‘offer it up’ –on the feast of St Josephine Bakhita

Don’t worry. I’m not especially proficient at this particular mode of self-denial, which seems, as far as I can tell, to preclude complaining or fretting. The first time it was ever offered to me as advice (I wasn’t raised by a Catholic mother), I had arrived at Mass and it was absolutely freezing. I said as much to the friend I’d just joined, and he whispered back, ‘offer it up.’ Say what? I thought. But I’m cold. (Also, I’m in England, where griping about the weather is something of a national pastime. So how can I just bear it without comment?)

I’ve chewed on that phrase, though, in the intervening years. Along the way, I have noticed instantiations of the practice that are inspiring. I mentioned three in class the other day that somehow have worked their way into my consciousness and stuck fast. 5611The first, not surprisingly, is Mother Teresa‘s saying ‘give what he takes, and take what he gives.’ I’d never heard it before I listened to the collection of her ‘private’ letters. (The audible app reads me books while I am picking things up off the floor, ironing, etc.) It struck me with particular force as I reflected on the spiritual richness Mother Teresa
enjoyed very early on, which left her so soon and never returned. Although I don’t recall her saying so explicitly, it seems clear that she regarded even that spiritual barrenness as something ‘taken’ and so she chose to offer it up, to give it willingly rather than resent the loss of it. Not that it wasn’t incredibly painful and exhausting; but it did not destroy her faith, however tempting it is to believe that she ‘lost’ her faith. Jean Danielou, in a beautiful passage from his book on prayer, says that going to Mass when you feel nothing (as Mother Teresa did daily) isn’t hypocrisy; it is an act of faith.

The second example I gave to the class was Josephine Bakhita. Despite her suffering–from  childhood through adolescence, in her life as a slave–Josephine Bakhita did not become bitter. While she was still a slave, she became a Christian; after she was freed, she became a nun. unknown-3Toward the end of her life, she often was in a great deal of pain, and confined to a wheelchair. Nonetheless, when asked how she was, she always gave the same reply: ‘as the Master wishes’. With that phrase, I think she offered up not only her present physical pain, but all that she endured in her life. I can’t imagine how she did it, how she maintained her composure, and remained cheerful. Surely having suffered so much should count for something; God ought to have taken that into account and spared her the pain of her illness later in life. Obviously that’s not how St Josephine regarded the matter. I guess that’s why she’s a saint, and I am not.

My third example comes from an entirely different walk of life: Pope St John XXIII. I confess to having got a bit bogged down in his Journal of a Soul, though I find the narrative of his early life fascinating. His piety reflects the era in which he grew up, and I find it almost alien. But then, he was the Pope who called the Second Vatican Council, and I am a thoroughly Vatican II Catholic. It’s not surprising that his Christian upbringing in Italy at
the turn of the century should seem so different to someone who grew up at the end of the 20th century in California. All that aside, though, one sentence he spoke in confidence, near the end of his life, reveals (to me, at least) the character of his faith: ‘Now I understand what contribution to the Council the Lord requires from me: my suffering’ (Journal of a Soul, xxviii). Although he opened the Council, he became very ill; he died in June 1963, having seen only one of the sessions through.638064928-incense-burner-john-xxiii-prayer-visit

Pope St John XXIII’s observation says something, though, about this business of offering it up, something that I don’t find in either Mother Teresa (or, I should say, St Teresa of Calcutta) or St Josephine Bakhita–something about the mystery of undeserved suffering. If we read resignation into the words of Mother Teresa or Josephine Bakhita, we read something more like ‘rationalisation’ in the words of John XXIII. But I don’t think it is as formulaic as that. Because there is no way that suffering from an excruciating and terminal illness can contribute, in human terms, to the work of an ecumenical council. All human eyes can see is John XXIII’s absence from the council. But his words are an act of hope. In his agony, he cries out to the Lord–whether audibly or not–like the psalmist, like the Son of God.

And in the suffering willingly accepted, two things happen. In one sense, the sufferer joins his or her pains to those of Christ, as St Paul describes in Colossians 1. What is suffered with Christ and in Christ is suffered on behalf of the whole body of Christ. In another, related sense, the sufferer stands in the place of the one who cries out to the Lord in the day of trouble. This is, in Psalm 49 (50) exactly what God requires of God’s people: ‘call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall honor me.’ Not a sacrifice of money or pigeons, but a sacrifice of thanksgiving. ‘Offer it up’ with thanksgiving, yes. But I think this maybe doesn’t preclude complaining after all. Offering it up means taking all the agony–and mere annoyance–to God. Isn’t that what Jesus did in the garden? ‘Father, all things are possible for you; remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’

So I can still gripe, and hurt, and grieve; I can, and should, call upon the Lord in my day of trouble. The tough part is believing in the rescue, even though it may not come until the end of time. That’s hope–what Danielou, in that same wonderful book calls the most difficult of the theological virtues. That’s what Mother Teresa, Josephine Bakhita, and John XXIII all had. Hope. Not hope that things would be better tomorrow, but hope in the One who is making all things new. Even me.

Deo gratias.

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A blessing and a curse

When I was about 7 years old, I was deeply troubled about the people I heard about in Africa. I still remember distinctly the conversation I had with my mother. (Probably, I’ve written about it before, and if you’ve heard it already, I apologize.) I wanted to send food. No, she said: it would not be let in the country. I wanted to send money. No, she said: it would end up in the hands of the wrong people, and would not help the people I longed to help. But, she said, you know what you can do? You want to be a doctor. When you grow up, and you’re a doctor, you can go and provide medical care, which is something much-needed.

Sure. But I wanted to do something NOW. (For the record, I never made it to med school, but still support Doctors without Borders.) Anything I could have done would have made my little heart happy. Now, I read about kids who do these incredible things to raise money for charity, and I’m so glad for them. And  little envious, of course: would that I had been able to get outside of the box my mother unwittingly set me in that day.

Even as a grown-up, I’m still struggling with that box. The desire to do something has never left me, and I wonder what on earth a theologian struggling to make ends meet can possibly do in a world whose needs are cavernous, seemingly infinite. I pray, of course. It’s free, and it’s in my skill-set, if you can call it a skill. But I still want to do that thing, that big thing that will make a real, tangible, visible difference in the life of someone, somewhere. I want to see some obvious change. I want results.

This is both blessing and curse. I can’t wish away the gift of a desire to make a difference, the gift of caring about the world and all the people in it. It’s the way I have borne that desire through the years that makes it a curse. Because I am a huge fan of George Eliot, and of the very end of Middlemarch, in which she observes that things are not so bad for you and I because of people like Dorothea, who ‘lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’ It’s not the big things. It’s the little things. But these things make no obvious change, they seem to be very tiny drops in a vast, empty bucket. In everyday life, I can carry no more than an eye-dropper full of difference-making, and the bucket is bigger than I am.

So usually I find myself frustrated that I am not making headway. In fact, many, many days, I seem not to be doing anything to make the world a better place. Even the little things, the small kindnesses to those in my household and neighborhood…some days I fail to do. And then the curse comes at me, full force, cursing: you’ll never make a difference. Why try? It’s pointless. How can you imagine that the world will ever be any better because of anything you’ve done? You can’t even be nice to your family!

Maybe not. At least not unfailingly. And yet, failing doesn’t have to mean I ought to give up. I have to remember I am still the kid who kept asking: but couldn’t we do this? couldn’t we do that? The blessing isn’t the ability to change the world (for the better) in big, obvious ways. The blessing is the ability to get up, when yesterday I failed utterly to do anything kind or encouraging, and to think that today, I still might.

Prayer and the practice of theology

Evagrius1A few years ago, I came across a quotation from Evagrius of Pontus on my students’ papers. Actually, it was a paraphrase of a famous bit of Evagrius, in which he says that ‘one who prays truly will be a theologian, and one who is a theologian will pray truly.’ The impression you would have had from the context in which Evagrius was being paraphrased  is that anyone who prays is a theologian. My uncertainty about that, which started as a certain skepticism (of the form ‘I do not think it means what you think it means’), has led me to wonder about the relationship between prayer and the practice of theology down the ages. Now I am a theologian, but not a historian. And this topic warrants historical and theological investigation. So I need help!

It therefore makes me feel like the luckiest person in the world to be able to gather a small group of wise and learned and spiritually astute people to talk about just this topic. Not only that, but we are gathering at my very favorite place on the planet: Minster Abbey. For two days, we will join the community for prayer and spend the rest of the time in conversation about the relationship between prayer and theology in a handful of theologians from late antiquity onward.

What is the relationship between prayer and theology? While I fully expect that this question will continue to vex future generations, I have reason to hope that we who gather at Minster in Eastertide will be nourished in our lives of prayer and theology, and for that I am unimaginably grateful.

Deo gratias.

 

I’ve got your back

At least that’s what I thought she said. I hadn’t really expected anyone to speak to me just then, as I was leaving the chapel after Mass. So I only just picked up on the fact that someone was talking to me towards the end of the sentence. I apologized to Sr Johanna, who repeated, ‘It’s nice to have you back.’

It was nice to be back at the Abbey, particularly as I was able to be there for vigils, lauds and Mass on the feast of St Benedict. Lucky me! I giggled a bit to myself later, thinking how incongruous it would have been for Sr Johanna to say ‘I’ve got your back.’ But it wouldn’t have been untrue. At least that’s what I think about monastic life. Wherever I happen to be, whether or not I am able to join in, I know that the nuns are praying, seven times a day, for all of us.

I’m grateful for my regular visits; the time I spend in the abbey is a precious gift. I am also grateful, for the abbey–maybe more grateful–when I am not there. When I am not there, especially immediately after a visit, I find myself noticing when it’s time for lauds, or none, or compline. I am always happy if I manage to say compline with the children at 7:50–that’s when compline happens at the abbey.

Still, sometimes life gets busy, and I forget that the office is being sung. Even then–perhaps especially then–those praying have ‘got my back.’

Deo gratias.

the Lady Chapel

At the far right of the image above, a corner of a postcard is just visible, showing a bit of stone floor. Not just any stone floor, though: the floor of the Lady Chapel at Minster Abbey. I’d never heard of ‘thin places’ before the first time I went to Minster, but it is thin all over, and the Lady Chapel particularly so.

I always knew I would appreciate Benedictine spirituality. Before I had ever visited a monastery, I thought one day I would want to be an oblate. (Still hasn’t happened yet.) Nothing I imagined even came close to the reality of being there. The train journey from my home in the north of England takes about 5 hours and involves at least 2 changes, one of which happens in London (between Kings Cross and St Pancras). So when I arrived in Minster the first time, I felt like I was a long way from home (especially because the journey took a couple of extra finding-my-way hours).

And so I was: a long way from anything I had ever experienced before. The daily office–the rhythm of Benedictine prayer–was new to me. Nuns were new to me. Yet somehow the place felt like home almost immediately. Because I was on an individual retreat, I had no schedule other than the appointed times for prayer, and no ‘input’ apart from the daily office and Mass. In my little room, there was a Bible and a small copy of the Rule of Benedict.

Little did I know that reading Benedict’s Rule would change my life as much as anything ever has. That weekend, I was a woman adrift, looking for a spiritual beacon. That little book–hardly more than a pamphlet–convinced me that the spiritual life was for me. Not that I really doubted; it’s just that I had wondered since college whether I would ever recover the sense of purpose that I had as a member of an evangelical (and I mean that in the telling-people-about-Jesus sense, not the Christian brand-name sense) community. Being a mother of (then) three children and holding down a job as a lecturer didn’t leave much time for the intensive Bible study or hour-long quiet times I’d had all those years ago. But that was when it all seemed so vibrant and essential.

Benedict’s Rule is for monastic communities, true. But it is about how daily life is spiritual, and how to live it in a way that makes each seemingly insignificant task an act of Christian discipleship. That weekend, I learned a Latin phrase: ‘fratres non contristet.’ It comes from the instructions to the cellarer. If a brother comes to you with an unreasonable request, Benedict counsels, refuse him gently, so as not to upset (contristet) the brethren (fratres). Being a mother involves refusing countless unreasonable demands on a daily basis, at least in my house. The challenge was, and is, to make every response–yes, no, or maybe–an act of love.

That is what Benedict taught me that weekend: fratres non contristet. Every time I go into the Lady Chapel at Minster, I recommit myself to the goal of gentleness in daily life. Even with those words in large letters on my refrigerator, I forget. I forget that discipleship happens in the little things, as we do them with love. I forget that Jesus taught us more on the cross than in all the words he said. I love that saying floating around the internet at the moment: ‘if you have to chose between being right and being kind, be kind.’ Indeed. That is, to me, what gentleness is all about. But it is a lot harder than it seems! So back to the monastery I go, to find myself again in the Lady Chapel, to be in peace and grace and regulated quiet long enough to accept the fact that I have to begin again.

fratres non contristet.

Saturday of the second week in Lent: prodigious grace

The first time I tried the Lenten discipline of daily reflection on the Mass readings, my life was slightly simpler than it is now. Fewer obligations, and fewer children, meant that the struggle to find the time each day was a struggle. This Lent I have found myself at a loss some days: there is neither physical nor psychological space for the kind of prayerful reflection I intended. Some days I have returned to the meditations I wrote five years ago–and been grateful to God that I was able to undertake the daily reflections. Today, though, the meditation at thinking coram Deo is truly today's. It is brief. The readings today are all about grace, God's unchanging and already-present grace. In that grace, God meets us while we are still making our way back home. If that's not good news, I don't know what is.

Thursday and Friday of the first week in Lent

Wednesday, I failed: wifi access in the hotel in Rome was too patchy. But Thursday and Friday, I posted. Copying the links, though, was been a challenge I was not  able to overcome. There is a link here to thinking coram Deo, if you want to catch up. My wi-fi access at the airport ran out before I could post this!