Just this

This has been a blurry season. You know, the space of weeks or months when mostly you’re chasing things–a never-ending to-do list, a house that seems to generate mess even when nobody is in it, and the work projects that crawl along at a snail’s pace when you needed to finish them yesterday. And you look back and wonder what happened to that space of time, and can’t see any of it clearly. That’s the blurry season. I hate it, because time is so precious and so fleeting. I feel I ought to seize it and make use of it, to make every little job an opportunity to be glad that I live and breathe. But it’s cold and grey, the sun mostly refuses to shine, and I can’t seem to appreciate the little things.

Well, most of the little things. I did appreciate an article in the New York Times (as you do) on marrying the wrong person. It was liberating, in much the same way that writing my post ‘fifteen years’ was liberating. Because it reminded me that normal is not always being happy. It’s sometimes staring at the lemons and griping about them for a while, whining about the lack of sugar and being too frustrated to fill a jug with water. Eventually I’ll get around to the lemonade. But today I’m just going to complain that I really wanted a fresh, ripe, sweet, juicy peach.

And I think that’s probably ok.

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.

David Foster Wallace and the practice of love

A few years back, I posted about David Foster Wallace. Having just (a bit behind the times, admittedly) listened to his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, I was taken by his candour and sensitivity. Where is he now? I immediately began to search the internet. And then, of course, I remembered my first introduction to David Foster Wallace by a colleague, who told us that Wallace had committed suicide. A very bright light has been extinguished.

Last year, I published an essay in Church Life, which has just been re-issued on their new website. Reading it over again–because David Foster Wallace is so compelling–I am once again floored by his insight, wit, and sensitivity. I give thanks for his life, and grieve his tragic death all over again. Also, I give you the link to the essay, in case you want to know what David Foster Wallace implies about the practice of love in that commencement address now more than ten years old.

I know my readers are few and my followers even fewer. I give thanks for all of you today.

Deo gratias.

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.

St Therese of the Child Jesus

I can’t say I have ever been a fan of St Therese of Lisieux. Not, that is, until today. I tend to resist the sort of sweetness for which St Therese is known, being suspicious, like so many cynical people, of anyone who seems ‘too nice.’ Jesus, after all, wasn’t ‘too nice.’

That’s the grown-up Jesus, though. What about the child Jesus? St Therese, after all, is St Therese of the Child Jesus. Staying behind in Jerusalem strikes me as a not-nice thing to do–as the parent of an almost-12-year-old boy, I can’t help but think it was a bit vexing for Mary and Joseph. Not having been a great fan of St Therese, I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that it wasn’t the 12-year-old Jesus that she had in mind.sta_thumbSt Francis de Sales, in a series of letters published as Letters to a Wife and Mother, advises his cousin in her endeavor to life a holy and spiritual life in her ordinary, daily tasks. She gets discouraged; St Francis suggests that she go about her work imagining that she does everything as Our Lady might have done: holding the small hand of Jesus. St Francis offers to his cousin the presence of the Lord as a child. And there is something at once gentle and unyielding about that presence. The set of letters is well worth reading, especially if you happen to be a wife and mother. Even if not, St Francis gives advice so kindly that anyone would benefit from it.

It is the sort of advice that fits very well with what I know of St Therese: in the small things, the everyday tasks, there are opportunities for grace, for love, for living in the presence of the Lord Jesus. Tenderness is not the way of our world, but it is required in the proper care for small children. And anyone who spends any time caring for small children will tell you that tenderness can be difficult to muster. Attending to the presence of the child Jesus is not a way out of the hard work of the spiritual life, but is a deepening of it. Not only is the Lord present to us as teacher and savior, but as child–not to be ignored or forgotten, or left in a corner, but taken by the hand and kept by our side.

We have always been taught by the Lord in his vulnerability on the cross. Perhaps it is time for us to allow us to teach him through his vulnerability in those precious years between the presentation and the finding in the temple.

St Therese, pray for us.

you’re having a baby

Mark Schrad’s op-ed piece for the New York Times is balanced and thoughtful. I am very glad he and his wife chose to have their daughter despite the diagnosis of trisomy-21. But I worry about the way this conversation is going. I worry, because there is a significant difference between the choice to end a pregnancy and the choice not to have a particular baby.

A few years ago, I reviewed Judith Butler’s Frames of War for Modern Theology (27 (3):540-542). As usual, Butler’s writing is challenging and thought-provoking, and covers a wide range of terrain. But one claim in particular stood out to me (and I refer to it in the review): the shift from seeing others as occupying the same moral and political space (i.e. being ‘modern’) to seeing them as outside that space allows us to disregard their common humanity. Now, that is a gross oversimplification, I am sure, of Butler’s nuanced proposal. Yet the basic idea, that the liberal subject is only able to be a party to the waging of war if a sort of shift takes place psychologically, is one of the conclusions of the book. Butler urges us to resist this shift.

What on earth, you might ask, does that have to do with abortion? Butler would surely argue for the woman’s right to choose in every case–or would she? In the event of an unwanted pregnancy, certainly. But once the pregnancy has been accepted and a baby is on the way, the moral ground that we are on changes. Pre-natal testing happens in order for us to find out what sort of baby we’re having and gives us the basis on which to choose whether or not this baby is one we want. The diagnosis, in the case of a baby with Trisomy-21, provides the pivot-point on which we are invited to shift our perspective: the baby would be ‘baby’ if s/he were healthy; the baby with Trisomy-21 loses the claim on our care because s/he is not ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’. That is exactly the shift that we ought to resist.

Having said that, I would add that all those who agree on this question ought to be working very hard to make life with a child (or adult son or daughter) conceivable as good. There is no getting around the fact that raising a child with Trisomy-21 (not to speak of a whole range of more serious diagnoses) will be challenging, and often (but not always–lots happens in the raising of typical kids) more challenging than raising a child with a standard set of chromosomes. We who claim that the child with Down Syndrome ought to be welcomed as warmly as the ‘typical’ child have then to share in the responsibility for loving and supporting that child and his or her family.

imagesJerome Lejune–in the centre of the photo here–did not intend for his work on the chromosomal abnormality that causes Down syndrome to be used to eliminate Down syndrome. He surely would have admitted that it’s not an easy road, and no one can walk it alone. But he would have urged us to see that which many of us who are raising (or have raised) children with Down syndrome have learned: it is not an impossible road, and it is one that can be very beautiful, if we have the eyes to see it.

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.