whole world or do anything grandiose. Instead, create a clearing in the dense forest of your life and wait there patiently, until the song that is yours alone to sing falls into your open cupped hands and you recognize and greet it. Only then will you know how to give yourself to the world so worthy of rescue.”
~ Martha Postlethwaite
Reading this, something in me relaxes, my shoulders drop, I come into stillness. I am reading it each day as a ‘touchstone’ to check against whatever thoughts and plans I have for my day. The photo is of a space I have been going to in this time, sitting under a giant London Plane, leaning into her wisdom, her stillness, her ‘okayness’.
I recently read Water Bruggeman’s ‘Sabbath As Resistance’, which I highly recommend (and did recommend to a number of my directees before embarking on this break). He paints a vivid contrast between the ‘system of Pharaoh’ characterised by relentless productivity, restlessness and anxiety, and the ‘system of covenant’ offered to the Israelites in the desert after their escape from Egypt. At the heart of the covenantal invitation is the commandment regarding the Sabbath, an invitation to restfulness, non-anxiety and neighbourliness.
This book, together with the on-going COVID crisis, and the reading I have done around the approaching climate (and subsequent social) collapse has convinced me I need to seek a deeper connection with these qualities, to live as much as I can in resistance to the relentless and endemic values of consumerism, constant productivity and busyness that plague our culture. Only small inroads so far, and I haven’t converted yet to being vegetarian or vegan, but I am eating less meat, taking a year off buying any clothes (and if you know me, that’s a BIG deal!), growing potatoes, and using my bath water to flush the toilet (!). On this Sabbath break I am also playing piano more, cycling, sitting under trees, making art, spending time with dear friends …. and writing! I hope to build on these small beginnings.
I’d be interested to hear your response to all this, what the idea of Sabbath plants in you, and how you are responding to the God who invites you into a ‘clearing in the dense forest of your life’, into restfulness, non-anxiety and neighbourliness.
Ah, Woody Bay! A slice of heaven on the north Devon coast, a well kept secret awaiting you after a 20 minute wander from the main road on a winding steep path through ancient, dense Sessile Oak woods. I’ve been making a kind of regular pilgrimage there for the last few years and I never tire of its beauty and the Presence I find amidst her woods, cliffs and rocks.
These boulders (much larger than the photo makes them appear) don’t look inviting in terms of a ‘beach experience’ but in fact my favourite thing to do is arrive just ahead of low tide, and boulder-hop down the length of the bay (past a waterfall and a Victorian tidal swimming pool) to a sandy patch at the far end and a wild swim in the ocean. I did this last week with my partner and his teenage daughter and it lived up to the magic. We set off along the rocks, each taking a slightly different route. I stayed high, enjoying (cautiously) leaping from the top of one boulder to the next, with no forward planning, trusting each boulder to lead me on. The teenager stayed low, peering into rock pools in wonder at the treasures found there. Julian, my partner, aware, in his advanced years (!) of his bones’ vulnerability, did a bit of both. We came together at points, but mostly found our own ways of getting to the far end, having separate mini adventures on the way. Once there, tired and hot, we revived in the waves and cold ocean water.
How boring it would have been to have simply followed in each other’s footsteps, or even worse, if someone before us had plotted a prescribed (health & safety) route! As I stood at some point, atop a high boulder and gazed along the landscape of rocks, I felt such gratitude for the beauty and the fun, and for my body that still allows me to have this experience. I felt joy watching my companions each make their separate ways. Surely the Presence that I sense in that place also felt pleasure in/as us as we wended/played/experimented our way across the rocks.
As in Woody Bay, so in life. Can we trust and rejoice in our own and each other’s journeys? We prescribe and proscribe directions, whether socially, culturally or religiously, at our, and others’, peril. While it might keep them ‘safe’, and ourselves safe in our preferred beliefs and identities, it shuts down the joy and adventure and becomes … well … boring!
By all means, encourage others to take the journey. Sing the praises of the adventure and the destination (and the wild ocean swim!). But let them find their own way. Trust each person’s preferences for the route they take, as well as the diversions and mishaps.
Appreciate the differences, how some travel slowly, or contemplatively, while others enjoy the challenge of great leaps of faith, or ‘riskier’ choices. (We saw two young men leap into the water with surfboards and paddle out of sight into the wild waves. I felt a motherly anxiety for them, Julian was more able to trust them to their own adventure – I still have much to learn!). Some travel with maps and compasses, others go free-style. Some like company, others prefer solitude.
Go your own way, and let others go theirs. (There is no bogey-man waiting to pounce!)
Enjoy the times you meet together on the way. Gather round a fire, a rock pool, an altar, to recount your adventures.
Offer support and direction only if requested!
Trust that there are many ways of reaching the sandy, welcoming shore. The ocean and her delights await us all.
This poem found me at the beginning of lockdown (although it was written some years ago). It’s a mad poem that for me gives perfect expression to the wildness, the terribleness and the beauty of these lockdown times. Some things can’t be understood, they can only be experienced, viscerally and mysteriously, just like the times we are living in. Covid-19 turned up unannounced (although not entirely unexpected) and has thrust us into previously unimagined turmoil, both communally and personally. It invites us to reassess all that we took for granted, or depended on. It shows us our world – the planet and its population – in a new light. It shows us both the best and the worst of ourselves.
As well as giving expression to our pandemic experience, the poem also expresses , for me, something of the thing we call God. This is the wild God, the God of Jacob’s wrestling, the God who spoke to Job ‘out of the storm’, the God who comes to disturb, unsettle and bless us in the twists and turns of our lives. The God who sometimes doesn’t feel safe, but is ultimately the safest place we can put our trust, where we discover the life in death.
Once again, here’s an audio version. I really enjoyed reading this one! I’d love to hear what you think of it.
Sometimes a Wild God
Sometimes a wild god comes to the table. He is awkward and does not know the ways Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver. His voice makes vinegar from wine.
When the wild god arrives at the door, You will probably fear him. He reminds you of something dark That you might have dreamt, Or the secret you do not wish to be shared.
He will not ring the doorbell; Instead he scrapes with his fingers Leaving blood on the paintwork, Though primroses grow In circles round his feet.
You do not want to let him in. You are very busy. It is late, or early, and besides… You cannot look at him straight Because he makes you want to cry.
The dog barks. The wild god smiles, Holds out his hand. The dog licks his wounds And leads him inside.
The wild god stands in your kitchen. Ivy is taking over your sideboard; Mistletoe has moved into the lampshades And wrens have begun to sing An old song in the mouth of your kettle.
‘I haven’t much,’ you say And give him the worst of your food. He sits at the table, bleeding. He coughs up foxes. There are otters in his eyes.
When your wife calls down, You close the door and Tell her it’s fine. You will not let her see The strange guest at your table.
The wild god asks for whiskey And you pour a glass for him, Then a glass for yourself. Three snakes are beginning to nest In your voicebox. You cough.
Oh, limitless space. Oh, eternal mystery. Oh, endless cycles of death and birth. Oh, miracle of life. Oh, the wondrous dance of it all.
You cough again, Expectorate the snakes and Water down the whiskey, Wondering how you got so old And where your passion went.
The wild god reaches into a bag Made of moles and nightingale-skin. He pulls out a two-reeded pipe, Raises an eyebrow And all the birds begin to sing.
The fox leaps into your eyes. Otters rush from the darkness. The snakes pour through your body. Your dog howls and upstairs Your wife both exults and weeps at once.
The wild god dances with your dog. You dance with the sparrows. A white stag pulls up a stool And bellows hymns to enchantments. A pelican leaps from chair to chair.
In the distance, warriors pour from their tombs. Ancient gold grows like grass in the fields. Everyone dreams the words to long-forgotten songs. The hills echo and the grey stones ring With laughter and madness and pain.
In the middle of the dance, The house takes off from the ground. Clouds climb through the windows; Lightning pounds its fists on the table. The moon leans in through the window.
The wild god points to your side. You are bleeding heavily. You have been bleeding for a long time, Possibly since you were born. There is a bear in the wound.
‘Why did you leave me to die?’ Asks the wild god and you say: ‘I was busy surviving. The shops were all closed; I didn’t know how. I’m sorry.’
Listen to them:
The fox in your neck and The snakes in your arms and The wren and the sparrow and the deer… The great un-nameable beasts In your liver and your kidneys and your heart…
There is a symphony of howling. A cacophony of dissent. The wild god nods his head and You wake on the floor holding a knife, A bottle and a handful of black fur.
Your dog is asleep on the table. Your wife is stirring, far above. Your cheeks are wet with tears; Your mouth aches from laughter or shouting. A black bear is sitting by the fire.
Sometimes a wild god comes to the table. He is awkward and does not know the ways Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver. His voice makes vinegar from wine And brings the dead to life.
Poems I’ve felt accompanied by during these strange times. Today, it’s Breathing Underwater by Carol Bieleck.
I came across this poem years ago and it took my breath away. At the time life felt overwhelming, as though I was drowning with no resources for making sense of or surviving what was happening. The poem found me at just the right time, bringing a message about surrendering to events, not as a victim, but with a kind of contemplative, curious acceptance. I won’t pretend that was or continues to be a smooth process! I still rail against events and people that I feel flooded by, but this poem serves as a gentle reminder that there is life, and indeed castles beneath the waters. I hope you find it has something to say to you in these watery times.
I recently read it out loud to a friend going through her own ‘underwater’ experience, and she encouraged me to record myself, so I’m including an audio version for you to listen to if you fancy.
Breathing Underwater by Carol Bieleck
I built my house by the sea. Not on the sands, mind you, not on the shifting sand. And I built it of rock. A strong house by a strong sea. And we got well acquainted, the sea and I. Good neighbors. Not that we spoke much. We met in silences, respectful, keeping our distance but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand. Always the fence of sand our barrier, always the sand between.
And then one day (and I still don’t know how it happened) The sea came. Without warning.
Without welcome even. Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine, less like the flow of water than the flow of blood. Slow, but flowing like an open wound. And I thought of flight, and I thought of drowning, and I thought of death. But while I thought, the sea crept higher till it reached my door. And I knew that there was neither flight nor death nor drowning. That when the sea comes calling you stop being good neighbors, Well acquainted, friendly from a distance neighbors. And you give your house for a coral castle And you learn to breathe under water.
It’s a gift to come across poems that, when you read them, sound familiar, in a ‘I-know-this-experience-I-just-haven’t-had-words-for-it’ sort of way. I’ve been living with a few of these during our pandemic times, and they make sense of things to me in ways all the commentators and news broadcasts fail to do. Here’s one that describes both my nighttime fears, and the consolation I then experience walking in my local park:
The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
A neuroscientist, and perhaps a physiologist too, could explain why it is we find it soothing and consoling to walk in, and attend to, nature. Something about our neural pathways and nervous systems, no doubt. Indeed we are learning more all the time about the science of what poets and prayerful people have known for millennia: that our bodies are ultra sensitive to our environments and the different experiences we are subjected to … and that it does us good to live close to the earth. Mother Earth is a good mother. When we allow her to hold us close, when we allow ourselves to walk barefoot on her grass, to swim in her sea, to honour and wonder at the diversity she nurtures, we are soothed and nourished, and our souls find rest. As another, ancient, poet put it: “You lay me down in green pastures, you lead me beside the still waters, you restore my soul” (Psalm 23).
Ten years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It arrived hard on the heels of a painful divorce and many subsequent losses: my home, friendships, church community. An excruciating disintegration of much of who I thought I was.
I was on the less serious end of things, never in fear for my life, yet it was still disruptive, unwelcome, at times scary, exhausting, and lonely (socially isolating!). It was also physically challenging, with trauma to my breasts and the loss of my hair , both of which I had always felt confident about! In short, I wasn’t in the market for another Big Life Experience. My vanity was severely bruised, as well as my self image as a healthy, resilient person, and I mostly wanted things (i.e. my body) to go back to how they were. I didn’t want to be changed!
But change me it did, in ways I feel grateful for now. In some sense divorce had broken me (cancer almost certainly arrived as my body’s response to the stress of that), and cancer put me back together, arriving as an uninvited Dark Guest, bringing moments of great grace and gift, a sense of being on a long, ironically healing, retreat. All in all, a severe mercy.
All this has come to mind as we adjust to this lockdown, this sudden disruption of our lives and world. I have been recalling some of the things that in amidst the chaos and uncertainty, helped and consoled me during that 8-month (re)treatment:
A very early, initial (pre-diagnosis) curiosity about what this experience (actually, this lump) had come to teach me, and wanting to be awake and open to that. I wobbled hugely on this as the months progressed, but it has always seemed to me to be a trustworthy ‘touchstone’ that I have often recalled.
My connection withfriends and family. Ten years ago, it was by email with an eventual list of 90 people (small fry in these Instagram days!). These contacts, and people’s kindness, were a lifeline and a needed reminder that in my desolating circumstances I was loved.
Writing: I loved writing and crafting my record of what was happening, a ‘breast cancer log’ sent out to those friends and family. I’ve recently re-read it and it made me laugh and cry, and reminded me of how helpful it was for me to write it all down.
Reading: I had little energy or concentration for high literature, but two books stand out: Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, the essential thesis of which is that you have a much greater chance of coming through difficult experiences (in his case Auschwitz), well and with resilience, if you can find meaning in them. A bit like my curiosity about what my cancer had come to teach me, and my on-going search for ‘God in all things’. Also Sara Maitland’s ‘A Book of Silence’ that introduced me to, and gave me a hunger for, the gifts of solitude and silence.
A contraction of life, a gratitudefor small things: the tree in blossom outside my bathroom window; a short walk in the park; tea with friends.
A connection with whatever it is we call God – something more, something both beyond myself and deeply within myself. I had a general sense of something Tender accompanying me through it all, and in addition I was given one moment of something more numinous: lying alone in a hospital treatment room awaiting my initial biopsy, feeling scared and lonely, I suddenly felt a quiet but certain sense of a loving Presence with me, an ‘all shall be well’ assurance. It came unannounced and unexpected, and felt entirely trustworthy – another ‘touchstone’ that sustained me.
So as we settle in for who knows how long, I want to slow down and make choices that nourish me: creativity, good reading, connection (now with Zoom) with friends and family around the world; connection with nature, and silence – and connection with God in all those things. I want to let this time change me, teach me, soften me (my heart, not my middle!). Whether or not we ever know the great meaning of this, each day I can make meaningful choices.
Alongside that, I continue the work these experiences prepared me for, as a spiritual director and therapist, offering space for people to share their vulnerabilities, fears and joys as they navigate these strange days. Some of the people I talk with are more at the ‘coal face’ of this situation, and I can only imagine what that is like. My contribution is small, but it’s one I feel privileged to be able to provide.
*A Severe Mercy is the title of a book by Sheldon Vanauken that I read 30 years ago and the phrase has stayed with me.