‘offer it up’ –on the feast of St Josephine Bakhita

Don’t worry. I’m not especially proficient at this particular mode of self-denial, which seems, as far as I can tell, to preclude complaining or fretting. The first time it was ever offered to me as advice (I wasn’t raised by a Catholic mother), I had arrived at Mass and it was absolutely freezing. I said as much to the friend I’d just joined, and he whispered back, ‘offer it up.’ Say what? I thought. But I’m cold. (Also, I’m in England, where griping about the weather is something of a national pastime. So how can I just bear it without comment?)

I’ve chewed on that phrase, though, in the intervening years. Along the way, I have noticed instantiations of the practice that are inspiring. I mentioned three in class the other day that somehow have worked their way into my consciousness and stuck fast. 5611The first, not surprisingly, is Mother Teresa‘s saying ‘give what he takes, and take what he gives.’ I’d never heard it before I listened to the collection of her ‘private’ letters. (The audible app reads me books while I am picking things up off the floor, ironing, etc.) It struck me with particular force as I reflected on the spiritual richness Mother Teresa
enjoyed very early on, which left her so soon and never returned. Although I don’t recall her saying so explicitly, it seems clear that she regarded even that spiritual barrenness as something ‘taken’ and so she chose to offer it up, to give it willingly rather than resent the loss of it. Not that it wasn’t incredibly painful and exhausting; but it did not destroy her faith, however tempting it is to believe that she ‘lost’ her faith. Jean Danielou, in a beautiful passage from his book on prayer, says that going to Mass when you feel nothing (as Mother Teresa did daily) isn’t hypocrisy; it is an act of faith.

The second example I gave to the class was Josephine Bakhita. Despite her suffering–from  childhood through adolescence, in her life as a slave–Josephine Bakhita did not become bitter. While she was still a slave, she became a Christian; after she was freed, she became a nun. unknown-3Toward the end of her life, she often was in a great deal of pain, and confined to a wheelchair. Nonetheless, when asked how she was, she always gave the same reply: ‘as the Master wishes’. With that phrase, I think she offered up not only her present physical pain, but all that she endured in her life. I can’t imagine how she did it, how she maintained her composure, and remained cheerful. Surely having suffered so much should count for something; God ought to have taken that into account and spared her the pain of her illness later in life. Obviously that’s not how St Josephine regarded the matter. I guess that’s why she’s a saint, and I am not.

My third example comes from an entirely different walk of life: Pope St John XXIII. I confess to having got a bit bogged down in his Journal of a Soul, though I find the narrative of his early life fascinating. His piety reflects the era in which he grew up, and I find it almost alien. But then, he was the Pope who called the Second Vatican Council, and I am a thoroughly Vatican II Catholic. It’s not surprising that his Christian upbringing in Italy at
the turn of the century should seem so different to someone who grew up at the end of the 20th century in California. All that aside, though, one sentence he spoke in confidence, near the end of his life, reveals (to me, at least) the character of his faith: ‘Now I understand what contribution to the Council the Lord requires from me: my suffering’ (Journal of a Soul, xxviii). Although he opened the Council, he became very ill; he died in June 1963, having seen only one of the sessions through.638064928-incense-burner-john-xxiii-prayer-visit

Pope St John XXIII’s observation says something, though, about this business of offering it up, something that I don’t find in either Mother Teresa (or, I should say, St Teresa of Calcutta) or St Josephine Bakhita–something about the mystery of undeserved suffering. If we read resignation into the words of Mother Teresa or Josephine Bakhita, we read something more like ‘rationalisation’ in the words of John XXIII. But I don’t think it is as formulaic as that. Because there is no way that suffering from an excruciating and terminal illness can contribute, in human terms, to the work of an ecumenical council. All human eyes can see is John XXIII’s absence from the council. But his words are an act of hope. In his agony, he cries out to the Lord–whether audibly or not–like the psalmist, like the Son of God.

And in the suffering willingly accepted, two things happen. In one sense, the sufferer joins his or her pains to those of Christ, as St Paul describes in Colossians 1. What is suffered with Christ and in Christ is suffered on behalf of the whole body of Christ. In another, related sense, the sufferer stands in the place of the one who cries out to the Lord in the day of trouble. This is, in Psalm 49 (50) exactly what God requires of God’s people: ‘call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall honor me.’ Not a sacrifice of money or pigeons, but a sacrifice of thanksgiving. ‘Offer it up’ with thanksgiving, yes. But I think this maybe doesn’t preclude complaining after all. Offering it up means taking all the agony–and mere annoyance–to God. Isn’t that what Jesus did in the garden? ‘Father, all things are possible for you; remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’

So I can still gripe, and hurt, and grieve; I can, and should, call upon the Lord in my day of trouble. The tough part is believing in the rescue, even though it may not come until the end of time. That’s hope–what Danielou, in that same wonderful book calls the most difficult of the theological virtues. That’s what Mother Teresa, Josephine Bakhita, and John XXIII all had. Hope. Not hope that things would be better tomorrow, but hope in the One who is making all things new. Even me.

Deo gratias.

between a rock and a hard place

Last year, I read the book Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote, since I had been one of the millions of people who were grabbed by her Atlantic article, ‘Why women (still) can’t have it all.’ Millions of women, maybe. Not that men wouldn’t be interested, exactly. But part of the problem that Slaughter identifies is that care is a women’s issue. Again, not that men are not or cannot be caring, involved parents–even ‘lead’ parents, if we can call it that. It’s complicated.

So I’ll bring it home. In my life, it looks like this: when I was 5, I had two big goals in life. One was to go to Harvard Medical School and become a neurosurgeon; the other was to get married and have a family. The awesome thing about being 5 is that those two goals seem perfectly compatible, not like a superhuman juggling act that’s only really possible if you don’t need sleep. By the time I was in high school, I realised the whole neurosurgeon thing wasn’t going to happen. Yet I clung to the idea of having a career, nurtured graduate school ambitions, and definitely still wanted the marriage-and-kids option. Still, the idea that those two things might be on a collision course never really occurred to me.

Now my life mostly looks like the train wreck I never expected. Not that the house is a mess. It is, of course. One only needs to step one foot in the door to realize that I am in way over my head. Eventually I might find someone to clean, though, and I’d still be sitting in a train wreck. Because I did get that PhD, somewhat later than I maybe anticipated. And I did get that marriage-with-kids, also somewhat later than I had hoped. At the same time, actually. But even the collision of these two major undertakings–motherhood and the academic career–did not produce the wreck that surrounds me.

No. The wreck is this: that I find myself, as a 40-something woman, constantly worried that I should be doing something else. It doesn’t matter what I am doing, usually. (By child #4, I’ve finally settled into the idea that unless someone is bleeding or the house is on fire, if the little ones ask me to read a book, there’s nothing else I should be doing. But that’s about it.) Whatever it is I am doing, I have the nagging feeling that there is something else I should be doing, for my children or my career, that’s more important than my current activity. Like now, for example. I’m writing a blog post. What is this accomplishing? (Nothing, probably, but it does help to keep me from going completely insane.)

At the heart of the problem is the sense that I should be secure in some sort of employment, or employable at the very least; I should have some measure of independence. I should make money. My half time lecturing job (which of course is not anything like half time) pays embarrassingly badly. If suddenly I had to support my four children (and my husband is under-insured, so that’s not going to solve it–but is there a good way to nag about that, really?), I couldn’t do it. And I feel like a failure.

But why? Why should I feel like a failure because I haven’t managed to do what so many women seem to have done? Every family is different. Our family life has unfolded in the way it has because I was a grad student and my husband already a professor when we met and married. It’s because our first child has Down Syndrome–she had two heart surgeries before her second birthday. It’s because we were worse than completely broke when we got married. It’s because…the list goes on. It’s the strange set of events and circumstances that have shaped our available choices, and we’ve muddled through, probably making the wrong choices as often as not.

Somehow, though, the struggles all settle on my head: there’s the train wreck. If only I had done something better, spent some time more constructively, I would not be 40-something, wondering whether I will ever ‘amount to anything’. I can’t look around me and see four children who know that I love them, and think I’ve amounted to anything. I can’t see the book I wrote as an achievement. Hell, everyone I know has written a book or two–that’s just what people in this line of work do. I’ve no idea how I did it, either, so I am finding writing another (maybe that will be an achievement) somewhat daunting.

I didn’t want this to be a rant. I didn’t want to complain. The thing is, I am glad that I have had the opportunities to study, to write, to teach. When I am not in collision mode, I love what I do. I LOVE it. And I wouldn’t be able to do any of it without being a mother, oddly. I never would have been able to give myself fully to the work if I believed that I was choosing it over having a family. But some days I do think that there is some elusive ‘all’ out there, and I could have it, if I could just work harder…or something.

But the truth is, being a full-time mother and a part-time career woman (as if one could have a career part-time; maybe that’s my big mistake) will always feel like being between a rock and a hard place. Because as a mom, I am (psychologically) ‘surrounded’ by all the moms who devote themselves fully to the work of motherhood, and I wonder why I can’t be like that. And as an academic I am constantly being compared to a variety of other academics who have totally different outside-of-work lives, and who work full-time. Whichever direction I look, I don’t measure up. Not remotely.

I still don’t have any answers. Tomorrow, I will get up and start again.

‘the time that is given to us’

Eight years and (almost) three months ago, a friend posted on Facebook that he thought Sauron had acquired the ring. That was November 4th, 2008. I made light of it, as I recall, and we had a brief exchange in which he reminded me how important politics is, and I reminded him that no person is evil through and through in the way Sauron is.

I have thought a lot about that exchange since November 2016. My utter failure to understand how anyone so like me could think so differently about Barack Obama has come back to me. Here we were, two people with quite similar backgrounds and formed in Christian faith during our college years by some of the same people. And yet, I was celebrating and he was thinking the world was ending. The shoe is on the other foot now.

Not only that, but I have spent the last eight years abroad, for the most part, living in England. Brexit was as much of a shock as the election in November. My only observation regarding the similarity of the two events is that the remain campaign and HRC’s campaign each had an element of “don’t be ridiculous” about them. I’m no pundit, though, and I haven’t much further comment to make on that. In both cases, I was persuaded by what would end up being the losing side, and I quite honestly failed (once again) to see what good anyone really believed would come from leaving the EU or electing Trump. I’ve never been one for politics, so maybe it’s just me. But the unthinkable happened on both occasions, so maybe my ignorance is not unusual.

All that to say, I am certainly not a person to offer some astute comment on the situation. Still less can I predict what will happen, or give reasons for hope (or despair). What I can do is return to Tolkien, to a moment very near the beginning of the story of the destruction of the ring.

“But last night I told you of Sauron the Great, the Dark Lord [says Gandalf]. The rumours that you have heard are true: he has indeed arisen again and left his hold in Mirkwood and returned to his ancient fastness in the Dark Tower of Mordor. That name even you hobbits have heard of, like a shadow on the borders of old stories. Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.”

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us…”

This is perhaps the hardest thing of all: not having any say about what time is given to us. We cannot decide what we live through, nor how long the times will last, nor what good our little work may do. Later in the story (in a passage I’ve not yet come to in my  re-reading), Gandalf says that the small acts of courage and faithfulness are the ones that save the world. Of course it’s more eloquent and nuanced in Tolkien’s rendering. I’ve no gift at all, can barely string together a sentence, compared to Tolkien. But it is true nonetheless, that the small acts of kindness and love that shape mere moments do not disappear into some vast ocean of darkness and cruelty–much as it often seems to me in my despairing moods. No, Tolkien is right: the small acts of goodness, those that seem insignificant and powerless, do something.

These are the times that are given to us, whether we believe that Sauron is closing his fist on the one ring, or whether we think that the Shadow has been (for now) defeated. If there is to be any “growing good” of the world (as George Eliot puts it in Middlemarch), it will depend on the most hidden acts of love, hope and courage.

March. Protest. File writs. Or take the other side, if you must. But in all that you do, in all for which you strive in these times, do not forget the kindness to a neighbour, or to a stranger, that makes an imperceptible but no less important difference.

For the truth is, as I have said here before (I’m sure), that the world is constantly changing, in every moment, with every action. Hidden self-sacrifice and quiet integrity resist the forces of darkness and cruelty just as surely as public acts that look good on social media. And kindness costs nothing. We don’t have to pass the bar, we don’t even have to be having a particularly good day. We can still be kind. This is the time that has been given us. Right now.

All we have to decide is what to do with it.

Gender in trouble?

I read John Milbank’s piece (published last week), What liberal intellectuals get wrong about transgenderism. As expected, I found that some of what he says expresses (rather more forcefully) my own concerns. I hesitate to enter into a public conversation about these issues, both because I am a Catholic moral theologian who takes the magisterium seriously, and also because I sometimes suspect that my first reactions (which I’ve hardly got beyond) are likely to be visceral rather than intellectual. And nobody wants to hear what my viscera have got to say. So, I’ll let Milbank speak a bit.

What is more, it is possible that liberals have too easily assumed that there exists a new consensus over abortion rights, gay marriage, transgender issues and positive discrimination (as opposed to formal equal access) for women and racial minorities. In reality, it may well be that a large number of people either reject or have doubts about these things, but feel that it is no longer acceptable to say so. Their real views perhaps emerged anonymously as one aspect of the votes for Brexit and for Trump.

The only person I know personally who voted for Trump would cite dissent from that imagined consensus as one factor in his decision.

In what follows I am not denying that there are some people with confused bodies who deserve our every help toward a viable individual solution. Nor that there are others with unfathomable psychological conditions estranging them from their own corporeal manifestation. Perhaps, in extremis, surgery is the only solution for them.

But many people rightly sense that the liberal obsession with the transgender issue has gone beyond merely wanting to help this minority. It has become a whole movement to change our notions of gender. And its preoccupations come across as irrelevant to most people, unjustified in its conclusions, and apparently condemnatory of the normal with which most people identify.

My shaping by the academic lunacy Milbank later decries makes me cringe at ‘most people.’ Not because I don’t think it’s true. The majority of people don’t feel they’re in the ‘wrong body’ (though, given the choice, I would trade mine for Halle Berry’s or Angelina Jolie’s in a heartbeat), and are attracted to the ‘other’ body. From a purely evolutionary standpoint, this is what you’d expect. I’m just worried about the way that ‘most people’ have made life very difficult in the past for people who are ‘different.’ I am, after all, the mother of a teenage girl with Down Syndrome. Milbank again urges compassion, though:

I repeat that there are some people who really do have a psychic disparity with their gendered body. They may be a very small minority, but they should be listened to — and liberalism has certainly helped us to treat them with understanding and compassion.

But we should still consider irremediably psychic disparity with one’s gendered body to be a highly rare exception, and normatively one should assume (with the sensus communis of all ages) that gender indeed follows upon biological sex. Otherwise, one is embracing a most bizarre dualism of mind and body or soul and body.

True. And I would add that nobody who thinks s/he is in the wrong body wants one that is biologically, sexually ambiguous. Which makes me wonder whether it is not the oppressive ways in which ‘normal’ gender performance has been enforced that are to blame here. Listening, as Milbank recommends, seems indispensable here.

And without bodily sexual difference, there would of course be no prompting to the social imagination of gender. This is the very simple point that is naïvely overlooked as too naïve by the Butlerian thinkers. It is dangerous to suggest that any and every claim to be in the wrong body requires the expenditure of scarce health resources, rather than some form of guidance. If we treat gender identity as so easily laid aside, we could lose our bedrock understanding of what human nature is. 

Gender is, of course, not so easily laid aside: the Butlerians have got that wrong (if Milbank has got them right). One of the key points of Gender Trouble is that the social construction of gender does not negate its power. That’s one of the things structuralism tells us, rightly: that we are shaped by constructions like gender.

Sexual difference is a fundamental aspect of our humanity. As Genesis has it, ‘male and female [God] created them.’ While I am willing to fight for a flexible understanding of what ‘male and female’ means, I think that to give it up entirely is neither possible nor wise. And to do so would be to reject entirely one of the other beliefs that Judith Butler and this Catholic moral theologian share: bodies do matter.

Bodies matter so much that gender dysphoria drives young people to suicide. Whatever I might say, once I get beyond my visceral reaction to these issues, it will never lose sight of that.

on weakness

These days are dark days, the days when Job’s lament (which I read out, in part, to a class on Monday) seems to voice the despair of my own soul–I, who have lost nothing and have healthy children. My darkness is of a different kind, and is heedless of all the good (and lack of it) in the world. So I have little to say. Luckily teaching means reading and re-reading, and today I find comfort and inspiration in the words of an encyclical more than six decades old.

For as the Apostle with good reason admonishes us: “Those that seem the more feeble members of the body are more necessary; and those that we think the less honourable members of the body, we surround with more abundant honour.” Conscious of the obligations of our high office, we deem it necessary to reiterate this grave statement today, when to our profound grief we see at times the deformed, the insane, and those suffering from hereditary disease deprived of their lives, as thought they were a useless burden to society; and this procedure is hailed by some as a manifestation of human progress, and as something that is entirely in accordance with the common good. Yet who that is possessed of sound judgement does not recognize that this not only violates the nature and the divine law written in the heart of every man, but that it outrages the noblest instincts of humanity? the blood of these unfortunate victims who are all the dearer to our Redeemed because thy are deserving of greater pity, “cries to God from the earth.”*

In all those who suffer or are in need, in all those who are small and weak, we ought to see Christ. Why is this so hard? We long to see Jesus–and here he is, right here. If only we had eyes to see him, we would find our heart’s desire.

 

*Pius XII, Mystici corporis (1943), 94

death of a princess

Early in the year, I was thinking about death. In January, the opinion piece that recommended living the year as if it were your last and the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman put mortality front and center. Sixty-nine years seemed too short a time for a life in the 21st century. Zsa-zsa Gabor, fine–she was supposedly 99; and Richard Adams (the author of Watership Down) was 96. But Prince was in his fifties, like George Michael; and Carrie Fisher was just 60. And that list leaves out a good number of the celebrities we lost in 2016, to say nothing of the friends and family members.

This morning, after seeing the news about Princess Leia, I mean, Carrie Fisher, I stayed a little longer in bed, curled up with my five-year-old daughter. My youngest, my little ‘outlier’–a surprise in my forty-second year, she brought light into my life in a time when things seemed pretty dark. (If only ‘partly cloudy‘ were the worst of it…) If I only live to 60, I thought, she’ll be 18 when I die. If I only make it to 53, though–George Michael’s age–she will be 11. Just 11. It seems so unfair. And unthinkable. But it happens: a friend, a fellow mum from the schoolyard, died this March. She was in her early fifties; her youngest child just 10 years old.

In January, living as though you were in your final year seemed like a kind of New Year’s resolution, to pay attention and remain mindful of your mortality. Because people can and do live longer now, because we (in the US and the UK and the rest of the developed world) are so good at preventing childhood diseases and curing those that used to take young lives, it seems reasonable to expect that we’ll make it to our nineties, anyway. So living in awareness of our mortality takes concentration, focus. Or it did. Before 2016.

Nothing is guaranteed. After a year in which the Cubs won the world series, Leicester won the Premier League, Donald Trump was elected president, and Britain voted to leave the EU; after the deaths of so many people we considered too young to die, we ought to expect the unexpected, the unthinkable.

Something tells me that living 2017 in the persistent awareness of the shadow of death will be more difficult not to do.

 

 

Partly cloudy

It often happens at bedtime: so tired, and yet awake. I think, I ought to do something if I am awake. There’s always so much to do. What’s wrong with me? I wonder.

Probably nothing. Nothing, that is, but the ordinary out-of-stepness that is the state of human life lived in too-close cooperation with the fallenness of the world. There is another world, but it is the same as this one, indeed, as has been said by more than one poet and quoted by Rowan Williams. And being between worlds sometimes seems like the state I’m in: finding the ‘other’ in the world doesn’t come easily, when it comes at all.

And who knows how the voice of the Other World will break through? Maybe through something I read, a chance comment somewhere (on social media, even!), in the quiet, or on a walk…I can’t predict. Some days it is as though someone added Felix Felicis to my coffee. The worlds seem to come together. Coming and going, the ordinary things, all seem to lead to a great openness and peace. Other days, not so much.

Like clouds block the sun, sometimes the light that illumines my soul dims. Who knows what ‘clouds’ might float along, stopping the brightness of the sun’s rays? And who knows how long the shadows will cover me? Not I. My only gift, the only thing I have learned to do in this partly cloudy existence is to enjoy the warm sun, to be grateful for the beauty of the clouds, and to find comfort in the sound of heavy rain.