On the feast of St Agnes

I intended to write about being a failure, to title this post something like—very straightforwardly—‘I am a failure.’ But then I came across the collect at vigils (the office of readings, to be really precise), which reminds us that God chose ‘what is weak in this world to shame the strong.’ I am not sure there is much in my particular form of weakness to shame anyone else. Yet the line made me stop and think about the relationship between weakness and failure, and that habit of God’s to choose the small and insignificant (like young Samwise Gamgee or Lucy Pevensie) to carry the day.

There are a whole array of measures against which I can count myself as having failed—the sorts of measures used to measure success in various areas of life. What does it mean to be a ‘successful’ parent? Really, I expect that true success in parenting doesn’t show up until after the parents are no longer around to appreciate it. So we settle for other measures, like our children’s achievements, whether these be on the field (or the pitch, if you prefer), or in the classroom, or in good citizenship (as it was called when I was at school). So far, I am not getting any points there. My kids are still growing up, and they’re not leading the field in any of those areas. I hope and pray that they will grow up to be content, and kind, and truthful.

Then there’s my career. I had a conversation years ago with a colleague in which we agreed that our careers had been non-traditional. For me, that means having survived at the edges of academic, on the margins of university departments, from the beginning. (Just now it looks like being squeezed out entirely—isn’t that a sign of having failed?) my colleague’s non-traditional start has recently found her photographed next to the Pope with a small group of other important people. Perhaps I should reconsider my term. Something like ‘anemic’ might be a more apt descriptor for my academic ‘career’.

So it goes. One of the very worst things that a person can do, of course, if compare herself to others. But boy do we do it a lot. Apparently one of the mums at my kids’ primary school used to keep a list of the top ten best-looking dads. It is, unfortunately, both soul-crushing and an extremely tough habit to break. Obviously I’ve failed there, too. Still succumbing to the temptation to measure my life against others’.

What does all this have to do with St Agnes? Just this: her main claim to fame is having died well for her faith. She was only 12. She hadn’t had a chance to do anything else—no academic achievement, no successful family of career, no works of service. Just a love of God and a willingness to give her life for what she believed. We usually think of martyrdom as the high bar. But I don’t think it is, necessarily. The living sacrifice to which all Christians are called is the long, drawn-out version of St Agnes’ martyrdom.

Bearing all the petty insults and inconveniences, and all the unpleasant people, and all the disappointments that will never be noticed by anyone may be harder than the once-and-for-all death at the executioner’s hands. At least I think it is for me, and I suspect I am not alone in this. So my prayer today is for all those who feel like they’ve failed, like their work or their lives don’t make a difference, for all those who are living hidden lives faithfully and will, in the words of George Eliot, ‘rest in unvisited tombs.’

St Agnes, pray for us!

A meditation for the beginning of Advent

Advent is a time of preparation. But how shall I prepare? How do I make myself ready to welcome the Holy Infant when he comes? ‘Let it be done unto me according to your word,’ says Mary. Dangerous words: inviting Almighty God to enter in, to do his will in us, through us, is a very serious business indeed. I wonder whether Mary knew what she was getting herself into. I imagine not: her special nature meant freedom to say yes, not foreknowledge of the consequences of her assent. Would she still have said yes if she knew how much it would hurt? I suppose, if she knew the whole story, she would have seen from the outset that it was worth it. And it is difficult to imagine how much a child’s rejection will hurt before you have even become pregnant.

Ah, Mary! You know the pain mothers feel. ‘A sword will pierce your own heart’—is that not the way of motherhood? Our Lord’s first miracle, as recorded in John’s gospel, he performed at you behest, but not without resistance. ‘O woman, what have you to do with me?’ he asks, rhetorically and not very politely; ‘My hour has not yet come.’ Is that any way to speak to your Mother?

I would have rankled. ‘Don’t call me woman, son,’ I might have said, ‘I am your mother.’ It hurts when a child distances himself from his mother. I know. I’m not sure I could have simply let it slide. But she does. Ignoring his cheeky reply, she addresses the servants. ‘Do whatever he tells you,’ she says. And so unfolds the miracle of the water and the wine; Jesus saves the wedding at Cana.

Was this an ordinary interaction between Mother and Son? Did Jesus routinely speak to Mary like that—‘woman, what have you to do with me?’ It sounds so cold. For all the tenderness we find in the beginning of Luke’s gospel, and the poignant image of the pietà, there seems to be some tension in their relationship. Jesus is unapologetic when they find him in the temple. We have heard his tone at the wedding at Cana. And then there is the episode recorded in the synoptic gospels in which his mother and brothers come to find Jesus. He says, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ Were he anyone else, we would think of him as a spoiled, ungrateful son. Who disavows his own mother, allowing anyone ‘who does the will of God’ to take her place? How hurt she must have been over and over again, as he slipped away from her. ‘A sword will pierce your own heart,’ indeed.

Mary figures for us the pain in child bearing that I think is bound up with the curse in Genesis 3. The pain of loss that the pietà captures does not begin with our Lord’s passion. No, Mary’s passion is life-long. From the moment she finds she is pregnant before it is appropriate—what will she do?—until she sees him crucified, being the mother of our Lord is a path that leads through suffering. She is worried and hurt like the rest of us: being conceived without sin doesn’t make her invulnerable.

As much as she shows us the enduring pain of motherhood, she also shows us the fierce tenderness of an ideal mother’s love. However many times he rejects her, she keeps following him. When the disciples are all scattered, she remains.

All the unseen pain of motherhood, Mary brings into the light for us. Without rancour or bitterness, she never scolds—though she admonishes her wayward 12 year old. And she doesn’t complain about how cold he sometimes seems. She doesn’t regret having given herself up to be the mother of this unusual child who brings her so much grief.

Of course it wasn’t all thorns and barbs. There are many joys as well, and Mary would have known these also. But in the season of Advent, when we are surrounded by images of a young and radiant woman beaming with joy over her infant Son, we ought to remember that her discipleship, like ours, took her through hurt and loss. It is the way of the cross, on which Mary is uniquely poised to lead us.

So we should not hesitate to let our prayer this Advent be, ‘Let it be done unto me according to your word.’ We should tremble, perhaps, for there is no knowing where such a prayer will take us. But we can be sure that the Lord is there, and Mary has already made the way for us.

Deo gratias.

A word of encouragement from Granny Nancy

Thanks to Paddy McCafferty and Izzy Armstrong-Holmes for posting this to Facebook.

Ireland’s oldest citizen, Nancy Stewart, aged 107, has written an amazing letter to encourage everyone in these difficult and anxious times 🙏❤️

To Anyone Who Needs a Reason to Keep Going:

My name is Nancy Stewart and I was born on the 16th of October 1913. This weekend I turn 107 years of age.

Imagine turning 107 in a world pandemic. This definitely is something very unusual even for me and all I have been through. I live in Clonard in County Meath and have lived in my home for over 83 years.

I lost my husband in a car crash in 1989, and lost my twin daughters Margaret in 2007 to motor neurone and Anne in 2010 to utter heartbreak of losing her sister. I’ve lost all my friends throughout the years which comes with living so long on this earth.

I’m very lucky to still have three daughters Kathleen, Mary and Olive and one son Finian and I have 84 grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren.

I have faced many heart-breaking moments and also have seen many hard times in our country witnessing world wars, division in our people and numerous sad times for our nation.

I write to you today to send you my love and to offer you my prayers. We are in a very difficult time at the moment in our country, in our lives and in our world. But I reach out to you in this letter to offer you hope, faith and belief that everything will be ok in the end.

We are in another stage of this battle against the virus but we will get through this. Like everything I’ve been through since the day I was born in 1913, no matter how bad things have got, I’m the living proof that we can survive and in years to come, this will just be a distant memory.

I have a great faith and it has helped me keep positive throughout the struggles I’ve met. I thank you for keeping your faith and for keeping your resilience strong, through this hard time. Sadly for the moment, we can no longer stretch out to a friend and embrace them nor can we call to each other’s houses.

But I’m here to share my story. I have been in lockdown in my house since March, alongside my granddaughter Louise and even though it has been a tough time, we have got through it together.

We drink tea. We say prayers. We bake. We laugh. We make phone calls. I can even video call lots of my family and friends and am making new friends everyday that God gives me on this earth.

And that’s a very important thing to say. If you are feeling low, make sure to try call someone or even go for a walk. I also ask God to help me if I’m feeling low. This is a hard time for everyone but please make sure you keep yourself well and wear your mask. If you keep healthy, your mind will stay healthy too.

Keep talking to one another. All my life I have always believed in chatting and drinking tea and saying a prayer or a decade of the rosary and it has got me through. This is our moment to keep our faith and to keep believing that everything will turn out ok.

We must try to make sure we leave nobody behind and also that we don’t lose sight of each other. This is a moment for humanity to step forward to take care of the other. We must mind ourselves but we must also mind all those around us. Look up and smile even if you have your mask on.

Your eyes will smile and that might be all someone needs to keep going. No good deed ever goes unnoticed so try your best to keep being good. We are not here to live for ourselves but to live for each other.

I can’t believe I’ve made it to this age, I only feel like I’m 50 but now that I’m here, all I can say is please God I’ll be here for my next birthday. We must always look forward. I can’t believe I’m the oldest person in Ireland living in my own home, I don’t feel that old.

When God wants me, he will come take me but for now I will keep enjoying my life, I’ll keep loving my family and I’ll keep saying my prayers day by day…..oh and not to forget eating lots of good wholesome food is my tip. Good food and lots of tea is my secret to a long life as well as keeping positive as best we can. We must always look forward and hope for the best.

Thank you for thinking of me in your prayers and your thoughts and I promise I will think of you in my many rosaries I say everyday.

Thank you so much for reading my letter also and I hope I have, in even a little way, helped you feel less alone in this moment. There is always hope and once we keep talking to one another, no day will seem empty and we can get through this together. It only takes a small candle to take away the dark and in each of us, we can be that light in the world.

This hard time will indeed pass like all the rest and all that matters is that we helped each other through.

Many blessings and much love,

Granny Nancy x

Clonard

Co Meath.

the chaos inside

Once upon a time I went to a counseling centre–in Pasadena, CA. It has been at least a couple of decades since I was there. I remember a framed poster that read, ‘You must carry a chaos inside you to give birth to a dancing star.’ At the time–I was in my early twenties and hadn’t yet read all the Nietzsche I have so far–I thought it justified my internal turbulence. A dancing star sounded good, like the right reward for having struggled through the darkness and desperation.

A good few years on, I have yet to see anything like a dancing star. Just a lot more chaos. I’d like to be able to explain how it all worked out, to point to the low points on the journey and share the momentary, spectacular views. Not that there haven’t been splendid vistas along the way–there have, of course–but that the way is rather up and down and meandering: the journey is ongoing. The chaos is ongoing. I’m not certain that the dancing star is ever going to turn up.

Perhaps I was foolish to mistake depression for some sort of spiritual gestation. I guess that’s a thing some of us do in those hopeful, early years of adulthood. Things have to mean something, and we need to be figuring out that meaning. Now I am not so sure: the chaos inside is just chaos. I am not any nearer to figuring it out now, three decades after I started trying.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any dancing stars, or that hanging on and working on the chaos isn’t worth it. It’s just that there is no formula that dictates how bright a star we are owed for the years of chaos we have endured. It doesn’t work like that. If I knew how it did work, I would try to explain it. But I don’t, and I am not sure that there is one way it works all the time for everyone.

So if you are on the chaotic road, I can’t tell you where it ends or how to get off. But I can tell you you’re not alone. I’m going that way, too. Maybe we can walk together.

on dyslexia and superpowers

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I think a lot about disability. This is not just because I have an 18-year-old with Down syndrome. It is also because I have a profoundly, excruciatingly dyslexic 13-year-old and a 9-year-old whose dyslexia is less devastating.

Knowing about my struggles with dyslexic kids, a neighbour (author and educator Adam Bushnell) kindly lent me Philip Schultz’s memoir, My Dyslexia. I can see why he commented that, for Schultz, dyslexia was ‘like his superpower.’ Having overcome his dyslexia to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Schultz credits his success to the blocks to reading and writing that seemed insurmountable in his early childhood. Not in spite of his dyslexia did he achieve what he has achieved, but because of his dyslexia.

Maybe so. I don’t doubt that the struggle shaped him. But not all dyslexics are as fond of books and words as he was (and never mind the slipperiness of the definition and diagnosis of dyslexia). And–more importantly–not everyone with dyslexia has his grit. He owes much to his persistent, even indomitable, self-belief: ‘even when the entire world seemed to be ganging up on me, some persisting sense of myself argued on my behalf’. Ditto for the young scientist Schultz admired, who called her dyslexia ‘her secret weapon’. I’d say the credit goes to her consistent, pig-headed determination and sheer force of will. Dyslexia provided her with a mountain, true. Hope and courage enabled her to climb it.

The challenge that people with dyslexia face is the same, at bottom, as the challenge we all face: to ‘learn to love what is weakest and most confounding about ourselves, because and despite and in deference to what is essential about us’ (all quotations p. 117). The great challenge of his life, and mine, and my children’s, and yours, is very simple. It’s all about not giving up.

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This is true whether it’s dyslexia or depression or Down syndrome (or just daily life during a pandemic) that challenges us. I almost wrote ‘afflicts’ there; I hesitated because it’s an unpopular way of thinking about disability. So negative. But affliction is exactly what Schultz describes; it’s what my son experiences; it is, if I am honest, the way I experience depression. And it is the affliction that stirs, in some of us, the gritty response that makes for success. The super power of the oyster is not the irritation provided by the grain of sand but the ability it has to smooth over that irritant until it forms a pearl.

In a sense, then, we are the most ‘disabled’ by the conditions that afflict us when we lack either the ability to recognise the grain of sand or the mountain for what it is, or we lack the hope and courage to surmount it. Most days, I would say that Anna, my 18-year-old with Down syndrome, isn’t especially ‘disabled’ by her genetic idiosyncrasy. Having thought through Schultz’s book, though, I see that’s not exactly what I mean. In terms of sheer not-being-able-to-do-stuff, Anna is always going to ‘win’ the competition for the most disabled. Yet she is not usually afflicted by her condition, and I am beginning to see why: she doesn’t see the summit. We clamber around on the slopes together, but there’s no determined ascent.

Maybe that’s why I’m still a little uncomfortable with these thoughts about mountains and overcoming. Why do some people make it to the top while others are defeated by the summit? I don’t know. I may not know much more about disability than I did before reading Schultz’s book. But I have seen in a new and crystal clear way that my kids who need to see the summit and learn to climb need grit more than any other intervention. And that is more helpful than I can say. Thanks for the loan, Adam.

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The Most Holy Trinity

At least during the pandemic, we don’t have the weekly argument about going to Mass, or the complaints that it’s boring. That doesn’t exactly comprise a silver lining, though: when we (the parents) tune in to Mass at Blackfriars (Oxford), the kids get on with other things. The 16-year-old is asleep, the 13-year-old is watching YouTube, the 9-year-old is skating around the house on her roller blades, and my eldest is listening to music and humming along. This is better than the nerf war that was going on during the Liturgy of the Word. (It may also be noted that one of the adults is asleep on the sofa during the Eucharistic Prayer and the other is writing this blog.)

Keeping the feasts and fasts while physically separated from the Church is tough. We fail a lot. And regular prayer is hard, too. I thought that one of the redeeming things about the pandemic would be the possibility of praying Compline ‘with’ the community in Kent I so enjoy visiting. But it is often impossible to follow along–we can’t understand the sung words, and the video lags. I don’t mind. The rest of the family does, and so we haven’t been joining in. Universalis has continued to be a lifeline for me. I stay connected by knowing what day it is–today is the feast of the Most Holy Trinity; were it not a Sunday, we would remember St Robert of Newminster today. When the kids are out of school, holidays are cancelled, work is squished in around lessons, and the usual schedule of activities and appointments is suspended, it is easy to get lost–hardly remembering what day of the week it is, much less the month and date. Tomorrow there will be no school run, and we won’t go to work. It will still be Monday, though: Monday of week 10 in ordinary time (or St William of York, if you observe his memorial). Liturgical time goes on, pandemic or no pandemic, lockdown or no lockdown. I am grateful for that.

And I am grateful, more grateful than ever, for communities like the Dominican friars we join for Sunday Mass and the Benedictine nuns I like to visit at Minster Abbey. A few years ago, I wrote about the nuns, reflecting that my misunderstanding of Sr Johanna revealed an important truth about the relationship of the wider Church with such communities. ‘I’ve got your back,’ I thought she said. That wasn’t what she said, but it was true. While I am here, with my family, loosely following the Sunday Mass, it is happening, just as it always has, at Blackfriars and everywhere that religious communities gather for the celebration of the Eucharist.

I would rather be there, of course. And I would rather wrestle the kids out the door of the house and into the door of St Bede’s than listen to them running up and down while I try to follow the homily. But in these strange times, it is good to know that we are the Body of Christ: we are incorporated at baptism and we members are nourished by our participation in the Eucharist. And yet, we remain joined to the Body even at this distance. The regular communion of the nuns, the monks, and the friars benefits us; we participate in a mystical way. So the act of spiritual communion that we make (thanks to the prayer given us by the friars) is real. It’s just not physical.

I think what I have been doing for the last hour, since the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, is considering why I keep on sitting here, while Mass is going on somewhere else. While my participation in the liturgy is rather two-dimensional, involving two senses rather than the usual 5, it helps me to make the spiritual act of communion. And so I will tune in again next week.

Third Sunday of Easter

The weekend after Easter—Easter Saturday and the Second Sunday of Easter—didn’t seem like a weekend at all. Time is like that these days. Even having virtual Mass on a Sunday and keeping to the school week doesn’t erase the sense of being in some kind of liminal time. It is almost like the strange stretch of the summer holidays when we are home and our friends are away, still on holiday somewhere. Almost. But not quite, because when you do see people out and about, you have to stand six feet away from them to have a chat, and the topics of conversation are far from the usual.

The signs of spring continue unabated. The farm smells as farm-like as ever, pungent, with mixed aromas of cow and sheep and heaps of dung for fertilizer—or so I imagine. What else could those smelly heaps be for? Some of the sheep have been shorn, and in the field along the path lambs skip (really) as the adults graze, untouched by the energy of the new generation. Their skipping time has gone.

Sometimes I feel like that: my skipping time has gone. These have not been easy days for me, though I can’t blame the dreaded virus. It’s just me, as I have always been, with ups and downs. Lately the downs have dipped into deep darkness and despair. It has occurred to me that this may be normal for me, but it is not normal. So maybe my normal can change. This is a radical thought, mind you.

But not, I think, an impossibility. And that is somewhere to start.

Deo gratias.

The cruelest month?

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring 
Dull roots with spring rain.

I’m not sure whether April really is the cruelest month, but this year it might be. By all accounts, the pandemic is bound to get worse before it gets better. It hasn’t been a happy week, but at least my family are all well, so I must summon some gratitude and get on with it.

The natural world carries on without regard to the number of new COVID-19 cases (on the rise) or the stock market (not on the rise). Birds still flit to and fro carrying nest-making materials, singing their usual songs, and occasionally staying still long enough for me to identify them.

Early springtime is erratic. One day, we have sunshine and almost-warm weather; the next, it’s blowing a gale and threatening snow. The signs of spring are also inconsistent. The oaks still think it’s winter, while the gorse blooms bright yellow.

And in a strange twist of fate (par for the course this week), wordpress won’t let me upload any new photos. Cruel. 

 

a thing about theology and disability

I frequently tell my students that sometimes writing clearly requires stating what seems blindingly obvious. Don’t worry, this is not a post about good writing. (If you want to read some, my current example is Bill McKibben’s Falter. I wish my prose was in the same league as his.) This is a post about something that is blindingly obvious to me, and how it came to be that way. That is, most of the things that seem to us to go without saying don’t just appear that way. They’re things we’ve learned. In my case, I have learned them the hard way (which often sucks, but the lessons stick).

This is a story about how I came to think about disability and God in the way that I do now. Once upon a time, I was teenage girl who intended to have kids and be done with it by the time I was 30. Why? (Wait for it…) Because I was so certain that I could never, ever cope with having a child with Down Syndrome. (File under ‘Please God, don’t send me to China’.) Well, I was sort of right: I am not good at coping, and sometimes I fail spectacularly. I was wrong, though, to think that my life would be better without a child with Down Syndrome in it.

About 18 years ago, I was a PhD student writing about Christian identity. As I thought about what it meant for someone to be a Christian, I found myself thinking about things like ‘imagination’ and ‘belief’. If Christians are shaped by doctrine and Scripture, then how can a person who doesn’t understand either be called a Christian? I’ve written a good bit about that elsewhere—not only in my dissertation, which became a book, but in articles I’ve written since then. Christian discipleship is fostered by study of Scripture and doctrine, but not because knowing stuff gets us closer to Jesus. The object of the discipleship game is to follow, and being smarter doesn’t make us better followers. ‘Taking every thought captive to Christ’ is the imagination’s job with respect to Christian discipleship; the more, and the more elaborate and fancy the thoughts, the more help (from doctrine and Scripture) we need to capture them.

There is an implication of my proposal that I don’t spell out, though. I don’t say it in anything I have published, and yet I keep saying it—to students, to friends at conferences, in emails—as if it ought to be obvious. It is that disability names a feature of most human lives at one point or another, but it does not name something that impairs a person’s discipleship. That is, ‘disability’, as we human beings think about it, doesn’t block a person’s relationship with God. As my friend John Swinton has pointed out, we are known by God. So we should not make the mistake of believing that human being’s relationship with God depends on the person’s ability to know God. Scripture and doctrine agree that we can’t. But we are known by God, and can come to know God in that being known. Disability doesn’t get in the way of God knowing us. (Now there is a lot more to be said about that, in a lot more technical detail. But I hope that we can agree that, for example, I don’t need to be able to speak to be able to pray. I’ll leave it there, and be glad to answer questions.)

The point is that, from God’s point of view, we are all ‘disabled’—we don’t know how to pray as we ought to; we cannot see God; we don’t have the capacity to know God. If we want to pray well, we ask for help; if we want to see God, we ask for God to reveal God to us. And we wait. The only thing that really counts as disability here, the only thing that impairs our relationship with God is sin: we turn away; we refuse to ask; we refuse to wait. That, and not any impairment of mind or body, corrupts our relationship with God. No hearing loss, no paralysis, no cognitive impairment, no mental illness, nothing that disrupts our earth-bound and social existence can separate us from the love of God.

A long time ago, I was the mother of a tiny child, a little girl with Down Syndrome, whose potential for Christian discipleship I came to see as fully equal to my own. And she cannot explain the Trinity to me, but she can draw me into prayer. She remembers in her prayers those for whom I have forgotten to pray. She knows how to say sorry (though she doesn’t like to say it any more than anyone else does) to others and to God.

I am grateful for having been ‘sent to China’: from within this landscape I see things differently. I see what really impairs us human creatures—it’s not the limits of our intelligence or our skill set; it’s the limits to our humility, patience, and love. And I am unspeakably glad that I have daily before me a model of humility and an encouragement to my patience, and that in this crazy life we have together, there is Love—more than I ever knew there was in the whole world.

Deo gratias.