Look more closely, at the flames that grow, leap out and fall back, my Son. See the light and feel the heat that comes from me, my Spirit.
But aren’t You the eternal and unchangeable One? How can You grow and leap and dance like a fire and yet never change?
I am still One, always One, burning in a never-ending dance.
I feel uncomfortable seeing You as a fire. It is always moving and changing shape. I thought You were the same yesterday, today and forever.
Watch for a while. It is still there, the same fire, even if the flames are in constant motion. Look at my creation. Plants grow and die back in the autumn, rocks weather, continents move, stars grow brighter and then dimmer. Even ice sheets lose ice in the summer and grow again in the winter. Why do You think that unchangeable means a thing that is frozen and static?
I don’t know. I just feel a bit uncomfortable thinking of You as being in motion. Maybe I want to You to be something set hard and unmoving so that my mind has a chance of one day grasping what You are.
(Laughter) You know that understanding me is impossible.Come closer, little one.
I can’t. I’m frightened.
What are you afraid of?
How can You ask that? Isn’t it obvious? You burn with flames that are hotter than the sun. If I come close, I will be utterly consumed, turned into heat and light without even leaving a cinder.
My dear, why are you so fearful? Didn’t I appear to Moses as a fire?
Moses saw a bush that was burning, and yet didn’t burn up.
Exactly. You will burn, will think that you have lost everything, will be sure that you won’t survive, and yet you won’t be destroyed. Learn this, little one. You will have everything necessary in the moment you need it, not too soon and never a moment too late. Can you trust Me?
It is so hard. You say that I won’t be burnt up, but what will really happen if I move closer to the fire. I cannot approach You and remain unchanged, can I?
Of course not. You will melt, lose what you think is your form, become liquid.
Why must that be?
So that you will flow, become liquid, move to where I want you, fit into the mould I make for you. If you do not melt and abandon yourself to me, you will never discover what I intended you to be.
I am frightened, almost too afraid to say to You, do this. Let me be like the man who said, “I believe, please help my unbelief.” I want to abandon myself to You, I want to melt. Please help the part of me which holds back and wants to remain cool and hard and cold. That is all I can manage right now. I hope it’s enough.
Okay, I know it’s two days past the solistice on 21st December, but it’s not far from the shortest day.
I was out looking at the trees. The evergreens look much the same all year round, but the deciduous trees are appear lifeless, branches stripped as bare as bones. If we hadn’t witnessed every year of our lives, the miracle of buds and leaves appearing again in the spring, I think we’d all be convinced that these bare trees are dead.
The thought came to me that life can be a bit like these trees. On the surface, it looks like my life is stripped back. One of my kids got ill. I’m still supporting her recovery and that has meant stopping work and losing the chance to pursue personal goals.
Sometimes I’ve felt and still can feel that there isn’t much happening in my life. I’ve tried to get back to work, but so far my attempts have failed. Maybe there’s a grace in that. Perhaps the time wasn’t right and I would have been like a tree or a flower which buds too early and is blighted by the cold weather.
When I look at the bare trees, I know that beneath the surface lies a rich root system. Life is still there, even if it has shrunk back. The trees will bud and blossom again in the spring.
I’m trying to have faith that our own lives will expand again, that we’ll be able to blossom and become whatever God intends us to be.
There’s a rhythm to nature: autumn, winter, spring and summer, night and day, an in-breath and an out-breath. I’m impatient. I want summer to come, but even winter can be beautiful.
Today, I’m going to admit to being a geek and share some of my enthusiasm for physics. Yes, it does have some relevance for faith so please be patient.
Why don’t things keep on moving?
One of the hardest things for those new to physics to understand is Newton’s first law of motion: I’ll try to put it in plain English.
An object which is not moving will remain still while an object which is moving will continue to move at the same speed and in the same direction UNLESS an unbalanced force acts on it.
Before your eyes glaze over and you click this post shut, I’ll try to unpick this. Newton’s first law is quite extraordinary. What it says is that if something is moving, it should go on moving in the same direction and at the same speed forever UNLESS a force acts on it.
Okay, you don’t need to be an expert in physics to know that nothing goes on moving at the same speed for ever. If you kick a football, it will arc into the air, it’s speed changing, until it falls back to the earth and comes to a halt. If you drag a heavy bag across the floor, it will stop moving as soon as you stop pulling it.
However, if you were living in space, you would be able to see Newton’s first law in action. Once the space shuttle has got into space, it hurtles around the earth at a speed of 17000 miles per hour even though its engines are switched off. If you threw a ball outside your spacecraft, it would keep on moving at the same speed, basically forever, unless it bumped into something which changed its speed or direction.
Why do objects behave so differently in space and on earth? When we walk or drive over ground which isn’t perfectly smooth, there is a force trying to stop us moving. This force is called friction. It means that we have to keep on putting in effort to do things. If we stop tugging the case, it won’t move. If we don’t keep moving our muscles to put one leg in front of the other, we won’t get anywhere. If we stop pushing down the accelerator which keeps the engine going, our car will roll to a halt.
Sometimes it might seem tempting to wish that we lived in a world without friction. It’s easy to imagine a world where we could step on the pavement and glide down the road without any effort, or where our cars rolled along without having to burn expensive fuel.
Fancy a world without friction?
A world without fiction would be nice, wouldn’t it? Maybe not. Think ice.
A smooth expanse of ice is the closest we get on earth to a friction-free situation. If we step on ice wearing ordinary shoes, we will glide along for a few feet but probably end up falling on our behinds. If we manage, somehow, to keep our balance, we won’t get anywhere fast as we’ll just slide around without going in the direction we want to. It’s the same with cars. No-one wants to drive over a patch of black ice as it’s likely that their car will skid out of control.
Friction might seem like an annoying waste of energy, but the truth is that we need something resisting our motion so that we keep on moving forward in the right direction. In situations when there isn’t enough friction, we need to increase it. For instance, in a snowy area, we can fit tyres with a thicker tread in the winter. I once had the opportunity to visit an underground glacier. To walk on its slick surface, I had to strap crampons over my shoes which bit into the ice creating traction.
The friction of daily life
All this got me thinking about the friction of daily life: all these wee household jobs which have to be done every day, your child’s moods, your spouse’s nagging, the elderly neighbour who needs a visit when you have a hundred things to organise.
And then there are the times in life when you face such huge obstacles that you hardly seem to move at all: the illness of a family member, losing a job, having to move out of your home, school or workplace bullying.
Rather than wishing these difficulties and sufferings away so that we can make rapid progress towards what we think is our goal, should we actually be grateful for them? Like real-life friction are all these apparent challenges actually the force which keeps us steady and balanced. Are they what stops us falling over or sliding off in the wrong direction? Without them, would our strength fail and our faith stagnate, just like unused muscles in a frictionless world?
I’ve said before that being a Mum is hard. It’s not just that the job is difficult or even almost impossible (try keeping up with the cleaning and the washing with small kids). Often the most difficult part of being a mother is feeling alone and unappreciated.
I like to think that in the past women were together more, sharing daily tasks and keeping an eye out for one another’s kids. In the Highlands, women got together to finish a length of tweed, banging it against a table while they sang songs in time for their work. However, there were many other jobs which they had to do individually, such as carding the wool, dyeing, spinning and weaving.
At that time, women had few options, and many families lived in extreme poverty. Communities were close-knit, but if you were a bit different for some reason, would you have been accepted?
There’s no point looking back to some ideal which probably never existed, but it would also be fair to say that now families are living farther apart to follow opportunities for work and study, and mothers are becoming more isolated.
Becoming a Mum
Shortly before I became pregnant for the first time, I moved to a new country. After the birth of my child, I was desperately lonely and longing to get back to work after maternity leave because the only people I knew were through work. A local toddler group was a lifesaver, and I started to meet other mothers and learn the language.
The other thing about being a modern mother is that you’re expected to get back to work, as if motherhood is a blip or hiatus, something which you can manage on the side as a hobby as long as it doesn’t interfere with your real identity as a dynamic, flexible, self-motivated worker.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with going back to work, having a break from wiping bums and cleaning up spills, and having the satisfaction of contributing to something. Returning to part-time work helped keep me sane after the birth of my first two children, especially since I didn’t have the support of a network of family and friends. The friendly childcare centre became a source of support and was also an opportunity to meet other families.
The problem is that there isn’t enough support to allow both men AND women to take time off to look after children and to be able to work part-time and still have a meaningful career. While employers have had to accept maternity leave and more recently paternity leave, it’s often an all or nothing thing. Come back full time or risk losing your position. Or, as I found out, even if you return part-time, you miss out on opportunities.
I thought I had my future sorted out
Why am I thinking about all this now? I had an exciting career. I was quite happy to give it up and be a full-time mum when number three came along. Keeping up with the housework drove me crazy, but I loved going out to toddler groups and even helped to run one.
The thing was, I left work on my terms and expected to be able to go back into the working world with all my previous experience, plus my amazing, supermum, multi-tasking skills. Once the youngest one was at school, I studied full-time and began a new career. I was incredibly busy and didn’t waste a moment, whisking through the bathroom while I ran the bath for my son, or whizzing to the supermarket while my daughter was in music lessons.
I thought I had my future sorted out. My path back from full-time motherhood was clear.
Until … well, until everything fell apart. One of my kids got seriously ill, and I had to give up any thought of working while I put all my energy into supporting my family. I was a full-time mum again, but without the support network of either family or toddler groups (although I do have a few wonderful friends).
At times it seemed like I went through two traumas: my daughter’s illness and the loss of my own sense of identity as I gave up work.
No big things to offer
Things are a little better, but I have come to the painful realisation that I have to forget about having a career. If I go back to work, it has to be a job I can go to and leave at five o’clock with no responsibilities to worry about because right now I’ve got enough to deal with at home.
I’ve been trying to get back to work but so far no opportunities have opened up. Maybe the only job or vocation God’s giving me right now is being a mother. Perhaps God values this job even if it doesn’t gain me any status, pay, honorary degrees or promotions.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ parable about the talents in Matthew. Three servants were entrusted with money and two of them traded with it so as to make more. When their master returned, he said:
Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have shown you are trustworthy in small things; I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness. (Matt 25:21)
After talking about the servant who hid his talent instead of doing something with it, Jesus says:
For to everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but anyone who has not, will be deprived even of what he has. (Matt 25:29)
Offering small things
That really spoke to me. Right now, I have no big thing like a career to offer God. I don’t have any medium sized things like jobs or courses or positions. No-one has asked me to do anything which is seen as ‘important’. Instead, I’m asked to do the dishes and clean the floor.
And so I am trying to go through the day offering these small things to God.
Dear God, I offer You the dishes I’m doing, the washing I’m putting into the machine and hanging up, the floor I’m mopping, the dinner I’m cooking, listening to my daughter, reading to my son, walking the dog …
As I wrote in my conversion story, I realised that the greatest challenge in my life would be receiving and responding to God’s love.
The Calvinist God
I grew up with a Calvinist God, an angry, intolerant figure who was going to send many of us to hell no matter what if we hadn’t made it onto the list of Elect. After being brought up with a weekly diet of hell, fire and judgement sermons, it was hard for me to believe in God’s love.
This kind of fear was certainly not limited to a Calvinist upbringing. In God of Surprises, Fr Gerard Hughes writes about the Catholic version, comparing religious instruction to a small child being taken to see their Great-Uncle George whom supposedly loves them. Before they leave, however, he shows them the furnace in the cellar and threatens to throw them in if they don’t visit every week.
In the church I was brought up in, only people who had been shown by God that they were among the Elect were considered to be saved. The other people, no matter how devout they were and how much they tried to live good lives, were going to go to Hell. In other words, there was nothing you could do to decide your salvation.
This led to despair. It also led to people not taking part in the Lord’s supper as they felt they weren’t worthy.
I was recently digging around in The Statistical Accounts of Scotland online, which, despite their dry name, are actually fascinating accounts written by ministers on all aspects of their parishioners’ lives. In a report in1845, the Rev Archibald Clerk wrote:
The majority of the people have been brought to regard the Sacraments, especially the Lord’s supper, with horror which causes almost all of them to avoid partaking of it
So, the feeling that we weren’t worthy to receive God’s grace through the Lord’s supper was not a new thing.
How can I trust God?
It’s taken me a long time and many years in exile from the church to even begin to unravel the tangle of love and fear, duty and punishment. When I was drawn back to Christianity and began attending a Catholic church, I felt like a someone who has survived an abusive relationship and is trying to build another one. How could I trust God? How could I believe in His love? How could I believe that He wanted anything good for me? Wouldn’t I be better trying to eke out whatever good I could get out of life on my own?
I also still felt that if I made mistakes or drifted away from God, I had to grovel, beg and persuade God to forgive me. Things had moved on from my perception of God when I was a Calvinist, but not a lot. In my new understanding, God would listen, but would still only grudgingly forgive if I managed to be sufficiently penitent.
Now, I am beginning to see something different. When I ask for God’s forgiveness, it isn’t about changing God’s mind, getting Him to give me another chance or persuading Him that I might have a good bone in me and be worth a bit of love.
No, it’s about healing, healing of the hurt part of me which can’t believe in God’s grace, healing of the part of me that is so twisted and curled in on itself that it is unable to receive the love that God always offers.
I am beginning to understand my helplessness. I can’t save myself. That may seem like a truism. Haven’t I always been told, no matter what flavour of church I’ve been in, that Jesus saves?
But have I really taken that to heart? Haven’t I tried to ‘earn’ my salvation, by being good, keeping the ten commandments, helping people, respecting the law? As a Catholic, haven’t I sometimes let myself think that I somehow ‘deserve’ salvation by going to Mass regularly? When I’ve slipped up, haven’t I seen the Sacrament of Reconciliation as something I do to make things okay with God again.
Only now am I beginning to understand that I can’t by my own power do anything to heal myself and overcome my faults. All I can do is receive God’s grace and God’s healing. When I ask for forgiveness, whether alone in prayer, or through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it’s about healing the barriers to receiving God’s love and grace, including my own refusal to accept it.
When I look again at the verses which were quoted to back up Calvinism, I see now that it’s all about grace:
Thus he chose us in Christ before the world was made to be holy and faultless before him in love, marking us out for himself beforehand, to be adopted sons, through Jesus Christ. Such was his purpose and good pleasure, to the praise of the glory of his grace, his free gift to us in the Beloved, in whom, through his blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins. (Ephesians 1: 4-7)
The Calvinists almost got it right. So close, and yet so far. They understood that salvation is God’s free gift, that there’s nothing we can do to earn it or add to it. But in teaching that it was wrong to ask God for mercy and salvation, they made a grave and damaging error. We can’t do anything to add or take away from God’s salvation, but it does require an important step on our part: ACCEPTANCE.
God is outside of time and I am in it. And here is the paradox. God is omnipotent, and yet He has limited Himself, taken on human nature, made Himself vulnerable. In giving us free will, He has allowed us to receive or to refuse Him, not just once and for all, but continually. In every moment of every day, He’s there waiting for us to turn Godwards.
I’ll give Julian of Norwich the last word:
This is his meaning: that we should see what he does and pray that it should be done … It is our Lord’s will that, whatever he plans to do, we should pray for it, either in particular or in general. The joy and delight it gives him, and the thanks and glory we shall be given because of it, pass all understanding – in my sight.
Today, I just want to put up a link to a story I wrote for the Coming Home Network.
The story is about how I went from Highland Presbyterian, to atheist, to agnostic and before eventually returning to the church and became Catholic. Most of all, it’s a story of how ‘I fled him down the nights and down the days’. My journey has taken me from being totally unable to believe in God’s love and mercy, towards beginning to trust that God is love.
Because of this, and maybe also because I’m writing from a female perspective, I’ve tried to put the emphasis on how different events or phases in my life caused me to move towards or away from God, rather than on theology.
The story is called Discovering God’s love and is here.
I can’t speak for other people, but in my case becoming Catholic has felt like finally finding my spiritual home after much wandering. That’s one reason why the title of the Coming Home Network appeals, although I didn’t discover them until recently through a link on another blogger’s site (thank you Charles Johnson).
I’ve enjoyed reading other peoples’ stories on the Coming Home Network and about their journeys from one place to another spiritually. The journey still continues. Joining the Catholic church isn’t an arrival. It’s more like boarding a boat that’s going to help you travel into deeper water and new destinations, using the wisdom of others to guide you into new ways of prayer. Rather than stumbling forward alone, I have the support of others on this journey and the Communion of Saints. One of the amazing things about being Catholic is being able to ask someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta for her prayers.
When I read other about other peoples’ journeys, I see the spark that’s set them alight, the sense that something’s taken hold of them which can’t be explained logically and which won’t let them go.
I recognise that spark. Sometimes I ignore it, muffle it, forget it for a while, or even rebel against it, but I will never be able to say I haven’t seen what is the aim of my life, what I’m longing for.
It’s the pearl of great price, which a merchant sells everything to buy, or the treasure hidden in a field. Once someone discovers the treasure, they go off, sell all their possessions and buy the field (see Matthew 13:44-46).
The Coming Home Network
The Coming Home Network offers resources and support to people who are thinking of becoming Catholic or who are converts. My only quibble is that there is a heavy bias towards American men, and particularly pastors, among the conversion stories. That isn’t surprising considering that the network was originally set up to support Protestant clergy, who had a lot to lose by becoming Catholic.
However, it’s only a small complaint and I’ve enjoyed and learnt a lot from the written stories and videos. Here are links to two of my favourite videos which feature women:
Another video I really like is an interview with Thomas and Lovelace Howard. Thomas Howard is author of ‘Evangelical is not Enough’, which he wrote after discovering the liturgy through the Anglican church. The title says it all. He isn’t saying that evangelical is wrong, just that it isn’t enough. Reading this book was an ‘aha’ moment. It helped me understand why I felt more comfortable in churches with structure and liturgy. Further along his journey, Thomas Howard became Catholic. However, for me, the real star of the video is his wife.
In this video, the Howards discuss with Marcus Grodi, not just people who go from the Protestant to the Catholic church, but also the flow in the opposite direction. They acknowledge that both are due, in some mysterious way, to God’s grace.
Yes, it matters which church we’re in, or even if we’re in a church at all, but right down at the most fundamental level is our relationship with God. Sometimes God calls us out of a place we can’t see Him properly into the wilderness or into another place so that we begin or deepen that relationship.
I am thinking a lot about the warning issued earlier this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to act NOW on climate change. There is only a short time left to put measures into place avoid the worst effects of climate change. We have already caused a 1 °C temperature rise over pre-industrial levels. It’s still possible to limit the global mean temperature rise to 1.5 °C, but this requires a radical cut in carbon emissions of 45 % over the next 12 years. In other words, this requires a huge change in the way we use transport, heat and light our homes and produce our food.
If we drag our feet on cutting emissions then the mean global temperature rise will reach or exceed 2 °C, dramatically increasing the risk of weather-related disasters, such as floods, droughts and extreme heat. The effects of a 2 °C rise would be devastating. Only 1 % of corals would survive and insects, which are essential for pollinating our food, would lose 50 % of their habitat.
Some people will see this warning as over-dramatic. Others might sense a conspiracy: are the scientists playing a political game?
Are these scientists for real?
I am taking this warning to heart because I was a climate scientist, before giving up work to bring up my children. I’ve worked in three different countries and three different organisations which were involved in monitoring the climate. This work brought me the privilege of meeting many dedicated climate scientists, some of whom contributed to previous IPCC reports.
I’ve sat through seminars and lectures where people have presented model scenarios. They put in the best knowledge about the present climate and carbon emissions and run their models to see what happens in the future. What happens if we stick our head in the sand and do nothing? What happens if we cut emissions by 50 %, 75 %, and so on?
I learnt that what might seem to the layman to be small rises in global mean temperature of a few degrees centigrade can have huge effects. Some areas, such as the Arctic, will experience mean temperature rises of 4 to 5 °C, causing melting of sea ice and rising sea levels. Increased temperature also means more evaporation, which means more rain and greater risk of floods.
As a scientist, I’ve been involved in making careful measurements of atmospheric gases and have seen how they changed over time in response to the changing climate. My work has also gone through a rigorous peer review process. Nothing can get published in a scientific journal without being reviewed and criticised by at least three anonymous reviewers. They will point out any holes in your arguments and there’s no way you can slip in any assertions without providing solid evidence.
Believe me, the IPCC report and the scientific studies it is based on, are not fantasy or wild guesses. They represent our absolute, best estimate of what will happen in the near-future based on accurate current measurements.
Is there still time?
In the 1990’s, when I began working in this field, there was still time. The dire scenarios predicted for the mid 21st century seemed a long time away, but now they are a lot closer.
What the latest IPCC report is saying is that time is almost running out. There’s no time left to argue. We have to act now.
I’ve been feeling really low. In fact, I’ve felt hopeless and overwhelmed. If politicians won’t act, how can my small choices to grow my own potatoes and vegetables or to walk or cycle instead of using a car, make any difference?
And it isn’t enough for a few small nations to act on climate change. This has to be a concerted effort. We must recognise our common humanity and responsibility for the planet. The warning is stark. There’s no part of this planet which won’t be affected by climate change.
Through my daughter’s illness, I have been going through my own test of faith and hope. Recently, someone passed on this quote by the Scottish author, Robert-Louis Stevenson:
To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and the true success is the labour.
Hope doesn’t know the outcome. Hope doesn’t ignore the difficulties. If it was easy and the way was clear, we wouldn’t need hope.
To save our climate, we must travel hopefully
What about faith?
The Presbyterian group I grew up in was suspicious of movements to protect the environment. They saw these efforts as potentially stabilising the ‘God-given’ status quo. The evangelicals I met at university seemed indifferent to environmental issues. Why make an effort to save the climate if the world was going to be destroyed anyway in Armageddon and God was going to give us a new one?
As I learnt about the threat of climate change on my science course, I wondered why God would give us a new heaven and a new earth, if we haven’t taken good care of this one? He’d be like a parent who buys a new expensive toy for their child after they’ve trashed the first one.
At the same time, I met atheist friends who were passionate about climate and social justice issues. This was a factor, although by no means the only one, in drifting away from religion.
Having come back to Christianity, I was very happy that Pope Francis published Laudato Si, his encyclical on the earth, our common home. This signals a change in the church’s attitude, from seeing us as caretakers rather than exploiters of the planet.
Scottish Catholic organisations, such as SCIAF and Justice and Peace Scotland are campaigning against climate change, because it as a social justice issue. Acting to limit climate change is a matter of justice for people living on the margins: on low lying islands, in dry areas where crops often fail, in areas prone to flooding, as well as for our children and future generations.
It is a huge task. As individuals we are small and weak, but God works through our weakness.
I’ll give the last words to Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp, who writes about the economy in The National, a Scottish newspaper. He points out that action on climate change, requires a whole new way of living and a new economic model:
“Our economic system cannot survive unless the population work hard to buy things they do not need and cannot afford….The existential crisis of our age is that we are killing the planet to consume goods we don’t need and that often make us miserable because we borrowed to buy them.”
This week, I had a good rant at God, a real, sobbing shouting rant (in the shower, of all places) after another job application was rejected. I’ve had lots of rejections, but maybe what hurt about this one is that I’m running out of energy to even keep trying. What’s the point if I don’t even get shortlisted for interviews?
Okay, another ego collapse. I won’t even try to analyse it or think about what I can or should do. Our priest has told me that until you are having a good rant or shout at God, letting out all your pain, you’re only really playing at faith.
Later that day, almost tongue in cheek by that point, I wrote down some of the rant.
A bad manager?
You are an atrocious manager. From one week to the next, I don’t know what I’ll earn, or even whether I’ll have any work. Working for You seems to be a kind of zero hours contract. I’ve always got to be available, but I don’t know whether I’ll actually earn any money.
I want a stable job, a bit of security, or if I can’t have that right now, I want to know when I’ll get it: next month, next year, never?
And while I’m at it, can you please make it clear what my life is supposed to be about. Using almost any standard, I would be considered a failure, as a mother, a wage earner, or someone who makes a contribution to society.
So, please, can you give me some guidelines, a five-point plan, with key performance indicators. What should I be aiming at? Since, I’ve been turned down for so many jobs, can you please let me know where I should put my energies now?
What is my life about: cooking dinners, listening to kids, sorting out doctor’s appointments, buying toilet paper?
And, yes, I know that your thoughts are higher than my thoughts and that your ways are different from mine, but isn’t communication one of the hallmarks of a good manager? Why do you speak in riddles?
Okay, I get it. You’ve already told me. ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbour as yourself.’ Matthew 22:37-39
Or also, “‘You have already been told what is right and what Yahweh wants of you. Only this, to do what is right, to love loyalty and to walk humbly with your God.”
Micah 6: 6-8
Yes, I admit. Nothing could be clearer than that, but it’s so frustrating. Why can’t your ideas of work and progress and vocation, be a little more inline with mine?
The very next day, I was reading Psalm 118:25-28 in the Divine Office. It spoke straight to me. Seemed like the Psalmist had had a very similar rant with God, and then tried to move beyond it.
My life is in the dust
Revive me as you promised.
I told you my ways and you heard me:
Now teach me the way of your judgements.
Well, that just puts it in a nutshell: I’ve told you my ways … now teach me yours. And that takes trust, because I don’t have a clue where all this is going, so please help!
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.
This summer I spent a few days in Pluscarden Abbey in Moray, the only medieval monastery in the UK which is still being used for its original purpose.
I simply didn’t know what to expect, beyond the fact that the womens’ guesthouse was in an isolated spot some distance from the main abbey and that I would have to bring my own food.
A taxi from Elgin was the only way to get there without a private car although I later realised that there is a pilgrim walking path which I would try to take next time. The taxi left the town and was soon travelling through wood and farmland along winding single-track road.
The driver, perhaps a little worried about leaving me outside the abbey when there was no-one in sight, set me down by the front entrance and rang the bell. A sleepy-looking monk appeared, muttered something about ‘meridian’ (which I later learnt was afternoon nap), and gave me a key to the women’s guesthouse.
The guesthouse was at the end of a track beside a large field. Each of the rooms bore the name of a saint. I chose St Clare, because she had been a friend of St Francis of Assisi, dumped my bags on the floor and burst into tears with relief that I had got here and could finally rest.
The last year has been difficult. When faced with challenges, I have learnt that I simply can’t operate without prayer. However, sometimes I don’t pray or don’t make it a priority. The week before going to Pluscarden had been particularly busy trying to finish things before I left, some of which could have waited. By the time I reached the Abbey, my nerves were so jangled that I couldn’t have gone on another day.
My first prayer was that my own state of un-peace would not disturb this peaceful place.
Bells rang out to announce each office. On first seeing the medieval church with its grey, stone walls, gothic arches and stained glass windows, I simply felt awe. The daily Bible readings during Mass are read out in English. Apart from that, everything else is in Latin although there are leaflets for each Office with the Psalms both in Latin and in English.
The Psalms are sung in Gregorian chant which after a while seemed to get inside me and go through my mind like the rhythm of prayer, even when I wasn’t in the church.
More than the building itself, I was impressed by the monks’ faith. Apart from producing their own food and some products, such as honey, to sell, they don’t have any way to earn money. And yet they open up their home to guests without charging any fee although donations are gratefully accepted. That takes faith.
The monastery was founded in 1230 and a community lived there for over 300 years until Scotland separated from the Catholic church in 1560 when it fell into private hands. By the twentieth century, it was a roofless ruin. However, the current owner, the Marquis of Bute, offered it to the Benedictine Community in Prinknash, England.
In 1948, five monks went north to live in the ruined abbey. Somehow, while spending five hours a day praying the Divine Office, these monks oversaw the restoration of the Abbey. As one monk said to me, ‘If they hadn’t prayed eight times a day, very little would have got done.’
In Pluscarden, everything revolves around prayer. On the website, the Prior says, ‘We came to the monastery to pray: we’re not in a hurry; we have nothing better to do.’
To say I was completely overwhelmed by the formality and beauty of the prayers and the solemnity of the Latin Mass would be an understatement.
Just as they had in Rome, my Protestant criticisms rose again. Was I really part of a church which spoke Latin, and made liberal use of the incense burner and holy water shaker? Why did the church expect its monks to pray seven times a day and rise once in the night for prayer? Wasn’t that a bit excessive? And while I was at it, I might as well have a go at the rules governing Catholic laypeople, the Sundays and the Holy Days of Obligation. My Protestant voice told me to pick and choose, take the bits I was comfortable with and leave the rest, whilst my agnostic voice told me to step back, view it from a distance without getting too involved or committed.
I didn’t expect to be assailed by doubts in a monastery, but that’s sometimes what happens when you take time to be still and another layer of doubt and mistrust is uncovered.
I overcame my doubts (with some help!)
During the Latin Mass, I listened for the bell and the words of the consecration as the priest lifted up the bread and wine, and I felt more peaceful. Christ was here. God is transcendent, but also immanent.
Compline was my favourite office, the last of the day, when we sat in the candlelit church for a few moments silence before an act of contrition and a Psalm. It ended with an anthem to the Virgin Mary. As a former Protestant, I struggle with devotion to Mary. How much is too much? How can focussing on Mary bring me closer to her son. However, sitting in a medieval chapel in the evening listening to the monks sing Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) sent goosebumps up my spine and left me with a sense of peace.
During my time in Pluscarden, I often thought of ‘Seven Storey Mountain’ by Thomas Merton, a convert and Cistercian monk. He describes saying the Rosary with the other monks as they returned from the fields and says, ‘Who knows what grace overflows into the world from that valley, from those rosaries, in the evenings when the monks are swinging home from work!’
I felt gratitude that there was such a place as Pluscarden. Surely some of these prayers must overflow, not just to guests, but to the wider world. It was also a place where I began to learn about recognising grace in the small things in life.
What will I take away? Calmed nerves and an increased feeling of peace, but that won’t last unless I continue in prayer. The monks’ witness is strong. I’ve seen what can happen if you make prayer a priority: medieval ruins can be rebuilt and become a refuge for Catholics, other Christians and people of other faiths or none at all.
I’ll also bring back an appreciation of the Divine Office, the challenge and delight of praying the Psalms and the words of the Prior when he paraphrased St John of the Cross and said that our mission as Christians is to ‘have faith where there is no faith, hope where there is no hope and love where there is no love.’