Dante begins his Commedia with these lines:
In the middle of the road of my life
I awoke in the dark wood
Where the true way was wholly lost….
At the beginning of every decade of my adult life it seems that a significant shift has taken place that has led me into a period of deep uncertainty. A little over a decade ago I launched hopefully out of church ministry and worked for a while as a builder’s labourer. This was a period when there was uncertainty about many things in our life such as when our next paycheck would come, where we would live and what were we meant to do. Gradually the way became clearer and I settled into life in business starting a company and developing that business.
Then in my last major transition I identify closely with what Dante says about the true way being wholly lost. I had lost my way and couldn’t see any way forward. Uncertainty was about the only thing that I knew to be true. This uncertainty permeated every area of my life for example, I had difficulty making a decision about the most trivial of things. I would procrastinate and delay doing anything out of fear of making the wrong decision.
It was one of those periods that I best describe as dark, or as if a fog had come over my life that limited any hope of finding a way forward. I couldn’t see anyway to get myself out of it and its clammy tentacles infiltrated every part of my life. Although in many ways it was unpleasant I also recognise this was the beginning of a new conversation that allowed me to slowly emerge from this debilitating fog into a more hopeful life.
I have discovered in the 1000 conversations that I am not alone in this experience. Uncertainty is brought about by the realisation that our worlds are not quite right and even when things are going well there’s always that painful prick that is the knowledge that any certainty we may feel will not last. There is always the chance that there will be something around the corner that will take away any security that may have been created.
This would suggest that a significant part of life for many people is spent in what Richard Rohr describes as a liminal space. Richard Rohr maintains that this is where God is always leading us. It’s about holding the tension of uncertainty and the unknown and dealing with the fear and tension that comes from being in this place.
Uncertainty is the path to vulnerability. It’s the realisation as one writer expresses it, “that there is a God and you’re not it”. The truest outcome of being able to embrace uncertainty in our ourselves is to become more compassionate towards our vulnerability so we are better equipped to fully enter into community. The uncomfortableness of uncertainty is not our enemy rather it’s the voice that speaks most clearly to our need to begin a conversation with God. The psalmist expresses this again and again in his prayers to God and its essence is seen in Psalm Twenty-One.
My version of Psalm 21
My pilgrim journey starts with hope,
Recognising my heart’s desire,
Taking my first steps to eternity,
Sometimes the uncertain path,
Needs Eternity’s guidance,
With each faltering step,
Complete trust is given,
To the source of all my joy.
The archetypal stories that were used to understand the outcomes of the 1000 conversations focussed on the themes of loneliness and connectedness and the desired outcome of producing a deeper connection with God and a greater sense of community. The stories move from the crisis of loneliness to the integration of community and spiritual practices that lead someone to a deeper relationship with God. From this a more hopeful expression of work is described that gives the courage to continue on.
Brene Brown explains courage in the following quote, “Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line”. In the understandings that were developed from some of my conversations where it is evident that the companioning conversation is one that requires significant courage for the person being companioned. The archetypal story first acknowledges that that some things are not right and this creates uncertainty in the way people go about their work, the way they relate to others and their store of hope that will keep them going. The first place is often that dark place where God can feel far away or some of the old ways of working are no longer producing the same results.
I introduce my version of Psalm 61 with a reference to Finisterre a cape in Spain that was believed in Roman times to be the end of the world, the word “Fisterra” in the local dialect means, “lands end”. The cape sticks out into a wild and rocky coastline and was known as the coast of death. It is known for it’s beautiful beaches that are often overlooked by treacherous cliffs.
It’s the conclusion of the pilgrimage of St James that is historically one of the most important Christian pilgrimages. Legend has it that the remains of St James the apostle’s remains were carried to northern Spain and buried.
The pilgrimage originally started from the pilgrim’s home. At the end of a pilgrimage they traditionally burn their clothes, discard worn boots, build crosses in gratitude and watch the sun set over the dramatic Atlantic coastline. These sacramental acts today are shared by thousands of people each year as they complete their pilgrimage.
I wanted to capture something of the uncertainty that is a part of every pilgrim’s journey by referring to this cape and the mythology of the unknown that lay beyond the horizon viewed from its shore. In the second stanza I refer to the searching that is lies at the heart of the pilgrim’s journey and the discovery of rest with God.
Finally there comes the discovery in uncertainty of a kinder voice. Sometimes what is heard can be the harsh reminder of where we don’t belong. In the final stanza is the understanding of the connection between our desire and our hearts. Allowing uncertainty to meet with a kinder voice that translates into a sure calling that directs the next step forward.
My version of Psalm 61
Finisterre was my end of the road,
My pilgrim path reached the end of this earth,
Its shoreline the beginning of the endless horizon,
Reaching out to unknown dangers,
Uncertainty halted my next step forward.
My searching found a safe harbour,
My uncertainty led me to God’s rest,
Providing everything needed to serve Him,
You will allow me to serve forever,
Every gift given full voice accompanied by love.
Today I commit my path to Love’s guidance,
Seeking out my heart’s deepest desire,
Knowing the gentle strength that is love’s calling,
Leading to a kinder voice that discovers life,
A sure calling that will never be dismayed.
Uncertainty is brought about because of the untrustworthiness that we know is in our own hearts and then sooner or later we experience in our friendships, family and work relationships. This uncertainty is the root of the relational breakdown that is evident in our human interactions.
Everyone has been let down by a broken promise and I wrote the poem Promise below as an exploration of what it meant for me. Continuing on with the pilgrim theme is the unknown and possibility for a broken promise to open into an abyss of despair.
Spoken and unspoken promises,
Stretched into an endless horizon,
A sure promise is the certainty,
Every promise will be broken,
Each one bears my heartache,
Understood more each day.
Every pilgrim’s journey,
Is only found by walking,
With an unknown destination,
That has the frightening prospect,
When the ground below,
Disappears into an eternal abyss.
Each step must be taken,
Into the uncertain promise,
Of what ground lies beneath,
The honest conversation begins,
With that first promise,
A first uncertain step,
Taken with the hope of knowing,
The trust within the promise,
Where the horizon beckons,
With a welcoming embrace,
The place where I always belong.
A safe place
The universality of uncertainty brings a desire for a safe place. We all try to create these places but sadly too often the wrong materials are chosen and what is yearned for is unfulfilled.
The companioning conversations that we had created a place where someone can safely be themselves and talk freely knowing that whatever they bring to the conversation will be valued. They are no longer in the world of outputs and deadlines; a space is created where the leader knows they are going to be heard.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Recently I was talking with someone who is battling the horrors that some of these visitors described by Rumi bring to life. Taken straight from Rumi’s poem they were depression, dark thoughts and shame. The effect on this person’s life is best described as violent because they have destroyed numerous relationships in his life.
As we were talking I was constantly searching for the question that would be most helpful for this person. He was stuck in a cycle of endless self doubt about where he truly belonged. It seemed that even the one person with integrity that he knew was still not trusted. This lack of trust was creating tension in the one relationship that I believed had any hope of being life giving for him.
I have been wondering what will be the shape of the next conversation that we have? As I spent time reflecting on this poem by Rumi I considered how gratefulness could be encouraged for this person. One of the symptoms of depression and anxiety is the lack of laughter in the sufferer’s life. I have asked myself if there is a way to help him meet them at the door laughing.
In Belgium is a small village called Geel that has a 700 year history of welcoming people with mental illness. It began with a tragic story of an Irish princess whose father’s madness made him want to marry her. She escaped to what is now Geel. But, her father found her and killed her. She became revered as a saint with a special mission to the mentally ill.
In the 14th century a church was built and then a little later a dormitory was added to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims. Once the numbers got too large for the dormitory local townspeople began accommodating them in their barns and homes. These people were welcomed and loved but also were put to work.
Today the same tradition of care and welcome is practised in the town. Odd behaviours are overlooked as people are able to find their home. They are no longer classified as a medical condition but welcomed into a community.
Geel is a great example of the transforming power of a loving community. It also speaks powerfully to the way that we approach some of the perceived enemies in our life. Rather than rejection and discarding these less desirable parts of ourselves, we can welcome them and know that even their disruption will bring some greater wholeness.
Thomas Merton the Trappist monk words, “In all of us there is a hidden wholeness”, hold a lot of truth for their situation. This wholeness is not born out of our perfections but comes from brokenness. The “pilgrims” who still come to the town of Geel are on a sacred journey where they have undergone a sometimes violent wrenching that has forced them to wander in search of a home. Their search for that home is what is sought by my friend suffering from depression and anxiety; for those who are wounded by work; in every one of us is a wholeness waiting to be found.
I loved the words of David in Psalm 90, where he talks about home. It was the place where he knew that his people fully belonged.
My version of Psalm 90
Home is that place where I fully belong,
Where all my uncertainty is safe,
Eternity is one more heartbeat away,
Each beat brings me closer to home,
Born from Eternity’s love,
This short life a warning of what awaits.
Reality means knowing love’s anger,
Truth leaves no room for excuses,
Our hearts are torn open before God,
Broken hearted we face our loving judge,
Attached to nothing except Eternity’s breath,
Each breath formed from love’s words.
Compassion is a certain knowing,
That belongs to those who have found home,
No more ceaseless wandering,
Looking for temporary trinkets,
Trust is discovered in God’s call to courage,
Life faced with honest connecting,
Calling his love my own.
This morning I am called to belong,
To love’s eternal gaze,
Seeking out my face,
I feel his soft eyes searching me out,
Finding me yearning for his loving look,
My voice longs to speak of being found,
Speaking Eternity’s words given to me.
“Compassion,” wrote historian Karen Armstrong in considering the proper meaning of the Golden Rule, “asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” (From Brain Pickings)
Everything is waiting for you
Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone……
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
The creation of a safe place allows the sense of aloneness to be replaced by a meaningful conversation. As David Whyte writes in his poem we make a mistake when we try to navigate the workplace by ourselves. The value of the companion’s contribution to this is highlighted by Rachel Remen who says in My Grandfather’s Blessings, “presence is a much more powerful catalyst for change than analysis”.
My version of Psalm 62
Peace is such a beautiful place to find,
I have discovered true rest with my Father,
He has helped me withstand the personal attacks,
He will confront the lies that were told,
The lies that were intended to destroy me,
They were destruction veiled as truth,
I watched as my enemy took delight,
In seeing me hit rock bottom.
I know now how to take a true rest,
So that those lies no longer affect me,
Truth relies on God – not on my enemy,
I have learned to pour my heart out to God,
So that my ears hear only truth.
The great reversal is coming,
Where God sets it all right,
In the meantime I am learning what is important,
Rich or poor the end result is the same,
We must keep close to God,
Trust him above everything else,
This is the only safe place in this world,
Eternal love expressed with truth is the result.
My version of Psalm 4
I don’t care what other people say about what is important,
Money, success, career,
or anything that can distract,
From opening my life completely to you,
And being completely happy with what you provide.
I will be content,
I will sleep well,
Knowing – That I am safe in your care.
This Psalm’s last stanza has the sentence, “In peace I will lie down and sleep”.
I have always found that when I am anxious my sleep gets disrupted. When I was depressed the one thing that I desired above all else was to sleep through the night. I dreaded going to sleep because I realised that I would wake too soon. I knew that I would wake with the problems of the day ahead tossing around my head. I felt like there was never any rest.
When David says that in peace he will sleep I understand how important this is. To be able to say tonight because God is watching over me that it doesn’t matter what else is going on I will sleep is a statement about the blessing that comes with being right with God. I am no longer alone but held safe where I belong. .