Becoming God’s Beloved

“When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. … Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the Beloved. Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

These words from Henri Nouwen circle my heart every time I walk with someone who is struggling to break free from the yoke of self-rejection. The hard knocks of life have a way of infiltrating our core identity in destructive ways. I see it too often in my ministry. Each time I encounter it in a sister or brother I find myself reflecting on my own path with this insidious, hissing voice of Satan, lying in wait for our death-dealing allegiance.

For a quarter of a century, I lived with a deep call to priestly ministry in a church institution that blatantly denied that possibility, still today. Living an ontological reality out of sync with what the church considered “revealed truth” made me run the gamut of responses: from denial of and flight from the call, to feeling the strong pull of self-rejection, depression and anger, feeling victimized by the church’s prohibition, to finally letting the priestly charism/call form my personhood in Christ alone and grow my ministerial journey even without the Church’s formal blessing.

We are always passionate about the challenges that affect our own lives most directly. But we each engage challenges in different ways. While I readily acknowledge the need and importance of working for justice both in and outside the church, I never joined the ranks of lobbying Rome to ordain women. My call was more in living deeply and fully, fruitfully and faithfully the ecclesial and spiritual tensions which God’s priestly call created in my mind, heart and spirit. Thus I opted for the spiritual route, pleading with God to help me stay clear of the traps of victimization and excessive anger or depression.

This route, it now turns out, was the best choice. For many years I lived my priestly call intentionally and fruitfully in a non-ordained capacity inside Roman Catholic structural constraints. I learnt to unmask and courageously mock the cunning voice of self-rejection. In turn the spiritual practices produced unimaginable fruits which I continue to reap in abundance today, now as an ordained Anglican priest, with an abiding affection for my ecclesial family of origin intact.

However, dodging the outside voices of rejection was no small matter, and the dodging never ends. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the father of spiritual direction, reminds us that the better we get at dodging, the more subtle the deceiving voices become to trap us. Fortunately I had a secure and loving childhood to draw from; a sheer luck of the draw I think. I found solid spiritual mentors on the journey, and my husband believed in me. These elements turned out to be vital in honing the necessary spiritual disciplines. The hard lessons from the refiner’s fire of life have deeply shaped my mental maps and the ways I engage challenging realities today.

The way we navigate our inner path with God has a direct effect on the outer path we tread in the world. In other words, not grounding our identity solidly in God’s love through Jesus (the only safe ground) will make us exact from the world (even from the church) an affirmation and recognition which cannot be delivered by fallible and imperfect human beings. Without a courageous claiming of our identity as God’s beloved we become easy prey for self-rejection.

I’d like to think that those who disagree with us are not always unjust and unenlightened. Each of us is the product of multiple experiences, encounters and belief systems. Each of us also carries unhealed wounds and emotional baggage. Not to make space for this woundedness and diversity with respect and gentleness, to dismiss opponents as merely narrow-minded conversation stoppers, to turn them into problems or obstructions of justice, could run the risk of a new type of fundamentalism or doctrinal orthodoxy that disregards another’s history, freedom and conscience, resulting in a free pass for intolerance.

Frances Lee addressed this very phenomenon a couple of years ago on CBC Radio, calling some activist circles breeding grounds for a culture of victimhood. Lee’s essay sparked a public conversation about what social movements lose when valuing being right over being kind. Lee wrote: As an intersectional activist who is concerned about the future of our movements, I’m really worried that social justice activism in the West is stuck in a dangerous state of disrepair. Ideological purity has become the norm. Social justice movements, which were originally about freeing marginalized people from oppressive institutions and social structures, have become imbued with their own narrow framework of morality.

The spiritual challenge is always and only to “love our enemies and do good to those who hurt us” (Luke 6:27) and let God do the rest: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” (Romans 12:20). That is why the spirituality of reconciliation is so compelling, and can guide and sustain all relationships in God’s household. That is why the things that damage bonds of affection can feel more painful than holding onto rigid positions at the expense of those bonds. God is clearly not finished with any of us yet.

It’s hard work to keep the ears of our hearts open when listening to different perspectives. I still cave in at times. But I am also trying to apply the above lessons to other difficult situations now. Henri Nouwen is right: being God’s beloved and living from that center truly does set us free to live in joy and peace and communion with all despite disagreement and difference. Such freedom gives no power whatsoever to opponents to define or hurt us, personal or ecclesial. This freedom is truly out of this world, and even out of this church.

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. WordPress has switched to a new editor and I can’t figure out how to add the Private Comment form. My apologies, you’ll have to email instead: marlise_14@sasktel.net 

A Typical Fudge?

One of the crazy contradictions in the English language is the word fudge. As a noun it refers to rich, delicious chocolate that many of us consider an irresistible taste of heaven. As a verb or in figurative speech, however, it carries such a pejorative meaning that none of us would appreciate our words or actions to be judged as “fudged:”

> to fail to deal with (something) in an open and direct way
> to speak or act in a way that is meant to avoid dealing with a problem directly
> to change (something) in order to trick people

Odd, don’t you think? Try to explain that to someone who’s learning English!

The term fudge was used a while back to describe the outcome of a  certain meeting. But before I explore that, a word about us earthlings.

For all our good qualities, we human beings are masters at deceit. We are so perfect at deceit that it’s second nature; most of the time we don’t even know we’re being deceitful, even to ourselves. We can therefore safely and honestly plead ignorance (psst … here’s one to chew on: is it deceit when we’re not aware?). We process experiences and information constantly through layers of unconscious assumptions and judgments, motivations and interpretations, prejudices and stereotypes, all acquired and formed over a lifetime of conditioning, for both good and ill. All these internal filters create what is called a “mental map” which serves as our operating system. We need mental maps; they help us organize, interpret and make sense of the avalanche of impressions, data and sensations that roll into and over us on a daily basis.

Mutual understanding, generative learning and constructive dialogue are often hindered by dissimilar “mental maps” which can create significant conflict and misunderstanding, even leading to mutual condemnation. Some even claim that the unacknowledged, and therefore unconsciously operating, mental maps in people lie at the root of the world’s problems (David Bohm in the Discipline of Team Learning, Peter Senge)

So it seems not only desirable but urgent and necessary that we let our mental maps rise to the surface of our consciousness instead of letting them control our reactions at an unconscious level. This involves becoming aware of our hidden assumptions and motives, attitudes and judgments, and to free ourselves from their destructive effects both in ourselves and in our relationships – which is in effect the task of every spiritual quest. Such awareness can then provide insight into when our mental map needs to change or expand or be corrected, in the hope of growing greater internal and external harmony and understanding, moving us all to a deeper and richer level of relationships.

Since I have been trying to increase awareness of this dynamic in myself, I also strive to increase my ability to see it operate outside myself. And here’s where I come back to using the term fudge. I’ve written in a previous blog about the meeting of the Anglican Primates in Canterbury last January. Applying the notion of mental maps as unconscious operating systems proves to be almost amusing when reading the various reactions to the outcome of this high-ranking Anglican meeting.

At the end it was a classic Anglican fudge, says an article in The Tablet, Jan. 21/16. I did some research on the term Anglican fudge and sure enough, it tends to get applied by those who disagree with whatever the outcome is of what is being commented on, putting the Anglican tradition down. Now before I go on, please remember that I’m just playing with ideas and concepts here, so don’t hold my feet to the fire just yet. Also keep in mind that I`m still a new Anglican, and musings such as these are my feeble attempts to figure out my place in this new faith family. Part of this task is to explore the Anglican gifts of Gospel-centered discipleship as well as its sinful patterns of … well, truly fudging things.

It is rather interesting to observe how perspectives shift when the vantage point of vision changes and you look at the same thing using a different mental map. Fr. Ron Smith, an Anglican priest from New Zealand, tries to do just that when he unpacks the use of the term Anglican fudge in a Roman Catholic publication as follows:

The author of this article speaks of a typical ‘Anglican fudge’ being arrived at – on the decision not to split on the issues of gender and sexuality that had occasioned the Archbishop of Canterbury’s invitation to the Primates. However, there were significant activities that took place in the meetings that allowed the Primates – whatever their particular viewpoint on this issue – to step back from further schismatic action taking place.

If the word ‘fudge’ means that the different Provinces of the Communion can actually agree to co-exist – without formal interference in the affairs of individual provinces – then perhaps this sort of fudging response might be thought to be better than outright schism. What may not be clearly understood by the Roman Catholic commentator, is that there is no ‘Magisterium’ in the Anglican Communion that can enforce the sort of disciplines available, for instance, in the Church of Rome  – whose Pope and Vatican authorities can use the power of excommunication against dissident Church members.  (Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand)

The Anglican Communion is held together by mutual bonds of affection, and by a horizontal model of governance and authority that strives for a balance between moral autonomy and moral assent (instead of juridical obedience to law). That model, as every model, comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, and often risks being misinterpreted by those who do not taste the inside dynamics of its operations. I wonder if this is what happened when many on the outside  (and those on the inside holding exceptionally strong opposite opinions) perceived the Primates`decision to continue `walking together` as wishy-washy or even an outright betrayal of the Gospel.

It behooves both Anglicans and Catholics to know that the two traditions enjoy the longest-standing ecumenical dialogue since Vatican II. Much theological ground has been covered in rich agreements that have yet to be fully appropriated by the people in the pews in both traditions. In a recent article Anglican Bishop Linda Nicholls points out that the Anglican Communion’s internal struggles have resulted in unexpected yet immensely valuable lessons learnt: “One of the things we’ve certainly learned in my own church is, we’ve learned how to have better conversations when we’re in conflict on deeply painful issues,” she said. “We’ve learned how to sit down together and listen in ways we didn’t seem to know how to do before. And that’s not a bad thing.” (April 29, 2016, Catholic Register)

The Primates` conclusions from their January 2016 meeting were borne of costly discipleship ìn response to Christ`s demanding call to love, reconciliation and communion, all of which they experienced viscerally in their week together (see Canada`s Primate Fred Hiltz`account). At the same time those with different, even contrary, `mental maps`quickly criticized those same conclusions as wishy-washy (or harsh, depending on your point of view), and could only perceive … fudge. That begs the question: which type of fudge was it – the deceitful twisting of truth or the heavenly food version?

There is way more to say on all this, but I’ll leave that for another time. It’s more important to stop and distill the larger questions from this example:

1. How often do we perceive another`s choices and decisions in ways that fail to consider and honour the true intent of the individual or the group?

2. How can we help ourselves to grow a greater awareness of our own mental maps and the role these play in how we perceive/experience the world?

3. In what ways are we called to costly discipleship with those who challenge our mental maps?

4. Does right relation trump right belief? Why and how? If not, why not?

5. When is “walking together” a wishy-washy, anything-goes, ignoring-differences type of response, and when is it a call to deeper love, reconciliation and communion that challenges both parties? How can we tell the difference?

Prairie Encounters

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