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. I wondered if I was going to be called Bridget during the ceremony and was worried that afterwards I might feel 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 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. It was 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.