Thursday, 23 June 2011

Group therapy - what's the issue?

I have a confession to make - when clients don't show up at my volunteer counselling sessions, I've taken to playing with the stuffed animals. The other week, it was Pooh being distracted by biscuits; this week, we had group therapy, with Duck being distressed. The box of tissues hides Duck's teddy bear.

So...what brings this unlikely group of characters together in therapy? Answers on a postcard, or preferably in comments.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Ascension Epilogue

Last Saturday night, I was out for a curry with a friend, and we were discussing my Tridentine experience.

She asked me what my issues were around having the server say the Confiteor.

"I don't want to lay that on him. It's not his job to carry anyone else's sins. And he's too young - no 16 year old can carry the sins of an entire congregatiom."

She nodded thoughtfully, then said something I hadn't expected:

"There's something about trust in there."

I felt like I'd been struck in the solar plexus, which I knew meant she'd offered me a deep truth.

I tilted my head and asked her to explain.

She said she understood why I felt that he shouldn't shoulder it and she agreed. But she felt that for me, it was about trust, about an inability to allow anyone to bear a burden for me, even for the length of the Confiteor.

I sat back. 8 days later, I'm still unwrapping that.

She's absolutely right. One of the things I took 'pride' in about my spiritual meltdown was that I managed it without burdening a single cleric. Kind of a "See, I can do the tough walk without you. Just hand over the sacraments, and run off like a good boy, because I know you can't handle this 'relationship with God'/messy emotional stuff."

That resonated with something I'd heard someone say months ago, about the moment she realised that part of her problem with being in a relationship was that she assumed that men didn't have capacity, so she took everything on, and ended up in friendships and intimate relationships with men where there was little mutuality. She was always doing everything, organising everything, initiating communication, you get the drift.

I hold others easily, but I have immense trouble being held - both emotionally and physically. I'm great with being the emotional container, less good with being contained.

It's all in the letting go.

I'm not alone in this: I know any number of women who hold everyone else in their lives and never let go themselves. When you're feeling overwhelmed? Close up, get spiky, push people away. It's the best way in the world to make sure no one ever gets too close and into a space where they can hurt you.

So whilst we talk about how we want to be the one in someone's life, we set up a world in which it's not possible, where doors to the inner sanctum slam shut. And in order to be the one in someone else's life, we need to let them feel that they are the one in ours - and that they have all of us, not just a select part.

But that doesn't mean letting everyone wander willy-nilly in the precious space that is ours - doing that, whether through co-dependence, or merging, or any form in which we allow others to rob us of self - is the flip side of the coin. That's why we often see people swing from extreme self-containment to merging: often, extreme self-containment hides a deep hunger for attachment, and when that hunger can no longer be denied, there's no model for healthy attachment - so, to quote Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, 'We've gone to the other extreme...'

It's all about healthy boundaries, which are established through learning how and when to trust.

And if we don't learn that through early secure attachment - knowing that our physical and emotional needs will be taken care of, learning trust and healthy attachment will be extremely difficult. Not impossible, but much harder without that initial knowledge of what trust feels like. It's like...picking up a language later in life, but without the structure of grammar and vocabulary to help. And unlike learning a language, when you get it wrong, it really really HURTS.

But there's no other way forward - we learn to trust the way a child learns to walk - a few steps forward, falling on our bums, getting up to try again. Yes, it's made much harder when you've spent a lifetime keeping yourself safe, because learning requires risk - and in learning how to trust, the risk isn't small.

But the payoff - genuine intimacy, love, connection - is huge.

Trust isn't all or nothing - it's nuanced and we learn how much and when to give it through learning in tandem with that gift of the Holy Spirit, discernment - which means we need to let the winds of inspiration help us on our way.

And so, to the clerics I'm closest to, take a seat. I need to talk to you about my relationship with God.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Ascension, continued: Extraordinary Form, or, 'Dude, it's awfully quiet in here. When does mass start?'

As I crossed the forecourt, the Paraclete Express kept chugging my way. I ran into a friend who looked surprised to see me and after exchanging greetings, he said:

"You know, it never ceases to amaze me that you come to the masses [which you're going to find most difficult]."

"I know. But I keep thinking if I can do this, it'll make me a better person. It doesn't always work, but..."

In the middle of my answer, I heard the still, small voice: "Irim, stop the war." Finally, I really heard myself on the subject for the first time.

In Stephen Cope's book, The Wisdom of Yoga, he talks about samskara and vasana, or reactive patterns that develop from our taking in a situation, evaluating it, and then reacting to it. One of his teachers referred to such patterns as "those etched in water, those etched in sand, and those etched in stone."

My need to struggle, to push, to challenge – so ingrained that my mantra is ‘growth needs resistance’ – is so deeply etched in stone it is akin to an addiction. When using my favourite image of a butterfly beating its wings against a chrysalis, I forget it is only temporary, and that afterwards, the butterfly is free. Resistance is meant to be temporary.

But going up against resistance, stepping into conflict, is my crack. I heard it in my voice: tense, invested, frustrated. Attached. I need the war - for the same reasons an addict needs his drug of choice.

But the war doesn't just affect me. As Jack Kornfield says in A Path with Heart, an internal war will always become an external war. That had been exemplified at the weekend, when a friend was telling a story over lunch, and I judged the behaviour of one of the characters (let's just say it wasn't exemplary) quite harshly. From my left came a gentle, but strong, reminder: "But it is very human, and therefore, very understandable."

And there was the addict's response, "Yes, but it's up to us to be better than that."

As the Paraclete Express hit me yesterday in the forecourt, I knew it was time to stop the war. But how?

I went in, sat and waited - and it came to me. Maybe I couldn't end it immediately, but I could refuse to engage this battle. I could do that in a very simple way - by staying present. Then, when I moved away from presence, bringing myself back with awareness, without judgment or recrimination.

As mass started, this proved very easy to do, since I can't be on autopilot during the Tridentine the way I can during the Novus Ordo. Yesterday, I had to juggle the Trid missal and the sheet with the special collects and prayers for the Ascension, so there wasn't much room for brooding.

As I stayed present, something interesting happened. I felt clear. I could feel the full range of emotions - touched, irimtated, amused, curious - stay with them, and let them pass through me. I did that and followed my breath, and suddenly, I had space, and more room to be clear.

I was no longer attached - and suddenly, I understood.

I don't HATE the Tridentine mass. It will never be my favourite mass, because I firmly believe that in not participating in the mass - e.g., reciting the Confiteor aloud - the congregation is denied that most necessary element of the spiritual life - taking responsibility for it. I also feel that it cuts the priest off from the people - and because I picture the mass as a triangle: one leg is Priest-God, the other is People-God, the base is priest-people. Take the base away from the triangle, and it doesn't work.

As I stayed present, this was simply an observation - no anger, sense of futility, or frustration attached to it. It simply was - and is - how I feel, which is absolutely fine. Letting that feeling be what it was allowed me to see what I really appreciate about the Tridentine mass: there are parts of the text that I prefer to the Novus Ordo, I think the priest is more deeply present when distributing communion, and I love ending with the prologue from John. All in all, I think that if the Tridentine had been allowed to evolve naturally, the Catholic Church would have had a liturgy beyond imagination, with undisrupted, solid roots, and plentiful branches, lush with greenery and fruit.

Suddenly, like stumbling through an open door, I realised: the Tridentine mass is simply that - A FORM of the mass. Everything we associate with it - right wing agendas, intolerance, smugness, rigidity, resentment, slavish adherence to the past - none of them belong to the mass itself. They are projections ONTO the mass by us, because of what we desire, need or fear it to be.

In this moment, engaged with the sermon in which the Paschal candle is extinguished and Fr Jerome says, "We extinguish the Paschal candle as a sign that Our Lord's visible presence is removed from us - from now, we are only to meet Him in silence, in shadows, in the sacraments."

Right where I want Him to be - because I need to take that leap of faith.

Adsum, Domine. Follow the breath.

Done with the liturgy, but what of the people? There is no denying that stereotypes exist because there is often considerable truth in them - and the stereotype of Tridentine mass-goers as right-wing, angry, intolerant, isolationist, rigid almost to the point of snapping is no exception. Very few people can make me go incandescent like they can.

Liturgy is easy, it's inanimate. People, well - when you can keep that spiritual calm around people, it'll be your ascension we'll be celebrating.

Communion. Usually, I would have dismissed the server at a Tridentine mass as 'one of them', but in my presence in the moment, I noticed his hand shaking visibly as he held the paten - and my heart went out to him.

Post-communion prayer, and the Paraclete Express decided to reverse over me.

Over the past few weeks, as I've been walking into work, I've been practising Cope's version of the Metta, or loving kindness meditation. As with all meditation, one centres by following the breath, then beginning with oneself, one recites some version of the following:

May you be protected and safe,
May you feel contented and pleased,
May your body support you with strength,
May your life unfold with ease.

After directing that prayer of loving-kindness to oneself, one directs it to loved ones, then those for whom one has neutral feelings, then to those one finds...difficult - and finally, to all of creation.

I had been having no problem with those I loved (of course), nor with my parents, or the uncle who abused me. Not surprising, I think, since I am considerably removed from my relatives - so it's easy to wish them well and feel particularly proud - 'LOOK! I did my uncle! Go me, I must be done.' Ja. And Satan will be hosting the Winter Olympics in 2014.

The group I had felt real resistance to, the group that was REAL work, was the group encompassing the ones I bump up against all the time who trample my triggers, setting them off in series.

As I knelt after communion, I thought, 'What better prayer is there than to wish the others here well?' Thus I found myself reciting the Metta meditation as I knelt after communion in a Catholic Church.

Hey, you knew I was a spiritual patchwork quilt. So sue me.

Easy enough to begin with Fr J and the altar server for whom I'd felt that sudden protectiveness. Then John, Juliet and George were easy. Someone in the front served as neutral. And then...

...there was the mother who hadn't taken her child out. There were the rigid faces with the slight contemptuous twist that put me on a hair trigger. They were my crack, the people I wanted to square up to and push against.

It was time to walk my spiritual talk. I could feel the resistance, so I went back to neutral and came at it again - first with one difficult person. Then another.

Suddenly, Metta was magick. Wishing them all well in that moment, in that space, was effortless and felt amazing. Finally, I got it:

But it is very human, and therefore, very understandable.

They're not evil. They're not my enemy. They're afraid.

It's how they create certainty in an uncertain world; how they feel rooted, attached. The way they act - adaptively or maladaptively - is organised around that need for security, attachment and love.

Very human, indeed.

As I left church, I felt at peace. I was no longer prisoner to my projections on the Trid mass - I could come to one or not as I pleased, knowing that I could remain centred in what was real.

When I passed church again, having come back from buying lunch, I passed a gathering of the younger 'Trid boy' types in front of the archway, posturing. One of them said, in a manner reminiscent of a stereotypical Oxford don, 'I have some sympathy for that position...' A week ago, I would have wanted to smack him. Yesterday, the teacher in me saw the boys I'd taught, standing in the school hallways, in those same positions, using that same tone of voice - and I grinned.

...though I may not have the answers
At least I know what I'm looking for

Yes, I can do without the sorrow
There's a day after tomorrow -
So I'm leaving it behind

I'm free, I'm free -
Things are only as important
As I want them to be...

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Ascension, Prologue - spiritual meltdown

God doesn't offer many neon signs - but this was one of them.

Today, 40 days after Easter, is the Ascension and a holy day of obligation. Normally, that would mean that if I can't make the 18.00 solemn mass - as would have been the case today - I could have gotten up early and gone to the 07.30 or, in extremis, the Vigil mass last night.

Unfortunately, NOT in England and Wales where, for some reason, the Bishops decided to ignore the fact that Jesus ascended 40 days after Easter, not 43, and transfer it to the Sunday. I have to admit, liberal as I am, that gets on my (not inconsiderable) tits. 40 days is 40 days.

That left me with a decision: business as usual, and go to the Sunday mass, or make a statement and go to the Tridentine rite (Extraordinary Form) mass of the Ascension today?

I leaned towards not going for three reasons:

1. Paz and I hadn't had a lunchtime walk all week, and I was looking forward to a catch up.

2. I had to leave early for counselling, and going to mass might cut out too much of the day.

3. More often than not, those associated with the Tridentine mass drive me into a murderous rage. Not ideal.

I got to work early, checked my nemesis, Outlook, for email messages that needed attention and got down to business - once I'd made coffee in my Pizzazzadoodle mug, of course. Nothing happens without morning caffeine. When Paz came in, I asked her what she wanted to do for lunch. She looked at me apologetically and said, 'I'm going to get my hair cut.'

I know when I'm being railroaded by the Holy Spirit.

In a last ditch attempt to avoid being run over by the Paraclete Express, I texted a friend in the know, asking him how long he thought mass would take. He reckoned 45 min - 1 hr, but I suspected I knew who the celebrant was and that I could shave about 5 min or so off that guesstimate, which made it more than feasible.


After many whacks over the head with a clue-by-four, I've learned that if events are lining up towards a particular choice, going with the flow is the way forward, no matter how difficult it might seem to be. So I gave in and decided to go to the 12.15 mass - though I couldn't IMAGINE what God had in store, aside from irimtating me for the rest of the day.

Even so, I wondered - much has changed since the last Tridentine mass I'd attended. I've been in spiritual meltdown since March, when a decision I'd helped someone come to went from being simply 'very important' to 'life-changing'.

Now the work, of course, was hers. But in that moment, I suddenly realised that however much I tried to take myself out of the equation in what had happened, I couldn't. That I had been there *mattered*; that it was *me* mattered; that *I* had been placed there and worked through: I couldn't have orchestrated this, imagined it, made it happen, forced it, any of it.

Suddenly, I saw God's hand all over this and that He had used me - not just for brightening up someone's day; not the 'this is how I see it'; none of the stuff I'm used to. I looked away for *two seconds*, tops - and God put me THERE, where her having someone to listen, be there and ask questions to, so she could come to her decision, made all the difference. And I realised, 'Oh. my. God. If I let You all the way in, what the hell are You going to do?'

I guess I thought that I had figured You out
I knew all the stories and I learned to talk about
How You were mighty to save
Those were only empty words on a page
Then I caught a glimpse of who You might be
The slightest hint of You brought me down to my knees

Suddenly, briefly, I caught a glimpse of the tapestry and the Weaver - and I was absolutely terrified by how wrong I was and how limited my vision had been.

What do I know of You
Who spoke me into motion?
Where have I even stood
But the shore along Your ocean?
Are You fire? Are You fury?
Are You sacred? Are You beautiful?
What do I know? What do I know of Holy?

Most of my faith had been dissolving for a while: certainty of who God is, what He intends and how He acts has made me recoil more and more; a lot of stuff around me has been making me uneasy. Much of my own armour was beginning to feel uncomfortable. I feel unsure that I have any idea what faith is, what holy looks like, how God works or what my journey to Him is meant to look like. I'm even less sure, meandering as it has been, that my journey has been a mistake at all - and I've been dead certain about the wrongness of my life for at least a decade.

And so began the descent into the Underworld.

I can take great emotional shifts in my stride, but this, on top of paper thin boundaries that meant I was feeling the emotions of everyone around me - which, just my luck, were mostly intense and chaotic - made my knees buckle. Early on, it became clear that it was too deep, too intense, for almost anyone to hold the space - and I was far too raw to be able to bear watching close friends squirm uncomfortably or look away. If I tested the waters and no response appeared to be forthcoming, I simply took it as 'I can't/don't know how do this kind of intensity, I'm sorry,' and left it at that. It was easier than asking again and hearing the 'I don't know how to be here for you.' I could go it alone, I knew that. So I got moving.

Traci and Ari were too stubborn to let me do that. Traci, a fellow Catholic, held the religious and emotional space; asked the questions; was there to wrestle with the relationship with God and the theology; called it like she saw it; called me on dissociating and not feeling what I was going through; let me be scared, angry, unsure. Ari was Ari - the friend who has known me in the darkest of places and moods, and just sat with me - listening, asking, letting me be fully me - intensely emotional - something I wick away from most people. I owe them the deepest gratitude - not feeling alone during the inner hurricane; being able to have space held for me when I couldn't hold things back to protect others - I couldn't even protect myself - was the most precious of gifts.

At church and work (which has a religious culture), I locked up tight. I was numb for most of Lent, and when I wasn't numb, I was furious. The Triduum was beautiful as ever, but I felt locked in ice; not even Tenebrae, which always moves me deeply, could touch me. There was the odd thaw - I can never shut out those close to me, and if they needed support, love, affirmation, I was drawn out of my icy enclosure to connect, which helped me too - for the most part, though, I wasn't there.

But the desert wasn't as barren as it seemed. Fr Dom's talk on prayer at the Passiontide Oratory unlocked something that took weeks to emerge. If I could pray, I did it. If I couldn't, fuck it. I prayed as I was, not as I wasn't. I remembered Mark Poulson's words from the pulpit at a funeral I'd been to: "I think God can take our questions, our doubts, our grief, our anger - all of it. I think He says, 'Give it to me. I can take it.' And He wants it all because He loves us." At some point, when I couldn't carry it any more, I must have let it go and handed it over, just saying, 'Fuck it. I have no clue. Let's see what happens.'

Only when I let it go - and let me be honest, not out of faith, but out of sheer exhaustion - did it begin to happen. A friend waxed poetic about Stephen Cope's The Wisdom of Yoga: a seeker's guide to extraordinary living in a blog entry or several. 'Huh,' I thought. 'I'll give anything a try.' I checked Amazon, and when I couldn't stop reading the VERY long excerpt from it, I ordered it - and then couldn't put it down as truth after truth launched themselves at me from every page, shattering my icy prison.

I was finally fully present; the game was afoot. I had no idea how things were going to unfold, but finally, I was good with that. Early days, but I was going to try to follow the signs and go with the flow. As far as I was concerned, God and life could bring it on.

It was in this state that I found myself under the Oratory arch this afternoon at 12.05. 'All right, Lord, I'm here. Bring it on.'

I took a deep breath and stepped through.