a tattoo

Mine, to be precise:

3907_574197496527_1845720_nThere it is, freshly inked–that’s why there’s a halo of reddish skin around it!

I thought about it for a long time. I mean a really long time. When I was 16 or 17, I told my mother that I wanted to get a tattoo. I’m pretty sure she was against it. But she didn’t say so, not outright. Instead, she gave me a few things to think about before I actually got the tattoo. First, she said, remember it will always be there. You’ll change, you’ll change your mind, but the tattoo will still be there. And it’s more painful to have it removed than it is to get it in the first place. Second, she said, your body won’t look the same forever. Something that looks nice on 16-year-old skin might not look as good on 70-year-old skin. But the tattoo will still be there. Third, she said, tattoo ink breaks down over time. That’s why you see so many green tattoos. (Perhaps inks are better now; I think my mother was thinking about tattoos done in the 1960’s and 1970’s.)

So for the next couple of decades, I turned the idea over and over in my mind. Honestly. I never forgot that conversation with my mother. Now, I consider it a moment of parenting genius, not because that strategy would work for everyone–not at all. Rather, it was a moment of parenting genius because it took account (knowingly or intuitively) of the sort of kid I was, and the way I was likely to make decisions. It appealed to reason and vanity, which I had in rather unequal portions at 16. (You can guess which trait I had in greater abundance.) She never said “Don’t.” Other friends, over the years, said “Do!” or “Don’t!” but my mother never did. She was a little surprised, I suppose, when I finally got the tattoo, but by then I was well and truly grown-up.

By the time I found that thing that I considered permanent enough in my life to have it inscribed on my body, I was nearing 40. I had three children. And, luckily, I had a good friend with plenty of tattoos and friends in the business, who happened to be in need of more ink. So I researched and found the image. I worked out the Greek. On the eve of Mother’s Day, 2009, I went with a couple of friends to get my first tattoo (by which time I had had my 40th birthday). There it is: the crucifix, stylized. The Greek text is from 1 Corinthians 13: “The greatest of these is love.”

I don’t suppose it will be my last tattoo. I have other ideas. Chief among these is an addition to the tattoo I already have, one phrase, in English this time: “the image of the invisible God.” Maybe 2015 is the year for that.

I’ll keep you posted.

Back home

The retreat at La Ferme was every bit as good, and as challenging, as I had anticipated, and much could be said about it…and will, eventually. At the moment we are in the process of moving, which means not a lot of desk time. Tomorrow I think my desk will go into storage, so no desk time at all for several weeks.
 
To begin at the end of the retreat weekend, though: I discovered, during my stopover at Minster Abbey on Monday, a gem of a book. Written by someone identified only as ‘a monk’ (a Cistercian, if you want to know), it is entitled, The Hermitage Within. Pushed well back between two books on the shelf, its title was hardly visible, but it caught my attention anyway. When I opened it, I found an invitation: ‘[God] is calling you to live on friendly terms with him: to nothing else.’ In light of the message of the retreat, which focused on Jesus’ care for the poor and humble, and his own poverty and humility, this struck me as the logical follow-up. (There is more to it than that, of course–on which more later.) The invitation came with a caveat, though: ‘You must be content to lose yourself entirely. If you secretly desire to be or to become “somebody”, you are doomed to failure. The desert is pitiless; it infallibly rejects all self-seekers’ (p 10).
A hard word in an age of self-promotion. A hard word for a person who has always struggled with the desire to be ‘somebody’–both in the struggle for recognition and coping with obscurity, and the struggle to overcome the desire itself. What amazes me about Jean Vanier is his ability to be somebody without desiring to be somebody. He holds it so lightly, and always looks in the same direction: away from himself, and constantly toward Jesus. One of my very favourite moments in the retreat was Jean concluding one of his talks by saying, almost offhandedly, ‘He’s quite extraordinary, Jesus. It’s important that we get to know him.’ Indeed so, Jean, indeed so. Thanks for helping us with that.
 

Friday of the fourth week of Lent

The psalm for today is Psalm33[34], and I single out verse 18: 'The Lord is near to the brokenhearted; he saves all those who are crushed in spirit.' I suspect, and I say in the post, that there is also a preferential option for the brokenhearted. God pays attention to the tears shed in anguish and sorrow.
 
Thanks for reading!

Wednesday of the third week in Lent

Reading over the text of the reflection for today, which I wrote a few years back (book production for me is a slow affair–something to do with having four children, maybe), I found myself surprised by my confidence in eternal life. It isn’t that I have to cross my fingers now every time I say the creed. Rather, it is that there is always a sense that we keep using that term, and I am not sure it means what we think it means (to adapt Inigo Montoya’s immortal line from The Princess Bride). I don’t doubt heaven’s existence, but I am certain I don’t have the faintest idea what it will be like. Not really–it’s that whole eternity and time thing, which from where I now stand, is a mystery.

Monday of the second week in Lent

Today’s reflection is at thinking coram Deo–another page of the devotional. Yesterday I spent a bit of time with the Mass readings, but didn’t manage to blog. Whatever I might have said, though, would have been less straightforward than the message of Pope Francis’s homily: ‘listen to Jesus!’

Words to live by.

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.

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.

the ordinary

I’ll tell you what my novitiate in the blogosphere has taught me: I’m ordinary. My experience is just human, and my reflection on that experience is just as human. I knew that, or at least I sort of knew that. And I don’t even really have anything peculiar to say about it. As Matt Jones put it so eloquently today, ‘being human is crazy.’ And it’s not easy. My favorite David Foster Wallace sentence (from the commencement address I blogged about a couple of weeks ago) is:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people, and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad, petty little unsexy ways every day.

Yep. And he didn’t even have children. The daily routine he describes in that commencement address doesn’t involve a 9-year-old shouting that it’s all your fault, or a 2-year-old clamoring ‘up! uppppyyyy!’ while you’re trying to peel carrots or help the 6-year-old with his reading. I listened to his address again while my girls were in the tub, and heard this sentence in the middle of the dreaded hair-washing, I think. Definitely having an unsexy moment, there.

My real hero, though, isn’t David Foster Wallace, as insightful as he was, God rest his soul. More than just about anyone, I admire Jean Vanier. Although he’s a renowned person now, having been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, among other things, he didn’t set out to create an international network. L’Arche was his home, and he shared it–at the beginning–with two young men who required unsexy sacrifices every day. I don’t admire him because he was successful, or because he’s a wise and caring person. I admire him because it has always been about being faithful to the teachings of Jesus.

Jean Vanier makes the ordinary radiant with the love of God. Would that I had an ounce of his spirit of tenderness and faithfulness. I want to escape the ordinary, the ‘crazy’ that is being human every day. But freedom and faithfulness are not in the heroic acts–or the brilliant and widely-read books-that make me say, ‘wow’. Nope. Freedom–the ‘most precious’ freedom–and faithfulness are in the power to stay, to stay calm…not to shout back at the 9-year-old or lose patience with the 2-year-old, but to persevere in tenderness.

That’s the hard, hard work of being ordinary. I’m glad I am not alone in doing it.