Trust and prayer

It is Easter Monday (although it has taken me almost two weeks to write this up) and it is snowing in Scotland. I am sitting beside the fire and I am thinking about writing about prayer. I don’t know what I’ll write. That’s often the case. At it’s best, writing is a form of meditation and I discover new things about myself and life as I write.

So now, as I put some peat on the fire, I really don’t know what to say, but that’s okay because I’m hoping that by writing things down, I’ll find out what’s been sitting at the back of my head for the last few months.

When it seems that prayer isn’t answered

It started off when a friend of mine wrote down some of her thoughts on prayer. Like me, she has had the experience of praying for something for years and finally having to accept that that prayer would not be answered.

In my case, I prayed that my sister would be healed, but just over two years ago, my sister lost her battle with mental illness. How could a prayer be more not answered than someone you have loved and prayed for dying in despair?

My sister had been let down very badly by a health system that has been decimated by cuts. Not only that, even if the best of treatment had been available, we still know very little about mental illness. There is no magic pill. However, my sister was a fighter. She wanted to be well enough to be with her family, but when she didn’t get the help she needed, it got too much. I’ll believe until the end of my life that my sister would still be alive if she had got the treatment she needed, but she didn’t and she died. I could say, why me, why us, but from another viewpoint, I have to say, why not us, when so many other families are suffering for similar reasons.

Even, or perhaps especially, in these first few days and weeks of acute pain as I faced the horrible reality of my sister’s death, I began to realise, in prayer, that perhaps all hope was not gone. My sister was not healed in this life, but perhaps she is being healed in the next one. Perhaps God is answering my prayer, but not in the way I thought.

And so, I still pray for her. But her death has undoubtedly affected how I pray about other situations. Sometimes, when I want to pray about a situation that’s bothering me, I find myself in a very difficult place. It’s like walking along a path, stepping onto what looks like leaves and falling into a hidden hole. In that hole, there is no light, no faith, no hope and apparently no love, because suicide leaves a very deep wound. It apparently negates all hope.

I have to pray from that point of darkness. I have to pray from the position of apparently not seeing a prayer answered and of fearing that God will not answer again or that the same thing could happen to someone else I love.

Should we ask for things?

After her own experience of apparently unanswered prayer, my friend was saying that it’s difficult to ask God for anything. Her prayer has become more a prayer of surrender of acknowledging God’s presence than of making requests.

This set me thinking, should we be asking things of God. Is it fair to come to God with a shopping list of prayer intentions? Would I come to a friend with a list of things I want them to do for me? Well, actually, I do ask friends to help me out at times, and sometimes they ask me for things, but usually I’d have a cup of tea first, ask how they are and tell them how I am. And maybe if I told them about a situation that was difficult, they’d offer to help without me having to ask.

Maybe it’s the same way with God. I think some of my prayer now is about trying to let go of my fear and lack of trust and acknowledge who God is. When I was first thinking of becoming Catholic, a priest told me that God holds me in being every moment of the day, that God never forgets me. I found this a strange idea. Wasn’t God some sort of distant deity who’d set the universe in motion and then sat back to watch the show from a comfortable seat somewhere up there in the sky?

Now, I’m beginning to find this idea comforting. No matter how difficult and painful the situation, I can bring it to God in prayer and know that God in some way holds me and the people I love. Some of my prayer now, especially when I am in pain, is just about trying to bring this into my awareness.

I still ask for things. Of course, I do. Who else can I ask? Sometimes I come to God with my list of complaints, all the things I’d like to change about my own situation or about what’s happening in the world or to other people I know. There is a sense though in which prayer has to involve recognising that in some way I don’t understand, the universe is okay right now. It has to be if God is encircling it, encompassing it, holding it in being.  I discovered in the raw pain of losing someone I loved to suicide that God was still there in the rock bottom, scoured out reality of grief.

Trust

As I write, I am feeling challenged to discover through prayer the ways in which my present situation really is okay even if there are things I would like to change, even if I have a wish list. This involves trust and thanksgiving.

Julian of Norwich says, ‘This is our Lord’s will: that our prayer and our trust should be equally generous.’ When I first read this, I thought it meant that I must somehow work up a conviction that God will answer my prayer the way I want it answered. Now, I don’t think she means trust in a specific outcome. I think she means trust in who God is: trust in God’s love and concern for us and in His care, rather than faith that God will do a certain thing in our lives in a certain way.

When I was in Spain, I discovered a devotion in the form of a thirty-day conversation with Jesus which is all about building trust. I haven’t been able to find an English translation so I attach my own translation here of part of the conversation:

Why are you worried and confused by the problems of life?

Leave me to look after your affairs and everything will go better.

When you hand things over to me, everything will quietly work itself out according to my plans.

Don’t despair or send up an agitated prayer,

As if you want to demand from me what you want.

Close the eyes of your soul and say to me calmly:

Jesus, I trust in You!

Avoid preoccupying yourself with worries and gloomy thoughts about what could happen.

Don’t spoil my plans by trying to impose your own ideas.

Allow me to be God and to act with full freedom.

Hand yourself over to me with confidence. Rest in me and leave your future in my hands.

Say to me frequently:

Jesus, I trust in You!

What damages me the most is when you rely on your reasoning and your own ideas

And try to sort things out in your own way when you tell me

 Jesus, I trust in You!

Don’t be like the patient who told the doctor to treat him but suggested how it should be done.

Let me lift you into my divine arms. Don’t be afraid. I love you.

If you feel that things are getting worse and more complicated despite your prayers,

Keep on trusting, close the eyes of your soul and trust.

Keep telling me every hour:

Jesus, I trust in You!

I need my hands free if I’m to be able to work.

Don’t tie me up with your useless worries. Satan wants to make you restless and worried and take away your peace.

Trust in me. Rest in me. Hand yourself over to me.

The more you abandon yourself to me and have confidence in me, the greater the miracles I will be able to work.

So, don’t worry. Throw all your anxieties on me and sleep peacefully.

Tell me always:

Jesus, I trust in You!

And you will see huge miracles.

I promise you by my love.

Looking back

I was having a clear out near the start of lockdown and came across something I wrote many years ago after visiting my sister. I wrote it as if I was speaking to my sister, but I never shared it with her.

I feel like sharing it now, not just as a memory of someone who has now gone, but also as a reminder to myself of an important lesson. At the time I wrote the first piece, my sister was in hospital fighting mental illness. She made a partial recovery but in 2018, her health took a turn for the worse and after another spell in and out of hospital, she lost her battle. The second piece, I wrote recently. Both are addressed to my sister.

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I had travelled a long way to see you. When I stepped off the bus at the hospital, I felt a bit nervous, but I was glad that for one short afternoon we wouldn’t be separated by land and sea.

You were much thinner than the last time I saw you. You hadn’t been eating. For a moment, I saw fear in your eyes and then you hid it behind a laugh.

We went to the hospital café. I was hungry, but you didn’t want to eat. We talked about the outside world, about what was going on in my life. We went over shared memories. You began to relax a little as we tried to forget that you were locked up in hospital waiting for the day when you’d be well enough to return to your husband and children. From this viewpoint, your present life looked so empty compared to where you were before you get ill, but how do I know what inner journey you are making?

“How’s the food?” I asked.

“Not good.”

“Is there anything you can do about that?”

“Not much.”

I remember the last time I saw you. You were on a rare home visit. Our children were with us, playing happily in the sun, but I wasn’t peaceful. I was thinking of something you had done, part of your illness.

Your son fell and you put your arm around him to comfort him. He stopped crying. It was a moment for silence or for a word of praise, but I wasn’t wise. The words tumbled out, “Why did you do that last night … You need to change … If you keep on like this, you’ll just get sicker.”

You looked at me with astonishment and then you got angry. It wasn’t my business. Why was I going on like this, talking about something which was already history when sunlight was falling on us and you and your son were happy?

In the hospital café, I began to understand that words like ‘Should’ and ‘Why’ are not helpful, but what would I put in their place?

The answer came to me as I walked back with you to the ward. Love. That’s the only word that is important. I told you that you were my closest friend. I reminded you of the times when you helped me, and of how important and precious you are.

“You are the light in your children’s lives,” I said. “The sun wouldn’t shine for them without you.”

I thought then that I saw a glint of hope in your eyes. You wanted to believe this.

A nurse came in to say that dinner is ready.

“I think I might manage to eat something,” you told the nurse.

I put my arms around you and then I left. On my way to the bus stop, I turned around one last time. You were still standing at the hospital entrance, and I saw a brave woman, a heroine, someone who was living with mental illness.

 

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I wrote that years ago. You got better, well enough to leave hospital and live with your family again, to paint, make crafts, go on walks, plant flowers, kiss your kids as they lay down to sleep, give them breakfast in the morning. You were never completely well, but you fought so hard. You did courses, volunteered, even got a job, but the work was too rushed and busy, people in power cutting corners so that they could save money.

If that job had worked out, maybe you would still be here. I could say that about so many little things. If they had gone the other way, maybe you would have had a fighting chance. You kept on going, fought your illness, but you got sick again. By then, the hospital ward where you had stayed before, which had helped you recover, had closed due to government cuts. You were put in a hospital where junkies were dealing on the ward, and where they didn’t have the resources to help people get better. They sent you home, because after changing your medication, there was nothing more they could do for you. The next time you hit a crisis point, you were back in hospital being prescribed a different cocktail of chemicals.

The last time they discharged you, you were still very unwell. You asked for help, seven times, but the message didn’t get through.

You didn’t make it. Not in this life, and I can’t read what I wrote all these years ago without tears. The day you left your family, the sun stopped shining for them.

I could ask why you ended your life, but I won’t get an answer. Maybe you thought we would be better off without you. ‘Why’ is too harsh and hard. I’ll go back to what I learnt years ago, and hold onto the hope that love will get us through this. There’s a saying in Gaelic that love and music will endure. You loved us, and we loved you. The love of you and the loss of you, it’s two sides of the same coin.

And I’ll hold onto that image of you as a brave woman, someone who fought what Alastair Campbell, writing about his brother, calls the shittiest of shitty illnesses. Just because you fell in battle doesn’t reduce your bravery.

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And I’ll end here with a quote I found on the internet shared by others who have lost loved ones to suicide. I think it is from ‘The Healing of Sorrow’ by Norman Vincent Peale.

Our friend died on his own battlefield. He was killed in action fighting a civil war. He fought against adversaries that were as real to him as his casket is real to us. They were powerful adversaries. They took toll of his energies and endurance. They exhausted the last vestiges of his courage and strength. At last these adversaries overwhelmed him. And it appeared that he lost the war. But did he? I see a host of victories that he has won!

For one thing — he has won our admiration — because even if he lost the war, we give him credit for his bravery on the battlefield. And we give him credit for the courage and pride and hope that he used as his weapons as long as he could. We shall remember not his death, but his daily victories gained through his kindnesses and thoughtfulness, through his love for family and friends, for animals and books and music, for all things beautiful, lovely and honorable. We shall remember the many days that he was victorious over overwhelming odds. We shall remember not the years we thought he had left, but the intensity with which he lived the years he had!

Only God knows what this child of His suffered in the silent skirmishes that took place in his soul. But our consolation is that God does know and understands!

 

 

When what you know as normal comes to a halt

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(When it is 4 degrees C outside and blowing a gale, these seeds are an act of faith that things will get better)

Over the last week, what we think of as our normal life has come to a halt due to coronavirus. As things changed at an accelerated pace, I had a sick, dislocated feeling which was horribly familiar.

Difficult news

The first time I had it was when I took my daughter for a medical appointment and I was told that she was so ill she would have to be admitted to hospital as an emergency. I stayed with her during the long wait for a hospital bed in a calm state which I now recognise as shock.

The sick feeling only hit me when a nurse ordered me home and I had to leave my daughter crying in a ward with strangers. I passed familiar things, a fast food place, a group of houses, but nothing looked right. People were laughing together outside cafés and I wondered how they could chat and laugh when the bottom had quite simply fallen out of my life.

The odds of my daughter dying from her illness were higher than the death rate for Covid-19. She pulled through after 2 months in hospital although she was still struggling with health problems eighteen months on when I received other news which changed life as I knew it.

The day started off like any other day. I got up, had breakfast, made sandwiches for the kids and switched on the radio a little after eight o’ clock. Fortunately, I didn’t catch the start of the news, because if I had, I would have heard a news item about my sister’s death. Even though she wasn’t named, there would have been enough details for me to know that it was her.

I was spared for another few minutes until I went upstairs, checked my mobile, which had been switched off at night, and found eight missed calls. I called back, hoping it was hospital, hoping there was a chance, and my mother told me my sister had taken her life.

It was all over, the terrible struggle with mental illness. I sat in the living room, terribly calm, but the dog knew I wasn’t okay. She came over and pressed herself against me and stayed like that until my husband told me I would have to pack to go to my parents.

Stopping normal

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When you get bad news, shock helps you cope in the short term. You do things you wouldn’t have though possible given the burden you are carrying, but in the long term, unless you take great care of yourself, it takes its toll.

This week, I felt shock again. Here is how it went:

Friday 13th March – We went to the meeting point early in the morning to discover that my son’s school trip had been cancelled due to concerns about coronavirus.

Sunday 15th March – I went to church, nodded to others instead of giving the sign of peace. Many older people were already staying away due to concerns about the virus.

Monday 16th March – I sent my children to school as normal, not knowing it would be the last day.

Tuesday 17th March – St. Patrick’s Day. Increasingly concerned about the coronavirus, we kept the kids off school and worked from home (we are fortunate we can do this).

Wednesday 18th March – frantically booked my daughter a flight home as her college was closing. Received news that the Catholic Church was suspending Masses whilst the Free Church of Scotland and Church of Scotland were also stopping church services.

Thursday 19th March – St. Joseph’s Day. I got up early to shop and found almost no fresh vegetables, very little bread, no toilet paper and very little canned and dried food. This was the last day of public Masses although I couldn’t go as I was looking after kids at home.

Friday 20th March – Schools across Scotland closed today. I made a long journey to meet my daughter at the airport and bring her home.

This weekend – All non-essential travel is banned. Tourists are told to stay away from the Scottish Highlands which normally relies on the tourist industry.

Monday 23rd – we are effectively in lockdown, only allowed to leave the house for essential groceries or to get exercise.

We are all suffering

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This time, we’re all suffering. I can’t go out and look at other people and think, ‘They’re okay.’ Nor can I read about others’ suffering on the other side of the world and allow myself the guilty thought, ‘At least that’s not us.’

We’re all in this together. Whatever we decided to give up for Lent pales in comparison with all the things we have to give up: freedom to go out, meet others, stop in a coffee shop, go to the library or the gym, shop for anything but food.

In his letter announcing the suspension of Masses, the Bishop asked us to say the Our Father often and meditate on what it means to say, ‘Give us our daily bread.’

I eat my food with genuine thankfulness and try not to worry about the shortages in the supermarket.

What has helped me when normal stops

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I think back to what helped when I experienced sudden and difficult changes in my life before and what I hope will help again.

  • I learnt that I am not big enough to control circumstances. I can only take one day at a time, do my wee bit and leave the rest to God..
  • When my daughter got ill, it was an absolute necessity to find some way to switch off my mind (otherwise I was always tense and worrying). I found peace through praying the rosary, as well as through meditation exercises (becoming aware of my body and my breath)
  • Doing ordinary things, such as cooking, hoovering or walking the dog, helped me feel grounded.
  • When I’m under strain and nothing feels right, I have learnt that it’s important to look after myself. Sometimes I need to do something to relax such as read a novel, watch a film, have a bath, even when it’s hard with kids to look after and a new situation to adjust to.
  • I have found out that we don’t always see God healing someone. Sometimes we are asked to be like the royal official who begged Jesus to come to Capernaum and heal his son. Instead of going to the official’s house, Jesus sent him on the long journey home, telling him that his son would live. The official had to leave Jesus in faith. I recognise myself in this story. I prayed many times that my sister would be healed and now I have to believe that she is being healed even though I will never be able to see her healed in this life.

The last thought are words from Hosea (Mass reading on Saturday 21st March).

Let us set ourselves to know the Lord; that he will come is as certain as the dawn, his judgement will rise like the light, he will come to us as showers come, like spring rains watering the earth.

 

Does grief give anything back?

I keep thinking I will write no more blog posts, that I have nothing more to give, and then a thought snags and I have to explore it, as much for myself as anyone else.

So here goes. I want to talk about Hawking radiation.

Hawking what?

Okay, I’m back to the geeky physics stuff. Let me explain.

Grief is like a black hole

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A few week’s ago, I was thinking about how one-way communication is after someone has died. I keep thinking of things I want to tell my sister, and I do tell her. I write her letters in my diary. If I’m alone in the car, I move my bag off the front passenger seat to make room for her and talk to her out loud. I update her on what’s going on, tell her about the kids, share my worries.

I tell her all the things I would tell her if she was still alive, but she doesn’t reply. I get nothing back. I had an image of death being like a black hole that sucks in all the love I still feel for my sister, all the things I tell her in whispers and thoughts.

By definition, a black hole is an object where gravity is so strong that anything in the vicinity will be pulled into it, even light. That’s why it’s black, of course.

And death can feel like that, pulling in your energy, love and thoughts and giving nothing back.

What about Hawking radiation?

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The image seemed quite bleak and appropriate to the way I was feeling and I would have left it at that, but a quiet, inner voice asked, “What about Hawking radiation?”

Hawking radiation is a theory proposed in 1974 by Stephen Hawking, the well-known English cosmologist who was confined to a wheelchair due to motor neurone disease. After exploring the theory of black holes, he suggested that, due to quantum effects, they might not be completely black. Instead they would have a faint glow due to the emission of radiation. This radiation would cause the black hole to lose mass until it ceased to exist in a last burst of intense radiation.

Of course, this is theory. No-one has actually observed Hawking radiation and the level of radiation predicted is, in most circumstances so small that it would be very difficult to observe.

But it’s a comforting and challenging thought. A black hole seems like the ultimate symbol of grief and yet, maybe even black holes give something back.

Does grief give anything back?

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And just like a black hole, maybe grief does give something back.

My sister is no longer here to respond, but does that mean that all the love and thoughts and prayers for her are lost?

Maybe it’s like Hawking radiation. I won’t get a direct answer from my sister, but perhaps I’ll notice and appreciate something else: a robin at the bird feeder, a patch of blue sky on the shortest day of the year, my dog laying her head on my lap.

Or maybe I’ll notice that someone needs me and be able to respond to that.

What do other people think?

Another thought

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I thought I had run out of words, but I find it is important to say one or two more things.

I started this blog because I felt I would burst if I didn’t express the strange journey which brought an agnostic with an allergy to organised religion into the Catholic church. I also wanted to make contact with people who’d experienced a similar journey. Alongside this, I wanted to write well, be admired for it and have lots of people read MY blog.

I was aware of these mixed motives and struggled with them. It’s so hard to give something to God, even if, on the surface, it looks like you’re doing it for Him.

Now, the thoughts and words which bubbled up, gently insisting on being written, have almost dried up, but it wouldn’t be right to leave this blog on a note of desperation.

Devastation

When I wrote the last post, I was devastated physically, mentally and spiritually, by my sister’s suicide. I lost my closest friend. There was a continual ache in my chest. I got easily exhausted, and at least once a week, I had a day of nausea and headaches. Frequently, I just had to give up and go back to bed.

Life felt like a burden. I wasn’t going to do what my sister did, but life was a fruit that had turned dry and sour, all the goodness sucked out of it. I would just have to drag myself through whatever time was left as best I could.

Suicide bereavement

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There’s nothing redeeming about suicide. It’s a story cut off before it reaches a resolution. After a long struggle with mental illness, my sister ran out of strength and hope. She inflicted violence on herself, dying alone without the support of family. Those of us left behind have to face our own helplessness. We loved her, would have done anything to help her, but we couldn’t heal her or save her from her illness.

Suicide leaves a vacuum, an empty space which shouldn’t be there. It can very easily suck away the love, faith and hope of those left behind.

On the face of it, her long fight with the illness, our support and prayers, all came to nothing. For a long time, we carried hope like a little candle lit in our hearts, and now we have no more hope. At least not for this life.

Seeking healing

I must have still had some hope, because I managed to get to a monastery. I arrived in a state which I can only describe as having fallen off faith and hope and love.

In my rucksack, was ‘Redemption Road’, a book by the Jesuit priest, Brendan MacManus, in which he describes walking the Camino de Santiago in search of healing after losing his brother to suicide.

The book opens with a scene in which Brendan leads a retreat for young people. Even while he tries to give them a message of hope and trust, he realises that his own life has not felt right since his brother died.

I recognised myself in this and also in his description of walking the Camino. He had repeated injuries which either made walking very painful, or forced him to take time out and even skip parts of the Camino when he began to run out of time.

Life after suicide bereavement is a physical challenge. You try to keep going through exhaustion and physical pain, but you also have to recognise the times when you simply have to rest.

When I arrived at the monastery, I was in such a bad state that I worried I would pollute the place with my lack of peace.

Moving towards peace

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Fortunately, the opposite happened. The peace and prayers of the monastery began to work on me. Nothing dramatic happened, no revelations or intense experiences, but I was slowly absorbed into the peace.

God worked through the everyday, through cups of tea and trees and birdsong. After a few days, the rhythm of the Psalms and Gregorian chant soaked into me and flowed through my mind even when I wasn’t in the chapel.

I sat outdoors and read ‘Redemption Road’. I was sometimes in tears when Brendan McManus wrote about his brother Donal’s decline, or when he put down positive memories of his brother.

Towards the end of his Camino, when Brendan met a young Mexican family. He wrote ‘They reminded me of myself before suicide wreaked its devastation: how I had been similarly open and optimistic, trusting and believing. Was it just naivety about the world? Could I believe in hope again, was there some rescue after trauma, would negativity be overcome?’

I knew exactly what he meant.

Trust

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By the time I read the final pages of ‘Redemption Road’ and Fr. Brendan’s account of assisting at the Mass in Santiago Cathedral, being asked to read a prayer for the dead, and knowing that his brother was at peace, I knew that something had also shifted in me.

Through small things, walking in the woods, watching birds, I became quietly aware that God was still there and extending an invitation. I could go through the rest of my life with bitterness and suspicion, asking God why this happened to my beautiful sister after all our prayers and all her efforts to struggle with a truly horrible illness. I could continue to endlessly question what had happened to her at the moment of death or afterwards, or I could TRUST.

It sounds so simple, but it’s so hard.

You see, I’ve relied a lot on my own abilities or determination or persistence to get through life. I’ve thought there was a solution to everything given time and application. Oh, and prayer, of course. But prayer was like a dash of salt added to a dish when it was almost ready.

Suicide bereavement brought me up against my weakness and inadequacy. I had failed utterly to protect someone I loved. No matter what I do with my life, I can never make this better. Nor can I even tell myself a consoling story about my sister’s life and death. The sudden and violent manner of her death has left me feeling, quite literally, that I am left with nothing.

Every loss, every bereavement, requires trust. Perhaps suicide bereavement isn’t different in kind, just in scale.

My choice was and still is between dragging myself through life and seeing it as something meaningless or absurd, or trusting that God is still offering me the gift of life and receiving it with gratitude and trust.

After suicide bereavement, there is no longer an in-between. I have lost the ability to enjoy life ‘for its own sake’ and on my terms. Only through making a conscious effort to turn to God, can I manage the debilitating fear that another something awful is just around the corner.

Visiting the monastery, allowed me to heal and to begin to trust. The physical healing felt almost miraculous. The continual ache in my chest lifted. At times, I am quite amazed at how I have been able to do things and even start new projects. However, grief still comes, and I have to be careful to look after my physical and mental health.

Trust and turning to God is a choice which has to be made each day.

A last thought

When he came across a woman who had lost her husband to suicide, the French priest St Jean Vianney said, ‘I tell you he is saved. He is in Purgatory, and you must pray for him. Between the parapet of the bridge and the water he had time to make an act of contrition.’

I used to think of purgatory as a place of purification and suffering. Since my sister died by suicide, I can’t think of it as anything other than a field hospital where wounded souls come for healing, a place where she and other souls who have, for whatever reason, died by suicide, continue their journey into knowing God as love.

Again, I found comfort in the words of Brendan McManus in his small book ‘Surviving Suicide Bereavement. Finding life after death.’ He writes, ‘We have this black and white view: they are lost or found, in hell or in heaven. But in reality it is more like shades of grey. Maybe there is another place between heaven and hell specifically for the healing of suicide? This ’emergency care unit’, an intense healing of hurt or wounds, is where Christ works intensely to love wounded people back to wholeness.’

No more words

 

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I’m running out of words.

I am in a place I couldn’t have imagined four years ago when I became Catholic. One of my children is still struggling with what is, at times, a very challenging illness. I considered my situation difficult until it got many times more challenging; my sister and closest friend recently died in appalling circumstances.

I intended this blog to be about my continuing conversion as a child of God, and, more specifically, as a Catholic. I don’t want it to become a suicide survivor’s blog. So, this is probably my last post, at least for a while although I hope I’ll still manage to read other peoples’ posts on wordpress, although at the moment most of what I’m reading is written by people who have lost loved ones to suicide.

I don’t have words to make sense of what has happened. Not yet. I just have to BE, in this place, a hideous desert, where it is not possible to impose some kind of meaning.

It’s like a tree, which was growing in my heart, has been torn out taking some of me with it. I don’t know where all this is going.

In the Bible, the Israelites passed through the desert to reach the Promised Land. The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert for forty days of fasting before beginning his ministry.

In ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, the American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, uses the image of the desert when writing about his own conversion:

I had come, like the Jews, through the Red Sea of Baptism. I was entering into a desert – a terribly easy and convenient desert, with all the trials tempered to my weakness- where I would have a chance to give God great glory by simply trusting and obeying Him, and walking in the way that was not according to my own nature and my own judgement. And it would lead me to a land I could not imagine or understand. … It would be a land in which the work of man’s hands and man’s ingenuity counted for little or nothing: but where God would direct all things, and where I would be expected to act so much and so closely under His guidance that it would be as if He thought with my mind, as if He willed with my will.”

I can’t see that land. I can only glimpse it, a place where my heart stays open to God and others, no matter how much I’ve been hurt, a place where I hand myself over to God without any conditions, where I accept life as it is, without demanding success or security. Above all, it’s a place where I am able to do the most difficult thing imaginable: trust in God’s strength whatever happens.

I’m not there yet, but sometimes, when prayer goes beyond words, I go briefly into a place of pain and healing.

Before I end, I want to share two things. The first is a poem by Thomas Merton, written after his only brother was killed in the Second World War. It has touched me. My sister died on a battlefield fighting demons which the rest of us couldn’t see, but which were very real to her.

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Sweet brother, if I do not sleep

My eyes are flowers for your tomb;

And if I cannot eat my bread,

My fasts shall live like willows where you died.

If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,

My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.

 

Where, in what desolate and smokey country,

Lies your poor body, lost and dead?

And in what landscape of disaster

Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?

 

Come, in my labor find a resting place

And in my sorrows lay your head,

Or rather take my life and blood

And buy yourself a better bed –

Or take my breath and take my death

And buy yourself a better rest.

 

When all the men of war are shot

And flags have fallen into dust,

Your cross and mine shall tell men still

Christ died on each, for both of us.

 

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,

And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring;

The money of Whose tears shall fall

Into your weak and friendless hand,

And buy you back to your own land:

The silence of Whose tears shall fall

Like bells upon your alien tomb.

Hear them and come: they call you home. Thomas Merton

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This last piece I wrote to my sister while on retreat, trying to express my gratitude that she loved me without judgement.

You would love the light here, the way the darker clouds lie on the left and the lighter ones on the right with a winding scraggle of brightness between them, narrow down by the hills and widening upwards like a pathway to heaven, hills piled beneath and me here folded in a wee room with single glazing and chipped paintwork and the sound of birdsong. I’m imagining you sitting out in the garden painting this view, maybe on that wee, folding chair by the ironwork table.

I’m thinking of life, death and rebirth, sa-ta-na-ma. I’m so exhausted, still stunned and dazed. The only way I can heal is by continuing to hold you in love, not pretending you weren’t or that you didn’t matter or that we can just tidy away our memories and put them to the side like the bags of clothes for the charity shop. No pulling myself together and getting on with my life, whatever that means – is it really mine? – will change the fact that you were, are still, always will be a fundamental part of what makes me, me, one of the few, precious people who was an unclouded mirror reflecting back love.

A grave matter?

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In the first few hours after the shock of my sister’s suicide, I was travelling to be with my parents, unable to stop weeping. I googled ‘Catholic Church suicide’ and came across articles which quoted the following passage from the Catechism:

2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

The articles were along the lines of: Suicide is a grave matter, equivalent to self-murder. It is a rejection of God’s gift of life, but taking into account other things, like mental illness, it’s possible that God might have mercy on the person who commits it.

A thread of hope, but not a shred of comfort for someone who has just experienced the incomprehensible and inexplicable pain of losing a loved one to suicide. No doubt these articles were aimed at people theoretically interested in the question, rather than families recently bereaved by suicide.

The poverty of illness

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My sister was poor in every sense of the word, suffering from a long, mental illness which she hadn’t chosen or deserved. Because of her illness, she was unable to work, and she and her family were dependent on benefits.

She was poor in spirit, pride crushed out of her by years of struggling with psychosis, an illness which bears a huge stigma. Although she fought to be well enough to take part in family life, during bad phases she was dependent on the help of others, both family and health professionals.

I am grateful for the many people who helped my sister, most of whom I will never know by name. Over the last six months of her life, the support she received was inadequate to turn the tide of her illness. During the last three weeks, she asked for help many times and didn’t get it.

In the end, my sister was so poor that she did not find a way to stay in this world. She didn’t choose to reject the gift of life. She clung on, without the help she needed, until the chaos in her mind overwhelmed her.

Jesus hung out with corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes. He had the courage to touch lepers and heal those whose minds were broken by ‘evil spirits’. I can’t believe that he would prevaricate over my sister, weighing up the graveness of her sin against the severity of her illness, and maybe, just maybe, showing a glint of mercy.

I can only imagine Jesus, seeing someone so sick, broken and poor that she couldn’t find a way to go on living, reaching out his hand to give her the healing and compassion she didn’t find in this life.

I’ve had to do a lot of work to get to this stage. After digging deeper into Google, I found some resources:

A prayer for those who have taken their own life

The blog of a mother who lost her daughter to suicide

A book by Ronald Rohlheiser on suicide which helped me to believe that God shows love and compassion to people like my sister who are so broken and sick that they cannot go on living

Is suicide a grave matter?

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Have I got to a conviction of God’s mercy by bypassing the church’s teaching that suicide is a grave sin?

I know that suicide is a grave matter. After experiencing the pain and chaos of my sister’s suicide, the rifts as people look for someone or something to blame, and after seeing the shock and sorrow spread out to touch friends and even strangers who never knew my sister, I can think no other way.

But my sister was a loving, caring person, and didn’t intend to cause us pain.

She was started on a new medication, and discharged from hospital soon afterwards. Surprised by her sudden discharge, I took it as a sign that she was making rapid progress. I now know that she was discharged, not because she was better, but probably because the bed was needed for another patient. Unknown to me, my sister began making suicidal calls for help almost as soon as she was discharged. This went on until the day she took her life. There were plenty of chances for her to be readmitted to hospital, but she wasn’t.

My sister’s mind and body were worn down and almost broken by illness, treatments which didn’t work and a powerful anti-psychotic medication which was known to carry the risk of suicidal urges. If she wasn’t fully responsible, who was?

Who’s responsible?

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I started with myself, of course. It’s the typical response of suicide survivors. Why didn’t I phone more often? Why did I assume that she was better just because she was discharged? Why didn’t I know something was badly wrong? Why did I give her space instead of phoning when she didn’t respond to my messages?

My husband said, ‘Don’t do what-ifs’. The suicide bereavement helpline said, ‘It’s not your fault’.

The blame is like a hot potato. If I can’t bear to hold it, where do I fling it? Who caused this illness? The urge to blame someone can be almost overwhelming. And then I pray and see the suffering of other family members and realise, it wasn’t them. This is something which happened, and we don’t know why. If she had had cancer, we wouldn’t ask who caused it.

Who do I blame next? The National Health Service.  The second thing the suicide bereavement helpline said was, ‘It’s not the NHS’s fault either.’ That took a while to sink in. It really hurt. I wanted a scapegoat, an institution I could paint as harsh and uncaring. But these people who gave their time and energy and abilities to try to help my sister.  For a while, at least, that help was effective. When I heard that one of the mental health nurses who had cared for my sister was off work with stress, I wanted to tell her, it’s not your fault, and thank you for doing what you could.

I can’t attach blame to someone who was ill and crushed and broken, can neither hold it myself, or fling it at other people or even the organisation responsible for her care. I’ve tried throwing it at God, but I’m not getting a lot back from God on this. My sister’s death is an unhealed blister on my soul. Why didn’t you save her? Did we not pray enough, love her enough, love You enough?

Not everyone is healed in this life. I didn’t ask you to pray her back to health, but to pray her into heaven. These are the only answers I seem to catch.

An unhealed world

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In a recent Richard Rohr meditation, I found the concept I was missing:

Hope cannot be had by the individual if everything is corporately hopeless.

It is hard to heal individuals when the whole thing is seen as unhealable.

My sister’s illness and tragic death was a symptom of an unhealed world, a world where we burn greenhouse gases without caring about the climate, where we clear rainforest without regard for animals and plants, where we know the cost of everything and yet don’t value what really matters. We live in a society which has recently cut support to those suffering from mental and physical disabilities.

My sister lived in a world which didn’t put much value on those who were too sick to work, a society that didn’t know her smile, a little uncertain at times, but still there, that didn’t recognise the struggle she made to be with her kids, that didn’t see her talent for listening to and helping those who were also on the margins.

Decisions were made: to cut funding to mental health, to close a ward where she had made a slow journey to healing after a previous crisis, to send everyone to one overloaded hospital which was simply no longer able to cope.

This is the world I lived in, cocooned from the worst of the pain and chaos, until it breached my defences and I saw how fragile things are.

This is the world I continue to live in, without my sister, and yet for her in a way.

And my prayer changes from why did this happen to, what can I do?

Holey, Holy and Wholly

I’m writing something I never wanted to write. A short while ago, my sister, who was very precious to me, died in a tragic accident leaving behind a husband and young children. I hate to use the word suicide, because it would suggest some sort of choice on her part. I’ll never know what happened, but I know she wouldn’t have left us unless, in that moment, she felt utterly desperate.

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A death is difficult

The death of someone who should have many years ahead of them is difficult

A sudden death is difficult

A situation where someone seems to have a hand in their own death is even more difficult.

We are still in shock.

In the first few days of shock and tears, I found myself thinking of two things: my sister in her wedding dress absolutely beaming and happy. This came back to me today with the story of Jesus and the wedding feast at Cana. If she had any faith, my sister kept it to herself and at the same time practised love and kindness to others. I am hoping that she is now experiencing God’s love and mercy.

A totally inappropriate joke

The other thing I thought of seemed totally inappropriate. It was a sectarian joke I heard when I was a child. Although things have got better in recent years, Scotland is a country with a Catholic-Protestant divide. Catholics and Protestants go to different schools and when I was a kid, I didn’t meet many Catholics. It’s easier to tell jokes about a group of people if you don’t know any of them personally.

Anyway, this joke kept going through my head, even though it is totally tasteless and wouldn’t be told now after recent terrorist attacks on places of worship. But I’m going to have to tell it to explain what I was thinking about it. It goes like this:

Question: Why did the priest bring a gun to church?

Answer: to make his people holey.

Okay, the joke could have been told about a minister or some other kind of religious leader, but because I grew up in Protestant Scotland, we made it a Catholic joke.

At first, I couldn’t understand why I was thinking about such a tasteless joke after losing my sister, until I went to Mass and began to understand.

I felt as if I was full of holes, as if God had shot holes in my tough exterior, or allowed circumstances to shoot holes in me. I couldn’t stop crying on Baptism Sunday, as if all the holes were letting in, not just pain, but also God’s love. The pain of my sister’s sudden death was flowing through me, as well as the thoughts of all the love that had been between us. But love could flow out of me much more easily, too, through all these holes blown in my defenses.

And there was so much to give comfort: The spirit of Lord Yahweh is on me for Yahweh has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the news to the afflicted, to soothe the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to those in prison, to proclaim a year of favour from Yahweh and a day of vengeance for our God, to comfort all who mourn, Isaiah 61:1-2.

It’s impossible to explain these first few days: the pain, the feeling that you are falling, and that yet even as you fall you know that you won’t fall forever, that there is something there: God, ground, love, to hold you up. I almost understood why Flannery O’ Connor’s short stories have the possibility of God’s grace being brought into peoples’ lives through what seems to be an irredeemable disaster or unkindness.

In these first few days, I prayed that I wouldn’t forget what I learnt from being holey, and that I would be able to trust and give myself wholly to God. And maybe that’s what it means to be holy.

Silence

The strange thing is that it was easier to trust God in these first few days, when I was blown into pieces and had absolutely no choice but to ask Him to help me through the next day, next hour, next second.

Now, maybe I’m trying to rebuild the holes, repair the defences as best as I can, even shoot a few missiles in God’s direction: why me, why her, why us? Why couldn’t You heal her? You heal other people, after all? Why was there this perfect storm which led to her death, so many little things done differently might have had another outcome … But I can’t go there. I’ll lose what’s left if I do.

The hardest thing today is the silence. There’s the silence of my sister. Even when I talk to her in my head or write down my thoughts in my diary, she doesn’t answer.

There’s the silence of others. After the initial whirl of emails and texts and facebook messages and people saying how sorry they are, it tails off, as it had to eventually. I’m sitting at home alone, trying to think of anything but what’s happened and finding I can’t.

There’s my own silence. I can’t talk about what happened. It’s very difficult, even to other people closely affected. We say something, the same thing, over and over, pain bouncing back and forth between us like a hot potato which no-one can bear to hold for long.

The most difficult silence to bear is the one I go into when my weary mind can’t take any more words or thoughts about what is, will be or might have been, when I just breathe and try to be aware of … what? Is God in the silence? Often I don’t feel a Presence. Sometimes I don’t find words to pray, and it hurts more than anything else what happens in this silence. I tell God how I feel and cry. Maybe it’s a healing hurt.

I need to end now, just with the thought that all I can ask for is blind trust. It’s so hard to let go of my beautiful sister and accept that I can’t do any more for her on this earth.

Fire

When I woke up today, You appeared to me as fire.

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What should I call You?

Father

Are You not three and yet one?

Look more closely, at the flames that grow, leap out and fall back, my Son. See the light and feel the heat that comes from me, my Spirit.

But aren’t You the eternal and unchangeable One? How can You grow and leap and dance like a fire and yet never change?

I am still One, always One, burning in a never-ending dance.

I feel uncomfortable seeing You as a fire. It is always moving and changing shape. I thought You were the same yesterday, today and forever.

Watch for a while. It is still there, the same fire, even if the flames are in constant motion. Look at my creation. Plants grow and die back in the autumn, rocks weather, continents move, stars grow brighter and then dimmer. Even ice sheets lose ice in the summer and grow again in the winter. Why do You think that unchangeable means a thing that is frozen and static?

I don’t know. I just feel a bit uncomfortable thinking of You as being in motion. Maybe I want to You to be something set hard and unmoving so that my mind has a chance of one day grasping what You are.

(Laughter) You know that understanding me is impossible. Come closer, little one.

I can’t. I’m frightened.

What are you afraid of?

How can You ask that? Isn’t it obvious? You burn with flames that are hotter than the sun. If I come close, I will be utterly consumed, turned into heat and light without even leaving a cinder.

My dear, why are you so fearful? Didn’t I appear to Moses as a fire?

Moses saw a bush that was burning, and yet didn’t burn up.

Exactly. You will burn, will think that you have lost everything, will be sure that you won’t survive, and yet you won’t be destroyed. Learn this, little one. You will have everything necessary in the moment you need it, not too soon and never a moment too late. Can you trust Me?

It is so hard. You say that I won’t be burnt up, but what will really happen if I move closer to the fire. I cannot approach You and remain unchanged, can I?

Of course not. You will melt, lose what you think is your form, become liquid.

Why must that be?

So that you will flow, become liquid, move to where I want you, fit into the mould I make for you. If you do not melt and abandon yourself to me, you will never discover what I intended you to be.

I am frightened, almost too afraid to say to You, do this. Let me be like the man who said, “I believe, please help my unbelief.” I want to abandon myself to You, I want to melt. Please help the part of me which holds back and wants to remain cool and hard and cold. That is all I can manage right now. I hope it’s enough.

That is all I need. I can make it enough.

Thank you, Father, for showing me the fire.

Solistice

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Okay, I know it’s two days past the solistice on 21st December, but it’s not far from the shortest day.

I was out looking at the trees. The evergreens look much the same all year round, but the deciduous trees are appear lifeless, branches stripped as bare as bones. If we hadn’t witnessed every year of our lives, the miracle of buds and leaves appearing again in the spring, I think we’d all be convinced that these bare trees are dead.

The thought came to me that life can be a bit like these trees. On the surface, it looks like my life is stripped back. One of my kids got ill. I’m still supporting her recovery and that has meant stopping work and losing the chance to pursue personal goals.

Sometimes I’ve felt and still can feel that there isn’t much happening in my life. I’ve tried to get back to work, but so far my attempts have failed. Maybe there’s a grace in that. Perhaps the time wasn’t right and I would have been like a tree or a flower which buds too early and is blighted by the cold weather.

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When I look at the bare trees, I know that beneath the surface lies a rich root system. Life is still there, even if it has shrunk back. The trees will bud and blossom again in the spring.

I’m trying to have faith that our own lives will expand again, that we’ll be able to blossom and become whatever God intends us to be.

There’s a rhythm to nature: autumn, winter, spring and summer, night and day, an in-breath and an out-breath. I’m impatient. I want summer to come, but even winter can be beautiful.