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.

 

 

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Just this

This has been a blurry season. You know, the space of weeks or months when mostly you’re chasing things–a never-ending to-do list, a house that seems to generate mess even when nobody is in it, and the work projects that crawl along at a snail’s pace when you needed to finish them yesterday. And you look back and wonder what happened to that space of time, and can’t see any of it clearly. That’s the blurry season. I hate it, because time is so precious and so fleeting. I feel I ought to seize it and make use of it, to make every little job an opportunity to be glad that I live and breathe. But it’s cold and grey, the sun mostly refuses to shine, and I can’t seem to appreciate the little things.

Well, most of the little things. I did appreciate an article in the New York Times (as you do) on marrying the wrong person. It was liberating, in much the same way that writing my post ‘fifteen years’ was liberating. Because it reminded me that normal is not always being happy. It’s sometimes staring at the lemons and griping about them for a while, whining about the lack of sugar and being too frustrated to fill a jug with water. Eventually I’ll get around to the lemonade. But today I’m just going to complain that I really wanted a fresh, ripe, sweet, juicy peach.

And I think that’s probably ok.

Fifteen years

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The church in which we were married

Whether fifteen years is a long time to be married depends on your perspective, even if you happen to be the couple celebrating the 15th anniversary. As it happens, we are. A lot can happen in a decade and a half, for better or for worse. We’ve had our share of the ups and downs and joys and sorrows of married life. Nothing too interesting there.

One thing that has long bothered me, though, is the feeling that I’m not feeling what I ought to be feeling. As cynical as I am about the portrayal of romance in Hollywood, and as committed as I am to ‘as long as we both shall live’ (and not ‘as long as we both shall feel like it’), I worry that I should experience certain emotions more than I do, that I should not only be devoted, but I should (always) feel devoted. You know, that in love feeling that carried us into marriage. I have a friend whose love story is enviable. Everything points to their still being in that same love, in the same way they were when they said ‘I do.’ And I envy them.

Because of this envy, and because of my worry, I read blog posts and articles about marriage, and how to make it last. I’m absolutely committed to the lasting, and I don’t think our marriage is in any danger. But I believe that making it last must involve some things that might make what we have better, so I keep reading. What I have found is that some of the advice tells us to keep up the good work–we’re already doing what the successful couple does;  some of the advice seems good, and I intend to follow through on it…but often I don’t;  and some of the advice seems like a pair of jeans that look promising but don’t really fit.

We can learn a lot from each other, I think–that’s why I read the marriage advice and suggestions. But one of the most important things that has come of my study of the top tips to keep your marriage strong is a sense that we’re doing all right. This, I submit, is the most valuable help I could have hoped for. Because there’s nothing like feeling like something might be wrong to make you think that something is really wrong. Just knowing that there are couples out there who are working hard at their marriages makes me realise that not everyone is as lucky as my friend. We have been carried into this thing called marriage by a love that was bigger and stronger than we were–at least that was my experience. No wonder we have difficulty keeping hold of it.

So, for those of us whose experience of getting married was that tidal wave of bliss, marriage must be a process of growing into that love. The thing is, though, that the Love is not only bigger and stronger than we are, it is also as unique as the two of us who share it. Each love has its own measure, its own character, its own rhythm. My own experience of marriage has much in common with the spiritual life: there are periods when obligation carries me. That’s not inauthentic. It’s that same love carrying me in a different way. It feels different, of course, but it carries me all the same.

In those times, those times when the bliss that swept us to the altar seems to have been swallowed up in chores and errands, it’s the psalms of exile that speak to me: remembering and hoping; remembering the joy of being at home, in one’s own country, in the love that feels like love, and hoping for the tide to come back in and wash over us again. The psalms of exile remind me that the experience of desolation, even in marriage, is just another part of the whole. In a culture in which marriage is held up as the antidote to loneliness and an essential component of ‘happily ever after’, it is liberating to know that sometimes in order to remain in love, we have to live in hope. So whatever love happens to feel like today, whatever form it takes, it is still carrying me just as surely as it did on this day fifteen years ago.

Deo gratias.

Heaven and earth are full of your glory

imagesThe glory of God might seem an odd topic for reflection during Lent. After all, we omit the Gloria at Mass, and we direct our attention to the Lord’s temptation and his passion. But the Sanctus reminds us, week by week—even during Lent—that ‘heaven and earth are full of [God’s] glory’. We don’t always recognize that glory: it is hidden. As John’s gospel tells us: ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father’ (1.14). Jesus makes God known to us; all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell—hidden—in Christ. Peter, James and John glimpsed that glory at the transfiguration of the Lord. They learned to see in Jesus, even after his brightness subsided, the radiance of divine glory. So also we learn to see the world differently as the eyes of our hearts are trained by faith: to see Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, for example; or to see his face in the faces of the poor and the marginalized.

Learning to see in this way does not give way to full vision, however. The mystery of God’s presence in the world is like the mystery of the Incarnation itself. How does God become human without eliminating or overriding the human? The Old Testament reading from the third Sunday in Lent gives us a way in to contemplating the mystery: Moses encounters a bush that burns, but is not consumed. So also God’s presence with us and in us throughout creation enlivens and enlightens us, but does not consume us. Only that which is incompatible with God’s presence (that is, sin) cannot survive the coming of the Lord. The flame of God’s holiness burns in us—as in the burning bush—but all it consumes is sin.

As we sing ‘pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua’ (‘heaven and earth are full of your glory’), let’s remember that ‘caeli et terra’ includes us. We strive for holiness in the hope that the glory of God may one day be revealed in us as well.

the holiness of the Lord

(from the second Sunday in Lent: I am catching up…)

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The scene that follows the announcement ‘holy, holy, holy’ is dramatic: ‘the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke’. Isaiah’s response is not worship, as we might expect. Instead, he exclaims, ‘Woe is me!’ Seeing the holiness of the Lord makes Isaiah aware of his own lack of holiness, and fearful: ‘a man of unclean lips’ should not (he thinks) behold ‘the King, the Lord of hosts’. God’s glory shows up all that is unworthy about us. Similarly Peter, in the gospel reading from a few weeks ago, responds to the miraculous catch of fish: ‘Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man’. Beholding the greatness of the Lord brings about a new, and unsettling, revelation of our own lack of sanctity. The response from on high is not judgment, however, but comfort. One of the seraphim brings a burning coal from the altar, touches Isaiah’s lips with it, and announces, ‘Behold…your guilt has been taken away, and your sin forgiven’. Likewise Jesus reassures Peter (in the same words the angel used to put Mary at ease): ‘Do not be afraid.’

Contemplating the holiness of God ought to make us mindful of the ways we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. This is not the way into condemnation, though, but the door to forgiveness and new life. For both Isaiah and Peter, the recognition of his own unworthiness marks the beginning of a career (if we may call it that) in the service of God. Isaiah accepts the invitation to take God’s word to the people of Israel, and Peter becomes that rock on which the Church is built. Our own careers of discipleship may be less dramatic, but God nevertheless promises to draw us near and involve us in the real drama—the drama of our redemption and that of the whole world. We need not ask whether we are worthy; we need only allow God to make us so.

Being human, part 3: the spiritual life

I’ve been thinking a lot about the spiritual life lately. Not, of course, that it’s ever too far from my mind. As a teacher of those preparing for ordained ministry, I always considered the pastoral and spiritual implications of the theology and ethics I taught. And as a person of faith, I have found the spiritual life an integrative force in my life, which often seems like a patchwork of roles and responsibilities and hopes and disappointments. Woven through the various scraps of fabric, there is this sense of purpose that draws in everything–yes, everything–and orients it toward a bigger-than-I reality.

Although my recent thinking about spirituality has been inspired by the situation of women in colleges and universities and the challenges facing them, I’ve been struck deeply by the universality of our need for spiritual well-being. An article by David Morstad, over at The Larger Table, points out that people with significant intellectual disabilities have as great a desire and need for spiritual nourishment and community–if not greater–than those with greater cognitive abilities.

A sense of spirituality–which might be as simple as the notion that there is a reality bigger than we are, that holds us and draws us forward–seems fairly standard and unobjectionable. The category of folks who consider themselves ‘spiritual, but not religious’ attests, I think, to this foundational place of spirituality in our lives. But that isn’t to say that ‘spirituality’ is somehow what religion is really about, or that the practice of any sort of religion or spirituality is the same.

What our various approaches to religion and the spiritual life should teach us, I believe, is not that religions are all the same, or even that ‘religion’ is a thing that means the same thing to people who practice different religions. Rather, our continuing openness to faith and spirituality, and the persistence of faith-based values within our society, ought to remind us that, however much divides us, there is much that we nonetheless share. Being human involves forming a view (insofar as our capacities allow us to do so) about what it is to be human, and this is a task that involves a great many of us in spiritual reflection in addition to philosophical and scientific study.

As Lent begins, Christians around the world pay renewed attention to the life of the spirit.  I hope that this Lent will be a time when the universality of our need for grace also awakens in me a deeper awareness of the unity of the human family. After all, Jesus’s prayer for us as he entered into his suffering was that we might all be one. May it be so.

Deo gratias.

 

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.