A 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.
I can account for the hiatus in posts: last week I was in London for a day exploring the theology and practice of accompanying people with intellectual disabilities through experiences of loss, especially the death of loved ones. Although this isn’t one of my areas of experience or study, I was interested in the journey of accompaniment. What I found was that, like any other interpersonal adventure, the way forward requires less map-and-compass skills, and more listening and patience. Good navigational skills are necessary, but not sufficient, for walking with someone through the valley of the shadow of death–whether the death in question is their own or another’s.
In doing things with my young children, I frequently find myself repeating “slowly and gently”–it started with stirring cake batter. “Slowly and gently.” Then, as my youngest started trying to descend the stairs: “Slowly and gently.” This has never been my strong suit. Doing things slowly and gently and attending to the details requires time (of which I seem always to be in want) and patience (ditto). As I listened to the speakers throughout the day, this phrase came back to me. The journey of accompaniment, at any stage of life, is about going slowly and gently.
Slowly and gently becomes not only advice for toddlers learning to stir; it changes the way I approach theological questions. Attending to the person with me, the person with an intellectual disability, impresses on me the reality of each person’s creation in the image of God. What is it to be human? It is to be in relationship with God, and that relationship originates with God and not with us. Ours is the capacity to receive the relationship God offers us continuously. The question for theological anthropology then becomes, ‘What does the disabled body (including the disabled mind) reveal to us about God?’ If what obscures the image of God in the first place is sin, then intellectual disability is not necessarily something that obscures the image of God. In and through that disability, God is revealing himself, revealing transcendence, divinity.
Because this is so, there are two important features of spiritual friendship with a person with an intellectual disability. First, the relationship that person has with God is no more or less than ours, though it will be expressed differently and experienced differently by us. The obstacles we encounter in relationship with people with intellectual disabilities are not obstacles for God. Relationship with God is not impaired by cognitive impairment. (Sin does that.) The second feature of that friendship is that the revelation of the divine through the divine image is not a one-way street, from those of us who are aware of being made in the image of God to those who are not. We ought to be looking for God’s image in the faces of those with intellectual disabilities, and expecting to find God’s self-revelation there.
But we will only see it if we go slowly–slowly and gently.
This week I have been talking a lot, to anyone who will listen, about liturgical catechesis. More on that later, but if you’re interested, you might have a look at Sacrosantcum Concilium, paragraphs 4-13, and/or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1066 and following. What does it mean to attend to the liturgy? To participate fully, with understanding? How can we (the laity) be helped in our participation? These are the questions I have been asking myself. I can’t say that the answers are to be found in the day’s Mass readings, but my mediation for the day (from the manuscript, again) is at thinking coram Deo.
Wednesday, I failed: wifi access in the hotel in Rome was too patchy. But Thursday and Friday, I posted. Copying the links, though, was been a challenge I was not able to overcome. There is a link here to thinking coram Deo, if you want to catch up. My wi-fi access at the airport ran out before I could post this!
I have to acknowledge my debt to feminism. Teaching theology would never have been an option for me before feminism. Feminist pioneers not only in theology but in social and critical theory broke the ground and laid the foundations of the ‘building’ in which I now pursue my academic work. I am grateful for that; I love what I do. I also appreciate the hard choices that lots of said pioneers made in their own lives so that I would not have to choose between being a professional and being a mother.
So I didn’t ‘choose’. I try to do both. With countless other women, I feel like a near-failure most days and a total failure every other Wednesday (or something like that). The thing is, I look around me and see that the women whose careers I most envy are those who pursued them in the most traditional way–without the interruptions that forced me to abandon this post last week. I returned to it this morning, though, because I heard an interview with a successful woman who works in the City. Her observation about women’s success in her line of work? The highest achievers are those who ‘work like men’: unencumbered by the school run or the child off sick from school. She is free to stay late, to dash off to a foreign city at a moment’s notice, because her husband is covering the childcare.
Don’t mistake the wistfulness for a negative judgement. Dividing up the domestic responsibilities is a delicate undertaking, and reversing the ‘traditional’ gender roles is certainly one option. Around here, though, it’s much more messy: daily conversations about who is doing the morning or the afternoon school run and what’s for dinner are the norm. And I certainly can’t complain about my lot. I have an incredibly supportive husband who has always done more than his fair share, considering that he (like the woman on the radio this morning) is the ‘primary breadwinner’.
What worries me about the various arrangements we devise, whether we’re in paid employment or working our tails off at home, is that very often we regard the ‘stay home with the children’ option as a ‘sacrifice.’ We could have been at the top of our game in some line of work, but we chose to give it all up for the sake of the children–as if raising children doesn’t require us to be at the top of our game. We sacrifice ‘doing something’ or ‘being someone’ in the world for the obscurity of the domestic realm. (I’m trying hard not to rant, here, and may not be succeeding; sorry.) I worry about three things in particular. First, I worry that we’ve forgotten that being devoted full-time to one’s children is a privilege. Not every mother has that choice. Second, I worry–and this is the thing that drives me to distraction–about the value judgement implicit in the language of sacrifice.
But–in the third place–I worry about how the feminist achievements of my forebears have shaped our imagination. Subtly (and sometimes not so subtly), we are being taught that women ‘can’ in a way that is all too easily converted into women ‘should‘. And that, I think, is just as insidious as the old way of thinking–women ‘can’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’. The status of motherhood seems not to have changed. It’s just that some of us are allowed (encouraged?) to moonlight as mothers while keeping our day jobs. The more important stuff still happens in the ‘world’, not in the home.
Nonsense. That’s just nonsense. Raising human beings from infancy to adulthood is of ultimate significance. Now I am not saying that ‘therefore, mothers should all stay at home.’ I don’t. I try, and usually fail, to do both. Some women don’t have a choice, and some choose careers that take them away from home a lot. I am not saying that’s bad; my 7-year-old proudly proclaimed to a friend on the playground once, ‘my mummy’s a professor!’ (Only a lecturer, really, but who am I to correct my enthusiastic son?) What I am saying is that we really ought to remember the ultimate significance of what happens in all those moments we do have with our children, as we accompany and guide them on the most important journey of their lives: growing up.
I remember when I was in college the requirement that ‘attractive alternative beverages’ be served whenever alcoholic beverages were being offered–so it never became a choice between a tasty alcoholic drink and some cloudy tap water. Sometimes it seems as if the potential for success in the workplace looks like a beautifully-executed mojito or an exquisite pint of beer, against which the potential for nose-wiping and car-pooling appears as a glass of lukewarm tap water in a plastic cup. That’s the shaping of imagination I want to resist. I want to remember–and it’s so easy to forget–that both paid employment and home-and-family keeping provide opportunies to work extremely hard and not always be recognised for it (really!), opportunities for exhilarating moments, and the potential for self-realisation. I want to see motherhood as the old-vine zinfandel next to the Oregon pinot noir of paid employment.
Remember that billboard advert (for cigarettes, I think): ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’? Well, I (at least) still have a long, long way to go.
It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that reading Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology has had on my life. No, I am not a Barth scholar. Nor have I read through the Church Dogmatics as I thought I would when I was twenty-something. But in reading that little book of Barth’s I fell in love with theology. Oddly, it isn’t a book I re-read–I’ve read Middlemarch three or four times now, but Evangelical Theology just the once. I recommend it, I assign it, I return to bits of it.
That is, I find myself trying too hard at the wrong things, sometimes, and not hard enough at the right things. My noviciate in the blogosphere has taught me that I am most emphatically not alone. If I am unique (yes, I know, we all are), it is because I am a unique combination of shared experiences, concerns, ideas, gifts, and needs, each of which I have in common with countless others. This is a Good Thing, though it doesn’t always seem so; and the response to feeling ‘ordinary’ is not always a healthy one.
What worries me about my adventure in this sphere is that it sometimes seems to be about being noticed. So I have been thinking a lot about popularity, and the pitfalls of popularity. I was encouraged and challenged this morning by wise reflections on the Rule of Benedict from Sr Catherine (@Digitalnun): the gifts we have been given must be exercised in humility and love in order to make us, as she says, ‘great’. But even this greatness doesn’t make for popularity. Sometimes gifts are exercised wonderfully well in small places. Sr Catherine drew from Chapter 31 of Benedict’s rule: the instructions to the cellarer, which I have always found inspiring as a parent.
One of my take-away phrases, which I have on the fridge, is ‘fratres non contristet’: do not upset the brethren. (It just looks better in Latin on the fridge.) St Benedict is explaining how to respond to an unreasonable request. Not harshly, he says, but gently. If the request is outrageous, the response should not be so, lest the brother or sister be upset by the refusal. Now this, I submit, is a key element of parenting: seventeen outrageous requests before breakfast, right? At least that’s how it is around here sometimes. The gifts of the cellarer, and those of the parent, are gifts exercised in small spaces, in the house or the car; sometimes in the grocery store or at the park or the library. Parental greatness is a huge, and hugely important quality, but it doesn’t often get recognised beyond the confines of the family. Greatness of this sort doesn’t always get you noticed.
I am not a great parent. I do not always succeed in responding calmly and gently to the most outrageous requests. Sometimes I do ‘great’ things: I find everyone’s PE kit, even the missing shoe, and the ‘lost’ reading book, and all this before the dreaded leaving-for-school time. To do that cheerfully is to exercise the very simple gift of attentiveness in the way I ought to. Although my sons and husband happily repeat after me, ‘mum is awesome’, I’m not winning any medals, not acquiring more followers on twitter, or on this blog. No speaking requests are coming my way because I sent my daughter off to school with everything she needed, and did it with a smile.
It is too easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking that the measure of my success, my ‘greatness’, is somewhere in cyberspace, or on my CV, or in teaching evaluations. And truly there is something to that (especially that last thing, I think): I have gifts to exercise in teaching and writing, and I ought to do what it takes to do well at my job. But if I want somewhere to practice exercising my gifts with humility, in love, I am better off digging in the cupboard for the missing shoe: no pretensions to grandeur there! When I have tried hard enough at the small things, perhaps I will be less prone to try too hard at the ‘big’ ones.
I’ll tell you what my novitiate in the blogosphere has taught me: I’m ordinary. My experience is just human, and my reflection on that experience is just as human. I knew that, or at least I sort of knew that. And I don’t even really have anything peculiar to say about it. As Matt Jones put it so eloquently today, ‘being human is crazy.’ And it’s not easy. My favorite David Foster Wallace sentence (from the commencement address I blogged about a couple of weeks ago) is:
The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people, and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad, petty little unsexy ways every day.
Yep. And he didn’t even have children. The daily routine he describes in that commencement address doesn’t involve a 9-year-old shouting that it’s all your fault, or a 2-year-old clamoring ‘up! uppppyyyy!’ while you’re trying to peel carrots or help the 6-year-old with his reading. I listened to his address again while my girls were in the tub, and heard this sentence in the middle of the dreaded hair-washing, I think. Definitely having an unsexy moment, there.
My real hero, though, isn’t David Foster Wallace, as insightful as he was, God rest his soul. More than just about anyone, I admire Jean Vanier. Although he’s a renowned person now, having been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, among other things, he didn’t set out to create an international network. L’Arche was his home, and he shared it–at the beginning–with two young men who required unsexy sacrifices every day. I don’t admire him because he was successful, or because he’s a wise and caring person. I admire him because it has always been about being faithful to the teachings of Jesus.
Jean Vanier makes the ordinary radiant with the love of God. Would that I had an ounce of his spirit of tenderness and faithfulness. I want to escape the ordinary, the ‘crazy’ that is being human every day. But freedom and faithfulness are not in the heroic acts–or the brilliant and widely-read books-that make me say, ‘wow’. Nope. Freedom–the ‘most precious’ freedom–and faithfulness are in the power to stay, to stay calm…not to shout back at the 9-year-old or lose patience with the 2-year-old, but to persevere in tenderness.
That’s the hard, hard work of being ordinary. I’m glad I am not alone in doing it.