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.

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.

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

 

 

 

not the usual Sunday night Compline

Usually, we say compline together each evening. And most evenings we follow basic form set out for the office, the way the nuns sing it at Minster Abbey. We have our own prayer that stands in for the hymn, one the children learned at school and like to say.

I thought as our 9-year old is about to make his first confession, that we might talk a little bit more about the examination of conscience that normally occurs just at the beginning of Compline. So last night I did.  We followed our brief conversation with the confiteor, which we don’t often say. Afterward, my 9-year-old observed that the language includes asking ‘brothers and sisters’ to pray for us. This sparked a further conversation about the relationship between members of the body of Christ: although in the context of our family, I am the mother and they the children, in the family of God, we are all brothers and sisters.

Suddenly they were all attentive. Not only that, I said (taking advantage of this miraculously teachable moment): you have a very special place within the body of Christ, as children. When Jesus’ disciples were arguing with each other about who was the greatest, he put a child in the midst of them, and told them that unless they became like little children, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. Amazement. We talked a little bit about what it was about children that was so important to Jesus. Not their crazy antics (mine are especially prone), but some key qualities. The one we spoke about was a capacity for awe and wonder. My 9-year-old interjected something about a really huge snake. Exactly! Awe and wonder. Of course there are other things, but the teachable moment is just that, at least with my children: a moment.

After that we veered off course slightly, according to the rubrics. We each said a ‘God bless’ or a ‘thank you, God’ and said a Hail Mary, at the 4-year-old’s request. Then we had the nunc dimittis and final prayer. As I prepared to play the Alma redemptoris mater (we like the Marian antiphon for the season), I realized there was a problem. Just as I was about to be frustrated, one suggested (again the 9-year-old) that we simply stand around the prayer table and look at the candles. So we did. It was the most beautiful silence I have ever experienced. It was not only quiet, but peace.

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.

you’re having a baby, continued

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about Mark Schrad’s opinion piece in the New York Times. Oddly enough, a friend who is concerned about these same issues saw my comment on the NYT site and got in touch. Like Schrad, she has an 8-year-old child with Down Syndrome. Unlike Schrad, she supports the Ohio legislature and testified in favor of similar legislation in Indiana. A Public Policy Fellow at Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, Mary O’Callaghan holds a PhD in developmental psychology and has written a piece for the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse blog.

Her article highlights the dangers in Schrad’s position, in a professional and reasoned tone. I agree wholeheartedly, and tried to make a similar argument myself in that earlier post. I am so grateful that the work of advocacy is not a solo pursuit, that I have friends who are intelligent and determined and articulate. Sometimes the work of parenting, especially parenting a child with disabilities, can be lonely work–parenting in general is pretty tough and usually thankless. But moments like these remind me that we’re not alone. Children with Down Syndrome need the work of all of us parents–Mark Schrad (whose article has sparked necessary conversation) and Mary O’Callaghan, and many others who advocate for their children and others on a daily basis. Articles like Mary’s in particular need to be written and widely read. Knowing how very articulate and incisive my friend is in her advocacy is a great gift.

If you read my earlier post (whether you agreed with it or not), you should really read this article. She concludes with a punch: Despite the increasingly positive data about Down syndrome, somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of parents who receive this diagnosis choose abortion. I testified in Indiana, not because we are on a slippery slope, but because once we accept abortions based solely on disability, we are already at the bottom.

Indeed so. Let’s hope we aren’t there yet.

Moving

No vans required. I am moving all my blogs (yes, there are a number of them…) to a new website: atheologianinthefamily.net. When I started this blog, I had thought that Lewis and I would contribute to it together, and it would mostly be theological reflection.

But my theology and my life are of a piece. I have been inspired by the prologue to the rule of Benedict, in which he describes the monastery as ‘a school for the Lord’s service.’ For me, the family is that school. Home is where we learn to love, to give, to trust, and to think. It seems to me that the most difficult place to live out the Christian faith is at home, in the family, where the daily vexations and struggles are utterly relentless. I once wrote to a friend that if anyone else tried my patience as unremittingly as my children do, I would find some means of escape. So here I am, learning to love those who are at once the easiest and most difficult people to love: those who are closest to me.

And I continue to be a theologian. I’m not a part-time theologian and a part-time mother; I am a full-time theologian and full-time mother. I think theology while I am cooking and disciplining and reading stories; I think about parenting while I am reading theology and Scripture and writing about ‘academic’ topics. These things live together in my soul, and I am both of them at the same time, by training and by temperament. As a teenager, I was certain that my future vocation had to be meaningful, and that I would have to practice it while fulfilling my other life’s goal: being a mother.

So here I am, having found that when dreams come true, they don’t always look like we expected or hoped. Living the dream means making ends meet and coping with defiance and struggling to meet deadlines and staying up late preparing for teaching. Sunny days and happy times grace my daily life, and usually I can see that my life is uncommonly good. Except when I can’t, and then the whole project of living and parenting and writing seems like it proceeds in deepest darkness. Fortunately the light continues to shine, even when my eyes are shut tight against it.

I am grateful for all who have followed this blog, and hope that you will enjoy the new one.

light and peace to you all.