A bit of UK politics: Tim Fallon’s resignation letter

UK politics is not something I know a lot about, actually. And it seems to be as much of a mess as politics in the US. But I noticed the resignation of Tim Fallon, leader of the Liberal Democrats, even though I hadn’t really followed the campaign closely. Fortunately, the letter was handed to me this evening, and I read it with great interest. If you care about Jesus, it’s worth reading, even if you don’t care about politics. So here it is (addressed to my husband, who is a member of the Lib Dems):

Dear Lewis,

This last two years have seen the Liberal Democrats recover since the devastation of the 2015 election. 
That recovery was never inevitable but we have seen the doubling of our party membership, growth in council elections, our first parliamentary by-election win for more than a decade, and most recently our growth at the 2017 general election.

Most importantly the Liberal Democrats have established ourselves with a significant and distinctive role – passionate about Europe, free trade, strong well-funded public services underpinned by a growing market economy.

No one else occupies that space.  Against all the odds, the Liberal Democrats matter again.

We can be proud of the progress we have made together, although there is much more we need to do.

From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith.  I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience.  Sometimes my answers could have been wiser.

At the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again – asked about matters to do with my faith.  I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message.

Journalists have every right to ask what they see fit.  The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.

A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.

To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.

I’m a liberal to my finger tips, and that liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.

There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it – it’s not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel.

Even so, I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in.

In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.

That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I intend to serve until the parliamentary recess begins next month, at which point there will be a leadership election according to the party’s rules.

This is a historic time in British politics. What happens in the next months and years will shape our country for generations.

My successor will inherit a party that is needed now more than ever before. Our future as an open, tolerant and united country is at stake.

The cause of British liberalism has never been needed more. People who will fight for a Britain that is confident, generous and compassionate are needed more than ever before.

That is the challenge our party and my successor faces and the opportunity I am certain that they will rise to.

I want to say one more thing: I joined our party when I was 16, it is in my blood, I love our history, our people, I thoroughly love my party.

Imagine how proud I am to lead this party.  And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honour.

In the words of Isaac Watts it would have to be something ‘so amazing, so divine, (it) demands my heart, my life, my all’.

Thank you,

Tim

 

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Psalms as personal prayer

Last week, I had the privilege of convening a symposium on prayer and the practice of theology at
images-5Minster Abbey
. Over the next few weeks, I expect I’ll be thinking aloud about that experience, for which I am profoundly grateful. The Benedictine sisters of the community joined with us, and a few shared with us something of their journey. This was a great blessing to all of us theologians present! I am glad to be able to pass some of that blessing along to you, in the form of my first ever guest post, in which Sr Johanna reflects on the experience of praying the psalms. 

What is it like to use the psalms for prayer every day and many times a day?  By God’s grace, my experience of praying the psalms daily now stretches over nearly four decades.  I shall try to say a little about what I have learned during this time.

For me, the psalms are one of the chief means by which I’m able to fulfil the call I received from God so many years ago.  How is this so?

Some personal background seems necessary here:  I was a “cradle Catholic”, who was taught her faith and who received the Sacraments in the way that was customary at the time.  I went to Mass and said my prayers, but without much grasp of what was behind all this.  And had any choice been available to me, I am sure I’d have chosen to leave the Church sometime in my teens.

It came, then, as a huge re-orderig of my existence when, in early adulthood, some seeds of belief that had been dormant in me began to put forth shoots.  Circumstances at that time conspired to give me a desire to explore my faith – and I did.  This exploration was the beginning of my serious practice of Catholicism.  I received the gift of faith in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit; also the gift of faith in the Church as bearer of truth for humanity.  And people!  People were very much part of this conversion – humanity loomed large.  I developed a hunger to be present to suffering humanity in a deeper way than was possible to me within the constraints of what was then a career in classical ballet.  How could I bring Christ to birth in the world?  I had received the grace of conversion, and I longed to be instrumental in that grace reaching others. I wanted to be everywhere and present to everyone, on the deepest possible level.

I began to look at religious orders.  I gradually realised that it was through prayer that my intense desire to be everywhere and present to everyone could be fulfilled.  This faith in the power of prayer was another great gift from this period in my life. Eventually, monastic life, with its strong emphasis on the apostolate of prayer, seemed the way forward for me.

Now, nearly forty years later, how has this panned out?  There are many aspects to a monastic vocation, but I’ve found that it is chiefly within the Opus Dei – the Divine Office – that I find that I can be everywhere and with everyone.  That is because of the prayer book that’s used – which is the psalter.

When I go into the chapel for the Divine Office, yes, it is a time for being with God in the deep places of the soul.  But, really, all humanity is there, too, because all humanity is represented in the psalter.  In the Divine Office, we sing the one-hundred and fifty psalms of the psalter through in a week, give or take.  The psalms become familiar – some become friends.  In the psalms we have theology expressed poetically.  We have the human person’s experience of God crystallized – I suppose that’s what one might expect of biblical poetry.  But, less predictably perhaps, we also have the human experience of being human expressed in the psalms. Every human emotion is there in the psalter: there’s praise and petition, euphoria and celebration; there are psalms of exhortation; some psalms refer to a congregation being there; others seem to be highly personal and private; kings and queens make appearances; shepherds, bulls, goats and rams; all Israel is there; the psalms tell the story of their exodus, of their election as the Chosen People of God, and of their failures: Israel’s infidelity is frankly admitted – again and again; but so too God’s faithfulness is confessed – again and again: the psalms testify with wonder and gratitude to his mercy and forgiveness.  It’s notable, also, that the psalmist’s states of disillusionment and abandonment by God are written large in the psalter.  The psalter’s pictures are not just the pretty ones about deliverance and forgiveness.  Unlovely pictures of anger and anguish, rage and raving are painted in vivid colours in these inspired texts.

All this diversity is glorious, on the one hand.  But on the other, how can I absorb it when I pray?  Can it all become “me” every time I go in to pray?  Perhaps the first thing to say in answer is that the psalms aren’t just about “me” because prayer isn’t just about me. I wanted to be present to others when God called me.  The psalms in their diversity bring others to me and enable me to hear about their experiences as each psalm unfolds, verse by verse, day by day in the Divine Office.  In praying the psalms it becomes possible to pray from the perspective of others, and in solidarity and empathy.  I can take the psalmist’s experience and claim it as my own, pray it as my own. 

The monastic writer, John Cassian, writes in the fifth century that when we pray the psalms over time, it will be like this:

Unknown-1[The one praying will] take in to himself all the thoughts of the Psalms and will begin to sing them in such a way that he will utter them with the deepest emotion of heart [emphasis mine] not as if they were the compositions of the Psalmist, but rather as if they were his own utterances, and his very own prayer…. [c.f. Conf X:11].

How does this happen?  Is the every-day experience something that always involves the “deepest emotion of heart”?  Well, of course, there are good days and bad days, as is always the case with any human endeavour.  But, on a deeper level, it may be  important to say that the concept of the heart for the ancients had connotations that we don’t automatically think of today.  The heart, for Cassian’s original audience, is really the most important part of the inner being.  It includes the mind, but it is also to do with the will, the place of deepest inner truth, of self-dedication, firm decision, profound responsibility.   So when Cassian talks about the deepest emotion of the heart we need to understand something that has more permanence and stability than we usually attribute to the emotions, maybe akin to a kind of “groundedness” in truth, I think.

And the psalms can take us there.  Many of the psalms are composed in the first person.  This allows a species of “transference” to take place, because when we pray things like “O God whom I praise, do not be silent, for the mouths of deceit and wickedness are opened against me” (108:1), or “When I think I have lost my foothold, your mercy Lord, holds me up” (93:18), or “I am beset with evils…” (39:13) and so on, the “I” in any given psalm can become our “I” when we’re praying, no matter what our mood might be at that particular time.  In this way, the psalms become not only a mode of praying, but also a means of self-transcendence, and of empathy.  The psalms enable us to say to humanity, “I am praying not merely for you, but as you”.  We can pray the psalms from within the very consciousness of the one represented by any given psalm.  This allows us to put our own “stuff” to the side, and really listen to and pray from the perspective of different “stuff.”

This may raise the question, what about the angry psalms – often called the cursing psalms – where the psalmist is ranting and raving and just lets it rip against his enemies.  What about them?  Should we be embarrassed about them, and try to hide them in a dark corner where no one will notice them?  Emphatic no!  I am so glad my community prays them and doesn’t leave them out.  They are so important! It’s to do again with listening to humanity.  Every good listener knows that when someone has been deeply hurt, the hurt person cannot arrive at forgiveness immediately.  Stages need to be negotiated.  Shock and denial usually come first, then a kind of mixed-up experience follows, that alternates between the acceptance of what happened and rage that it happened at all; forgiveness of the one who caused the hurt is usually way down the line.  The rage must be allowed its place in the healing process or the capacity to forgive the one who caused the pain is compromised.  In the angry psalms we find here the honest admission of anger within a relationship of prayer dedicated to the healing process.  So we are identifying with those who are in that very painful place of hurt and rage.  We don’t judge anything the psalmist expresses – that is not our role – we just allow it to be.  This might happen to be cathartic, also, for the one praying – but it’s not by any means the whole story of what’s happening when we use the angry psalms for prayer. 

We’re also learning something extremely important about God in these angry psalms.  We’re learning that we have a God who allows us to say, “THIS IS UNBEARABLE” in bold print, underlined three times, with six exclamation marks, and who doesn’t mind.  At all.  The Jewish boast, “What other nation has its gods as close to them as our God is to us,” could be interpreted in this sense: that God wants us to bring him everything, not just the nice presentable bits of ourselves, but the really raw bits, too, the whole kit and caboodle, our entire inner life. The angry psalms help us to do this. 

On the opposite end of the scale perhaps, are psalms which my express states which we feel unworthy to call our own: states of innocence, maybe.  Or holiness.  The New Testament Canticle, the Magnificat, might fall into this category.  It’s not actually a psalm, strictly speaking – but we pray it every night at Vespers, so I think it deserves a mention.  We might think, ‘How can I, a twit and sinner, pray the Magnificat.  How can I say, “henceforth all ages will call me blessed”, for example.  Again, the Divine Office is not just about me.  St. Augustine says about psalmody that sometimes we pray in the voice of Christ our head, sometimes we pray in the voice of his members.  Here, we pray in Our Lady’s voice, and in our way, we allow her words to continue to resound in the Church.  Imagine the impoverishment to the Church if, out of a misguided humility, the Church had no tradition of praying the Magnificat!  In the Magnificat, we are recalling, re-presenting, the astounding fact of Our Lady’s immaculate heart.  She knew that it was all God’s gift – and says so in the canticle.  We are praying in hope that we might receive a like gift of purity of heart – to return to one of Cassian’s favourite themes.  Admittedly, the Magnificat is one of those prayers that are too big for us, and maybe we feel like the child trying to walk about in its parent’s shoes when we pray it.  We need to “grow into” it.  But, people, by God’s grace, do grow into it.  It’s not a futile hope.  He does give the gift of holiness.  Saints are real people.  I was just reading about the recent martyrdom of a group of Missionaries of Charity and their volunteer helpers in Yemen.  I suspect they felt themselves to be pretty ordinary people.  Yet, now all ages will call them blessed.  

And, a few words about singing.  In the fifth century text I quoted above from John Cassian, he refers to singing the psalms – which indicates that this was an accepted practice.  To give a proper treatment of why singing is a good way to pray the psalms would require another talk.  Again, from my personal perspective as an ex-ballet dancer, music is highly important to me, and I am so grateful that this long tradition of singing prayer exists.  The psalms were first used in Jewish worship, and they were composed to be sung there; the poets intended this when they wrote them.  The link-up between music and meaning is extremely close in these works; music wasn’t an afterthought.  So it’s arguable that the psalms come alive most fully when the words are integrated with music.  There are other reasons, too for singing.  St. Benedict says, “Let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.”  He’s talking about the power of music to keep us focused and recollected.  Singing integrates more of the body into the act of worship than is enlisted in reading silently.  In singing you involve the eyes, the ears and the voice most obviously.  Less obviously, you have the effect of musical rhythm.  Even if one is singing while standing or sitting still, this rhythm is felt by the whole body.  Music also elicits a response from the emotions – beauty and pathos can be expressed even in a simple, repetitive melody.  Song, further, is an aid to memory.  A snatch of a verse from a psalm may return to me later in the day because melody has a way of coming back and back.  This is how it works for me.  And I am so grateful that music and psalms have been partners in my vocation for nearly 40 years.  

I am never alone when praying the psalms, and this is not just because I pray them in the liturgy and in community.  Many people pray the psalms privately, and they, too, are not alone.  This is because the psalms, you might say, “refashion” the heart of the person praying.  Our hearts tend to be self-concerned, but the psalms fashion a heart that is “other-concerned” because that is the way the psalms are.  One of our Oblates, Maude Felicity, offered the insight when she read this talk that the psalms give one a “communal heart.”  And so perhaps Cassian’s phrase that we “utter the psalms with the deepest emotion of heart” refers to this communal heart that is, over time, formed within the person who prays the psalms.  Therefore, through the psalms, our narrow, personal concerns can widen out, as we learn to take on the concerns that each psalm places before us.  When I say to individual people that I am praying for them, I know that the psalms enable me to pray for them in depth.  I can pray not only for the particular thing they have requested, but with reference to their whole person, the whole state of their heart.  This is what I felt called to do nearly forty years ago.  Thanks be to God for showing me the way.

May 2016

Sr. Johanna Caton, O.S.B.

Minster Abbey

How newness enters the world

Once upon a time I was a graduate student with time to read and discuss postcolonial theory. Gradually I built up a repertoire of books written in rhyming couplets, though, and my time for the likes of Homi Bhabha (who wrote the essay whose title I’ve taken for this blog post) dwindled.

Even as a keen grad student, I had to read Bhabha’s essay about three times before I could work out exactly how it is that newness enters the world. Since the essay is well-crafted and enjoyable to read, the repetition wasn’t a chore. After those re-readings, I came to the understanding (right or not) that the social-historical-cultural world really does move forward in the grinding of big structures (as the structuralists have it), but that is not the whole story. Change emerges in the interstices, Bhabha argues; newness slips in along the fault lines. At this distance from my reading and re-reading, that remains my basic impression.

In the intervening years, my reading of books by Sandra Boynton and Julia Donaldson (two writers at the very top of their game), the children’s literature, and the raising of the children have come to play well together with post-colonial theory . Now, I might sum up the argument of Homi Bhabha’s essay as something like: newness enters the world at points of transition and emerges slowly; or, newness doesn’t barge into the world boldly, but slips in at the corners, gently, so you hardly notice it until is well underway. That is, the grand, tectonic changes begin as tiny fissures and grow so gradually into mountains and rivers that you only see them once the landscape itself alters.

Looking at Bhabha’s brilliant theory now, it seems somehow obvious. At least, as a mother, it seems obvious: the changes of childhood are enormous and powerful, but it is impossible really to watch them happen. Change happens–in the world and in children–as the grass grows. So the really trite saying about the little things being the big things, which one hears occasionally, turns out to be true. But it isn’t true for the reason that I used to think, or at least not only for that reason. I used to think that the little things, the things we do for each other daily, really do become the big things as we look back on the building of relationships and the growing of families and communities. That’s true.

It is also true, however, that changing the world is not something that mostly get done by people whose Great Deeds make the news. No: the world is constantly changing, and you and I are the ones changing it. The thing is, and maybe this is what Homi Bhabha was trying to tell me all those years ago, we don’t always see ourselves in that way. We fear that we do not make a difference. Nothing appears to change as the result of what we do or fail to do, however grand our gestures may be. Not so! If we think that, we do not see our own great power, which lies in the very small opportunities to ‘be the change’, as the saying goes.

The trouble with newness and change is that we want to see it. We want to see results when we extend ourselves, trying and hoping to shift the hills. But newness enters the world behind us, as it were, in our tracks. And if we keep looking behind us to check whether it has happened, we will lose our way entirely.

I suppose, if I were not a person of faith, I might just stop there. But I cannot forget that there is one more thing that’s true about newness and change in this world, and that is that they have already happened. What I do in the way of making change is simply to walk in the good works set out for me by the Author of this world and its Redeemer. So the business about looking back is doubly important: if I spend all my time turning round to see what a difference I have made, I will lose sight of the one who is the Difference, whose love brought the world into being and has redeemed it, and is restoring it all the time. This is not work I do by my own power; this is my participation in the Newness of All Things that is the work of the One in whom they all hold together. So all I do really does matter, and yet the burden or changing the world does not rest on my shoulders: it rests on the shoulders of the One who carried it up to calvary.

Deo gratias

 

 

 

Being human, part 3: the spiritual life

I’ve been thinking a lot about the spiritual life lately. Not, of course, that it’s ever too far from my mind. As a teacher of those preparing for ordained ministry, I always considered the pastoral and spiritual implications of the theology and ethics I taught. And as a person of faith, I have found the spiritual life an integrative force in my life, which often seems like a patchwork of roles and responsibilities and hopes and disappointments. Woven through the various scraps of fabric, there is this sense of purpose that draws in everything–yes, everything–and orients it toward a bigger-than-I reality.

Although my recent thinking about spirituality has been inspired by the situation of women in colleges and universities and the challenges facing them, I’ve been struck deeply by the universality of our need for spiritual well-being. An article by David Morstad, over at The Larger Table, points out that people with significant intellectual disabilities have as great a desire and need for spiritual nourishment and community–if not greater–than those with greater cognitive abilities.

A sense of spirituality–which might be as simple as the notion that there is a reality bigger than we are, that holds us and draws us forward–seems fairly standard and unobjectionable. The category of folks who consider themselves ‘spiritual, but not religious’ attests, I think, to this foundational place of spirituality in our lives. But that isn’t to say that ‘spirituality’ is somehow what religion is really about, or that the practice of any sort of religion or spirituality is the same.

What our various approaches to religion and the spiritual life should teach us, I believe, is not that religions are all the same, or even that ‘religion’ is a thing that means the same thing to people who practice different religions. Rather, our continuing openness to faith and spirituality, and the persistence of faith-based values within our society, ought to remind us that, however much divides us, there is much that we nonetheless share. Being human involves forming a view (insofar as our capacities allow us to do so) about what it is to be human, and this is a task that involves a great many of us in spiritual reflection in addition to philosophical and scientific study.

As Lent begins, Christians around the world pay renewed attention to the life of the spirit.  I hope that this Lent will be a time when the universality of our need for grace also awakens in me a deeper awareness of the unity of the human family. After all, Jesus’s prayer for us as he entered into his suffering was that we might all be one. May it be so.

Deo gratias.

 

the alternatives

I will admit that sometimes God seems callous and distant. You know those moments when your life seems adrift in a storm, and prayer consists mostly of panicked cries of ‘Lord, do you not care that [I am] perishing?’ Answers never come immediately when I pray that way, though if I am able to recall that Jesus is the ultimate storm-calmer, that’s usually ‘answer’ enough.

In the worst of those moments of faith-testing, I consider the alternatives. If the storm in my life is pure chance, and there isn’t really a God who can save me, then what? Well, I’d be out of a job, for a start. There’s not much point in teaching theology or writing books on the Church (my next project) if God doesn’t exist. But that’s not what pulls me up short–I fantasize about going to medical school (I’m older than Patch Adams, so it really is a fantasy) and saving as many children of the world as I could. Even without going to med school, I can think of work I might find fulfilling.

You might also ask about ethics, morality–how would I live? How would I order my life? I wonder about that, too. But I know some amazing people who believe a whole lot of different things; I have a respected friend who is an atheist, and other friends all over the world-religions map. Although as a Christian theologian and ethicist I think we have something unique and life-giving to offer, it’s not a moral vision. (We have one, and I think it’s good and true. But it’s not the main thing we have going for us as Christians.)

And there are all sorts of little things that would have to change about my life if I gave up on God. But that’s not the reason I don’t give up. (Of course some will argue that I don’t give up on God because the Holy Spirit continues to draw me to Jesus. Fair enough. But keep reading, anyway, please.) The real reason (now my students, if any of them are reading this, are going to laugh) I don’t give up is that it is a mystery.

I don’t mean just that there is a profound mystery at the heart of the Christian faith, which there certainly is. I mean that it’s all a mystery. The reason that bad things happen to good people is a mystery, whether you believe in God or not. Unless you believe, I suppose, in reincarnation, and blame the unwarranted bad things on sins committed in a previous life, it’s just a mystery. And here’s where I come back to God: I find myself making a choice not between a thing that doesn’t make sense and a thing that does, but between mystery-with-redemption and mystery-without-redemption. It’s always a mystery. But I come back to Wisdom 8:1, over and over again: wisdom ‘arranges all things delightfully’, even if that delightful arrangement isn’t revealed until the end of time.

At least that’s the way I see it. Maybe that’s the gift of faith; if it is, I can only say Deo gratias.

the interruptions

It would be wrong to think that the interruptions have no bearing on what happens between them. The interruptions make the ‘between’ fruitful. I have, of course, heard the saying about the person trying to work and constantly being interrupted, only to find that the work was the interruptions. And that’s wise, as far as it goes. But somebody had to have a moment, between those interruptions, to think that, and to write it down.

That’s the purpose of my “between”: to stop long enough to think, and to write things down. I know without a doubt that the possibility of spiritual growth for me lies not in the quiet but in persevering despite the noise, confusion and vexations of daily life with children. Being with my children in all the occupations of our life together forces me to go slowly, to place someone else’s experience at the center of my attention. This does not come naturally to me. Not remotely.

So of course sometimes the vexations have the upper hand, and I am what CS Lewis (we’re listening to The Silver Chair now) might call “out of temper.” Fortunately there are small mercies–the children’s simple love, when it comes to the surface, a moment of quiet, a day or two on retreat (oh, heaven!), or an email from a friend (reminding me of God’s constant presence). And in conversation and in stillness, there’s time for a tiny bit of reflection. That’s what happens between the interruptions.

The relentless chaos of life with children and the priceless moments of quiet between their demands for attention form two parts of a whole. I can’t say I always value the chaotic side–hence calling it “the interruptions.” But the fact of the matter is that the ‘between’ would have little meaning without the work of parenting, which requires a form of attention that usually precludes reflection. If I am not fully present with the children, they know it. Something as simple as brushing my 3-year-old’s teeth requires my full attention. (Nursing a baby, especially one’s third or fourth, might just be the exception: I planned two book-length projects while nursing my third child.)

When I stop to think, or to write, I find that the my faith is formed in that crucible, not in the quiet. The small and insignificant things, the merely annoying and not-at-all-grand forbearances are like sandpaper buffing my hope and love, painfully. Moments of solace and reflection are gentle like a polishing cloth, clearing a surface here and there, and allowing me to see the One whose shining face is always there, in my children and in me, who is the Love that holds us together in the interruptions and between them.

calm before the storm

Thinking about Elijah today: how does he know (in 1 Kings 18:41) that the rain is coming? (See thinking coram Deo for more on that.) I recongize that I am in a strangely quiet space: no blog posts, almost no tweets, hardly any writing even in my own journal–when pen and paper have so often been my tools for navigating difficult times. But the quiet isn’t peace–it’s like the eerie calm before the storm. I am just waiting to see whether this storm will be a violent thunderstorm or the soft summer rain.  

All I really know about the future, really know, is that God is there. That has to be enough.