Sometimes, we humans need to hear or read things more than once, to actually understand and appreciate what is being offered to us. Working on that principle, I offer you some thoughts I wrote in June 2010. In my reading I came across a thought provoking statement from the East German philosopher Ernst Bloch, who requested the following epitaph be placed on his gravestone in Tubingen: ‘Denken heist uberschreiten,’ i.e. to think is to go beyond.’
To think is to go beyond, to go beyond what, you might well ask. Each of our lives are lived within the confines of the familiar, this enables us to remain within our comfort zone. We have within us a built-in indicator, that begins to set off alarm bells when we are about to move beyond the comfort zone and undertake something that is not familiar, or we think is new and different.
I recall in the 1960’s, it was the height of the Cold War; I worked for the Post Office in the UK as a technician on an Early Warning System. This was meant to give Britain a four-minute warning of a nuclear attack. I am not sure what we were supposed to do in those four minutes, but in theory, it was meant to give a measure of preparation. Thank goodness it was never used for real, only for testing and exercise purposes. There is within us humans an early warning system, which seeks to protect us from what we perceive as an attack upon our comfort zones.
If we pause in the midst of becoming aware that our comfort zone is being confronted and resist the temptation to either withdraw or freeze. We may take time to listen to our life, to examine, to think, to consider our perceptions, and responses, ascertaining if what we are responding to is real or imagined. Often, when we do this, we may go beyond what we originally thought was keeping us in our comfort zone, to see how our thinking has in fact imprisoned us within our perceptions and attitudes, resulting in the loss of curiosity and wonder.
To embrace curiosity and wonder does indeed offer us a new way of responding to this journey we call life. We discover that life is indeed a mystery with no certainty or guarantees. In the last month I have re-discovered the writings of a man called Herbert Kelly (1860 – 1950), an Anglican Monk who founded the Society of the Sacred Mission in England and also a Theological College for those who wished to train for the ministry and had no money. Kelly insisted that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.
Faith is the opposite of blind trust. Faith is a uniquely Christian concept referring to a confidence or trust in a greater good; it’s something in the human heart that knows in the deepest and most intimate sense that there is something eternal — and that it is profoundly connected with human beings. I want to name this something, the Divine Mystery, the One in whom we live, move and have our being. This offers the opportunity to embrace an authentic spirituality, which welcomes diversity and conflict, to tolerate ambiguity, and to embrace paradox.
Authentic spirituality wants to open us to truth – whatever truth may be, wherever truth may take us. Such spirituality does not dictate where we must go, but trusts that any path walked with integrity will take us to a place of knowledge.
How are your comfort and familiarity zones as you read this?
Sometimes, on our journey, we mistake the maps for the territory, the journey itself. I recall before Fleur and I went to the Northern Territory to work. I studied the maps; I pictured in my mind the Stuart Highway from Alice Springs to Darwin, and knew the various roadhouses, all from the comfort of my armchair in Napier. It was only when we arrived there and drove along the highway, got out of our air conditioned car, for example at Barrow Creek (300 km north of Alice Springs) that I actually felt the heat and the flies along with the vastness and silence of the outback, I now had the experience to go with my knowledge. This is a reminder to me that authentic religion is not about information; rather it is an experience that leads to transformation.
On our spiritual journey through life, we may intellectually know about life, but living and hope are a disposition of the heart, not a commitment to certain dogma, creeds and doctrine. Hope and faith are not a guarantee things will turn out well, but rather form part of our spirituality that honours the paradoxes and contradictions of our life.
I recall the story of a man who hired a car in London, and after receiving directions from the hire company employee, proceeded to drive to his desired location. Like many of us in a strange city, he got lost. He decided to consult the road map provided by the hire company. He was unable to find the location. Then he discovered he was looking at a map of Birmingham not London. It was a map, but it was useless to help him find his way in London.
This story reminds me that it is useful to re–examine the maps we use, the ones we once found helpful, that gave us directions, but now seem irrelevant for our journey today. Sometimes the maps formed in our childhood or teenage years are still used to map our lives. Alas, our lives took other turns, and when we compare our life now with that map, we notice the contradictions and paradoxes. Yet, we still use maps, which no longer refer to the landscape of the soul we are now travelling through.
Life is unpredictable, mysterious and full of questions. Each of our lives, if we are truly honest, have happenings and events that have no logical explanations that satisfy our heart, for we have many questions, but few answers. There is no map, which provides all the directions or a book that offers all life’s answers. I recall reading of graffiti written on a London Underground wall that said ‘Jesus is the answer.’ next to it in different writing someone had written, ‘But what is the question?’ Asking the right questions, and looking at the right map is always helpful, for life indeed is full of questions, and so paradoxical.
How are your comfort and familiarity zones as you read this?
In the movie Steel Magnolias, M’Lynn (Sally Fields) is burying her daughter Shelby who dies at the age of 27 years old and leaves a young child. M’Lynn, surrounded by her friends at the cemetery is overwhelmed with her grief. Her friend Annelle (Daryl Hannah) tries to comfort her with the words, “Shelby is with her King now.” M’Lynn’s anger explodes as she shouts, “I understand that in my head, but would somebody please explain it to my heart!”
The journey of life is one of continually learning to listen to our hearts and at times experiencing healing, (the heart being a metaphor for our inner being, our central core, our soul if you like). To do this learning we travel along all kinds of roads, meet all kinds of people and go through all kinds of experiences. Upon looking back over our life, we see the serendipitous nature of our lives; and along the way we have created our own map.
Learning to listen to our hearts is more than having theologically or politically correct answers to its questions. It is allowing ourselves, to be curious, to wonder, and to have moments when our broken hearts are touched with love, to delight and discover meaning and purpose in the most unpredictable and surprising ways. When this happens we will move out of our comfort and familiar zones naturally, for love is present. Life is truly a remarkable journey. Now may these three remain, faith, hope and love, for the greatest of these is love.
I leave you with this contemporary psalm “Hearing God’s voice,” by Mpho and Desmond Tutu from their book “Made for Goodness”
Child, do you not know my voice?
It bubbles up in happy laughter:
Listen to your children play.
It echoes in the song of nature:
Stop and listen.
I speak as fresh rain on parched ground,
I speak as the summer breeze that caresses the long grass,
I speak as the gurgle of the river over the rocks,
I speak in the warm smiles of welcome,
I speak in the tender touch of comfort,
I speak in tears of joy,
I speak as unquenchable hope.
I speak in the voices of those who challenge you;
Mine are the words of the loving rebuke.
I speak in the voices of those who take pride in you;
Mine are the words of honest praise.
My voice is the happy hum in your heart
When you know you have done what is right.
My voice is the churning of your spirit
When temptation seems ready to overwhelm you.
My voice whispers “courage”
When the path you must choose seems too long or too hard.
It is I who say, “Be still a while,”
When the frenzy wants to overtake you.
Have you not heard me yet?
I am very near.
I breathe in your breath,
I pray in your prayer,
Have you not heard me yet?
Stop and see.
That is me.
Meanwhile peace in your cartography