On my walk this morning, this sight brought a glorious poem by R S Thomas to mind. Except I didn’t walk on – I jumped over the ditch and squelched my way across the grass … and along the river … and through the trees … burning bushes everywhere I looked.
The Bright Field
R S Thomas
I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field for a while, and gone my way and forgotten it. But that was the pearl of great price, the one field that had treasure in it. I realise now that I must give all that I have to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Bear with me. I’m in a train of thought that goes something like this:
The Indigenous teachers I’m listening to in my attempt to grapple with the big issues present in the world, all say: ‘you’re going the wrong way! Turn around, return to your original connection to God, each other, and the planet’ …. Hold on, that sounds somewhat like … Jesus! Perhaps then, I can listen to Jesus as an Indigenous teacher?
A core Indigenous teaching is that there is no separation between us and the rest of creation. ‘Nature’ is not other than us – we are nature ….. perhaps Incarnation is saying the same thing? Perhaps when Jesus holds up bread and wine and says ‘this is my body’ we can take that quite literally, without needing fancy terms – like trans-substantiation? Maybe he sees no separation between himself and these other fruits of the earth. … maybe also, when he multiplies loaves and fish, or withers a fig tree, or heals a leper, he simply knows himself to not be other than these other beings ….
On a recent retreat day I hold a small stone and hear ‘You are holding God’, and that the chair I’m sitting in, made of wood, nylon (fossil fuels), is God holding me …. I go for a walk, buying a croissant to eat as I go …. Perhaps everything I see, or eat – trees, stones, river, croissant – all being fruits of – are the body of God.
Here’s a post I’ve just discovered in my ‘drafts’ folder. Written a few years ago, I think its premise still stands.
I took this picture while on holiday in Normandy, of the iconic Mont-St-Michel. I have clearly embellished the image with various filters which have added drama to an already dramatic scene (I had recently participated in an ‘iPhonography course.). I’m quite proud of the photo – I hope you like it!
But beyond showing off my photographic experiments, it occurs to me this photo offers various insights into the process of therapy. Bear with me …
The added filters here create a picture that mirrors how a person first turns up to therapy: ‘filtered’, dressed up in the various ways they present to the world, perhaps as colourful, or successful, moody, or overly sensitive, artistic, or broken. The list could go on, as we each have endless strategies that add filters to protect ourselves and prevent others seeing the true, unembellished us. As in the photo, a therapist understands that this initial view is ‘dark’, lacking in detail, just a silhouette. But it’s also intriguing: what lies behind those filters, within those shadows? We stand on the threshold of an adventure!
And so we step over the threshold, move in for a closer view, and therapy gets underway.
On arrival at the Mont, I slowly climbed its steep winding path, peering into souvenir and fast food shops, stopping at various points to catch a breath and admire the view across the sand flats. Eventually I reached the monastery at the top and proceeded on a tour of its abbey, cloisters and crypt, with chambers which greeted nobility and others where the lowly could mingle. There were further, inner rooms as well as alleyways and buildings that were not accessible to the public.
In just such a way, therapy is initially an exploration of someone’s more visible, filtered persona or survival personality which they show the world. Once a client feels safe enough, the exploration moves towards the more private, inner ‘rooms’ where they keep themselves hidden from others and also from themselves. Gently, gradually, therapy invites the opening of doors into these hidden places so that together, therapist and client, we can understand what motivates them, what is precious to them and what has hurt them.
Back to the Mont: later, on that day in Normandy, I took a walk across the sand flats and gained a more distant, but wide-angled view of that amazing scene. Again, in therapy, we sometimes stand back from the intricate, ‘zoomed-in’ exploration and try to see the ‘big picture’ of the client’s life: their place, meaning and purpose in the world. To adopt the analogy of filters in another way: we can then utilise the various filters of family, work, beliefs and relationships to help them see their lives more clearly and to highlight both the beauty and pain of their experiences and come into an increasingly healing relationship with them. It can be slow and patient work – a ‘long walk to freedom’ – but immensely helpful and satisfying, for both client and therapist.
I’ve enjoyed bringing together my photography and musings on therapy, so I may offer further ‘snapshots of therapy’ in future posts. Does any of this resonate with, or intrigue you?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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!
I recently asked this question on Facebook: are people here really interested in thought-provoking content, or does everyone prefer light, humorous, cute content? And the answer was …. light, humorous, cute content! It seems Facebook is space for light-relief, at least among my friends and family, and granted, it is a great tool for staying in a certain kind of connection with those I love.
But I’ve decided to stop beating my head against the brick wall that is the Facebook community, and divert my more thought-provoking posts here, to my blog. At least people signed up to this are potentially interested in the same sort of things as I am!
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.