What should we do with gifts?

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A homemade gift
I was the kind of kid who not only watched the BBC childrens’ programme Blue Peter, but also tried to make the things that they showed. One time, they showed how to make a pen pot and letter holder out of a toilet roll tube and a cardboard box. Of course, their version looked wonderful, because they brought out ‘Here’s the one I prepared earlier’, covered with a slick, glossy paint.

Well, I followed all the instructions. I covered the cardboard box and the tube with paper, painted them and stuck them together. So far, so good. I thought it would make a really good Christmas present for my parents. However, things went wrong when I tried to paint it. I chose brown and navy blue as I thought that they would give me a sophisticated, office sort of colour, but my cheap paint blocks produced a hideous, streaky colour which wasn’t quite what I had in mind.
I wrapped it up in Christmas paper and presented it to my Dad. I had to explain its function, and hoped that he’d be able to use it even if it didn’t look like the Blue Peter version.

A few months later, I was going through my Mum’s bottom drawer where she kept tights and socks (no idea why) and I came across my pen pot, broken into two pieces and clearly unused. I put it back so that my parents would never realise I had seen it, but I carried away a feeling of hurt. It wasn’t the best pen pot, but I’d put so much into it, and it would have been nice if it had been used.

What should we do with gifts?

I am not telling this story, because to complain about my parents or air some unhealed wound from childhood. I have been through the same thing many times as a mother: ‘what a beautiful pot!’, to the hideous item in coiled clay which will be displayed for a while before being quietly cleared out.

The reason I remembered this incident is that I have been thinking about gifts, and come to the conclusion that the most hurtful thing we can do is refuse to use a gift. Even my dog gets depressed when I don’t accept her sometimes over-zealous protection (barking at almost every dog which crosses our path).

The parable of the three servants

I was set off on this train of thought by the weekend Mass reading on the parable about the master who leaves his three servants money (Matthew 25:14-30). One was given five talents, one was given two and the other one. The servants with the greater gifts traded with them and made more money. The servant who had the smaller gift just dug a hole in the ground and buried it.

The priest’s homily was all about how we’re reluctant to use the gifts God gives us, maybe out of fear, or maybe because we don’t want to appear vain.
What he said hit me right between the eyes. I cried all the way through Mass. It was one of those occasions when the presence of Christ in the Eucharist got under my skin into my deepest self and showed me my faults and my fears. I think that some of this goes on at a subconscious level, so it is something difficult to put into words.

Barriers to using gifts

Part of the reason I cried is because I don’t have a job and I don’t quite know what if anything to do about that. At times I can almost convince myself that because I don’t have a job, I don’t have anything to offer, no gifts to share. I’ve taken a few steps to try to get some occasional work, and now I just have to wait.

I need to pray not just for myself, but for others who are unable to work and find it difficult to share their gifts: mothers who struggle to find work after taking time to look after children, those who’ve lost their jobs and are unemployed, those with health problems, young people who don’t believe that they have any gifts.

Suppressing gifts

The other thing I cried about is that I know suppress one of my gifts out of fear of rejection or fear of it just being about my ego. That gift is my desire to write. The Presbyterian part of my mind has, at times, almost convinced me that wanting to write is sinful and that I should stop it altogether. When I write, even if I write a blog about faith, I do it sneakily, hoping that God isn’t looking.

Some time ago, I had actually convinced myself that God wanted me to stop writing and went to Mass to hand myself over to God, but I had to rethink; the reading was this parable about the three servants and their talents.

I even took this to confession and told a priest that I was worried that writing was a sin and that I was prepared to give it up. After a long pause, the priest told me that writing was a gift God had given me and that I should use it as long as I didn’t write something which would harm anyone else.
So I’ve decided to stop being afraid of rejection and try to get some of the stories I write published.

Even if my gift is only worth one talent rather than five or even two, it’s not an excuse for burying it. I might think that my talent isn’t good enough in comparison with others, but God has given it to me for a reason.

It’s my part to do what I can to use and share my gift. What happens then is in God’s hands, whether I have many or few blog followers, or whether people want to publish or read my stories. I just have to try my best and trust and try not to let that spiky thing called the ego come into it.

This week I came across a quote by the Scottish writer Muriel Spark, famous for ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’. She was brought up Presbyterian, but became Catholic in mid-life. When asked what she had achieved as a writer, she said:

‘I have achieved myself. I have expressed something I brought into the world with me…’

I hope that we can aim to build a society where every person has the opportunity and confidence to express what is uniquely them; the gift they brought into the world with them.

A final word

I have been thinking a lot about Nazanin Radcliffe, the mother of a small child who was living and working in Britain, but was jailed when she returned to visit her family in Iran. She is currently being held without charge in solitary confinement. I’d like to share a petition for her release Free Nazanin Radcliffe

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St Margaret of Scotland

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Today is the feast day of St Margaret of Scotland. Until I became Catholic three years ago, I knew her simply as Queen Margaret and to be honest, I’ve had very mixed feelings about her. Whenever anything is written about the decline of Gaelic, fingers are pointed at Margaret of Scotland.

Sometimes I think, read, write and even dream in Gaelic, but the language which I have learnt and love is spoken by less than 2 % of the Scottish population. It was once a national language spoken by all sections of society from the Scottish royal family down to the ordinary people. Placenames show that it was spoken in almost every corner of Scotland from the Borders through to the Western Isles.

Was Queen Margaret to blame for 1000 years of language decline?

Queen Margaret was born in Hungary and returned to England as a child where her brother had a claim to the Anglo-Saxon throne. After the Norman invasion in 1066, she set sail for the continent with her family, but a storm caused them to be washed up on the shores of Scotland. They were welcomed by King Malcolm Canmore (Ceann Mor or big head in Gaelic) who fell in love with the beautiful Saxon princess.

He eventually persuaded her to marry him and they had eight children together. He adored her and it is said that the language of the court was changed from Gaelic to Saxon to make her feel more comfortable. Many people say that this was the first step on a slippery road which led to what was once a national language being on the UNESCO definitely endangered list.

Because of this, I haven’t felt particularly warm towards St. Margaret. However, Scottish saints are quite thin on the ground and I feel that I should take another look at history.

Gaelic in the years following Queen Margaret

Is it fair to blame one lady for one thousand years of language shift? Both Queen Margaret and her sons encouraged Norman and English families to settle in Scotland, but many of them became Galicised (such as clann Fraser or na Frisealaich). Robert de Brus was one of these Normans encouraged to settle in Scotland by Margaret’s son David 1st.  He married a Gaelic speaker and his son Robert the Bruce, possibly Scotland’s most famous king, grew up speaking both Scots and Gaelic.

The 12th to 14th centuries, after Queen Margaret’s death, were a time when Gaelic culture enjoyed a golden age with the Lordship of the Isles, a semi-independent kingdom on the Western seaboard of Scotland.

Gaelic was spoken by the Scottish Royal family until almost five hundred years after Queen Margaret’s arrival in Scotland. King James IV (1473-1513) was the last Scottish King to speak Gaelic.

Other factors contributing to the decline of Gaelic

Many other things have contributed to the decline in Gaelic, such as the Iona Statutes in 1609 which stated that Gaelic chiefs had to send their eldest sons to be educated in the lowlands. They learnt a foreign English-based culture and eventually come to despise the culture they had been born into.

The schools act in 1872 brought in English as the sole medium of teaching. This was later modified in the early twentieth century to allow some teaching of Gaelic at the teacher’s discretion. However, Gaelic was still marginalised. My grandmother was fortunate to have a teacher who taught her to read and write her native language, but a generation later my father was taught to be ashamed of it. This was a major factor in not passing it on.

I’ve wandered a long way from St. Margaret of Scotland, but the point I’m trying to make is that it would be ridiculous to blame an 11th century Queen with Saxon origins for the fact that I grew up hearing Gaelic being bounced around above my head between adults without being able to speak or understand it myself. Many, many other things contributed to that situation, and my story is by no means unique. I know many people my age who have Gaelic speaking parents, but grew up unable to speak it themselves.

A queen who became a saint

So what made Queen Margaret a saint? She and Malcolm had eight children which just about qualifies her for sainthood in my opinion! However, she found time to do a lot of other things.

She rebuilt the Abbey set up by St. Columba on the island of Iona. She set up a free ferry from Queensferry in Edinburgh, so that pilgrims could cross the Forth and visit the relics of St. Andrew in St. Andrews. She fed the poor and introduced reforms to the Scottish church to bring it into line with the way things were done in the rest of Europe.

What was most important wasn’t just what she did (she sounded as if she was a very busy lady), but the fact that she tried to live a life of devotion and prayer.

Significance

Sometimes I feel so insignificant, so small and powerless and recently, even useless.

What do you do? Are you working? It’s a question people often ask.

The current answer is ‘no’. I don’t do anything, but that isn’t true. I am a mother. I shop, I cook, I clean and organise the house. I liase with the school, I help with homework, read bedtime stories, give hugs and support my kids when they are troubled.

 And yet, here in Western Europe in the early twenty-first century, that is seen as not particularly important, because I am no longer have a career or a job outside the home. No-one pays me to look after my children, although if I looked after other peoples’ children that would be seen as a job.

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Becoming a full-time Mum

I once had a job which I was passionate about. When I met people, I could say. Yes, I do this and I’m contributing to something important. It was something I took for granted until I became a mother and I had to put in a Herculean effort just to continue working part-time.

When kid number three was on the way, it seemed like a good time to stop. I’d achieved what I wanted, and felt that I needed a different kind of job and a new challenge. Apart from anything else, the childcare costs were going to exceed what I brought in. It was time to stop juggling and concentrate on the family.

Trying to get back to work

I’ve never regretted that decision, but I underestimated how difficult it would be to start again once all the kids were at school. Having given up one career, I had to retrain to do another one. That required a lot of hard work and humility (more than I had in me at times).

I gave it all I could and it still wasn’t enough. For a long time I blamed myself and my weakness and failures. Perhaps I just wasn’t a strong enough character or the right type of person. Maybe I had intrinsic faults which meant that I couldn’t do this job.

Over time, however, I’ve come to realise that it just wasn’t meant to happen. God allowed me to get so far and no farther. There is no point over-analysing what went wrong or labelling myself as a failure. One of my children became ill and needed me. It felt like a return to the intensity of mothering a child in the baby phase or the terrible twos. For a while, I tried to juggle medical appointments and work, but it became too difficult.

Unable to work

I stopped working and joined the ranks of those who are not ‘economically active’: those who are too old, too young, too sick or too stretched caring for loved ones to be able to work.

At this point in my life, I cannot use my time and energy to produce something which anyone else wants to buy. In our society, almost everything has a price tag and we often mistreat things which we can’t market or sell, such as the air or the oceans and forests. However, no-one would argue that these things don’t have a value, even if we sometimes only realise it after we’ve polluted our environment.

Believing that I have a value

My struggle recently has been to believe that God loves me and values me even if I am not successful or busy or paid a wage. I am alive, breathing, present in the moment and through faith I believe that there is value and purpose in my life.

Recently I left the supermarket with two heavy bags of shopping. I felt a little sorry for myself that I was the one who had to go and buy the milk and bread when it ran out and that I no longer had a car to help bring it back. I stopped in the sunshine for a few moments and made a decision. I could tell myself a sad story about how well I’d done at school and how hard I’d worked to build up a first and then a second career, and how, after all this, I didn’t have a job. Or I could stop analysing the past and predicting the future and instead just enjoy this moment.

I tried this little Catholic trick of St Francis de Sales which I heard about through Father Mike Schmitz website and offered the walk to God. Many people would just see me as a middle-aged lady walking uphill with her shopping in the daytime when most people have more important things to do. However, by turning to God and accepting the situation, I felt that each step I took was significant. By being willing to be who I was in that moment, with circumstances I would never have chosen, I was letting God be God, and that can change everything.

Mind the gap

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I’ve been thinking about the gap between society’s definition of mental health and the journey towards spiritual health, between my rights to express and assert myself as an individual and the religious path which aims at eventually overcoming the ego through detachment.
On the same forage in the charity shop, I picked up two books which wrestle with these questions. One is ‘A book of Silence’ by Sara Maitland, who converted to Catholicism in her forties. The other is ‘Spirit and the Mind’ by the American psychiatrist Samuel Sandweiss who travelled to India in the seventies and experienced a complete turnaround in his goals and values after encountering the guru Sathya Sai Baba. Even though I struggled with his belief that Sai Baba is an avatar, or incarnation of God, I valued his discussion about the gap between psychology and spirituality.
What is a healthy person?
In writing about psychoanalysis, Sandweiss says:
… the goal in treatment is to develop a greater sense of a separate individual identity and a greater capacity for unconflicted gratification of basic animal drives and impulses.
In other words, a psychologically healthy individual is someone who can recognise their own desires and take steps towards fulfilling them, whether these are for food or exercise or sex or meaningful work or friendship.

In contrast, he describes the spiritual search as opening ourselves up to the Divine and overcoming what he calls duality, or the delusion that we are separate and unconnected to others, the environment and God. He writes that this requires:
detachment from and renunciation of the mind itself, as well as of the outer world. … It means giving up attachment to, and need for wine, women, wealth, personal status, reputation and the fruits of our labor as being essential for our sense of self worth and personal identity.
The goals of psychoanalysis, a shoring up our sense of identity, seem almost diametrically opposed to the spiritual goals of overcoming the ego. Sandweiss explores this apparent paradox, and comes to the conclusion that psychology, in its present form, can only take a person part of the way along the road to fulfilment and health. He quotes Ernest Becker (‘The Denial of Death’):
Psychology narrows the cause for personal unhappiness down to the person himself, and then he is stuck with himself…. All the analysis in the world doesn’t allow the person to find out who he is and why he is here on earth, why he has to die, and how he can make his life a triumph. It is when psychology pretends to do this, when it offers itself as a full explanation of human unhappiness, that it becomes a fraud that makes the situation of modern man an impasse from which he cannot escape.
Two kinds of silence
Sara Maitland explores a similar paradox in her pursuit of two different types of silence. She went on a retreat in the Sinai desert where she meditated on the hermits who went into the desert to overcome their ego by self-discipline and acetism.  After this, she explored the silence of the romantic poets, who retreated from society and sought out lonely places with opposite aims. They wanted to find themselves and strengthen their sense of who they were. She writes:
Religious or ermetic silence … is about inner emptiness – emptying the mind and the body of desires, being purged and therefore pure: a kind of blank, a tabula rasa, on which the divine can inscribe itself. … Whereas romanticism uses silence to exactly the opposite ends: to shore up and strengthen the boundaries of the self; to make a person less permeable to the Other; to assert the ego against the construction and expectations of society, to enable an individual to establish autonomous freedom and an authentic voice. Rather than self-emptying, it seeks full-fill-ment.
Although they are achieved in different ways, I see a parallel between what she calls romantic silence and modern psychology; both help a person establish a stronger sense of their own rights and identity. They produce a certain type of mental health, but religion goes further. It strips away the illusion that we are independent individuals, detaches us from false securities and shows us our dependence on God.

A choice

Most of us don’t have the choice of retreating into the desert to find God. However, I think that suffering or trauma can have the same effect.
When I first thought about becoming Catholic, I imagined that it would lead to more peace, security and happiness. What has happened has been extremely fail. I have lost the things which I thought gave me peace and security. This has included failure at work, supporting one of my children through a serious illness, as well as carrying the silent burden of converting to Catholicism in the place where there is a strong Protestant tradition.
Should I seek out a psychoanalyst and try to rebuild my broken-down sense of self (romantic silence isn’t an option in a noisy family), or should I be like the desert fathers and not only abandon myself to this process of loss and detachment, but seek more of it. Perhaps there is a middle way.

In the end, Sara Maitland decided that she wanted to explore both types of silence, the desert type, in which she abandoned herself to God, and the romantic type, in which she worked and built up stories and narrative. Samuel Sandweiss describes an experience in India where he felt such harmony and peace that the inner world seemed more attractive than the outer one. However, he knew that he had to leave this place where he had found peace in order to return to his family and his profession.
Christ tells us that those who seek to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives will save them.

I would never deliberately choose illness and loss. However, it has brought me towards a realisation of my utter dependence on God.

Detachment doesn’t necessarily mean renunciation, but it does mean accepting what comes, whether it is success and health or failure and illness and loss. This is the difficult bit: accepting what is, being thankful for it and trusting that God is in charge. I hope that it will eventually lead to a different kind of peace.

PS – Things have been difficult and I haven’t been able to write much or to keep up with reading other peoples blogs. I’m sorry about that.

One in four

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One in four

Recently I was having a conversation about mental health with someone in my family. I mentioned the fact that one in four people will be affected by mental health problems during their lifetime. A pause followed, in which they digested this statistic, and then they said, “In our family, it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s like almost one hundred percent.”

I had to admit that this was true. I’ve struggled with depression, including severe post-natal depression. Other people in my family have had similar struggles, so many, in fact, that I’ve been guilty of the, “Oh no, not again,” or “Oh no, not another one” feeling when I hear about another crisis.

Statistics just show the average. Some families will have exactly one in four people affected by mental health problems. Other families will hardly be affected by mental illness whilst others will seem to be fighting it all the time.

Down to the fourth generation

Some of our susceptibility can probably be explained by environment and life events, but there is evidence that our genes also play a role. Recently I came across an article describing research carried out on the children and grandchildren of holocaust survivors. It showed that trauma experienced by one generation can actually alter the genes of their children, making them more susceptible to stress and mental health disorders.

I’ve always tried to own my own problems. When I was fighting post-natal depression, I hoped that what I was going through would mean that my children would have less mental health issues to face, not more.

Perhaps it doesn’t work like that. I think of the Bible verse about the sins of the fathers being visited on the children right down to the fourth generation. It seems like a raw deal if God punishes people for mistakes that their great grandparents have made.

Over time I have realised that this verse doesn’t mean that God vindictively causes children and grandchildren to suffer. It simply states a fact: if your life is in a mess then it’s going to have repercussions for the next generation.

Of course, that mess might not be caused by you. Maybe you might have suffered due to war or famine or a natural disaster. If a trauma experienced by the parents affects the genes of the children, does this explain the high levels of depression and alcohol abuse in the Highlands more than one hundred and fifty years after the Clearances?

For how long are the effects of current wars going to be seen in future generations? It is sad to think that those who are lucky enough to survive bombing and displacement and have enough hope left to start a family, might be passing on some of that trauma to their children, no matter how much they try not to.

St Therese and mental illness

I have a fondness for St Therese, perhaps her attitude was, ‘God, I can’t do it on my own. Over to you.’

Her autobiography, ‘Story of a soul’, describes a childhood illness which occurred after her big sister, Pauline, who’d been a sort of substitute mother to her, entered the closed Carmelite convent. Having lost her mother and then her big sister, Therese became ill with what sounds like a severe depression, although there was no such thing as a mental health diagnosis in the 19th century. It also had physical effects and her family feared that she was going to die. Therese herself couldn’t see any way out of the illness, but she prayed and was cured when she turned her head and saw a statue of ‘Our Lady’ smiling at her.

I was searching the web to try to find out more about St Therese and her childhood illness when I came across this beautiful leaflet on St Therese and mental illness. Not only did St. Therese suffer from depression in childhood, but she also bore the pain of seeing her father Louis Martin suffer from mental illness. He spent the last part of his life in a mental asylum. He still became a saint. This gives me hope that mental illness, like physical illness, is something which God allows to come into our lives.

Just as being overweight increases a risk of a heart attack, our choices may increase or decrease our risk of depression. However, there are also other factors outside our control, such as a stressful work environment or a susceptibility to depression which is written into our genes.

The leaflet on St Therese really moved me. It acknowledged the stigma around mental illness and how much of it is suffered in silence. When there is a mental health crisis, people don’t rally round and cook meals for the family the way they might if someone was suffering from a serious physical illness.

For sufferers and carers, mental illness can be lonely. All we can do is follow St Therese’s example, stretch out our arms and say God, ‘I am too little to do this alone. Please pick me up and help me.’

Excess baggage

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I often drop into sacredspace, a site run by the Irish Jesuits which offers a way of praying and meditating on the daily Gospel. Each week they also have some thoughts taken from either a blog or a book.

This week’s piece was Lost Luggage in which Vinita Hampton Wright describes a bag being lost in transit and continuing her travels without even missing the contents. She postulates that we carry around too many burdens, both physical and psychological.

This struck a chord with me because I’ve just had a similar experience. My family life is a bit nomadic at the moment. We are away from home for what was meant to just be a few months. We were due to return today, but have had to delay our return because one of our children is in hospital.

Ten days ago, we moved from one temporary place to another. The bags we had brought with us seemed to have bred during the few months we were here. I felt burdened and harassed by the amount of luggage. Even so, we’d managed to forget quite a lot of stuff. My husband dropped by to pick up a bag of forgotten belongings and I was astonished going through the bag, because I’d actually forgotten that I owned these things.

I have a house stuffed full of belongings and it’s actually a relief to be away from it and realise that there are very few things I miss.

What I don’t miss

  • An old denim skirt I haven’t worn in a long time and keep just in case I run out of anything else to wear.
  • Hand-painted china teaset (even if it was my grandmother’s)
  • Champagne flutes (elegant wedding present, but when was the last time I had champagne)
  • The rest of my jewellery collection. I especially don’t miss the odd earrings I have hoarded just in case the lost one turns up. St Anthony has found a lot of things for me, but I guess there are limits.
  • Bags of baby clothes which we have kept just in case we have grandchildren
  • Boxes of Duplo and baby toys which have been kept for the same reason
  • Books I have already read. Do I really need to re-read Pride and Prejudice for the seventh or eighth time?
  • Ornaments, vases (a cut out 2-litre bottle will do the same job) and other clutter.

What I do miss

  • The dog and all the walks
  • The garden
  • The potatoes I planted before I left
  • The peat stack and the peat bank. At this point I have to admit that my peat stack is very far from a traditional herring bone pattern. In fact, the only way I can keep these peats dry is to put them in old animal feed bags on top of a wooden pallet and to top the whole lot with a plastic tarp.
  • Box of lego for the children
  • Books – the childrens’ books and all the books I haven’t read. I’ve just made a pilgrimage to a second hand bookshop to pick up reading material.
  • My crochet project which was far too large to pack into a suitcase. However, I don’t miss all the half-used balls of wool which I was hoarding ‘just in case’

A place to stay

In the last post, I wrote that I was looking for accommodation, because we wouldn’t have anywhere to stay in three weeks. We have had to change all our plans, because one of our children is ill.

During the last week, I have been flat hunting and I have been thinking about Mary leaving Nazareth for the census in Bethlehem. She was heavily pregnant and it wasn’t a trip that she would have made unless she absolutely had to. She must have worried about finding a place to stay, about when the baby would come and whether the stress of the journey would cause it to come early.

When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem and found all the inns full, they must have been feeling pretty desperate. Up until now, I have imagined Mary exhausted, perhaps already in labour and at the absolute limit of her endurance, being turned away and refused shelter.

In my present predicament of needing to find a place for my family to stay, I have begun to imagine the scene differently. I have hoped and prayed that God provided a place for Mary and Joseph to stay and rest from their travels before Mary actually gave birth. I have pictured her having a few days to settle into the stable, sleep, eat and perhaps even share a joke or two with the census enumerator before giving birth.

I have needed to re-imagine this Gospel scene, because last week I felt that I was getting close to the limit of my faith and endurance. I wanted to believe that Mary had some time to rest before the baby came, because I felt that I was soon going to be too exhausted to do more flat hunting. Before moving again, I needed some time to rest in the knowledge that my family wasn’t going to be homeless.

In fact, we found a place after searching for a week. It is simple and cheap, but we have realised that we don’t need much.

A week ago, this would have felt like a miracle. In fact, someone came forward out of the blue and said that they had a flat to rent. The strange thing about miracles is that the human brain has a way of adapting to them and taking them for granted.

I have a tiny thread of faith, not much, just a mustard seed. I am so frightened and full of doubt. I wish I had more confidence, but this seems like an answer to prayer. Maybe that’s why I am writing about these difficulties here, to record what happens so that I can look back some time and hopefully see how it all fits together even though it just seems confusing and frightening right now.

Dispossessed

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A house of cards

Is life like a precarious house of cards with only the rich enjoying even an illusion of security?  If so our cards have been scattered in the air and are still fluttering downwards. I have no idea where they will land.

We are in the middle of a family crisis. One of our children is in hospital (away from home) and may be there for some time. All our carefully-laid plans are in disarray. We don’t even know where we will be living in a month’s time.

On top of the distress of my child not being with me, and the feelings of guilt (perhaps I didn’t love enough, try hard enough) I have been worrying about practical things. What is going to happen about dog, job, schools and above all, a place to live?

The distress comes not just from what actually ‘is’ happening, but from not knowing what is going to happen. I wanted to own the future, but this crisis has meant that most of our plans will have to be scrapped.

If God has a plan, it’s not clear yet. It is hard to trust that He has a plan, and even more difficult to accept that this illness is part of it.

The illusion of possession

In all this, some of my distress comes from dispossession, or rather the illusion of possession. The things I had planned to happen will not now happen. The future was never mine. I haven’t actually lost anything. All that is gone is an idea of security, my thoughts about how things should be.

I am reading ‘From Suffering to Peace’ by the Spanish priest Ignacio Larrañaga. He says that a lot of psychic suffering comes from the ego. It is full of desires, fears, illusions and above all, a desire to possess. He argues that the only way to eliminate suffering is to lose your ego (yourself) with your fears and desires. Only by freeing ourselves of our ego and desires and by becoming poor, can we become pure in heart and see our situation as it really is. He connects this to the beatitudes (Matthew 5): ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: the kingdom of Heaven is theirs’ and ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: they shall see God.’

“From Suffering to Peace” is written for everyone, both those with a strong faith and those with none. Ignacio Larrañaga recommends exercises to reduce psychic suffering, such as emptying your mind through becoming aware of your body, sounds and what you see. These techniques help us accept and embrace the gift of the moment rather than lassooing our desires around some future idea of fulfilment. In the final chapters, Ignacio Larrañaga discusses the meaning of suffering in the Christian context.

Lack of possessions

Somewhere deep inside me I accept that crisis is an opportunity to recognise my own poverty and thank God for what I have, even if it isn’t what I expected or hoped for.

I think of Jonah the prophet. He was understandably tired after being swallowed and regurgitated by a whale, and then going to preach to the Ninevites. He made a shelter to rest in and God caused a plant to grow around it. Jonah enjoyed the shade until the plant was attacked by a pest and died. Jonah was very angry with God for letting this happen to ‘his’ plant. God replied that Jonah did nothing to grow the plant. It was a gift, coming up in the night and dying in the night.

When he began his ministry, Jesus gave up his possessions. He set off to find John the Baptist, leaving behind ‘his’ family, ‘his’ home, ‘his’ career as a carpenter and ‘his’ community. I imagine that he took very little money and didn’t know where he would sleep that night. For three years he wandered his country preaching. He had no fixed abode and was essentially homeless and yet God provided.

Jesus sent out seventy-two apostles (Luke 10), commanding them to take no money or possessions with them, not even a change of clothes. Whenever I read this Gospel, I can’t help wondering if they got a bit stinky. Did they manage to wash?

Despite the lack of possessions, they came back rejoicing at how well their mission went. Jesus referred to this at the Last Supper (Luke 22), but he said that the next time they went out on a mission they should go well prepared: ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and the same with a haversack; if you have no sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’ (Luke 22:36)

Sometimes it seems that it’s all right to make plans, and at other times when our plans don’t work and we are left with nothing to prop us up, we have to just trust in God.

Thanks

In every Mass, the priest says ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord’ and the congregation replies, ‘It is right and just.’

I can’t pick and choose when I give thanks. God is the same and His love for me is the same whether things are going what I label ‘well’ or whether they are going ‘badly’.

I am very lucky. My child is alive and receiving care. I have to let go and leave her in other peoples’ hands. We have a roof over our heads and even, unlike the seventy-two apostles, a few changes of clothes. The sun is shining and I hear wind in the leaves. For the moment, I have done all I can and I remember the words of Eckhart Tolle, ‘When there is nothing you can do, rest in peace, rest in God.’

Hope

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope. For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.

T.S. Eliot (American poet and Anglican convert)

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Right now that’s how I feel. I want to have hope, but I don’t know what to hope for. Things are difficult for my family. Even a month ago, things seemed as if they could still be normal. But now our options have closed in and it feels as if we are about to go through a narrow tunnel. We have no idea when, how, if we will emerge on the other side and where we will be.

I guess it’s not trust if you can see what lies on the other side. We would appreciate prayers.

Reconciliation

The last post I wrote on difficulty in believing in God’s mercy is less than half the story. Here’s some more.

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I am a Catholic Presbyterian or a Presbyterian Catholic. I’m not sure which. In any case, I will never cease to be what I started out as.

Where I started out

The culture and religion of my childhood was rooted in Highland Presbyterian tradition. We were in the world, but not of it. We dug our feet into the ground and stubbornly resisted the flow of wider culture.

I wore a long dress or a skirt to church and always covered my head with a hat or an ugly grey beret. I was encouraged to find fulfilment in marriage and childbearing rather than a career. Listening to modern music was forbidden. I wasn’t allowed to take part in school dances, not even Scottish ceilidh dancing. On the Sabbath Day, I was not allowed to do or even talk about anything which wasn’t either absolutely necessary or connected in some way with God and religion.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water

When I went to university, the gap between what everyone else, even other Christians, was doing, and what I was supposed to do, became unbearable. I kicked against the traces and got out. However, once you throw out some of your upbringing, it’s very difficult to keep your orientation. Without a guide light, how can you pick and choose your values? If you reject some of them, why not throw them all away? In many ways, I threw the baby out with the bathwater.

A Catholic or a Presbyterian?

When I first thought about becoming Catholic, I thought that I could draw a line under my previous church tradition and put it quite firmly in the past. I wanted to emphasise the differentness of being Catholic as opposed to being Presbyterian. I thought that I would gradually become more and more Catholic until all the Presbyterian was squeezed out of me.

That’s not how it works. God wants us to be whole. He doesn’t want divisions, even within our own lives between what we were and what we are now. In some mysterious way, God, through Christ, can take the pain of the past and not only heal but transform it.

Fr. Michael Seed is a Franciscan Friar who is a convert to Catholicism. In the publication, “Thinking of becoming a Catholic?”, he writes about converts:

They are now members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And they continue with their communion with whatever they were formerly.

They don’t cease to be Anglicans or Methodists or Quakers. I have never ceased, ever, to be a member of the Salvation Army or a Strict and Particular Baptist. …They are all beautiful signs of God’s grace. Catholicism embraces all the previous states of your life.

How is that possible? Because Jesus founded only one Church. … In the ceremony of reception you embrace in a unique way every denomination, because Christ is present, in some way, in all denominations.

Reconciliation

Reconciliation goes further than forgiveness. With forgiveness, you let go of something which has wounded you, and free yourself and others to move on. However, the past may still be a painful place which you try to forget.

Reconciliation transforms the past. It twines loose ends together and tucks them in so that what didn’t at the time seem like the right thing or enough becomes exactly what it was meant to be.

C.S. Lewis wrote ‘The Great Divorce’ which refers to the great divorce between Heaven and Hell. In a vivid dream, the narrator visits a dull, grey place where nothing is of good quality, no-one is happy and people argue with their neighbours and move further and further apart. They are offered the chance to take a bus trip to Heaven. Although heaven is beautiful, the reality of it is so painful that many choose to leave on the return bus.

At the end of ‘The Great Divorce’, the narrator has a vision in which he looks back at his life, and understands that if he turns towards God, even the most painful things he has gone through on earth will be transformed and become a part of his experience of Heaven. Conversely, if he turns away from God, misery and resentment will eat backwards through memories of his life on earth, contaminating even pleasures and moments of happiness.

Since becoming Catholic, there have been brief moments when I have almost understood what C.S Lewis meant. Rather than nursing my wounds, I have experienced total acceptance of the past and gratitude for what has been and what is.

That is a grace which only God can give. In the next post, I will write about a few of the things in the Presbyterian church which prepared me to become Catholic.

God’s mercy

I wrote this piece a while ago and didn’t post it. I’ve recently had another attack of what I call ‘bad image of God’ (usually accompanied by bad image of self). However, I’m recovering and am posting this in the hope that it might be helpful.

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An attack of ‘bad image of God’

The biggest struggle I have experienced in my journey to becoming Catholic has been trusting in God’s mercy. A diary entry written a few months after I was received into the church says:

I am nobody, nothing. God hates me. He’s hovering in heaven, ready to squish me, to make me suffer in the most excruciating way possible, both psychologically and physically. He wants me to hurt, is even now planning how to do it.

Maybe I should just give up, ask for oblivion. Even death won’t help. It will just give him the chance to inflict more and never-ending torment. I can’t escape. I would despair except that I have children. I have to try to love them, even though it’s imperfect. I’m never good enough. God is always angry with me. He doesn’t forgive. I don’t want to go near Him because He will push me away.

And yet, grumpy and moody as I am, I try to forgive my children.

At the time that I wrote these words, I absolutely believed them, although I also experienced moments when I experienced God’s love and mercy.

High pews and short legs

These feelings of mistrust in God’s mercy came from deep in my childhood. I sat on hard, scratchy cushions on a pew that was too high for my short legs and watched the preacher. His face was thrown into relief by the pulpit light so that it seemed to be full of clefts and hollows which changed as he moved. As he spoke about God’s judgement and hell and our own sin and unworthiness, his voice rose and fell and his face twisted with emotion.

When I was very young, all I thought about was getting through the long sermons. I swung my legs and wriggled and twisted and traced pictures in the patterns of the wooden shelf where we rested our Bibles and Psalm books. I ate the sweeties that my grandmother gave me, trying not to sook on them and just let them rest in my mouth. If I was careful, four sweeties would almost last me through an hour-long sermon.

At some point, I began to understand the preacher’s words. I realised that when he talked about sinners who were going to be lost in hell unless they threw themselves on God’s mercy, he was including me.

I did what the preacher told me to. I turned to God and asked Him to forgive my sins. It was logical. I didn’t want to go to the never-ending fire that the preacher described so graphically, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Double back flipping Calvinism

This decision brought me peace until I became a teenager and realised that it wasn’t as simple as that. God’s mercy wasn’t to be obtained by simply asking for it, not for a reformed Scottish Presbyterian. Many people in our church, including my own family, were double back flipping Calvinists (although I think that the theological term is double predestination).

They believed that God had decided before the start of time who would be saved and who wouldn’t. Therefore, it made no difference if we turned to God and asked for forgiveness. If God had decided that we were among the Elect, we would be saved and if we weren’t, then we would be damned regardless of how many times we petitioned God for mercy. In fact, it was sheer insolence to even ask for God’s mercy unless He first gave a sign that we were numbered among the Elect.

This was too much for me. I could ask God’s forgiveness, but could never be sure that I would ever receive it. Although I didn’t leave the church for several more years, my faith and trust were already damaged. My feelings of guilt and unworthiness grew until the only way I could cope was to leave the church in which I had grown up.

I tried different churches. However, I was dogged by the image of a God who would never love or forgive no matter how hard I tried to please him or how much I needed his help. I suffered from low self-esteem and depression. The only way to escape this bogey God who was always breathing disapproval down my neck was to turn my back on religion.

Believing in God’s mercy

It didn’t end there. Many years later I felt called to become Catholic. This brought me a lot of joy, but also the challenge of facing my own negative images of God.

During the first year or so after becoming Catholic, even the Sacrament of Reconciliation did not give me immediate relief from the feelings of guilt and mistrust in God’s mercy. Confessing to a priest was such a strange and unfamiliar thing. Perhaps that was the reason I didn’t experience the feelings of relief and lightness that other people reported. Often, however, I would feel that the burden of guilt and doubt had lifted a few hours or a few days later. On one beautiful occasion I stood in the sunlight in the church after confession and felt as if the doubt and guilt which was crushing me lifted in an instant, allowing the love of God to flow in.

The shock I felt after re-reading the diary entry above shows that God has made some progress with me, even if it seems to have been slow and imperceptible. Believing in God’s love and forgiveness is an ongoing challenge as the stresses and strains of life continually throw up new situations in which I have difficulty trusting Go

My other great challenge is to forgive. I will write more about that journey in the next post.