Dispossessed

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A house of cards

Is life like a precarious house of cards with only the rich enjoying even an illusion of security?  If so our cards have been scattered in the air and are still fluttering downwards. I have no idea where they will land.

We are in the middle of a family crisis. One of our children is in hospital (away from home) and may be there for some time. All our carefully-laid plans are in disarray. We don’t even know where we will be living in a month’s time.

On top of the distress of my child not being with me, and the feelings of guilt (perhaps I didn’t love enough, try hard enough) I have been worrying about practical things. What is going to happen about dog, job, schools and above all, a place to live?

The distress comes not just from what actually ‘is’ happening, but from not knowing what is going to happen. I wanted to own the future, but this crisis has meant that most of our plans will have to be scrapped.

If God has a plan, it’s not clear yet. It is hard to trust that He has a plan, and even more difficult to accept that this illness is part of it.

The illusion of possession

In all this, some of my distress comes from dispossession, or rather the illusion of possession. The things I had planned to happen will not now happen. The future was never mine. I haven’t actually lost anything. All that is gone is an idea of security, my thoughts about how things should be.

I am reading ‘From Suffering to Peace’ by the Spanish priest Ignacio Larrañaga. He says that a lot of psychic suffering comes from the ego. It is full of desires, fears, illusions and above all, a desire to possess. He argues that the only way to eliminate suffering is to lose your ego (yourself) with your fears and desires. Only by freeing ourselves of our ego and desires and by becoming poor, can we become pure in heart and see our situation as it really is. He connects this to the beatitudes (Matthew 5): ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: the kingdom of Heaven is theirs’ and ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: they shall see God.’

“From Suffering to Peace” is written for everyone, both those with a strong faith and those with none. Ignacio Larrañaga recommends exercises to reduce psychic suffering, such as emptying your mind through becoming aware of your body, sounds and what you see. These techniques help us accept and embrace the gift of the moment rather than lassooing our desires around some future idea of fulfilment. In the final chapters, Ignacio Larrañaga discusses the meaning of suffering in the Christian context.

Lack of possessions

Somewhere deep inside me I accept that crisis is an opportunity to recognise my own poverty and thank God for what I have, even if it isn’t what I expected or hoped for.

I think of Jonah the prophet. He was understandably tired after being swallowed and regurgitated by a whale, and then going to preach to the Ninevites. He made a shelter to rest in and God caused a plant to grow around it. Jonah enjoyed the shade until the plant was attacked by a pest and died. Jonah was very angry with God for letting this happen to ‘his’ plant. God replied that Jonah did nothing to grow the plant. It was a gift, coming up in the night and dying in the night.

When he began his ministry, Jesus gave up his possessions. He set off to find John the Baptist, leaving behind ‘his’ family, ‘his’ home, ‘his’ career as a carpenter and ‘his’ community. I imagine that he took very little money and didn’t know where he would sleep that night. For three years he wandered his country preaching. He had no fixed abode and was essentially homeless and yet God provided.

Jesus sent out seventy-two apostles (Luke 10), commanding them to take no money or possessions with them, not even a change of clothes. Whenever I read this Gospel, I can’t help wondering if they got a bit stinky. Did they manage to wash?

Despite the lack of possessions, they came back rejoicing at how well their mission went. Jesus referred to this at the Last Supper (Luke 22), but he said that the next time they went out on a mission they should go well prepared: ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and the same with a haversack; if you have no sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’ (Luke 22:36)

Sometimes it seems that it’s all right to make plans, and at other times when our plans don’t work and we are left with nothing to prop us up, we have to just trust in God.

Thanks

In every Mass, the priest says ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord’ and the congregation replies, ‘It is right and just.’

I can’t pick and choose when I give thanks. God is the same and His love for me is the same whether things are going what I label ‘well’ or whether they are going ‘badly’.

I am very lucky. My child is alive and receiving care. I have to let go and leave her in other peoples’ hands. We have a roof over our heads and even, unlike the seventy-two apostles, a few changes of clothes. The sun is shining and I hear wind in the leaves. For the moment, I have done all I can and I remember the words of Eckhart Tolle, ‘When there is nothing you can do, rest in peace, rest in God.’

Silence and mental illness

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I’ve had to learn to be silent as a Catholic for many reasons. There is the Catholic culture of privacy as opposed to the evangelical culture of wearing your faith on your sleeve. There is my own timidity; converting to a new religion feels like being washed up on a foreign shore. In the area where I live, Catholics are in a small and perhaps not entirely accepted minority. Keeping quiet about my faith has seemed to be a matter of necessity. I’ve also felt, perhaps mistakenly, that other Christians see me as someone who is travelling in the second-class compartments as far as faith is concerned. This is another reason I don’t talk.

Apart from blogging, I don’t discuss faith much, partly by choice, partly by nature and partly because of circumstances.

Mental illness

Today I am thinking about another area of my life in which I have chosen silence, or had it forced upon me by circumstances, and that is mental health. For a lot of my adult life, I have struggled with depression, and at the same time many people close to me have fought their own battles with mental illnesses.

I’m by no means special or unique. In the UK, one in four people have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

I have learnt a lot from mental illness, just as I’ve learnt from physical illness (I suffered chronic ill health in my late teens and early twenties). However, it is so excruciatingly painful that I wouldn’t actively choose to go through it.

I was lucky enough to get treatment and although I still have the odd bad day or even bad week, my mental health is much better.

Those close to me have also suffered difficult and complex mental health problems. Statistics tell me that my circle of family and friends is not unique. However, apart from a few brave and honest friends, I seldom hear people talk about their struggles with mental health.

Supporting someone

Twenty years ago, when I was first supported someone with mental health problems, I was silent, partly because of a sense of shame. I wasn’t ashamed of the person I loved. I completely understood and accepted why life had been too much for them and that they had suffered a breakdown. However, I was ashamed of their condition. It was like trying to hide the fact that there was an infectious illness in the family. If people knew that someone close to me was struggling so much, would they not start to worry that I would get it too? Would this affect my ability to get and keep a job?  

There were a lot of taboos around mental health back then. Attitudes have improved since, partly because of campaigns such as the Scottish ‘See Me’ mental health campaign.

Reasons for silence

Many years later, and I am again supporting someone through a mental illness, and I am still silent. This time I’m not ashamed of my loved one. They are incredibly brave and dealing with inner pain which is sometimes overwhelming. If I am silent, it is to preserve their dignity and help them keep their slender hold on normality.

I want, as much as possible, for them to be able to keep going. I don’t want them to approach each encounter with the worry, “How much does this person know about my situation? Are they going to judge me or think I’m crazy? Have I really disappointed them by becoming ill?”

Silence comes at a cost. If a close friend or relative had a stroke or broke a leg or fell ill, I could talk to other people. I could share news of progress or setbacks or difficult things which had happened. I would get sympathy and encouragement and even prayers. People would understand why I’m low on energy or why I sometimes find it difficult just to do practical things like shopping and cleaning, never mind do any kind of work.

Because I am dealing with a mental and not a physical illness, I’ve taken the decision to be quiet and share no details. I’m writing this post, because I feel that I have to express my feelings in some way and maybe these thoughts will encourage someone else who is going through something similar.

I’ve been helping someone else pick up the shattered pieces of their emotions and I feel drained and broken myself. When I got to Mass, I have less than nothing to offer God. Right now I feel physically, emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. I have no answers and I can only try to trust

In the meantime, I try to remember to let go of my own pain and worry and enjoy little things. I take time to read a book in the sun, sit in the park and notice flowers, savour a cup of coffee and say hello to dogs (and their owners).

Easter joy

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Joy was the emotion that struck me the first time I was in a Catholic church at Easter.

As a child, I saw church as a kind of Sabbath day penance. We were Presbyterians and proud of it. We sat on hard pews and listened to a long sermon which lasted at least an hour. The minister said a lot about sin, but not much about love or joy.

In between the two long church services, we were quiet, not talking or laughing or playing, because the Sabbath day belonged to God, and God liked you to be solemn and serious.

The first time I was in a Catholic church at Easter, I was just beginning to think about becoming Catholic. I didn’t understand the context of Easter Sunday coming after more than six weeks of preparation. My vague idea of Lent was that it had something to do with giving up sweeties. It was quite a while before I realised that Catholics don’t just give up something during Lent; they also try to give more of themselves by making time for prayer and sharing their time and money with others.

Lent is something which I’m still learning about. Last year I was shocked to discover the emptiness of the church on Friday, when the Host is taken out of the tabernacle and the statues are shrouded in cloth to symbolise Christ being in the tomb.

This year, I felt that I learnt more about Holy Week, when the church re-enacts the last week of Jesus’ life, from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through to the last supper and his death on the cross. Even though I couldn’t attend a Mass during Holy Week, I went into the church to pray and tried to go through the daily Mass readings, which followed the last week of Jesus’ life. These events occurred 2000 years ago, as far as we count time, but I felt that through the church I was participating in them in some way.

On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I knew on an intellectual level, that Christ had risen and that this would be celebrated in the Easter vigil on Saturday. However, I felt that I was sharing in the Jesus disciples’ confusion and grief, and in their long vigil between his death on the cross and the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

Holy week seemed very long and I got weary concentrating on the events which led up to Jesus death. Whenever, I went into a church to pray, all I saw was a man on the cross, his face distorted by intense pain. Wasn’t this focus on suffering and death a bit macabre and unhealthy? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on the fact that he has risen, rather than making ourselves dwell on the fact that he went through an unfair trial on trumped up charges and that he was handed over to Roman soldiers and tortured to death?

Despite these feelings, I recognise that if Christ hadn’t suffered, I wouldn’t be able to relate to Him. If He had come in triumph rather than sharing in our poverty and smallness and failure and death, I might subjugate myself to Him as King, but He wouldn’t be my Saviour. If Christ hadn’t suffered, if God hadn’t suffered, then He could not understand my suffering.

Without death, resurrection has no meaning, and Easter is just a muddle of fluffy bunnies and cute chicks and sweet chocolate. Without the silence and darkness of the church on Easter Saturday, the candles that are brought in during the Easter vigil would have no significance. It is only because I tried in my flawed way to take part in Lent and Holy week that the joy of Easter Sunday broke over me like a wave.   

Loneliness

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Recently I have been struggling with feelings of loneliness. They have been coming and going ever since I started to think about becoming Catholic in a small, Protestant town. Our parish isn’t big enough to run RCIA classes, and so I didn’t get a chance to meet other converts or people who were thinking of becoming Catholic. I turned to the internet for help. The feeling that a new part of my life was opening up and that I didn’t have many people to share it with, drove me to read articles and blogs about people’s experience of becoming Catholic. It also, eventually, was part of the reason I decided to start this blog, in the hope that someone else would find it useful, and also because I felt that if I didn’t write about what happened, I would explode.

Before I was received into the church, I worried about the reaction of the family. I braced myself for opposition, but it didn’t come. They were glad that I was going to church again, even if the church I had chosen was way down their list of desirable ones. Things have moved on. Twenty years ago, the Catholic church wouldn’t even have been on their list of Christian churches, and now it sits somewhere above the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventist church.

My relatives more or less politely ignored the news that I was becoming Catholic, hoping perhaps that having got back on the ladder of Christian churches, I will now work my way back up to the refformed Protestant ones at the top. In a way, this was almost the best possible outcome. I faced no strife and no stress. However, I hadn’t realised how painful it would be to go through a huge, life-transforming experience in which my family showed no interest. They thought that I had chosen something inferior, whilst I felt that I was hovering on the edge of a mystery of breathtaking magnificence.

With the pain of definitively choosing a different path as far as religion went, came unexpected feelings of loneliness. When I left the church and drifted into agnosticism, enjoying quiet feelings of superiority over my religious family, I didn’t feel any loneliness. Perhaps that was because I had plenty of like-minded friends to keep me company, but more likely it was because I didn’t really care that much about what my family thought or felt. Becoming Catholic has softened the boundaries between me and them. The irony is that through taking a step which I knew would cause them pain and which would have been unthinkable when I was younger, I have become more considerate. I care more about them, and it hurts that they can’t share in this part of my life.

One night last week, I didn’t sleep well, because I was troubled by the thought that my family may never able to understand the choices I have made as far as faith is concerned. I was also remembering the people who helped me on my spiritual journey over the years, many of them nudging me, although neither they nor I was aware of it at the time, towards Catholicism. I was grateful to have had these people in my life in the past, but I was also feeling very lonely and lost.

The Tablet arrived the next day. After browsing a few other articles, I turned to the Living Spirit section and the following quote by Thomas Merton hit me like a punch between the eyebrows:

As to your own desolation and loneliness: what can anyone say? It is the desolation of all of us in the presence of death and nothingness, but Christ in us bears it for us: without our being consoled. To accept non-consolation is to mysteriously help others who have more than they can bear.

My narrow vision opened up, and I caught a glimpse of the interconnectedness of all beings, something I know instinctively from my experience of carrying a child in my body and watching my own emotions mirrored in it’s face and moods in the months after the birth. When my children go through difficult times at school, I still feel as if I am going through it with them.

Thomas Merton’s words unscrolled a new picture in which God isn’t giving me the easy comfort I crave, not because he hasn’t heard me or doesn’t care or is angry, but because there is somebody out there somewhere whose loneliness is too hard to bear, and if I take on a little of it then there will be less to go around. In this new vision, I was lonely, but I was not alone.

On the same day, I came across the following quote about Mother Teresa and how she felt her own suffering was linked to sharing the suffering of others. The link to the page is here.

Contrary to reports in the press, Mother Teresa did not suffer a “crisis” of faith. In fact, her struggle was not with faith at all, but with the “loss of feeling” of faith, with the loss of a felt sense of the divine. As she stepped out of the convent and into the slums of Calcutta, what had been her usual consolation in prayer abruptly ended.

Though she would not understand it until later, she was being asked to share the same inner darkness, the same trial of belief suffered by the poor and destitute — and to do so for their sake, and for the love of her Lord.

For a few days I was able to concentrate on feeling grateful for what I had, instead of longing for some instant fix that would take away these painful feelings or distract me from them. However, my rational mind soon began to argue. It wants to shut down the vision of interconnectedness, telling me that it’s all nonsense. However, at the moment when I read the words, I knew instinctively that they were true.

Corpus Christi

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The feast of Corpus Christi got me thinking that I should finally write down my thoughts on transubstantiation, an awfully long and unwieldy word for a simple and deep mystery.

Let me get this clear. I don’t understand how a sliver of bread wafer and a sip of wine can actually become the body and blood of Christ. However, I feel that my faith as a Catholic hinges around the fact that the bread and wine are more than a mere symbol.

I first learnt about the Catholic belief in transubstantiation in a Protestant youth group. Our youth group leader wanted to inform us about errant Catholic beliefs so that we would never be seduced by them. He told us that Catholics actually believe that they are eating the body and blood of Christ. That made Catholics as bad as cannibals, except, of course, that we knew better. The bread and wine couldn’t really become human flesh and blood, and so the Catholics weren’t really practising cannibalism even though the belief that they were consuming human flesh was almost as bad as actually doing it.

Confused by this circular argument? So am I. When I left home and made friends with Catholics, I found them to be gentle, normal people who were quite clearly not cannibals. Hanging around with Catholics and eventually marrying into a Catholic family meant that I occasionally went along to Mass. It was only politeness. After all, I occasionally dragged my friends or husband along to my family’s Protestant church for some reason or another.

Slowly, over a period of years, I began to realise that something was going on in Mass which I had never experienced in a Protestant church. The first few times I attended Mass with friends, I was so preoccupied with how different it was from my own church, as well as worrying about when to stand up and sit down, that I don’t think it made much impact on me. I was disorientated by the fact that the sermon, which could last more than an hour in the church I was brought up in, and which spoke to my enquiring, analytical mind, lasted only ten minutes. Most of the Catholic Mass was a long prayer, words rising and falling, statement and response. Every time I tried to catch the words and hang onto an idea, it slipped away, superseded by another one. My husband said that it was like a meditation; you weren’t supposed to understand everything.

It was only relatively recently that I came to believe in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I was faced with a seemingly intractible situation, something I cared about very much and couldn’t change. I attended Mass with my family, because it helped me pray. I find it hard to explain what happened, but it seemed that in the midst of the suffering and the darkness and the helplessness, I experienced the presence of God in a much more real way than I had ever done before.

Sometimes, for brief moments, I felt God’s presence during the Mass, but more often it was afterwards that I realised I had more patience and peace to face my daily life. I began to long to go to Mass and if I didn’t make it one week, I felt as if I had missed something. There came one very difficult day when I felt an almost unbearable longing to take the Eucharist. The lady behind me must have sensed how I felt because she touched my shoulder and told me that I could go up for a blessing. I didn’t. It felt safer for me to stay seated and watch others go up as I had done for years and years.

By the time I decided to become Catholic, I felt physically, mentally and spiritually drained from the searching and questioning and from worrying about how others would react. Perhaps I looked on the Eucharist as some sort of panacea, a one cure which kills all ills. I asked our priest if taking the Eucharist would make any difference, and all he said was, “It will move you to tears.”

I’m very resistant to tears, especially in public places, but I have gone through the entire Mass damp-eyed on occasions. Once or twice, I have felt as if I was within Christ, singing with his words during the final hymn. This is the kind of experience which you can’t expect or demand. You can only be open to whatever gift is being offered at that moment. Sometimes I have brief moments of sensing God’s presence, and at other times the Mass seems quite prosaic, but I leave with a little more courage or faith. At other times, I have gone to Mass feeling quite self-satisfied, and have felt as if it has shone an uncomfortably bright light on dark corners of myself which I’d rather keep hidden.

I suspect that my faith wouldn’t have got very far without a belief in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Bringing the things which bother me, the sins and failings, and the situations which I am powerless to change to Mass, and abandoning them to God in the belief that he is there listening, is what keeps me going to church.

I don’t know how the bread and wine transforms into flesh and blood, but I know that it transforms me, and that is enough.

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.

Suffering

Not long ago an older person was telling me that their children, whom they had brought up Catholic, no longer attended church. He was probably wondering why I had come back to church after many years of non-attendance. If I could have put the reason into one word, it would be suffering. A painful, apparently unresolvable situation pushed me into seeking out the church. However, one word only tells half of the story. The joy I found in the church and in a renewed relationship with God is what has kept me coming back.
A few years ago, a close family member became seriously ill. Long before that I had kicked against the traces and left the traditional church in which I was brought up. However, I still remembered many of the Bible verses I had learnt as a child, and I decided to cling onto the promise that if we have faith as big as a mustard seed then we can move mountains.
Although I believed in God, I couldn’t honestly have said that I was comfortable with anything more specific than that. I decided to be ecumenical and asked an Episcopalian priest, a Salvation Army cadet and our parish priest for prayers. I wasn’t just hoping. I decided that however bleak things looked, I was going to hold God to his promise and believe that He could change an apparently hopeless situation. A word of warning for agnostics: if you ask people to pray for a loved one, watch out. You will probably be included in their prayers, and you don’t quite know where that will take you.
I asked our local priest for prayers, and wrote in an email, ‘I am not a very religious person …. I don’t feel I am very good at praying. However, I have a strong belief in God and his goodness and that in him we live and move and have our being. I feel that there is very little I can do in this situation but I still have faith that there will be a way through.’
The reply I received, helped me to keep on hoping. He wrote, ‘But you watch, your faith and hope and, above all, your love, will have startling results.’
He was right. I couldn’t have foreseen what would happen. Over the last two years, my loved one has made a long slow journey back to life, and, even more unexpectedly, I have experienced the great joy of becoming Catholic. The prayers of others sustained me through a dark period and it meant a great deal to me that my friends in the Episcopalian church and the Salvation Army expressed their support and happiness that I have finally found a spiritual home.