living fully

Dec 15, 2023

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“We played the pipes for you,
and you wouldn’t dance;

we sang dirges,

and you wouldn’t be mourners.”
Matthew 11

I’d only been ordained a handful of years when my wise Godmother, a psychotherapist by training and vocation, suggested that I might benefit from monthly professional supervision. I responded that I had a good spiritual director and some wise friends, adding that every now and then I went to confession. What could costly supervision possibly add to all this therapeutic conversation?

Safely shelving Kay’s advice I went on to survive many ups and downs probably for half a dozen more years, until some Anglican priests told me of how much they benefitted from meeting with an professional once a month who would helped them milk every encounter and experience for all it could teach them.

That shifted my perspective.

Before this moment I was simply seeking to survive, something I was stubborn enough to do even in painful isolation. These wise people were encouraging me to move beyond just coping and to live.

So I took the step, and in the thirty years since have not looked back on professional supervision which has become a regular and welcome monthly routine for me.

I’ve had a few supervisors over the years, my current one for 18 years since the untimely death of Jenny aged 64. It was Jenny who gave me a copy of a classic little book A Life of One’s Own written by Marion Milner (under the pseudonym Joanna Field). It has been reprinted dozens of times since it was first published on New Year’s day in 1934.

I remember that Jenny offered the book gently, noticing well before I did that I was trying hard to be a good priest of an earthly Catholic institution, often suppressing my own thoughts, feelings, beliefs and plans in favour of whatever good Catholic doctrine and church leaders (both bishops and parishioners) expected of me.

A eulogy published soon after Jenny’s 2006 death (in a NZ journal of psychotherapy) highlighted her depth of awareness:

Both in her life and work Jenny consistently demonstrates her faith in the human capacity to enter fully into life and to trust that this will enrich and heal the individual, the community, and ultimately, the world.

Jenny was encouraging me to go deeper, higher, broader, to shift my focus from my own life, my faith, my belief, to the community and the world.

She was nudging me to accept that my dissatisfaction with life as a good religious person was a healthy disquiet. and to seek Jesus who was patiently waiting to be discovered in the depth of my being, or to use the profoundly insightful language of the Church, in my soul.

Here I realised that my primary vocation was not to be a good religious person, a photocopy, but a unique creation in the divine image.

What a freedom.

What a joy.

What a relief.

What an adventure I was now beginning with a new-found need for the full reality of Christ, no longer satisfied with rigidly fixing to the signs that pointed to Christ but needing to live with Christ more intimately.

Now I felt the call to live with Jesus as an original presence, following the divine desire for me, with Jesus, and (perhaps ironically) even more deeply connected to and in the heart of the church.

Too often we forget that the Church is a sign which points us to, and brings us into, relationship with Jesus Christ. Without the church I would probably never have met Christ. Yes the Church is an essential sign, but we need to go to the relationship to which this powerful sign points.

As maturing Christians we soon become frustrated with the external forms and rites and rules of religion. Perhaps the rule says no dancing no singing no laughing or crying and we become so programmed to obey that we ignore the fact that the pipes are playing and calling us to dance, and the laments are being sung calling us to grieve.

I’m reminded of the homily-reflection I included as the final piece of FFF – the book: (available at this link)

Therefore the healthy response to denial of freedom, repression of creativity and inflexibility of structures is to become (as others see it) unwell. Such break-down is really more of a waking-up. And until a person lives through this shadowy night they remain a good religious person rather than a faith-full and mature disciple of Jesus Christ capable of embracing the height and depth of abundant life.

I’ll let Marion Milner have the last word in a quotation from her 1934 book:
So I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know. I wrote:  It will mean walking in a fog for a bit, but it’s the only way which is not a presumption, forcing the self into a theory.
Your thoughts? Share a comment below.
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11 Comments

  1. Woweee John, what a valuable sharing! Thank you!

    Timely, too, so perhaps we are each invited to an inner birth of Jesus within our deepest self..

    Reply
    • My daughter and I sat on the beach yesterday and talked of this very thing. I said to my brother this week sometimes the church ( institution) not the real church wants us to be beige. God is not beige. Creation explodes with colour. Oh to live fully and through this transform our relationships and show God’s glory. Now that’s an attractive life!

      Reply
    • So true

      Reply
  2. I agree. Thank you John.

    Reply
  3. Deciding to be a Christian rather than a Catholic has helped me to appreciate the great wealth that the Catholic Church as to offer.

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    • I too have long decided that to be Christian is the goal but more recently have grown to appreciate the formality of the Mass.

      Reply
  4. I find that just being the best, truest self that God wants you to be is all my God asks of me……..

    Reply
  5. Thank you so much Father John. Your daily insights are so refreshing to the mind at soul at this busy time:)

    Reply
  6. This put me in mind of 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. We are all called to be part of the body of Christ, but all are different parts, therefore each will experience different things. Not one size fits all,

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  7. Thank you, thank you Fr. John –

    Reply
  8. Wonderfully moving, reassuring words; thank you

    Reply

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