in the valley

I have always had days like this. More often, far more often than I would like. So my life’s path has been a crooked one through mountain passes. Some days are glorious, inside and out, and somehow then the valleys, seen from above, look less threatening.

In the valley, though, I usually keep my head down. I stay off the social media. I don’t blog. What on earth could I possibly say from down here? Words seem to die on my lips, and those that don’t simply fade into the darkness. But today I’m going to have a good look around, and see what I can see. I am not sure that it will help me get out of the valley, but having a map might at least remind me that this isn’t the whole landscape.

The first thing I notice about the shape of this internal valley is chaos–a sort of verbal chaos, in which I feel I cannot speak. It isn’t so much that I have no words, but that they’re all tangled up. Like Reepicheep (in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), all the things that I might say paralyze me, and I fall silent. I might pick up a pen, and scribble madly in the darkness: but nothing I say there will ever be read by anyone.

The second thing I notice is the emptiness. There isn’t a soul around. Literally, at the moment, there isn’t anyone around–I am ‘working’ from home. Or at least I will be, when the internal fog lifts a little. But it is more empty than that. There is such a deep aloneness here. From this angle, I can see very clearly the despair that inspires suicide. It’s the most painful aspect of the darkness, the sense of being utterly and completely alone in the universe. I know that from outside, the total disregard for how others might ‘receive’ one’s death looks like selfishness. But from inside, the actual love is absolutely imperceptible. (Here my saving grace has always been my children, even before I had any–but that’s another story.) All those others who might miss me are lost to me already in the darkness.

Usually the emptiness overwhelms me, and I can look no more. Maybe this isn’t a bad exercise after all. The third thing that I notice in the valley, feeling my way along, is a sense of uselessness. I’m not actually good at or for anything. Here I discover the slope I slid down–almost always this is the place I fall in. In the world of social media, instant likes, and numbers of followers, this is a very, very easy place to stumble. It doesn’t help that I have a sought-after spouse. I have four small stalkers, but the rest of the world has absolutely no use for me whatsoever. I’ve lost sight, here, of the things I have done that have not been totally unappreciated, and the things I have been asked to do. I know they are there, but they, too, have disappeared into the blackness: if I did them, they weren’t actually any good; people are just too kind to me to say so. Anyone could have done better. (At the deepest part of this valley, I have no doubt that someone else would be a better mother to my children. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be there today.)

This is difficult, this mapping. This is why I usually shut the computer and find something to tidy. But I’ve started now, and I am too stubborn to give up. The next thing I notice is an eerie sort of timelessness. This moment–or this series of moments–seems isolated from the rest of my life, past and future. If I were to try to remember something that happened even yesterday, I’d struggle. I might be able to recall it, but that person in the past wouldn’t be me, at least not the same me that I am in this moment. As I think back on yesterday–just to try it–it’s like watching TV. I am not in the scene. Whoever it is that I am right now is not in the narrative of my life. Maybe that’s not exactly timelessness. Maybe it’s an aspect of something else.

The something else is a loss of gravity. Obviously, my feet are still on the floor. The laws of physics still obtain. But there is another sort of chaos. I’ve become separated somehow from my past and future, and my words have become jumbled. Nothing is where it ought to be; my thoughts have no foundation, no anchor. I cannot tell, exactly, internally, which way is forward and which way is back. And I cannot ask for directions. If I tried to speak, I wouldn’t say what I wanted: clear thinking is impossible.

This makes me feel slightly crazy. Also a little bit dizzy inside. I don’t know what to do next: this is the final thing, I think. This is the point at which I have to find something to tidy or I will do something bad to my computer. Because I can’t subdue this chaos by writing. I can’t make this darkness lift by describing it. When I was a teenager, this is the point at which I would fling my binder across the room. The rings would burst apart, and the pages of my life story (and some very bad poetry) would scatter around the room. Ah, then the outside would look like the inside, and in collecting and collating all those sheets of notebook paper I would somehow come back to myself.

As long as I can remember, it has been this way. Some days are worse than others. Some days the darkness nearly swallows me up for good. But something always intervenes, and for that I will be grateful. For probably a decade, I finished every single journal entry with the same verse from Ps 42:

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.

Maybe that’s the thing today, the thing that intervenes. Because I remember, really: I was there in that memory, even if it is a memory of utter despair. This is my story. Even if I can only see that I have often walked in darkness, I can see that I am still walking. And I think maybe, just maybe, I am not alone.

 

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The Revolution of Tenderness: TED talk

Over the last decade or so, the TED talk – the 18-minute messages given by prominent artists, techies and other cultural figures – has become shorthand for showcasing the ideas the speaker most seeks to put into broad circulation. And at this week’s marquee conference for the program in Vancouver, the usual roster of celebs…

via “The Future Has A Name: Hope” – In TED Talk, Pope Seeks a “Revolution” — Whispers in the Loggia

Canticle for Laetare Sunday

I will sprinkle clean water upon you,                                                                                                     and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses,                                                                          and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you;                                             and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes                               and be careful to observe my ordinances.

Ezekiel 36. 25-27

Makes me wonder what all the fuss about free will is about. ‘I will put my Spirit within you,’ says the Lord, ‘and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.’ I will cause you to follow the law: this is how God consoles a wayward, hard-hearted people–not by relaxing the law or even by forgiving and forgetting. The Lord forgives, but does not forget: he remembers that we are but dust. He washes our sins away but remembers our fallen condition and provides for us accordingly. As St Paul observed, at the right time, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

In Christ we have more even than what Ezekiel promises: a paradigm. Christ is the one with the heart of flesh; he is the one in whom the Spirit dwells fully; he is the one who keeps God’s law perfectly; and he does this all freely. That is the work of the Spirit, to restore our freedom. God does not cause us to follow the law by thwarting our will and desires, but by healing them, transforming them. Under the Spirit’s guidance, we do not act as puppets. We act as we were created to act. We live according to our creation in the image of God. The Spirit does not cause us to follow an alien law, but the law that has been written on our hearts.

I suppose this is the natural law, in the view of philosophers who study such things. It is the law, that is, of our nature. In our fallen state, however, being true to our nature as creatures of the living God requires grace. Fortunately, it seems pretty clear, from Genesis all the way through, that grace is exactly what God wants to give us.

Deo gratias.

passing: a reflection for World Down Syndrome Day

Duke of Edinburgh I love the fact that there is a World Down Syndrome Day. The videos produced to promote awareness are encouraging, showing people with Down Syndrome as happy contributors to society. This year’s video, which resists the claim that people with Down Syndrome have ‘special needs’, does this perfectly: what people with Down Syndrome need is the same as what everyone needs–opportunities, education, relationships, etc. girl with DS

True. And yet…I have a daughter with Down Syndrome. Her needs are more complicated than that, and I refer to those needs as ‘special’ without hesitation. Not that she doesn’t need education and opportunities and friends. She needs, and has, all those things. We are extremely fortunate in the level of provision for all of my daughter’s needs here in the UK. But I am worried about the suggestion that people with Down Syndrome are ‘just like everyone else’ for two reasons. (NB: the adorable girl pictured is not my daughter.)

First, people with Down Syndrome can lead lives that are remarkably typical. But this cannot be guaranteed, and it cannot be forced. Like all young children, those with Down Syndrome develop at their own pace and their skills and achievements will vary greatly. To participate in some of the things that typically developing kids do easily, most children with Down Syndrome will need extra support. My daughter has just achieved her Bronze Duke of Edinburgh award. The fact that she had to have certain allowances and modifications doesn’t make me any less proud of her. If she had to compete with typically developing kids, doing exactly the same things, she would not have been able to have this incredible experience. Of course I hope that she will achieve the kind of speaking ability that the young woman who narrates the video has. But she might not. So to be properly ‘aware’ of what Down Syndrome is and means, I have to keep in mind that even if my daughter doesn’t ever speak that well, she deserves to be treated with the same dignity and respect as those people with Down Syndrome who can carry on a conversation with typically developing peers.

young man with DSSecond, and more importantly, my daughter has an incredible gift to give me and all those who take the time to listen to her and go at her pace for a bit. What the video doesn’t help us see is the way that I have to slow down and look at the world differently when I am with my daughter. Every day–when I am paying attention properly, anyway–my daughter reminds me that life is not about rushing from one thing to the next. Life is not about what I can achieve. Being human is not about being utterly self-sufficient and autonomous. All the practical things that I can do, my capacity for self-direction, and my ability to interact with the world in an abstract and reflective way have their place in the way that I live my life. Indeed, these things enable me to care for my daughter and to see her for who she is. But very easily I forget that who I am and what I can do are not coextensive. I am more than a bundle of capacities, more than a cache of memories and ideas. My daughter reminds me that the time I have been given is first and foremost for love. Without that, my capacities would have no direction and my memories and ideas would lack the principle that integrates them. I love. The rest is only really about how I express that love, how I live it out in the world.

Passing, in the novel by Nella Larsen, refers to Clare Kendry’s ability (and that of other characters) to ‘pass’ for white. So doing opens to Clare a life that she could not have otherwise had, but it comes at great cost–and to no good effect. In the context of intellectual disability, there is a certain degree to which ‘passing’ is possible. But doing so doesn’t change the way people with more profound intellectual disabilities are regarded. If being able to play on the level field is the goal, then a lot of people with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities are going to be left on the sidelines. football DS

And we will never see how desperately the rules of that game need changing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A blessing and a curse

When I was about 7 years old, I was deeply troubled about the people I heard about in Africa. I still remember distinctly the conversation I had with my mother. (Probably, I’ve written about it before, and if you’ve heard it already, I apologize.) I wanted to send food. No, she said: it would not be let in the country. I wanted to send money. No, she said: it would end up in the hands of the wrong people, and would not help the people I longed to help. But, she said, you know what you can do? You want to be a doctor. When you grow up, and you’re a doctor, you can go and provide medical care, which is something much-needed.

Sure. But I wanted to do something NOW. (For the record, I never made it to med school, but still support Doctors without Borders.) Anything I could have done would have made my little heart happy. Now, I read about kids who do these incredible things to raise money for charity, and I’m so glad for them. And  little envious, of course: would that I had been able to get outside of the box my mother unwittingly set me in that day.

Even as a grown-up, I’m still struggling with that box. The desire to do something has never left me, and I wonder what on earth a theologian struggling to make ends meet can possibly do in a world whose needs are cavernous, seemingly infinite. I pray, of course. It’s free, and it’s in my skill-set, if you can call it a skill. But I still want to do that thing, that big thing that will make a real, tangible, visible difference in the life of someone, somewhere. I want to see some obvious change. I want results.

This is both blessing and curse. I can’t wish away the gift of a desire to make a difference, the gift of caring about the world and all the people in it. It’s the way I have borne that desire through the years that makes it a curse. Because I am a huge fan of George Eliot, and of the very end of Middlemarch, in which she observes that things are not so bad for you and I because of people like Dorothea, who ‘lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’ It’s not the big things. It’s the little things. But these things make no obvious change, they seem to be very tiny drops in a vast, empty bucket. In everyday life, I can carry no more than an eye-dropper full of difference-making, and the bucket is bigger than I am.

So usually I find myself frustrated that I am not making headway. In fact, many, many days, I seem not to be doing anything to make the world a better place. Even the little things, the small kindnesses to those in my household and neighborhood…some days I fail to do. And then the curse comes at me, full force, cursing: you’ll never make a difference. Why try? It’s pointless. How can you imagine that the world will ever be any better because of anything you’ve done? You can’t even be nice to your family!

Maybe not. At least not unfailingly. And yet, failing doesn’t have to mean I ought to give up. I have to remember I am still the kid who kept asking: but couldn’t we do this? couldn’t we do that? The blessing isn’t the ability to change the world (for the better) in big, obvious ways. The blessing is the ability to get up, when yesterday I failed utterly to do anything kind or encouraging, and to think that today, I still might.

The end of modern medicine?

Let me first say that I am grateful for advances in medicine and science: without the kinds of procedures and drugs that have become available in the last hundred years, I would surely have lost my eldest child many years ago. She was born with a congenital heart defect (AV canal defect) and has been hospitalised for pneumonia three times, and that’s just scratching the surface.

Nevertheless, I have long been troubled by a certain sort of triumphalism in our attitude to medicine. I wonder whether we have not come to believe that health and life are a kind of entitlement that medicine delivers. Sometimes it seems that death itself might be conquerable, given the right technology. To age and to die, and to suffer along the way, seem somehow inimical to life as we have we have come to imagine it. But it just isn’t so: death is integral to our life as earthly creatures, just as birth is. Avoiding suffering when it can be avoided is understandable, and fighting with everything we’ve got against suffering that arises as a result of oppression and violence is our duty, not only as Christians, but as interdependent human creatures.

27GERM-1464299636802-master768Against this backdrop, I was fascinated to read an article in this morning’s New York Times about increasingly resistant bacteria. The ‘spectre’ of bacteria that would be resistant to every antibiotic in ‘the medicine cabinet’ looms large: the Department of Defense science blog covered it, and President Obama’s administration has begun planning the US response to such a threat. Although such an infection is currently extremely unlikely (but wash your hands well, anyway), it’s scary enough to attract attention at the highest levels of government. I couldn’t help but think, as I was perusing these documents, of a theme of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (the novel is well worth reading): ‘life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free…life finds a way’ (p. 159). Bacteria are like the dinosaurs on that island off the coast of Central America, adapting to the changing circumstances just like we are.

Of course, I expect that scientists will work very hard to keep pace with these tiny organisms that threaten us. But we shouldn’t try to stop them from reminding us of our mortality.

With angels and archangels

This Lent, I am writing a series on the Sanctus for my parish newsletter. Although I do sometimes wonder whether anyone reads the back of the bulletin, a few people have been kind enough to remark on the short pieces. (I did a series on the creed in the autumn.) Here is the first installment (printed for the first Sunday in Lent):

During Lent, we direct our attention to the holiness of God more than at any other time of year. Not only that: we strive to imitate that holiness. One of the ways the Church has called the holiness of God to our minds comes from the sixth chapter of Isaiah: the prophet sees the seraphim, who call out to one another: ‘holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’

The acclamation has been a part of the Church’s liturgy since the early part of the fifth century, though it was probably in use from even earlier times. (The ‘Benedictus qui venit…’ was attached to the acclamation very early, and in future weeks we will look more closely at it.) For example, St Augustine would recognize the Latin text we sing, although the traditional Gregorian plainchant would not have been familiar to him. (What we rightly consider ancient—dating from the 8th century and widespread by the 11th—had not yet been developed in Augustine’s day!)

It is not just the antiquity of the text that ought to inspire us, however. The inclusion of the Sanctus in the Roman canon in the 5th century brought in the idea ‘that by joining the angels in their song we participate in the heavenly liturgy’ (Enrico Mazza, The Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite, p. 48).  And this provides an important clue to the means by which we imitate the Lord’s holiness; by participation. All our Lenten practices—prayer and giving, and giving up—do not work magic on their own. Rather, by them we join ourselves to the Lord’s suffering. It is his passion and death that worked for our salvation, and in his resurrection that we are raised to new life. So in all that we do this Lent, our aim is to make more space for our Lord, so that we can say with the apostle Paul, ‘it is no longer I who live, but he who lives in me.’ When we attend to the presence of God among us and in us, and we participate in him as he dwells in us, holiness will be ours as well.