Strange times

I keep writing that: ‘Strange times we are living in’, I say. What I mean, I think, is ‘deeply unsettling times’. On the one hand, I rejoice at the recovery of the planet. I hope some crude oil remains in the ground, since we don’t need nearly as much of it at the moment. I am glad to read the news about clear air in India. And I am having a love-hate relationship with home-schooling. Since my 13-year-old hates school to the point of anxiety and borderline depression, I am happy that he doesn’t have to go. But trying to get the kids to do schoolwork is difficult, and trying to plan educational activities for them—things that they might enjoy doing that also count as learning—is even more difficult. There’s a reason I teach at a university and not at a primary or secondary school.

And it’s stressful. Teaching on zoom is weird. Maybe I will get better at it, but so far, I have found it completely devastating. It will take a while for me to get over the feeling that I am inarticulate and stupid. Perhaps I have always been inarticulate and stupid, and zoom teaching is only bringing the real me to the surface. That’s my worry, of course: I am the person who heard about impostor syndrome and thought, ‘Well, yeah, I understand that that’s a thing. But everyone really does know more than I do. Maybe even the students…’ I am the one person who really is an impostor, apparently. Shifting teaching platforms and expecting to lose my job (a half-time contract renewed every year) pushes all my ‘I am not worthy’ buttons.

And yet, I am not on the front-line. God help those doctors and nurses and all the people who keep the hospitals and doctors’ offices running during these ‘strange’ times. I cannot begin to imagine life as someone facing COVID-19 at work on a daily basis. I couldn’t come home: the risk to my daughter is too great. My husband and I are fortunate— working from home was already a reality for us a lot of the time, and working through the crisis is like trying to write a conference paper for early September during the summer holidays. Difficult, but not impossible, however impossible it feels mid-August. The stress of caring for the sick and the dying and of the possibility of infection, illness and death is beyond anything I am likely to experience, however long this craziness lasts. Thank God the people who are keeping the medical establishment running are keeping on.

Except they’re not, are they? I didn’t read the article about the ER doctor in New York who committed suicide. Why would I? It would be voyeurism. Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her, I say. She needs my prayers more than my curiosity about the circumstances of her death. How? I wondered when I first saw the headline, how did she commit suicide? A doctor would know the best way. I didn’t read on, because to do so would have been wrong. Not for everyone, but wrong for me. I’m so sorry for her, because I have a sense of what the approach to suicide is like, and it is awful beyond words. I’m sorry for her family, who will have lost a loved one to COVID-19 in a twisted and bewildering way.

Let’s face it: nobody is ok. Parents are not ok. Health care professionals are not ok. People who are out of work because of the crisis are not ok. Teenagers are not ok. My 16-year-old is really not ok. He should be preparing for exams he’s likely to have to take (though they’ve been cancelled) in September, but he can’t focus. He should be reading ahead for his new course of study (A-levels) that will begin in September. ‘It’s school without friends,’ he says. School was made bearable for him by having his friends around. My younger teenage son is not ok, either. He hates school, and got through at secondary by staying under the radar, doing the minimum required and not getting into trouble. At home, the threat of coming under uncomfortable school scrutiny disappears, and there’s no motivation to do anything academic. I discover, to my deep dismay, that the child who loved learning his whole life has forgotten what it is to enjoy learning. He can’t translate his curiosity into a desire to learn. I am sad for him, so sad. Families are not ok—not the kids, not the parents.

But it isn’t all bad, as hard as it is to live in the mess and the chaos and insubordination. The boys have moved from the bickering and fighting that characterises the first few days of any family vacation into the hanging out and doing things together that comes after that initial period of friction. Walks with the kids are more frequent; reading together is becoming more frequent; and watching Star Trek (TNG) with the girls each evening is a treat. And having compline streamed online from the monastery that is my soul’s home away from home is beyond a treat. It’s a lifeline, and being able to share it with the family in the living room is sublime, despite the kids’ grumbling and the livestream lagging.

These are strange times, to be sure. And we are definitely not ok. But I suppose if there is one thing that being a person dogged by a dark depression-cloud has taught me, it is that being not-ok is not the whole story. It’s not the whole reality right now, and it is not a permanent state of affairs. It sucks for now. So I am letting the kids have afternoon screen time, and opening the wine early.

When we don’t have compline with the nuns, this is one of my favourites. Pray it with me if you are so inclined.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake.  

 

Mind control

A few years ago, I was in the habit of reading the newspaper at the weekend. One of the UK papers ran a column-of-sorts in its weekly newsmagazine, featuring brief interviews with well-known people. Many of them I had never heard of before reading about their first kiss, their biggest accomplishment, their most treasured possession, and the like. The questions were not always the same, but one that recurred frequently was, ‘What would your superpower be?’

It just so happened that during that same stretch of time in which I was reading the paper regularly (or at least the weekend magazine–I make no pretensions to being interested in news in general), I was also engaged in a struggle against some darkness in my own life. It was ugly, and I never want to go there again. I really thought that if only I could get a person or two to come round to my way of thinking, the darkness would recede a little. Maybe even a lot. So my answer to the question, ‘what would your superpower be?’ came without any hesitation: mind control.

What foolishness, you think, and of course you’re right. But at the time (and you know how these things are), it seemed like a reasonable solution to the problem. Impossible, but otherwise perfect. Usually the superpowers identified by the folks in the interviews fit into the usual range: flying, invisibility, and that sort of thing. One day, though, I was brought up short by something completely different: to make people’s dreams come true. In other words, this interviewee wanted the ability to bring contentment to the lives of others.

Suddenly my own desire seemed vulgar and selfish, which of course it was. Probably not at exactly the same moment, but as a part of the same general process, I realized that the mind over which I most needed control was my own. I modified my desired superpower just a little: ‘mind control–starting with my own.’

Years passed. A couple of months ago, I was talking with my 11-year-old son, and the topic of abilities came up–not exactly superpowers, but astonishing abilities that might or might not be possible. I suppose it is a sign of my continued self-centredness than I can’t recall my son’s idea for a helpful power. But I do remember the very first thing that came to my mind: ‘perfect self-control.’ Though I hadn’t thought about superpowers in quite a long time, I remembered at once the struggle I’d had, and my old desire to manipulate others’ thoughts.

Somehow, in the intervening years, I had acquired a measure of the mind control I sought. Not perfect control, of course, but at least the desire for it. In my world now, distractions and vexations tug at me, and the darkness lies in anger and despair–when I lose my temper or find myself wanting the success or gifts of another. I would love to have the ability to resist the distraction and bear the vexation, to carry on with my mind fixed where it ought to be: on the road ahead, a road I think of as the path of discipleship.

I don’t have that ability. Not yet. Probably I will never have it perfectly. To desire it, though, seems the next best thing, and for that I am profoundly grateful.

Deo gratias.

not this again

It is, I confess, one of those days. Unfortunately they are all too common these last few months. You know, the days when it all looks and feels pretty bleak, no matter what the weather. The sun is out today, actually, but it doesn’t matter. I know that the world is full of people whose lives are desperate and perilous in ways I can’t imagine, that hunger and thirst and terrible loss are the daily reality of so very many people in the world.

And I am sitting somewhere warm and reasonably comfortable. I have family and friends. I am not hungry or in danger. I can say to my daughters and sons when they are afraid at night that there’s nothing to fear–and I know that it is true. They’re safe, and they’re loved, and they have enough to eat and the opportunity to get an education and to play sports. Privilege. Luxury. Not only that, but the assurance of a strong faith and a hope that is in God and not in any of that stuff that makes life easy for the educated (a PhD, no less) white girl from the suburbs.

It’s all good. And yet, the overwhelming feeling is one of despair. Misery. For no reason. Everything shouts at me: be glad! But I am not glad. Or, rather, even though I know with an absolute certainty that somewhere inside there is gladness and hope, I cannot for the life of me find it. I can say to my soul, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? And why so disquieted within me? / Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance and my God.”

Probably those two verses–or is it only one verse?–are the only reason I made it from 22 to 32, when there were so very, very, very many days like this. And here they are again, both the days and the bit of Psalm 42 (and 43) that got me through them. So, I guess I will say, with some frustration and petulance, “Not this again!” But that won’t be the end. It never is.

Eventually it will be that other thing again, that hoping and smiling thing, that thing that is not-depression. The joy will find its way to the surface of my consciousness and I will not only realize that the sun is shining, but I will feel its warmth and see how bright and beautiful the snowy landscape appears, bathed in its light.

And I will say again, with proper feeling: Deo gratias.

the widow’s mite

‘[she gave] all that she had to live on’ (Luke 21: 4).

Everything. She gave everything. Usually when I have heard homilies or read reflections on this text, the application has been predominantly financial. Giving out of our abundance is good; giving out of our meagre resources—giving ‘until it hurts—is better. And I wouldn’t want to deny that. It is a very good rendering of the way the words go. Giving what we can afford shows generosity; we can spend our discretionary income however we choose, and charitable giving is a Good choice. But the widow’s gift goes beyond generosity. If I were in the New Testament commentary business, I’d now be doing some research on the culture of giving in the first century. (I’d start with L W Countryman’s Rich Christians in an Age of Empire…) Because there is more to be said about this: I’ll pay close attention to future homilies on the text.

But there are other readings of this text. (See here for some centuries-old examples.) There’s an allegorical reading, I think, worth pursuing. Because money is important, and yet it is not ‘all [we] have to live on’. Very few of us will be called to give all the money we have to live on (probably at least in part because the culture in which we give is not at all like the widow’s culture; see Countryman). Discipleship is radical, though. The New Testament is full of parables and exhortations that call for a total trust in God, an unreserved giving of self in the hope that God will give back that self, infused with the light and life of Christ, which is the divine light and life.

All I have to live on names not just what’s in the bank. Even if I gave that away (and it isn’t strictly mine to give, but a resource shared with my husband and children: he makes more of that money than I do!), I would still ‘live’ on the love of my family and friends, my sense that what I do in some small way makes a difference in at least some small corner of the world; I ‘live’ on the enjoyment I take from the tree in the garden and the way it looks against the sky, whether blue or pale or charcoal grey; I ‘live’ on the hope that I still have a future, and I have hopes for that future; I ‘live’ on what I plan to do and the expectation that my plans will not all come to naught.

How do I hand that over? What would it mean to give all I have to live on? I would step into the darkness, emptiness, and despair that characterizes my most desperate days, the days when love and beauty and hope fail to touch my soul, days when emptiness seems a fate worse than death. Very many of the saints have been there, and spent long seasons in that place of anguish; Jesus went there, into the darkness and loneliness of abjection. I have been there, and I know not for the last time. To embrace that place of utter wretchedness and isolation is to offer up ‘all [I] have to live on’, to find myself once again in the formless void.

I hate that place. Because when I am in it, I cannot see. I am totally unable to recognize what I know more certainly than I have ever known anything else: that the Spirit of God is moving over the face of those dark waters. I only love that place when I have left it, when finally the Word sounds forth, fiat lux! Only then do I recall what I have always known, that the darkness was never really dark to Him; for He is the light that shines in the darkness—shines sometimes imperceptibly in the very blackest darkness—and the darkness can never, ever overcome Him.

Deo gratias.