Tuesday, January 20, 2015

At the Crossroads

"Had St. Paul been convinced that he was nothing more than a wandering weaver of carpets, he certainly would not have been the man he was.  His real and meaningful life lay in the inner certainty that he was the messenger of the Lord.  ... It was not the man Jesus who created the myth of the god-man.  It existed for many centuries before his birth.  He himself was seized by this symbolic idea, which, as St. Mark tells us, lifted him out of the narrow life of the Nazarene carpenter."  -- Carl G. Jung*

I'm having a bit of an identity crisis.  I've noticed recently that when people ask me what I do for a living, I have a hard time answering in a way that feels authentic.  On forms I write "home-maker," even though it just doesn't quite fit.  My mom was a home-maker, and she was great at it, but all the things she did wonderfully well are just not my biggest priority.  Sometimes I say, "I used to be a mathematics teacher;" or  "I volunteer at my church a lot."  But neither of these sits well, either, especially these days.  Sometimes I laugh and say that I officially have a job as a substitute teacher with the community college's adult education program, but have worked only one day a year for the last two years -- last year I made $64, almost twice what I made the year before!  The other day I said, "I used to volunteer a lot, but now I'm just a stay-at-home mom, shuttling my three boys from place to place."  Afterward, I had such a sour taste in my mouth that I had to stop and think.  Why don't I say with pride, "I take care of my family"?  Why don't I tell people I write a blog about faith, or that I'm writing a book about faith?  Why do I never say that I participate in several life-enhancing faith discussion groups at church? 

Why is it so hard to talk to people I don't know about what is really important to me in a way that acknowledges its importance? 

I'm going to have to figure this out, because lately I've been feeling compelled to do just that:  to talk about faith in conjunction with life, in my community -- beyond my church, my family and friends.  To actually talk about faith with people I don't know, in person, and not just write about it.

Is God really calling me to do this???  To facilitate a faith discussion group with perfect strangers even though I have no degree in theology, no seminary training whatsoever, and am not even certified to be a spiritual director yet?  Not to mention all my failures to draw a crowd in faith formation classes at church, or my inability to connect with some of the youth in our church youth group, let alone my inability to pass along my faith to my closest family members.  What am I thinking?

I've been reading Jung's "Man and His Symbols," in an effort to understand his theory of unconscious archetypes better, and I came across the quote above about the power of myths to give meaning to our lives.  It certainly resonated, at least in part, with my own recent reflections.  But, although Jung believed in a supernatural presence in the world, it doesn't seem as if he believed this supernatural presence actively compelled people to do things they wouldn't normally do.  It almost seems, from the quote above and others I could copy, that he believed Paul and Jesus were inspired by the vision of being a "god-man," like some people are inspired by King Arthur legends to re-ennact jousting tournaments.

Granted, I've occasionally thought of doing something like this over the past few years.  I'd like to help people who are curious about, or want to feel closer to, God, but don't feel connected to a faith community.  And, I have wanted for a long time to be part of a more eclectic faith discussion group than can be offered at my church.  However, I doubt that I would ever actually move beyond thinking about it, if I didn't feel increasingly compelled to do so by God.

In recent months, I have come to appreciate even more the faith study groups to which I belong.  They are my church within the church.  For in them I am able to hear God's guidance just as well as in a pastor's sermon.   And in my school for spiritual directors, I've been able to compare one-on-one spiritual direction to group spiritual direction, and refine why I prefer study groups, in particular.  While there is always the possibility of someone getting in the way of God in "direct" spiritual direction, where someone listens to your specific concerns and tries to help guide you forward, there is less likelihood of that happening in "indirect" spiritual direction, where you just happen to hear or see something that connects to your concerns as you discuss something else. That kind of synchronicity is how I recognize God's guidance.

It's that kind of synchronicity that compels me now.  For example, a month ago I was thinking to myself,  "Where should I do this?  The new coffee shop that just opened up, with a small room in the back, or the library?" Almost immediately, a woman in my study group at church talked about the Hebrew people being at a crossroads when Jesus came.  Her comment seemed to come from nowhere in our discussion of "Anam Cara," the book of Celtic spirituality, but it resonated with me because the name of the coffee shop I was considering is called Crossroads.

When I started to second guess myself, wanting to know if it will work well or not before I try it, I read about how Brussels lace is always made in the dark with only a small window for light to see the patterns, and this summary: "If you are in the deep shadows because of some strange, mysterious providence, do not be afraid.  Simply go on in faith and love, never doubting." (Streams in the Desert, Dec. 13) and in another devotional on the same day I read, "Begin at once; before you venture away from this quiet moment, ask your King to take you wholly into His service... Never mind about tomorrow, one day at a time is enough..." (Daily Strength for Daily Needs, Dec. 13).  And later that day,  I saw a license plate that read, LETSTRY.  It seemed as if God was saying, "Let's give it a try and see what happens, both of us together."  It made me smile. 

When I felt that my past failures prevented any future attempts at faith formation, I read about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and how their perceived failure (they were thrown in the fire, after all) became a victory.  And I had to acknowledge that I've learned a lot from my failures.  I could go on.  Each time I have asked a question, or expressed a concern, I have been given an answer, or encouragement, in a surprising way.  There is very little doubt in my mind that God is wanting me to do this.

So, do I see myself as a god-man, or in my case, a god-woman, as Jung claims?  I don't know. 

I had a dream the other night in which my pastor asked me if I thought I was like Jesus.  No, I said, not like Jesus, but I do think God wants me to listen to him, like Jesus listened to him.  From this dream, and from what I understand of Jungian psychology, either my unconscious was offering up to my conscious an awareness of this god-man archetype to balance out my inferiority complex, or my inferiority complex was balancing out my god-man tendencies! Either way, it's a balancing dream, like most archetypal dreams.

Personally, I'm not sure that Jesus saw himself as a "god-man," a divine being in a human body, as Jung explains.  Unlike Jung, I think Jesus was just listening to God, and following God's will to the best of his ability, because to do otherwise was not possible for him.  In terms of the Incarnation, it makes more sense to me that Jesus was flesh made into Word, that he became the Word of God over time, rather than that he was the Word made flesh, that God was born into him from the beginning.

In a book I began re-reading yesterday, Henri Nouwen's "Life of the Beloved," to prepare for an discussion this Wednesday evening, I found an affirmation of that idea and many others.  In this wonderful little book, Nouwen writes that we need to beware of our tendency toward self-rejection, and instead claim our belovedness.  "...we will not rest until we can rest in that truth.  From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. ...Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make.... Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do.  It entails a long and painful process of appropriation or, better, incarnation."  (pg. 43-45).  According to Nouwen, we are the Beloved and we are forever becoming the Beloved, on whom God's favor rests.

So, at this new crossroad, maybe it's about time I truly acknowledge that I am God's Beloved.  And maybe it's time I meet other people at The Crossroads.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you


* from "Man and His Symbols," by Carl G. Jung (Doubleday ed., pg. 89)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Wellspring -- Part Two

"The one and only person who can love us deeply, constantly, and under all circumstances is us.  Our own Essence is the source of love we seek because it is an expression of Divine love and therefore cannot be conditioned, withheld, or diminished....  We cannot will ourselves to love ourselves or to love others.  All we can do, paradoxically, is to recognize the presence of love in ourselves and others." *

As I mentioned in the last posting, I've been studying the Enneagram, and have been finding it very helpful for figuring out why we are the way we are, why we fall into certain patterns of behavior, and how we can get out of unhelpful ruts.  According to the Enneagram, our strongest personality traits come about as the result of something impactful that we learned from our parents as a child, either some fear we learned from them or some lack or loss in their parenting itself.  We all have a Basic Fear, and a significant portion of our personality develops as a defense mechanism against, or avoidance of, that fear.  It's these fears that create the patterns that have a tendency to rule our lives, unless we face them and overcome them.

That's what I addressed in the last posting.  Since then, I have continued to ponder these fear-to-personality connections.  My purpose here, however, is not to present you with everything I have learned about the Enneagram.  Dan Riso and Richard Hudson, experts in the field, do a wonderful job describing each Ennea-type, and I highly recommend their book "The Wisdom of the Enneagram," if you want to know more about the details of each of the nine personalities --  and also if you don't mind looking at yourself with a very bright light.  What I'd like to share, instead, are some of my own insights about the fears that create our personality.

One is:  facing and overcoming these fears is easier said than done.  It's taken me ten years to face my fear of conflict and argue for my point of view, and --  despite evidence to the contrary for several people I know --  even now I still sometimes feel afraid to speak up.  For me, it's been like a game of Snakes and Ladders:  sometimes I make great strides forward, speaking up for my point of view, and other times, I slide back down, too fearful to say a word; and this repeats:  up, down, over and over again.  People who do not have my same fear would find my progress, or rather my lack of progress, frustrating.  What's the big deal, after all?

Well, to put it plainly, these aren't your average fears.  These aren't the kind of fears that you overcome one day and are done with.  These are fears that get to the core of your whole belief system about who you are and what life is about.  At their core, in my opinion, these fears are fundamentally about Love --  Love with a capitol L.  They are about whether or not we can be loved, fully and truly loved, just as we are. 

For example, I have tended to avoid conflicts, because deep down I'm afraid that if I get into an argument with someone, or disagree with them, they will stop loving me.  Someone else would not be able to just sit and relax, even on vacation, because they are afraid they aren't worthy of love unless they are doing something productive.  Another person tends to avoid talking about their feelings because they are afraid that too much emotionalism will turn people away from them.  Another person tends to avoid taking care of him- or herself because they're afraid that other people won't even like them if they are perceived as selfish.  Another person becomes a perfectionist because they are afraid they won't be loved if they make mistakes. Another person emphasizes their uniqueness because they're afraid they won't be loved if they don't stand out from the crowd.  Another person avoids standing out in a crowd because they are afraid they won't be loved if they are too different.  It is clear to me that every Basic Fear described by the Enneagram comes down ultimately to a fear of being loved conditionally.

This understanding comes about for each of us because of real-life events, usually repeated ones, that embed these fears in our minds.  As children, and possibly also as teenagers and adults, we were teased, scolded, yelled at, isolated, ie. punished in one way or another, and not just by our parents but also by friends and strangers, for these behaviors.  I have, for example, experienced, repeatedly, the ending of friendships because I have voiced disagreement.  So, these fears are legitimate fears.  The thing we don't want to happen has happened to us:  we have not been fully loved by significant people in our lives because of these behaviors.

But guess what?  That's life.  Sorry to be blunt, but no one is ever going to love you perfectly all the time.  Nor are you ever going to be able to love someone else perfectly all the time.

Why?  Because we are all fundamentally imperfect creatures.  We miss the mark, a lot.  Even someone with the best intentions to be loving, even your spouse, even your parents, even your children, will not be able to love you perfectly all the time.  The most we can count on from our fellow human beings, and from ourselves, is to be loved and to love perfectly at specific moments in time.

What does it mean to be loved perfectly?  Well, Riso and Hudson note insightfully, "Love is not primarily a feeling -- although various feelings may arise in its presence.  Love is something that cannot be won or lost, because it is always available -- but only to the degree that we are present and therefore receptive to it." (ibid)  Love is being fully present to another, seeing them, listening to them, being with them.  "I see you," as the African word Ubuntu connotes.

Unfortunately, we cannot be this fully present to one another all the time.  The most we can hope for is to learn to be more fully present to what is going on in our lives, one moment at a time, to be fully present with the people we are with, and to pay attention to what we are doing, one moment at a time.

Only God is present everywhere, all the time.  And thus, only God's love is perfect.

However, and this is the key to all the rest, knowing God's Perfect Love opens the door to loving ourselves and our neighbor more perfectly.

The only reason I have been able to, at times, overcome my fear of conflict and voice my contrary opinion, even while knowing my words were not going to be well-received, was because I have felt compelled to do so by God, because speaking up was actually more loving than not speaking up.  And the only reason I listened to that calling was because I knew God's love for me would always be there, even if no other love was.  I knew, I know, that I am loved unconditionally.  And that Perfect Love, as John writes in his First Letter, "casts out all fear."  With that love behind me, and in front of me, and within me, I am able to do things I would never have imagined myself doing in my wildest dreams.

In order to know that Perfect Love, however, we, too, have to be present to it.  We have to open our hearts and minds to that Presence that is all around us.  In other words, we have to set some time aside for quietly being present to what's going on in our own lives, our own hearts, our own minds, and paying attention to all that comes.

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you


*  from "The Wisdom of the Enneagram:  The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types,"  by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson (Bantam Books, pg. 149)