The sacrament

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I want to go to Mass. I don’t want to go.

I am afraid of my impossible expectations. Nothing ever turns out the way I think it should. I fear this unreachable God. I am overwhelmed by the distance between us. I worry that I will take the Eucharist and feel nothing. Most of all, I fear discovering in my deepest, inner self, that there is no God.

I fear longing, and I fear not longing.

I keep my head down, trying to dodge the voice which asks what business I have attending Catholic Mass? I was brought up a doughty Protestant. Who am I kidding that I’ll ever make a good Catholic? My life doesn’t stand scrutiny. If you hold it to the light like an old garment, all you will see is holes.  

At the last moment, when there is really almost no time left, I know I have to go.

I scuttle in at the tail end of the Gloria. Another failure. I am crushed inside.

I tell God about the things which are tearing me apart. I try to turn towards Him, an imperfect, scratched piece of metal, such a dull reflection of His light.

We say Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts. I bend to my knees in relief, hide my face and my tears in my hands, and say, God do with me what you will.

And then I go up for that tiny sliver of bread, a flat little wafer handed over with compassion. I look at it in my palm, hardly bigger than a thumbnail. I can’t take in the thought that Jesus lies there. I really can’t believe it. All I can do is take, eat, kneel and hope and pray that I will experience what I cannot comprehend.

I pray for mercy. I ask that Jesus will come into the hovel of my soul and stay a little while, because I am too weak and small and poor to do anything myself.

I leave the church, forcing a smile and exchanging a few words. I hold things together long enough to take myself off to a quiet place, and then something cracks. Walls, barriers, defences crumble. Tears flow again. I am breaking up inside and I can hardly bear it. There is darkness in front of me. I am afraid to go forward. I can’t go back.

All I can say is, Sweet Jesus, I feel as if you have taken hold of my heart and pulled it out through my mouth. I have nothing left. You have taken it all. You have it all. If you want me to love others, you will have to do it through me, because I am nothing. I have no strength on my own.

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We shall not be overcome

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In the last week or so, I have been trying to hold onto St Therese’s image of clinging onto God. When asked to help train novices, she wrote that if she had tried to do the work in her own strength, she would have given up right away.

Returning to work

Recently I have been asking myself what it means to do things in God’s strength. The difficulties I face are so great that I sometimes wonder how I am going to keep going at all. Over the past year or so, I have been trying to start working again.

Giving birth to children, trying to juggle work and childcare, and finally giving up my career and ambitions so that I could bring up my children were huge challenges at the time. However, trying to return to the relentless routine of the workplace is also a difficult period in a woman’s life which, I think, goes largely unrecognised. One minute you are at the beck and call of small people, their needs and sicknesses, and the next you are supposed to be punctual, scrubbed clean, well-ironed and thinking about nothing but professional problems.

It is difficult enough if you are slotting back into the job you were doing before you went on maternity leave (I’ve done that too). However, if your old job is long gone and you have to retrain to do a new one, starting on the very bottom rung, the path ahead can seem impossibly difficult.

Over the last while, I have felt as if I am trying to climb Mount Everest with several kids strapped to my back and without proper equipment. I lumber slowly forwards while lithe young graduates gallop past like gazelles in super-dry clothing with tiny, ultra-lite backpacks strapped to their backs.

A long, long time ago, it feels as if it happened to someone else in a story, although it was actually not much more than a year back, I prayed about whether I should try to do this job. It felt like the right thing to do. In fact, it was the only choice which brought me peace.

It all feels too much

Now that I’m in the thick of it, I just feel confused and exhausted. The job is tiring and there’s so much to learn. Over the last week, the kids and I have all go sick, and what do you do when you have to work and there is no wider family or in-laws or out-laws (to borrow a phrase from one of my in-laws) to help out?

Sometimes it all feels too much. I have conversations with God along the lines of, “Are You sure you’ve got the right person, here? It seems like there’s so many other people out there who could do this job better than me. I keep making mistakes. Some days almost feel like an unmitigated disaster. I’m asking You for help, but all these obstacles appear in the way, including the ones made by my own inexperience.”

Keeping going

Two things keep me going. One is Gerard W. Hughe’s advice based on Ignatian spirituality. He says that in a time of desolation, you should never go back on a decision made in a time of consolation. If I’m honest with myself, I can look back on times when I did enjoy doing this work, and when I felt that I had confirmation that I was on the right path.

The other thing which keeps me putting one foot in front of the other, is the thought that it wouldn’t be faith, and I probably wouldn’t be learning much, if God magically cleared every obstacle out of my path.

I often think of the words of Julian of Norwich, the medieval anchoress who lived alone in a cell attached to St Julian’s church in Norwich.

He did not say, ‘You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-weary, you shall not be discomforted.’ But he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’ God wants us to heed these words so that we shall always be strong in trust, both in sorrow and in joy.

On flowers and small things

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Today I am thinking about a young woman who compared herself to a flower, not a grand, showy one like a rose or a lily, but a simple violet which grows close to the ground. I am talking, of course, about St Therese, otherwise known as the Little Flower, whose saint’s day was celebrated yesterday.

She was born into a middle-class French family, entered a Carmelite monastery at the age of fifteen and died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four. Until her death and the publication of her memoirs, hers was a hidden life. She didn’t die a martyr or travel to distant countries proclaiming the Gospel. Her heroism lay in carrying out small acts with great love, such as helping a grumbling, old sister to walk to the refectory, patiently putting up with the strange noise another sister made at prayer or seeking out the company of the people she found least attractive and most difficult.

She compared herself to a weak little bird which was determined, despite its smallness, to head towards the light of the divine. She also described herself as a small  paintbrush which Jesus used to paint the details into his pictures.

Acknowledging weakness

Rather than pretending a strength she didn’t possess, or giving up and saying that she was too small and frail to be used by God, she acknowledged her weakness. Realising the impossibility of reaching God by her own strength, she held out her arms and asked Jesus to pick her up. For that she must be small and humble. In this way, she allowed God to turn her weakness into a strength.

When she was asked to give instruction to the novices, she wrote that she flung herself into God’s arms and told Him that she felt that this work was beyond her strength. However, if He wanted to use her, then she asked Him to fill her hands, to that she could reach out and feed his children without for one moment ceasing to cling to Him.

Recently I have often been thinking of this image of St Therese clinging to God. There are phases in our lives when God allows us to coast along on what appears to be our own strength, and other phases when God allows us to see that we are really nothing without Him. I’m at a stage in my live when what I am expected to do seems to be beyond my strength. I am trying to return to work after having children, and struggling to learn a new job. Some days, I just don’t know how I’m going to keep on doing this. All I can do is acknowledge my weakness and my utter dependence on God.

Doing small things with love

Thomas Merton’s friend Bob Lax said that the aim of every Catholic should not just to be a good Catholic, but to become a saint. St Therese shows that it is possible for anyone, however, small and limited their life, to become a saint by doing small things with love.

When I was younger, I had a career, I travelled the world, I went to conferences and meetings. Now my life is quite different. It is enclosed by a bracelet of small things which simply have to be done: washing the dishes, shopping for food, walking the dog, washing the dog because she’s rolled in something unsavoury (again), cleaning the floor because someone has left a mess on it (again).

It is hard not to get fed up and grumble and sigh. However, rather than becoming annoyed and impatient, St Therese saw these small sacrifices as an opportunity to detach herself from self-love and turn towards God.

I can’t do any big, heroic acts, but the life of the Little Flower gives me hope that God will give me the strength to do small things with love.