Receptivity, personality, transformation
WHAT I LOVE MOST ABOUT SPRING, even more than birdsong and blossom and melting snow is the day-by-day, minute-by-minute, evidence of new life. I can watch buds form on trees, and furled-up leaves emerge from those buds. When I am feeling down, I can remind myself that those dead-looking plants and trees will be transformed; I just need to be patient. I’m sure there are a host of scientific terms for the process; I embrace scientific language and concepts, but I also see a creative force at work that is beyond human explanation. That creative force doesn’t speak to me in conventional terms, but it communicates about something infinite and mysterious. I see that creative force or movement as a dimension of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t appear to me as dancing tongues of fire or a rushing wind, but it’s just as real, just as miraculous, and it touches me. If that were my only encounter with the Divine, it might be enough, if I could keep my sense of wonder. But there’s more.
Sometimes there’s a message that comes into my being like a voice in my head. Many years ago, when I was over-confident, I was setting off on a journey from the south of England to the Midlands, and I got a really strong sense that I should get the spare tire inspected before setting off. But that would cost time and money, and I was in a hurry to get started. The thought became more insistent, almost like someone in the room giving me advice. I ignored the voice. A few hours later, in a wooded area, I took a bend too quickly, slid off the road and came to rest between trees. I was not wrapped round one, thankfully, but I had a very dead front tire. The repair truck driver called in “Puncture, no spare.” I had to wait for a second truck to give me a lift-tow into the nearest town where the car was fitted with two new tires, the older front one becoming the new spare. My journey ended up being much slower than it would have been had I done the right thing in the first place. But I took notice of the lesson. Since then, if I have heard that voice of advice or warning, I pay attention, even though it’s hard at times to say to others who may be affected why I am changing plans abruptly. Hearing a voice in my head can sound like an odd reason.
A secular explanation would be that with age and experience I have gained more common sense, and that’s true, as far as it goes. But the voice that warns and guides is more than my conscience or wisdom, because it really does enter my head from the outside. Usually it’s gentle, but if I am about to make a mistake it can be loud. Once the voice was so blunt it made me shake. My heart raced and my cheeks were flushed. I stopped in my tracks and obeyed it, even though it was embarrassing to try to explain my change of vocational direction because of a voice that made me quake.
This life force not only makes the natural world grow and blossom, but even cares enough about me to intervene and guide me when I am heading astray. Because of my upbringing and religious formation, I call it God. If I had grown up in a different culture, I would maybe have different imagery and language to describe this force. Some people need color and light and music or chanting to feel most strongly connected to the Source. Others need to be in a stripped-back, quiet place. Cataphatic or apophatic, Tibetan or Zen, these differing needs transcend cultures and religious traditions because they are to do with how we differ as people – our personalities. It’s not surprising that the force that cares enough about us would speak to us it the way that connects most appropriately with who we are.
Last week I had the opportunity to meet a couple who serve in pastoral ministry in a different state. I had previously only met them on social media. As we ate our Mexican food, the conversation turned to a personality test that they appreciate and use in spiritual guidance. Having always found this one hard to wrap my head around, I was curious to know more, and, afterwards, with some back-and-forth by email, recommended readings, quizzes and podcasts, I had a rapid series of Aha! moments, and I knew myself in new ways. Parts of my history, my childhood experiences and my very being were opened up to me as never before, through the medium of this particular way of understanding personality. I had not expected it, and it was profound. I am not yet ready to put it into words, spoken or written; in a good way, I am speechless while I absorb it into my being.
As often happens when I have stepped onto some form of holy and transformational ground, synchronicity happened. Having not thought of personality tests since the days when I used to teach management studies, I was blessed this weekend by a riveting lecture on – yes – personality. I was at the annual sessions of Ireland Yearly Meeting, held this year via Zoom. The annual public lecture was given by long-time Friend and one-time Trappist monk Eoin Stephenson, and entitled Resurrection and Personality.
Come and have breakfast.
Spoken in the beautiful luminous light that fills the air just before sunrise…
No one asks who are you?
They know it is the Lord.
His words to them
“Come and have breakfast” …
This brief piece cannot do justice to Eoin’s talk, and I am attaching links to the video and the text for you. It spoke to me in the state that had been made ready for fresh seeds to be sown.
It is a mistake to try to read the various descriptions of the Resurrection as matching journalistic accounts, said Eoin, because they were spoken before they were written down. And when they were written, they were aimed at different audiences, and the situation of those communities.
Matthew’s Resurrection account presents Jesus as the new Moses
with echoes of Sinai, an earthquake, bright lights, and travel to a mountain.
These were legitimate spiritual writer’s tools…
to a Christian-Jewish community.
In Luke there is a focus on two ordinary disciples walking to Emmaus.
In John there is a series of very personal encounters with the Risen Jesus…
Saul/Paul was so filled with the righteousness of his efforts to persecute the followers of Jesus, that he needed a booming voice, a bright light and temporary blindness to stop him in his tracks. No gentle insistence to pack a spare tire for his chariot, or to rethink his mission; no invitation to breakfast would have stopped him in his tracks. He needed the entire works for transformation to happen. Fortunately, most of us can be reached by something gentler, if we are willing to open ourselves to listen.
It takes a special form of listening
to discern that of God in the telling of the story.
And it is that of God in the story
that gives it the power to slip between the ribs into the heart
and engender belief through the centuries.
Of personality, Eoin says:
Those we meet are made up of complex structures
of intellectual and emotional intelligence.
They have a particular history
set in a cultural context and particular social background.
They have particular talents and gifts
and exercise these in a way unique to each one.
All of these come together in a way that makes each one unique
and recognizable as a particular individual.
It is this complex blend that makes the personality of each of us…
Despite the differences in the accounts of the Resurrection, for Eoin there are common elements:
There is an encounter… with a real person.
Then there is recognition of this person
As a particular individual,
as Jesus of Nazareth.
There is presence.…
He just turns up and engages
in the garden,
on the road,
in the upper room,
by the lake side….
There is, in the open personality,
a movement towards a beyond,
to know more,
to savor and appreciate more
to explore and discover more,
to reach out…
A personality monitor is a useful tool
that is a capacity to be aware of what is happening on the inside
An eye on my inner workings.
What aspects of my personality
are working and to what extent.
What aspects of my personality are NOT working and to what extent…
[Eoin Stephenson, Resurrection and Personality, Ireland Yearly Meeting Public Lecture 2021}
What I learned from Eoin is that our personalities are, and are intended to be, relational. When I offer to make you a cup of tea or coffee, I am seeking a connection that is more than the liquid and its container. If I accompany you to a place of spiritual significance it is to share a journey that in many ways may be beyond words. We are stepping out into the Holy.
Instead of wishing that in my deepest essence I was more of this, or less of that, I need, instead, to lay that dissatisfaction to rest. I am as I was made to be. My personality is authentically me. Out of that, I can reach out to serve and to connect, maybe wordlessly, in the things that are eternal. Extending hospitality is not only a joy, it is a way in which I share the gift of who I am – and who you are. As Henri Nouwen wrote:
The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dance.
—Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life
Margaret Fraser is a Good News Associate and a member of Friends of the Light in Traverse City, Michigan, part of the New Association of Friends