When is a boundary not a boundary? When you have more to gain by crossing it than by protecting it.
It can look like ‘being a martyr’, but there can be more to it than that. It is sometimes in taking the hits, in pushing through the pain, that we can grow. Of course, you have to resist the urge to lay the passive-aggressive lens over it!
We have boundaries and expectations in order to protect ourselves, but perhaps it is only in being open to letting down those defences that we can find new ground.
A hit to the ego hurts. Being forced into places (physically or metaphorically) where you feel unhappy is something it seems pretty natural to resist. For me, I am learning to feel angry in these circumstances. I’ve had to learn it, in ways that other people perhaps have not, because I somehow grew up in a bubble where I looked at the world from the other side: I had no sense of personal boundaries at all. And important though this lesson must presumably be to my self-development, I wish I could let go of it. I wish I could be my old self, who felt no need to protect myself, because I had an innate sense of…I’m not sure what. Of invincibility, perhaps. But I’d be more inclined to term it ‘a sense of connection’ – connection with God, connection with community, connection with earth, connection to bigger things than I. It may even, interestingly, be that it is born in a sense of smallness – when ego is irrelevant, when we know (with joyful submission) the deep heart-truth of our own tiny place in the Big Picture, what is there to protect? In floating free, we are safe. When I have nothing to hold on to, I need have no fear.
Of course, I’m human, so perhaps the fear then is fear of not fitting in, of being different and alone and excluded on a human, face-to-face level. When you don’t look at things the same way as most people, your journey must surely be a lonely one. I’m learning, though, that with maturity and deepening of self and awareness, comes further isolation – that to be alone in oneself is an essential part of the path to self, and to place, and to community. My faith can only be my faith, my ideas can only be my ideas, and the more alone I become in those things, the more I have to offer those around me, both in terms of content (the things I am thinking or doing) and of form (the me I am being).
“Confidence” is a strange concept – to be confident of something is not always to be bold, or to be fearless, or to be strong; to be confident of something can leave one a gibbering wreck, as it’s no longer possible to escape that which is truth-to-self in order to make space for that which is truth-to-others. Moreover, one can display confidence precisely out of an absence of security – it isn’t necessary to fear when one has no particular expectations to meet (or fail to meet).
So – I’m having to face being in a situation that hurts me, that kicks me in the ego, that makes me feel small and alone and exiled. And I have choices (of course I do): I can choose to object, to be my small self, to do the ‘normal’ thing of complaining and trying to change things; or I can do the other thing, the thing that feels terrifying until it’s begun – I can let go of my self, and feel the hurt, and expose myself to abuse and to a possible future of loneliness and hopelessness and emptiness…and see where it takes me. I will, I think, learn. I hope I will learn to fear this situation less. I hope I will learn a little more about how to be that me I used to be, the confident me. I also hope that my being Big like this may expose those who are small, those who might abuse power over me or others, those to whom I am making myself vulnerable. In my submission, perhaps they will learn no longer to project themselves on to others. Perhaps they will learn a little about difference, and about themselves. Probably they won’t (that’s another lesson I’m learning as I grow), but if I don’t take the risk, if I don’t humble myself and allow them to hit me if that’s what they need, then sooner or later (and probably sooner – probably already) I am become them. I am projecting my fears onto the world. It is only in letting go of hope, of defence, of self, that I can hope to find and defend myself.
Argh! I don’t want that to be true! It’s really, really hard. But the more I object to it, the more I see it everywhere. It seems to me it was certainly what Jesus was trying to say. And others. In washing the disciples’ feet; in submitting to the corruptions of the law that led to crucifixion; in living as God-made-flesh; and in pretty much all the words Gospels report, it seems to me that the message of the Messiah is this: that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first, and it is in dying we are liberated to live. Blessed are the meek. Not because they will come to some great prize in the end, but because in being meek they are blessed – blessed with freedom from ego, from pride, from status, and from holding on.
Today, an unscheduled visit to a ruined castle: bleak, windswept, bare, alone.
Yesterday, a planned-but-executed-differently visit to a much-tended, much-fed castle: full of human connection, on this encounter at least.
There are many things for me to go away and think about, including:
- how the ruins were far more accessible to the passer-by than was the grand fortress, and yet so much less invitational
- how the ruins were far more useful, in a practical sense: they could offer shelter to someone who had no other, whereas the vagabond would be cast out from the tended castle
- how each was built to defend England from the Other (Scots, in these cases!), and had royal pedigree
- how each had strong, deep walls, and ancient skin, and hallowed and unholy echoes
- how stories bring life and death to both, and how the unknown stories, the secrets of the rocks, bring depth and distance
- how the grand gatehouse in one is echoed in the total absence of gatehouse (evident only in the sign marking where it would have been) in the other
- how a mirroring process like that can operate in the mind, and can show us many things
- how defenceless the ruins are now, and yet they still stand
- how life was lived in and around each of the castles, which brings me to…some thoughts:
I was struck by how windows have become a feature of today’s world, and what they say of it: primarily that we spend a great deal of our time indoors, I think.
As we live our fortified lives, protected against any Otherness and enrichment, we want to look out, and to let in the light, of course.
We look out, I believe, in order to see what it is that surrounds us: what we are protecting, and what we are protecting it from. Each of the castles will have had life: communities, support networks, families – those who grew and produced food, those who loved and cared for and ministered to those whose work it was to watch, and warn, and defend. Those communities, that life…these are ostensibly the things being defended, perhaps, though it may have been in the name of the crown, or the land, or the faith. Defended from what? From change, from challenge, from difference, from slaughter too. The lives lived, sheltered, frozen, besieged, and the slaughter done, in support of those fortifications – are they lives destroyed by the work of protecting them?
Do we let our defences prevent us from living?
The harder thing to accept is that we have to let the light in. However much artificial light we can and do produce, there is something in the outside light, the light that shines on our earth, that we need. Without it we starve, our plants do not grow, our souls begin to die. This light is the light of life. This light is beyond our control; it is something we simply cannot shut out, no matter how much we might want to. This light holds us vulnerable, as we must have windows to let it in, or else we must go out into it – leave our fortresses and our defended places and venture into Beyond..and risk encounter with Others.
I have a problem with talk of ‘a just God’.
This is because the seeming injustice of mercy is central to my faith. It seems to me that God is not just…at least, not in human ways. God is, of course, just – as nature is balanced and as energy flows – but we cannot conceive of this justice. It is a sublime justice, which goes eons beyond our ken and our laughably-puny laws and visions. It is a justice which is love. It is a justice which offers forgiveness for all at the ultimate price – the sacrifice of self that God made in making it possible for us to end Jesus’ life.
This beyondness, this super-humanity, is perhaps why we talk of a ‘God of surprises’, of a Christ who ‘turns the world upside down’. This talk seems strange to me. If we are speaking of God here, of I AM, of a God that IS, of a God that is extra-human and is more than an idol we make in our own image, then the only option I can conceive of is that this God is pretty much entirely beyond our understanding, and is therefore not likely to play by our rules or neatly to acquiesce to ordering things in what we consider to be the ‘right way up’ (though I have had times when it has felt precisely as though God were ‘playing by my rules’…because that was all I could understand, presumably).
Furthermore, it seems to me that when we experience God as immanent, when we acknowledge ourselves to be in encounter with our God, then what is happening must be that we are allowing ourselves, for a moment, to reduce our blocks to that-which-IS. I don’t think it can be that God has changed, or moved into view, or come closer to us, or behaved strangely, but that we have changed, have allowed God into our view, have drawn closer to what IS, have behaved somehow differently to how we have previously. When God appears to us to ‘act’, suddenly; when God does something we didn’t expect…surely this must be a comment on our expectations and on our paucity of understanding regarding the nature of God rather than on the actual nature of God?
I’m ok with that. I make no claim or attempt (or even feel any desire) to try to ‘understand’ God. If God could be understood by my broken, human, sinful mind, then it seems to me that God would not BE, would not be God. The Mystery is surely essential, inherent, integral…isn’t it? Jesus’ resurrection is the only ‘firm’ answer I am currently able to see: it is answer for me in that I am aware that it is beyond my understanding. We ended life, we tried to play God..and God was beyond that. This, for me, holds me in inescapable mindfulness of my own smallness…thank Goodness!
What I don’t understand – and please forgive me for this, I recognise my weakness and narrow-mindedness here – is why that would be a scary or difficult thing for some (many, it would seem) people to countenance.
If you can help me to break through my own unseeing here, please do offer your comments. Thanks!
I don’t see why it should have to hurt. I don’t know why we keep on hurting each other; why we choose sin when we could choose life.
That childhood ritual of knocking on air:
“We need somewhere to stay”
“I’m sorry, we haven’t any room”
The perpetual searching for succour, connection, support, encouragement, life.
Even for the messiah – especially for the messiah – we have no room at the inn; space only for those who can afford to pay. How much less comfort we give to each other, to our brothers and sisters, our tribe, our kindred, to those made our blood family by rebirth in Christ, to those who need us.
God, cast out, from the very beginning. This is perhaps the flipside of the story of the fall, as well as that of the crucifixion: we chose our Godforsakenness, because we thought we knew better than God. Because we were afraid of our own fallibility; because we did not dare to be vulnerable. So instead we become the aggressors. We tear at every strip left hanging, we dart our blades into every chink, we defend every gap because we know how exposed we are, because we know how villainous we are – because we know that we would attack those gaps, given the chance. It is our fear of our own sinfulness that makes us believe we have no choice, that leads us to choose sin when we could choose life. If only we could allow our armour down just a tiny little bit – just take one small risk, make ourselves vulnerable to one other, maybe to God.
No room at the inn. No room at all, until that one person, maybe beaten down with guilt, maybe harangued by his wife, maybe sympathetic, maybe exhausted: that one person who chose to risk just a little, made space for the Other, the one who wasn’t like him and who couldn’t afford to pay, who would seemingly never reciprocate.
And in that moment, we learn. In our giving of ourselves, we take more than we know. The gaps we expose allow into us the love that was always within us, but that we resist so strongly and disappoint so frequently.
And so we are faced with a choice after all: forgive, and risk, and love – or defend and attack and die.
We are called to forgive, not because it lets other people off the hook, but because it causes us to risk. In forgiving, we expose ourselves and become vulnerable. Perhaps this is the angle I’ve needed into the crucifixion: God risked everything by becoming vulnerable in Christ. God allowed Godself to become exposed to us, and modelled for us the truth of life, the bread of life, the living water, the light of the world: that we must love. It is the only way we can live. Without love, we have no community, and without community, we cannot grow. We become isolated and frozen and then begin to shrink, until we are gone.
It is only when we expose ourselves to risk that we can afford to grow. It is only when we allow ourselves to be challenged, to be changed – when we welcome in the Other with all that is different and scary about them, and allow (force?) ourselves to forgive their differences and thus to risk being changed by what they teach us – that we are forgiven, and allow (force?) ourselves to be loved.
God, thank you for your help. Thank you for showing me: I need to forgive.
I need to forgive those who have taken so much from me: those who have taken my love, my resources, my hopes and dreams; even those who play me – or the system – deliberately. I need not only to forgive them but to thank them, because they are the ones who have allowed (forced?) me to grow. The pain is a sign of the growth. This is our curse, the consequence of our fallenness: that in pain we will give birth, and that through painful toil we might eat.
Perhaps I do understand, a little, why it hurts, why we make those choices. It’s just so very hard to face the light sometimes.
Abba, please forgive me, as I force myself into the space where I forgive others. Help me to love them, and us to love you.
Think I’m going to go and read 1 John….!
Reflections after my retreat (and after a really intense day!):
I live in a world which isn’t safe.
I need to learn to reconcile myself with that.
That is where I will find strength and life.
I can’t fix things.
Things can’t be fixed.
People are broken. We sin.
That isn’t going to change. People are always going to make mistakes, or be bad; let you down; wilfully blind themselves. I can’t get away from that; I can’t be ‘safe’, when ‘safe’ is understood to be ‘free from risk of damage’.
But there is forgiveness; there is restoration; there is redemption. There is love.
Love that makes no sense at all. Love that is a total miscarriage of justice. Love that ignores the rules and upsets apple-carts and tears down the curtain in the temple.
I can, however, be safe in my wholeness. I can love. I can learn to love. I can love and be the me within. I can recognise truth when I see it; I can refuse to accept untruth. I can rest in the silence, I can rest in God. I can make peace; I can be peace; I can give and share peace. And I can hold peace and love inside – take some, just for me, and hog it, holding onto it because there’s enough; because it is abundant rather than scarce; because my having it increases supply; because I need it and that’s a good enough reason.
A wise person told me that to know the truth of redemption isn’t something one can think, it can only be discovered.
Is it that in letting go we are held most safely?
As we head into the last day, how do I feel?
Partly, that words are not able to express where I am. A sense of needing to express it nevertheless. A huge sense of loss at the separating of the group. A warm sense from all the closeness. A strong sense of unexpected duty and call; and a real sense of anger and abandonment. I am very angry with some people.
I need to find some kind of therapeutic way in which to deal with that. I have no idea how to do that.
A sense of which things I use to protect myself from me, and of which things I must be mindful. A sense of incompleteness in the moving of my hands, of being a work in progress and probably, frustratingly, a sense of needing to wait. The time is not now for that work. But this time, this moment, this is my time, my kairos, and there is no going back from having set aside this opportunity – or from having taken it.
Who will I be? It seems very strange to be asking that.
I know I will be someone much more comfortable with uncertainty, but someone blessed and cursed with more certainty. I know I am someone who has a mission, a purpose, and this is a new concreteness. I don’t yet know how I will live that out, though I know I cannot afford to let go of it.
I believe I will be someone who is stronger and who is less alone; who is more aware of the blessings and gifts she is receiving, and who is more able to make use of them. Someone less isolated in my heart, though I may be increasingly isolated in my life. Someone who is very sad. Someone who feels shame, and needs to let go of the need to feel it.
I hope I will be someone who is free. I learned that freedom is a good thing; I need restriction and containment less than I thought I did. While I still value a framework, that is largely as protection, a wariness against the implosion of appropriate boundaries and values that can come with excess.
I am someone who is scarred, and not just scarred but also actively, currently wounded. I think I understand me a little better. I fear I also understand the task at hand a little better.
Someone who can pray better. Someone who is not afraid to be in that space of emptiness and two-way solitude with the God I find when I let myself be still inside.
Someone who wants and needs to be less afraid of myself; someone who recognises the responsibility I have to be myself; but also someone who is newly aware of why I’ve been hiding, of the damage I can cause and of the loneliness my hiding has made me feel.
I have found new peace within. That is what I feel. I fear losing it when I go back into the world, and I accept that it may be that my peace becomes something I see outside of me too.
I would like to share the peace, I would like to help, to make a difference. And I need to heal.
Oh boy but this was a tricky night. Facing shame, guilt, and sinfulness. Grief. And then there was the wake, when we went deeper and allowed ourselves to be more authentic, more vulnerable.
One thing I have learned: help is much easier to give than it is to ask for.
And I came to look at my scars. And they hurt still. And they are not healed over. Like the tree I encountered this afternoon, there may be regrowth, but restoration cannot be complete. But what is left is something new, scarred and in its scarring, memorable. Then I looked at the tree more deeply, and I saw its cracks and fissures, its quirks and its misdemeanours, the damage that has been done to it and the little worlds inside its spaces. And I was mindful of a door to a new world, wherein we see purity, light, and downright organic disorder. The path to God is not easy. God is not easy. Love is so very easy, but we do not allow ourselves to love freely.
And I thanked the tree for carrying the scar for me – it is a tree that has been part of my most intimate life over several years – and then I caught myself in an
The tree carried my scar, marked my memories for me, and held me in its space. The tree allows me to see the love to which I am accountable.