‘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.

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being human, part 2: on suicide

Humans are indeed created in the image of God. In us, God has planted the desire for eternity, and for true happiness–in other words, for God. The difficulty is that sin misdirects our desire and fools us into thinking that other things will satisfy us. Most of the stuff we see around us every day reinforces this false belief. Things cannot make us happy, no matter what the advertisements say.

We are also deceived in our self-image. That is, we are mistaken about who we are and what makes us good. The good that we are, and the good that we do comes from the Good itself: God. God created us in his image so that we might reflect it to one another and respect it in one another. This means, however, that we belong not only to ourselves, but to God and to our neighbors. So we are not meant to take our own lives in the same way that we are not meant to take the lives of others: they do not belong to us, to do with what we will.

But there is more. Choosing to live for the sake of bearing God’s image, when I am not sure I bear it clearly enough for anyone to make it out…is just not appealing. That’s when I think I ought to carry on because of the stuff that I do. If I am not around for my kids, for example, who will be? On a better day, I might even think about the theological work that I do. I should stick around; I might eventually do some good, when the dark fog lifts.

Wrong–for two reasons. First, the lifting of the dark fog is only ever temporary. Depression is a little bit like the weather. The sun may shine, but the rain is bound to return eventually. Second, and way more importantly, the good I might do, whether for my kids or for the world, is not what makes me significant. I tend to think that the meaning of my life is somehow bound up with what I can accomplish. (Nothing against accomplishments, here! They’re good.) It’s not true. God hasn’t put us in the world to do stuff, as if there were stuff he couldn’t get done on his own. The essential feature of human life is its relationship to God: to be loved by God, and to learn to love in return. That’s it.

Suicide might seem like the solution to the weary, grey, and lifeless burden of depression. After all, even if it does go away, the fog will return. Whatever happens after suicide, I’m guessing depression (as it’s related to  our way of being in the world in this life) isn’t going to be part of it. It’s hard to endure depression because it hurts, it slows me down, it makes me feel as if nothing I have done or will do justifies my existence on this planet. But what if my existence on this planet is already justified by God? What if I don’t have to do anything? What if God is like that teacher in Florida who compliments his students every day–if only I would come forward and listen?

Here’s what I have learned: self-respect is much, much more difficult than self-hatred. Hating yourself is easy: the whole world displays for us what we ought to be and do. And we fail. (At least I do–maybe some folks don’t.) So the natural response is to think, ‘I really ought to try harder. I could do better, couldn’t I?’ Then, when trying harder doesn’t do it, and I’m exhausted from the effort, I think, ‘Well, maybe I am just not good enough.’ Enter self-loathing. Self-respect, on the other hand, has to refuse the comparison. Self-respect has to be satisfied with what is truly my best effort and not reject it because it doesn’t produce the hoped-for results.

Maybe it’s good news, then, that self-hatred is sin. Not because now we can condemn it in one another–heavens, no! It’s good news because seeing this self-hating orientation as misdirection, as a turning away from God as well as an attack on self (an inward turning!), puts it in the light of grace. That doesn’t make it go away, but it does make fighting it part of the good fight of faith.

Deo gratias.

 

 

Monday of the second week in Lent

But yours, O Lord, are compassion and forgiveness.
Deuteronomy 9
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Stop judging, and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning, and you will not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you,
a good measure, packed together, shaken down,
and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.
Luke 6
Abba Hyperichus said, ‘It is better to eat meat and drink wine and not to eat the flesh of one’s brothers through slander.’
    .          .         .  
All the Lenten discipline in the world is nothing if by it we do not become more merciful, forgiving and compassionate. Our penitential practices have an aim: imitatio Christi. By the fasting and almsgiving, devotion to prayer, and the like, we do not merely satisfy a requirement of Christian faith. It isn’t about what we give up, but who we become in the process. To be more like Christ is the object of all we do during Lent; we model our own lives after the life of the one who, dying, said, ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.’ We open ourselves to receive the Holy Spirit, who was given to the disciples (according to John’s gospel) by the breath of the risen Lord. What power comes from the Spirit? Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.”
            So very important—forgiveness is so important that it is the one thing Jesus speaks about when he breathes the Holy Spirit onto his disciples. It is so important that we commit oursevles to it every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, however unthinkingly: ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ We imitate Christ by forgiving, and plead for the Father’s forgiveness. I like to think of God’s forgiveness as always preceeding, and I believe that in a very real sense it always is. But the Lord’s prayer reminds us that receiving God’s mercy does not leave us unchanged. By becoming forgivers, we become part of the answer to our prayer, ‘thy kingdom come’. For he is the Forgiving King who reigns in love and compassion, who is love and compassion, and who lives in us. Lenten discipline is about breaking the chains that bind us to anger and resentment, that limit the flow of forgiveness from the Lord through us to those He came to save.

Our Father…

Saturday of the first week in Lent

And the Lord has today declared you to be his people, a treasured possession, as he promised you, and you should keep all his commandments.
                                                                           Deuteronomy 26: 18
But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, in order that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…
Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
                                                                            Matthew 5
Abba Poemen said, “A monk does not complain of his lot, a monk does not return evil for evil, a monk is not angry.”
*        *        *
The Jerusalem Bible refers to Israel, at the making of the covenant, as a people “peculiarly” God’s own. Such ambiguity in the options for translation is astounding: “treasured possession” or “peculiarly [God’s own]”?
I think each possible rendering offers us some insight into the relationship between God and God’s people. The idea of a treasured possession points to God’s unfailing love for God’s people. As the reading from yesterday so clearly testified, God’s extravagant forgiveness meets each of us on the road home from the far country. As the people grafted not Abraham’s family tree, we are God’s “treasured possession.” the idea of a people “peculiarly [God’s] own” points to the identity of the people of God in the world. Israel follows a different set of customs and obeys different laws from those of the Gentiles. So also, Jesus suggests, Christians operate differently in the world. Doing good to those who do good to you is the norm; doing good to those who do you harm or seek to do you harm runs counter to all expectation. But being God’s peculiar people involves practices of humility and love that mirror God rather than copying the world.

To be perfect is to love as God loves, to allow God’s way of seeing “enemies” and God’s way of responding to evil to become our own.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

‘Choose life…’
                    Deuteronomy 30

.           .          .

The readings for Thursday after Ash Wednesday are quite a set. (You can find today’s readings at Universalis.) I intended to focus my reflections on the psalm for the day, but these three passages of Scripture are so fascinating I can’t help but take them together. Today’s psalm (Psalm 1) is sandwiched between a reading from Deuteronomy that centres on the injunction, ‘Choose life’, and the gospel passage in which Jesus says that whoever seeks to save her life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for the sake of Jesus and his gospel will save it.

This business of choosing life must be more complicated than I thought. I remember when I first read this passage from Deuteronomy, when I was maybe 20. I was amused–who needs to be told to choose life? Well. I think that perhaps choosing life is less obvious, and sometimes (often?) less pleasant than it might appear. ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me’ hardly sounds like the same instruction as ‘choose life’. Yet that is precisely it, isn’t it? To choose life is to follow Jesus, whose own path involved entering willingly into suffering and death for our sake.

Psalm 1 makes it–choosing life–seem so attractive: to be like a tree planted beside flowing waters  sounds delightful. Who wants to hang out with sinners or scoffers, anyway?  Especially not when the alternative is presented in such beautiful imagery. I find it very easy to forget that scoffing or expressing disdain is not so far from ordinary, garden-variety sarcasm–all it takes is the right object. It is a pretty short step from there to ‘sinner’.

Lent is about taking up the cross; it is about choosing life. It is about taking the path that leads to the well-watered garden, a path that runs right through the valley of the shadow of death. It is a time to find Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, and to follow him as he chooses life–our life–and gains it for us. Forgoing chocolate seems like a pretty paltry penance compared to our Lord’s passion. But as we follow in his footsteps, it is never about us and what we do: it is always about the imitatio Christi. Our imitation is always and only ever a pale reflection; it is a faint glow that comes not from our will to shine, but from our unwavering focus on the Light.

St Vincent de Paul

O send out your light and your truth,
    let them lead me;
Let them bring me to your holy hill,
And to your dwelling places.
                                              Psalm 42 [43]: 3

This is one of a set of two psalms, which, with their refrain (“Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance and my God” [NASB]) ,were the core of my spiritual life for a large part of my twenties. Despair often settled on me, and I found myself asking “Why are you downcast, O my soul, and why so disquieted within me?” along with the psalmist. “Disquieted” seemed like the perfect adjective to describe my soul a lot of the time. I was grateful for the psalmist’s response to his own soul, and repeated it to mine: “Hope in God…” Honestly, this psalm and a handful of others kept me going when things seemed bleak.

During those years, I was too unsettled to see the direction of the psalm, beyond my soul’s hope, to the hope of the whole world. The psalmist cries out, “O send out your light and your truth, let them lead me,” and so he has. His Light and his Truth came to dwell among us in Jesus. And that holy hill, where God dwells, is also the mount of crucifixion. God is there, too, even as God was there–closer to me than my own soul–during the darkest and most difficult times. It was not for nothing that I encouraged my soul to “hope in God.”

Twenty years ago, I was helped by the psalms; now I am also helped by the saints, those who have followed God’s Light and Truth before me. Today we remember St Vincent de Paul, who devoted his life to helping the poor, and reminds us that “the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the poor with salvation,”and that God’s Light and Truth became poor for our sake, that again we might praise him.

Deo gratias.

Wednesday in ordinary time

I give him thanks in the land of my captivity, 
     and I show his power and majesty to a nation of sinners.
                                                                           Tobit 13: 6

.          .         . 
There is a video that has been making its way around the internet: “Scientists discover one of the greatest contributing factors to happiness.” I was curious about the thing that increases happiness (despite the slightly awkwardly-placed modifier)–who wouldn’t want to find out what she could do to be happier? Laughter, I thought, maybe.
I was surprised to find that (in case you haven’t seen the video) what increases happiness (between 4 and 19%, according to the guy in the lab coat) is expressing gratitude. Immediately, I thought of a verse from one of my favorite psalms:
I know all the birds of the air,
    and all that moves in the field is mine.
 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you;

    for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,

    or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
   and pay your vows to the Most High;
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
   I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
                                               Psalm 49 [50]: 11-15

So the ‘science’ reminded me of something I already knew: giving thanks is a balm for the heart. And Tobit seems to have known it, too. He doesn’t say, “I give thanks because God has rescued me from captivity”; he gives thanks in the land of captivity. Some days I get stuck between the joys and duties of motherhood and the joys and duties of my life as a (sort of) academic theologian. I love what I do in both roles. I am living two dreams, really, doing what I always wanted to do. So on those days when the tension between motherhood and career seems like captivity, I know what to do: give thanks. 

Deo gratias, Deo gratias.