Our Lady of Sorrows

pietaI confess to a certain amount of bitterness, when faced with images of a beautiful young madonna and her cherubic child. One such statue stands in a Lady Chapel which is otherwise one of my favourite places on earth. But before that very young woman I feel deeply sad: sad that my own babies are no longer babies, that the magical days of their toddlerhood are behind me. Not that those times weren’t exhausting and often vexatious. But amidst the thousand small things that the littlest ones need doing for them, there was magic. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that I would miss those days, difficult as they sometimes were: I knew it.

Fortunately we have Mary rendered for us in a number of different ways (particularly in iconography), and she was not always the young mother delighting in her baby child. Motherhood also involves loss. Each new stage of development, while (usually) welcome, involves leaving behind traits of childhood–aspects of that precious way of being in the world that is unique to children. And when our children suffer, we suffer with them.

Looking at the pietà (by Giovanni Bellini, 1505), I see myself. The lines in her forehead show the passing of time, the work of motherhood, and decades of letting go. This, also, is motherhood. The painting invites me to join in this sorrow, this tremendous grief, to feel Mary’s sadness. Later, when small losses seem overwhelming, and the longing for my little ones bites deeply, I will turn to Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, and know that I am not alone.

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

 

 

 

Heaven and earth are full of your glory

imagesThe glory of God might seem an odd topic for reflection during Lent. After all, we omit the Gloria at Mass, and we direct our attention to the Lord’s temptation and his passion. But the Sanctus reminds us, week by week—even during Lent—that ‘heaven and earth are full of [God’s] glory’. We don’t always recognize that glory: it is hidden. As John’s gospel tells us: ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father’ (1.14). Jesus makes God known to us; all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell—hidden—in Christ. Peter, James and John glimpsed that glory at the transfiguration of the Lord. They learned to see in Jesus, even after his brightness subsided, the radiance of divine glory. So also we learn to see the world differently as the eyes of our hearts are trained by faith: to see Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, for example; or to see his face in the faces of the poor and the marginalized.

Learning to see in this way does not give way to full vision, however. The mystery of God’s presence in the world is like the mystery of the Incarnation itself. How does God become human without eliminating or overriding the human? The Old Testament reading from the third Sunday in Lent gives us a way in to contemplating the mystery: Moses encounters a bush that burns, but is not consumed. So also God’s presence with us and in us throughout creation enlivens and enlightens us, but does not consume us. Only that which is incompatible with God’s presence (that is, sin) cannot survive the coming of the Lord. The flame of God’s holiness burns in us—as in the burning bush—but all it consumes is sin.

As we sing ‘pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua’ (‘heaven and earth are full of your glory’), let’s remember that ‘caeli et terra’ includes us. We strive for holiness in the hope that the glory of God may one day be revealed in us as well.

being human, part 1

Made_in_Gods_Image_by_MacIomhairIn my quasi-professional life, the life in which I write the sorts of things academic theologians are supposed to write but without any compensation for doing so, I am working on an essay on Catholic moral anthropology. Mostly I stick pretty close to what the official teaching of the Church is–this piece is, after all, for the Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology.

The official teaching is good, I think, so I feel no need to stray. There is an emphasis on the way in which we human creatures are meant to live, that is, to live up to the image of God in which we have been made. Again, this is good: I do believe that we ought to be the image of God in the world. Elaborating on this, I would say (and will in the piece to be published) that means following Jesus in humility with love. I remember walking along the path by the river one afternoon in the weeks following my mother’s death. Having seen her lifeless body, and yet speaking to her, and knowing I ought to grieve, but couldn’t–well, the experience put me in a pretty strange space, spiritually speaking. So I lamented on that day by the river, ‘if only I could see you, God.’ Silly, I know: no one has ever seen God, etc. What came to me that day, though, was not the appropriate material from John’s gospel but a new attentiveness to what was in front of me. ‘That,’ I heard/realized/saw, ‘is the closest you will ever get.’ That was a person, a stranger, walking towards me on the path. He passed by, not realizing that he had changed something forever in me. People show (or fail to show) God to one another.

Believing that human beings are the image of God in the world has–from the evidence of Scripture and on the strength of that encounter–two very important implications. First, we must be the image of God. Jesus said, ‘he who has seen me has seen the Father.’ He himself did only what he saw the Father doing. His work on earth was (not only, but importantly) to make the Father known. So also we, who claim to be his disciples, must never forget this charge: to make the Father known. The weight of that responsibility did not occur to me immediately, but it is obvious. Bearing God’s image is not something we do chiefly for ourselves, but for our neighbor. We show God’s love and forbearance, or fail to show God’s love and forbearance, in every encounter. (I don’t know about you, but by day’s end I cannot count my failures to do this even on all ten fingers.)

Being in God’s image, second, requires us to respect that image in our neighbor. Here the official line is clear: every human being is created in the image of God. This of course has implications for the way we treat people at the ends of life, respecting the beginning and not hastening the end. It also, and crucially, must inform the way we regard every human being at every stage of his or her life. My children are all in the image of God, all equally so. The bouncy and bright four-year-old and the intelligent and high-strung twelve-year-old, the creative and brooding 9-year-old, and the happy and determined 14-year-old.  The fact that one of those children has one more chromosome than the others makes no difference to her being in God’s image. It also–and this is in many ways more difficult–means that however well or badly the children are behaving, however they reflect or fail to reflect the love and forbearance of the Father (and they do, more often than we see it, I think), we owe them the same respect. (An aside here, though: respect is not the same as capitulation. I make no claim to be an expert in parenting, but I do not think that letting our children get away with everything is respect. How to treat them with respect when they are behaving abominably? I can only say that the failures I mentioned above mount up very quickly in just that context.) It may well be that my children challenge me most, but I have opportunities every day to be patient or irritated, to be kind or scornful. Just because I am bound to fail doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try for patience and kindness always.

Calvin (in the above comic, not the famous theologian of Geneva) both gets the point and misses it entirely. Yes, we ought to recognize God’s image in ourselves and bear it proudly. The image of God is not, however, something we see best reflected in a mirror, but in one another. I know I am in God’s image in part because you show me–by reflecting God’s image to me, and by respecting God’s image in me. So I pray for the grace to fail less, and to be more like Jesus, today and every day.

For that grace, Deo gratias.

peace be with you

Email presents a challenge. For me, at least, the decision about how to sign off became perplexing. To say ‘best’ or ‘best wishes’…nope, that’s not me. ‘Yours faithfully’–much more authentic, but rather formal. (I use it occasionally.) ‘Cheers’ makes me sound like I want to be British. I love Britain and my British husband, and all my lovely dual-citizen children. But I am an American, like it or not, and I’m not pretending to be otherwise. ‘Warm regards’ or ‘warmly’ does convey the sense of ‘I like you, and I am sending this email fondly’, though ‘fondly’ sounds creepy and won’t do at all. For fellow Christians, ‘yours in Christ’ might be a possibility. It works for plenty of other folks. But, again, it’s just not me.

For a long time I resisted ‘peace’. It’s over-used, and misused. Maybe it’s a bit cold or distant, or seems so. It shouldn’t. Ephesians 2 reminds us that ‘he is our peace.’ Not only that: peace is what I long for, my highest aspiration for myself and the world in which I live. ‘Be at peace with everyone,’ St Paul admonishes us. The most under-appreciated part of the Mass–or at least a contender–is the sharing of the peace. When we share peace, we share Christ. He is our peace. He is the one who brings peace, and when we live in him and he in us, we find peace. Our restless hearts are restless until we rest–peacefully–in him. And so I sign, ‘peace.’ It is the best thing I can wish for anyone to whom I am sending an email. It is a prayer for those email recipients who do not know Christ, and a prayer for this who do. I mean by it always, ‘peace be with you,’ and I could not say anything more sincerely or warmly.

Peace be with you.

just one day

I will restore to you the years
    which the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
    my great army, which I sent among you.

Joel 2: 23

This verse almost comforts me. Almost, because I long to know for certain that the wayward years of my life have not been wasted but I cannot quite believe it. Will the Lord really restore those years it seems were eaten by locusts? Looking back, I think I must just have been too lazy or self-centered to do the good that I might have done. I’m less worried about some of the really stupid things I did as a teenager, actually, and far more worried about the time and talent (such as I have) I fear I have squandered along the way. The locusts that ate my years were misdirection, or fear, or something like that–a failure to extend myself.

The funny thing is that I have long known that I had this kind of relationship with the past. It has always been coupled with a dreamy optimism about possibilities for the future. So, in my high-school scrapbook, I pencilled in, ‘Yesterday is already a dream, and tomorrow only a vision; but today, lived well, can make every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.’ I know…but it spoke to the 17-year-old me, and the somewhat (!!) older me still understands why it did. Living in the present is so hard. It’s hard because I wonder what might have happened if I had done better, worked harder, been more patient and less foolish. And so I think about that future time, when I will always do my very best, be more diligent and patient and wise…and live happily ever after, of course.

I knew at 17 that I would be like this. If I had something to say to my 17-year-old self, I would say ‘thank you.’ Thank you for memorizing that sentence. For long years it has worked in my heart, and although I still struggle to live today well, at least I know what I am trying to do. So worry less and laugh more: you will achieve what you set out to do (I have, oddly), and find that the happy ending is still a long, long way off.

The reading from Joel was a reading specially chosen, I think, for the harvest Mass at school, and it was coupled with the gospel reading which concludes with Jesus saying, ‘Let the day’s own trouble be enough for the day.’ Set together, the two readings exhort us not to worry about the future or the past, but to attend to the day at hand. This is so much harder than I realized at 17! Because as the years go by, the past mounts up unchangeably behind us. Mixed in with our milestones are missed chances; achievements mingled with regrets. And the temptation is always there to project into the future: I will do this, not that, and all will be well.

All will be well, but not because we have made it so. All will be well because the One who made it will make it so. Our power, such as it is, is limited: we cannot alter the past or predict the future. What we have in our hands is just one day. Let us live it as well as we can.

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.