not this again

It is, I confess, one of those days. Unfortunately they are all too common these last few months. You know, the days when it all looks and feels pretty bleak, no matter what the weather. The sun is out today, actually, but it doesn’t matter. I know that the world is full of people whose lives are desperate and perilous in ways I can’t imagine, that hunger and thirst and terrible loss are the daily reality of so very many people in the world.

And I am sitting somewhere warm and reasonably comfortable. I have family and friends. I am not hungry or in danger. I can say to my daughters and sons when they are afraid at night that there’s nothing to fear–and I know that it is true. They’re safe, and they’re loved, and they have enough to eat and the opportunity to get an education and to play sports. Privilege. Luxury. Not only that, but the assurance of a strong faith and a hope that is in God and not in any of that stuff that makes life easy for the educated (a PhD, no less) white girl from the suburbs.

It’s all good. And yet, the overwhelming feeling is one of despair. Misery. For no reason. Everything shouts at me: be glad! But I am not glad. Or, rather, even though I know with an absolute certainty that somewhere inside there is gladness and hope, I cannot for the life of me find it. I can say to my soul, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? And why so disquieted within me? / Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance and my God.”

Probably those two verses–or is it only one verse?–are the only reason I made it from 22 to 32, when there were so very, very, very many days like this. And here they are again, both the days and the bit of Psalm 42 (and 43) that got me through them. So, I guess I will say, with some frustration and petulance, “Not this again!” But that won’t be the end. It never is.

Eventually it will be that other thing again, that hoping and smiling thing, that thing that is not-depression. The joy will find its way to the surface of my consciousness and I will not only realize that the sun is shining, but I will feel its warmth and see how bright and beautiful the snowy landscape appears, bathed in its light.

And I will say again, with proper feeling: Deo gratias.

Be ready!

This week we have the Advent lessons and carols service at the younger children’s school.  Of course my 8-year-old doesn’t want anything to do with it, though he can sing perfectly well. The 3-year-old, on the other hand, walks around the house singing, “Alleluia! The Lord is coming to stay!” and “Stay awake! Be ready!” and also reminding us that “no one knows the day or the hour.”

I always consider motherhood as a spiritual discipline. Faith-shaping, patience-testing, hope-building and joy-giving, it is an exercise of love at its easiest and its hardest. But usually the connection between my Christian faith and the work of parenting is at the practical level. The expressions of love (“the best part of my day is seeing my mummy”) fill my heart, and the surly disobedience (best left unrepeated) breaks it. But this is different: this is a little chime, reminding me over and over what Advent is all about: stay awake! Be ready! The Lord is coming!

I choose to understand my making-ready in light of the second reading from yesterday, Gaudete Sunday. “Rejoice!” Easier said than done, but the passage from 1 Thessalonians goes on to explain that the injunctions (which include “pray constantly” and “give thanks in everything”) constitute “the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” This has a two-fold benefit. It gives me some concrete things to do to prepare (pray, “rejoice” and “give thanks”) that don’t occupy any space on the to-do list but rather accompany all the comings and goings and doings. And it also frees me from the worry about what “the will of God” might be. In a (school) year marked by transition, when the next steps are as yet unknown, it’s easy to become anxious (really, really easy) about what God has in store for us.

Now I know: rejoice, pray, give thanks. And then I will be ready for the Lord, whenever and wherever he meets me.

Deo gratias.

Advent

My children are involved in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. If you have never heard of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, think of it as catechesis, Montessori style. During Advent, the focus of the sessions is (for the older children, ages 6-12) on the prophecies. This morning, I was with the upper elementary (ages 9-12) group, who were reading through part of Ezekiel 34–the Good Shepherd. We read through the familiar (to us grown-ups, anyway) text, and one verse struck me particularly. “The lost I will search out, the strays I will bring back, and the sick I will heal…” (verse 16, NABRE). And the people will know that God is God because he will save them.
 
We don't have to figure it out first. We don't have to find our way home: God will gather “the strays.” We think of Advent as a time of preparation, as we look forward to celebrating the miracle of the Incarnation and to the return of the Lord in glory. But I find it very easy to lose sight of the relentless love of God and God's unstoppable salvation as I prepare. I should prepare my heart, I think, clear out the junk that gets in the way of receiving Jesus. And I should prepare my house, so that the space for celebration will be festive and welcoming. In so far as possible, I should help my family prepare, especially my children. After all, it is so difficult for them to focus on the coming of the Lord when all around them the focus is on preparing for Santa Claus.
 
God and my children have something to remind me, though: it is the Lord who comes, and his salvation is with him. The miracle is that God has turned the hearts of his people (1 Kings 18–a wonderful narrative) back to him. The miracle is that God breaks into our hearts and into our lives, and into our world. No one has ever seen God–we can't! “No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made him known” (John 1.18). Christmas isn't something I do. Christmas is something God has done and is doing. My kids know that. They know that Christmas happens, and they expect it with joy.
 
So, I have strayed; God will bring me back. My soul is sick with sin; God will heal it. I have been lost; God has found me, again and again. To prepare for Christmas is to remember this, over and over, and to rejoice in it. Advent is joyful expectation, hopeful preparation, for Christ has come into the world.

Unnecessary drama

Some weeks I wonder why I bother. This week, two very different things have happened that make me think that all my worry about being the person who says this or does that is just nonsense. Silly. Because (in the first place) at the wonderful school my two younger children attend, there is the most amazing woman. Another mother, Catholic, articulate, wise, and faithful. She says the most amazing things, and teaches me loads every time we meet. I wonder whether anything I might have to say about being a mother and its relationship to Christian discipleship and the practice of theology needs saying. She knows it all better than I do already–and if she knows it, why, probably lots of other women (and men, too) must know it also. Who am I to teach, or to speak? God has already taught, spoken, and led others into greater insight than I have.
 
And then there's my friend John Swinton, whose recent article (http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/10/06/4100871.htm) beautifully articulates what I also believe about mental illness–and teaches me about it at the same time. What little I have written on the subject is nowhere near as wise and gracious as John's work–and personally, he is the sort of person who radiates that wisdom and grace everywhere he goes.
 
So, should I give up? Ah, of course on dark days I think so. “Why bother?” has a distinct bitterness to it then. But when the sun is shining (as it now is, on a gorgeous fall morning), and my soul is quiet, I know with a happy certainty that the lights shining around me are not there to extinguish my own. How many stars are there in the sky at night? So I don't need to worry about lighting the sky on my own (as if I could), or to worry that my light is somehow superfluous. Maybe this is the easy yoke, the light burden: to know that whatever I think I must do in the world, I don't do alone. It is only a difficult burden to bear because it has to be borne with humility or it will be a very bitter task indeed.
 

But when you give…do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:3, 4 NASB)

Hard words, but life-giving: only one audience really matters…and that 'audience' is the one who inspires every good, and beautiful, and peaceful work. Maybe that's how this verse is related to the bit about putting your light on a lamp stand that comes earlier in the sermon on the mount…so that the glory is always given to God.
 
Deo gratias.

Back home

The retreat at La Ferme was every bit as good, and as challenging, as I had anticipated, and much could be said about it…and will, eventually. At the moment we are in the process of moving, which means not a lot of desk time. Tomorrow I think my desk will go into storage, so no desk time at all for several weeks.
 
To begin at the end of the retreat weekend, though: I discovered, during my stopover at Minster Abbey on Monday, a gem of a book. Written by someone identified only as ‘a monk’ (a Cistercian, if you want to know), it is entitled, The Hermitage Within. Pushed well back between two books on the shelf, its title was hardly visible, but it caught my attention anyway. When I opened it, I found an invitation: ‘[God] is calling you to live on friendly terms with him: to nothing else.’ In light of the message of the retreat, which focused on Jesus’ care for the poor and humble, and his own poverty and humility, this struck me as the logical follow-up. (There is more to it than that, of course–on which more later.) The invitation came with a caveat, though: ‘You must be content to lose yourself entirely. If you secretly desire to be or to become “somebody”, you are doomed to failure. The desert is pitiless; it infallibly rejects all self-seekers’ (p 10).
A hard word in an age of self-promotion. A hard word for a person who has always struggled with the desire to be ‘somebody’–both in the struggle for recognition and coping with obscurity, and the struggle to overcome the desire itself. What amazes me about Jean Vanier is his ability to be somebody without desiring to be somebody. He holds it so lightly, and always looks in the same direction: away from himself, and constantly toward Jesus. One of my very favourite moments in the retreat was Jean concluding one of his talks by saying, almost offhandedly, ‘He’s quite extraordinary, Jesus. It’s important that we get to know him.’ Indeed so, Jean, indeed so. Thanks for helping us with that.
 

La Ferme

So, tomorrow I am going on a retreat at La Ferme, the retreat center for L’Arche. What’s more, the retreat is being led by Jean Vanier. I still can’t quite believe it. Two years ago, I read his memoirs and was amazed by his faith and wisdom; last summer I had the chance to visit La Ferme and to meet Jean; and now, I am looking forward to a whole weekend and a retreat (in English!) led by Jean Vanier. 

What amazed me most in the memoir in letters was his consistent request: ‘pray that I remain faithful to Jesus’. Even after L’Arche was an international organisation, having won him praise from many quarters (he was nominated for the Nobel peace prize), the main thing was still faithfulness to Jesus. 

I admit to being a little bit apprehensive. ‘Healed by those we rejected’, which is the title of the retreat, sounds reasonably intense. My usual retreat involves silence and the daily office with a handful of Benedictine nuns. It’s wonderful. Nobody leads it; there is no ‘input’–except of course there are psalms and Scripture readings, hymns and daily Mass. This is a step outside of my comfort zone. 

I imagine there will be something to be said about it next week. In the meantime–pray that I respond faithfully to whatever Jesus has to say to me through Jean, and through the weekend. 

Notes for the 22nd of January

The 22nd of January (in the US) and that Sunday in October designated ‘pro-life’ (ditto) always get under my skin a bit. Why? My suspicion is that beneath my frustration and anger, there is a point about Christian faith and practice. Too often, Christianity is reduced to a program or an issue. The checklist of what to do and what to believe is a lot easier than the command of Jesus to be perfect, or the command to love God completely, and your neighbour as yourself. It is easier, that is, to slap a pro-life sticker on your bumper, participate in the relevant activities every January (and October), and think that you are pro-life.

But being for life, if it is to be a true expression of Catholic faith, must involve a whole lot more than that. It goes without saying that abortion is a tragedy in every case, and more often than not, an avoidable tragedy. Abortion is not, however, the sum of all evil. It is rather, a symptom of the corruption of our hearts–all of our hearts–and of a world in which scarcity and death threaten us. I wonder sometimes whether the energy expended to protect the unborn is really an effort to protect ourselves. Babies are loveable; it is not difficult to evoke sympathy for the children who are threatened by the practice of abortion. it is hard to imagine a person in our culture (or any culture, really) who wouldn’t mourn at the suffering of an infant, wouldn’t extend him- or herself on that child’s behalf. And so it should be.

I wonder, though, whether that isn’t like loving those who love you. The point there seems to be that loving those who love you is not terribly difficult. There is a reciprocity that makes the love you give less costly. What does it cost you to love those who love you? What does it cost you to be concerned for the unborn? Time, perhaps, and prayer–and that isn’t a bad thing. But if the heart of Christian love is forgiveness (see Matthew 18 and John 20: 22-23, e.g.), how can protesting abortion take center stage?

Abortion is an evil that happens in a world in which evil things happen all the time. Is it a worse evil than child abuse? than malnutrition? than the soul-destroying conditions in which thousands of children live? I’m not convinced it is. I think there is a peculiarly self-serving form of human sinfulness that operates when the choice to terminate a pregnancy is made for convenience, or because of disabling conditions. In such cases, I think the word ‘murder’ is not too strong, and I would rank those decisions at the top of the list of godless human judgments. (I say I think.)

What it boils down to, for me, is this: (1) I firmly believe abortion is wrong. (2) At the same time, I view the law legalising abortion in a similar light to the law permitting divorce; Jesus qualified that law as having been given because of our ‘hardness of heart’–though I appreciate the differences between the two. (3) I look around the world and see sin and need and lack of love everywhere. There are children who live in conditions of abject poverty and desperate need–of material goods and also of the love and affirmation they need to grow up healthy and strong. (4) I see plenty of grown-ups with the same sorts of needs. (5) I am concerned that focusing so narrowly on one evil–abortion–allows us to avoid evils more difficult to confront, and commands more difficult to obey. ‘Love your enemies…’; ‘forgive…seventy times seven’; ‘feed my sheep’; ‘make disciples…’; ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.’ Obeying these commands requires us to be pro-life until it hurts us, to extend ourselves for life, to confess our faith in the Giver of Life in all that we think, say, and do. We have to be conscious of the darkness and sin in our own hearts that prevents us from being the bearers of God’s light and life to others. We have to oppose practices that threaten, demean, or undermine life–like torture, slavery, the death penalty, the drug trade. We have to resist hatred, fear, indifference, unforgiveness and the temptation to leave undone the good we can do. We have to put on love and humility, letting our pride and self-sufficiency be crucified with Christ.

Being pro-life is being for Jesus–the Way, the Truth, and the Life–always and consistently. To follow Jesus, to be his disciples, and to be about the business of making disciples, that is what it means to be pro-life. Praying with others for the unborn is good; mourning the loss of those children who never will be because of abortion is good; protesting a practice that allows us to exercise heartless power over the most vulnerable is right and proper. But if we stop there, we cannot call ourselves pro-life. Unless we get up on the morning of January 23rd ready to reach out to the poor, the unwanted, the unloved, the seemingly unlovable and unforgivable, unless we take seriously the call to be witnesses and make disciples, we have missed the point. Jesus came that we might have life abundantly, and to follow him means bearing that life and giving it away every day of every year, in all that we say and do.

So I get angry when the topic of abortion is the litmus test for Christian faithfulness. Of course we ought to oppose abortion–but that isn’t the cutting edge of our faith. If we are growing into the likeness of Christ, we have to have bigger hearts and a broader vision. Jesus was not speaking about ‘the issues’; he was declaring ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’. Jesus came bearing love, and forgiveness, and grace, and life, and he was and is the light that shines in the darkness–and our hope is and will ever be that the darkness cannot overcome Him.

calm before the storm

Thinking about Elijah today: how does he know (in 1 Kings 18:41) that the rain is coming? (See thinking coram Deo for more on that.) I recongize that I am in a strangely quiet space: no blog posts, almost no tweets, hardly any writing even in my own journal–when pen and paper have so often been my tools for navigating difficult times. But the quiet isn’t peace–it’s like the eerie calm before the storm. I am just waiting to see whether this storm will be a violent thunderstorm or the soft summer rain.  

All I really know about the future, really know, is that God is there. That has to be enough.

nice guys finish last

IMG_0001A few ordinary things: my miraculous medal, and my St Damian cross; the icon of the Holy Family I brought back from a very good weekend retreat in Minster…and the ‘peace prayer’ attributed to St Francis of Assisi.

Last September, I was on retreat in Minster with other parents of children with special needs. At the beginning of the retreat, we each received a word and a picture. My word seemed perfect: hope. But the picture, not so much–a photo of an arctic scene, icebergs in a dark blue sea, and two deer standing nose-to-nose on the frozen shore. Although the scene itself was austerely beautiful, I would have liked it better without the deer. Really. It’s the sort of thing meant to make you say, ‘Awwww…’ Cute. Not spiritually substantial. Still, I don’t believe in coincidence, so I hung onto my photo and filed the image in the back of my mind.

The next afternoon, feeling a bit directionless, I wandered into the library, and the name Manning leapt out at me. ‘Ah, Brennan Manning,’ I thought. ‘This ought to be good. Gritty, spiritually rich without being lofty or sweet.’ I read through to a lovely bit about the Christian journey. ‘Living in the wisdom of accepted tenderness is an unending adventure in trust and dependence!’ That’s my spirituality all right–it’s the inner journey that marks our deeds as having been ‘wrought in God.’

Encouraged, I skimmed on. During the retreat I was reminded of the rule I felt I needed to take on the last time I had been to the monastery: ‘never speak a harsh word to or about anyone, even internally.’ As you might imagine, I had failed miserably, and prior to the retreat had even failed to keep it in mind, much less obey it. Still, a wise priest once said in a homily that such commitments to God are not like New Year’s resolutions, which go forgotten once we’ve failed to keep them up. No, these promises we make to the Lord are meant to try us, and so we are likely to slip up, even to fail completely, as I had done.

The wisdom of accepted tenderness thus appealed to me. Tenderness is the opposite of harshness. I was resolving to take this up, this tenderness, as I read. The Lord is tender and compassionate, full of compassion and bottomless forgiveness. Discipleship means nothing less to me than the imitation of the Lord’s own tenderness.

Then I came across this passage:

‘Before finishing this book, the Christian who is serious about growing in the wisdom of accepted tenderness might do well to take the peace prayer of St Francis off the wall and hang it in [her] heart, make it the wisdom by which [she] lives:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. / Where there is injury, let me bring pardon; / where there is hatred, love; / where there is doubt, faith; /  where there is despair, hope; /  where there is darkness, light; / where there is sadness, joy. /    O divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console,  / to be understood as to understand,  / to be loved as to love;  / for it is in giving that we receive, / in pardoning that we are pardoned,  / and it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.’

The peace prayer of St Francis? That saying that crops up everywhere?

Then two things clicked in my head, and the penny dropped. First, I already have a mini-devotion to St Francis, so more St Francis makes perfect sense. Each morning, as I put on my cross, I ask, ‘St Francis, pray for us.’ Well, this is his prayer. Maybe I ought to pray it with him. And I also–the second thing–remembered my photo: those cute deer, in what looks like a tender moment. Ah, well, yes. I was dismissive of the cute, of the ordinary, of the common. And the Lord is reminding me that it is in the ordinary and the common that my ‘rich spirituality’ is to be lived.

I confess that I do not always receive this well. I know that humility and obedience are the marks of Christian discipleship, but that always sounds so much better as an idea than it feels in lived experience. I can’t stop wanting to be someone, you know, significant. To be satisfied with the significance I have, to those in my little circle of family and friends, seems so small. And to go on in tenderness in daily life, well, it doesn’t really get you any respect, does it? I struggle with this. So one morning recently, I was struggling with exactly this, thinking about being not-harsh, about being nice, and something a friend used to say all the time came to mind: ‘Nice guys finish last.’

Yeah, I thought. See? See where it gets you? And then I did see, finally: that’s where you’re supposed to be. For many that are first will be last, and the last first. It’s a hard word. But I am grateful for it, anyway: Deo gratias.

 

Good Friday

The Easter triduum has begun: last night we went (as a family!) to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Although the liturgy is not ideally suited for toddlers, the foot washing was fascinating. What on earth was fr Ben doing? The children were intrigued. Even the little one–restless as she often was–managed to be quieter than usual. But the most astonishing performance among the children was Thomas’s. Serving on the altar during Holy Week for the first time, he was more still and attentive than ever before. The book, resting against his head, barely moved–even during the intercessions. His eyes were frequently fixed, wide with wonder, on what was going on in front of him. Maybe it was in part because he was the only kid up there, serving with two liturgically-minded adults, and with lots to do.

Today’s liturgical event will be of a very different character: our Faith and Light group organise the Stations of the Cross. Now it will be Anna’s turn to take part in the action as we move around the church this morning. The liturgy is abbreviated, and simplified; there is that tinge of joy even in the midst of a solemn occasion, which is one of the hallmarks of Faith and Light as it is of L’Arche. We will remember the cross of Christ and be aware of our own brokenness, and in the midst of it will be aware that sorrow does not have the final word. My reflection on the Good Friday readings centres on the cry of Jesus from the cross, as Mark’s gospel has it–a more traditional, I suppose, Good Friday meditation.

But now my toddler calls, and it is time to go.