Advent

My children are involved in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. If you have never heard of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, think of it as catechesis, Montessori style. During Advent, the focus of the sessions is (for the older children, ages 6-12) on the prophecies. This morning, I was with the upper elementary (ages 9-12) group, who were reading through part of Ezekiel 34–the Good Shepherd. We read through the familiar (to us grown-ups, anyway) text, and one verse struck me particularly. “The lost I will search out, the strays I will bring back, and the sick I will heal…” (verse 16, NABRE). And the people will know that God is God because he will save them.
 
We don't have to figure it out first. We don't have to find our way home: God will gather “the strays.” We think of Advent as a time of preparation, as we look forward to celebrating the miracle of the Incarnation and to the return of the Lord in glory. But I find it very easy to lose sight of the relentless love of God and God's unstoppable salvation as I prepare. I should prepare my heart, I think, clear out the junk that gets in the way of receiving Jesus. And I should prepare my house, so that the space for celebration will be festive and welcoming. In so far as possible, I should help my family prepare, especially my children. After all, it is so difficult for them to focus on the coming of the Lord when all around them the focus is on preparing for Santa Claus.
 
God and my children have something to remind me, though: it is the Lord who comes, and his salvation is with him. The miracle is that God has turned the hearts of his people (1 Kings 18–a wonderful narrative) back to him. The miracle is that God breaks into our hearts and into our lives, and into our world. No one has ever seen God–we can't! “No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made him known” (John 1.18). Christmas isn't something I do. Christmas is something God has done and is doing. My kids know that. They know that Christmas happens, and they expect it with joy.
 
So, I have strayed; God will bring me back. My soul is sick with sin; God will heal it. I have been lost; God has found me, again and again. To prepare for Christmas is to remember this, over and over, and to rejoice in it. Advent is joyful expectation, hopeful preparation, for Christ has come into the world.

Standing still

I should be writing about tenderness. (Apologies @NDLiturgyCenter…) Or I should be washing Anna’s hair. But I’m not. I’m here.
 
And that’s precisely the point. I am here. I know that this shouldn’t come as a shock, but it occurred to me (finally) today that God doesn’t call us to a vocation and then put us in a place where we cannot practice it. At no time since I started down the road of academic theology have I seen that vocation change. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many times I thought I was doing such a horrible job of my mothering and my academic work that I ought to give up the latter–not being able to relinquish the former, of course, or at least not as easily. Each time, however, something happened to confirm again that I was called to keep doing what I am doing. So I have carried on.
 
But it proceeds so agonizingly slowly. So slowly, in fact, that I feel like I am standing still. We had a great time having Wesley Hill with us this weekend–great conversations and an interesting conference as well. As I listened to Wes and Lewis talk this morning–about books and people in their respective fields–well, I listened. Didn’t have much to add, except the “Who is that?” and “So, what, exactly, is the argument of that book?” I read. But I don’t keep up. Not by a long shot.
 
The academic discourses to which I once thought I would contribute have moved on, and it seems like many of the people who are moving them forward are younger than I, with more recent PhDs. Usually when I observe this, it makes me yearn for the day when the kids will all be in school, when I can ‘catch up’, and focus on the academic game. Madness lies that way: I am not going to catch up. I read slowly and write slowly, and that isn’t going to change. And thinking about catching up both stresses me out about a future totally unknown to me and robs me of all the joy of today, of right now.
However it may appear, I am not standing still. Maybe the movement is as yet imperceptible (the Spirit of God brooding over the surface of the water…) but the thing about that calling to be a theologian is that it isn’t just something I will get to do when the kids are grown up a little. It is something I am doing now. I am just not doing it very quickly, or very publicly. My theological conversations happen in the personal realm, not the professional, and I am more likely to be away on retreat than at a conference.
 
I want to make sense of this. I want to know what this is for. Why have I come down this road? But I can’t. I can only pursue my calling right here, between the hair washing and the laundry folding, and in the hair washing and the laundry folding. I don’t know why I’ve gone this way. But I do know that where I am, God is, and I am not going to find peace by looking elsewhere.
 
Deo gratias.
 

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.

Some Sundays

Every once in a while, the children do wonderful things at Mass. Sometimes, of course, they do the sorts of things that make me want to tear my hair out, or–more likely–to alternate with my husband, so I can go without the children. But no. That’s not really the way forward, is it? So I remind and bribe and plead…and sometimes they are miraculously good, and amazing things happen.
 
Today it was Lucy’s turn to remind me of the truth. Not that she was especially well-behaved: she decided at one point that the reason everyone was standing was so that she could run noisily up and down the pew behind us… We (the four of us over the age of 8) had received communion and returned to our seats. Communion wasn’t over yet; people were still receiving. Lucy got a little wriggly and talkative, forgetting the ‘whispering voice’ we like to use at church. So I talked to her a bit (using my best whispering voice) about what was happening, trying to explain why she should be quiet just then. In the course of our conversation, I asked her what it was that the priest was giving to people. ‘Peace,’ she said. Of course: ‘He is our peace.’
Good thing I wasn’t there on my own. See what theological insight I would have missed?

old news

Packing up the house means I need every bit of old newspaper–or, in this case, the weekend magazines from the various papers we’ve had over the years. Usually there’s a recipe or two we wanted (my caponata recipe, for example), and the magazines ended up in a heap in the kitchen. Until last week, that is–when I started packing china and glasses, and ran out of actual newspaper.

I’ve read some interesting stuff–restaurant reviews; why cheap Barolo is not worth buying; the ‘invention’ of slow medicine in San Francisco by a doctor who was doing a PhD on Hildegard of Bingen. But today I discovered a story I’d missed in February 2010, about how a very small girl was failed horribly by her mother, extended family, neighbours, and the entire social service network. She starved to death at the age of three, in conditions unspeakable, in an English town. Her mother is now serving a 12-year sentence for manslaughter, her step-father fiive years for neglect and cruelty–or something like that.

What are people supposed to do with a story like that? I crumpled up the first page of the article, walked into the kitchen (away from my own children) and burst into tears. Thomas followed me, oblivious, saying something about Cristiano Ronaldo. I let him keep talking while I recovered myself a bit–he would have been in an even worse state had I revealed what it was that had upset me. I recovered myself, though, threw the crumpled-up paper in the bin, and carried on packing. But I will be haunted by that story now, and to no particularly good purpose. What can I do? I pray for the repose of the soul of that little girl.

Doesn’t make me any less sad. How do these things happen? I look at my own little girl, who is three. I pray for children around the world who don’t have what children need–especially attentive and patient love. The suffering of children breaks my heart. Every single time I hear a new story of neglect, every time I remember an old one. It makes me want to take God by the shoulders and give him a good shake. Are you paying attention to this? I want to ask.

Then I remember where God lives in the world now, and I realise that God is paying attention. Wherever I am paying attention, God is there. When I remember little Tiffany and all the other children who suffer in this so-often-cruel world, God is there. My heart doesn’t break on its own, it breaks together with the long-suffering heart of God, whose tender compassion and mercy flood my own soul (on a good day).

That doesn’t answer my most pressing question, though: why didn’t God do anything? Why didn’t someone there, at the time, DO something–that’s how God tends to work in the world. Wasn’t anyone listening? All the theology I read, from the Bible to yesterday’s blog post, helps me not one bit with that question. I know all the ‘answers’, and none satisfies.

And maybe that’s right. Maybe my heart is meant to stay broken open until the redemption of the world. That’s what yesterday (the Sacred Heart of Jesus) and today (the Immaculate Heart of Mary) are about: living God’s love in the world is a joyful occupation, but it means living gratefully and joyfully with a heart that is perpetually broken.

I think I am going to go hug my three-year-old now.

 

my feminist paradox

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. 

support from the saints

I was very glad to read a post about parenting that draws on St John Chrysostom and St John Bosch–and recommend it in the very highest terms to all parents, actually. Not only can Christians (especially Catholics, perhaps) learn from the wisdom of the saints, but the advice is practical and makes good sense. Reward good behaviour; it’s more effective. Remember that a ‘reproachful look’ communicates censure as well as a blow–if not better. And never resort to ‘the birch’ out of anger; that’s not disciplining the child but giving way to temper.

Excellent stuff. And it helps me especially, because I have long been slightly uneasy with St Benedict’s advice: ‘If a brother has been reproved frequently for any fault…yet does not amend…let him feel the strokes of the rod’ (RB 28). What? Finding that recommendation took me by surprise, and I have wrestled with it as a parent who looks to St Benedict as a guide in prayer, Christian practice, and parenting. The qualities of the abbot and the cellarer seem desirable for parents as well. But this counsel–not so much.

The counter-argument from St John Bosco is most welcome: ‘force, indeed, punishes the guilt, but it does not heal the guilty.’ Good parenting advice from those whose ‘parenting’ was spiritual rather than biological.

Deo gratias.

What my three-year-old taught me about the body’s grace

You know that essay, the famous one by Rowan Williams, 'The Body's Grace.' He wrote it in 1989 and it was first delivered as the 10th Michael Harding memorial address. Then it appeared as a pamphlet, and was reproduced in volumes of essays edited by Charles Hefling and Eugene Rogers. I distinctly remember where I was the first time I read it: in my carrel in the basement of the theology library at Duke. “…that God desires us as God desires God…” Really?
 
At the time, I could not conceive of it. Of course it was appealing, mind-boggling, and changed the way I thought about sex and sexual relationships. When I married Lewis three years later, the light had begun to dawn. Although I had written off the idea of falling in love, and having that be a real thing, not just infatuation, or something that happens in movies (they say 'happily ever after,' but you don't get to see what that looks like), I had to admit that there might be something to it. (I said as much at our wedding reception.)
 
But I still had no idea, really, about this grace. Still, and I think this is the case in Rowan's amazing essay, it was about the sexual meaning of the body. The enjoyment and desire remained in a sexual register. Yet what I learned as I had children was that there is something else–not to say more–that is graced, and grace-filled, about the body. I remember saying to a friend when my first-born was still very small that it was very sensual but not at all sexual.
 
This is hardly surprising, and is probably the testimony of mothers from the beginning of time. I love having children, and I am especially fond of babies. When my son, who is now seven, was three, though, I learned a more significant lesson. One morning I was dressing, and he came into the bedroom. His eyes lit up when he saw me. Now I wasn't keen on what I looked like without too many clothes on, but he was obviously delighted with me. To be close and to touch my skin was a great pleasure for him. It was as if he appreciated the skin, the body, of this person whose body had borne him and fed him (until he was two-and-a-half!), not because of its objective beauty or potential for giving “joy”, as Williams says. No, the skin and the body were desirable because they were mine.
 
I had always had trouble with “God desiring us” because the context in which it was set was so sexual. Sure, sex is good, but it isn't everything. Something about the way my son responded to me (and not just on that one occasion, but for many months) broadened my understanding of the body's grace. Desire comes in lots of forms, and intimacy has many dimensions. I always knew that, sort of, but it has become much more real for me as I have been a mother. My son has a little sister, who, at two-and-a-half, is very much the same way–she likes to curl up next to me on the sofa (or anywhere, really) with her head resting on my bare stomach. If she's in the room with me when I am dressing, it always takes longer. There is a deep mutual affection and intimacy that characterises my relationship with my children, and it is not remotely sexual but equally profound. And I find it much more powerful, actually, to think that God desires us, fragile and fallen human beings, as I desire my children, and–even more–as my children desire me. Their pleasure and uncritical joy in my body has taught me more about the body's grace than anything else I have ever encountered.
 
I was reminded of all this by a video I saw–what our kids see when they see us. As a mother, I felt the same way as those interviewed: I wish I were more patient, attentive and calm. But what the kids said (really, the video is worth watching) brought back to me this truth about the body's grace. And it put into words what my children have said with their gestures and expressions and touch.
 
Is that the way it is with God? Is that what mercy means? Is it my children's uncritical joy that erupts in heaven over the repentant sinner?
 
I sure hope so.
 

The Trinity for toddlers, part 2

Teaching theology affords an incredible opportunity to see how people cope with a doctrine that resists the intellect's instinctive attempts to solve it. It is not, as theologians like Rowan Williams and Thomas Weinandy (two very different thinkers, to say the least) have observed, a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be pondered. It's a mystery. Rowan Williams says, drawing on the resources of Eastern Orthodox theology, that 'the doctrine of the Trinity is a crucifixion of the intellect.' So it isn't surprising that students of theology, whether giving the lectures or hearing them, find it difficult.
 
But it doesn't crucify the intellect to no purpose, nor is it the most difficult of the mysteries of the faith. We might think that Jesus is the answer, but he raised a whole lot of questions for a few hundred years. The incarnation and the atonement present us with mystery just as irreducible as the Trinity. The intellectual life of the believing soul involves contemplating the truths of the faith while holding fast to the knowledge of God's ultimate incomprehensibilty. And nowhere is this more true than in that most difficult, deal-breaking area of theological reflection that we call theodicy. The problem of evil is not, like the Trinity might be, a stumbling block just for the intellect. It confronts us when inexplicable and unjust things happen to us or to those we love, things that make us turn to God in confusion, wondering how a God who is omnipotent and perfectly, completely good, could allow such things to happen. I understand how it ends up being a deal-breaker.
 
I used to wonder why I still had my faith, after all I did to lose it, and after it was challenged by my experience of life. Eventually I came to see that it wasn't 'mine' to lose, really: it is the faith of the Church, and I participate in it, I don't possess it. But that doesn't explain why I am still hanging around. Probably I owe that to my mother, who taught me lots of songs about Jesus when I was small. They're not the sorts of songs that survived the 1980's, but they impressed upon me a certain understanding of Jesus, one that stayed with me. The core of what I think about Jesus was formed before I was old enough really to be puzzled about how someone could be fully God and fully human.
 
So I am really glad that when my small son asked me, 'Who is God?' I answered with reference to the Trinity, with the sign of the cross, with the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I could have answered, as I supposed might be more practical, with something about God as the creator, or God as love. These would have been good. But at age three, my son never asked how the one I called God could also be called the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It isn't like we grow up and suddenly the penny drops, and we grasp how three can be one, how one can be three; we don't mature intellectually such that if we wait long enough to introduce these difficult concepts, we will be able to understand them. Better to get used to a name that names something we don't understand from the get-go, and grow into appreciation of the mystery as we develop intellectually and spiritually.
 
Now I can imagine lots of objections to that, but they will have to wait for another day.

with angels and archangels

We never had a plan for taking the children to Mass, beyond taking them to Mass. I've read the strategies of really organized parents, in awe of their attention to detail and advance preparation. I am not that organized, and I take full responsibility for that. If walking around outside with the toddler is what it takes, then that's what we do. And we have had some pretty unpleasant moments with the children during Mass.
 
I remember going to church with my mom when I was a child. We always sat in the front row (effective, I think–at least there you're bound to notice something, as my kids sometimes do). She gave me lifesavers, tropical fruit flavor, which were really quite effective. (Banana and coconut were my favorite.) My kids don't particularly like sweets (which is otherwise great), so that's not really an option for me.
 
As they get older, the still-and-quiet routine gets easier. Getting them really to attend to what's happening, though–that's another story. One Sunday recently Iain (just before he turned 7) dug my iPhone out of my bag and started playing can knockdown during the liturgy of the Eucharist. However displeased I was, I wasn't willing to incite loud and angry protest in the front row. So he might have looked like he was kneeling piously….but no.
 
That's not to say I don't have certain hard-and-fast rules. Everyone stands and says the Our Father. And that makes me happy. (Honestly, it does.) I am always trying to strike a balance: on the one hand, I want the children to begin to grasp the significance of what's happening; on the other hand, I don't want to make the experience of going to Mass into an hour-long prison sentence every Sunday. And I find myself holding in tension the need to express my own spirituality by engaging with the Mass, and the need to attend to the children, who are engaging on a very different level.
 
Sometimes I fail. (Shocking, I know.) But those moment are the moments when I am most grateful for the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Last Sunday, between policing Iain on the iPhone and discouraging Anna from trying to engage the kids behind us in conversation, I completely lost track of where we were…until suddenly my attention was grabbed again, just in time to join in the Sanctus: '…with angels and archangels…'
 
Joining in. That's what it is about. It is about taking part in the ongoing praise of God that happens in eternity, for eternity. Not about perfectly behaved children, or about the quality of my singing (I'm terrible). I think some weeks I depend completely on the angels and archangels to glorify God, as I am working to keep my children from storming the sanctuary. 'Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church…' indeed: the faith of the Church, like the liturgy, does not depend on me. It is. However focused or distracted I am, the worship happens, the Mass happens. Knowing that is incredibly humbling as it is freeing.
 
In his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII wrote:
Jesus Christ burned with zeal for the divine glory; and the offering of His blood upon the cross rose to heaven in an odor of sweetness. To perpetuate this praise, the members of the Mystical Body are united with their divine Head in the Eucharistic sacrifice, and with Him, together with Angels and Archangels, they sing immortal praise to God and give all honor and glory to the Father Almighty (71).
 
'Zeal for the divine glory' seems pretty far from many of my Sunday experiences. If I am burning with anything, it is probably way less holy than that. But I know that's what it is about: participating in the self-offering of the Son to the Father, in the Holy Spirit. All we do is respond to the love of God as it comes to us through Jesus. And even our response is helped by the Spirit (my attention just happened to be drawn back to the liturgy at the Sanctus…).
 
Deo gratias.