Good Friday

Why is the day marking Christ’s death called Good Friday? What is Good about someone suffering a horrific death? Are we meant to be good on Good Friday? Or are we meant to think of God’s goodness in giving us His son. Is it because death was necessary in order to reach the greater good of the resurrection? When I was Protestant or agnostic, Good Friday, simply meant, ‘Great, a day off.’

My train of thought was started by the realisation that today is simply Dihaoine na Ceusta in Gaelic (Friday of the cross), which just tells us what actually happens. This is another example of language throwing a different perspective on things.

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I’m also thinking about how the joy of the resurrection makes no sense without the sorrow of the cross. At the same time, the cross is just a meaningless loss without the resurrection. I’ve reflected before on how the emptiness of the church on Good Friday has helped me to recognise the presence of Christ at other times.

We’ve had a very difficult year, perhaps the hardest of our lives. As I look forward, sometimes I just anticipate more suffering. To be honest, I often just want to curl up in a corner and not even try, because living is so darn hard.

When I was thinking about Gethsemane and Jesus anticipating his suffering and death, I wondered if he only saw suffering, or if he also looked forward to joy. Perhaps he didn’t know exactly what God was going to do. Maybe he didn’t know that after his body was broken, it would be raised to life. However, I think he knew and trusted that God would bring good out of his suffering.

That’s the challenge for me right now: to look ahead in the hope that God will give us strength and also to trust that God knows what He’s about.

Sally Read’s poems

I want to share two things. First of all, I’m sharing a link to Sally Read’s website on which she has a poem about the crucifixion. Sally is a Catholic convert and I really enjoyed reading her book Night’s Bright Darkness, an honest account of her conversion.

A short piece on Easter

Secondly, here is a short reflection on my different experiences of Easter:

We don’t do Easter in our church, but the minister tells us about Christ’s agony on the cross. I feel sad, because it’s my fault Christ had to die, and the nails must have hurt a lot.

Mrs Higgins tells us the Easter story at school. I draw a picture of the stone rolled away from the tomb, but I can’t see Jesus.

I attend a different church when I go to university. My friend’s plump cheeks glow with joy on Easter Sunday as she sings about being saved. I feel angry. What right have these people to be so happy? We could never be sure God would save us.

I’ve stopped doing church altogether by the time I spend Easter in Spain. On Good Friday, I wake in the night, and see men walking down the street in silence, bowed down by the weight of chains. I think of my childhood, dragging the weight and guilt of my sins without hope of relief.

Many years pass. Easter is marked as no more than a holiday, a few days of freedom. I begin to let go of the guilt and pain. Perhaps, just perhaps, God created me for joy.

My faith is no bigger than a grain of mustard seed when I begin attending Mass with my husband. I’m taken aback by Easter. I see the joy of the resurrection in the faces around me, feel it in the water splashed on my cheeks, smell it in the incense, and hear it as we once again sing, ‘Glory to God in the Highest, And on earth peace to people of good will’. I don’t yet taste it.

Over the next few years, I learn the rhythms of the church: forty days of fasting and prayer, the solemnity of Holy Week. On Good Friday, I find the tabernacle open, the statues hidden in purple drapes. Jesus is dead and in his tomb. I weep in the empty church, feeling as if I have lost a loved one.

Easter comes, but it feels as if Lent continues. My daughter is ill and her condition worsening. As I kneel in church early on Sunday, I don’t look for Easter joy. How can it come this year? Something catches at my heart, opens it a chink and God’s love floods in. Later, we drive up the mountainside and take a hike. My daughter has a few hours reprieve, and Easter Sunday feels like a taste of heaven.

My daughter’s condition worsens. She spends most of the summer in hospital, and things slowly turn around. I learn a new rhythm in the hopes and disappointments of caring for someone with a long-term health condition. In each small sacrifice, I share in Christ’s death, and in her tiny steps towards recovery, I see signs of resurrection.

I am learning that Easter is present every day, in suffering and joy, in the death of self and worn out dreams, and in the slow turning of my soul to God.

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Lousy at Lent

It’s the last week of Lent, and I’ve got to admit that I’ve been pretty lousy at it. For one thing, we have lots of birthdays in Lent and children have to have cake. I’ve been told that birthdays are an exception, like feast days.

This made me wonder. How many saints have feast days in Lent? I can only think of only St Joseph (19th March) and St. John Ogilvie (10th March). Did anyone ever try to find as many saint’s feast days as possible so they could wriggle out of Lent? Okay, I know that’s not the spirit of the thing.

This Lent I’m realising that it’s not so much about what you give up as what you put in. My resolution of going to bed earlier to spend some time in prayer or reflection did not go too well. Just five more minutes on facebook, email or online news, I told myself each night and five became ten and before I knew it, I was heading up to bed at my usual time too tired and too distracted to try to pray.

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Show me your face

Hmm. Okay, I’ve tried harder over the last week and have finally managed to finally get into my Lenten book Muestrame Tu Rostro by Fr Ignacio Larrañaga (literally, show me your face, but the English translation is Sensing Your Hidden Presence).

Ignacio Larrañaga’s book From Suffering to Peace helped me through a difficult time, and I was looking forward to reading another of his books. However, I got bogged down in the first few chapters of Muestrame Tu Rostro. If I hadn’t made a commitment to at least try to read it during Lent, I’d probably have abandoned it.

The first problem was that I was trying to read the original version. I love reading Spanish, but my ambitions sometimes exceed my abilities. I have to read slowly, and it takes a lot more commitment to persevere with a Spanish book than an English one.

My second stumbling block was that Fr Larrañaga starts a book about prayer by talking about the difficulties and discouragements of praying. He illustrated this with examples of people who dedicated their lives to God, but never experienced anything but dryness in prayer and a sense of God’s absence. Hmm, I can recognise myself when it comes to the feeling that nothing is happening, and perhaps maybe I’m just talking to myself.

A lot of work for little effort?

He also talks about how prayer, unlike many other things in life such as studying a language or practising music, doesn’t yield results which related to the effort put in. For instance, someone could keep an all-night vigil in church and leave with absolutely no feeling of peace, and another person could turn their thoughts briefly to God as they walk through a crowded station and feel filled with peace.

Fr Larrañaga also talks about the transcendence of God and the inability of our finite minds to grasp the mystery of an infinite God. As soon as we approach what we think is an encounter with God, God slips out of our grasp and recedes further. After reading the first few chapters, I felt the same way about Muestrame tu Rostro as I felt about the Cloud of Unknowing: this is just too discouraging and I want to give up on the book and maybe give up on prayer, too.

However, I persevered and although I’m only about half-way through, I’m glad I did. The book becomes more encouraging as you go on, with practical advice on prayer, such as using the Psalms or set prayers to start you off. It has exercises to help people empty their minds and prepare themselves for prayer.

Unfortunately, I have nodded off each time I tried the meditations, but no less a person than St. Therese of Lisieux admitted to falling asleep in prayer. She said that just as parents love their children when their asleep, God continued to love her when she fell asleep in prayer.

I have also found useful what Fr Larrañaga says about abandoning ourselves to God. If there is something we can do to change a situation, we get behind it and give it one hundred percent. If nothing remains to be done, then we stop resisting the situation and let go so that we don’t hurt ourselves and others by our non-acceptance. Fr Larrañaga gives some simple prayers for accepting what can’t be changed: physical appearance, personality, our parents, hurts from the past.

Making time for prayer

He also emphasises the importance of setting aside time each day to withdraw into prayer. If we don’t have these ‘off’ times, we become distracted and pulled in many directions, exactly what I experience when I click quickly from one internet page to another. Fr. Larrañaga says that when our minds are full of anxieties and thoughts about what needs done, an encounter with God is almost impossible.

I’m still reading, but now find the book encouraging rather than overwhelming. Fr. Larrañaga emphasises that it is important to set time aside for prayer, even if we don’t ‘feel’ anything or see results. He often repeats that faith, hope, patience and perseverance are necessary. Even if our prayers don’t seem to do anything, we believe by faith and hope that God’s grace is at work.

Wishing you a peaceful holy week.

Doubts

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Doubts have been getting to me, like maggots burrowing under my skin, nibbling holes in the beliefs I took for granted:

Was Christ just a good man or was he really God? Even if he is God, how can I believe he’s really present in that scrap of wafer and sip of wine? I don’t feel anything. Shouldn’t I feel something? 

Square up to hard, cold facts and face life alone without clinging onto this comfort blanket you call faith. Or if you need some consolation,  make up your own beliefs. Cherry pick a few things from the smorgasbord of New Age religion. Much better than unpalatable beliefs about a man who was God dying on the cross and hiding himself in the form of bread and wine.

So say the doubts.

Do doubts have a place?

I thought that this blog was mainly going to be about faith, but I quickly realised that it was just as much about doubt. If I look at the word cloud on the right, I see that I’ve categorised 20 posts under doubt and 30 under faith. In fact, many are under both categories

The priest who instructed me in the Catholic faith encouraged me to ask questions and even said that doubts and questions are part of faith; they can’t be separated from it. At one point, I hoped to eradicate doubt through asking enough questions and reading enough answers. However, I’m beginning to accept that I’ll never run out of questions or reach certainty about belief.

Probably a good thing; there is nothing so frightening as someone who is certain they are right.

Doubt and uncertainty have their place because God is infinite and I cannot know Him in the way that I might know a book, a place, an animal or even a human being.

Doubts and questions are part of learning

Doubts and questions are also vital to the process of learning. From his research on child development, Piaget concluded that children are continually constructing a model of the world. When they encounter a new piece of information which doesn’t fit their previous ideas, they have to modify their model to fit the information. However, if the information is too many steps ahead of their current ideas (try telling a five year old child or even many adults that astronauts aren’t actually weightless; they’re just falling), they will reject the new idea and not learn anything.

 

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Photo credit: NASA

 

As adults, we risk becoming too rigid and no longer learning. We carry with us our ‘facts’ and way of seeing things, and reject anything which doesn’t fit into our world view.

However, if we go into any branch of knowledge at an advanced level, we find that it isn’t just about facts. True, there are things which we are fairly certain about, and which are unlikely to change, but at the edges, where the research is being done, ideas are being thrown around, models are tried out, rejected, modified, tried again.

Science progresses through questioning

Over the course of the 20th century, huge advances were made in physics. Old models could no longer explain observations and new theories were developed.

Newton’s theories of forces and gravity were superseded when Einstein showed that they no longer applied to objects travelling close to the speed of light. If you travel fast enough, all sorts of weird things can happen: time dilates and lengths shorten.

Strange things happen when you look at very small particles. An electron can behave like a wave under certain circumstances, but if you measure its exact path, it will behave like a particle. We can’t say what state a fundamental particle will be in until we measure it; we can only give a probability. It’s not just that it’s difficult to measure, it actually isn’t in either one state or the other until it is measured. (Look up George Gamow’s story of the bank clerk Mr Tompkins who plays quantum billiards).

Even Einstein struggled with the idea that quantum theory deals with probabilities rather than definite predictions. He made the famous statement, “God does not play with dice.”

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Perhaps nothing beats the advances in our understanding of the universe. Astronomers have recently admitted that only 4 % of the universe is in the form of the ordinary matter and energy with which we are familiar. The rest is dark matter and dark energy

No, don’t think Star Wars. Dark matter simply means that it reacts only very weakly with the ordinary matter of which the earth, the sun and the other planets are made of. We can’t see it and it also doesn’t emit measurable radiation such as microwaves or radio waves. However, we know it’s there, because of its gravitational effect (see Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall).

It was my job to ask questions

As a research scientist, it was my job to constantly ask questions and take nothing for granted. For each problem solved, many more opened up. When data didn’t match my model, I couldn’t just ignore it; I had to find out why.

When I think about it, perhaps science and the development of faith have more in common than I realised. In science, absolute proof is impossible. However, we can test an idea to see if it works. If it doesn’t, we reject it.

The same goes for faith. The test is life. I can look at how I feel when I let the doubts convince me that all I am is animated dust, and I can look at what happens when I try to trust that there is a purpose in life, even in the difficult things.

In science, questions can be painful. A model might have served us well up until now, but we have to let go of it, when it no longer explains all the observations. Sometimes the new model, like relativity or quantum theory can make frightening predictions.

In faith, too, it’s hard to detach ourselves from an image of God or an idea of faith which no longer matches our life experience. Faith which doesn’t acknowledge our experience of life, which causes us to warp ourselves or erase a part of our personality is not genuine. Perhaps, as in science, questions and doubts are a necessary part of moving on to a deeper level of understanding.

Plunged into the night

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I’ve taken the title of this post from a quote by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, from his book “Between man and man”. I wrote it down many years ago when I was questioning the strict religious faith in which I had been brought up.

In the signs of life which happen to us we are addressed. Who speaks?

It would not avail us to give for reply the word “god” if we did not give it out of that decisive hour of personal existence when we had to forget everything we imagined we knew of god, when we dared to keep nothing handed down or learned or self-contrived, no shred of knowledge and we were plunged into the night.

When I left home to go to university, I questioned everything and dared to keep nothing. As I danced to R.E.M.’s song ‘Losing my religion’, I thought, that’s me (yes, I know that’s not what it’s about). All the certainties of the religion I was brought up with where slipping away like sand through my fingers.

The other song which spoke to me was ‘Every River’ by the Scottish band Runrig:

You ask me to believe in magic
Expect me to commit suicide of the heart
And you ask me to play this game without question
Raising the stakes on this shotgun roulette

The church demanded unquestioning belief and I couldn’t do that. It was like trying to believe in magic. If I had forced myself to suppress my doubts and questions, I would have killed a part of myself.

I lost my faith, not for an hour or days, but years. I’ve described some of that process in these four posts: Don’t go to church …, I took a scunner to churches, Do we need to be born again? Sent into Exile.

Even though I had no religious faith, Martin’s Buber’s words held out the possibility that one day I, too, would be able to answer, god, to the questions of life.

‘God of Surprises’ by the Jesuit priest Gerard W. Hughes also gave hope that I could eventually go beyond the questions and doubts without reverting to unquestioning belief. He devotes a chapter to discussing the stages of religious development: infancy, adolescence and maturity, and argues that all are necessary.

In the stage of infancy, our senses are involved: smell, sight, sound, taste, feeling, and this is also important in worship. When we are children, we like clear rules and boundaries. We aren’t able to understand grey areas and complex issues. Rules and clear teaching are also necessary in faith, but there is a danger that we may get stuck there. When this happens, our religion can become separated from our experience of life.

In order to integrate religion with our life experience and reach a holistic understanding, we need to question. This is the adolescent or critical phase of religious development. Hughes writes that God is present in all things and that there is no issue, however complex, which falls outside the scope of religious inquiry.

He warns that when a church doesn’t allow questioning and exploration, ‘There will be a disharmony between the teaching of the Church and our everyday life, and the teaching presented will split off and become a part of our consciousness which has nothing to do with the rest of our human experience. A church isolated from our human experience can only survive as long as it can succeed in forbidding its adherents to ask questions and think for themselves.’

These words summarise my experience of church as a child and adolescent. My questions could not be contained within the church setting, and as a consequence, I left.

I still believed that there was a God, but I rejected Christianity with a bitterness which was related to the way my questions had been suppressed. Sometimes I even longed for God, but I knew that I could not go beyond this stage by myself. Moving on required some kind of grace.

Gerard Hughes describes the third stage in religious development as the mystical element, where we encounter God not through external rules or intellectual reasoning, but through our inner thoughts and feelings. He emphasises that elements of all three stages are crucial for religious maturity.

I became caught in the adolescent or critical stage for many years. I would have described myself as an agnostic who leant towards a belief in God. I didn’t make much of an effort to move beyond this stage. Sometimes, it takes crisis for us to turn back to God and try prayer again.

How I changed from criticising and kicking back against religion to being to turn to God is a mystery, a matter of grace. If I go back to Runrig’s song ‘Every River’, the next verse says:

But you came to me like the ways of children
Simple as breathing, easy as air
Now the years hold no fears, like the wind they pass over
Loved, forgiven, washed, saved

It speaks of the mystery of faith: going through questioning to a child’s trust with an adult’s understanding.

PS – I had a pretty difficult week, but managed to look at some other blogs and am going to try to keep on reading other peoples’ stories.

Peep!

I’m feeling a bit bruised. Last week, I tried to tweet, but as a newcomer to twitter it was more of a peep or cheep.

Nobody seemed to hear me. I squawked into the ether and the world of twitter went on as if I didn’t exist.

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I stared at the little heart button beneath the tweets and thought how nice it would be if even one person would click on it. Just one, that’s all I asked. My feeble tweets had cost me a lot of nerves, and I felt that I was owed a wee bit of encouragement.

Technology overtook me around the time that my first kid was born. All I could do was keep up with the feeds and the nappy changes, or rushing babies to and from childcare. Meanwhile, people began to connect with texts followed by smartphones which made them available at all hours of day and night. I didn’t want any part of it, especially since I was already available around the clock to several small people.

Okay, so it took a lot to cheep into the big, busy world of the internet. Maybe I was expecting too much if I thought anyone was going to take notice. Certainly that little heart symbol which remained stubbornly empty came to take on too much significance.

Just because the big, bad internet didn’t give me a thumbs-up, I began to think that maybe I was no good: an unemployed, middle-aged mum who can’t get the hang of this new way of communicating.

I felt like I was talking in a crowded station where no-one had time to stop and listen. When I realised how insignificant my little cheep was, I felt small and unimportant and it was hard to remember that this isn’t a measure of my value. Maybe God loves me despite or even because of my smallness.

I’m no good at networking, either in-person or online, so I think I’ll have to just accept that tweeting is not for me.

The other day, I read that even popularity is for sale. if your product or page isn’t getting enough likes, you can buy fake likes on the internet. However, I’ll give it a miss.  

Rather than tweeting or bellowing or lowing or howling or braying any more words into the ether, I think I’ll take time to listen and try to visit the pages of every person who’s been interested enough to follow or like my blog.

And please let me know in the comments line if there’s anything you would especially like to be read. 

God takes all

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It’s close to Christmas and the anniversary of my reception into the Catholic church has come around.

I was sitting in church after Mass thinking back over the last few years, when the phrase came to me, ‘God takes all.’ I couldn’t get it out of my head all day and a few minutes ago, I realised that this is the title of this post although I will have to write it to find out why.

God’s presence

From the moment that I felt a call to become Catholic, I felt an almost miraculous sense of God’s presence. It wasn’t up there or down there or just at my side or behind my neck; it was everywhere. Like a fish becoming aware that it swims, dives and floats in a medium called water, I became aware that I existed in the presence of God.

I began to understand the phrase in the Mass, “Through Him and with Him and in Him.” He was St. Patrick’s breastplate:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

It was a time of miracles: moving consciously in and with and through Him, sensing the Communion of Saints during the feast of St Peter and St Paul, glimpsing a man in white robes walking up the side aisle during Mass.

Just over three years ago, when I was still trying to decide if I could make the leap and become Catholic, the sense of God’s presence left me. I was a simple fish again, moving through the day, feeling the aloneness of my little body, and wondering if I had really remembered this thing called water.

Loss

God took away the sense of His presence and it was from that point of loss and confusion that I decided to become Catholic. I realised that I couldn’t just do it for the nice feelings. I also knew that I couldn’t become Catholic and take the Eucharist unless I was willing to let God be in charge.

However, I wanted to keep a lot of things to myself. My prayers went something like this: ‘Do what you like with me as long as you don’t touch my kids. And by the way, I will find it very difficult to hand over X, Y and Z.” In the end, I felt that I didn’t have the guts to hand myself over to God. The best I could manage was, ‘I can’t do this, but I want to be able to do it.’

On the anniversary of my reception into the church, I stayed in the church on my own after Mass and thought back over the time since I became Catholic. The last year has been incredibly challenging as we gradually realised that one of our children has a serious, chronic illness. From this perspective, all the things which I thought were vital to my sense of self –  reputation, success in work, creativity – don’t seem to matter anymore.

I was feeling utterly exhausted by another round in the battle with this seemingly intransigent illness, empty and drained of all confidence, creativity and energy. In every area of my life – motherhood, work, interests, marriage – I have been weighed and found wanting. That’s when the thought popped into my head, ‘God takes all.’ I am still puzzling over what that means.

Abandoning myself to God

During that moment in the church, I realised the extent of my helplessness and impotence. I was trying to say, ‘Over to You, because I’ve just about reached the end of the line.’

In my distress, I was able to do what I can only pray to be able to do in easier times, and that is, abandon myself to God. It’s such a strange thing to say. Abandonment is a word I associate with babies being left in cardboard boxes or dogs being left behind when their owners move house. It speaks of giving up on something or someone, not being able to put any more effort into it.

Maybe abandonment is the right word. At times, I feel that I can’t do any more on my own. All I can do is abandon the expectation that I can’t make things right and sort things out, and hand the situation over to God.

God gives all

Has God taken all? Of course not. God gives all. I breathe, we have food to eat and a roof over our heads, but my current difficulties have allowed me to glimpse my utter dependence on God. I am beginning to understand the opening lines of the Magnificat which Mary sang during her Advent:

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid

I’ve underlined the word lowliness which I’ve also seen translated as nothingness.

The hard bit is to take the next step from realising my nothingness, let go of my pain and cynicism and despair and believe that in God’s hands miracles not only can happen, but always will happen, even if it isn’t the obvious miracle of physical healing.

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

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.

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.