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.
Okay, I’m back to the geeky physics stuff. Let me explain.
Grief is like a black hole
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.’
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.
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
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.
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
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 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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today, I’m going to admit to being a geek and share some of my enthusiasm for physics. Yes, it does have some relevance for faith so please be patient.
Why don’t things keep on moving?
One of the hardest things for those new to physics to understand is Newton’s first law of motion: I’ll try to put it in plain English.
An object which is not moving will remain still while an object which is moving will continue to move at the same speed and in the same direction UNLESS an unbalanced force acts on it.
Before your eyes glaze over and you click this post shut, I’ll try to unpick this. Newton’s first law is quite extraordinary. What it says is that if something is moving, it should go on moving in the same direction and at the same speed forever UNLESS a force acts on it.
Okay, you don’t need to be an expert in physics to know that nothing goes on moving at the same speed for ever. If you kick a football, it will arc into the air, it’s speed changing, until it falls back to the earth and comes to a halt. If you drag a heavy bag across the floor, it will stop moving as soon as you stop pulling it.
However, if you were living in space, you would be able to see Newton’s first law in action. Once the space shuttle has got into space, it hurtles around the earth at a speed of 17000 miles per hour even though its engines are switched off. If you threw a ball outside your spacecraft, it would keep on moving at the same speed, basically forever, unless it bumped into something which changed its speed or direction.
Why do objects behave so differently in space and on earth? When we walk or drive over ground which isn’t perfectly smooth, there is a force trying to stop us moving. This force is called friction. It means that we have to keep on putting in effort to do things. If we stop tugging the case, it won’t move. If we don’t keep moving our muscles to put one leg in front of the other, we won’t get anywhere. If we stop pushing down the accelerator which keeps the engine going, our car will roll to a halt.
Sometimes it might seem tempting to wish that we lived in a world without friction. It’s easy to imagine a world where we could step on the pavement and glide down the road without any effort, or where our cars rolled along without having to burn expensive fuel.
Fancy a world without friction?
A world without fiction would be nice, wouldn’t it? Maybe not. Think ice.
A smooth expanse of ice is the closest we get on earth to a friction-free situation. If we step on ice wearing ordinary shoes, we will glide along for a few feet but probably end up falling on our behinds. If we manage, somehow, to keep our balance, we won’t get anywhere fast as we’ll just slide around without going in the direction we want to. It’s the same with cars. No-one wants to drive over a patch of black ice as it’s likely that their car will skid out of control.
Friction might seem like an annoying waste of energy, but the truth is that we need something resisting our motion so that we keep on moving forward in the right direction. In situations when there isn’t enough friction, we need to increase it. For instance, in a snowy area, we can fit tyres with a thicker tread in the winter. I once had the opportunity to visit an underground glacier. To walk on its slick surface, I had to strap crampons over my shoes which bit into the ice creating traction.
The friction of daily life
All this got me thinking about the friction of daily life: all these wee household jobs which have to be done every day, your child’s moods, your spouse’s nagging, the elderly neighbour who needs a visit when you have a hundred things to organise.
And then there are the times in life when you face such huge obstacles that you hardly seem to move at all: the illness of a family member, losing a job, having to move out of your home, school or workplace bullying.
Rather than wishing these difficulties and sufferings away so that we can make rapid progress towards what we think is our goal, should we actually be grateful for them? Like real-life friction are all these apparent challenges actually the force which keeps us steady and balanced. Are they what stops us falling over or sliding off in the wrong direction? Without them, would our strength fail and our faith stagnate, just like unused muscles in a frictionless world?
I’ve said before that being a Mum is hard. It’s not just that the job is difficult or even almost impossible (try keeping up with the cleaning and the washing with small kids). Often the most difficult part of being a mother is feeling alone and unappreciated.
I like to think that in the past women were together more, sharing daily tasks and keeping an eye out for one another’s kids. In the Highlands, women got together to finish a length of tweed, banging it against a table while they sang songs in time for their work. However, there were many other jobs which they had to do individually, such as carding the wool, dyeing, spinning and weaving.
At that time, women had few options, and many families lived in extreme poverty. Communities were close-knit, but if you were a bit different for some reason, would you have been accepted?
There’s no point looking back to some ideal which probably never existed, but it would also be fair to say that now families are living farther apart to follow opportunities for work and study, and mothers are becoming more isolated.
Becoming a Mum
Shortly before I became pregnant for the first time, I moved to a new country. After the birth of my child, I was desperately lonely and longing to get back to work after maternity leave because the only people I knew were through work. A local toddler group was a lifesaver, and I started to meet other mothers and learn the language.
The other thing about being a modern mother is that you’re expected to get back to work, as if motherhood is a blip or hiatus, something which you can manage on the side as a hobby as long as it doesn’t interfere with your real identity as a dynamic, flexible, self-motivated worker.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with going back to work, having a break from wiping bums and cleaning up spills, and having the satisfaction of contributing to something. Returning to part-time work helped keep me sane after the birth of my first two children, especially since I didn’t have the support of a network of family and friends. The friendly childcare centre became a source of support and was also an opportunity to meet other families.
The problem is that there isn’t enough support to allow both men AND women to take time off to look after children and to be able to work part-time and still have a meaningful career. While employers have had to accept maternity leave and more recently paternity leave, it’s often an all or nothing thing. Come back full time or risk losing your position. Or, as I found out, even if you return part-time, you miss out on opportunities.
I thought I had my future sorted out
Why am I thinking about all this now? I had an exciting career. I was quite happy to give it up and be a full-time mum when number three came along. Keeping up with the housework drove me crazy, but I loved going out to toddler groups and even helped to run one.
The thing was, I left work on my terms and expected to be able to go back into the working world with all my previous experience, plus my amazing, supermum, multi-tasking skills. Once the youngest one was at school, I studied full-time and began a new career. I was incredibly busy and didn’t waste a moment, whisking through the bathroom while I ran the bath for my son, or whizzing to the supermarket while my daughter was in music lessons.
I thought I had my future sorted out. My path back from full-time motherhood was clear.
Until … well, until everything fell apart. One of my kids got seriously ill, and I had to give up any thought of working while I put all my energy into supporting my family. I was a full-time mum again, but without the support network of either family or toddler groups (although I do have a few wonderful friends).
At times it seemed like I went through two traumas: my daughter’s illness and the loss of my own sense of identity as I gave up work.
No big things to offer
Things are a little better, but I have come to the painful realisation that I have to forget about having a career. If I go back to work, it has to be a job I can go to and leave at five o’clock with no responsibilities to worry about because right now I’ve got enough to deal with at home.
I’ve been trying to get back to work but so far no opportunities have opened up. Maybe the only job or vocation God’s giving me right now is being a mother. Perhaps God values this job even if it doesn’t gain me any status, pay, honorary degrees or promotions.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ parable about the talents in Matthew. Three servants were entrusted with money and two of them traded with it so as to make more. When their master returned, he said:
Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have shown you are trustworthy in small things; I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness. (Matt 25:21)
After talking about the servant who hid his talent instead of doing something with it, Jesus says:
For to everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but anyone who has not, will be deprived even of what he has. (Matt 25:29)
Offering small things
That really spoke to me. Right now, I have no big thing like a career to offer God. I don’t have any medium sized things like jobs or courses or positions. No-one has asked me to do anything which is seen as ‘important’. Instead, I’m asked to do the dishes and clean the floor.
And so I am trying to go through the day offering these small things to God.
Dear God, I offer You the dishes I’m doing, the washing I’m putting into the machine and hanging up, the floor I’m mopping, the dinner I’m cooking, listening to my daughter, reading to my son, walking the dog …
As I wrote in my conversion story, I realised that the greatest challenge in my life would be receiving and responding to God’s love.
The Calvinist God
I grew up with a Calvinist God, an angry, intolerant figure who was going to send many of us to hell no matter what if we hadn’t made it onto the list of Elect. After being brought up with a weekly diet of hell, fire and judgement sermons, it was hard for me to believe in God’s love.
This kind of fear was certainly not limited to a Calvinist upbringing. In God of Surprises, Fr Gerard Hughes writes about the Catholic version, comparing religious instruction to a small child being taken to see their Great-Uncle George whom supposedly loves them. Before they leave, however, he shows them the furnace in the cellar and threatens to throw them in if they don’t visit every week.
In the church I was brought up in, only people who had been shown by God that they were among the Elect were considered to be saved. The other people, no matter how devout they were and how much they tried to live good lives, were going to go to Hell. In other words, there was nothing you could do to decide your salvation.
This led to despair. It also led to people not taking part in the Lord’s supper as they felt they weren’t worthy.
I was recently digging around in The Statistical Accounts of Scotland online, which, despite their dry name, are actually fascinating accounts written by ministers on all aspects of their parishioners’ lives. In a report in1845, the Rev Archibald Clerk wrote:
The majority of the people have been brought to regard the Sacraments, especially the Lord’s supper, with horror which causes almost all of them to avoid partaking of it
So, the feeling that we weren’t worthy to receive God’s grace through the Lord’s supper was not a new thing.
How can I trust God?
It’s taken me a long time and many years in exile from the church to even begin to unravel the tangle of love and fear, duty and punishment. When I was drawn back to Christianity and began attending a Catholic church, I felt like a someone who has survived an abusive relationship and is trying to build another one. How could I trust God? How could I believe in His love? How could I believe that He wanted anything good for me? Wouldn’t I be better trying to eke out whatever good I could get out of life on my own?
I also still felt that if I made mistakes or drifted away from God, I had to grovel, beg and persuade God to forgive me. Things had moved on from my perception of God when I was a Calvinist, but not a lot. In my new understanding, God would listen, but would still only grudgingly forgive if I managed to be sufficiently penitent.
Now, I am beginning to see something different. When I ask for God’s forgiveness, it isn’t about changing God’s mind, getting Him to give me another chance or persuading Him that I might have a good bone in me and be worth a bit of love.
No, it’s about healing, healing of the hurt part of me which can’t believe in God’s grace, healing of the part of me that is so twisted and curled in on itself that it is unable to receive the love that God always offers.
I am beginning to understand my helplessness. I can’t save myself. That may seem like a truism. Haven’t I always been told, no matter what flavour of church I’ve been in, that Jesus saves?
But have I really taken that to heart? Haven’t I tried to ‘earn’ my salvation, by being good, keeping the ten commandments, helping people, respecting the law? As a Catholic, haven’t I sometimes let myself think that I somehow ‘deserve’ salvation by going to Mass regularly? When I’ve slipped up, haven’t I seen the Sacrament of Reconciliation as something I do to make things okay with God again.
Only now am I beginning to understand that I can’t by my own power do anything to heal myself and overcome my faults. All I can do is receive God’s grace and God’s healing. When I ask for forgiveness, whether alone in prayer, or through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it’s about healing the barriers to receiving God’s love and grace, including my own refusal to accept it.
When I look again at the verses which were quoted to back up Calvinism, I see now that it’s all about grace:
Thus he chose us in Christ before the world was made to be holy and faultless before him in love, marking us out for himself beforehand, to be adopted sons, through Jesus Christ. Such was his purpose and good pleasure, to the praise of the glory of his grace, his free gift to us in the Beloved, in whom, through his blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins. (Ephesians 1: 4-7)
The Calvinists almost got it right. So close, and yet so far. They understood that salvation is God’s free gift, that there’s nothing we can do to earn it or add to it. But in teaching that it was wrong to ask God for mercy and salvation, they made a grave and damaging error. We can’t do anything to add or take away from God’s salvation, but it does require an important step on our part: ACCEPTANCE.
God is outside of time and I am in it. And here is the paradox. God is omnipotent, and yet He has limited Himself, taken on human nature, made Himself vulnerable. In giving us free will, He has allowed us to receive or to refuse Him, not just once and for all, but continually. In every moment of every day, He’s there waiting for us to turn Godwards.
I’ll give Julian of Norwich the last word:
This is his meaning: that we should see what he does and pray that it should be done … It is our Lord’s will that, whatever he plans to do, we should pray for it, either in particular or in general. The joy and delight it gives him, and the thanks and glory we shall be given because of it, pass all understanding – in my sight.