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.

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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.

 

Dying right? another look

Several weeks ago, I reflected on a moving and thought-provoking account of a woman’s experience of her father’s suffering and death. End-of-life issues are difficult–I recently wondered aloud to a colleague about what we have lost in the advances that medicine has made against illness and tragedy. Death is pushed farther from us, out of our everyday experience, at least in the well-fed and comfortably housed regions of the developed world. Do we not begin to think of death as the opposite of life, rather than a part of life? My colleague, a sociologist who studies religion and death (among other things), nodded.

Having been thinking about death–not for any morbid reason, I think (though who really knows her own mind that well?)–I was drawn to another account of accompanying the dying. Sunita Puri writes engagingly about the challenges facing those patients who are dying at home, but without adequate care. Those who opt to die at home require a certain level of help, not only from family members, but from professionals who can provide the necessary medical care. Such support enables family members simply to journey with their dying loved one. What Dr Puri describes is a situation in which incredible strain is placed on family members (and in some cases, friends and neighbors).

In an earlier post, I recommended Arthur Brooks’ advice for living well in 2016: to think about our own ends. Perhaps for us all to live better, we ought also to think about others’ ends. Death comes to all of us eventually; I hope that we can learn to accompany each other as we meet it.

 

 

Prayer and the practice of theology

Evagrius1A few years ago, I came across a quotation from Evagrius of Pontus on my students’ papers. Actually, it was a paraphrase of a famous bit of Evagrius, in which he says that ‘one who prays truly will be a theologian, and one who is a theologian will pray truly.’ The impression you would have had from the context in which Evagrius was being paraphrased  is that anyone who prays is a theologian. My uncertainty about that, which started as a certain skepticism (of the form ‘I do not think it means what you think it means’), has led me to wonder about the relationship between prayer and the practice of theology down the ages. Now I am a theologian, but not a historian. And this topic warrants historical and theological investigation. So I need help!

It therefore makes me feel like the luckiest person in the world to be able to gather a small group of wise and learned and spiritually astute people to talk about just this topic. Not only that, but we are gathering at my very favorite place on the planet: Minster Abbey. For two days, we will join the community for prayer and spend the rest of the time in conversation about the relationship between prayer and theology in a handful of theologians from late antiquity onward.

What is the relationship between prayer and theology? While I fully expect that this question will continue to vex future generations, I have reason to hope that we who gather at Minster in Eastertide will be nourished in our lives of prayer and theology, and for that I am unimaginably grateful.

Deo gratias.

 

Another morning gone

6:05am.  Wake up. Realize that the reason it feels like it’s still the middle of the night it that the 4-year-old woke us at 1:00 because she was wearing the wrong pajama bottoms. The rest of the night was not, well, restful. Hit snooze.

6:14am. Wake up, round 2. Think. No, not yet possible. Hit snooze.

6:23am. Wake up. I must get up. At this point, I still believe I can make up for lost time. Brain will maybe catch up with the body eventually, but at least the physical activity of the day must now begin.

6:25am. Stretches. Almost-yoga. I am not virtuous. I am totally dependent on doing back stretches in the morning to be able to move about normally during the day. If I don’t do them, eventually I will move in a way that would be fine for most people my age, but will result in me finding myself on the floor. So I stretch.

6:45am. Husband arrives with coffee as I am finishing stretches.

I love this man.

6:50am. 4-year-old wakes up, requires cuddle. She’s the fourth (of four!) and I know how quickly the cuddle-able stage will pass. Without really considering my lateness, I oblige.

7:15am. Now lateness is absolutely irreversible, but I am still not awake enough to take this seriously. 4-year-old announces she wants pasta for breakfast. ‘Sure,’ I say: there’s some leftover pasta from last night, and this is not a battle I ever, ever fight. I resist, if it means cooking pasta, but I surrender easily. She does not negotiate with 40-somethings.

7:25am. While said 4-year-old is eating breakfast, I begin to tease the kitchen into a state I will later find conducive to work. This involves a broom, a bit of spot-scrubbing, and getting the boys (ages 9 and 12) to help with dishes: unload dishwasher, help stray glasses and bowls to find their way into empty dishwasher. Oddly the 9-year-old is less resistant than the 12-year-old. Or maybe it’s not so odd.

Somewhere in the middle of that, make second cup of coffee. Some of it will end up spilled on the hall table in the midst of the Battle of Finding-Things-and-Departing. Never mind: 60% of it will make it to its target, and I will slowly become a functioning adult human being. (Ok, I admit this is optimistic. But I am still not admitting that we’ll be late, so optimism is pretty much my morning modus operandi, until about 8:45–the time we ABSOLUTELY MUST LEAVE if we are to be on time.)

Time passes. This is always the mystery of the morning: where does the time between 7:30 and 8:40 go? I pack up laundry to be taken somewhere else to be washed: this is an admission of defeat. I manage to get the kitchen floor looking less awful. The boys clear away a good bit of stuff in the kitchen. Someone rouses the 14-year-old, who miraculously gets up and starts getting ready for school. I pack up the girls’ backpacks. How does this all take more than an hour?

7:45-8:30. Get 4-year-old ready for school. Insist that she put school clothes on even though she insists that she’ not feeling well and can’t possibly go to school. Remind her that the alternative to teeth brushing is not to have any. Remind her that socks instead of tights are a bad idea in January. (She tried this last week: I let her have the choice, and she admitted before she even got to school that it wasn’t a good one. Mummy was right.) Agree that she can have a sticker if she does anything at all, really.

8:25. Husband takes boys and laundry. 12-year-old spends last 5 minutes at home frantically searching for his keys and phone. (Poor kid is definitely ours.) Leaves with keys, without phone, dissatisfied with his organizational skills. Blow him a kiss from the window: he needs it.

8:45. Realize that girls are going to be late. Think: these children need a new mother. One who is on time for things. Clearly the 12-year-old has inherited his organizational skills from me.

9:00. Take 4-year-old to school. ‘Will we get there before the bell, Mummy?’ she asks. ‘No, darling. The bell rang 5 minutes ago.’ She decides not to play the game where she remains just out of reach as I try to come up with some kind of choice for her to make that will allow her to get in her seat without losing. And I try not to lose my temper. But today, nothing is lost.

9:05am. Arrive at school, grateful that we live so close. Realize I am not alone in being late to school. The kids don’t need a new mum; I just need to get over it.

9:15am. Time to get 14-year-old to school. Insist she brushes teeth. Try to do too much while she is doing that. Get to school late and realize that she’s not brushed her hair. Sigh.

9:30am. Arrive back home. Find 2 loads of laundry left behind. Sigh. I face the usual choice: how much of the domestic chaos do I attempt to order before turning to the writing project before me (the one I should have finished last week)? Make the usual decision and try to order too much of the chaos, and find the day slipping away, writing project staring at me from across the kitchen table.

11:00am. Despair.

11:10am. Write the 800+ words I should be adding to some writing project or other here on my blog. Hope I will live long enough to do some writing after the children are grown.

Noon. Might as well go to Mass. Although I fear I will just hang my head and weep, I know from experience that I probably won’t. And I need to repent of my despair and self-loathing, and remember that it’s not about what I accomplish in a day. Sometimes I forget what it is all about. Somewhere between the sign of the cross and the ‘go in peace’, I usually remember.

I just hope I don’t forget it again by tomorrow morning.

 

 

 

 

being human, part 2: on suicide

Humans are indeed created in the image of God. In us, God has planted the desire for eternity, and for true happiness–in other words, for God. The difficulty is that sin misdirects our desire and fools us into thinking that other things will satisfy us. Most of the stuff we see around us every day reinforces this false belief. Things cannot make us happy, no matter what the advertisements say.

We are also deceived in our self-image. That is, we are mistaken about who we are and what makes us good. The good that we are, and the good that we do comes from the Good itself: God. God created us in his image so that we might reflect it to one another and respect it in one another. This means, however, that we belong not only to ourselves, but to God and to our neighbors. So we are not meant to take our own lives in the same way that we are not meant to take the lives of others: they do not belong to us, to do with what we will.

But there is more. Choosing to live for the sake of bearing God’s image, when I am not sure I bear it clearly enough for anyone to make it out…is just not appealing. That’s when I think I ought to carry on because of the stuff that I do. If I am not around for my kids, for example, who will be? On a better day, I might even think about the theological work that I do. I should stick around; I might eventually do some good, when the dark fog lifts.

Wrong–for two reasons. First, the lifting of the dark fog is only ever temporary. Depression is a little bit like the weather. The sun may shine, but the rain is bound to return eventually. Second, and way more importantly, the good I might do, whether for my kids or for the world, is not what makes me significant. I tend to think that the meaning of my life is somehow bound up with what I can accomplish. (Nothing against accomplishments, here! They’re good.) It’s not true. God hasn’t put us in the world to do stuff, as if there were stuff he couldn’t get done on his own. The essential feature of human life is its relationship to God: to be loved by God, and to learn to love in return. That’s it.

Suicide might seem like the solution to the weary, grey, and lifeless burden of depression. After all, even if it does go away, the fog will return. Whatever happens after suicide, I’m guessing depression (as it’s related to  our way of being in the world in this life) isn’t going to be part of it. It’s hard to endure depression because it hurts, it slows me down, it makes me feel as if nothing I have done or will do justifies my existence on this planet. But what if my existence on this planet is already justified by God? What if I don’t have to do anything? What if God is like that teacher in Florida who compliments his students every day–if only I would come forward and listen?

Here’s what I have learned: self-respect is much, much more difficult than self-hatred. Hating yourself is easy: the whole world displays for us what we ought to be and do. And we fail. (At least I do–maybe some folks don’t.) So the natural response is to think, ‘I really ought to try harder. I could do better, couldn’t I?’ Then, when trying harder doesn’t do it, and I’m exhausted from the effort, I think, ‘Well, maybe I am just not good enough.’ Enter self-loathing. Self-respect, on the other hand, has to refuse the comparison. Self-respect has to be satisfied with what is truly my best effort and not reject it because it doesn’t produce the hoped-for results.

Maybe it’s good news, then, that self-hatred is sin. Not because now we can condemn it in one another–heavens, no! It’s good news because seeing this self-hating orientation as misdirection, as a turning away from God as well as an attack on self (an inward turning!), puts it in the light of grace. That doesn’t make it go away, but it does make fighting it part of the good fight of faith.

Deo gratias.