The little bird and the Scottish midge

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St Therese called herself a Little Flower, but she also compared herself to a little bird that was trying to fly towards the sun, despite its smallness.

I was thinking about this recently and prayed that I would become a little bird like St Therese, and remain turned towards God despite the times I grow tired, distracted, weak or discouraged by the realisation that I cannot reach God by my own strength.

If St Therese was a little bird, then I must be something even smaller, a tiny humming bird, perhaps. No, that’s still too big. It would have to be something a lot smaller.

The Scottish Midge

I know what. I must be a midge (pronounced midgjee – meanbh cuileag or mini-fly in Gaelic). Anyone who’s visited the Scottish Highlands in the summer, will never forget the midges. They are tiny flies with a wingspan of only 2 to 3 mm, which like to live in damp peaty soil, of which there’s plenty in the Highlands.

Female midges feed on human blood. Lovely. They prefer cloudy days (typical Scottish weather), but don’t like the wind, so you’ll be able to avoid them if it’s windy. They can turn a summer outing into misery by clouding around you and biting any bit of skin they can find.

My worst experience of midges was at Sligachan on Skye where we had the bright idea of getting out the car so that we could enjoy the views of the Cuillin hills while we ate lunch. Big mistake. Within minutes, clouds of midges were hovering around our food and crawling over our faces. I think we ran back to the car.

To avoid them, people cover their heads with midge nets, or slather on all sorts of strange things like smelly baby oil, although I think you now get specially designed midge repellent.

Midges aren’t very pleasant for human beings, but they do have a few good points. One, they are persistent. If you flee from them into your car/house/tent, a few of them will follow you in and have another go at taking a bite. Secondly, they show solidarity. The reason that they will follow you in clouds is that when one midge has taken a bite, she’ll release a pheromone to let her friends know that she’s found a tasty dinner.

A small, weak flying thing

Okay, so I’ve found a small, weak flying thing which is not only particularly Scottish, but also Highland. A midge has its limitations (fortunately for us). It can’t go out in bright sunlight, and if the wind is above 7 miles per hour, it’s grounded.

So, if I’m a midge, then my chances of flying to the sun on my own strength are absolutely nil. That’s what St Therese was trying to say when she compared herself to a little bird. No matter how great her prayers and her efforts, she could never by her own strength encounter God.

That’s what Ignacio Larrañaga says throughout his book on contemplation (Show me your hidden presence). God by is always out of our reach, not because He is deliberately elusive, but because of the differences between His nature and ours. And yet we have to keep setting aside time for prayer and contemplation so that we can allow ourselves to be transformed by God.

We can never reach God on our own, and yet it’s important that we remain turned towards Him, keep fluttering in that direction, ready to receive the grace which will bring us closer.

St Therese as a little bird

Here’s what St Therese had to say on being a little bird:

I look upon myself as a weak little bird, with only a light down as covering. I am not an eagle, but I have only an eagle’s eyes and heart. In spite of my extreme littleness I still dare to gaze upon the Divine Sun, the Sun of Love, and my heart feels within it all the aspirations of an Eagle.

The little bird wills to fly towards the bright Sun that attracts its eye, imitating its brothers, the Eagles, whom it sees climbing up toward the Divine Furnace of the Holy Trinity. But alas! The only thing it can do is raise its little wings; to fly is not within its little power!
What then will become of it? Will it die of sorrow at seeing itself so weak? Oh no! The little bird will not even be troubled. With bold surrender, it wishes to remain gazing upon its Divine Sun. Nothing will frighten it, neither wind nor rain, and if dark clouds come and hide the Star of Love, the little bird will not change its place because it knows that beyond the clouds its bright Sun still shines on and that its brightness is not eclipsed for a single instant.

At times the little bird’s heart is assailed by the storm, and it seems it should believe in the existence of no other thing except the clouds surrounding it; this is the moment of perfect joy for the poor little weak creature. And what joy it experiences when remaining there just the same! And gazing at the Invisible Light which remains hidden from its faith!

O Jesus, Your little bird is happy to be weak and little. What would become of it if it were big? Never would it have the boldness to appear in Your presence, to fall asleep in front of You. Yes, this is still one of the weaknesses of the little bird: when it wants to fix its gaze upon the Divine Sun, and when the clouds prevent it from seeing a single ray of that Sun, in spite of itself, its little eyes close, its little head is hidden beneath its wing, and the poor little thing falls asleep, believing all the time that it is fixing its gaze upon its Dear Star. When it awakens, it doesn’t feel desolate; its little heart is at peace and it begins once again its work of love.

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St Margaret of Scotland

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Today is the feast day of St Margaret of Scotland. Until I became Catholic three years ago, I knew her simply as Queen Margaret and to be honest, I’ve had very mixed feelings about her. Whenever anything is written about the decline of Gaelic, fingers are pointed at Margaret of Scotland.

Sometimes I think, read, write and even dream in Gaelic, but the language which I have learnt and love is spoken by less than 2 % of the Scottish population. It was once a national language spoken by all sections of society from the Scottish royal family down to the ordinary people. Placenames show that it was spoken in almost every corner of Scotland from the Borders through to the Western Isles.

Was Queen Margaret to blame for 1000 years of language decline?

Queen Margaret was born in Hungary and returned to England as a child where her brother had a claim to the Anglo-Saxon throne. After the Norman invasion in 1066, she set sail for the continent with her family, but a storm caused them to be washed up on the shores of Scotland. They were welcomed by King Malcolm Canmore (Ceann Mor or big head in Gaelic) who fell in love with the beautiful Saxon princess.

He eventually persuaded her to marry him and they had eight children together. He adored her and it is said that the language of the court was changed from Gaelic to Saxon to make her feel more comfortable. Many people say that this was the first step on a slippery road which led to what was once a national language being on the UNESCO definitely endangered list.

Because of this, I haven’t felt particularly warm towards St. Margaret. However, Scottish saints are quite thin on the ground and I feel that I should take another look at history.

Gaelic in the years following Queen Margaret

Is it fair to blame one lady for one thousand years of language shift? Both Queen Margaret and her sons encouraged Norman and English families to settle in Scotland, but many of them became Galicised (such as clann Fraser or na Frisealaich). Robert de Brus was one of these Normans encouraged to settle in Scotland by Margaret’s son David 1st.  He married a Gaelic speaker and his son Robert the Bruce, possibly Scotland’s most famous king, grew up speaking both Scots and Gaelic.

The 12th to 14th centuries, after Queen Margaret’s death, were a time when Gaelic culture enjoyed a golden age with the Lordship of the Isles, a semi-independent kingdom on the Western seaboard of Scotland.

Gaelic was spoken by the Scottish Royal family until almost five hundred years after Queen Margaret’s arrival in Scotland. King James IV (1473-1513) was the last Scottish King to speak Gaelic.

Other factors contributing to the decline of Gaelic

Many other things have contributed to the decline in Gaelic, such as the Iona Statutes in 1609 which stated that Gaelic chiefs had to send their eldest sons to be educated in the lowlands. They learnt a foreign English-based culture and eventually come to despise the culture they had been born into.

The schools act in 1872 brought in English as the sole medium of teaching. This was later modified in the early twentieth century to allow some teaching of Gaelic at the teacher’s discretion. However, Gaelic was still marginalised. My grandmother was fortunate to have a teacher who taught her to read and write her native language, but a generation later my father was taught to be ashamed of it. This was a major factor in not passing it on.

I’ve wandered a long way from St. Margaret of Scotland, but the point I’m trying to make is that it would be ridiculous to blame an 11th century Queen with Saxon origins for the fact that I grew up hearing Gaelic being bounced around above my head between adults without being able to speak or understand it myself. Many, many other things contributed to that situation, and my story is by no means unique. I know many people my age who have Gaelic speaking parents, but grew up unable to speak it themselves.

A queen who became a saint

So what made Queen Margaret a saint? She and Malcolm had eight children which just about qualifies her for sainthood in my opinion! However, she found time to do a lot of other things.

She rebuilt the Abbey set up by St. Columba on the island of Iona. She set up a free ferry from Queensferry in Edinburgh, so that pilgrims could cross the Forth and visit the relics of St. Andrew in St. Andrews. She fed the poor and introduced reforms to the Scottish church to bring it into line with the way things were done in the rest of Europe.

What was most important wasn’t just what she did (she sounded as if she was a very busy lady), but the fact that she tried to live a life of devotion and prayer.

Brokenness – some more thoughts

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I’ve hunted up that passage by St Faustina which I was thinking of when I wrote the post on Brokenness.

St Faustina (1905-1938) started life as Helen Kowalska. She was born into a poor Polish family and became a religious in the Congregation of Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. She was a mystic in that she saw visions of Christ and heard him clearly talking to her.

There is a sense in which all of us are called to be mystics and listen to what God is saying to us. However, most of us experience this through feelings or being moved by a Bible passage or something else we read, or perhaps having thoughts which comfort or challenge us. These thoughts might sound very like our own inner voice. We have to sift through this jumble of noise to try to discern what message God has for us.

When I was first drawn to read St Faustina’s diaries, I thought that as a visionary, God’s message must have been crisp and clear, and that she didn’t have to struggle with doubts or with wondering what God wanted her to do.

However, this wasn’t the case. Because she had such vivid and powerful visions, she actually doubted that they came from God, and so did many other people. Soon after entering religious life, she went through a tortuous experience of inner suffering when she felt that God was hidden from her. She also had difficulties finding a Confessor who was able to advise her about the visions and other matters, such as recording her experiences in a diary.

In her visions, St Faustina was asked by Jesus to spread the message of his Divine Mercy. She began this work during her lifetime, although she experienced at times a lot of uncertainty as to how she should do this. She suffered from ill health in the last years of her life and died of tuberculosis at the age of 33. The Divine Mercy revelation was not officially recognised by the church until many years after her death.

St Faustina’s doubts and fears

Here is the passage from her diary from which I have gained a lot of comfort. St Faustina expresses her doubts about being able to carry out her task of spreading the message of Divine Mercy.

January 14th 1937. Today, Jesus entered my room wearing a bright robe and girded with a golden belt, His whole figure resplendent with great majesty. He said, My daughter, why are you giving in to thoughts of fear?

I answered, “O Lord, You know why.”

And He said, Why?

“This work frightens me. You know that I am incapable of carrying it out.”

And He said, Why?

“You see very well that I am not in good health, that I have no education, that I have no money, that I am an abyss of misery, that I fear contacts with people. Jesus, I desire only You. You can release me from this.”

And the Lord said to me, My daughter, what you have said is true. You are very miserable, and it pleased Me to carry out this work of mercy precisely through you who are nothing but misery itself. Do not fear; I will not leave you alone. Do whatever you can in this matter; I will accomplish everything that is lacking in you. You know what is within your power to do; do that.

Closed for Lent

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After this post, which I wanted to write to tie up the previous one, I’m giving up blogging for Lent. This is partly because I want to reduce my screen time, and also because my family faces a lot of challenges over the next few weeks. I would appreciate prayers. Thank you.

On flowers and small things

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Today I am thinking about a young woman who compared herself to a flower, not a grand, showy one like a rose or a lily, but a simple violet which grows close to the ground. I am talking, of course, about St Therese, otherwise known as the Little Flower, whose saint’s day was celebrated yesterday.

She was born into a middle-class French family, entered a Carmelite monastery at the age of fifteen and died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four. Until her death and the publication of her memoirs, hers was a hidden life. She didn’t die a martyr or travel to distant countries proclaiming the Gospel. Her heroism lay in carrying out small acts with great love, such as helping a grumbling, old sister to walk to the refectory, patiently putting up with the strange noise another sister made at prayer or seeking out the company of the people she found least attractive and most difficult.

She compared herself to a weak little bird which was determined, despite its smallness, to head towards the light of the divine. She also described herself as a small  paintbrush which Jesus used to paint the details into his pictures.

Acknowledging weakness

Rather than pretending a strength she didn’t possess, or giving up and saying that she was too small and frail to be used by God, she acknowledged her weakness. Realising the impossibility of reaching God by her own strength, she held out her arms and asked Jesus to pick her up. For that she must be small and humble. In this way, she allowed God to turn her weakness into a strength.

When she was asked to give instruction to the novices, she wrote that she flung herself into God’s arms and told Him that she felt that this work was beyond her strength. However, if He wanted to use her, then she asked Him to fill her hands, to that she could reach out and feed his children without for one moment ceasing to cling to Him.

Recently I have often been thinking of this image of St Therese clinging to God. There are phases in our lives when God allows us to coast along on what appears to be our own strength, and other phases when God allows us to see that we are really nothing without Him. I’m at a stage in my live when what I am expected to do seems to be beyond my strength. I am trying to return to work after having children, and struggling to learn a new job. Some days, I just don’t know how I’m going to keep on doing this. All I can do is acknowledge my weakness and my utter dependence on God.

Doing small things with love

Thomas Merton’s friend Bob Lax said that the aim of every Catholic should not just to be a good Catholic, but to become a saint. St Therese shows that it is possible for anyone, however, small and limited their life, to become a saint by doing small things with love.

When I was younger, I had a career, I travelled the world, I went to conferences and meetings. Now my life is quite different. It is enclosed by a bracelet of small things which simply have to be done: washing the dishes, shopping for food, walking the dog, washing the dog because she’s rolled in something unsavoury (again), cleaning the floor because someone has left a mess on it (again).

It is hard not to get fed up and grumble and sigh. However, rather than becoming annoyed and impatient, St Therese saw these small sacrifices as an opportunity to detach herself from self-love and turn towards God.

I can’t do any big, heroic acts, but the life of the Little Flower gives me hope that God will give me the strength to do small things with love.

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.

More on Saints

March 10th was the Feast Day of Saint John Ogilvie. I went along to Mass and found out some interesting things:

Feast days are celebrated on the anniversary of a Saint’s death or martyrdom, which might seem a bit morbid unless you think of it as celebrating their birthday in heaven. This turns on its head our ideas of birthdays as marking another year in this world.

On a Saint’s Day, the priest wears vivid red robes to symbolise the blood shed by the Saint. Sometimes all this colour coding makes me feel as if becoming a Catholic has sent me back to the nursery stage. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 18:3, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

All my senses are engaged at Mass. There is the sight of colours and pictures and symbols, the touch of holy water, the taste of bread and wine and the smell of incense. That’s not to forget, of course, the importance of hearing, in listening to the Word. Hearing was the one sense I was used to associating with churches when I was a child as sermons often went on for over an hour, and there was nothing to look at but rows of hats and bald heads in a gloomy church interior.

I have been warming to St. John Ogilvie ever since I found out that, like me, he was brought up in a Calvinist family. I tried to pray a novena in honour of St. John Ogilvie in the nine days leading up to his feast day.

When I started, it didn’t seem like a big deal to say a prayer every day for nine days, but it became increasingly difficult. Round about day five or six, I felt as if I couldn’t trust God, and the last thing I wanted to do was pray to Him. If I hadn’t been in the middle of a novena, I’d probably have just distracted myself with other things and told myself that I was too busy to pray. However, because I had committed to saying the prayer, I was forced to face my lack of trust and bring the feelings to God. It hurt. By the ninth day, I felt is if I had been through a painful spiritual fitness regime.

Father K says that Catholics don’t pray to saints; they pray through them. I’m still trying to understand what that means. The novena asked the saints for their prayers, just like I might ask a friend for their prayers when I am in difficulty. I don’t know of any Christian believers who have a problem with asking others for their prayers. The difficulty for Protestants lies in asking saints who have passed on for their prayers. If we pray at all then we can’t believe that the barrier between this world and the next is as solid and opaque as the evidence of our senses would suggest. The difference between the Catholic and the Protestant worldview is that Catholics believe that those who have passed away still take an interest in us and in some way still participate in God’s work in our lives through their prayers.

In the culture that I come from, there is a sense that the unseen world is just behind a veil and there are many stories of interactions between the dead and the living. This awareness is stronger among those who still have links to traditional cultures. Because of my family links, the Communion of Saints was one of the Catholic beliefs which came to me more naturally.

A Saint or a Hippopotamus?

I didn’t give saints much thought until a week before I was received into the church when Father K, our parish priest, asked me if I had an attachment to any particular saint. He might as well have asked me if I had considered keeping a hippopotamus in a tank at the bottom of the garden and if so, what did I intend to call it. I admitted that I was completely ignorant about saints and he suggested St. Bridget, who, I guess, is the fallback saint for clueless Celtic Protestants like me. St Bridget sounded nice, but I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t bother to find out anything about her.
I had a last minute panic on the morning I was supposed to be received into the church. Was I going to be called Bridget during the ceremony? What if I felt afterwards as if some stranger called Bridget had been received into the church instead of me? Seasoned Catholics will probably see this worry as being as naïve as Paddington Bear’s misapprehensions about the human world. In defence, I’ll only say that the first confirmation I attended was my own.
I told Fr. K that I would be much more comfortable if he used my middle name as I was sure that there must be a saint associated with that, although I had no idea who. He said that that would be fine.

After my confirmation, I did actually bother to do some research on google and found out that my middle name (Christine) is associated with a medieval saint who did things, such as deliberately putting herself in danger, which seem totally incomprehensible to me although they probably made sense to people at the time. I felt no connection at all with this lady, but it probably served me right for not making any effort to choose someone.
I thought that was the end of the business. It wasn’t very satisfactory, but I had ticked the required box. However, it wasn’t the end of the story. Very recently I visited a church in which there is a shrine to St. John Ogilvie. He is the only Scottish Catholic martyr from the post-Reformation period. I was brought up in a family who had great respect for the Protestant martyrs, and as I walked past St. John Ogilvie’s statue, I thought about the many Scottish Protestants who lost their lives at the start of the Reformation.

It was safe to say that I had mixed feelings about St John Ogilvie, not least because life-size statues in churches take a bit of getting used to if you are brought up in the reformed tradition. As I sat in the church, I hoped that St John Ogilvie and the Protestant martyrs were shaking hands in heaven in a spirit of reconciliation.
When I got home, I looked up St. John Ogilvie on the internet and read that he, like me, was a convert from Calvinism. This completely changed the way I thought about him. Here was a saint who was relevant, and who could understand where I had come from and what I was going through as a recent Catholic convert. I also read that he concealed his Rosary beads during his trial and torture and that, at the last possible moment, he flung them into the crowd gathered to watch his execution.

Later that day I received an unexpected gift in the post. I had entered a competition in a Catholic magazine and won a book on praying the Rosary. I felt as if I, another Protestant convert almost 400 years later, had put out my hand and caught St. John Ogilvie’s Rosary beads.