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.

Mary as Christ’s mother

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Marian devotion was my biggest sticking point when thinking about becoming Catholic. I had no instinct for it. Eventually I decided that since I was convinced about other aspects of Catholic faith, I would trust the church on this one.

Even before I was received into the church, I felt drawn to praying the Rosary. I wouldn’t be without it now. Meditating on the life of Jesus and Mary in this way often brings me peace when nothing else can.

However, I still puzzle over devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Our priest says that people fall into two errors when it comes to devotion to Mary: either they show too much devotion, or not enough. But what is enough? What role does she play? How does she fit into the picture? When praying the Rosary, she sometimes emerges as a concrete, human figure, but at other times she can seem elusive. Most of the time I feel more connected to my favourite saints than I do to Mary, the mother of Christ.

A dream

Recently I had a dream which helped me understand Mary’s role a little better. It was the kind of vivid dream which wakes you in the middle of the night and keeps sleep away for a while. In this dream, I was in a modern-looking church in which benches fanned out in a semi-circle from the altar. I felt apprehensive as I looked around. Many of my relatives and friends where spread out around the church and I knew that they would take a dim view of a Catholic Mass.

When, the priest began, I was on edge, hoping that the Protestant visitors weren’t feeling too out of place. It turned out to be one of those days when a hymn was sung in praise of the Virgin Mary. I felt like sinking through the floor of the church as I imagined the reactions of my Protestant friends. Why on earth did they had to turn up on a day when particular devotion was shown to the Virgin Mary? In my experience, Catholics are much more likely to sing a hymn in praise of the Eucharist than in praise of Mary or the saints.

 At this point, the Protestant visitors began protesting. I can’t remember everything that was said, but they argued strongly against Marian devotion. One of my relatives delivered the final blow. He stood up and declared that Catholics give Mary an equal position to Christ. They claim, he said, that she is co-mediatrix, an equal partner in our salvation.

My faith tottered. I wondered if I was deeply offending God by having any devotion to the Virgin Mary. I knew that I had to stand up and say something, but I had no idea what. I got to my feet and to my surprise words came to me. I said that Mary was as much a partner in Jesus’ work of salvation, as my mother was in my getting a degree.

An Analogy

These few words were enough. I awoke. It was dark and I was in my own bed, but the dream still felt very present. When I thought about it, it seemed that I had been given a good analogy.

My mother never had the chance to get a college or university education. She didn’t understand my degree subject, and I enjoyed teasing her by coming out with strange facts which she had trouble accepting. However, without her help, I would never have got a degree. She gave birth to me and brought me up to have a respect for education and knowledge.

My parents provided financial support. My Mum fed me up at half-term and sent me off again with packages of food. She didn’t bat an eyelid when I turned up with some of my strange new friends from university and told her that they needed a meal or a bed for the night. When I was lonely or things were difficult, I called her from a red telephone box in the rain. At the time I took my mother for granted, but now that I’m a mother myself, I appreciate her a lot more. Without her support, I wouldn’t have achieved what I did.

There is a parallel with the role of Mary in God’s plan of salvation. Christ, her son, did it all, and yet she was an essential part of God’s plan. She gave birth to Christ, and brought him up to love others and to love God. She encouraged and supported him, and even followed him to the foot of the cross.

Christ was fully human and yet fully divine. Like other human beings, he didn’t come from no-where. He had a family and that family helped to create the circumstances in which he could carry out his ministry and his work of salvation. Perhaps part of the reason we show devotion to his mother, is because he wants us to join him in appreciating the part she played in his life.

We shall not be overcome

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

Returning to work

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

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

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

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

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

It all feels too much

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

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

Keeping going

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

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

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

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

More on nits

The writing of this blog has been interrupted by nit-eradication schemes. Don’t worry. It’s under control and you can’t catch them off the internet.

I’ve decided to be honest in this blog. That doesn’t mean that I’ll tell everything, but it means that if I’m finding things difficult as far as faith is concerned, I won’t pretend that everything is fine.

Recently I’ve hit a difficult stage. I’m picturing the spiritual journey as being like an excavation to the core of my being or to borrow a phrase from Cyprian Smith’s book ‘The Path of Paradox’, the ‘ground of the soul’. There are different layers of soil and rock, some easy to dig through and some requiring a pick-axe. In the last week or so, I’ve hit a hard rocky layer. I feel as if I can’t trust God. God seems very distant and it’s hard for me to believe in a merciful God who actually cares about what happens to me.

I was brought up with a very literal sort of faith and when I got older and doubts hit, I had no way to accommodate them. I felt like a failure for not accepting Christianity without questions and came to the conclusion that I wasn’t cut out for religion.

I now see doubt as an inevitable part of spiritual growth rather than as some kind of treachery. Right now I feel as if my doubts have taken me backwards rather than forwards, but I’ll stick to the image of the excavation and believe that I’m still going forward, slowly and painfully, working through a layer of myself which was always there, but which I’ve just become aware of.

I am reading Fr. Gerard W. Hughes’ last book, ‘Cry of Wonder’. It is in three sections, Unity, Peace and Holiness. The section on Unity has triggered a lot of thoughts which I’ll write about another time. I started reading Peace earlier this week. Recently, just by chance, while on my way to catch a train, my path crossed a Bairns not Bombs march. Bairns is Scots for children and the march was about getting rid of nuclear weapons. I felt joy that people actually cared enough to come out and make a stand.

I liked these nice feelings of joy and perhaps also the smug feeling that in supporting nuclear disarmament, I am on the side with the moral high ground. I thought that I had nothing to fear from reading about Peace. Here is what Fr. Hughes has to say about Peace in his preface:

Peace, within an individual, includes a ‘divine restlessness’, a profound discontent with what we discover around and, above all, within ourselves. Peace, in spite of our protestations of being dedicated to it, is a state against which we defend ourselves with verbal smokescreens and subtle reasoning, so subtle that we deceive ourselves, preferring violence and calling it ‘Peace’.

It wasn’t very reassuring. The next day I had one of my least peaceful days in a long time. When you live with children and an animal (I’m referring to the family pet, not my husband), you have to accept a background level of chaos and lack of outward peace in your circumstances. Usually I manage to maintain a certain amount of calmness in the face of continual mini crises, such as spilt cereal, and lost school clothes. However, the day after starting to read about peace, I reacted with anger, all day, to the usual minor irritations and frustrations, including one child bursting a plastic toy that had been filled with flour, a few minutes before we were due to leave for school. I snapped at the children and mentally cursed the designer of that particular toy as I tried to remove flour from clothes and floor.

Gerard Hughes has a point. I’ve discovered the lack of peace within myself. It’s like finding head lice in my soul. I wish that the solution was as simple as applying Hedrin.

Nit-picking

As I write this, I’m enjoying my first piece of chocolate since the start of Lent, and my first cup of coffee in, well, not quite so long as that. I haven’t met my own goals. Giving up some of my favourite food and drink was the easier bit. However, there were so many exceptions: chocolate cake at family celebrations, times when I was invited out and didn’t want to make a fuss, and a few occasions when I was working and felt that I couldn’t stay awake without a strong cup of coffee.

Giving up what I consider as ‘my time’, was much harder. By the time I pack the oldest child off to bed, I don’t want to talk to anyone. My husband doesn’t get a look-in. I don’t feel like trying to talk to an elusive entity called God who doesn’t seem to reply in any direct way, although if I pray regularly, little glimpses of a response seem to slip quietly through my defences.

A few nights I did manage to keep my Lenten resolution and go to bed early to do yoga and meditation in order to calm my mind. Each time I did this, I felt so much more alive and peaceful that I resolved to do it more often. The next night, however, I found myself surfing the internet or finding some urgent thing which needed done. By the time I dragged myself to bed, goggle-eyed, I was too tired for exercise or prayer.

I didn’t manage the fast on Ash Wednesday, but I thought I had Good Friday sorted. I had read the rules. Every Catholic over the age of fourteen is required to take part in a not too onerous fast, which means eating only one meal plus two snacks which together don’t constitute a full meal. Even though I was staying with my Protestant family, I managed to skip breakfast without anyone noticing, and eat a meagre snack for lunch. That afternoon, I congratulated myself on finally managing to keep one of these new Catholic rules as I experienced hunger pangs.

I was half-way through my one meal of the day, when I realised that I was eating meat, and therefore breaking another rule: no meat on Fridays during Lent. Since I had made the dinner myself, I had no excuse although it is harder to cook when you’re away from home.

Our inability to properly keep the requirements of the law is a recurrent theme in the New Testament. Galations 2:15 and 16 says, ‘We who were born Jews and not gentile sinners have nevertheless learnt that someone is reckoned as upright not by practising the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ.’

Why do we have Lent, then? Is it just to throw up our own inadequacies and lack of self-discipline, or is it to help us realise our need for Christ and enable us to appreciate his death and the joy of his resurrection?

One of my Catholic in-laws kindly sent me a card wishing me joy for my first Easter as a member of the Catholic church. I was really looking forward to Easter, especially since the church in which I was brought up was so reformed that we didn’t celebrate either Christmas or Easter. However, it didn’t happen. One child became sick and couldn’t go out, and on Easter Sunday itself, I discovered that another had head lice. Aaarch!

I have spent most of Easter Sunday nit-checking. By some miracle, the lice haven’t spread to the rest of the family. My external circumstances aren’t particularly peaceful. Shortly after I sat down to write this, the dog knocked my precious cup of coffee over my foot. It was another reminder that faith and spirituality isn’t just, or even mainly, about sitting in church trying to have holy thoughts and be on my best behaviour. Faith has to run through the nitty-gritty things in life (excuse the choice of words), or it isn’t relevant.

I did manage to get out in the sun with the family. For anyone who’s reading this, I wish you a peaceful, healthy and nit-free Easter.

Small things

I have a natural talent for acting on impulse and making small, apparently insignificant mistakes which lead to full scale disasters. When I was younger, I was perpetually locking myself out of houses, losing keys, missing trains and getting meeting places mixed up. Once the kids came along, they slowed me down. I could no longer operate in a perpetual whirl of ‘important’ activity which took up so much of my attention that I couldn’t remember little things like keys or allowing enough time to reach an appointment. When I could no longer leave the house without weighing myself down with pushchair, changing bag and emergency snacks, it became easier to remember not to lock myself out.

These days I’m usually a lot more careful about things, but occasionally I still manage a spectacular disaster.

Take today for instance. I was making preparations for my daughter’s party and was feeling very virtuous about my organisational skills. The hotel was booked, the cake was bought, and the party favours were ready, and I even still had a few hours to relax before it all got underway.

An apparently innocuous white envelope arrived in the post. I was tempted to put it to the side and open it later, but my husband had been complaining about my habit of not opening boring-looking post. I opened the envelope. It contained a new bank card and the accompanying letter told me to sign it straight away. Okay, I did that. The letter also instructed me to immediately destroy my old bank card, even if the date hadn’t yet expired. Being one of these security and safety-minded people who likes to stick to rules, I immediately got out a pair of scissors and cut up the old bank card. With the new one in my purse, I was ready to go, or was I?

In a few hours time, I was due to turn up at a restaurant with a dozen hungry girls. It might be a good idea to check that my new bank card worked. I whizzed off to the nearest cash machine to test it. My pin was rejected three times. I rushed back home and phoned the bank. After a short conversation, I realised with a cold, shivery feeling that the new card had been issued for my personal account, which I have hardly used since my marriage. I have long since forgotten the pin number for this account, and so the new card was essentially unuseable. At the same time, I had just destroyed the card for my joint account, which I relied on to get cash from the bank and to pay the shopping.

An apparently small thing, opening an envelope, had led to a very awkward situation. I got around it by asking my husband very nicely if he would come along to a girlie party which he had no intention of attending, in order to pay the bill at the end. He’s a good man, and he bailed me out.

This spectacular near-failure of one of my plans, got me thinking. When I was younger, I made lots of plans. I was going to travel the world, have an interesting career, and possibly save the planet at the same time. I worked hard and achieved many of the things I aimed for. Apparently I was quite good at making plans.

My plans stopped working out quite the way I had imagined around the time I had children. If you open yourself up to the possibility of kids, there’s a lot you can’t control. Will the child be healthy, will it be a boy or a girl, what sort of things will it like, and how on earth can I protect this tiny, fragile scrap of humanity.

Many years later, and with the youngest child at school, I’ve been trying to make plans again, and they’re not working out. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m no good at plans. I’m beginning to think that I should leave the big plans to God. Perhaps I’ve got my priorities wrong. Maybe the things I see as small and insignificant, such as smiling at someone or cuddling a child and listening to them, are actually the things I should be concentrating on, rather than trying to chase the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Thinking about the importance of small things, has brought me round to another saint, Thérèse of Lisieux. I know little about her except that she spent nine years of her life in a Carmelite convent and died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. She developed what became known as a little way of childlike trust in God and a conviction that it is not great deeds but little acts which bring us closer to God.

In his book “Catholicism”, Robert Barron writes of Thérèse, ‘… once comparing herself to a little child who, knowing her deep incapacity to please the Lord by her own exertions, stands before him and simply lifts up her arms, hoping to be raised up.’

I’m still a long way from that child-like trust.

Would you trust any major plans to a woman who deliberately cuts up her only functioning bank card? If the answer is ‘No’, I don’t blame you. Neither would I. That’s why I’m going to try to leave the big plans to God.