‘offer it up’ –on the feast of St Josephine Bakhita

Don’t worry. I’m not especially proficient at this particular mode of self-denial, which seems, as far as I can tell, to preclude complaining or fretting. The first time it was ever offered to me as advice (I wasn’t raised by a Catholic mother), I had arrived at Mass and it was absolutely freezing. I said as much to the friend I’d just joined, and he whispered back, ‘offer it up.’ Say what? I thought. But I’m cold. (Also, I’m in England, where griping about the weather is something of a national pastime. So how can I just bear it without comment?)

I’ve chewed on that phrase, though, in the intervening years. Along the way, I have noticed instantiations of the practice that are inspiring. I mentioned three in class the other day that somehow have worked their way into my consciousness and stuck fast. 5611The first, not surprisingly, is Mother Teresa‘s saying ‘give what he takes, and take what he gives.’ I’d never heard it before I listened to the collection of her ‘private’ letters. (The audible app reads me books while I am picking things up off the floor, ironing, etc.) It struck me with particular force as I reflected on the spiritual richness Mother Teresa
enjoyed very early on, which left her so soon and never returned. Although I don’t recall her saying so explicitly, it seems clear that she regarded even that spiritual barrenness as something ‘taken’ and so she chose to offer it up, to give it willingly rather than resent the loss of it. Not that it wasn’t incredibly painful and exhausting; but it did not destroy her faith, however tempting it is to believe that she ‘lost’ her faith. Jean Danielou, in a beautiful passage from his book on prayer, says that going to Mass when you feel nothing (as Mother Teresa did daily) isn’t hypocrisy; it is an act of faith.

The second example I gave to the class was Josephine Bakhita. Despite her suffering–from  childhood through adolescence, in her life as a slave–Josephine Bakhita did not become bitter. While she was still a slave, she became a Christian; after she was freed, she became a nun. unknown-3Toward the end of her life, she often was in a great deal of pain, and confined to a wheelchair. Nonetheless, when asked how she was, she always gave the same reply: ‘as the Master wishes’. With that phrase, I think she offered up not only her present physical pain, but all that she endured in her life. I can’t imagine how she did it, how she maintained her composure, and remained cheerful. Surely having suffered so much should count for something; God ought to have taken that into account and spared her the pain of her illness later in life. Obviously that’s not how St Josephine regarded the matter. I guess that’s why she’s a saint, and I am not.

My third example comes from an entirely different walk of life: Pope St John XXIII. I confess to having got a bit bogged down in his Journal of a Soul, though I find the narrative of his early life fascinating. His piety reflects the era in which he grew up, and I find it almost alien. But then, he was the Pope who called the Second Vatican Council, and I am a thoroughly Vatican II Catholic. It’s not surprising that his Christian upbringing in Italy at
the turn of the century should seem so different to someone who grew up at the end of the 20th century in California. All that aside, though, one sentence he spoke in confidence, near the end of his life, reveals (to me, at least) the character of his faith: ‘Now I understand what contribution to the Council the Lord requires from me: my suffering’ (Journal of a Soul, xxviii). Although he opened the Council, he became very ill; he died in June 1963, having seen only one of the sessions through.638064928-incense-burner-john-xxiii-prayer-visit

Pope St John XXIII’s observation says something, though, about this business of offering it up, something that I don’t find in either Mother Teresa (or, I should say, St Teresa of Calcutta) or St Josephine Bakhita–something about the mystery of undeserved suffering. If we read resignation into the words of Mother Teresa or Josephine Bakhita, we read something more like ‘rationalisation’ in the words of John XXIII. But I don’t think it is as formulaic as that. Because there is no way that suffering from an excruciating and terminal illness can contribute, in human terms, to the work of an ecumenical council. All human eyes can see is John XXIII’s absence from the council. But his words are an act of hope. In his agony, he cries out to the Lord–whether audibly or not–like the psalmist, like the Son of God.

And in the suffering willingly accepted, two things happen. In one sense, the sufferer joins his or her pains to those of Christ, as St Paul describes in Colossians 1. What is suffered with Christ and in Christ is suffered on behalf of the whole body of Christ. In another, related sense, the sufferer stands in the place of the one who cries out to the Lord in the day of trouble. This is, in Psalm 49 (50) exactly what God requires of God’s people: ‘call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall honor me.’ Not a sacrifice of money or pigeons, but a sacrifice of thanksgiving. ‘Offer it up’ with thanksgiving, yes. But I think this maybe doesn’t preclude complaining after all. Offering it up means taking all the agony–and mere annoyance–to God. Isn’t that what Jesus did in the garden? ‘Father, all things are possible for you; remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’

So I can still gripe, and hurt, and grieve; I can, and should, call upon the Lord in my day of trouble. The tough part is believing in the rescue, even though it may not come until the end of time. That’s hope–what Danielou, in that same wonderful book calls the most difficult of the theological virtues. That’s what Mother Teresa, Josephine Bakhita, and John XXIII all had. Hope. Not hope that things would be better tomorrow, but hope in the One who is making all things new. Even me.

Deo gratias.

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mothers in Rome?

At his General Audience this week, Pope Francis lauded mothers and the work of mothering–not that this is anything new or unusual. The Pope frequently recalls his own mother, refers to the Church as our Mother, and reminds us to call on Mary, our Mother.

But it has long bothered me that the praise of mothers and motherhood doesn’t carry with it an open ear to the wisdom that work often produces in those who have been trained by it. So it was nice to hear that worry reflected in Pope Francis’s words: “the mother is rarely listened to or helped in daily life, rarely considered central to society in her role.” Not only that, but “in Christian communities the mother is not always held in the right regard, she is barely heard.” And yet, in Pope Francis’s words, “human and spiritual formation” comes from mothers. Not, of course, that fathers and grandparents and others do not contribute, or that every mother does this unfailingly. (Heavens no!) Here Pope Francis echoes the Council’s teaching on the family. For example, Gaudium et Spes 52 describes the parents’ vital role in the spiritual formation of children, and Lumen Gentium 35 says explicitly that, in Christian households, “husbands and wives find their proper vocation in being witnesses of the faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children.”

Because I am a mother, I suppose, I take these themes in the Church’s teaching in LG, GS and elsewhere very much to heart. Although I do a lot of ‘other’ things–teaching and writing in various contexts–I find the growing edge of my spiritual life in the daily work of being a mother. Mostly it’s the building up of patience and humility that I need. The practice of love requires both, and doing the “petty and unsexy” things (to quote David Foster Wallace) for my children has been the way forward for me in the familial school for the Lord’s service. Certainly there are countless other ways to develop the necessary disposition for Christ-like love; this just happens to be mine.

And being a mother–especially a mother of a child with Down Syndrome–has shaped my theology and my whole way of thinking about the world. Pope Francis says, “mothers are the strongest antidote to the spread of self-centered individualism…mothers…’divide’ themselves, from the moment they bear a child.” I’m not sure I would have put it quite that way before, and I am a little embarrassed at the way Pope Francis praises mothers. I’m not all that good at it, not that self-sacrificing. Still, I know what he means here, and I have heard other mothers say similar things. I used to say, when my older children were still babies, that it was as though my center of gravity was somewhere outside myself. Now, my eldest is 13 and my youngest is 3, and I realize that I haven’t given up my body for a finite period of time. No, long after the carrying and bearing and nursing are done, my body still somehow belongs to them as well. I don’t understand this, and I don’t doubt that some mothers would disagree. (And I expect that fathers experience something similar and yet distinct, and that parents who adopt experience the process of dividing in a different way, but no less intensely.)

This is not to say, of course, that mothers are somehow superior. (Good grief, no!) But I would argue (yes, argue, and I don’t do that unless I really think it’s necessary) that mothers have a particular contribution to make to the upbringing of the Church. It is no accident that we consider the Church our Mother, and that we look to the Mother of our Lord as example, guide and help. That this is all so, and that the Church has not found a place for the wisdom of the mothers within her is a little disturbing. Like the society that takes advantage of “the readiness of mothers to make sacrifices for their children,” the Church has praised mothers “from a symbolic point of view.” Maybe this persists because mothers don’t make sacrifices for their children in order to be praised or heard beyond the bounds of the family. It would be silly to expect that, and constantly disappointing. The children themselves don’t listen–unless mine are the exception!

Mothers do need the Church. Pope Francis is right about that. But does the Church not also need mothers? Does the Church have nothing to learn from the mothers who have kept the faith, and who have raised their children to do likewise? This to me is an amazing achievement. Moreover, it is one of the key things St Paul asks of bishops in Titus 1:6. Bishops (or “elders”–St Paul uses both terms in the passage) should be “blameless,” have been married only once, their children should be believers, and they should not be accused of debauchery or rebellious. Bishops nowadays usually don’t raise children in the typical manner. So the criterion isn’t employed.

But maybe St Paul was on to something here. Maybe there is something about raising children (and this for mothers and fathers alike) that shapes us, that makes us fit for leadership in the Church in a particular way. It would be wonderful to see the Church take advantage of that wisdom and experience in the way that St Paul recommended. Lay people have something to contribute to caring for the body of Christ. I don’t know much about the hierarchy, not really. But I do know it’s not impossible for laypeople to become cardinals. What better way to take seriously the wisdom of those who have served the Church by raising their own families than by recognizing them as equals in care-giving in the body of Christ?

Of course, maybe by then the mothers (and fathers) would rather settle down to a quiet life. I don’t know. I am not there yet. It’s just a thought.

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.

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.