Category Archives: Health, Wellbeing, Spirituality

My Pug and Her Curious Relationship with Her Shadow

“There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection.” – Carl Jung – 

 

My pug mauls her shadow. Not every day, of course. Just on those days when the sun is shining brightly and we happen to walk past our neighbour’s garden wall at a particular time in the morning. Suddenly she stops and growls, her hackles are up, and she morphs into Danger Pug. The enemy is obvious – the enemy is standing a few inches next to her – the enemy is her.

“Nikki,” I say, “Petal,” I say, “It’s your shadow. It’s you.” She stares at me with angry eyes. “You know nothing, human,” is the clear translation of the disdain she feels for me at that moment. To the pug, her shadow is and always will be, outside of herself … something that is irritatingly and dangerously highlighted on her neighbour’s wall.

I no longer try to dissuade her from attacking her shadow. She has told herself a story all her life: her shadow is her enemy. She is not open to feedback or willing to engage in critical thinking and a process of deconstruction to consider where this idea of ‘my shadow is my enemy’ comes from. Maybe her pug history and litter culture shamed her shadow? Or maybe it was talked about in hushed, embarrassed tones? Or maybe she was taught that her shadow is something to fear and despise … never to acknowledge it, under any circumstance. I will never really know. There is no invitation on her end to engage in any conversation about her shadow.

 

The pug is us! There is a Darth Vader Shadow in all of us. Parts of our actions, intentions, or sense of self that we do not wish to acknowledge. Something we try to hide or disown – and yet, in times of crisis, anger, or confrontation, we are suddenly horrified as envy, greed, selfishness, restlessness, power lust, etc, etc, etc, come out to play.

For many of us, our shadow has been disapproved and shamed since we can remember. So, as the poet Robert Bly points out, we spend our lives putting all the things that our parents, teachers, friends, family, etc, point out as ‘undesirable’ into an ‘invisible bag’. An invisible bag that becomes a mile long. A bag, that our society teaches us to never display or talk about. However, no good ever comes out of anything reduced and ignored through shame and scorn. It festers. It turns against us … and it begins to operate without our awareness or permission … Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde come to mind.

Every day we entertain a whole lot of ‘guests’ at our table of life. When we refuse to host the guests that come into our life that bring us a sense of pain or embarrassment, they become loud and dominant. And what happens then? We look for something or someone to maul … our neighbour (or, in the pug’s case, the neighbour’s wall). Robert Johnson said, “Unless we do conscious work on it, our shadow is almost always projected: That is, it is neatly laid on someone or something else so we do not have to take responsibility for it.”

The profound words of Jesus come to mind, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Tied closely to our rage and hatred of our neighbour is deep self-loathing. We see on our neighbour’s wall everything we are trying to hide in our invisible bag. By attacking our neighbour, we are really attacking ourselves. Perhaps, far harder than attempting to love our neighbour, is to love our sense of self?

It is our ego, our idea of self-image, that acts like a security guard over our invisible bag. We are often given an invitation to relinquish our ego. As Richard Rohr puts it, “…to relinquish the identification with the values of others, the values received and reinforced by the world around us … we are asked to accept the absurdities of existence, that death and extinction mock all expectations of aggrandisement, that vanity and self-delusion are most seductive of comfort … How counterproductive our popular culture with its fantasies of prolonged youthful appearance, continuous acquisition of objects with their planned obsolescence, and the incessant restless search for magic: fads, rapid cures, quick fixes, new diversions from the task of the soul.”

Our ego has one vocation: to stop us from acknowledging our shadow and with that acknowledgement to recognise our connectedness to one another. To dismiss our ego is terrifying. Suddenly Darth Vader is sitting at our dinner table of life … and we have no security guard to call.

Mystics and religious writers all have different language for this moment. It is a ‘dying to self’, sometimes a ‘dark night of the soul’, or a form of ’surrender’ or ‘detachment’. It is only when we dismiss the ego and invite all of us to the table of life that we begin to awaken.

Whether we choose this path or not is determined by one big question – What dreams and hopes do we have about the life we want to live? How you answer that question determines your steps and informs your initiatives. The choice is ours. We are the narrators of the stories we tell ourselves. And as I write, the pug yet again mauls her neighbour’s wall, not once considering that she is attacking herself …

 

“We can’t eliminate the shadow. It stays with us as our dark brother or sister. Trouble arises when we fail to see it. For then, to be sure, it is standing right behind us.”  – Scott Jeffrey – 

 

 

The Sinking Island

I blogged this piece on Tangier Island back in 2017. As I read it today, I found it helpful and thought I would post it again … perhaps it also finds resonance in your life at this time.

And then one day,
– and I still don’t know how it happened –
The sea came.
Without warning.

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work

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I first heard about Tangier Island from Diana Butler Bass as she shared this interesting story with Rob Bell on one of his podcasts. This remote island in Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is in trouble – it is sinking, and with it a fascinating piece of history and quirky British dialect.

The islanders, who at Tangier’s height numbered around 1,200 people, have dramatically declined to around 400, but are not giving up. Even though rising sea level, a result of climate change, is claiming around 15 to 16 feet of land per year, the inhabitants are building a sea wall to protect the harbour. However, a big storm could easily wipe out all of these makeshift endeavours.

Young people are abandoning Tangier by droves. They head to the mainland for work, study and entertainment. The island council holds to a tightly run moral high ground – no bars, no alcohol, no pool hall, or arcades, and Hollywood’s bid to film “Message in a Bottle,” starring Kevin Costner, was rejected as the script contained sex, cursing and alcohol. For some it all becomes too suffocating. As the population shrinks, the graveyard grows, the tombstones a reminder of the families and people who once made this place a thriving community.

Two churches rule the religious roost on the island; the Swain Memorial United Methodist Church and a newer New Testament non-denominational congregation. The UMC congregation has the longest continuous Methodist class meeting (a type of small group). This group dates to the days of John Wesley and according to Bass are “doing all the right things.” However, amidst everyone doing “all the right things,” the island is still sinking …

I often reflect on the sinking Tangier Island. I wonder what keeps people on the island? Perhaps it is in the frail hope that Mother Nature will change her mind and spare the land? Perhaps to live there one has to adopt a fairly strong sense of denial – “if we can just polish the pews and ‘do all the right things’, we can also pretend that nature has not picked us for a showdown of disaster?” Perhaps there is just a quiet resignation that the “show” must go on, ask no questions, bury your head in the sand? Perhaps it is simply the comfort of the familiar? Perhaps it is the love for the sinking island and its people? Perhaps it’s all of the above? Perhaps the story of Tangier represents all of us in certain seasons of our lives?!

I recall waking up in the middle of the night quite a few years ago. I had one of those “Titanic” moments of enlightenment. The recognition that some of my hopes and ideals were misplaced and I was living a life somewhat incongruent with my values and ethics. Yet it took me quite a few more years to “get off the island”. The island can often represent so much of our history, our belonging, our identity. No wonder we have such a difficult time letting go.

The sinking island can also represent a greater historical global phenomenon. The end of an era, a movement, a social norm and methodology, or even a civilisation. If we consider that our world is so fragile and our modern worship of growth and progress is simply unsustainable, then we are sinking our own island. On the current trajectory of greed and violence, an end of the world as we know it is not just inevitable, it is necessary. Our pleasure-bound consumption, built on the deprivation of our global neighbour, has to sink!

So, friend, take a moment. Think about your life. Think about your immediate and wider world. Is your island sinking? Do I have to be the “truth monster” in your life and tell you that if it is, no amount of “doing the right things” will stop the sea if it has decided to pay you a visit! Sometimes there is a much greater force at work. The first, terrifying step is to lift your head from polishing your pew and admit what you had hoped would go away: “The Island is sinking and I need a whole new set of eyes to look to a different tomorrow.”

 

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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 coming.

Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbours,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work

Haunted by Hell: Part 3 – Hell Hath No Fury Like Hell Scorned … and Love Wins

“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

What did church fathers like Origen, Clement, Gregory of Nyssa, St. Anthony and Didymus hold in common that would see them snubbed by many modern Christian institutions?? The doctrine of apokatastasis … No, that’s not a cat with a serious disease … rather, it is a theory that holds the hope of complete restoration and reintegration of our world. This was a popular doctrine of the early church. Patristics scholar, Ilaria Ramelli, writes:

The main Patristic supporters of the apokatastasis theory, such as Bardaisan, Clement, Origin, Didymus, St. Anthony, St. Pamphilus Martyr, Methodius, St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa (and probably the two other Cappadocians), St. Evagrius Ponticus, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, St. John of Jerusalem, Rufinus, St. Jerome and St. Augustine (at least initially) … Cassian, St. Issac of Nineveh, St. John of Dalyatha, Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, probably St. Maximus the Confessor, up to John the Scot Eriugena, and many others, grounded their Christian doctrine of apokatastasis first of all in the Bible.
— Ramelli, Christian Doctrine, 11.

Historian J.W. Hanson reminds us why this specific doctrine of universalism held by someone like Origen cannot be easily dismissed:

The greatest of all Christian apologists and exegetes, and the first man in Christendom since Paul was a distinct Universalist. He [Origen] could not have misunderstood or misrepresented the teachings of his Master. The language of the New Testament was his mother tongue. He derived the teachings of Christ from Christ himself in a direct line through his teacher Clement, and he placed the defense of Christianity on Universalistic grounds.
— Hanson, Universalism, 133.

But hell is not that easily scorned. A furious Augustine wrote,

It is quite in vain, then, that some – indeed very many – yield to merely human feelings and deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned and their interminable and perpetual misery. They do not believe that such things will be. Not that they would go counter to divine Scripture — but, yielding to their own human feelings, they soften what seems harsh and give a milder emphasis to statements they believe are meant more to terrify than to express literal truth.
— Augustine, Enchiridion, sec. 112.

Obviously, Augustine (and many that would follow) had taken a real issue with anyone rejecting the idea of an eternal hell. They built their arguments on theories of predestination or free will. Augustine’s disdain carries over to the modern world. Universalism, to some, is, and always will be, heretical. However, many others have taken another closer look and cannot disregard what they are finding: that the hope and belief in a fully reconciled world was part of the faith of many early Christians.

It was the gift of a conversation with my twelve-year-old years ago that made me step into finally admitting and embracing the fact that I no longer believed the hell ideology that had been sold to me as an adolescent and continues to be perpetuated in numerous faith traditions today. My son doubted very much that a God that identifies as love and recommends a path of peace and forgiveness would condemn humanity to eternal flames for not believing or behaving ‘right’. A God that would torture creatures for eternity and at the same time identify as Love was non-sensical to him. I agreed. Letting go of the idea of Dante’s hell did not stop hell from haunting me for a few more years. Embedded fear ideologies hold power and fury.

Nowadays, I seldom think of hell, except when I am walking alongside people who are actively deconstructing religious ideas that they feel have harmed them. In this process, I have observed the cruel terror inflicted upon innocent, vulnerable people who have clung to the idea that God may fling them into the flames if they do not measure up to certain standards set by their specific religious tribe. It has not promoted some sort of ‘righteous’ living or love of God, just fear, anguish, or comparison. Ultimately, I think Dante’s hell was a genius invention by the religious and politically powerful for effective social control. It is amazing what horrendous acts people will commit and callous things they will say in the name of God when eternal hellfire is set as punishment for ‘disobedience’.

For me, love is enough. Life is not about judgement or some giant cosmic test set by the Divine for unsuspecting humanity. Rather, it is learning to let go of fear and to embrace life to its full, and sometimes complex, potential. Life is following that narrow, difficult path of love amplified through the life and words of Christ. It is about loving my neighbour. I believe God is love and that Love Wins … every time!

Letting go of a hell of an idea has been a journey for me … one day I may write about it in greater detail. For now, for those interested, here is some further interesting reading:

The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald

Patristic Universalism by David Burnfield

Christian Universalism by Eric Stetson

Inventing Hell by Jon Sweeney

Four Views on Hell

I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said, and never thought no more about reforming.
– Huckleberry Finn –

 

 

 

Haunted by Hell: Part 2 – Our Addiction to Retributive Justice

“There are different kinds of justice. Retributive justice is largely Western. The African understanding is far more restorative – not so much to punish as to redress or restore a balance that has been knocked askew.”
-Desmond Tutu –

Dante’s hell, as discussed in Part 1, fuelled the human imagination. Eternal flames, endless pain, torturous screaming of people who refused to believe the ‘right way’ … judgement had come!

I still have an email sent to me by a religious leader who was horrified when I first began to publicly express my doubts about some interpretations of hell. The email was well-intentioned, I am sure. He outlined a couple of the actions of world dictators whose corrupt tenure had caused tremendous suffering, gratuitous violence, and the loss of thousands of lives. “Do you think that a just God would simply forgive these people without judgement?”, he wrote. “Of course not. A just God is compelled to serve justice on behalf of the victims.” He then concluded with several Scriptures and a sincere hope that I would see how ‘dangerous’ my ideas were.

I heard his frustration. Retribution has made the known world go round. The ‘Just War Theory’, built largely upon Christian philosophy, is an example of our desperate need to justify retaliation. Some wars have been remembered and deemed ‘noble’ because the punishment was ‘needed’ and therefore going to war was thought of as ‘honourable’. We live by the stories we tell ourselves. We also live by the stories we are told – the history and culture that has shaped our way of thinking. Retribution is one of them. If someone has done something wrong, they need to pay for it. We may deny the thought that we embrace the notion of ‘an eye for an eye’, but the ardent belief in an eternal hell and a ‘loving’ God that sends our enemies there, begs to differ!

So, I ask myself honestly, why do humans hang on to the idea of hell with such fervency? To say, “Well, the Bible says so,” I find simplistic and hypocritical. The Bible provides all sorts of directives but we pick and choose what we believe based on many things, including our worldview and the stories that accompanied us through life. Nowadays, most people find the idea of slavery abhorrent, but I could argue a fairly strong biblical case that supports slavery. People did it for centuries. No, we choose to cling to the idea of hell, told and retold through myth, philosophers, artists, zealots, and theologians, because hell, in a sense, provides relief from the overwhelming sense of injustice that we often experience in this world.

Retributive justice is an addictive cycle. The story of punishment and vengeance is glorified and trumpeted with loud overtures wherever we turn. No wonder it has made its way into our theology – our way of thinking about the Divine. We want God to be like us – to hate all the same people we do. After all, is God not the avenger of the innocent? One who threatens us with hell in order to change our behaviour? Some theologians speak about ‘the fall’ of humanity, of the ‘total depravity’ of humans, how are ‘hearts are deceitful’. These dogmas are in line with retributive justice: the offender is defined by deficits and therefore ‘worthy of punishment.’ And, just like in retributive justice, the criminal justice system (in this case, God) controls the ultimate punishment of the crime and criminal … Eternal Hell.

When people have been wronged, and for many people the effects of the wrong are so traumatic and dominant that it has made life very difficult, retribution is a glimpse of hope. It offers a vague promise of gaining some relief from the pain they bear every day. If that person also holds to a relentless hell narrative then retribution becomes a lot more significant – it is possibly eternal, not just temporary. So hell does not just serve the ‘ruler’ as a form of behaviour control, it also serves the ‘ruled’ because it holds the assurance of justice that every human being craves.

Perhaps your hackles are raised just reading this? Perhaps you feel very uncomfortable as we poke around a deeply embedded storyline? You may have many questions right now … Or you may feel hope? The thought that perhaps the idea of hell, just like the wizard of Oz, is a tired old concept hiding behind a lot of puff, smoke and zealotry.

So if we choose to believe in ‘hell’, how else can we understand it? Can we free ourselves from the haunting of hell? And what about justice? And what the Bible says? Is there another way forward? I believe there is …

“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
-Attributed to Mahatma Gandhi –

Haunted by Hell: Part 1 – Dante’s Legacy

“The path to paradise begins in hell.”
― Dante Alighieri –

There’s a room in my life where hell sleeps. Sleeps every so lightly. And over the last few years, it often awakens, moving swiftly through the corridors, to be part of the many conversations I have had with people whose life narrative has been haunted by hell. This haunting has been informed by culture and history, and we can trace some of it back several centuries to an Italian poet called Dante Alighieri.

Dante lives on in the hearts and imagination of many. “All hope abandon ye who enter here,” he wrote on the gates of hell in ‘Inferno’ (The Divine Comedy). And with it, he set into motion a set of consequences that would outlast him for generations. For hope, it seems, has been abandoned by many who have been haunted by hell. How can you have hope when fear, shame, and paranoia are the ghosts that hell sends to silence all sense of joy and dreams for the future? For those who have had hell weaponised against them by religion, suffer from a common side effect – the feeling of not ever being worthy as a human. For how can you feel ‘worthy’ if nothing you do seems to satisfy the insatiability of the fear of eternal flames?

Fortunately, I never heard of the concept of hell as a child, except through the dark fairy tales of Brothers Grimm. I was first confronted with the controlling force of a hell ideology when I ventured into a church as a teenager. An apocalyptic fervour was the heartbeat of that particular faith community. This fervour is replicated in so many evangelical spaces to this day and it is the driving force behind colonising missional endeavours. Hell was and is the fear and focus of those consumed by ‘saving’ people from ‘eternal damnation.’ ‘God is a loving and merciful God, but he is also a just God – and a just God will send you to hell if you don’t believe right and accept Jesus …’ This line, in its diverse versions and enunciations, has been thundered from pulpits and peddled through diverse forms of communication, continuing to scare and scar people of all ages. Nobody wants to burn in hell …

What is often forgotten is that there was very little agreement about the concept of hell amongst Christians before Dante. Jesus’ obscure references to Gehenna, a place on the outskirts of the Old City of Jerusalem where trash and bodies were burned, was coupled with Dante’s poem and used effectively by the Protestant reformers of the 16th century who found the idea of purgatory unpalatable. Judgement and eternal torment at the hands of a ‘loving and merciful God’ awaiting all those who were not ‘born again’ became the preferred option. Years later, this concept continues to terrorise and terrify untold numbers of people. Hell has been taught as a reality to little children – I cannot even begin to tell the stories of what that does to a child’s sense of self … the constant terror of an angry God, stoking a fire, waiting for them to misstep. One of my regrets in life (and I have many) is that I became part of a religious tradition that held to Dante’s idea of hell. I wish I had had the courage to express the doubts I felt about this doctrine years ago.

It is interesting to notice how hell (or its equivalent) has been used as a means of control throughout history, especially by religion that, more often than not, seems to be in the guilt and shame producing control business. Hell has origin narratives in ancient mythologies of the underworld, travelling through Greek and Roman mythology such as Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’, Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, and Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, to feed Dante’s imagination and that of medieval theologians. It has morphed and changed and strengthened through the Reformation and continues to pour out of all sorts of religious institutional thinking to this day. Like Jon Sweeney points out in his book, ‘Inventing Hell‘, the modern ideas of hell hold most common threads with Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. It makes brilliant Italian poetry, but horrible Christian theology. But people continue to be haunted by this poem, believing it as truth, because to deconstruct such a deeply embedded idea is … well, it’s hell!

So, dear reader, have you experienced the Haunting of Hell House?

How has it affected your life?

And are you okay with the ramifications of being haunted by hell?

Who introduced you to it … and before you say ‘The Bible’, take time to really think about that.

Why do you hold on to it?

What value does the idea of hell hold for you, if any?

Perhaps it’s time to look into the history of hell and consider its journey into modernity and into your life?

People are, however, beginning to change their minds about hell. But let’s discuss that in the next post …

The Table of Life: Despair and Hope

Despair is the price one pays for self-awareness. Look deeply into life, and you’ll always find despair.”
― Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept –

Lately, I find the world increasingly loud and overwhelming. I flinch as I scroll through my various social news feeds: The faces of the destitute that have been stigmatised as ‘evil and unwanted’ by the powerful, the look of terror on the faces of animals subjected to human cruelty, the arrogant political pontification that diminishes people to fear and suspicion, a religious system built on nationalistic dogma disguised as gospel … I find it all exhausting and Despair knocks at my door.

So I turn to this uninvited guest, cloaked in a shroud of grey. I invite Despair to my table of life and ask whether it would like a cup of coffee? But Despair, uncomfortable with gestures of kindness, stays silent. “I will have coffee,” says Hope with its soft, lilting tone, “and toast with peanut butter.” Despair seems to smirk. “What is the use?” it whispers. “We never learn. We never change. History is set to repeat itself over and over again … until this blue planet we call home can no longer sustain our stupidity … and we sink amidst our greed and ignorance.”

The table goes silent. The words of Despair have that sort of effect … except on Hope. Hope seems comically deaf to the words of Despair. “This toast is delicious. I love peanut butter. I think I would like another one. And then I am going to take a walk along the beach and observe the rhythm of the waves …” “What a waste of time,” interrupts Despair, “such a meaningless exercise … staring at polluted waters.” Hope is undaunted. “Yes, I have noticed that there is a lot more rubbish on the shore. Fortunately, people all around the globe have noticed this too. All across our beautiful world people are doing something about this.”

Despair stares at Hope. “How come you are still around? I would have thought by now you would have died amidst the chaos and confusion?” Hope returns Despair’s stare for a very long, uncomfortable time. “What if I told you that I don’t die? I have lived … endlessly … and I have seen it all – the fear, the hatred, the destruction … and I am still here.” For the first time since it took a seat, Despair looks up. “Why?” Hope points to the corner of the table where a guest dressed in glimmer and glitter and rainbow colours is reaching for some jam. “There are other forces at play. Whispers and quiet voices that speak life and love to the universe.” Despair groans. “Speak to the universe? And that will stop the forces bent on carnage?” “Not always,” says Hope, “but sometimes.” Despair and Hope stare at each other.

“And that is why you are needed at this table,” says Hope. Despair, used to being kicked, shunned and medicated, looks at Hope in disbelief. “If you don’t come knocking at the door we eat too much peanut butter with toast and forget that there’s still a lot of rubbish in the ocean.” Despair, unaccustomed to being acknowledged, shifts around on the chair uncomfortably. Eventually, it gets up to leave. “Stay a little longer,” says Hope. “O I will return,” says Despair, “but you have reminded me that beyond the rubbish there is a big, blue ocean to look at … and I think I will do that now … and then I will return and remind you that there’s still a lot of rubbish that needs to be removed.”

The table guests stand as Despair leaves. Hope puts a reserved sign on the empty chair. “This sacred guest will return and we will anticipate its return with a welcome … it will remind us that all of us are needed for the task yet ahead. But for now, I would like another cup of coffee.”

The difference between hope and despair is a different way of telling stories from the same facts.”
Alain de Botton –

Letting Javert Go

One can say that Javert is our conscience. The ever lurking presence of the law and our own condemnation. The tension between who we were and who we are and who we can be. Javert represents that inescapable, shameful past that forever haunts and pursues one’s conscience. Javert is the man of the law, and… There are no surprises with the law. The principle of retribution is simple and monotonous, like Euclidean logic. It’s closed to all alternatives and shut up against divine or human intervention… Indeed, Javert represents the merciless application of the law, the blind Justice that in the end is befuddled by hope and the possibility of redemption without punishment.”
― Cristiane Serruya, Trust: Betrayed –

The stage production of Victor Hugo’s  Les Misérables is my all-time favourite musical. Les Mis lovers will debate for hours about who is their most beloved character, or which actor is the most believable as Jean Valjean, or which production and performance rivals no other. Mine is the 25th Anniversary concert performance at the O2 in London, with the incredible talent and voice of Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean, Lea Salonga as the tragic persona of Fantine, Samantha Barks as Eponine, and Norm Lewis as Javert.

What is it about the character of Inspector Javert that draws us in and simultaneously repels us? I hold a mixture of profound pity, intense anger and utter frustration as I observe his complete obsession in meticulously enforcing what he believes to be the right way, the law, the moral order of society. Javert is a slave to the law. The law that he never questions, the law that he uses as a lens through which to see the world, the law that dictates to him whether a person is good or evil. He clutches to the law that becomes his saviour as he tries to escape his felt shame from a past story – that of being the son of a fortune teller and a galley slave. The law that provided a legitimate covering for the hate and disdain he feels for people like Valjean. Ultimately, it is a hatred he feels for himself.

He is a man who allows himself little pleasure and adheres to the strict moral code he enforces on others. Everyone who meets him is afraid of him. His character is ruthless and confident as the general in his black and white world. There is no room for kindness or mercy – either to others or to himself. In fact, the book makes it very clear how he is quite convinced he is not worthy of any good thing in life … he sees himself as worthless.

Javert is such an interesting character because he reminds us of something … of someone … Javert reminds me of a part of my conscience that is like a bloodhound – never letting up. The inner critic doubting myself and questioning my motives. Those who are also Ones on the Enneagram will probably recognise and appreciate this metaphor of Javert and the journey to learn to let him go.

I also recognise Javert in the ideas about faith and religion that I clung to in the first half of life. I have found this so illuminating. A child looking for security in a world in flux would be drawn to a fundamentalist, conservative belief system – a religious expression that favours those who believe ‘right’, act ‘right’, speak ‘right’ – a religious world that prides itself in absolutes and having all the answers. Like the law became the saviour for Javert, this moralistic belief system becomes the saviour of so many, who like myself, were drawn to the idea of perfectionism and certainty. We even had a book that could be weaponised according to our cultural interpretation and understanding to determine who was doing life ‘right’ and who wasn’t. And those who weren’t needed to be’ saved’, and those who were ‘saved’ and still not doing it ‘right’ were ‘backslidden’, ‘heretics’, or ‘rebellious’. Of course, we did it all in the name of ‘love’. ‘We love the sinner but hate the sin’ or ‘We welcome you, but don’t affirm you’ is some of the bollocks we told ourselves … and, unfortunately, others …

When Javert is our taskmaster, disguised as the voice of conscience or religious idealism, we become tired. Because Javert is insatiable. Ultimately, Javert is driven by a sense of feeling unworthy. This can lead to self-destructive habits or religious pietism that deflect the sense of shame on to others who are not doing it ‘right’. We can live our whole lives like that – hounded by Javert. Or we can let him go.

So how do we let go this dominant voice from around our dinner table of life? Perhaps we start by inviting another character to our table – one who also understood shame and suffering, but instead of the law, he encountered grace and grace became his guide to life. He stumbled on this grace through the loving actions of a priest –  Bishop Myriel – whose whole philosophy of life was summed up by Hugo as: ‘There are men who toil at extracting gold; he toiled at the extraction of pity. Universal misery was his mine. The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.’ Bishop Myriel was healing ointment on Valjean’s scars  at the hands of the law.

Valjean modelled the grace he experienced. His life tortured Javert. Why? Because Valjean gave Javert irrefutable evidence that a person is not necessarily evil simply because the ‘law’ says so. Javert could not reconcile this – this scandal, this grace. Grace silenced Javert.

‘I am reaching, but I fall, and the stars are black and cold, as I stare into the void, of a world that cannot hold. I’ll escape now from that world; from the world of Jean Valjean. There is nowhere I can turn. There is no way to go on!’ (Javert)

Letting go of the black and white world of Javert is not as easy as it sounds. Javert is often deeply embedded in our sense of self. We need a guide. We need Jean Valjean to show us this pathway of grace and love. For love is greater than the law, it always has been … sometimes we can forget this.

‘Take my hand and lead me to salvation. Take my love, for love is everlasting. And remember the truth that once was spoken – to love another person is to see the face of God.’ (Valjean)

 

Neither Here nor There – The Many Voices of Liminality

‘Jesus, on whom be peace, said
This world is a bridge.
Pass over it but do not build your dwelling there.’

(Inscribed in Persian on Buland Darwaza, the main gateway to the palace at Fatehpur Sikri, south of Delhi, India
by the Moghul emperor Akbar I in 1601)

 

Last year, I had the opportunity and privilege to contribute to an anthology on a subject that I am most interested and passionate about – liminality. I have blogged on this topic numerous times. Here are some introductory posts:

This latest compilation is the brainchild of pastor, writer, editor and friend, Tim Carson, who has written a variety of other books. I love Tim’s definition of liminality in his chapter contribution:

The experience of liminality is feeling a loss of steady and familiar landmarks, the kind of security that accompanied past structure, even as the future has not yet materialized. With everything in flux, angst becomes the predominant mood. Very often action seems fruitless because some transitions cannot be hurried. One has entered an incubation period in which time shifts. The liminal person does not necessarily know that transformation is occurring at the time it is happening. Does a caterpillar have any idea that metamorphosis is about to take place as it enters the cocoon?

I wept reading that. It resonated so deeply with my own life experience.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes the foreword for this book. Yes, I was slightly dizzy when I heard this and I went into serious fangirl mode. I love love love her writings. In her foreword, she acknowledges how most of the contributors did not consent to go on a liminal journey, but life took them there anyway. Some were catapulted into the liminal space through ‘war, illness, abuse, or natural disaster. Others found themselves there due to poverty, gender, apartheid, or immigration.’

Personally, I found solace and comfort in the stories of this communal motley crew of liminal travellers, sharing their bewilderment at finding themselves ‘betwixt and between’ where ‘the only way through is through. There are no guarantees … To engage liminal space is to live in faith, not certainty.’

This post would be too long if I discussed every chapter. Instead, I offer one of my favourite quotes from each chapter. If you are wandering the shadowy, mystical path of liminality, may it be a light to you in dark times.

I’ve heard some people describe liminality in the language of Celtic spirituality: a thin place, a narrow place, a place where the living and the dead commune, where heaven and earth all regard each other. Hell too, I hope. Otherwise, what’s the point?’ Pádraig Ó Tuama

I discovered my first hummingbirds as a small child in the gardens of the Theological Community in Mexico City where I was encouraged to nourish my love for nature while caring for others by cooperating, respecting, and sharing in the many social and spiritual activities with people from all over Latin America. Tucked gently away in my soul and mind is the gift of seeing the world from the borderlands, the in-between spaces, the nepantlera of ‘either/or’ and’ neither/nor,’ with thousands of beautiful colour hues and nuances of language and culture.’ Elena Huegel

Ultimately, the purpose of pilgrimage is to bring the pilgrim, transformed in the journey, back home again.Kristine Culp

The liminal dimension undergirds all human experience. In some sense, there is nothing that is not liminal. We live our lives (and perhaps find sanity) by fashioning fixed structures of meaning and identity; selves and narratives that are generally static and contained. But that is not life, as much as it is the mask we put onto life. Meanwhile, the liminal waits for us.Joshua Boettiger

Liminality is essentially and always a middle. It is the moment of in-between-ness where what has been is gone, but what will be has not yet arrived. In Christian spirituality, it is the moment of Holy Saturday, when Christ has died but is not yet risen. There is nothing to be done on Holy Saturday except to learn how to die with Christ, in the hope that one day – but not today – life will be restored by resurrection.’ Michelle Trebilcock

War is a universal experience of social liminality. If the scale of hostilities is sufficiently large, war can expand to even global liminality. Societies and nations are cast into a time between the times, a state of being filled with uncertainty and dread. For warriors within these societies, war represents a rite of passage, a transition that changes the identity of those who enter war and the community of those who share it.’ Kate Hendricks Thomas

‘In the aftermath of the tornado, liminal time moved at its own pace, mostly slower than we might have preferred.’ Jill Cameron Michel

Adoptees exist between families for their entire lives. They are products of legal and biological families, but not fully either. This liminal space is their reality, and from it comes complex identity work. The extent to which adoptees engage with the liminality of their adoption status emerges as a product of individual, contextual, and familial characteristics.’ Colleen Warner Colaner

‘The literature of the ancient desert monks and medieval Celtic saints is extensive and filled with many tales like this. In this liminal time, when climate change presents us with an opaque and uncertain future, can the literature that emerged from the liminal experience of Christian contemplatives in late antiquity offer us any wisdom for navigating our challenges in better ways?’ Timothy Robinson

‘The liminal is the space between; it is a state in which the classifications of the everyday are bracketed to reveal an alternative order, a more basic relatedness, which undergirds the everyday power and position exemplified by given cultural norms.’ Adam Pryor

‘Cancer is the quintessential liminal experience as it includes all the stages – pre-liminal, liminal, reintegration – and all the classic elements of the liminal journey: end of one way of life, loss of identity and status, bewilderment, confusion, ambiguity, reversal of hierarchy, uncertainty. Patients are between life as they once knew it and an uncertain future.’ Debra Jarvis

‘When I crossed the threshold into the strange world of incarceration, I was ushered into a state of permanent liminality, a time and space between the past and some seemingly unobtainable future. My life was stuck in a time between the times, a place between the spaces. Unlike van Gennep’s Rites of Passage, however, there was no design for movement, for transformation in the liminal passage.’ Jacob Davis

‘The stories that we tell to make sense of our world and our lives simultaneously open up certain possibilities for action and close others off. They define and limit the options we think exist. The danger is that we become so enamored with our own narrative that we shut ourselves from the narratives of the “other.” What if each of us needs both the presence and the narratives of the other to navigate the ambiguities of liminality?’ John Eliastam

‘Our collective challenge for the future is to produce a society that accepts diversity, welcomes difference, and champions human rights for all its citizens. If accomplished, this might enable Turner’s view of positive social change through community building actually to become reality. One can always remain hopeful.’ Diane Dentice and Michelle Dietert

‘To examine the liminal, where it may reside, are we well advised to avoid the paved road where, by following the markers, we do arrive, but it just may be a camouflaged dead end?’ Kenneth Krushel

Let me end this post with a quote from my chapter. Writing this piece was part of a healing journey. I am grateful.

‘The gift of liminality, presented to me wrapped in pain, exile, and humiliation has assisted me in recognizing many of my ego’s trappings and yearnings. In this place, I have been confronted and stripped of much of the baggage that I carried over the years … of trying to live up to all sorts of expectations. Liminality, like the character V in the film V for Vendetta, showed me the bars of my ideological and structural prison, all dressed up in religious moralizing – and once you see, you cannot un-see.’

If you would like to order this book, you can do so via Lutterworth Press

 

Is it Time to Marie Kondō Our Ideas?

“The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” – Marie Kondō –

Yes, I am one of them. One of those Marie Kondō fans. I find her mesmerising. From the moment she enters someone’s home she shows restraint, respect, and kindness. Holding no judgment, she gently nudges her clients to take a look at the piles of stuff they have accumulated and asks that Marie-mantra question: “Does it spark joy?” With that question she guides their actions and narrative … and before long, zen conquers chaos. She is the queen of transformation.

In a consumer-driven culture, Marie is sent like an angel of light to remind us of what is important in life. Accumulating stuff is not necessarily one of them. She proposes that joy holds greater weight than the bulging contents of our cupboards, garages, basements and rented storage units. Perhaps one of the reasons we like to hold on to stuff is that it gives us a sense of comfort and safety in a world that we have very little control over? Maybe it is just another way of dealing with our existential angst and the questions we hold about meaning and purpose? With great courtesy and compassion, Marie suggests there is something more effective to fill that gnawing sense of dread or emptiness. It’s called joy. The choice she leaves to each person. What is most noticeable is the change of demeanour on people’s faces as they let go of clutter and move from tiredness, to panic, to grief, to … peace? A quiet recognition that life is better when not bunkered down with so much stuff.

It is not always our physical clutter that needs Marie Kondō attention. There are seasons in life when we need to take a hard look at the clutter of ideas, paradigms, and dogmas we have accumulated. This medley of thoughts and creeds help shape the narratives by which we live our lives – so a regular cerebral spring clean may just make us feel a whole lot lighter.

Deconstructing and critiquing the stories we tell ourselves and the ideas that uphold them is not easy. I would go as far as saying it’s terrifying. Sometimes so much of our identity and sense of belonging is caught up in these ideas we have gathered. We may have built intricate relationships based on tribal adherence to certain ideological persuasions. To question or examine those tenets is to make ourselves vulnerable. What if my belonging is purely based on my faithfulness to certain family, political, religious concepts? Maybe we frantically hold on to ideas that lost their meaning a long time ago because the alternative is too alarming? Or we simply cannot cope with the idea of our whole Jenga Tower toppling when we put a block under scrutiny? And maybe we’re ok with that …

If it isn’t, then Marie Kondō’s approach can be helpful in the deconstruction/decluttering of burdensome ‘holy cows’.
We may want to start by considering what ideas we have taken on board that cause anxiety? Fear? Guilt? Shame?
What is it about those ideas that we found meaningful in the first place?
What is it about those ideas that caused harm?
What are the values and ethics we wish to live by now? And how do the ideas we are examining stack up to those values and ethics? Do they add or take away from them?
What is it that you will lose if you deconstruct or discard these views?
What would you gain?
What would you exchange it for?

So here is my 2019 challenge to you, dear reader. Pile up the stories that run your life on the living room table of your heart. Pick up one of those ideas at a time and take a good, hard look at what it has brought into your life. Does it spark joy? Does it belong to someone else? Are you ok with that?

Happy decluttering!

“People cannot change their habits without first changing their way of thinking.”
Marie Kondō –

 

On Being a Feral Priest

Dedicated to all the Ferals out there xx

I found tears running down my face as I read this blog post. It was not because I was particularly sad, for that matter. It was because Colin Coward (author) was able to eloquently articulate something that resonated so deeply with me. Thank you, Colin, for your permission to publish your post. Please find the link to his blog and much more information here.

Colin writes:

‘On 13 January 2019, the Observer published an interview with Casey Gerald, a black, gay, handsome, 31-year-old American of whom I’d never heard. The interview marked the publication of Gerald’s first book, There Will Be No Miracles Here. The full-page portrait and the title of the book encouraged me to read the interview. I underlined a quote: “I do believe I have been put on this planet to do real work but my priority is to be well. If I’m well, everything I do will be well.” I had been having a very similar thought that very week.

Towards the end of the article, a TED talk he delivered in 2016 is mentioned: The Gospel of Doubt. I watched the talk. He begins with a flashback, the end of the world on Millennium Eve when he was in church with his grandmother praying for the Rapture. His account is very, very funny and the talk is powerful. I was hooked. I bought the book. The book, too, is very funny. A quote on the cover by Colm Toibin says it is ‘Urgent, mesmeric, soaring, desperately serious, wounded, and at times, slyly, brilliantly comic … electrifying’. Indeed it is.

I’m still reading the book and I’ve watched the TED talk again. I’ve been talking with friends and asking questions and doing a lot of thinking. If I find myself, as Casey Gerald writes on page 183, “in a dark confusing period of history, when the gods have ceased to be and the Christ has not yet come and man stands alone,” then, he says, “you will have some sense of how things fall apart and a dim view as to how they might be put back together.”

Since leaving parish ministry in 1995 and more recently, retiring from Changing Attitude three years ago, I have felt more acutely a sense of Christian things falling apart for me combined with a struggle to work out how they might be put back together. One thing some of my friends find curious is why I am still so strongly motivated by a desire that things should be brought back together. We have lived through five decades of Church of England reports on homosexuality, with the current three-year process yet to be completed, and two decades of Anglican global conflict since the 1997 Kuala Lumpur Statement.

Christians are good at conflict and living with disagreement, good or bad, and less good at conflict resolution. The various tribal groupings to be found in the Anglican Communion have been at war among themselves for two decades over people like me, plus my lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex brothers and sisters. Christian tribes have been at war over women for longer than that and in past centuries Christians physically went to war, tribal Christian groups against each other, against other faiths and against those they labelled ‘savages’.

I’d label my tribe the Honest to God, South Bank Religion tribe, in which, to quote a past incumbent of my childhood parish church, “I have never felt that intellectual assent to any doctrine or creed is essential to being a Christian. God is all (but don’t ask what that means).” My faith is rooted in my experience of God and the practice of Christianity as exemplified by Jesus focused on unconditional love, wisdom, justice, truth, goodness, self-giving, compassion, and the glory of living. I had felt for a long time that this tribe has become increasingly marginalised in the church. My conversations in London this week have shown me that the tribe survives, and maybe more than survives. It continues to flourish in particular places, but under the radar, no longer valued by a church institution that needs to survive and is desperate to grow and plant.

This week I discovered that parish ministry for many, lay and ordained, continues to focus on people, their lives and uncertainties, sitting lose to creeds and dogma, but deeply valuing the elusive, the mystery, the not-knowing, the caring, open, energised, playful, deep-down truthiness of lives fuelled by prayer.

BEING A FERAL PRIEST

My last conversation was with my spiritual director. He stunned me by revealing that he had returned his Permission to Officiate to his bishop in the autumn, describing himself in the accompanying letter as a feral priest.

The idea came from the title of George Monbiot’s book about the re-wilding of moorland areas – ‘Feral’, Monbiot’s definition of ‘feral’ being “in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication.” A feral priest is one called by God to escape the captivity of the institutional Church.

My spiritual director has written that as a feral priest he had to learn a different set of skills. He had to learn to place his trust in God where previously the unstated assumption was that he should trust the institution and its leaders. He also had to learn to trust himself, his own intuitive sense of what priesthood meant. He talks about ‘internalised’ priesthood, the state in which he has learnt to trust that because God called him there must be something essentially ‘priestly’ about him.

Jesus, of course, was ‘feral’. He exercised his ministry on the edge of, or outside the religious institution in which he had grown up, and by implication challenged it. Increasing numbers of men and women today do the same, and not just priests, indeed mainly not priests. There are large numbers of ‘feral Christians’ on the loose.

Richard Holloway has spoken about feeling himself to be part of a church ‘in exile’. To be ‘in exile’ in a Biblical sense carries overtones of being cast out against one’s will, excluded from what feels like home, and sent to a place to which one does not want to go and where one feels a stranger. It’s a place of pain. To go ‘feral’ may include experiencing all of the above, but for my spiritual director and for myself, it also means a sense of call rather than exclusion and points to a capacity for freedom and delight in what has been newly discovered.

I am discovering that to go feral is to be following a vocation in which energies are released and visions flow abundantly. I’m discovering Christians with a feral ministry, living under the radar, away from the gaze of bishops who have sold their souls to yet more process and discussion about my sexuality with no commitment to significant change in church teaching and practice. I sense subversion in the air, people, lay and ordained, go ahead despite the bishops’ rules, blessing unconditionally and distributing sacraments lavishly, as is the way of Jesus before he was tamed by the Church.’