How newness enters the world

Once upon a time I was a graduate student with time to read and discuss postcolonial theory. Gradually I built up a repertoire of books written in rhyming couplets, though, and my time for the likes of Homi Bhabha (who wrote the essay whose title I’ve taken for this blog post) dwindled.

Even as a keen grad student, I had to read Bhabha’s essay about three times before I could work out exactly how it is that newness enters the world. Since the essay is well-crafted and enjoyable to read, the repetition wasn’t a chore. After those re-readings, I came to the understanding (right or not) that the social-historical-cultural world really does move forward in the grinding of big structures (as the structuralists have it), but that is not the whole story. Change emerges in the interstices, Bhabha argues; newness slips in along the fault lines. At this distance from my reading and re-reading, that remains my basic impression.

In the intervening years, my reading of books by Sandra Boynton and Julia Donaldson (two writers at the very top of their game), the children’s literature, and the raising of the children have come to play well together with post-colonial theory . Now, I might sum up the argument of Homi Bhabha’s essay as something like: newness enters the world at points of transition and emerges slowly; or, newness doesn’t barge into the world boldly, but slips in at the corners, gently, so you hardly notice it until is well underway. That is, the grand, tectonic changes begin as tiny fissures and grow so gradually into mountains and rivers that you only see them once the landscape itself alters.

Looking at Bhabha’s brilliant theory now, it seems somehow obvious. At least, as a mother, it seems obvious: the changes of childhood are enormous and powerful, but it is impossible really to watch them happen. Change happens–in the world and in children–as the grass grows. So the really trite saying about the little things being the big things, which one hears occasionally, turns out to be true. But it isn’t true for the reason that I used to think, or at least not only for that reason. I used to think that the little things, the things we do for each other daily, really do become the big things as we look back on the building of relationships and the growing of families and communities. That’s true.

It is also true, however, that changing the world is not something that mostly get done by people whose Great Deeds make the news. No: the world is constantly changing, and you and I are the ones changing it. The thing is, and maybe this is what Homi Bhabha was trying to tell me all those years ago, we don’t always see ourselves in that way. We fear that we do not make a difference. Nothing appears to change as the result of what we do or fail to do, however grand our gestures may be. Not so! If we think that, we do not see our own great power, which lies in the very small opportunities to ‘be the change’, as the saying goes.

The trouble with newness and change is that we want to see it. We want to see results when we extend ourselves, trying and hoping to shift the hills. But newness enters the world behind us, as it were, in our tracks. And if we keep looking behind us to check whether it has happened, we will lose our way entirely.

I suppose, if I were not a person of faith, I might just stop there. But I cannot forget that there is one more thing that’s true about newness and change in this world, and that is that they have already happened. What I do in the way of making change is simply to walk in the good works set out for me by the Author of this world and its Redeemer. So the business about looking back is doubly important: if I spend all my time turning round to see what a difference I have made, I will lose sight of the one who is the Difference, whose love brought the world into being and has redeemed it, and is restoring it all the time. This is not work I do by my own power; this is my participation in the Newness of All Things that is the work of the One in whom they all hold together. So all I do really does matter, and yet the burden or changing the world does not rest on my shoulders: it rests on the shoulders of the One who carried it up to calvary.

Deo gratias

 

 

 

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dying right: a recommendation

It’s true, of course, that my being pro-life is part of the fabric of my Christian faith. At the same time, I tend not to wear the label ‘pro-life’ in a bright neon sign over my head. Not because I am ambivalent about abortion or the death penalty (that’s right: being pro-life means opposing the death penalty with equal vehemence), but because life and death issues are complicated, personal, and touch the deepest part of our soul.

Another reason I tend not to shout about pro-life issues is that the language in which such matters tend to be discussed centers on ‘rights’: right-to-life, right-to-die. As if such moments in our lives were actually about rights. As if life and death were somehow a matter of legislation. If only we could get the laws right, our coming into and going from this world would somehow pass smoothly. No. Of course not. Being born and dying are not like voting rights or equal pay. These latter issues should be the subject of vigorous advocacy–and that is part of being pro-life, too. The struggle for justice on behalf of the oppressed, advocacy on behalf of the weak and voiceless, and giving of our plenty to supply the needs of the poor are all pro-life activities. It’s about much, much more than conception and natural death.

As more states legalize assisted suicide, the conversations we have about death should become more serious and thoroughly honest. And we should talk with everyone, not only those with whom we agree. While I am against the legalization of assisted suicide, I do not oppose it automatically because it is not ‘pro-life.’ Actually, I share the concerns of those who support the bill with some hesitation, those who might well disagree deeply with some of the rest of my convictions regarding life and death and the One who holds both in omnipotent and gentle hands. Just this morning, I had the good fortune to come across a thoughtful and honest piece about death and how we approach it. Clare Bidwell Smith writes lucidly and compellingly about the end of life, not only as a professional but as a person who tended both her parents as they approached death.

‘Let us not leap to the last page without at least skimming the last chapter,’ she counsels. Skipping the ‘last chapter’ might save us a lot of suffering, certainly; but, as she points out, there is often important work to do in that chapter, work that earlier chapters leave out. Her account of the last weeks of her father’s life is both moving and enlightening–and should inform the decisions of any considering assisted suicide as a way out. Perhaps she won’t convince everyone to wait, but she might just show us all what we might be missing.

For Claire Tidwell Smith, and all who treat death with reverence, 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.

the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Perhaps the gospel reading for today might seem a little dull. After all, a genealogy is hardly the liveliest of narratives (if I can even call it a narrative). We find, in Matthew’s gospel, a list of a great many men becoming the fathers of a great many sons, in succession from Abraham to Joseph.

Yet among those declarations that ‘x became the father of y, and y became the father of z‘, there are a few hints that between Abraham and Joseph some extraordinary things happened. Tamar (read about her in Genesis 38!) appears, although the tale is not one that reflects well on Judah. Foreigners Rahab (who hid the spies; see Joshua 2) and Ruth (who has a whole book for her biography) take their place also. And one of the most poignant narratives in the life of David is summed up in the mention of the one who ‘had been Uriah’s wife.’ And it’s not just about the women–though that would be enough to make the genealogy fascinating: Matthew’s gospel does not omit the mention of the long exile in Babylon. Not the most auspicious of lineages for the messiah–too many scandals entirely.

I heard this gospel read out after having arrived at Mass in quite a low mood. Maybe it’s just the woes of a mid-life flutter (not really a crisis): am I really doing anything with this life I have been given? Shouldn’t I somehow be doing more, making more of an impact on this needy and troubled world in which we live? Have I failed to do what I ought to have done with my first 40-odd years? And what can I possibly do in the next decades (God willing) that will make up for the sad lack of world-saving I have been doing? Pathetic, I know. But I suspect not unique.

And there was the answer, right there in the middle of an apparently boring genealogy. There is no failure that can thwart God’s salvation. The world-saving was never up to me, anyway (Deo gratias). It has been done by the one in whose lineage so many mistakes and  disappointments appear. However much the people of God may have gone astray in the years before the coming of Christ, he still came. Nothing I can do or fail to do will undo the work of God’s eternal wisdom, who arranges all things delightfully (Wisdom 8:1). God will be all in all. My place in it must be small, but that does not mean that it has no significance. It just means that its meaning may well be hidden until the end of time.

As St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross wrote in Love of the Cross:

To suffer and to be happy although suffering, to have one’s feet on the earth, to walk on the dirty and rough paths of this earth and yet to be enthroned with Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry with the children of this world and ceaselessly to sing the praises of God with the choirs of angels–this is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth.

And so it is. Bring on the dirt.

Deo gratias.

‘Happiness is the truth’: brief reflections on the common good

Pharrell Williams may be onto something. Happiness plays a central role in our lives, of course. My hunch is that happiness also reflects the life of God in us–that business about humans being created in the image of God isn’t just about rationality and the freedom of the will. Or, rather, the freedom and rationality that we exercise (on our good days, when we’re using them well) best show forth the divine image when exercised joyfully and compassionately.

We all know that happiness is important. We strive for it but so often fail to achieve it. We find it in the most unlikely (we think) places. And we don’t think of happiness as contributing to the common good. The US Declaration of Independence suggests that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ is one of our God-given rights, yet we miss its profound importance for our life together. We tend to think that people who achieve great things make the greatest contributions to the world. And I would certainly not want to argue against key advances in science, in medicine, even in technology (without which I wouldn’t be writing this blog). But I don’t see that those things make us happier.

I think we need to value far more highly the people whose contribution to our world is happiness–joy, peace and contentment. If those are the really important people, then our priorities have to shift a bit. People with intellectual disabilities often make this kind of contribution, as John Franklin Stephens suggests in a recent blog post. And, of course, children very often make this kind of contribution. Children like these:

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We have got it all wrong, I’m afraid. We, in the comfortable houses in the safe places of the world have come to value our security and prosperity, our comfort. But we’re not happy. We need children and those whose joy has been tested; we need to extend ourselves on behalf of those in need and in danger. Isaiah calls the people of Israel to ‘care your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house’ (58.7).

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily;           your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard…

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,                   then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

If that’s not a recipe for happiness, and for the common good, I don’t know what is.

the alternatives

I will admit that sometimes God seems callous and distant. You know those moments when your life seems adrift in a storm, and prayer consists mostly of panicked cries of ‘Lord, do you not care that [I am] perishing?’ Answers never come immediately when I pray that way, though if I am able to recall that Jesus is the ultimate storm-calmer, that’s usually ‘answer’ enough.

In the worst of those moments of faith-testing, I consider the alternatives. If the storm in my life is pure chance, and there isn’t really a God who can save me, then what? Well, I’d be out of a job, for a start. There’s not much point in teaching theology or writing books on the Church (my next project) if God doesn’t exist. But that’s not what pulls me up short–I fantasize about going to medical school (I’m older than Patch Adams, so it really is a fantasy) and saving as many children of the world as I could. Even without going to med school, I can think of work I might find fulfilling.

You might also ask about ethics, morality–how would I live? How would I order my life? I wonder about that, too. But I know some amazing people who believe a whole lot of different things; I have a respected friend who is an atheist, and other friends all over the world-religions map. Although as a Christian theologian and ethicist I think we have something unique and life-giving to offer, it’s not a moral vision. (We have one, and I think it’s good and true. But it’s not the main thing we have going for us as Christians.)

And there are all sorts of little things that would have to change about my life if I gave up on God. But that’s not the reason I don’t give up. (Of course some will argue that I don’t give up on God because the Holy Spirit continues to draw me to Jesus. Fair enough. But keep reading, anyway, please.) The real reason (now my students, if any of them are reading this, are going to laugh) I don’t give up is that it is a mystery.

I don’t mean just that there is a profound mystery at the heart of the Christian faith, which there certainly is. I mean that it’s all a mystery. The reason that bad things happen to good people is a mystery, whether you believe in God or not. Unless you believe, I suppose, in reincarnation, and blame the unwarranted bad things on sins committed in a previous life, it’s just a mystery. And here’s where I come back to God: I find myself making a choice not between a thing that doesn’t make sense and a thing that does, but between mystery-with-redemption and mystery-without-redemption. It’s always a mystery. But I come back to Wisdom 8:1, over and over again: wisdom ‘arranges all things delightfully’, even if that delightful arrangement isn’t revealed until the end of time.

At least that’s the way I see it. Maybe that’s the gift of faith; if it is, I can only say Deo gratias.

Liturgy of Light

My two younger children attend a Montessori school centered on the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I am a huge fan of the school, and of the catechesis, and on Friday I was reminded powerfully of the reasons why. After the youngest child’s time in the Atrium, parents received the following message about their experience from guide Sarah Kulwicki. There is nothing to be added to what she says, except perhaps to pray that God grants us the grace to experience Jesus in the way these children do.

Liturgy_of_Light_1Today in the atrium we had a special Easter celebration called the “Liturgy of Light.” 

 For the Liturgy of Light, we enter the atrium with the lights off and gather around the atrium Paschal candle.  The Paschal candle, or the Easter candle, reminds of about the light that came back into the world after Jesus rose to new life on Easter Sunday.  The imagery of light is an important theme for the 3-6 year old in the atrium.  Do you remember being a young child? Maybe you were afraid of the dark.  Light brings us a feeling of security, of warmth.  Early in the year we hear from the prophet Isaiah (who lived 700 years before Jesus was born!) who said that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  Who is this light?  The children joyfully respond, “Jesus!”  Jesus is security, Jesus is warmth. 

 As we lit the Paschal candle, I proclaimed “Jesus is the light which no darkness can overcome.”  We remember that ever since that glorious Easter day, the light, Jesus, has remained with us even to this day.  I read the scripture passage of the women discovering the empty tomb and finding out that Jesus was alive again.  Then, one by one, I lit a small candle for each child using the light from the Paschal candle.  The awe, wonder, and reverence during this moment was amazing.  The children gazed upon the light, carefully holding it in their hands.  We sang joyful Alleluias and “This little light of mine.”  At the end, each child brought forth their candle to place next to the Paschal candle.  We were able to see how all of our individual lights together made an even brighter light.  Jesus shares his light with us, and we can share his light with others. 

 As a follow up during the work time, children had the choice to spend more time with the Paschal candle lit and their own individual candle lit.  There was a small group of children that remained at the Paschal candle after the presentation and asked if they could do it again.  I lit the candle again and asked, “Do you want to say a prayer out loud, sing a song, or sit and enjoy the light in silence?”  They asked to sit in silence.  They quietly gazed upon the light.  A child asked, “Can I get the Good Shepherd to hold to say a prayer?”  She brought it to the rug and chose to say a silent prayer in her heart.  She passed it to the next child.  Each of us took turns saying a silent prayer.   They asked me to read the scripture passage again.  They laid on the ground and looked at the light of their candles.  This spontaneous moment of prayer and reflection lasted about 20 minutes. I am grateful to have been a part of this beautiful moment guided by the awe and wonder of the children.

May the light of Christ be with you this Easter Season!