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.

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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.