For more than 20 years, I loved and sought the type of relationship between two people getting together to sense the direction that the spiritual is at work in one of them.
This role of a critical friend that can listen, help to discern, encourage, and suggest possible spiritual exercises and disciplines that will open the soul for a greater, more secure, and confident posture towards God.
My current spiritual director is based in Denver in the US, four and a half thousand miles away from Warwick in the UK. Andy is a wonderful human.
But what I realised very quickly is that spiritual direction, the practice of spiritual disciplines and living in the contemplative orientated posture does not at all secure any guarantees of growth per se.
Right spiritual practices, good habits, free and faithful attempts to reach or open one’s soul to the divine is always advantageous. Particularly when done in relationship with a mature, respectful, true serving, non-judgemental and loving ‘other’. This type of friend in journey is wonderful.
But, for myself, it is only the beginning of a journey. If this contemplative life does not move outward towards a profound apprenticeship, then it becomes self-serving. In this current age of self, the last thing needed is narcissistic spirituality.
The apprenticeship that flows out of contemplation is based on courage, magnanimity, and mission.
That learning by doing that transforms the soul into the character of God, or de-curtain that inner presence already installed. The great unveiling of the divine resting potentially, latently, and potently inside the inner folds of the maze within. The character of God reveals itself in human flesh. It is the quietness that reveals.
A world where such people act together, from such a vantage point by honest engagement and in mutual love towards the other, outside of itself, towards the direct engagement of place, the space around them, the community, and people.
With the shared humility able of gathering insightful intelligence of place. Intelligence of who the people are, how together these people function as community, or suffers its dysfunctions. Intelligence gathering and awareness that results in understanding. But unclouded by those pre-judged sentiments or prejudice, open eyed to ‘see’ the other in truth and not through filters.
That ‘knowing’ of a place you find yourself in. Empathetic understanding of the momentums, brokenness, and struggle. Empathetic understanding with discernment gives the wisdom of mission and action.
I am writing this for myself. I need to remind and encourage myself of the purpose and nature of being.
Firstly, because I dwell in a metaphoric tent. Unlike some of you, my places are all over. I do not live in them. The place I actually live in, I do not seem to be able to engage with, because I travel outside too much and I immigrated into this place rather than sprung from it.
Secondly, this year continuous to be one of the toughest years of my own life.
To give a small sample of the distress waves battering in on my coast:
A family member committed suicide a few weeks ago.
My own father passed away just over a week back.
My sister’s husband suffered a heart attack and is going in tomorrow for an operation that is one of the dangerous ones (he has had all the safer ones and run out of these).
The businesses I have spent the last three years pouring my life’s experience in are themselves victims of global events that I have absolutely no power over, but that proves to be acid that eats through many, many days, weeks, months of prayer, planning and preparation.
I find kinship to someone who once answered the ‘How are you?’ question with “Well, sometimes I’m so far down that when I look up, I see the bottom”.
What is interesting for me is, that no matter how much I feel the pressure of this year pressing down on me, so many other people around me, and many that are not of the habit of some gifted to perpetually attract problems, but people that normally navigate well, are also suddenly finding themselves cut off, shuttered down, made superfluous to the trajectory of their own immediate life.
We have a group of people from all over the globe meeting every two weeks over a concept of ‘workship” (Rom 12:1-2). Listening to them, it is just one story after the other of undoing, unwinding and being forced into some sort of ‘wait’. Many times, accompanied with tremendous personal losses.
It feels like someone applied the brakes to the juggernaut and it is all grinding, lurching and tottering. It seems to me, from my small perch in the peanut gallery, that we are shaken loose and dislodged for a possible change in pattern.
What thorns this all up even more is that the older I get the less appreciative of these rapid season changes I find myself to be. The inner whine of ‘why can it not all just carry on’ bleats through the inner echo chamber on a tinny tanoi speaker.
Personally, I nearly cracked. Yet, I did not. What feels like impossible to bear, proved to be just bearable. Even the sadistic leering madness that appeared out of the darkness to taunt me to lose my mind vaporised for now.
Nothing profound in stating this, you all know this to be so. Some of you have your own chambers of horror that makes mine a Ferris wheel.
Not only are humans fantastically resilient, but more heartening is also the bankable fact that God never leaves of forsake us, no matter how much we curl up into that spiritual foetus into our self-pity. I love God for this constant unruffledness.
Thankfully, we only need to drag along the bottom. There are no Olympic scorers with white cards showing marks out of ten for our performance. It may be ugly, but we somehow get through.
Broken? Yes, but that is not a bad thing.
Bruised? Yes, but that is soon healed.
Less hubristic? Yes, but more humoristic.
Weakened? But true strength is from weakness.
So, what should I do now? Wash off the stench of the spiritual vomit from the rollercoaster ride. Forgive the ill glorious ego aftermath feeling of raw survival. Wrap up in forgiveness.
I find some comfort to start fresh with spiritual direction, to inform and guide spiritual contemplation. Letting this all lead to spiritual formation and apprenticeship – the hope of the revelation of the divine in this flesh.
Like the grandad who fell off the pig in that crazy Afrikaans children's ditty, newly re-engage with that crazy injunction: ‘On earth as it is in heaven’ which is really a call to build utopia. Building it knowing the flaws that so quickly flips into dystopia.
Building a boat far from any sea, in time of drought, because there might just soon be a flood. The long eye of God sees with crystal clarity that future obscured.