Words To Live By


Just one word
Words are rich in their capacity to convey multiple meanings and to carry more than simply a definition. They can be meaningful to us for their association, their possibility, their inspiration. Words can be a resource for us as we learn to discern decisions and shape our lives.  Today’s theme had a focus on words and how a few words, when carefully chosen, can carry much meaning and energy for our lives.

We began our gathering today by sharing around the circle just one word or short phrase that we felt captured something about where we were in this moment; since our last gathering, in the light of the start of a new year, about what lay ahead, or just for this particular day…

Words shared included: content, busy-fun-new, full, one-at-a-time, curious, cresting, changes, today-is-quiet…

We let these words simple be in the space, without comment or discussion…we shared some silence together…


The word ‘Ambition’
We recalled previous gatherings where we have talked about the way in which we choose to shape our lives and the invitation to live vocationally rather than in a highly planned way. At the beginning of a year, it can be helpful to remind ourselves of what this looks like or means for us individually.

The pressure is often to live a very planned life – in which we tick off the list of supposedly highly regarded pre-determined achievements (career, mortgage, superannuation, family) and within these things to have five and ten year goals measured against performance indicators. Often this is characterised as having appropriate and commendable ambition and a right and mature outlook on life.

However, is it not worth asking whether this is the only way to live life and what other ways there may be?

David Whyte, poet and philosopher, has reflected on the deeper, layered meaning of many different words, in his book ‘Consolations’. His reflection on the word ‘Ambition’ is rich and provocative. Here is the link to the handout: Ambition

After some quiet time by ourselves we regathered to discuss this handout. We explored questions such as: What struck you? What was confusing? What don’t you get? What makes sense to you? What sounds scary or freeing? Did particular phrases appeal or repel? What do you make of these ideas?

A dynamic discussion ensued in which there was general agreement that these thoughts really challenged the view that ambition was highly admirable and desirable. We explored the idea that there is a fuller, more wholistic, more spacious and potentially more adventurous way to approach a life that is deeply worth living.

Charisms in Community
For centuries, communities around the world have had charisms, significant words, that describe and inspire their way of life. This is particularly true monastic communities or other intentional communal groups. Charisms are deeper than goals and values but aim to capture a way of being in the world that is both invitational and responsive. For example, Benedictine communities have the charisms:  The Northumbrian community have the words: Vulnerability and Availability. Our own Benedictus community has the charisms: Hospitality, Silence, Discernment, Reconciliation, and Adventure. 

Charisms are unifying for a community. They capture what we offer as well as to what we aspire. They become something to which people can be true but in a dynamic of responsiveness rather than fixedness.

Individual Charisms
Individually we can also choose words in this way. It can be a way for us to both name what is significant to us as well as what we are inspired by. It can help us name our truest qualities as well as our wholehearted hope. Charisms can help us measure our way of living in terms of its congruence with our deepest, truest selves.

Many, many words can be charisms. There are no right and wrong – there are just some words that speak more to us that others. And it can be different for each individual.
Some examples were placed in the centre:


Participants were invited to take some time to reflect on words that carried meaning for them and to create an artwork around these. It was suggested that this was just an initial exploration and that it could take much more time for a word or two to really settle into us and ‘our’ words. We chatted about how it was helpful to decide on a few words – that too many is cumbersome, one might not be enough but sometimes one word can capture a lot. For example, the one word ‘Pilgrimage’ captures many layers of meaning and is sufficient in itself as a charism. For other people, a few words have energy.

Here are the artworks that people created, as at least a starting point for this process:

Instead of living by the rules that are determined externally to us, this process invites us to discover ways to live by a rule of life. A rule of life is a way of living that is from within us, from a deeper place, and thus becomes more authentic and rich throughout our lives. Charisms offer a way to live by a deep truth rather than a regime of goals. Having some significant words to return to can be a resource for us, helping us peel back to the core of what matters to us. We can use our charisms as a way to make decisions about what feels truly right for us in our choices. Charisms can give shape to the way we live our lives, both in the everyday and in the bigger picture.

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