Beach clothes

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Last week brought images of a woman on a beach in the south of France being asked by armed guards to either leave the beach or remove, yes remove, her over-shirt. She was dressed in leggings, headscarf and long shirt. Apparently her modest clothing was not secular enough to fit in with the new regulations on France’s beaches, where the burkini is banned (a full body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women).

I don’t get it

I just don’t get it. When I go to the beach, I am usually pretty much covered in clothes from head to toe, and no-one complains. Admittedly this is Scotland where there is almost always a stiff wind coming off the sea. If I venture near a beach in winter, I usually wear a long coat, jeans, boots and a hat. I have a scarf pulled up so that only the bridge of my nose and my eyes are showing. In fact, I don’t show any more skin than if I was wearing a burka.

Recently it’s actually been warm enough to wear a swimsuit. While the locals show off plenty of tender, white skin, visitors from sunnier climes, who don’t realise that 15 degrees Centigrade is a heat wave, have enjoyed the weak, northern sun in jeans, long shirts and jumpers and wide-brimmed hats. No-one has asked them to strip off.

Something has gone wrong if women are targeted for wanting to cover themselves up. The pressure to keep up with fashion and show off your body can be just as much of a restriction on women’s freedom as covering up for religious reasons. In the Highlands of Scotland, many women cover their heads to go to church and long skirts are de rigeur for the older generation. A look at photos of Victorian woman’s bathing attire will show something which resembles a baggier, lycra-free version of the burkini.  If a woman feels more comfortable covered up, the decision should be left to her.

Love

The secular laws in France are, whether or not that was the original intention, targeting Muslims and in particular, targeting women, themselves a more vulnerable group. In the UK, there is also a tendency to react to terrorist acts, or simply to the fact of being in contact with those from another culture and religion, by perceiving our Muslim neighbours as oppressive and potentially violent.

Last week I had a reminder that the heart of the Muslim religion is love. I watched a wonderful DVD called Bab’Aziz or The Prince who contemplated his soul. It is based around the ideas of Sufi mysticism, and is a visually beautiful film about a blind dervish and his granddaughter who wander through the desert looking for a gathering of dervishes. Their journey through the desert is a metaphor of the journey of the soul. It is demanding to watch, slow in places and then switching quickly to follow the stories of the different characters who are encountered on the way.

I cannot describe the effect that this film had on me, except to say that it left my soul panting for God as the deer pants for the water. At the end, I wanted to run to God, as a child runs to her Father, and tell Him that I wanted to give Him everything, except that my hands were too small to hold whatever that everything is. It will take a lifetime to scoop up small handfuls and offer it back to Him.

The film left me with the same feeling I have whenever I have the privilege of talking to an elderly friend of mine who is a Sufi. I recognise the hunger for God and the search for God in the other, and that lights the flame in my own heart. It seems to me that although, on the surface, there are many different traditions and ways of approaching God, underneath there is only one way and that is love, which is the hardest way of all. From Bab’Aziz:

The people of this world are like the three butterflies in front of a candle’s flame. The first one went closer and said, ‘I know about love’. The second one touched the flame lightly with his wings and said, ‘I know how love’s fire can burn.’ The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame and was consumed.

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Only say the word

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The title for this post comes from the words of the Centurion to Jesus when he asked him to heal his sick son: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my son shall be healed. I think that they are some of the most beautiful words in the Bible.

Images of my soul

When I was a child, I thought of my soul as a small, wrinkled, prune-like organ. It was located somewhere in my head, probably right at the back.

As I grew older, I realised that the soul is not a physical organ like the heart and the liver. I stopped thinking much about it, and even questioned whether it existed.

When I began attending Mass, I still didn’t have any more than a vague belief in God, but the prayer said just before Communion, based on the Centurion’s words, made a huge impression on me: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

Now I had a new image for my soul as a windowless hovel. It was a dark, damp place that had once had strange, failed ambitions of grandeur. The walls were covered in peeling wallpaper and rotting wood panelling, which was falling off the walls.

Healing

As I watched other people go up to take the Eucharist, I imagined what sort of work Jesus would have to do if he came under my roof.

First of all, he would open the tightly shut door, and let light and fresh air into the dirt and decay. He would light a fire to warm the damp interior. Each week at Mass, I tried to give Him permission to strip away a little more of my ego and false securities. I imagined Him patiently pulling off layer after layer of old wallpaper and rotting wood and burning it on the fire.

This was a very painful process, because I had deeply entrenched ideas of what I wanted to do for my own power, honour and glory. Each time when I thought that I had opened my hands and tried to let go of everything, I discovered another layer of worthless rubbish stubbornly clinging to the walls.

Yet another image of the soul

This work of stripping away what isn’t necessary, and trying to orientate myself towards God, will be a lifelong task. I can only co-operate in it. Alone, I am powerless to change myself.

Recently another gentler image of the soul has floated into my mind. I see a modern, furnished room. I can’t quite picture the walls or the dark corners, but I do see a zebra-print sofa with red cushions. Don’t ask me why this is in the image. I can be a bit eccentric, and I do admit to owning a pair of zebra-print pyjamas. However, I wouldn’t be seen in public wearing animal prints, and I can safely say that I would never choose a zebra-print sofa.

The décor is a bit bizarre, but this image of my soul is of a room where someone might conceivably sit and rest for a while.

Recently I was assailed by doubts and feelings of inadequacy. I felt as if God was saying that there is a place and time for recognising faults. However, if I only concentrate on them, it’s like turning off the light and heat in the room. Very quickly, my soul once again becomes a dark, dank place where no-one wants to stay for long.

A place to rest

I would like my soul to be a place where Christ can come and rest for a while. Sometimes I wonder, how I can redd it up for him. Redd it up is what we say in Scotland when we are cleaning to get ready for something. For instance, when I was a child, we redd up the house and gave it a good clean for the New Year. My mother gave all of us jobs to do.

This brought me to think that Mary was the person who redd up the house for Christ when He was a child. She would have wanted the place he stayed to be clean and tidy for Him. Now I am wondering if this image of Mary redding up the house, is going to get me a little closer to the role of Mary. As Christ’s mother wouldn’t she want our souls to be warm and welcoming places for Him?

Our parish priest says that Mary’s role is to lead us to Christ and Christ brings us to the Father. I still don’t understand what this means. However, I wonder if these images of my soul are bringing me a little closer.

It’s a mess!

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Messy room

It started with a hairline crack near the door, just a split in the wallpaper, but underneath I felt loose plaster. When we moved into the house I had painted over three (yes, three) different patterns of wallpaper to brighten up the small room, but I wouldn’t get away with a quick lick of paint this time.

For a long time, I tried to ignore the grubby marks and the widening cracks on the wall. Recently I gathered my courage, borrowed a steamer from a friend and set to work. As I pulled off the stiff paper chunks of plaster came with it. The next day, I found a few of them hidden in my dog’s blankets. She decided that they were big enough to be worth gnawing on.

Now that the wallpaper’s off, we see the mottled, stained walls underneath. A big hole goes right down to the bricks and I still have to chip out more loose plaster around it. The place is a mess.

Messy life

Recently at Mass, I heard the passage in Jeremiah 18 where God compares Himself to a potter making something new out of a lump of clay that didn’t turn into anything worthwhile at the first attempt. The priest said that even if our lives are in a bad state, we can hand the mess over to God and trust Him to create something new. After Communion, I knelt down in prayer and thought about the messes in my life.

I thought about leaving the religious tradition in which I was brought up, which gave me certainty and security and the approval of my family. I thought of the anger I came to feel against religion, which caused me to oppose any kind of religious upbringing for my children. I thought of the force, which I might call God, which drew me into a mystery where there are no clear-cut certainties. This path eventually led me into the Catholic church.

I am in a place where I am like a little child, having to learn things again. It’s messy and painful. I feel that I have let my family down, both the older and younger generation, for different reasons. On that particular day, I was staying with my parents. I felt intense guilt for telling them that I was going out for a walk and a cup of coffee without also mentioning that the walk included a detour past the local Catholic church where I attended Mass.

Handing it over to God

Before I became Catholic, I asked our priest what difference taking Holy Communion would make. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “It will move you to tears.”

I couldn’t do any more with my mess and I tried to hand it over to God. This time, I couldn’t hold back the tears. I have often been damp-eyed after Communion, but I have never let go and cried with such abandon.

Nothing looks the way I (and I imagine many other people in my life) think it should. I don’t understand what is happening, but I think of the broken walls in room I am decorating. Once I took off the wallpaper, the walls looked an awful lot worse. Maybe things have to be stripped down to the core, revealing an even bigger mess, before anything can get better.