No safe paths

‘There are no safe paths in this part of the world.’

So says Gandalf, as he prepares to leave Bilbo and the dwarves, who are about to enter Mirkwood. Bilbo wished for another way, a way around the dark and sinister-looking forest. But even the very long way around the forest–hundreds of miles out of the way–isn’t safe. And so it seems for us,  in a time of political uncertainty, social unrest and moral conflict–not to mention the constant threat of terrorism: there are no safe paths.

So little of our world is like the Shire and so much of it is like Mirkwood. But few are the Gandalfs in our world, warning us not to leave the path. It seems to me that we have forgotten what the real dangers are. Suffering and death are not the real dangers: they will come anyway; they are a part of life. The real danger is that of spending all our time and effort in avoiding suffering and keeping death at a distance. In so doing, I think we miss so much of what life is about. Too much concern with safety and comfort is perilous.

Gandalf understood this, perhaps. Tolkien seems to have grasped it, anyway. I am afraid, however, that we who live without hunger and fear are too easily persuaded to prize safety and comfort unduly. It is hard, when we are concerned for our children and our way of life, not to believe that safety and comfort are of the utmost importance. Two things ought to be said, though. The first is that I believe in safety: I make my children sit in car seats and wear seat belts, I don’t let them wander, and I probably protect and comfort them to a fault. Even so,  I cannot protect them from skinned knees and broken bones, or from disappointments or failures. And even the comfort a mother can offer does not take the pain away. But they are remarkably resilient. They recover. And they’re not afraid of trying again when the first time was painful or even disastrous. I think of my 5-year-old daughter’s constant cartwheeling. She improves gradually. Sometimes she bangs a foot or ankle, or her arms give way and she crumples to the mat. But she gets up, always, and tries again.

So–and this is the second thing–there’s nothing wrong with valuing safety and comfort. The danger is that the concern for our own safety and comfort, so natural and understandable, begins to shape our attention to the world in ways we are no longer able to see. Then, we fail to move beyond the confines of our safe, comfortable world. We become blinded to the way in which our safety and comfort come at the expense of others’ basic needs. It doesn’t have to be so, obviously. But it’s pretty hard to know how far my comfortable life, and the products and privileges that make it so, would not be possible without the unevenness of the distribution of wealth and power that keeps millions of people in poverty. My having more than enough cannot be completely unrelated to others’ lack.

Let me be clear, though: I am not inviting you to join me on a guilt trip. I eat meat. I drive a car, even sometimes for pretty short trips. I buy snacks for the children that are packaged in too much plastic film. I don’t always recycle everything I should. I drink coffee from Starbucks and even occasionally let the kids eat McDonald’s. I live in the middle-class world and I won’t pretend I don’t like my safety and comfort as much as the next person.

What frightens me, though, is the idolization of safety and comfort. Comfort is no longer a privilege, but a right, and safety as basic a need as hunger. None of us are wholly safe, and we don’t even realize the dangers that threaten us. What we will pay for safety or false security–that worries me. And the expectation of comfort so common in the children of the middle class (like mine)–that worries me.

It’s the lights of the fire and the smell of elvish food that ultimately lure Bilbo and the dwarves from the path through Mirkwood. Were they enticed by safety and comfort? Perhaps. And they almost get eaten by spiders, and they’re captured by the elven king, and they nearly lose their way entirely. Staying on the path is hard, and you don’t even have to believe that it’s the “narrow path” of being a disciple of Jesus to know that that’s true.

Our lives are a journey. There is a path. It leads through dark forests. We will not always be safe. We will not always be comfortable. But what we need is not more cushion and more protection. We need courage. We need hope. Because, really, there are no safe paths in this part of the world.

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Fifteen years

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The church in which we were married

Whether fifteen years is a long time to be married depends on your perspective, even if you happen to be the couple celebrating the 15th anniversary. As it happens, we are. A lot can happen in a decade and a half, for better or for worse. We’ve had our share of the ups and downs and joys and sorrows of married life. Nothing too interesting there.

One thing that has long bothered me, though, is the feeling that I’m not feeling what I ought to be feeling. As cynical as I am about the portrayal of romance in Hollywood, and as committed as I am to ‘as long as we both shall live’ (and not ‘as long as we both shall feel like it’), I worry that I should experience certain emotions more than I do, that I should not only be devoted, but I should (always) feel devoted. You know, that in love feeling that carried us into marriage. I have a friend whose love story is enviable. Everything points to their still being in that same love, in the same way they were when they said ‘I do.’ And I envy them.

Because of this envy, and because of my worry, I read blog posts and articles about marriage, and how to make it last. I’m absolutely committed to the lasting, and I don’t think our marriage is in any danger. But I believe that making it last must involve some things that might make what we have better, so I keep reading. What I have found is that some of the advice tells us to keep up the good work–we’re already doing what the successful couple does;  some of the advice seems good, and I intend to follow through on it…but often I don’t;  and some of the advice seems like a pair of jeans that look promising but don’t really fit.

We can learn a lot from each other, I think–that’s why I read the marriage advice and suggestions. But one of the most important things that has come of my study of the top tips to keep your marriage strong is a sense that we’re doing all right. This, I submit, is the most valuable help I could have hoped for. Because there’s nothing like feeling like something might be wrong to make you think that something is really wrong. Just knowing that there are couples out there who are working hard at their marriages makes me realise that not everyone is as lucky as my friend. We have been carried into this thing called marriage by a love that was bigger and stronger than we were–at least that was my experience. No wonder we have difficulty keeping hold of it.

So, for those of us whose experience of getting married was that tidal wave of bliss, marriage must be a process of growing into that love. The thing is, though, that the Love is not only bigger and stronger than we are, it is also as unique as the two of us who share it. Each love has its own measure, its own character, its own rhythm. My own experience of marriage has much in common with the spiritual life: there are periods when obligation carries me. That’s not inauthentic. It’s that same love carrying me in a different way. It feels different, of course, but it carries me all the same.

In those times, those times when the bliss that swept us to the altar seems to have been swallowed up in chores and errands, it’s the psalms of exile that speak to me: remembering and hoping; remembering the joy of being at home, in one’s own country, in the love that feels like love, and hoping for the tide to come back in and wash over us again. The psalms of exile remind me that the experience of desolation, even in marriage, is just another part of the whole. In a culture in which marriage is held up as the antidote to loneliness and an essential component of ‘happily ever after’, it is liberating to know that sometimes in order to remain in love, we have to live in hope. So whatever love happens to feel like today, whatever form it takes, it is still carrying me just as surely as it did on this day fifteen years ago.

Deo gratias.

hope in difficult times

11986612_1707051179515358_7868352098734767431_nI cried when I saw the photo of that very small boy washed up on the beach in Turkey. How could I not? My own so small girl went to school this morning, dressed in her uniform, curls bouncing behind her. That is how it should be. Yet so many parents are struggling just to get their children to safety. As a parent, I am heartbroken. As a citizen of the so-called developed world (developed technologically, perhaps, but downright backward in its values), I am ashamed of us. How did the world get to be like this? In the words of Cardinal Altamirano at the end of The Mission: ‘Thus we have made the world. Thus have made it.’

But I cannot stay here: babies are being born in safety, people are finding their way, and the little things must still be occasions for joy, even in the midst of such powerful and deep grief. Though I mourn for this small boy, his only-slightly-less-small brother, and his parents, I must hope. I must hope and allow joy to break through. So I turn to one of my very favorite passages in a very good book: The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen. He talks in this passage about ‘a friend’ whom I have always admired. (I think it is Jean Vanier, but Jean doesn’t admit it!) I pray that we can all find this joy and allow it to give us courage as we work to make the world a place in which small boys and girls play and sleep and laugh in safety.

I have a friend who is so deeply connected with God that he can see joy where I expect only sadness. He travels much and meets countless people. When he returns home, I always expect him to tell me about the difficult economic situation of the countries he visited, about the great injustices he heard about, and the pain he has seen. But even though he is very aware of the great upheaval of the world, he seldom speaks of it. When he shares his experiences, he tells about the hidden joys he has discovered. He tells about a man, a woman, of a child who brought him hope and peace. He tells about little groups of people who are faithful to each other in the midst of all the turmoil. He tells about the small wonders of God. At times I realize I am disappointed because I want to hear “newspaper news,” exciting and exhilarating stories that can be talked about among friends. But he never responds to my need for sensationalism. He keeps saying: “I saw something very small and very beautiful, something that gave me much joy.”

The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings to him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to “steal” all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see. Yes, I know that not everybody has been converted yet, that there is not yet peace everywhere, that all pain has not yet been taken away, but still, I see people turning and returning home; I hear voices that pray; I notice moments of forgiveness, and I witness many signs of hope. I don’t have to wait until all is well, but I can celebrate every little hint of the Kingdom that is at hand.

This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life when even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded with lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways. The reward of choosing joy is joy itself. Living among people with mental disabilities has convinced me of that. There is so much rejection, pain, and, woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration. Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy. 

I don’t know how to celebrate in the midst of this deep sadness. I don’t know how not to feel guilty about the comfort and safety of my situation. So for the dead, I pray, let perpetual light shine on them; may they rest in peace. And for myself and all the world, I pray, kyrie eleison.11990663_1707154162838393_6753303827297769423_n

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.

Sadness and truth

It’s worth noting that the weather outside is miserable: cold, wet, and windy. Maybe that contributes to my sense of the overwhelming sadness in the world today. But I usually like the rain, even the cold and the wind, and I love the winter-bare trees against a pale and greyish sky. So I think it’s not the weather. It’s not even my own sadness, really. It’s these two things. 

The first is the work so beautifully presented on upworthy (which a friend posted to Facebook) on the difficulties boys face as they try to achieve an unrealistic and hurtful masculinity. Boys don’t have to be tough. It also made me think again about the way I am with my boys, and that’s good. But the video made me really sad, sad that there are so many stories of pain and loneliness. The second might seem completely unconnected: a project exploring poverty in the UK. They overlap, though, in the stories of tough times and pain. 

And just yesterday, I was engaged in a lively conversation with my students, a conversation about the Incarnation. Of course the question of suffering somehow always comes up, one way or another, as soon as the questions begin. So it did. There isn’t an answer, as I have said before, here on this neglected blog. There is suffering, and there is redemption; we endure the former and hope for the latter…and it is a mystery. It’s no less true today than it was yesterday, but the question is more poignant. The answer is less comforting. And so it should be. It is one thing to say in front of the lecture hall that you don’t have all the answers. It is another thing entirely to face the questions out there, in the world where they arise out of raw disappointment and agony–whether the pain is mine or another’s. 

And so I will try to be grateful for the sadness I found today. I heard somewhere that joy comes in the morning. 

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.

Syria and St Augustine

A few weeks ago, my heart turned toward the situation in Syria in a new way. I thought: I don’t know very much about Syria, and I am neither politically nor militarily savvy. But I know that if my kids were fighting, and the stronger one(s) hurt the weaker one(s), my first move would be to attend to those who were hurt and keep the others away from them until I could sort it out. I was really worried about the prospects of a US military strike. On the same day, which just happened to be the feast of St Augustine, Lewis (who is much more knowledgeable about such things) offered the following: ‘…if we were prepared to do the dirty and get lots of boots on the ground and establish protected areas for civilian refugees with decent medical care inside Syria, I would say ‘great’. But this, no boots just bombing the bad guys so the bad guys can take over don’t seem wise. Damn, this is enough politics on facebook for about a year! As you know my attitude toward Turks and the French leaves much to be desired, but let’s hear a word for the Ottomans and for the French mandate after WWI. {Admitting that he isn’t against bombing in every case, he added:]  I’ll own up to the campaign in 2001 in Afghanistan and the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia as examples where (horrific as it of course was) it seemed to do the job. It’s a fallen world folks: Saint Augustine, pray for us.’

I was encouraged: if it isn’t just the mama in me talking, if this ‘looking after the injured’ is something that makes sense to someone like Lewis, well, maybe there is hope. But as the US moved towards a military strike, I faltered. What will become of Syria? and what will happen to the world? Even Jean Vanier, with whom a (nun) friend of mine had spoken last November, echoed what Lewis said: it’s a fallen world; these things happen.

In the most technical and articulate language: bummer.

So when Pope Francis called for prayer and fasting for Syria on the 7th of September, my heart leapt. Yes, I am that sort of person. I thought prayer (St Augustine’s and ours) was a clear and practical step in the right direction. I happened to be on retreat last weekend, which afforded me far greater opportunities for prayer than a Saturday at home would have, from vigils to compline, with an extra hour of adoration after vespers. I’ve no idea what I thought would happen; indeed I had no idea of what would count as an ‘answer’ to prayer.

On Monday, Lewis was in the kitchen criticizing Obama, for having had to change course in the face of Putin’s intervention. Stepping back made Obama look weak. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I did wonder: ‘But doesn’t it make God look strong?’

Maybe it is to the credit of Christians everywhere, who’ve prayed for Syria, and who joined the worldwide prayer vigil last Saturday, that no one is celebrating the triumph of our God. I’ve not heard a soul claiming that this change in the situation is an answer to prayer. But I see hope where before there seemed to be no hope, and in my experience, only God can do that.

I will keep praying for Syria and for the middle east, with hope in my heart, and giving thanks to God.

Deo gratias!