Standing still

I should be writing about tenderness. (Apologies @NDLiturgyCenter…) Or I should be washing Anna’s hair. But I’m not. I’m here.
 
And that’s precisely the point. I am here. I know that this shouldn’t come as a shock, but it occurred to me (finally) today that God doesn’t call us to a vocation and then put us in a place where we cannot practice it. At no time since I started down the road of academic theology have I seen that vocation change. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many times I thought I was doing such a horrible job of my mothering and my academic work that I ought to give up the latter–not being able to relinquish the former, of course, or at least not as easily. Each time, however, something happened to confirm again that I was called to keep doing what I am doing. So I have carried on.
 
But it proceeds so agonizingly slowly. So slowly, in fact, that I feel like I am standing still. We had a great time having Wesley Hill with us this weekend–great conversations and an interesting conference as well. As I listened to Wes and Lewis talk this morning–about books and people in their respective fields–well, I listened. Didn’t have much to add, except the “Who is that?” and “So, what, exactly, is the argument of that book?” I read. But I don’t keep up. Not by a long shot.
 
The academic discourses to which I once thought I would contribute have moved on, and it seems like many of the people who are moving them forward are younger than I, with more recent PhDs. Usually when I observe this, it makes me yearn for the day when the kids will all be in school, when I can ‘catch up’, and focus on the academic game. Madness lies that way: I am not going to catch up. I read slowly and write slowly, and that isn’t going to change. And thinking about catching up both stresses me out about a future totally unknown to me and robs me of all the joy of today, of right now.
However it may appear, I am not standing still. Maybe the movement is as yet imperceptible (the Spirit of God brooding over the surface of the water…) but the thing about that calling to be a theologian is that it isn’t just something I will get to do when the kids are grown up a little. It is something I am doing now. I am just not doing it very quickly, or very publicly. My theological conversations happen in the personal realm, not the professional, and I am more likely to be away on retreat than at a conference.
 
I want to make sense of this. I want to know what this is for. Why have I come down this road? But I can’t. I can only pursue my calling right here, between the hair washing and the laundry folding, and in the hair washing and the laundry folding. I don’t know why I’ve gone this way. But I do know that where I am, God is, and I am not going to find peace by looking elsewhere.
 
Deo gratias.
 

Some Sundays

Every once in a while, the children do wonderful things at Mass. Sometimes, of course, they do the sorts of things that make me want to tear my hair out, or–more likely–to alternate with my husband, so I can go without the children. But no. That’s not really the way forward, is it? So I remind and bribe and plead…and sometimes they are miraculously good, and amazing things happen.
 
Today it was Lucy’s turn to remind me of the truth. Not that she was especially well-behaved: she decided at one point that the reason everyone was standing was so that she could run noisily up and down the pew behind us… We (the four of us over the age of 8) had received communion and returned to our seats. Communion wasn’t over yet; people were still receiving. Lucy got a little wriggly and talkative, forgetting the ‘whispering voice’ we like to use at church. So I talked to her a bit (using my best whispering voice) about what was happening, trying to explain why she should be quiet just then. In the course of our conversation, I asked her what it was that the priest was giving to people. ‘Peace,’ she said. Of course: ‘He is our peace.’
Good thing I wasn’t there on my own. See what theological insight I would have missed?

old news

Packing up the house means I need every bit of old newspaper–or, in this case, the weekend magazines from the various papers we’ve had over the years. Usually there’s a recipe or two we wanted (my caponata recipe, for example), and the magazines ended up in a heap in the kitchen. Until last week, that is–when I started packing china and glasses, and ran out of actual newspaper.

I’ve read some interesting stuff–restaurant reviews; why cheap Barolo is not worth buying; the ‘invention’ of slow medicine in San Francisco by a doctor who was doing a PhD on Hildegard of Bingen. But today I discovered a story I’d missed in February 2010, about how a very small girl was failed horribly by her mother, extended family, neighbours, and the entire social service network. She starved to death at the age of three, in conditions unspeakable, in an English town. Her mother is now serving a 12-year sentence for manslaughter, her step-father fiive years for neglect and cruelty–or something like that.

What are people supposed to do with a story like that? I crumpled up the first page of the article, walked into the kitchen (away from my own children) and burst into tears. Thomas followed me, oblivious, saying something about Cristiano Ronaldo. I let him keep talking while I recovered myself a bit–he would have been in an even worse state had I revealed what it was that had upset me. I recovered myself, though, threw the crumpled-up paper in the bin, and carried on packing. But I will be haunted by that story now, and to no particularly good purpose. What can I do? I pray for the repose of the soul of that little girl.

Doesn’t make me any less sad. How do these things happen? I look at my own little girl, who is three. I pray for children around the world who don’t have what children need–especially attentive and patient love. The suffering of children breaks my heart. Every single time I hear a new story of neglect, every time I remember an old one. It makes me want to take God by the shoulders and give him a good shake. Are you paying attention to this? I want to ask.

Then I remember where God lives in the world now, and I realise that God is paying attention. Wherever I am paying attention, God is there. When I remember little Tiffany and all the other children who suffer in this so-often-cruel world, God is there. My heart doesn’t break on its own, it breaks together with the long-suffering heart of God, whose tender compassion and mercy flood my own soul (on a good day).

That doesn’t answer my most pressing question, though: why didn’t God do anything? Why didn’t someone there, at the time, DO something–that’s how God tends to work in the world. Wasn’t anyone listening? All the theology I read, from the Bible to yesterday’s blog post, helps me not one bit with that question. I know all the ‘answers’, and none satisfies.

And maybe that’s right. Maybe my heart is meant to stay broken open until the redemption of the world. That’s what yesterday (the Sacred Heart of Jesus) and today (the Immaculate Heart of Mary) are about: living God’s love in the world is a joyful occupation, but it means living gratefully and joyfully with a heart that is perpetually broken.

I think I am going to go hug my three-year-old now.

 

my feminist paradox

I have to acknowledge my debt to feminism. Teaching theology would never have been an option for me before feminism. Feminist pioneers not only in theology but in social and critical theory broke the ground and laid the foundations of the ‘building’ in which I now pursue my academic work. I am grateful for that; I love what I do. I also appreciate the hard choices that lots of said pioneers made in their own lives so that I would not have to choose between being a professional and being a mother. 

So I didn’t ‘choose’. I try to do both. With countless other women, I feel like a near-failure most days and a total failure every other Wednesday (or something like that). The thing is, I look around me and see that the women whose careers I most envy are those who pursued them in the most traditional way–without the interruptions that forced me to abandon this post last week. I returned to it this morning, though, because I heard an interview with a successful woman who works in the City. Her observation about women’s success in her line of work? The highest achievers are those who ‘work like men’: unencumbered by the school run or the child off sick from school. She is free to stay late, to dash off to a foreign city at a moment’s notice, because her husband is covering the childcare. 

Don’t mistake the wistfulness for a negative judgement. Dividing up the domestic responsibilities is a delicate undertaking, and reversing the ‘traditional’ gender roles is certainly one option. Around here, though, it’s much more messy: daily conversations about who is doing the morning or the afternoon school run and what’s for dinner are the norm. And I certainly can’t complain about my lot. I have an incredibly supportive husband who has always done more than his fair share, considering that he (like the woman on the radio this morning) is the ‘primary breadwinner’. 

What worries me about the various arrangements we devise, whether we’re in paid employment or working our tails off at home, is that very often we regard the ‘stay home with the children’ option as a ‘sacrifice.’ We could have been at the top of our game in some line of work, but we chose to give it all up for the sake of the children–as if raising children doesn’t require us to be at the top of our game. We sacrifice ‘doing something’ or ‘being someone’ in the world for the obscurity of the domestic realm. (I’m trying hard not to rant, here, and may not be succeeding; sorry.) I worry about three things in particular. First, I worry that we’ve forgotten that being devoted full-time to one’s children is a privilege. Not every mother has that choice. Second, I worry–and this is the thing that drives me to distraction–about the value judgement implicit in the language of sacrifice. 

But–in the third place–I worry about how the feminist achievements of my forebears have shaped our imagination. Subtly (and sometimes not so subtly), we are being taught that women ‘can’ in a way that is all too easily converted into women ‘should‘. And that, I think, is just as insidious as the old way of thinking–women ‘can’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’. The status of motherhood seems not to have changed. It’s just that some of us are allowed (encouraged?) to moonlight as mothers while keeping our day jobs. The more important stuff still happens in the ‘world’, not in the home.

Nonsense. That’s just nonsense. Raising human beings from infancy to adulthood is of ultimate significance. Now I am not saying that ‘therefore, mothers should all stay at home.’ I don’t. I try, and usually fail, to do both. Some women don’t have a choice, and some choose careers that take them away from home a lot. I am not saying that’s bad; my 7-year-old proudly proclaimed to a friend on the playground once, ‘my mummy’s a professor!’ (Only a lecturer, really, but who am I to correct my enthusiastic son?) What I am saying is that we really ought to remember the ultimate significance of what happens in all those moments we do have with our children, as we accompany and guide them on the most important journey of their lives: growing up. 

I remember when I was in college the requirement that ‘attractive alternative beverages’ be served whenever alcoholic beverages were being offered–so it never became a choice between a tasty alcoholic drink and some cloudy tap water. Sometimes it seems as if the potential for success in the workplace looks like a beautifully-executed mojito or an exquisite pint of beer, against which the potential for nose-wiping and car-pooling appears as a glass of lukewarm tap water in a plastic cup. That’s the shaping of imagination I want to resist. I want to remember–and it’s so easy to forget–that both paid employment and home-and-family keeping provide opportunies to work extremely hard and not always be recognised for it (really!), opportunities for exhilarating moments, and the potential for self-realisation. I want to see motherhood as the old-vine zinfandel next to the Oregon pinot noir of paid employment. 

Remember that billboard advert (for cigarettes, I think): ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’? Well, I (at least) still have a long, long way to go. 

support from the saints

I was very glad to read a post about parenting that draws on St John Chrysostom and St John Bosch–and recommend it in the very highest terms to all parents, actually. Not only can Christians (especially Catholics, perhaps) learn from the wisdom of the saints, but the advice is practical and makes good sense. Reward good behaviour; it’s more effective. Remember that a ‘reproachful look’ communicates censure as well as a blow–if not better. And never resort to ‘the birch’ out of anger; that’s not disciplining the child but giving way to temper.

Excellent stuff. And it helps me especially, because I have long been slightly uneasy with St Benedict’s advice: ‘If a brother has been reproved frequently for any fault…yet does not amend…let him feel the strokes of the rod’ (RB 28). What? Finding that recommendation took me by surprise, and I have wrestled with it as a parent who looks to St Benedict as a guide in prayer, Christian practice, and parenting. The qualities of the abbot and the cellarer seem desirable for parents as well. But this counsel–not so much.

The counter-argument from St John Bosco is most welcome: ‘force, indeed, punishes the guilt, but it does not heal the guilty.’ Good parenting advice from those whose ‘parenting’ was spiritual rather than biological.

Deo gratias.

An examination of conscience for Anti-bullying week

Pope Francis encourages us to confession today:

Confessing our sins may be difficult for us, but it brings us peace. We are sinners, and we need God’s forgiveness.

And Sr Catherine (at iBenedictines) offers us some guidance in examining our consciences, reminding us that “We are quick to talk about being bullied, being victims of another’s rage or hatred; we are much slower to acknowledge the ways in which we try to force others to do our bidding.” (Click here for the full blog post.)

I think this is particularly apropos for me as a parent. What do I do when my children don’t do what I ask? Do I resort to bullying tactics (however non-violent)? Of course I sometimes lose my temper–which itself can certainly be bully-ish. But are there other ways I could do better as a parent in leading and teaching my children how to wield authority and keep frustration in check? I bet there are.

This week, I’ll follow Sr Catherine’s advice, and on Saturday week, Pope Francis’ counsel. I know on the Saturday before Advent begins, I will have something to say in the confessional. For certain.

Kyrie eleison.

trying too hard

That is, I find myself trying too hard at the wrong things, sometimes, and not hard enough at the right things. My noviciate in the blogosphere has taught me that I am most emphatically not alone. If I am unique (yes, I know, we all are), it is because I am a unique combination of shared experiences, concerns, ideas, gifts, and needs, each of which I have in common with countless others. This is a Good Thing, though it doesn’t always seem so; and the response to feeling ‘ordinary’ is not always a healthy one.

What worries me about my adventure in this sphere is that it sometimes seems to be about being noticed. So I have been thinking a lot about popularity, and the pitfalls of popularity. I was encouraged and challenged this morning by wise reflections on the Rule of Benedict from Sr Catherine (@Digitalnun): the gifts we have been given must be exercised in humility and love in order to make us, as she says, ‘great’. But even this greatness doesn’t make for popularity. Sometimes gifts are exercised wonderfully well in small places. Sr Catherine drew from Chapter 31 of Benedict’s rule: the instructions to the cellarer, which I have always found inspiring as a parent.

One of my take-away phrases, which I have on the fridge, is ‘fratres non contristet’: do not upset the brethren. (It just looks better in Latin on the fridge.) St Benedict is explaining how to respond to an unreasonable request. Not harshly, he says, but gently. If the request is outrageous, the response should not be so, lest the brother or sister be upset by the refusal. Now this, I submit, is a key element of parenting: seventeen outrageous requests before breakfast, right? At least that’s how it is around here sometimes. The gifts of the cellarer, and those of the parent, are gifts exercised in small spaces, in the house or the car; sometimes in the grocery store or at the park or the library. Parental greatness is a huge, and hugely important quality, but it doesn’t often get recognised beyond the confines of the family. Greatness of this sort doesn’t always get you noticed.

I am not a great parent. I do not always succeed in responding calmly and gently to the most outrageous requests. Sometimes I do ‘great’ things: I find everyone’s PE kit, even the missing shoe, and the ‘lost’ reading book, and all this before the dreaded leaving-for-school time. To do that cheerfully is to exercise the very simple gift of attentiveness in the way I ought to. Although my sons and husband happily repeat after me, ‘mum is awesome’, I’m not winning any medals, not acquiring more followers on twitter, or on this blog. No speaking requests are coming my way because I sent my daughter off to school with everything she needed, and did it with a smile.

It is too easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking that the measure of my success, my ‘greatness’, is somewhere in cyberspace, or on my CV, or in teaching evaluations. And truly there is something to that (especially that last thing, I think): I have gifts to exercise in teaching and writing, and I ought to do what it takes to do well at my job. But if I want somewhere to practice exercising my gifts with humility, in love, I am better off digging in the cupboard for the missing shoe: no pretensions to grandeur there! When I have tried hard enough at the small things, perhaps I will be less prone to try too hard at the ‘big’ ones.

What my three-year-old taught me about the body’s grace

You know that essay, the famous one by Rowan Williams, 'The Body's Grace.' He wrote it in 1989 and it was first delivered as the 10th Michael Harding memorial address. Then it appeared as a pamphlet, and was reproduced in volumes of essays edited by Charles Hefling and Eugene Rogers. I distinctly remember where I was the first time I read it: in my carrel in the basement of the theology library at Duke. “…that God desires us as God desires God…” Really?
 
At the time, I could not conceive of it. Of course it was appealing, mind-boggling, and changed the way I thought about sex and sexual relationships. When I married Lewis three years later, the light had begun to dawn. Although I had written off the idea of falling in love, and having that be a real thing, not just infatuation, or something that happens in movies (they say 'happily ever after,' but you don't get to see what that looks like), I had to admit that there might be something to it. (I said as much at our wedding reception.)
 
But I still had no idea, really, about this grace. Still, and I think this is the case in Rowan's amazing essay, it was about the sexual meaning of the body. The enjoyment and desire remained in a sexual register. Yet what I learned as I had children was that there is something else–not to say more–that is graced, and grace-filled, about the body. I remember saying to a friend when my first-born was still very small that it was very sensual but not at all sexual.
 
This is hardly surprising, and is probably the testimony of mothers from the beginning of time. I love having children, and I am especially fond of babies. When my son, who is now seven, was three, though, I learned a more significant lesson. One morning I was dressing, and he came into the bedroom. His eyes lit up when he saw me. Now I wasn't keen on what I looked like without too many clothes on, but he was obviously delighted with me. To be close and to touch my skin was a great pleasure for him. It was as if he appreciated the skin, the body, of this person whose body had borne him and fed him (until he was two-and-a-half!), not because of its objective beauty or potential for giving “joy”, as Williams says. No, the skin and the body were desirable because they were mine.
 
I had always had trouble with “God desiring us” because the context in which it was set was so sexual. Sure, sex is good, but it isn't everything. Something about the way my son responded to me (and not just on that one occasion, but for many months) broadened my understanding of the body's grace. Desire comes in lots of forms, and intimacy has many dimensions. I always knew that, sort of, but it has become much more real for me as I have been a mother. My son has a little sister, who, at two-and-a-half, is very much the same way–she likes to curl up next to me on the sofa (or anywhere, really) with her head resting on my bare stomach. If she's in the room with me when I am dressing, it always takes longer. There is a deep mutual affection and intimacy that characterises my relationship with my children, and it is not remotely sexual but equally profound. And I find it much more powerful, actually, to think that God desires us, fragile and fallen human beings, as I desire my children, and–even more–as my children desire me. Their pleasure and uncritical joy in my body has taught me more about the body's grace than anything else I have ever encountered.
 
I was reminded of all this by a video I saw–what our kids see when they see us. As a mother, I felt the same way as those interviewed: I wish I were more patient, attentive and calm. But what the kids said (really, the video is worth watching) brought back to me this truth about the body's grace. And it put into words what my children have said with their gestures and expressions and touch.
 
Is that the way it is with God? Is that what mercy means? Is it my children's uncritical joy that erupts in heaven over the repentant sinner?
 
I sure hope so.
 

with angels and archangels

We never had a plan for taking the children to Mass, beyond taking them to Mass. I've read the strategies of really organized parents, in awe of their attention to detail and advance preparation. I am not that organized, and I take full responsibility for that. If walking around outside with the toddler is what it takes, then that's what we do. And we have had some pretty unpleasant moments with the children during Mass.
 
I remember going to church with my mom when I was a child. We always sat in the front row (effective, I think–at least there you're bound to notice something, as my kids sometimes do). She gave me lifesavers, tropical fruit flavor, which were really quite effective. (Banana and coconut were my favorite.) My kids don't particularly like sweets (which is otherwise great), so that's not really an option for me.
 
As they get older, the still-and-quiet routine gets easier. Getting them really to attend to what's happening, though–that's another story. One Sunday recently Iain (just before he turned 7) dug my iPhone out of my bag and started playing can knockdown during the liturgy of the Eucharist. However displeased I was, I wasn't willing to incite loud and angry protest in the front row. So he might have looked like he was kneeling piously….but no.
 
That's not to say I don't have certain hard-and-fast rules. Everyone stands and says the Our Father. And that makes me happy. (Honestly, it does.) I am always trying to strike a balance: on the one hand, I want the children to begin to grasp the significance of what's happening; on the other hand, I don't want to make the experience of going to Mass into an hour-long prison sentence every Sunday. And I find myself holding in tension the need to express my own spirituality by engaging with the Mass, and the need to attend to the children, who are engaging on a very different level.
 
Sometimes I fail. (Shocking, I know.) But those moment are the moments when I am most grateful for the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Last Sunday, between policing Iain on the iPhone and discouraging Anna from trying to engage the kids behind us in conversation, I completely lost track of where we were…until suddenly my attention was grabbed again, just in time to join in the Sanctus: '…with angels and archangels…'
 
Joining in. That's what it is about. It is about taking part in the ongoing praise of God that happens in eternity, for eternity. Not about perfectly behaved children, or about the quality of my singing (I'm terrible). I think some weeks I depend completely on the angels and archangels to glorify God, as I am working to keep my children from storming the sanctuary. 'Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church…' indeed: the faith of the Church, like the liturgy, does not depend on me. It is. However focused or distracted I am, the worship happens, the Mass happens. Knowing that is incredibly humbling as it is freeing.
 
In his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII wrote:
Jesus Christ burned with zeal for the divine glory; and the offering of His blood upon the cross rose to heaven in an odor of sweetness. To perpetuate this praise, the members of the Mystical Body are united with their divine Head in the Eucharistic sacrifice, and with Him, together with Angels and Archangels, they sing immortal praise to God and give all honor and glory to the Father Almighty (71).
 
'Zeal for the divine glory' seems pretty far from many of my Sunday experiences. If I am burning with anything, it is probably way less holy than that. But I know that's what it is about: participating in the self-offering of the Son to the Father, in the Holy Spirit. All we do is respond to the love of God as it comes to us through Jesus. And even our response is helped by the Spirit (my attention just happened to be drawn back to the liturgy at the Sanctus…).
 
Deo gratias.
 

On not attending the conference

 I missed a good paper yesterday: “The Word Answering the Word: Opening the Space of Biblical Interpretation” at the Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference. Fortunately I have a copy of the paper to hand, and have read it sitting in bed to the sound of Lucy’s breathing as she sleeps next to me. No small talk, no feeling inadequate because I haven’t read that book, or that one either…or published a raft of peer-reviewed articles. This is the best–the very best–of both my little worlds. And I will even get a chance at some Q & A with the author of said paper: Lucy’s daddy.
My first question: “Don’t I remember you talking about Joseph Ratzinger’s concept of tradition in our kitchen in Atlanta?” Really. That’s my opening question, partly because I found the paper thought-provoking and not suspicion-arousing. But, more importantly, I will ask that question (probably in the kitchen) because it tells me something really important about scholarship. I think sometimes that my husband devours books and churns out essays. That’s true, but the essay-churning–if I am right about the conversation at least four years ago in our kitchen in Atlanta–lags significantly behind the book-devouring. Percolating happens.
That’s hopeful. Really hopeful. I don’t devour books, I glide over them like a glacier. And I only churn out to-do lists these days…and Christmas cards, when the time comes. Essays? Not so much. I think about things; I dream of papers I’d like to publish, books I’d like to write. Sometimes I make lists of those, too… But I find all the small spaces in which Lewis seems to get so much done completely occupied. My interstitial spaces, those odd moments in which I might read a few pages or jot down notes, are the spaces in which school uniform is ordered, birthday parties are planned, online Christmas shopping begins, a chore chart is devised, school supplies are organized, and Lucy’s clothes are sorted–she’s grown out of that and that and that…what does she need now? I store information about shoe sizes and coat sizes, teachers’ names and school holidays, doctor appointments and childcare arrangements. Neither in my head nor in my weekly schedule do I find time to divert to scholarship. I know, because I tried for several weeks to take an idea and make it into an essay, using those in-between times. The number of balls I would have had to drop was completely unacceptable.
That’s neither a complaint nor an excuse. It just is. So the idea that percolating is a part of the process for everyone does give me hope. Because one day I won’t have to choose between reading the paper next to my sleeping toddler, or going to the conference to hear it. I will have more time to read slowly and write slightly less slowly. But I won’t get to choose between my 2-year-old (and my 11-year-old, my 9-year-old, and my 6-year-old, for that matter) and some conference or other. Conferences will come again, year after year. But that little sigh I just heard will not be the same the next time the Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference comes around.
All the same, I am glad I had a chance to read the paper. It really is quite good.