Tag Archives: spirituality

Job Queue

Lessons from the Job Queue

It is good news to hear that unemployment has fallen, especially in the private sector. Apparently it is the sharpest quarterly drop in decade. It is also good news that more full time jobs are now in the offing for job seekers. At the moment it is news I savour from a distance. Ten months on and I am still looking for work. After several interviews and short-listings garnered from the 60+ applications submitted over those months, it is tempting to give in to despair and self-pity. No income or benefits coming in to help with the bills, just the occasional paid service I am able to render to the Church as a priest. So far my account has kept just a hair’s breadth ahead of the pack of wolves in hot pursuit. (Even for those in employment the costs of living continue to outstrip salaries – unless one is a CEO or works in the world of finance.)  But I remain hopeful – and happy.

Paring down wants and consumption habits has had a salubrious effect at one level. I realise I can live well enough on the reduced expenditure incumbent on me at the moment. (Though it is a bug-a-bear when something goes wrong with the heating system in this cold weather and one slips more into credit having to sort it out, etc..) Mind you, it is not that I don’t occasionally indulge in a reverie of wistfulness about acquiring a new Apple laptop. But I now find that a cup of coffee at my local café while reading a book or writing in between job searching is a real joy. The glint of pristine sunlight also surprises me with its radiant laughter in a way that is somehow more emphatic these days.

Also, I am even more attentive to people walking along the high road and side streets: I notice their expressions, the worn looks some of them carry, the distracted airs and happy preoccupations. Increasingly I also pass individuals drawing courage and fortitude from cans of strong beer, carrying belongings in a supermarket cart,  bloodshot eyes, resigned to the idea that life will bring nothing more their way. Their ‘Underverse’ is a secret presence beneath the indifferent rhythms of our own daily routines.   In contrast I feel a pang of sadness at the bombardment from advertising and media promoting the idea that life is for the trim and the beautiful and wholly subsisiting in what you can buy. The Christmas story of hope and joy is reduced to a vision of brightly lit lorries with fairy lights and images of Santa delivering ample supplies of Coca Cola for the holidays. Magic!  I am aware of an enhanced sense of bad taste the clichéd commercialising of Christmas leaves with me.

I do want to be in a better position to provide for my family and I have no otherworldly illusions about the darker realities of the bread queue: but the experience of the last 10 months has been gift to me in many ways. It has helped make me a better human being and, consequently, a better priest.

Above all, I am more aware that the best present we can bring to someone else is our own authentic and attentive ‘presence’. And you can’t buy that at John Lewis.

I guess that Apple laptop can wait.

Adam and Eve

Religion, like sex….

Why are jokes about religion or sex funny? It is possibly because they are serious subjects that touch upon the deepest parts of our being. Both have the power for ennobling human life and relationships. Both have the power to –if you will excuse the expression – screw us up good and proper. Sexual expression can enrich a loving relationship; where it becomes a tool for exploitation in can scar and ruin a life. Religion can build orphanages, serve the poor, produce marvellous art, express the pinnacle of the human spirit’s quest for transcendence; it can also bomb abortion clinics, send suicide bombers into crowds of innocent people, produce neurosis and fly aircraft into buildings.

The recent statistics about the rise and fall of formal religious affiliation in England and Wales were interesting. Speaking only to the data regarding Christianity, there were approximately 4 million fewer people identifying themselves as ‘Christian’ than there were in 2001. Also the numbers of those claiming no religion has increased from 15% in 2001 to 25% in 2011. One reading of this may be that people are a bit more authentic and less likely to identify a religious affiliation that is not meaningful. E.g. being baptised in the Church of England may not mean a lot to an individual for whom church attendance ended on the day of their christening. In the past they may well have ticked ‘Christian’ on the census form but it may feel far more genuine to say ‘no religion’ in this case.

More authentic or not, the statistics still give pause for the wider Church to ask itself why they are failing to connect with and increasing number of people outside the Church. Again, it is not the mission of the Church to increase its numbers so much as to be faithful to its calling to be an extension of Christ’s presence in the world. But still one must wonder to what extent the parochial pre-occupations, addictions to patterns that have long proved dysfunctional, and – in the Church of England’s case – a cultural alliance with state power and the class system have to do with ‘being Christ for the world’.

One of the positive emphases in the document ‘Transforming Presence’, now under consideration among churches in my own Diocese of Chelmsford, is the cultivation of spirituality. This is different than the cultivation of religion, narrowly understood. Spiritual practice aims deeper and focuses on enlarging personal engagement with faith’s underlying values. Practices like meditation and other disciplines aim to connect us one another, the world and ultimate reality, Holy Mystery, God or whatever term one prefers as a reference to a larger meaning-giving framework. They help to reify the core values of love, compassion and wisdom which, by the way, resonate across many religious traditions.

Love, compassion, authenticity: these characteristics, when vital realities in the Church’s life, may also make it a more attractive option for people seeking to explore life more deeply.


Successful failure 3

Being a Successful Failure

How do we fail successfully?

Not that failure is a worthy goal or anything like that. But there are times when we are glad that some endeavour failed. For example, there may be the job one is shortlisted for only to realise during the process of being interviewed and meeting the potential line manager that you would prefer to quaff down a pint of warm spit rather than work there! I recently went through a day long interview process for a job with three other candidates. In the end when the post was offered to one of the others, the two of us who ‘failed’ high fived each other on our lucky escape. The successful candidate was hardly enthusiastic about the offer and went home ‘to think about it.’ They are probably re-advertising for the position as I write.  I guess that was one kind of ‘successful failure’.

But I have something else in mind.

Once Woody Allen commented on the secret of his success: ‘I just keep showing up’ No doubt many of those occasions on which he showed up would have proved futile on the surface and failed to produce any immediate results. Allen’s comment suggests he was a man who knew how to fail well. That is, he used each opportunity that came his way and continued to ‘show up’ rather than give up. I believe J.K. Rowling’s first book in the Harry Potter series ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (as it is called in the UK) was rejected by nine publishers before the manuscript was accepted. Dr  Seuss (a favourite author of children’s books like ‘The Cat in the Hat’, etc.) has his first manuscript ‘And to think I saw it on Mulberry Street’ rejected by 27 publishers before it was picked up by Vanguard Press. The rest is history, as they say, for both the above authors. I guess they just kept showing up.

Successful failing is about not giving up. But perhaps it is also about what most deeply motivates us. Albert Einstein’s words are noteworthy: ‘I try not to become a man of success but rather a man of value.’ The old cliché about the difference between being and doing holds here. ‘What kind of human being do I want to be?’

Sometimes we are knocked for six by repeated attempts to achieve something – like finding the right job, getting published, or accomplishing some long standing ambition. None of us are strangers to disappointment and even depression at our repeated frustrated attempts at one thing or another, and these will vary in their degree of personal importance. (At the moment I am aware of the 60+ applications I have submitted for work over the past several months only to be shortlisted for 6 or 7 and not  ‘successful’ at any so far. But my day will come!) There are times when the only thing we can do is to keep on keeping on.

Failure is a crucial junction on the road to success. Investment manager Diane Garnick, who taught a course on failure at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put it succinctly. “We learn more from our failures than we could ever learn from our successes.” Hence John Seely Brown, head of Palo Alter Research Centre (PARC) can comment that “trafficking in unlimited failure” is key to enabling PARC’s employees to invent once-unimaginable technologies.

So keep showing up. Keep on keeping on. Above all aim to be people of value rather than people of success.  Your day will come.

Cats, Contemplatives and Mediators

In some ways my cat Freya possesses attributes that would make her an excellent mediator. There is the calming influence she exudes as she sits next to me on the couch. She listens and has an extraordinary ability to hear things. She will know well in advance that my wife or some other family member is approaching the front door or that someone is about to descend the stairs. She is always at the ready to greet and meet them with a welcoming chirrup.  Okay, perhaps the impression that she is actually ‘listening’ is slightly adrift. I am under no delusion that when I am speaking to her (as one does) that she is actually engaging. I suspect the mantra ‘food source, food source, food source’ more likely goes through her head at such times. In fact, in some ways, she is an appalling listener. ‘Freya, stop doing that!, ‘Freya, leave that alone!’ or ‘Freya, don’t do that inside the house!!’ etc. rarely meet with a positive response.  But, at the very least, her calming influence and attentiveness – if not obedience – do suggest positive examples for mediators or anyone interested in genuine and active listening.

Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, addressed a Synod of Roman Catholic Bishops. He spoke on the theme of contemplation and its importance in shaping the ethos of the inner person and just action in the world. (He cites the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer’s words written from a Nazi prison cell to the effect that we are called to ‘prayer and righteous action’.  He presents contemplation as something rather different from navel gazing and establishes it as an integral base for transforming action in the world.

While prayer and contemplative practice – or religion per se – may not be every mediator’s cup of tea, there is something to be said for a practice that sustains and develops the mediator or active listener’s skill and quality of presence.  (In fact, a friend of mind wrote his MA thesis on the connection between meditation and mediation a few years ago.) It is the presence’ of the helper, not merely their technical skills, that is key to effective mediation or support at times if crisis.

What is it to be present to someone else? Louise Gold, in her article ‘Influencing Unconscious Influences: The Healing Dimension of Mediation’ describes ‘presence’ in terms of the mediator’s centeredness (inner stillness and grounded quality), a connection with one’s own governing set of values and belief, a connection to the other person’s humanity, and congruency. The latter quality is about integrity and consistency: being what you do and doing what you are.

Whether one comes from a religious or secular perspective, meditative practice is potentially a great enabler for those who deem being fully present to others is important. In my own experience it is vital to my vocation as a priest and my work as a mediator. It is certainly crucial to any relationship we may value in our professional or personal lives. Developing your own personal discipline of meditation is well worth the bother and may prove transformational on all levels.

Now I must go and feed my cat.