Life can feel lonely and disappointing if things do not go as hoped for over Christmas and New Year. The pain of family squabbles, or sickness, or even bereavement, is sometimes not helped when a Facebook feed or Instagram timeline is filled with pictures of happy families, successful children, seemingly-endless messages witnessing to the great things that Jesus is doing to enhance godly lives.
I confess that in the past, I might have been among those posting such pictures of apparent perfection, staying away from social media when things were not going so well.
Without going into detail, no one died nor got sick, my husband has not left or done anything wrong at all and I have not left him or had a drink. So please don't feel sorry for me. But things did happen that were extremely distressing, that it would not be appropriate to go into detail about. Therefore I did not feel the need to post much on social media this Christmas just gone.
The issues that did arise were extremely hard to deal with and rocked my equilibrium. Maybe it is good to be jolted out of complacency from time to time, particularly if you are not aware in the first place of even having been complacent. I apologise to all my friends if I have seemed smug in the past. Be reassured I'm smug no more.
It is very odd, because it does also feel that something has shifted at depth. There are certain things I am now taking far more seriously than before. One of those is spiritual discipline – and the message that the baby whose birth we have just celebrated brought to our world.
The question of spiritual discipline brings me to thoughts of 'dry January' that some of my friends are trying, as one way of recovering from the excesses of the season or the year just gone. I don't do dry January as such, simply because I've been sober for many many years. Tomorrow is just another day, and likewise, January is just another month. But even for a person such as myself, who has through the grace of God managed to embrace long-term sobriety, it is useful to use this first month of a new year to reflect on how best to maintain that hard-won freedom from the well-named 'demon drink', and to think back to the methods that got me through my first ever month, my first 90 days, without a drink, and laid the ground-work for long-term recovery.
Of course most, possibly all, of those doing dry January do not need to shy off the drink for good. But even for those whose use of alcohol has not crossed the line into chronic addiction, perhaps some spiritual reflection can be useful in getting through these 31 days if they want to do it without alcohol.
When contemplating this, I find it helpful to turn to the lives of contemporary 'sinners', so to speak. (There is much to learn from the lives of sinners, almost more in my view than there is from saints. Theresa May's shape-shifting government is proving useful in ways even she might not be fully aware of.) Fresh in my mind over the season and at present, for obvious reasons, is former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. Bannon has recently described how the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius have helped him stay sober for 19 years.
I've used these exercises myself, in a very 'casual' sort of way, in the past. Serious practice of them would means withdrawal from the world for a substantial amount of time, and this is just not remotely possible for me at present. However, to my regret I must confess I've not used them recently – until Bannon made his surprising admission.
It seemed that this January might be the time to have another look at these and see how they can be used once more, to build a better quality of sobriety for the future. Jesuits actually use these exercises twice daily, but for most of us, doing it just at the end of every day is probably enough. I find it helpful to have a Bible or prayer app to hand, and the Catholic Church in England and Wales has just released a brilliant new one, God Calls, with a 'word', 'saint' and 'prayer' for every day and even links to upcoming events – including events being run by one of our local Jesuit communities. There are plenty of other online resources to help with the examen. Basically, it involves five steps: becoming aware of the presence of God, developing an attitude of gratitude, paying attention to and learning to analyse feelings, specific prayer, and looking forward in the conscious presence of God to the next day.
Readers here will be familiar with one of the most helpful Bible verses setting out why we should keep spiritually as well as physically fit – 1 Timothy 4:7-10: 'Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.'
Spiritual exercises are far harder work, and do not have the instant effect, of slugging back a dark glass of alcohol. But the long-term effects make the effort more than worthwhile, as St Paul rightly recognised.
Short-term, I hope that re-engaging with them as we go into 2018 will make me a better person to live and work with. I suspect Steve Bannon might be hoping for something of this sort as well.
Ultimately, though, it is about taking my will, my ego, out of the equation – about praying for others, even or especially enemies, for knowledge of God's will, and the ability to carry that out.