Lazarus at the gate

Earlier this week, I passed an evidently homeless man in the street. I passed by; I was in a hurry; I didn’t have any change in my pocket; I didn’t want to fumble in my handbag for money. I passed by on the other side of the street. Fortunately, he has been following me around–not physically, of course; I doubt he even noticed me at the time, since the street was fairly crowded. But in my mind’s eye he sits outside the shop, slightly sunburned, and the words ‘whatever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me’ float in the air around him.

Yesterday I lamented to a friend that I often feel as though I live in a bubble. Situations of real, desperate human need don’t usually cross my path. It’s not entirely true. Though my friends and neighbours may have more than they need, people cross my path one way or another every day who are in a vastly different situation. Every day: in the news, in emails from Caritas (like today) or the Missionaries in Africa, or on the streets of the town where I live. Lazarus does beg at the gate, even now, if we are looking for him.The trick is to be attentive. Easier said than done, I know.

So the email from Caritas today arrived in my inbox. Usually I pass by, as it were, on the other side. But today I found in that email, somehow, the image of the man I passed last week, like a reminder of Lazarus at the gate. And I am glad that he has not left me: in him I ought also to see Christ.

Deo gratias.

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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.

 

 

No safe paths

‘There are no safe paths in this part of the world.’

So says Gandalf, as he prepares to leave Bilbo and the dwarves, who are about to enter Mirkwood. Bilbo wished for another way, a way around the dark and sinister-looking forest. But even the very long way around the forest–hundreds of miles out of the way–isn’t safe. And so it seems for us,  in a time of political uncertainty, social unrest and moral conflict–not to mention the constant threat of terrorism: there are no safe paths.

So little of our world is like the Shire and so much of it is like Mirkwood. But few are the Gandalfs in our world, warning us not to leave the path. It seems to me that we have forgotten what the real dangers are. Suffering and death are not the real dangers: they will come anyway; they are a part of life. The real danger is that of spending all our time and effort in avoiding suffering and keeping death at a distance. In so doing, I think we miss so much of what life is about. Too much concern with safety and comfort is perilous.

Gandalf understood this, perhaps. Tolkien seems to have grasped it, anyway. I am afraid, however, that we who live without hunger and fear are too easily persuaded to prize safety and comfort unduly. It is hard, when we are concerned for our children and our way of life, not to believe that safety and comfort are of the utmost importance. Two things ought to be said, though. The first is that I believe in safety: I make my children sit in car seats and wear seat belts, I don’t let them wander, and I probably protect and comfort them to a fault. Even so,  I cannot protect them from skinned knees and broken bones, or from disappointments or failures. And even the comfort a mother can offer does not take the pain away. But they are remarkably resilient. They recover. And they’re not afraid of trying again when the first time was painful or even disastrous. I think of my 5-year-old daughter’s constant cartwheeling. She improves gradually. Sometimes she bangs a foot or ankle, or her arms give way and she crumples to the mat. But she gets up, always, and tries again.

So–and this is the second thing–there’s nothing wrong with valuing safety and comfort. The danger is that the concern for our own safety and comfort, so natural and understandable, begins to shape our attention to the world in ways we are no longer able to see. Then, we fail to move beyond the confines of our safe, comfortable world. We become blinded to the way in which our safety and comfort come at the expense of others’ basic needs. It doesn’t have to be so, obviously. But it’s pretty hard to know how far my comfortable life, and the products and privileges that make it so, would not be possible without the unevenness of the distribution of wealth and power that keeps millions of people in poverty. My having more than enough cannot be completely unrelated to others’ lack.

Let me be clear, though: I am not inviting you to join me on a guilt trip. I eat meat. I drive a car, even sometimes for pretty short trips. I buy snacks for the children that are packaged in too much plastic film. I don’t always recycle everything I should. I drink coffee from Starbucks and even occasionally let the kids eat McDonald’s. I live in the middle-class world and I won’t pretend I don’t like my safety and comfort as much as the next person.

What frightens me, though, is the idolization of safety and comfort. Comfort is no longer a privilege, but a right, and safety as basic a need as hunger. None of us are wholly safe, and we don’t even realize the dangers that threaten us. What we will pay for safety or false security–that worries me. And the expectation of comfort so common in the children of the middle class (like mine)–that worries me.

It’s the lights of the fire and the smell of elvish food that ultimately lure Bilbo and the dwarves from the path through Mirkwood. Were they enticed by safety and comfort? Perhaps. And they almost get eaten by spiders, and they’re captured by the elven king, and they nearly lose their way entirely. Staying on the path is hard, and you don’t even have to believe that it’s the “narrow path” of being a disciple of Jesus to know that that’s true.

Our lives are a journey. There is a path. It leads through dark forests. We will not always be safe. We will not always be comfortable. But what we need is not more cushion and more protection. We need courage. We need hope. Because, really, there are no safe paths in this part of the world.

To begin 2016, think about the end

During the autumn, I wrote a series of short commentaries on the Nicene (Niceno-Constantinopolitan) Creed. The final installment is for this Sunday, and focuses on the very last line of the creed: death, resurrection and new life. As this week began (for me) with an op-ed article about death (see below) and has seen the deaths of two talented and justly celebrated men, some reflection on this part of the creed seemed quite timely.

The creed concludes by directing our attention to our own end: we ‘look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. Maybe by the time we get to the last line, our attention has moved on to the next part of the Mass, or even to what’s for Sunday lunch. Or maybe the repetition week by week has dulled our perception of its oddity. The resurrection of the dead? The life of the world to come? However often we say these things, and however much we might know about the Church’s teaching on resurrection and new life, the future remains ultimately mysterious: we believe, but we do not grasp these things.

Yet remembering our end is of critical importance: even the New York Times advises us to do so. In a recent article Arthur Brooks* advised readers to bear their death in mind in order to live a more fulfilling life. (This week our mortality has been brought into incredibly sharp focus, too, by the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman.) Rather than making us more gloomy, he says, remembering the transitory nature of our life heightens our capacity for humour and joy. Not only that: Brooks suggests that concentrating on the ‘scarcity of time’ can help us to choose our pastimes more consciously, focusing on those things that bring real satisfaction (and those listed include prayer and worship) over those that merely distract us.

The op-ed section isn’t the place I would usually turn for spiritual guidance. In this case, though, Brooks points to something we ought to know: that growth in our spiritual life requires a form of attention that directs us to our ultimate end. For his readers, death is the end. We look forward to something else: the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Contemplating this mystery forms a crucial part of the practice of Christian life, and bathes our ordinary experience in everlasting light.

 

just one day

I will restore to you the years
    which the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
    my great army, which I sent among you.

Joel 2: 23

This verse almost comforts me. Almost, because I long to know for certain that the wayward years of my life have not been wasted but I cannot quite believe it. Will the Lord really restore those years it seems were eaten by locusts? Looking back, I think I must just have been too lazy or self-centered to do the good that I might have done. I’m less worried about some of the really stupid things I did as a teenager, actually, and far more worried about the time and talent (such as I have) I fear I have squandered along the way. The locusts that ate my years were misdirection, or fear, or something like that–a failure to extend myself.

The funny thing is that I have long known that I had this kind of relationship with the past. It has always been coupled with a dreamy optimism about possibilities for the future. So, in my high-school scrapbook, I pencilled in, ‘Yesterday is already a dream, and tomorrow only a vision; but today, lived well, can make every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.’ I know…but it spoke to the 17-year-old me, and the somewhat (!!) older me still understands why it did. Living in the present is so hard. It’s hard because I wonder what might have happened if I had done better, worked harder, been more patient and less foolish. And so I think about that future time, when I will always do my very best, be more diligent and patient and wise…and live happily ever after, of course.

I knew at 17 that I would be like this. If I had something to say to my 17-year-old self, I would say ‘thank you.’ Thank you for memorizing that sentence. For long years it has worked in my heart, and although I still struggle to live today well, at least I know what I am trying to do. So worry less and laugh more: you will achieve what you set out to do (I have, oddly), and find that the happy ending is still a long, long way off.

The reading from Joel was a reading specially chosen, I think, for the harvest Mass at school, and it was coupled with the gospel reading which concludes with Jesus saying, ‘Let the day’s own trouble be enough for the day.’ Set together, the two readings exhort us not to worry about the future or the past, but to attend to the day at hand. This is so much harder than I realized at 17! Because as the years go by, the past mounts up unchangeably behind us. Mixed in with our milestones are missed chances; achievements mingled with regrets. And the temptation is always there to project into the future: I will do this, not that, and all will be well.

All will be well, but not because we have made it so. All will be well because the One who made it will make it so. Our power, such as it is, is limited: we cannot alter the past or predict the future. What we have in our hands is just one day. Let us live it as well as we can.

Deo gratias.

St Therese of the Child Jesus

I can’t say I have ever been a fan of St Therese of Lisieux. Not, that is, until today. I tend to resist the sort of sweetness for which St Therese is known, being suspicious, like so many cynical people, of anyone who seems ‘too nice.’ Jesus, after all, wasn’t ‘too nice.’

That’s the grown-up Jesus, though. What about the child Jesus? St Therese, after all, is St Therese of the Child Jesus. Staying behind in Jerusalem strikes me as a not-nice thing to do–as the parent of an almost-12-year-old boy, I can’t help but think it was a bit vexing for Mary and Joseph. Not having been a great fan of St Therese, I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that it wasn’t the 12-year-old Jesus that she had in mind.sta_thumbSt Francis de Sales, in a series of letters published as Letters to a Wife and Mother, advises his cousin in her endeavor to life a holy and spiritual life in her ordinary, daily tasks. She gets discouraged; St Francis suggests that she go about her work imagining that she does everything as Our Lady might have done: holding the small hand of Jesus. St Francis offers to his cousin the presence of the Lord as a child. And there is something at once gentle and unyielding about that presence. The set of letters is well worth reading, especially if you happen to be a wife and mother. Even if not, St Francis gives advice so kindly that anyone would benefit from it.

It is the sort of advice that fits very well with what I know of St Therese: in the small things, the everyday tasks, there are opportunities for grace, for love, for living in the presence of the Lord Jesus. Tenderness is not the way of our world, but it is required in the proper care for small children. And anyone who spends any time caring for small children will tell you that tenderness can be difficult to muster. Attending to the presence of the child Jesus is not a way out of the hard work of the spiritual life, but is a deepening of it. Not only is the Lord present to us as teacher and savior, but as child–not to be ignored or forgotten, or left in a corner, but taken by the hand and kept by our side.

We have always been taught by the Lord in his vulnerability on the cross. Perhaps it is time for us to allow us to teach him through his vulnerability in those precious years between the presentation and the finding in the temple.

St Therese, pray for us.

Saturday of the second week in Eastertide

Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea, and after getting into a boat, they started to cross the sea to Capernaum. It had already become dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea began to be stirred up because a strong wind was blowing. Then, when they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat; and they were frightened. But He said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” So they were willing to receive Him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. (John 6:16-21 NASB)

                                                         * * *

We are so used to Jesus walking on the water; it’s just one of those things that Jesus does. The disciples, though, must have been terrified. If I were out at sea, at night, in a strong wind, and I saw someone walking across the water–well, my first thought would be that I only thought I saw someone. People don’t walk on water.  
Reading this passage this morning, I am struck by the implausibility of the event. No, not that I don’t believe what it says; rather, I can well understand the disciples’ fright. Not only that, but I think I would probably have ignored Jesus, telling myself that the figure walking towards the boat was just my imagination. And what I would miss! A miracle would pass me by unnoticed.

That makes me wonder how many miracles do pass me by these days. For God shows up implausibly, speaks almost imperceptibly, and works in unexpected places in not-the-usual way. I came across an email yesterday–an invitation to write, actually, dispelling a myth about Catholicism in 100 words, which is a pretty tall order. I hadn’t read it carefully at the time. Now I wonder whether I missed something. Am I paying attention? Am I open to the possibility that God might be up to something new? Too often, I think, I look for God in the obvious places and forget that God is everywhere, always doing a new thing. 

I suppose there is a very good reason that the invitatory psalm (said at the beginning of the first office of the day) reminds us, ‘if today, you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.’ Not that we intend to ignore God; it just happens in the course of our daily life. God doesn’t hit us over the head or wave a big yellow flag. We have to pay attention. Fortunately, even our attention to God is a gift of the Holy Spirit. If we want to hear God’s voice, all we have to do is ask. 

Deo gratias.