The conversation had rippled and sparkled. My doctor friend and I juggled theological ideas as they tumbled out into the space between us. But as he got up to leave my heart sank. ‘Oh no’, I thought, ‘after all that he’s going to say he’ll pray for me.’
I’m ultra sensitive, you could say allergic to people praying for me. It’s the result of growing up in an environment where prayer was a subtle form of control, a language game that socialised required theological ideas into an unquestioned group think. Everything was prayed about, loudly. At church it was the men, their hands heavy with assumed authority pressing on our heads or shoulders whilst instructing God who, it has to be said, remained quite unresponsive, although claims of miraculous success were frequent.
This stage of faith, where God appears like Father Christmas or Big Brother is important to grow out of but getting past it is uncomfortable work, says James Fowler author of Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and The Quest for Meaning. Even religious institutions find it hard to move past what Fowler called the synthetic-conventional stage that has a strong reliance on conforming to authority. Mind you there’s money in keeping people stuck there. Tele-evangelists make millions out of that fear filled environment where God watches like a vengeful, bullying superior.
However, ‘religion does not have a monopoly on faith,’ says Krista Tippett the On Being radio show host. She echoes Fowler who found from interviewing nearly six hundred people that faith is not necessarily religious but is a person’s way of leaning into and making sense of life. That resonates for me as a spiritual care practitioner working to embed spirituality into the healthcare system rather than remaining, in New Zealand, as a somewhat irrelevant religious add-on. This is not because people don’t think about the godstuff in its broadest sense but because our community conversation has, on the whole, been stuck back at the big brother stage.
In my lifetime the only stimulating marketplace theological debates, which is where they need to be, were during the heresy trial of Lloyd Geering in the 1960’s and then more latterly over St Matthew in the City’s wonderfully provocative billboards. Both of those experiences were uncomfortable for the institutional church and so they should have been. For how can any of us grow past basic understandings of reality to a place where the ground of being matters more than literalism, without significant dislocation for the organisations charged with helping us explore.
My friend stumbled over his words. ‘I don’t even know what praying for someone means anymore.’ Our eyes twinkled in unison as we laughed. ‘But,’ he stuttered, ‘what I really mean is that I’m standing with you.’ Powerful.
On his way out he passed the poster I’d made highlighting the words of philosopher Simone Weil, ‘prayer … is absolutely unmixed attention’. My friend had made the effort to be with me in a time of struggle, to make me the focus of his attention. It was enough, more than enough. It was life giving.
This unmixed attention is the lifeblood of professional spiritual care and the business of all of us in the health system because it’s what people desperately need when they are suffering.
Did you ever have a first love that you couldn’t leave behind? Whatever new friends you made, you just wanted that connection so much, even though it was hard to figure out what it was all about, exactly? Theo and me are like that.
We formally got together in January of 2000. I’d travelled 1200 kilometres from Christchurch to St John’s Theological College and the University of Auckland. It was pretty much love at first lecture, a liberating experience for someone who’d grown up within a strait-laced bible believing Baptist congregation. I hadn’t stayed in that environment but our earliest experiences become embedded so it’s hard to deconstruct them on your own.
Studying theology in an academic setting was like being in a nuclear blast. That entire literalistic burden was torn apart with intense light, colour and sound. Awareness dawned with the terrifying realisation that I couldn’t unknow new understandings. Some call it losing faith by degrees. I call it liberation.
In a few days I’m going back. This time it’s half the distance and instead of three years, I’ll be at St John’s for a week’s intensive on a post-graduate chaplaincy programme with the University of Otago. Nevertheless, my friend, a retired Anglican priest of 40 or so years is concerned about the manipulation of theology by the church. He wonders if I’m returning like a wounded victim to the place of pain.
He’s right to be concerned but it wasn’t theology that hurt. Theo has always inspired, energised and delighted me, drawing me on into the passionate dance of ideas like any intense love has the capacity to do. However, when a religion or church decides that there are particular ways to understand Theo and shuts down alternative ways of being in relationship, hurt can happen. The unthinking application of dogma and doctrine can be like domestic violence when people are locked into a repetitive cycle of pain.
After 14 years as an Anglican priest in chaplaincy, struggling theologically with the church hierarchy had taken its toll. I’d decided to leave Theo and pick up study in the therapeutic world. University place offered, some funding secured and yet I felt strangely empty, as though I was in some casual relationship that would go nowhere.
At the same time I’d been reviewing a book about the trinity for a Catholic magazine. I only had 400 words, so to make every last one of them count I had to immerse myself in the text. Dangerous. There was Theo, leaning back, smokin' hot provocative beyond any and all health warnings, and smiling, just smiling. ‘You still love me, don’t ya?’
Because I spend my working life with sick, vulnerable people who are often facing the grim realities of existence, I’m always conscious of the importance of giving value to that which brings life. By that I mean paying attention to wise choices about what will help make meaning in my life and consequently give me the ability to contribute richly into the lives of others. Being hooked up with Theo does that for me, so I’m going back, not to repeat the past but so that we can be creative about the future.
Image: Painting Mary Daly by Angela Yarber
I’ve chosen this image because of the sheer delight it encompasses, similar to the joy I felt when first reading Beyond God the Father by Mary Daly. Hoping this revised theological journey of mine be as trouble making as the first.
Reading Divine Dance: the Trinity and Your Transformation reconnected me with the insightful 20th century Trinity of The Matrix movie. That moment when she announced to the chosen, but reluctant Neo that ‘it’s the question driving us’. Like everyone he faced the choice of awakening to reality or believing other’s certainties.
Reality, says author Richard Rohr, is absolutely relational. Whilst wondering whether Christianity needs to die, he promotes a Trinitarian Revolution that reveals God as the divine dance of interconnectedness. There is no Critical Spectator here, instead, a participatory, interdependent relational experience.
Rohr’s ideas aren’t revolutionary. Indeed, he states his case drawing wisdom from Jewish texts, Hindu theology, Christian mystics and more. He dances us from exhausted theology to a lush garden where mystic possibilities tempt, only to trip us up by stating that we need great love and suffering to keep dancing. It’s incongruous but perhaps that’s the point.
Discordant notes and broken heartedness are not what humans yearn for. Being broken and vulnerable irritates. However, limping and suffering is essential to Richard Rohr’s theology of the divine dance that he says is God and ‘not only stranger than we thought, but stranger than we’re capable of thinking!’ Like science telling us that empty space has its own energy.
Rohr’s theology connects with my work as a spiritual care practitioner. Sitting alongside people trying to make sense of suffering and death in a public hospital can be messy, noisy, interrupted and fragmented. But sometimes all of that chaos falls away and the space between becomes strangely quiet, almost pregnant with an indefinable energy.
That no-thing space appears in a compassionate healthcare model developed by Canadian researchers. Patients interviewed said that compassion relied on virtues embodied in the character of healthcare professionals and that one of those virtues was love. What’s more, health care providers need to engage and relate to suffering from a place of shared humanity. Drawn like the heart of a seed, the model highlights the space where there is no-thing but mutual human vulnerability of staggering power.
Is this vulnerable, no-thing space how we will speak of the Trinity in the future? Sometimes it seems like that but as Rohr says with his usual deft turn of phrase, ‘metaphors by necessity walk with a limp!’ He’s relentless in the pursuit of change required for Christianity to have any hope of reinvention. Read him for change, not for stability.
 Sinclair, Shane, Susan McClement, Shelley Raffin-Bouchal, Thomas F. Hack, Neil A. Hagen, Shelagh McConnell, and Harvey Max Chochinov. "Compassion in health care: An empirical model." Journal of pain and symptom management 51, no. 2 (2016): 193-203.
Published in Tui Motu InterIslands, Independent Catholic Magazine, Issue 212, February 2017
I want to tell you, and anyone else in earshot, that you were one of the most encouraging people I've ever known. You were also generous, kind, clever and remarkably adept at making archaic systems work for good.
You were the school principal of second and third chances, a teacher who'd seen it all before but wasn't ground down by that. When you listened, for the umpteenth time, to another tall story devised by a teenager to avert disaster, you acted as though it was all original and that no matter what had gone wrong, everyone and everything was redeemable. And you did it with a simple, straightforward welcoming presence. No airs and graces, just a smile and the encouragement to have another go at life. What a gift.
Some may find it strange that I'm writing to you now that you're dead and shouldn’t I have said these things when you were alive. Well, we did talk about some of this but that's not the point. I reckon that the things we say at funerals, around the kitchen table and at the pub after someone's death are essentially about the people left alive, as we try to figure out who we are in the light of the relationship that’s now gone.
I remember the first time we met. You were the principal of an Anglican school and I was the potential chaplain. You had the big desk and flash office with the panoramic view but seemed quite dismissive of all that without saying a word. It was the smile and no nonsense friendliness that disarmed me. The down to earth, ordinary way of being that you had, an openhanded, egalitarian generosity of spirit, which made even casual encounters with you worth something every time.
No-one could hide as you strode about the school with that sure, measured tread, torso pushed slightly forward as though it might get there before you. You knew everyone's name and something positive about them. When I saw you out and about I always felt reassured and encouraged that, even in the most difficult times, everything would be ok. You had a no frills, humble approach to being human and I was sure it was often re-energised by your frequent visits to the gardener's shed where much wise reflection on life's peculiarities went on over a cuppa.
We had some taut times during those years of working together. Exploring progressive theology from the pulpit and in the classroom got some lips pursed on more than one occasion. You would glance across at me with that look, knowing there would be a complaint or two about my latest theological handstand. But you were pragmatic throughout and deftly dealt with circling wolves. What mattered most to you was that the students were engaged and thinking beyond the limits they might have set for themselves.
When things got tough for me with Year 10 assassins (any new teacher will understand that!) you taught me a valuable lesson. 'Ask them what they're thinking', you said.
'They're not', I replied in some frustration.
"Of course not', you said laughing, 'their brains aren't joined up. But it never hurts to remind them how useful thinking is if only they could remember to do it'.
You were gracious enough not to point out that applied equally to all of us adults too. It was a salutary lesson in neuroscience and patience that I continue to use when meeting older assassins these days.
No-one expected that one of the most engaging and enduring things about our collaboration would be the traditional night prayer service in the old and evocative St Martin's church. Those first candlelit services when we had no electricity were magic. You would turn up when you could and sit in the quiet with the boys who'd ambled over from boarding. It was all unpredictable but strangely connected with that which is more, even if most of us couldn't find enough language to describe what it all meant for us. And if you noticed the long extension cords running across the grass from the auditorium to keep the heaters going, you never mentioned it was a health and safety hazard. Thanks for that.
Neville, I know we all see and experience people differently. Some people will have similar memories to mine and others will have recall that is not so positive. Whatever the memories, I reckon they're expressions of the relationship we have had in life and all of it matters, the good and the not so good. As you used to say, channeling Viktor Frankl, it's not what life does to you that has the final word but how we respond to it that can matter most and help us make meaning.
I thank you for your responses to the grittiness and muddle of life, and the gift those responses have been to me and still are. Your graciousness reminded me that the way forward was not always that flash, instead it was often about walking alongside rather than leading from the front. About treating everyone as though they were of enormous value even when they might have been driving you to distraction.
You had an ordinary acceptance of life and everyone in it, and an unnerving tendency to exhibit the qualities of the Jesus character over and over again, although you might not thank me for that observation. I think that’s your legacy, a powerful, creative and forgiving influence that keeps on working, if we let it.
Right now, I imagine you sitting with a beer in your hand, chuckling at something provocative a reprobate angel has said whilst sitting at a heavenly WOMAD festival that includes great music, surf lifesaving, tours to places you've never been, and rugby. As to people missing you, I reckon you'd just tell us to get on with it and have another crack at life. Thank you for everything Neville.
‘It’s apocalyptic, said my friend as we looked out across riverbank willows ripped to shreds. She’d felt like crying as the big digger fed its gaping maw day after day. Felt the same on my morning walks with Kali the Labrador as we picked our way through the desolation that used to be soft foliage and soul space.
Gone is the small portal that we ducked under as a ritual beginning of a new day, a nod to my spirituality of doorways and liminal spaces. Paths trimmed with hand secateurs to avoid disturbing the bush are now knee deep in debris. The stone cairn, lovingly built by a man in memory of his wife and added to by other walkers, is hard to reach as the ground is churned to mud.
Like a bad haircut it will all grow back and, like over zealous hairdressers, the regional council responsible for the razored landscape had good intentions. We all want to see more of the river, which the willows obscure and the willows need to be saved from toppling over. Understood, except that people make meaning in these spaces and that’s important too.
Charles Waldegrave and other therapists from The Family Centre offer a definition of spirituality that helps make sense of why we feel such pain when the environment is plundered, good reason or not.
Spirituality can be considered as being essentially about primary relationships. In this regard there are at least four qualitative relationships that express spirituality, and these are the relationships between: people and their environment (land, mountains, sea, sky, etc); people and other people in terms of justice and love (families, communities, nations, etc); people and their and other persons’ heritage (ancestry, culture, history, etc); and people and the numinous (that which is other, beyond the physical, transcendent, what some people refer to as God. (Waldegrave, 2003).
This definition had an interesting genesis. It was formed from three cultures, Maori, Pacific and Pakeha (European) trying to work together in a therapeutic environment and recognizing that the place of spirituality at work was seen very differently by different cultures. For Pakeha it appeared to be an optional extra, whereas for Pacific Island and Maori colleagues it was an integral part of everyday life and what’s more, connected to the land and environment. It’s all about primary relationships.
Cutting the land then is not an isolated, mechanical action even though it might look like that from the perspective of an organisation that needs to get a job done. Instead, cutting into the living earth, particularly when it’s done in a way that appears disrespectful, hacks into our sense of interconnectedness that somehow relates to the numinous, that which is beyond and some people call God. No wonder it can make you weep and mourn and feel an unrelenting sense of desolation.
Part of seeing spirituality as primarily about relationships is the accompanying awareness that restoration is important when relationships, in all their varied forms, go wrong. So, I was impressed when my email to an elected official resulted in a council staff member arranging to come and walk the river paths with us to see what can be done. Here’s an opportunity for restorative justice then.
Exploring spirituality one word at a time.