A very nice Conundrum

Thursday evening each week offers an opportunity for Trinity Cathedral folks to gather for Eucharist, a shared meal, and an exploration of what different aspects of daily spiritual practice looks and feels like. The evening is structured to reflect the Anglican emphasis on community worship, social fellowship, study, and reflection ending with participating in the common prayer of the Church in the form of Compline. In the study and reflection section of our evening since Christmas, we have been exploring the Rule of St Benedict. Can this ancient approach deepen our individual and collective experience of living and working in the world as we currently find it to be?

This last Thursday we turned to Benedict’s approach to work. I have already posted a number of entries on this blog exploring the experience of a Benedictine approach to the contemporary experience of work. However, last Thursday we found ourselves responding to the question which I posed to the group -“Do you feel called?’. The initial responses were predictable of our Episcopalian mind-set.

Some felt this kind of language of call  to be uncomfortably evangelical in tone. What lay behind this instinctive aversion to the language of call  seemed to be that people did not consider themselves important enough in the grand scheme of the things of God to warrant an individual call. Instead some group members felt that their lives had followed a kind  of random pattern whereby they often found themselves in the right place and the right time to be of service to others.

One woman then said that she did not feel she had a call as such. Despite her professional life taking different turns and directions over the years, in all her varied experiences of work she tried to direct her energies towards a fulfilling of her sense of deeper purpose – which for her involved challenging the structures that perpetuated inequality and injustice for people with disabilities.

The mention of the word purpose provoked an intense discussion about defining exactly what was meant by sense of purpose? One man said that despite his continued desire to perform his work with care and attention he strongly believed that what he did had little purpose in the sense of social utility. As he spoke he communicated his deepening disillusionment at finding little purpose and value in his work.

Being a group of highly educated, left of center leaning people, the conversation turned towards challenging the structures of injustice and systemic sin that surrounded us. Individuals spoke passionately. One woman decried the luxury of our even having a conversation about purpose and calling when most of the world’s people were struggling with the bare necessities of survival.

This Thursday evening group is a typical collection of middle class Americans who feel deeply challenged in how to live out the values of the Gospel in the world in which they live. They do not dignify their struggle with an inflated language about call and high purpose. And yet, listening and watching the conversation ebb and flow I was left in no doubt of their unconscious assimilation of Benedictine Values. It was their intuitive feel for Benedict’s teaching on Humility which prevented many appropriating the language of having an individual call from God. They simply felt that they were not that important or significant in the divine scheme of things.

The members of this group of Christians struggle with a desire to deepen their living-out of the spiritual responses of gratitude, generosity and service which our Anglican Tradition, so historically shaped and formed by the spirit of Benedict emphasizes. Of course, they don’t see themselves as being Benedictine. Our exploration of the Rule, however, has begun to connect-up for them their experience of their lives with the three core values enshrined in the Rule.

They do live lives in which Stability – perseverance, courage to stick at it in the difficult situations in which they find themselves – is a hallmark of their experience. They are coming to understand that a willingness to listen carefully to one another, to sit together acknowledging differences between them, and yet still stay in relationship together is a response longed for by God as an expression of what Benedict means by Obedience. As we journey together we are all experiencing the ways being together and accompanying one another in the practice of stability and obedience is encouraging a transformation in our living and relating – which Benedict refers to as Conversion of Life.

Chiefly, however, is my observation of humility among them. Benedict talks more frequently about the need for humility than any other virtue or value. As one of their priests, I sit with a conundrum. How to guide them to an awakening of God’s dream for them? I believe God longs for them to become partners in the redemption of the world. Benedict states that it is God who calls us. How to facilitate their deeper sense of being called without disturbing their intuitive humility? It’s a nice conundrum to have.

Tender Competence

This Lent my internal reflections began on Ash Wednesday with issuing an invitation to the members of our Trinity Cathedral Congregation to ‘keep it simple’ in our desire to use Lent as an opportunity to deepen our sense of being in relationship with God.  What I had in mind was our need to become intentionally careful and take more deliberate care with those things that already fill the contents of our days rather than adding more to our burden and feeding our general sense of distracted failure. As I then reflected on Mark’s portrayal of Jesus cast-out into the Wilderness in the readings for Lent 1 I became especially mindful of our human experience of living within limits over, which and beyond which, we have no control. My thoughts about this can be seen in my earlier post The Wilderness.

In a parallel track to my wider reflections on Lent, in our Thursday evenings adult formation process a group of around 30 of us have been exploring since January the Rule of St Benedict. For Episcopalians, who are Christians of the Anglican Tradition of Catholic Christianity, Benedict holds a special place of importance. For his Rule and its monastic practice have been the single most formative influence on the development on our communal temperament and practice. At the weekly Sunday Sung Evensong at the Cathedral, using the Thursday evening experience as a springboard, I have been developing additional thoughts stimulated by reading Norvene Vest’s book Friend of the Soul; A Benedictine Spirituality of Work, on Benedict and the current experience of work. I posted my musings in the two postings Vocare and Barriers to Vocation. 

My thoughts about the relationships between work and a sense of being called (vocare) leads me to reflect on Benedict’s teaching on Stewardship found in many places throughout the Rule but principally in the chapter on the qualities of the Cellarer. For I desire to take better care with those things and people entrusted to me to care for. I would like to be able to report that I have got this mastered. Instead I experience that the principle obstacle to the element of better stewardship in my life and work is not the frustrations and limitations I experience imposed by the world around me. The chief obstacle lies in my own inner resistance to trust. Can I really trust that God goes before me and is already here taking care within the situations and people in my life and my work? If I can then this means my stewardship is not about having to shoulder the caring responsibility alone – something my own life experience often tempts me to do. This is the daunting fantasy – that its all up to me, which forms the chief obstacle to my being a better steward. Benedict reminds me that God is here first. Therefore my stewardship is simply my response to God’s continual invitation to enter into that relationship Jesus promised as an extension of the relationality within the Trinity. Relationality in action marks the key quality of God’s nurturance of situations, people, and objects in my work and my life. If I can entrust myself to the reality of this invitation then the elements of my stewardship responsibilities become aspects of co-operative participation in God’s ongoing stewardship. Being a good steward becomes an experience of not being left alone with my tendency to feel I need to shoulder responsibilities to care for things, situations, and people around me in some kind of solitary manner.

I am in need of a constant reminder that in the situations I face in my work and my life being successful – whatever that term really means I am usually a very poor judge – is not the goal. I don’t have to fix, solve, or resolve. Mastery, control and expertise are not the essential qualities I need.  Stewardship means taking care with an attitude of tender competence (Vest). I turn my attention to discerning how God is already present to and within any situation I face. I have to husband stabilitas – by which Benedict means the energies of commitment, perseverance, and faithfulness. However, for me an additional element of stabilitas is fearlessness in the face of obstacles to tender competence whether originating from outside me or within me. I face obstacles not as frustrations but as stepping stones to relationship with God (Basil Hume cited by Vest 1997:73).

Norvene Vest comments that: we are each day to create with and alongside God the transformation we canon yet imagine. Based on our own situation and gifts, each of us is invited to lead a life illumined by these two factors: a desire to respond to God and a willingness to see daily life as the place where that response is formed. … The Rule of St Benedict helps us to expand our understanding of how to be stewards in our own work in the attention given to everyday life. (1997:76)

This is where the need to trust comes in. I have to trust that God news my involvement through tender competence to bring about something I have yet to imagine. The fact that my life operates on a daily basis within the space of limitation makes my co-operation with god all the more crucial. I need courage in the face of my experience of those external forces that distort, disturb and destroy human well being in our culture. These are forces powerfully present in the world of work where we can come face to face with the ongoing experiences of abuse, humiliation and intimidation. I need trust to hold to the realization in the face of my internal narcissism that in the situations I face in my life and work its not all about me and its not all up to me. An attitude of tender competence enables me to stay in the tension of events and to make internal space for the presence of God’s care, concern and involvement to be experienced. This is not only Benedict’s stabilitas in action, but the path to what he termed converse morum – transformation in living.


Neuroscience and philosophy must work together Guardian Article

 By Barry Smith

The brain is made up of a series of interlocking systems. Photograph: Sebastian Kaulitzki / Alamy/AlamyThe brain is made up of a series of interlocking systems. Photograph: Sebastian Kaulitzki / Alamy/Alamy

Sunday 4 March 2012

Theories of consciousness are challenged by recent research into the impact of brain function on the sense of self

Human beings are part of nature. They are made of flesh and blood, brain and bone; but for much of the time they are also conscious. The puzzling thing is how the intricate sequences of nerve cells and tissue that make up a person’s brain and body can generate the special subjective feel of conscious experience.

Consciousness creates, in each of us, an inner life where we think and feel; a realm where we experience the sights, sounds, feels, tastes and smells that inform us of the world around us.

To many philosophers the central problem of consciousness is, how can the facts of conscious mental life be part of the world of facts described by the natural sciences?

The 17th-century philosopher, René Descartes, thought they couldn’t and argued that, in addition to our physical makeup, creatures like us had a non-material mind, or soul, in which thinking took place. For Descartes, only humans were subjects of experience. Animals were mere mechanisms. When they squealed with what we mistakenly took to be pain, it was just air escaping from their lungs.

Today we take other animals to be conscious; although we are not sure how far down the phylogenetic scale consciousness extends. Most problematically of all, if consciousness was immaterial, how could the immaterial soul move the physical body, or feel pain in response to physical injury?

The difficulty of understanding such material-immaterial interactions is the reason most contemporary philosophers reject Descartes’ mind-body dualism. Surely it is the brain that is responsible for controlling the body, so it must be the brain that gives rise to consciousness and decision-making. So how does consciousness arise in the brain? Science still has no answer.

To a large extent consciousness has been dethroned from the central role it used to occupy in the study of our mental lives. Freud persuaded us that there is more going on mentally than we are consciously aware of, and that sometimes others can know more about what we are thinking and feeling than we do. Now we are also learning more and more from neuroscience and neurobiology about how much of what we do is the result of unconscious processes and mechanisms. And we are discovering that there are different levels of consciousness, different kinds of awareness, and that much of our thinking and decision-making can go on without it. So a more pressing question might be, what is consciousness for? Is it just a mere mental accompaniment to what is going to happen anyway? In that case it may be our sense of self and self-control that is most in need of revision.

It’s also worth remembering that the only convincing example of consciousness we have is our own. Are the people around me really conscious in the way I am, or could they be zombies who act like humans?

Conscious awareness is bound up with our sense of self, but our sense of self is bound up with awareness of the body. The sense of agency and ownership of our limbs is very much part of who we are and how we operate in the world. But it can also go missing after brain injury. In rare cases of brain lesion people can experience sensations in their own hand but not think the hand or the experience belongs to them.

Wittgenstein once said that no one could have an experience and wonder whose experience it was. An experience I feel has to be my experience and it is conceptually impossible to think otherwise. However, when something goes awry in the injured brain the conceptually impossible becomes possible for certain patients. So the nature of consciousness and how we experience it depends on the proper functioning of the brain. We can be aware in moving our bodies that it is our own body we are moving, and we may still have a feeling of being the agent of that movement, but it may not be our conscious decisions that initiate those movements.

The sense of ourselves as consciously deciding everything we do is surely an illusion: but a persistent one. Equally, the idea that consciousness is unified and must be that way comes under increasing pressure in contemporary neuroscience. There are levels of consciousness and perhaps splits in conscious awareness. Can we have consciousness and lack awareness of it? Do we always know what our experience is like, and is experience always as it seems? Much recent experimental evidence from neuroscience suggests that this may not be the case. So it is a fruitful time for philosophers and neuroscientists to work together, to revise previous models and provide new accounts of how we perceive things and why our experience patterns in the way it does.

There may be no single answer to what consciousness is, but we may still be able to find ways to explain what is going on in the brain. This would help resolve why our conscious experience takes the shape and form it does, and elucidate what happens to consciousness when one of the interacting systems that make possible the self-knowing mind breaks down. These phenomena provide vital clues about the neural correlates of consciousness and are a step on the road to understanding why things work as they do.

Getting at the elusive nature of our own experience and freeing ourselves from faulty interpretations is a tricky business. Many disciplines are needed if we are to make a real breakthrough.

• Professor Barry Smith will take part in a panel discussion, organised by the Guardian, on the nature of consciousness – and whether science will ever be able to explain it – at the Royal Institution in London on Wednesday at 7pm

Barriers to Vocation

A principal barrier to our coming to sense our vocation which is God’s call to meaning and purpose in life is that distance between our dreams of purpose and meaning and the actual world of work. If as Dorothy Sayers comments work is not primarily a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do – then many of us are destined to lives of frustration. The world of work is just not like that we complain, and in many ways it isn’t.

The world of work in human society is always in need of structural change. At times recently it seems that the forces that fragment us, exploit us, discriminate and entrench inequalities, oppress us to a state of perpetual fear seem to be winning.  There is a need for both structural and moral change to enable people to realize through their work a sense of value. Change comes when human beings challenge the status quo. That challenge comes through  a larger resistance to the forces that dehumanize our common life. Although resistance is daunting though not impossible on one’s own, fruitful resistance requires solidarity. I define solidarity as mutual reflection. Solidarity is where our own resistance, our refusal to accept things just as they are, is mirrored back to us by others as we mirror resistance for them. Maybe initially this is our calling – our vocation to resist dehumanizing forces, but to resist from a place where we have a sense of being in community – in a network of multiple relations that tie us all together as a site of resistance. This is a rather modern way of describing what Benedict did in his world. The Rule comes out of an experience of vocation – the search for meaning and purpose in a shared life of relationships in community.

I am not a political or social analyst. I am a catholic priest of the Anglican Tradition. This tradition, so powerfully shaped by the Benedictine experience understands the presence of the Kingdom of God in the values of gratitude, generosity and commitment to service. These values are acted upon and placed center stage within networks of mutual relationships. Our human relationships model the life of God not only within the Trinitarian nature of God’s self but also in the relational nature of a God who is deeply, relationally present in the world.

For me spirituality is deeply shaped by an understanding of human individual and group psychology. The principal barrier to vocation – being called – is fear. While the structures of human society are always in urgent need of challenge. So too are the structures of our own inner worlds. These are the forces of greed as in a need to acquire material protections, aggression as in the need to compete, insecurity as in the need to win approval often at another’s expense, narcissism as in the need to control our own destiny through mastery over tasks, events and relationships as if we are the only person who matters, fear as in the urge to fight as well as fear as in the urge to flee. God’s call to us confronts our internal worlds as much as it is a call to challenge the societal state quo where so much of our work generates so little sense of being of value for us. Our internal fears dominate us and become the prism that distorts our true nature and identity. Unchecked, and unworked upon these dynamics powerfully present in our internal worlds, or as Jesus would have said in our hearts. These become the aspects of human nature that we uncritically mirror to one another in relationships marked by greed, competition, exploitation and fearfulness of the other.

The world of work is changing. Social commentators like Richard Florida in his recent book The Great Reset: How the Post Crash economy Will change the way we live and work point to a future where making a profit and maximizing production efficiency will need to depend on the quality of the workers experience. The quality of the final product will depend to some extent on the quality of the production experience for the workers.  Here he contrasts companies like Walmart who exploit low paid and non-benefited workers and Best Buy where workers are encouraged to develop knowledge and use knowledge based skills in quality circles to enhance the quality  and efficiency of the service provided. Improvement feeds promotion and quality of benefits. But the chief benefit from a Benedictine angle in the Best Buy model of retailing is the quality of the workers sense of value and meaning the enhancement of a sense of call.

Does a closer look at Benedictine spirituality offer the real possibility that we can make work a friend of the soul? The Rule ensures that we control our cynicism in the face of frustration. It counsels working at becoming mindful of the need to balance starting with stopping in order to become ready for what is next. In short to develop an attitude to daily life of listening, responding and becoming transformed within a network of mutual relationships that support resistance to the forces that dehumanize, both external and internally driven.

Vocare -to be called

Life raises the question for many: can work be a holy task? For work to become a holy task in the sense that St Benedict intends we require purpose in our work. Purpose begs a further question: do we feel called in our lives? In Friend of the Soul: A Benedictine Spirituality of Work Norvene Vest notes that work has the potential to become a holy task when each of us takes to heart a desire to respond to God and a willingness to see life as the place where that response is formed and acted upon. Is it possible we can experience ourselves not as being limited by lack of control but as able to interact with things beyond our control in a manner that enhances our deeper sense of being called into relationship with purpose and value in our lives?

One of the themes for me this Lent is the notion of wilderness (see my earlier blog on) as a place where we come to terms with the space in which our lives are actually lived. I call this space a wilderness not in the sense that it is empty or barren, although at times it certainly can feel like this, but because it is boundaried by an experience of limitation beyond which we have little if any control over things. So much of the fantasy in life is to equate purpose, meaning, safety, fulfillment in life with having  control over life. I am suggesting that its not being in control so much as being able to interact with things that are essentially beyond our control that matters to us. We do this from the space of wilderness where like in the Sonoran Desert that surrounds our life here in Phoenix, life flourishes in astonishing abundance and variety through skillful adaptation to environmental limitation. Its within this space, this wilderness where we experience our vocation- our call to purpose and meaning.

So much of my own drive in life has been to achieve mastery over tasks and events. No matter how successful I become at this I am always afraid that the next turn of events will finally be the other shoe that drops and life will disintegrate around me. The problem here is that my life is all about me. I fill the whole frame that boundaries the picture of my life. There is no room for a necessary sense of being called, because I am the one always doing the calling. In short there is no room for a sense of being called by that greater than myself. Benedict understood that it is God who does the calling. God’s call is not only to the special, those singled out for purpose, but to all human beings. We experience that call in the context of the space where our lives are actually lived. Because this is the space where God  is already waiting for us with an invitation to live life. That invitation awaits only our acceptance of being called. Vest quotes Frederick Beuchner’s description of vocation as where our deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet. I would reframe that to vocation is also the place where our deep gladness and our own hunger meet. We need to experience the dynamic tension between gladness and hunger, gratitude and frustration. In this tension like the life of the desert we adapt skillfully to life’s joys and demands. Principally those demands come to us as the need to learn how to more skillfully interact with those things that are beyond our control.

Life After Death


The Final Frontier: reflections on the a faithful parishioner

Our problem with death

Death has become in our Western Society a frightening taboo. Our contemporary anxieties about death infect us all. Such concerns often outweigh a lifetime of Christian faithfulness. As we face the ultimate ending of life many of us discover that the Sunday School images of God and heaven return with a vengeance. We discover that we have never really come to terms with those early images, having simply placed them to one side as we have got to grips with the demands of living. Perhaps intellectually we feel we have moved-on from the idea of a God with a white beard and heaven as a place with golden gates only to find ourselves falling back onto such images as we contemplate the reality of our death. Those images are not only intellectually inadequate but also fill us with fear, because its hard to trust in a God who feels rather like a disinterested and distant head master, noticing us only when we do something wrong.

In John’s Gospel Jesus tells us that there are many rooms prepared for us in his father’s house. A superficial reading of this leads us to picture life continuing as if heaven is rather like what the English call a country house weekend, with all the guests each having their own room -a la Gosforth Park. Now I imagine that the concept of a country house weekend party appeals to those or us who have only recently been satiated with images of Downton Abbey! But I can’t really think that this is what Jesus has in mind here. So much of religion envisions heaven as a reward for all the difficulties and travails of this life. The message is that what we have missed out-on here we will enjoy in abundance when we get to heaven. The psychological term for this is delayed gratification and Christianity has often relied heavily on this mechanism to distract us from the need to challenge those forces that create suffering in this life.

Heaven as a place of reward and hell as a place of punishment – I cannot really take seriously. Many people in our society turn away from organized religion because they reject this Alice in Wonderland kind of picture.

So how else might we interpret Jesus’ words here? Jesus is clear that God has a concern for us that transcends our physical death. Yet we need to hear Jesus’ words within the context of his overall message. The emphasis of Jesus’ teaching is not on outlining for us the arrangements and benefits of the afterlife but on the necessity to live well in this world. Jesus revealed a God who is fully present to the experience of being human. He calls us to be also fully present to the experience of being human.

Personal theological reflections

I would like to share with you what I find helpful in thinking about death. I believe that within each of us our soul is a reflected fragment of the Holy Spirit of God that is given to us at the inception of our being-ness. For to be human is to be conceived into a binding relationship with God. The hallmark of this relationship is love and the content of that relationship is the living-out of love in our human lives. This is what Jesus revealed to us. When our mortal bodies fall away, our soul is fulfilled into union with its Divine Source. We are enfolded into the love that is God.

The difficult question for me is not whether my soul will be enfolded into the fullness of God, but will I know myself in that state, will I be recognizable to other souls I have known and them to me?

I read Jesus’ words in John’s gospel about many rooms in my father’s mansion to mean – yes I will know myself and will know others and be known to them within the enfolding of the Spirit. The early Christian writers felt this and expressed it in terms of a resurrection of the body after death. But this is a rather inadequate concept for us.

I don’t need to believe in a place where all the deceased are somehow physically gathered in recognizable form and where I begin the process of seeking out the ones for whom my heart aches. John Shelby Spong


In this life when we enter deeply into relationship with one another, an experience that many of you and those you have loved so enjoyed, the truth is that even on this side of death our identities are intertwined. The identity I associate with being me is not formed by me in isolation. I do not dream myself up. I come to experience myself mediated through who and how others experience me being. I continually catch a glimpse of myself in the eyes of others who behold me with love – as I do them.  Who you are to me is not who you think you are but how and who I experience you being. Our identities imprint upon one another. Who we are emerges out of the complex process of being formed within relationship. So how much more will this be so when the physical separation enforced on us by our bodies in this world falls away in preparation for what the Prayer Book calls not the ending of life but merely its changing.

When a loved one dies, our task is to incorporate – internalize all we valued, admired and deeply loved in our loved one. We recognize that we embody their identities as part of ours for the remainder of the span of life that is allotted to us. We more deeply become who having loved them and been loved by them enriches us to be.

For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens. Preface for the departed BCP


Perhaps ultimately with the fulfillment of the creative process, finite personality will have served its purpose and become one with the eternal reality, but we do not at present need to know the final future. What we need to know is how to live now. This is the way of love, witnessed by the saints and mystics of all the great traditions. John Hick


The Wilderness

Why does Mark only mention the word temptation once in his depiction of Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness? For Matthew and Luke this seems to be the central point . They  depict wilderness as a place where temptation is fought. This is an image of wilderness that throughout Christian history has clearly appealed. But its an image that I prefer to defer until next year when we actually have to deal with either Matthew’s or Luke’s text. In staying close to Mark’s text I am lead to contemplate a new image of wilderness, one that accords much more closely with my own experience.

In 1998 I had the experience of 12 weeks out of my normal context of leading a large mental health chaplaincy team in South London. I had 6 weeks in the desert of South West Namibia followed by another 6 weeks in the lush jungle of Kawaii reminiscent of those scenes from the TV drama Lost. My discovery was that it was in the parched desert rather than the sensuous profusion of the tropical jungle that my parched soul came to life. Now living in the middle of the Sonoran Desert in Phoenix Arizona this paradox – of my soul thriving in the parched wilderness of the desert is daily confirmed for me. This experience makes a new sense for me why many of the Early Christian Fathers and Mothers similarly fled to the wastes of the Egyptian desert. 

For those of us familiar with the desert know that it abounds with a profusion of life that thrives on the knife-edge of environmental limitation through a skillful adaptation that only creative life makes in the face of profound limitation. Playing with this image leads me to see in Mark’s depiction of Jesus’ in the wilderness an image of Jesus contemplating the unfolding of his ministry against a very real awareness that it would be boundaried by social, political, and religious limitation. Mark of all the Evangelists understands this because his community lives in a space bordered by powerful political and ethnic limitations. His community is situated among the poor and the outcasts at the heart of the City of Rome- the capital of the Empire. In this context of limitation wild beasts both human and animal visit daily suffering and death on Mark’s community. But of all the churches of the NT period, Mark’s  community in the heart of Rome experiences the immediacy of the presence of Christ powerfully sustaining them.

I would like to suggest that this Lent we put away the well-worn images of fighting temptation and associating the wilderness as a place of suffering. Let us instead imagine wilderness as a place where we come up against the fact that our lives are lived within the boundaries of limitation. Human life does not in fact thrive in the context of endless possibilities. As all good therapists know its only when the limitations of the boundaries are held firmly enough that the space within becomes a rich place for experimentation and change. Limitation forces us back into the space where our lives are actually lived and impels us to creative adaptation imposed by limitation.


Where do you experience wilderness in your life? How do you feel about limitation?  I invite you all to use this Lent as a time to explore the possibility of wilderness becoming a space for what St Benedict calls the Transformation of Life. Here life is not deprived by limitation  – but becomes a place where limitation by imposing necessary boundaries catalyzes us to thrive as the desert plants and wildlife thrive – through skillful and imaginative adaptation.

You can listen to this in sermon form at http://www.azcathedral.org

The Dynamics of Choice

Romans 7:13-25.

Paul’s Complaint ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’.

Who does not identify with Paul’s dilemma? We hear in this cry Paul addressing not only his own individual experience but the collective experience that is common to us all. As Paul struggles with the concept of the Law and what freedom from the Law means. Following the Law misleads us into thinking that the task is to be good. But God is not someone to be pleased by good behavior. God is someone to be be in relationship with.

The dynamics of choice

We like to entertain a simple notion that suffering results from making poor choices. We place a huge importance on conscious intention. How many times do children with tears in their eyes proclaim their innocence with ‘ but I didn’t mean it, Mummy – its not my fault!’ Here lies the rub about choices. How to tell the difference between good from bad ones. We like to think its simply a matter of intention. Because I didn’t intend a certain consequence then I am not responsible for its coming about. Even though my action has caused harm its OK because I didn’t intend it – it just kind-of happened. Sometimes upon reflection we swear ‘well I won’t do that again!’ only to find that this is exactly what we end up doing again and again. Most of us are trapped in a reality in which we continue to make the same choices while expecting different outcomes and like children we are often heard to say  ‘but I didn’t mean it, Daddy!’

Paul observes the disconnect between intention  and action – between what we think or want to do and what we actually end up doing. But he only has the Greek philosophical concepts of spirit and flesh to work with. Hence his distinction between the intention of his inmost self and the sinful actions of his members. This leads him to picture a struggle between inner and outer – between spirit and flesh. Spirit is good and flesh is bad.

Scholars such as Dominic Crossan – a Catholic and Marcus Borg – now an  Episcopalian of Lutheran background in their book The First Paul argue very convincingly that the idea of the spirit and the body being at war  owes more to Augustine and Anselm than to Paul . However that may be, in my experience the disconnect between intention and action results not from a failure to subjugate the flesh but from being all to successful at splitting-off our passions – feeling that these have no place in a pure spiritual life.

Contributions from depth psychology

Today we have an understanding of the psychological processes that go to make up our human nature. This enables us to move away from the simplistic and dualistic distinction between spirit and body. We have a finer distinction in the difference between conscious and unconscious motivation. There is a struggle but its not so much a struggle between good and bad parts of ourselves as between aspects of ourselves we are aware of  i.e. are conscious of – and aspects of ourselves that we remain unaware of  i.e. unconscious of.

Going back to my earlier comments about choice. We feel badly for ourselves when we make a mistake which is simply the realization that the unintended consequences of our choice have hurt us or others. So we vow that next time we won’t make that mistake only to find that -low-and-behold- we make exactly that same mistake again. The popular definition of madness -making the same choices hoping for different results captures the nature of the problem. We say this time it will work for me because I am different or the situation is different. In relaitonships we proclaim that this man or this woman will love me because they are different from the one who hurt me before. On and on we go. The psychological explanation for this is that we believe that change is only a matter of conscious intention. We fail to recognize that it’s the unconscious intentions that trip us up. Unconscious intentions never show up in our mind. That’s why we call them unconscious. They always express themselves in our actions and our behavior. If we want a true location for the unconscious we need to look to our bodies. Its in the tissues of the body that unconscious repressions show and its in the neural pathways of the brain that the well worn groves of unconscious behaviors can be traced.

That which we cannot remember we are destined to repeat – (Sigmund Freud) I do a lot of one to one and group work in my role as Canon Pastor.  Informed by my psychological training I know not to listen too closely to what a person tells me he or she thinks or feels. Instead I am paying close attention to what they do both in terms of the behaviors they describe to me and those behaviors I note present in the room with me. This is for me the clue to what is going on in the unconscious of the person sitting with me. To misquote Freud who said that dreams were the royal road to the unconscious I want to say that its behavior which is the royal road to the unconscious.

The source of the disconnect between intention and action lies in the actions of  memory. We are creatures who are dominated by our brain’s need to map new experience to familiar memories which then operate as dominant templates for future experiences. So new situations that have the potential for new outcomes  become contaminated by the transference of old patterns of expectation and behavior. We long for the familiar. There is a saying- that the mind only recognizes what it is already looking for. We recognize only what we already know. New situations become overlaid with patterns of expectation, feeling, and response that reflect past experiences. This phenomenon is the basis for the operation of psychotherapy. The client replays with the therapist what is familiar to them in the field of relationships and relational styles. These familiar relationship templates are the very things that serve the client so poorly and forces him or her into therapy. The therapist refuses to react as the ordinary people in the client’s life react. Into this tension something new is introduced and a modification to experience emerges.

Back to St Paul’s complaint,  ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing  I hate’. He cries, ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death’? Paul’s answer is that it’s God who saves through the death and resurrection of Christ.  This is no doubt the truth, but the devil is in the detail.

Dynamics of spiritual change

The dynamic of change as it occurs in psychotherapy is a dynamic of interruption. The inappropriate transference of past feelings into the present is interrupted by the way the therapist does not react to the client’s invitation to repetition. Can we see in this process a spiritual model for change through the interruption of Grace?

In spiritual direction the task is to discern the movements of  God’s Spirit through the establishing of a relationship of companioning. A widespread discovery within this process is that God does not react according to our expectations.  In this way Grace intervenes between the familiar-known (past) and the yet to become known (present to future). We note that conscious intention has a limited psychological power to ensure that unconscious motivations cooperate to bring about our consciously desired result. In spiritual theology intention has been traditionally been understood as the capacity of Will.  Will is the divine energy of agency. We establish a direction of travel from the known into the yet to become known through the operation of Hope supported by our capacity of Will. In this way while we as yet cannot see the outlines of the future we yet make a conscious investment in the yet to become known. As we risk an openness to that which is yet to become known the intervention of Grace is enabled in ways we are barely aware of. Grace orients our opening to a participation in the dream God has for who we might become. Left to our own imagining we could never conceive of the surprises and richnesses which inhabit the divine imagination for us.

We can believe the right doctrine. We can live lives of strict discipline controlling anger and desire. We endeavor with all our might to follow the rules i.e. the Law and still find ourselves in the predicament Paul speaks of. Alternatively, we can place ourselves deliberately in the path of Grace so that Grace bumps into us. We do this not through being strict but through being faithful in prayer and loving and forgiving in relationships. We accept the inevitability of a mismatch between intention and action while learning to listen more deeply through regular reflection, engagement with Scripture, faithfulness in worship. What we are learning to listen for are the voices of the familiar (memory templates for experience) which through bitter experience of pain and disappointment caution us against opening ourselves to the possibility that God’s dream for us offers more than we can imagine for ourselves.

We all long for change. Yet at the same time we fear to change! The agent for spiritual change is Grace. We encounter Grace only when we participate in the spiritual life of worship, habitual recollection now more commonly referred to as meditation or contemplation, study and common prayer. This is the way we bridge the disconnect between intention and action. It is in the daily patterns of our spiritual practice that we begin to recognize the old voices calling us to endless repetition of choices that don’t work for us.  In prayerful recollection we begin to identify the voices which tell us that its safer to have low expectations, to hope little and thereby protect ourselves from disappointment.

When we begin to discern the old voices that have nothing new to tell us we begin to make room to hear a new voice with a new message. This at first whispers quietly seeking space to be heard, beckoning us into the yet to be known. It is in the yet to become known that we become changed by a fresh encounter with God. The old voices do not disappear, certainly not over-night. However, when they become more identifiable we are enabled to make a choice – do we continue to believe them or begin to ignore them?

In my experience God meets us in the space before us which I am here calling the yet to become known. The encounter with God that leads to change and only occurs when we have the courage to move into a landscape as yet unfamiliar. We brave the fear and uncertainties of the unknown and find ourselves met by God.

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