Hope

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope. For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.

T.S. Eliot (American poet and Anglican convert)

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Right now that’s how I feel. I want to have hope, but I don’t know what to hope for. Things are difficult for my family. Even a month ago, things seemed as if they could still be normal. But now our options have closed in and it feels as if we are about to go through a narrow tunnel. We have no idea when, how, if we will emerge on the other side and where we will be.

I guess it’s not trust if you can see what lies on the other side. We would appreciate prayers.

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 thoughts

Easter was a joyful day.

I was away from home and I went to an early morning Mass in an unfamiliar church. There was no fancy music to pull at my emotions and the homily was delivered by a middle-aged priest with a flat, level voice. However, I was moved to tears of happiness.

Sometimes I feel nothing when I go to Mass and at other times, often when I just go without expecting anything, I feel very emotional as if something is working in me which I can’t grasp or understand. It is hard to put what happened into words, but I will try.

I live in a time of continual change. My wee country of Scotland is going through a time of uncertainty. It is like one of the smaller Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) ferries which take shuttle people and cars and food and newspapers to and from the islands. At the moment, it is so stormy that everyone on the boat is either vomiting or trying very hard not to vomit. Meanwhile the Calmac staff, whose stomachs are hardened by many choppy crossings, go around handing out paper bags. They do their best to clean up sick patches on the upholstery with paper tissues and smelly sprays.

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By Gerry Zambonini (Mull-26  Uploaded by Vclaw) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The UK is like a creaky ship from the heyday of the empire, built in the style of the Queen Mary with luxury quarters for the first class and less salubrious third class cabins in the bowels of the ship. It sails straight through the waves, but we’re all afraid it might be about to hit an iceberg. Things change every day. Yesterday a general election was announced just two years after the last one.

As for myself, I am experiencing uncertainty about work and the health of a family member. I see myself as a little boat, perhaps one of the wooden corracles used on the west coast of Ireland. I have left one shore far behind. It is out of sight, no longer even a faint blue line on the horizon, and the next stretch of land is not yet visible. In every direction, I see only sea. Sometimes it is pleasant to be out on the sea, but at other times, the waves are large and threaten to swamp my little boat.

Just as I can’t see land, I can’t see who is steering and guiding my little coracle. However, Easter Sunday gives me hope that Christ is risen, not defeated by death, and that He is there even if I can’t see Him.

I almost felt Christ’s love, not just for me but for every single person in that church, however, ordinary and insignificant we seemed to be. Easter gave me hope that God loves me. I don’t need to struggle on the treadmill of trying to be young enough and attractive enough and strong enough and rich enough and wise enough and important enough to gain the approval of others.

I can’t earn God’s love. He offers it freely despite my faults and failures. Believing in God’s love is an an ongoing challenge. I’ll say more about that in the next post.

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.

Uncertainty

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The biggest problem I have is with trust. I have trouble trusting God, my family, my friends, politicians and even myself. Well, I might be right not to trust the last two on this list!

When I don’t trust God, it damages my relationship with others. It’s hard to hope, be open to new ideas, or take risks. It’s difficult to embrace others’ success rather than reacting with jealousy. At the moment, I’m going through a time of uncertainty in my personal circumstances. When I woke up on Friday morning, after the EU referendum result, it was in a country which faces a time of change and uncertainty. This will inevitably affect my own family.

I’m apprehensive about the future. I want to know right now what is going to happen, and when an immediate answer isn’t forthcoming, I throw a tantrum. I am behaving like a spoilt child at a snack break. Rather than sharing the biscuits with others, I want to keep them all to myself. I don’t just want my biscuit for today; I want one for tomorrow and the next day and the next.

What I don’t realise is that the biscuits will go off if I try to hoard them. If I really trusted the person who provided the biscuits, I’d know that they would provide what I need tomorrow and the next day. The trouble is, I don’t trust. I want everything right now.

Sometimes, lack of trust takes another form. I huddle into myself and lose hope. I become convinced that God has forgotten about me, or that I simply don’t matter to Him anymore.

In his book ‘The Second Greatest Story Ever Told’ (thanks for the recommendation!), Fr Michael Gaitley says that “sin begins with a lack of trust.” Okay, so it’s not just me. He goes on to say that our lack of trust comes from a distorted image of God. He describes God’s dealings with mankind in the Old and New Testaments and through the church since then as “God’s school of trust.”

Today I realised that while I might assent to the Gospel at head level, my fear and lack of trust shows deep unbelief at another level. If I really believed that Jesus is the good shepherd, then I would wait patiently until he showed me where I’m supposed to go next. If I really believed that God notices when a sparrow dies, then I wouldn’t give up in despair, convinced that he’s forgotten about me.

So many things in my life, like the political landscape I live in, are out of my control. However, I can’t even manage trust. I fail at that too. Like St. Therese, all I can do is hold out my arms like a little child and ask God to pick me up.

I think of John Henry Newman’s hymn ‘Lead, Kindly Light’ where he says “I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me”. I also think of Norman MacCaig’s poem, “Something Still”. It’s about a relationship which was good, but something has gone wrong. In the last verse, the poet says,

Disregard your empty hands.

It is not nothing in your fingers

That aches, but the impossible greed

To hold at once all your tomorrows.

That just about sums it up. If I can get over my impossible greed to know that my tomorrows will be provided for, I’ll be able to see that I have what it takes for today.

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.

Clash of two kingdoms

I wanted to use this blog to write about my own personal journey towards Catholicism and how I dealt with some of the issues which presented themselves. However, I’ve recently found myself writing about other things, such as struggles with doubt.

I also want to be honest. I don’t want to put up a post about how I dealt with Catholic teaching on Mary, even if I’ve already drafted something, if I’m feeling, as I do right now, that I’m having issues with trust. It’s easy to lie when I see people, to put on a brave face, and tell everyone I’m fine, and, if I’m in church, to dab the dampness from my eyes just before the sign of peace and shake hands and smile as if I feel perfectly peaceful inside.

What I find difficult, and what I really don’t want to do, is to lie when I’m writing and say that everything is going well when it isn’t. That’s why I’ve decided to write a bit about the problems I’m having at the moment with trust. It will help me to capture the thoughts whizzing around my head and, who knows, it might help someone else who’s going through something similar.

Until recently, I thought that I was the only one, or one of only a few people, who struggled with trusting God. When I became Catholic, one of my in-laws gave me a very helpful little book called Doorway to Faith which has made the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) a lot more accessible. On each page it takes a section of the Catechism, comments on it, and gives a short prayer linked to the comments. With the help of this wee book, I realised that I had read swathes of the Catechism (I gave up around page 250) without understanding what it was about. For instance, I failed to appreciate CCC 397:

Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. All subsequent sin would be disobedience towards God and lack of trust in his goodness.

Okay, I think that means that I’m alone when I have problems with trust.

My own lack of trust has two aspects. The first is a lack of belief in God’s goodness. I’ve been calling this ‘attacks of a bad image of God’, but I think it is also linked with a bad image of self. When I doubt that God loves me, this is usually associated with the feeling that I’m unlovable. I’m not going to go into my bad images of God, but they’re usually associated with me being some sort of unattractive squishy creature like a worm or a beetle which fully deserves to be crushed, but which God might decide to spare even though he finds it quite unsavoury. I can no longer remember how much of this was spelt out by the minister, and how much was supplied by my own imagination as a child. However, I imagine that other people struggle with bad images of God for many different reasons.

If I can’t believe that God really loves me, it is hard for me to believe that he has my best interests at heart and this brings me to the next aspect, the struggle between two kingdoms. I have my own ideas about how my life should be run, thank you very much, and when God seems to have other plans, I become frustrated, disappointed, depressed and angry.

My dog often thinks she knows best. She barks at strangers, tries to chase cars and bolts off in her own direction so fast that my back jerks painfully when she gets to the end of the lead. I’ve been trying to train her and our relationship is a lot better when she recognises that I’m in charge, not her, and that she’ll be rewarded if she’s patient. However, there are still difficult, frustrating days when she thinks she’s the leader. On these days, I wonder if this is what God feels like, when he deals with me.

Recently it’s been difficult to pray, the gulf apparently uncrossable. After she’s been told off or done something she knows she shouldn’t, my dog slinks reluctantly towards me, head down. I feel like that. There are times when I don’t even want to try praying. I want my kingdom, not God’s, even if it is a dry, barren place ruled by a depressed despot who wants everyone else to be as unhappy as herself.

I’ll give the last words again to Fr. Gerard W. Hughes. From ‘Cry of Wonder’, a glimpse of what could be:

I want my life to be a song, in tune, in harmony with God, with all humanity with all creation and with my whole inner self. I have no desire to be the songwriter, the conductor, or to control the whole choir and orchestra.

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.