So much STUFF

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I am sitting beside the tinsel tree, amongst paper ripped off presents. I feel the weight of the annual seasonal obligation to show my affection for loved ones by giving and receiving STUFF.

On Christmas Eve, I watched Nativity Play 2 with my kids, a story in which a poor school enters ‘A Song for Christmas’ competition. There are a lot of catchy songs, including one that goes something like, ‘this Christmas I don’t care about Peace on Earth; All I want is stuff.’

That song didn’t win, of course. I thought the film might just be another story of underdog wins music competition, but there was a plot twist. The posh school give up their chance to be on stage so that the down-on-their-luck school can perform their winning song, and in turn that school lets the posh school pick up the money prize. So maybe Christmas isn’t just about stuff, although it’s hard to keep sight of that in all the pressure of giving and receiving.

A time when there was less stuff

This Christmas, I am thinking back to a time when my life wasn’t so weighed down with things. In the BC (Before Children) era of our lives, my husband and I tried to walk lightly on the planet, leaving as small a footprint as possible. We cycled and recycled. When our contemporaries were scrambling onto the first rung of the housing ladder, we were more interested in travelling from place to place clocking up experiences.

During my first pregnancy, I took the Scottish superstition that you shouldn’t buy much before the child is born to an extreme. When our baby arrived, we had acquired a small basket for her to sleep in, one blanket, one towel, five sleeping suits (neutral colour), five vests, a changing mat and one pack of newborn-sized nappies.

In those first few days in hospital, I realised that we might need a few more things. The first outing with the newborn in a baby snuggly, was a walk into town to pick up a nappy bucket and other practical items, including the pram which we finally ordered two days before the birth.

Christmas adds to all the stuff

Quite a few years and several children later, we have acquired a house, a car and a lot more stuff. Sometimes Christmas seems like an exercise in weighing ourselves down with even more items. I have tried to mitigate it by buying useful things (socks) or educational things (books and learning games) as well as the toys and gadgets which they simply want. This year I even bought them a Cafod world gift. They scarcely looked at the card telling them that fruit trees had been given to a family on the other side of the world before ripping open the next present.

This year we have encountered the additional hazard of social media where kids post pictures of themselves with the latest electronic gadget or arty photos of the perfect Christmas scene. It’s an uphill battle telling my children that happiness isn’t to be found in things or images.

Happiness without much stuff

I look back many years and see myself walking along a street in a tatty pair of jeans and hideous trainers with bright pink soles. I didn’t have any money to buy new clothes because I was volunteering for a charity, living in very simple circumstances, and paid only a few pounds a week. However, as I walked along that street, I realised the lightness and liberation of not having much.  

I can’t give my children this kind of experience. Cancelling Santa at this stage in their lives would simply cause anguish. However, I hope and pray that even in this culture where there is a tremendous pressure to acquire and to be seen to have things, my children will learn that peace and happiness does not come through STUFF.

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A sense of peace

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Peace comes up many times in the Mass, from the opening line of the Gloria, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will”, to the priest’s words just before the sign of peace, “May the peace of God be with you always”, and the peoples’ reply, “And with your spirit”, and to the prayer just before communion, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Grant us peace.”

Right at the very end, we are sent away with the words, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”

Consolation

A number of years ago, the illness of a close family member caused me great anxiety, and my search for some way of dealing with this pain, brought me into the Catholic church.

At the time, I probably didn’t realise that I was searching for peace. The thought uppermost in my mind was that if I prayed, perhaps, against the odds, my loved one might make a recovery. I had no intention of ever becoming Catholic, but I remember more than once crying all the way through the Eucharistic prayer. Even then I sensed that this was a place and a time when I could hand my burden over to God.

Nothing got better right away, but I found that when I went to Mass, I left with the feeling that I was more able to carry what had seemed too heavy for me to bear. Over time, I began to experience what might be called consolations, glimmers of light when I felt faith rather than just forcing myself to have it because I had run out of alternatives.

Something quite incredible happened. One day I felt that I was being asked to become Catholic. From that moment onwards, I experienced an incredible sense of peace and of God’s presence. It was like living my life with beautiful music playing in the background. All I had to do was be still in order to feel the presence of God.

It is impossible for me now, looking back, to remember exactly what this felt like. It was something I hadn’t experienced before, and I thought it would last forever. I could hardly wait to be received into the church, because I thought that I would be bourn along for the rest of my life on a wave of joy and peace. How wrong I was.

Into the Corryvreckan

The sense of peace and of God’s presence left me quite abruptly. I felt confused and distressed and alone. As I said to our parish priest, I wasn’t just all at sea; I was in the Corryvreckan (a stretch of sea off the Scottish island of Jura where the water can become a turbulent whirlpool depending on the tide).

I felt let down and abandoned. Yet a strong, sure current, under the surface turbulence, still pulled me on. I knew what I had to do. In the middle of these feelings of confusion and desolation, I made the decision to become Catholic.

I still hoped, of course, for consolation, and it was very painful to realise that entering the church didn’t bring back the sense of God’s presence, and that I still had to deal with doubt. Later I read St Therese’s ‘Story of a Soul’, where she describes how the sense of God’s presence left her, plunging her into a spiritual dryness. This continued until moments before her death. Mother Teresa, who recently became a saint for her work with the poor in Calcutta, experienced decades of spiritual darkness and dryness.

I eventually stopped looking for consolation. Basing faith around longed-for moments of joy and peace, was like being a spoilt child who holds out for sweeties. Accepting the doubt and the dryness has made it easier to bear.

God’s presence in the moment

The easy sense of God’s presence has never returned. However, something quite different has happened. Through acceptance, I have experienced moments of intense gratitude for what is, moments when I don’t fret about the future or regret the past. This has brought me to a different kind of awareness of God, perhaps tiny glimpses of what Eckhart Tolle writes about in ‘The Power of Now’, when he describes resting in the presence of God by living in the present moment.

At the start of this journey, I thought that God’s presence was just for me, wafts of peace and joy to insulate me from the pains of life. However, I am discovering that God’s peace brings a kind of restlessness. When I begin to feel gratitude for what I have, that makes room for an awareness of those who have much less. I am brought back round to the last words of the Mass, the words I used to dread, because it meant the end of a little pocket of peace, and a return to the daily difficulties of life: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”

I am not sure how this last bit will work out in my life. I wrote this post a few weeks ago, and didn’t have time to post it because I started a challenging new job which has brought quite a bit of un-peace. I would appreciate prayers. Thank you.

Rushing around

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I’m trying to recover over Christmas from a very busy and rushed period of my life. A while ago, I read with total absorption ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, the story of Thomas Merton’s conversion and entry into the Gethsemane community of Trappist monks. There were some things I could relate to in the events reading up to Thomas Merton’s conversion. He had come from a background in which there was very little religion. Although my upbringing was saturated in religion, I had turned away from it and wanted absolutely nothing to do with the church. In his case and mine, the call to grace came sudden and unexpected, although many little things led up to it.

However, I felt that I couldn’t relate to what happened after Thomas Merton was received into the church. In fact, I became quite jealous of the freedom, support and opportunities he had to explore Catholicism. When he became Catholic, he was a graduate student with a fairly flexible timetable. This allowed him to start each day with Mass and Communion. He wrote:

After the spiritual mangle I have gone through, it will never be possible for me to do without the sacraments daily, and without much prayer and penance and meditation and mortification.

Writing about the period of his life, a year or so after his conversion, he  said

I was being fed not only with the rational milk of every possible spiritual consolation, but it seemed that there was no benefit, no comfort, no innocent happiness, even of the material order, that could be denied me.

He visited Cuba, taught English in a Catholic University and then followed the call to become a monk in the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemane. It wasn’t easy, and he experienced struggles discerning his vocation, but the contrasts with my own situation were huge. I became a Catholic at a time when I had many family responsibilities. On top of that, I started retraining to do a demanding job. Where is God in the harassed life of a busy mother? Thomas Merton became a monk to dedicate his life to prayer and contemplation. He had plenty of peace to discover his new faith, didn’t he?

By the time, I read the end of his autobiography, I realised that perhaps things weren’t quite so simple. Thomas Merton entered the monastery expecting peace and consolation and time to read and write and pray. However, he found out that it was a difficult life and a tough rule. The monks had a busy life, working in the fields producing their own food.

A few months after he entered the monastery, Thomas Merton became ill with the flu. He had been so busy up until then, that he actually welcomed the illness, writing:

My secret joy at entering the infirmary came from the thought: “Now at last I will have some solitude and I will have plenty of time to pray.” I should have added: “And to do everything that I want to do, without having to run all over the place answering bells.” I was fully convinced that I was going to indulge all the selfish appetites that I did not yet know how to recognise as selfish because they appeared so spiritual in their new disguise.

Thomas Merton’s life as a monk was busy and full of duties. He gave up his ambitions to be a writer, but was told by his superior, fortunately for many people, such as me, not to stop writing as it was part of his vocation. In the epilogue to ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, he addresses God directly:

You have got me walking up and down all day under those trees, saying to me over and over again: “Solitude, solitude.” And you have turned around and thrown the whole world in my lap. You have told me, “Leave all those things and follow me,” and then You have tied half of New York to my foot like a ball and chain. You have got me kneeling behind that pillar with my mind making a noise like a bank. Is that contemplation?

Before I went to make my solemn vows, last spring, on the Feast of St. Joseph, … It seemed to me that You were almost asking me to give up all aspirations for solitude and for a contemplative life. You were asking me for obedience to superiors who will, I am morally certain, either make me write or teach philosophy or take charge of a dozen material responsibilities around the monastery, and I may even end up as a retreat master preaching four sermons a day to the seculars who come to the house. And even if I have no special job at all, I will always be on the run from two in the morning to seven at night.

.But before I could even begin to pray, I had to drop that kind of thinking.

By the time I made my vows, I decided that I was no longer sure what … the contemplative vocation was …. In fact I could not be sure I knew or understood much of anything except that I believed that You wanted me to take those particular vows in this particular house on that particular day for reasons best known to Yourself, and that what I was expected to do after that was follow along with the rest and do what I was told and things would begin to become clear.

That morning when I was lying on my face on the floor in the middle of the church, with Father Abbot praying over me, I began to laugh, with my mouth in the dust, because without knowing how or why, I had actually done the right thing, and even an astounding thing. But what was astounding was not my work, but the work You worked in me.

Thomas Merton knew what it was to be busy and rushed and asked to do a multitude of things when he was gasping for some peace and quiet. The only thing he knew for certain was that this was God’s will for his life. Somehow, in the midst of that, God was there, and that was enough.

Statues of Mary

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From time to time, we visit the Southern Isles off the west coast of Scotland. The southern part of the Western Isles are Catholic from Barra north to Benbecula. More or less undisturbed by the Reformation, there are shrines to the Virgin Mary at the edge of the road. On a hillside in South Uist, stands a 25 foot tall statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms as she looks down over the north part of the island and out towards the sea. It is known as Our Lady of the Isles or in Gaelic, Bana Thighearna nan Eilean. The statue was built in the nineteen fifties, at a time when a huge military establishment was proposed on the island which would have resulted in the displacement of the native people and their way of life. In the end, a scaled down version of the military range was built and no-one was displaced, although the hillside where Our Lady of the Isles stands is topped by radar domes, making it a strange juxtaposition of mother and child and military might.

The last time I visited this statue, I had already made the decision to become Catholic. I watched my children playing at the foot of the statue, looked out over the lochs and crofts of South Uist, and wondered how devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, was going to work out in my life. This is something which comes instinctively to Catholics, but which is a great challenge to Protestants. As we clambered back into the car, and drove northwards, over the causeway to the island of Benbecula, I felt a deep, settled sense of peace, the kind of feeling which you can’t explain or manufacture for yourself. It comes as a gift.

That was the only time I have ever really experienced a felt connection to Mary the mother of Christ. It is one of these things which doesn’t come naturally, but until it does, I’ll just keep on trusting the church’s teaching in this regard.

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That isn’t quite the end of the story. A few days later, I was walking past a statue of a lady, and experienced an instantaneous feeling of peace as I thought to myself that it was nice to see another statue of the Virgin Mary. It took a few seconds for my mind to catch up and realise that I had returned to a mainly Protestant town, and that I was looking at an image of a rich lady who had lived in the nineteenth century. By the standards of her time, she was considered a good person, but from a modern point of view she was someone who lived a priviledged lifestyle whilst others around her lived in poverty.

As a reformed Protestant, I was brought up to regard religious statues as idolatrous, but I asked myself what’s worse: erecting a statue of Mary and baby Jesus or putting up a statue to glorify a politician, a landlord, a member of the royal family or a military dignitary? If we take the view that religious statues are idolatrous, then we should be consistent and ban any statues which glorify influential people, whether they are dead or alive.

If we look at it another way and say that putting up a statue of a notable person is not idolatrous, but a way of honouring them and reminding us of their life or their achievements, then isn’t that exactly what a religious statue does?It’s not put there, so that we can worship a slab of stone, but as a reminder of a person’s life and how God used them.

Given a choice between an image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a statue of a rich nineteenth century lady, I would choose a statue of Our Lady any day.

A talent for chaos

I blame it on my grandfather. When he came round to tea, my grandmother told stories about a funny man who was always getting himself into trouble, Laurel and Hardy style. One time, he locked himself out of his car and had to go through a pile of old keys from scrapped cars until he found one which unlocked his own car. While visiting friends, he mislaid his car keys and they turned the house upside down in a futile effort to find them. He gave up, decided to walk home and the missing keys tumbled out of his hat as he put it on his head. Another time, he locked himself out of his house and had to break in through the bathroom window. A neighbour caught sight of his legs disappearing through the window and called the police.

I was quite old, perhaps eleven or twelve, before I twigged that the hero of all these stories was my grandfather.

I’ve inherited his talent for self-created chaos. It lay dormant for a while, but it’s come back in full force over the last few months. Not long ago, I had an incident with car keys which my grandfather would have been proud of. I bundled the dog into the back of the car and closed the boot. The car doors clicked as they automatically locked, and I realised that I had dropped the car keys onto the floor of the boot while I adjusted the dog’s seat belt. I could see the keys lying beside the dog, but none of the doors would budge.

Fortunately more help is available for people like me than there was in my grandfather’s day. I called the AA, with the help of my mobile ‘phone, an invention which my grandfather never took to, although he did learn to use a computer in his eighties. The AA man managed to squeeze a wire through the door and hook up the handle to unlock it. I was amazed at how easy it is to break into a car. Perhaps car doors aren’t as solid now as they were in my grandfather’s day.

That wasn’t the last silly mistake. The bank sent me a card to replace the one I had accidentally torn up. Well and good. Life went back to normal and I could pay for the shopping. Not long after, I was sent yet another new bank card. Perhaps this was the one I would have got anyway, if I hadn’t needed a replacement. I decided that I didn’t need two new bank cards and so I shoved the new, new one onto my in-tray and made a note to myself to ‘phone the bank and ask them about it. I hate ‘phoning the bank, especially giving my personal details to a computer while I wait to talk to a flesh and blood person, and so this item was way down my priority list.

Last week I did the kind of mega shop I do once in six weeks to stock up on tins and food for the freezer. I put everything through the check-out, bagged it and when I tried to pay, my card was refused. Shooting an apologetic look at the queue of customers behind me, I ran out and tried the bank machine which informed me that my card was invalid.

Hmm. I suspected that it had something to do with that new, new card and so I asked the supermarket staff to put my bags in the chiller while I ran home to check. I ‘phoned the bank and a very nice lady explained that my new card ran out one month after the new new card was issued, regardless of the expiry date.

I had to return to the supermarket, put everything through the checkout and bag it all up again. This time the payment worked. I returned home, tired, but feeling as if I had managed to maintain a sense of humour and a little bit of peacefulness and patience with myself. Sometimes it’s hard living with myself, and so I have sympathy with other people who have to put up with me.

What has this got to do with faith? Nothing except that it’s part of life.

This was going to be mainly a funny post, but since I wrote the first draft, I received news that the close relative I wrote about earlier has become ill again. It felt as if I was taking up a burden, that is almost too heavy for me, one which I had perhaps never completely put down. It’s a burden which doesn’t make any sense because there is nothing I can do by worrying. Didn’t Jesus say something about burdens? Handing my burden over means trusting that God really is there, knows what he’s doing and that he’s really got our best interests at heart. It’s comparatively easy with a self-induced mix up with bank cards, but it’s a lot harder when it comes to the health of someone you love. I’m not sure I can manage that much trust right now.

If anyone is reading it, I would appreciate a prayer, or just a thought, if you prefer to put it that way, for me and my family.

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.