on weakness

These days are dark days, the days when Job’s lament (which I read out, in part, to a class on Monday) seems to voice the despair of my own soul–I, who have lost nothing and have healthy children. My darkness is of a different kind, and is heedless of all the good (and lack of it) in the world. So I have little to say. Luckily teaching means reading and re-reading, and today I find comfort and inspiration in the words of an encyclical more than six decades old.

For as the Apostle with good reason admonishes us: “Those that seem the more feeble members of the body are more necessary; and those that we think the less honourable members of the body, we surround with more abundant honour.” Conscious of the obligations of our high office, we deem it necessary to reiterate this grave statement today, when to our profound grief we see at times the deformed, the insane, and those suffering from hereditary disease deprived of their lives, as thought they were a useless burden to society; and this procedure is hailed by some as a manifestation of human progress, and as something that is entirely in accordance with the common good. Yet who that is possessed of sound judgement does not recognize that this not only violates the nature and the divine law written in the heart of every man, but that it outrages the noblest instincts of humanity? the blood of these unfortunate victims who are all the dearer to our Redeemed because thy are deserving of greater pity, “cries to God from the earth.”*

In all those who suffer or are in need, in all those who are small and weak, we ought to see Christ. Why is this so hard? We long to see Jesus–and here he is, right here. If only we had eyes to see him, we would find our heart’s desire.

 

*Pius XII, Mystici corporis (1943), 94

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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?

All the angels and saints

Late last night, I received a text message from a friend, asking whether I had a meditation for All Saints' Day. No, I had to reply, I didn't. But I felt I should. The saints are essential to my Christian life, and in one way or another always have been. One way or another, I say, because there was a time when I would not have been so eager to ask, as we do when we say the confiteor, for the prayers of 'all the angels and saints'. When I was small, it was the 'ordinary' saints, the living company of the faithful, who guided me. At least they pointed me in the right direction; I didn't always follow their lead. In college, I began to appreciate the 'saints' in Hebrews 11, especially as they form the 'cloud of witnesses' who surround us as we follow Jesus.
 
But the picture is bigger than that. The saints–those who have gone before us and stand before the throne of grace–play a vital role in the spirituality of my everyday life. There they are, on the mantelpiece beside my bed: the Blessed Virgin and child, the Holy Family, St Michael the Archangel; there is my San Damiano cross, which I wear everyday to remind myself of St Francis's holy life. When I say 'all the angels and saints' in the confiteor, I mean it. I mean that I need their prayers. And often the invocation of the saints reminds me that I am not alone. There is a whole company on this road, and the company keeps pressing on.
 
The fact that it doesn't depend on me, that the saints are already the church triumphant, liberates me to pray, to worship, to receive forgiveness and to hope that I can live the life of a disciple of Jesus. The life of the church is carried forward by the saints and saints-in-the-making, and all the saints share one vital characteristic (if you can call it that): being made holy by the Spirit of Holiness. Saints don't shine because they're polished; they shine because somehow they let the light of God show through them. I want to be like that, and I realize that there is no formula for getting there. There is no recipe for saint-making, just a Spirit who blows where he wills. 'Fixing our eyes on Jesus' (Hebrews 12) is the main thing. The church depends on him, he is the vine; he is the author and perfecter of our faith; he is the one in whom all things–perhaps most especially the communion of saints–hold together.
 
But that's not all. The communion of saints, the universal church, covers me when I go astray. 'Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your church', the priest prays, and the words always come as such a tonic to my soul. The faith of the church is the faith to which I cling. It is no product of my own heart or my own mind, but it belongs to the communion of saints. In the words of Rich Mullins, 'I did not make it…it is making me.' The faith of the church is something strong, lasting, and perfect.
 
It would be wrong to think, though, that the strength of the church's faith means I can just take a seat and wait for heaven to come to me. No: clinging to the church's creed is sometimes hard work. That's where 'taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ' and 'working our your salvation' and all those passages in the New Testament that make the Christian life seem like such hard work come into play. It is easy to forget–at least it is easy for me to forget–that holding onto what the gospel says to us in Scripture and tradition does not come naturally to those of us trained and formed by a world that doesn't believe any of it, and hopes in very different directions.
 
Whatever it is that seems to threaten my Christian life, it's not new. The challenges, temptations, and doubts that come my way are not unique to me. Whether I think I have done well or badly, I haven't done anything totally unprecedented. The saints have already been there.
 
And this is a good day on which to be grateful for that.

More grace

I picked up Frances Young’s book, Face to Face, recently. For the past few years now I have been working in the area of theology and intellectual disability. Now I have come to see that in a very real sense, my way forward has been trodden already. She writes:

…the other trouble is that most of us do not have our eyes open to see he miracles of grace. They are to be found in such ordinary, unremarkable, simple things that we do not even notice. We think our worship is dull, and miss the movement of the Spirit in the secret places, the everyday saints, who are there among us by we dismiss them as ‘old so-and-so’. In my experience the church is capable of transcending the divisions in our society, it is capable of integrating the odd and unacceptable, it is more sensitive to basic human values than wider society. It can act as leaven, and we should not disparage this. Maybe we all need to go on a voyage of exploration into unlikely places to meet unlikely people — not the great ones of the world but the marginalised and afflicted who will teach us what true human values are. Certainly it is Jean Vanier, the founder of the l’Arche communities where Christians live with handicapped people, who writes with the greatest depth these days about community life. But the purpose of such a journey would be to open our eyes, so that we can return to the places where we belong and begin to discern those values where we are (1985, pp. 84-85).

My next book project focuses on the church, specifically the life of the church as Christ’s body. John Swinton asked me in April whether this ecclesiology I hoped to develop would touch on the issues in intellectual disability we’d been discussing. Then, I said yes, but was conscious in my explanation of stretching the project I had envisioned to include these concerns. Now–thanks to Frances Young’s book–I am beginning to see where to start: with the things I struggled to include, the people we as a church struggle to include. I wanted to think about Christ’s body active in the world, reaching out in love. But before I can do that, I have to reckon with Christ’s body broken and rejected, for that is the source of the church’s life.

I am going to need a lot (and I mean a lot) of grace.