Compassion is a beautiful word.  Literally it is ‘com’ (with) ‘passion’ (suffering).  To be with someone in the face of difficulty, challenge and the mystery that is human suffering. In our 21st Century world, there are many things that ‘compete’ for our compassion, whether it be emotional television appeals of hardships in other places, the plight of various stories in our newspaper, or whether it is those experiencing hardship in our towns and cities.

In our churches, compassion is a key concept in pastoral care and in meeting needs in our communities.  We are at the stage now where psychologists identify compassion fatigue as an element of individual burnout. I am mindful of the fact that if we are to exercise compassion to others, we fundamentally need to learn how to be compassionate to ourselves.  Quite frankly, we are not cut out for this over-stimulated existence in the 21st Century.  We are ‘tuned in’ 24/7 to the sufferings of the world, modern life is increasingly hectic and jam-packed, and then we wonder why people burn out.

There has never been a more important time to slow down and have compassion on ourselves.  How can we do it though? Everyone is different, of course, but I think there are a few important generic ways that we can show compassion to ourselves.

1.  Simplify.  There is only so much clutter, news, contact, stimulation, junk, we can deal with.  In this Lenten season, the spiritual invitation is there to consider leanness, less, and to find peace in that.  In organic terms, we have to cut off leaves in one season to see fruit in another.

2.  Space.  Closely related to simplification is to find a space to be.  Whether you are introvert or extrovert, creating space where you can re-evaluate, relax and chill is so important.  Our diaries can rule us, we can become slaves to work, and forget that life is for the living.  Whatever you do with some recreation space, it is so important.  God wasn’t being pedantic when he introduced the concept of sabbath.  He was telling us we need it.  Carve out some time for yourself.

3.  Not over-thinking.  Our brains are amazing organs, but a lot of our trouble comes from over-thinking, creating problems in our heads that don’t exist.  And, even if our fears have some grounds in reality, most fear is just a self-preservation reaction trying to keep us safe and where we are, where courage is the willingness to take the step.  The practice of reading into things that aren’t there gives us a hard-time.  Instead of creating an impossible situation in our heads, we can learn to think the best.

4.  Be creative.  For me, I need to engage in some sort of creative process to feel ‘balanced.’  For me, that can be writing, drawing, playing music, singing or other stuff.  Incidentally, those things are often the first things to go when life gets busy.  We have to ask, what do I love doing?  What simple things give me joy?  How can I take time to do things I enjoy?

5.  Forgive.  Yes, forgive yourself.  We are the hardest people to forgive.  We think out how we messed up this or messed up that.  Let yourself off the hook, clear the slate.  We can do very little about yesterday or tomorrow, all we have is this present moment to look upon ourselves, recognise our limitations, and extend grace.  We are enough, we sometimes make mistakes, but a key to transforming the sentence we put upon ourselves is to cut ourselves some slack.

There have been so many times in my life where, in the process of exercising a compassionate ministry, I’ve been useless about caring for the carer, sitting with my own pain, forgiving my own failures, and working myself into the ground.  I’m getting over that and stepping out on the path to a more compassionate future.  I hope I can encourage you to do the same.

Availability and Vulnerability

IMG_3422I’ve been journeying now with the Northumbria Community for many years.  It is a dispersed new monastic community, which has a ‘mother house’ here in Northumberland, but the majority of the  community live in their own settings in different countries of the world.  We live by a rule of Availability and Vulnerability (full rhythm of life here) and commit to the rhythm of ‘Celtic Daily Prayer.’

After just over a year’s noviciate, I was welcomed at a welcoming liturgy around the dinner table on my recent retreat to the mother house in late January.  Here I am with Adrian, who mentored me through the process of becoming a part of the community.  It was a warm family-like time of sharing, very special, very simple and very meaningful at this juncture in my life.

Those two words, AVAILABILITY and VULNERABILITY are challenging ones at the best of the time.  How, as followers of Jesus can we be available to God and others, how can we be vulnerable before God and vulnerable to embrace the other.  These, and other questions, are good discipleship prompts, they keep my on my toes and give shape to my following of Jesus.  They are, obviously, not prescriptive.  Rather, they are provocative.  They allow me to ask ‘how can I live out my vows in this context?’  They are, in essence, words that ask ‘How can I give fully of myself in this situation?’

What shapes your discipleship?  What values are you trying to embrace as you follow Jesus?  How are you connecting with God and others as we live as disciples in the 21st century?

The Understudy

In some of my more reflective moments over the last few weeks, especially when thinking of my re-entry into the world of work and ‘normal’, the poetic words of a friend, Peter Neary Chaplin, have spoken powerfully and challengingly to me.  The poem, ‘The Understudy’ is a story where the ‘main actor’ gets sick and the understudy stands to take his place with poignant results. Here is the poem:

Every now and again
when the worship of the heaving crowd
and their violent adoration becomes too loud,
as if to carry him off
overhead down the dusty street
and out of sight
to his own breast-beating funeral rite,
his foundation starts to crumble,
the eye liner starts to sting,
his costume pinches
and the brilliantly drawn character
lit up by ego and long scotches
in, frankly, dim and inadequate dressing rooms,
the strain of constant excellence begins to tell,
the pain of leadership stoops
his broad Shakespearean frame,
his ears begin to ring,
his pulse booms,
some dark thing looms
that even whisky cannot quell.
Ladies and gentlemen,
the actor is unwell.

And so steps up a quieter man
to stand before the baying stalls.
Looks the same,
if a little smaller, less made up,
less vain.
Plays the role a little more sober,
more contained, less pained.
Disappointing, doesn’t have the balls,
the critics say.
And so the people stay away.

Yet some are drawn
by less clamour and less scorn.
They hear a subtler tone
perhaps more like their own.
And at the curtain
they don’t set sail for local wine bars
noising their knowledgeable distaste,
protesting, short-changed,
but remain seated a while
then gather in a loose, shy knot
at the stage door,
staying to thank the understudy
who wove a story they’d never heard before.

I have had to admit to myself, even more so, in recent weeks that the way I was trying to hold things together, hold down a job, whilst being aware of a pack of childhood issues coming to the fore, wasn’t sustainable.  I got to the point where I could not cover up the internal agony inside any longer.  And so, I left the stage.  Like the 12 Steps of Alcoholics anonymous, I had to admit that ‘my life had become unmanageable.’  I was drowning in the midst of a raging sea of pain and hurt unattended to like a festering wound.

Counselling has been, and is, bringing up all the lies I have come to believe about myself.  Stopping the frantic paddle has allowed the stories to surface, and the opportunity to tackle them head on.

I’m now coming out of what has become one of the longest major depressive episodes of my life thus far, the strains refusing to be silenced this time.  In the next few weeks, it is hopefully the opportunity of the humble understudy, perhaps a more authentic me, to approach the stage again.  Time will tell what follows.

I’m thankful to so many people who have helped and supported me and my family during this time.  It is worth more than you’ll ever know.