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.’
I’m going to be very brave and post a picture of my courgette plant (zucchini to those on the other side of the pond). Woops, no, that wasn’t the bit I was going to be brave about.
Okay, after many rejections, I’ve had a few stories published. Some of these I wrote before my conversion, and some after, but writing has always been a way of spiritual seeking.
I’m sending links to two of them that I thought might be of interest.
An analogy of faith
The first story is Beyond by Christine Grant (the pen name I use) and is in the Winter 2017 issue of Metafore Magazine on page 10 (approx. 3500 words).
It is set in a country hemmed in by mountains, where an unusual situation means that the inhabitants never see the sky. I wrote it shortly after becoming Catholic as an analogy of faith – something which is occasionally glimpsed and never certain.
The opening lines:
Piers scanned the sky, as he did every day, looking for the light that his mother had
sought for the last six years of her life. Today there was no thinning or brightness, no sign that anything lay beyond the layer of steel-grey cloud visible between the high buildings.
The second story is One-Way Ticket by Christine Grant (approx 2300 words) and appears in the August 2017 issue of Scarlet Leaf Review.
The second story is about a young man who sells his possessions to buy a one-way ticket to the Grand Canyon. He takes with him one thing which he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to give up, but the beauty of the canyon begins to change him.
The opening lines:
Eric took a deep breath of hot, dry air, glad to be off the bus which had jolted him awake during the overnight journey through the desert. He stuffed his ticket into a bin at the bus stop. He wouldn’t need it again; he wasn’t going back.
Pregnancy, birth and bringing up a small child aren’t easy, even in the best of circumstances when you have support from a partner and/or family and friends. I’ve been fortunate to have always had someone sticking by me. The first time I gave birth, I had a well-paid job to return to, but it was still tough.
Having a child is a sea change in a woman’s life. It affects her physically, mentally and I believe, also, spiritually. I went from only thinking about myself to always thinking about them, and now am at the point of recognising that one of the people I also need to look after is myself (forgotten sometimes in the avalanche of requests).
In the past women, were only valued as wives and mothers. Nowadays, when it comes to work, women can play on the same field as men, but things are by no means equal. As I’ve found out through personal experience, if you have a child, attitudes change. You might be seen as a shirker or someone who’s voluntarily jumped off the career rat-race. In my case, it meant losing any chance of promotion and a permanent position.
I want to talk about the abortion referendum in Ireland, and I feel it’s important to start from a point of empathy and compassion. Without having walked her walk or been in her shoes, I can’t judge any woman who’s felt unable to continue with a pregnancy. Given the same situation, would I have made her choices? I’ll never know.
So what I say is directed, not at individuals, but at the Yes campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the Irish Constitution. The Eighth Amendment protected the unborn child by giving equal rights to both. Until now, abortion was only available in Ireland in very limited circumstances, such as if the mother’s life was at risk (including by suicide).
The campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment
In the last few months and weeks, my Facebook feed was flooded with links to newspaper articles about the referendum. From the ‘Yes’ side came heart-breaking stories about women whose child died in the womb and were not given the option of inducing a miscarriage until the body expelled it naturally. I read about mothers whose baby had a fatal foetal abnormality, but weren’t given the option of terminating the pregnancy in Ireland.
The gist of the articles and messages was, vote Yes to give women access to proper medical care. Who wouldn’t want to vote ‘Yes’ if it meant better healthcare for women? For a long time, I was genuinely confused. Was the repeal all about making provision for women whose unborn babies had died in the womb? If so, I had a lot of sympathy.
Only recently, I realised that the ‘Yes’ vote was about making abortion available to everyone, on demand, in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. There was very little acknowledgement of this in the Facebook shares from my ‘Yes’ friends. The emphasis seemed to be about helping people in tragic circumstances.
In the last week or two, however , the tone of the shared messages changed and became quite aggressive: our bodies our choices, think of the suffering women have to go through with an unwanted pregnancy.
I imagined all these women, shut up and silent for too long, now almost literally screaming through facebook shares and posters and protests. They were shouting so hard that it was hard to hear anything else. Their message almost put the moral burden on people to vote ‘Yes’. If they weren’t, they were going to let women down, oppress them, leave the country in darkness etc.
My reaction to the campaign
I tried not to have a knee-jerk reaction, ‘I’m Catholic, so I think abortion is wrong.’ I really tried to understand the others’ point of view, particularly that of women who feel, for whatever reason, that their pregnancy is an unbearable burden.
What bothered me about the ‘Yes’ campaign is that there was little or no recognition of the fact that a life would be lost. In the debate about women’s rights over their own bodies, they didn’t acknowledge the fact that an unborn baby would die.
The women were shouting, and the unborn babies were silent.
The thing which upset me most about the ‘Yes’ campaign was that it didn’t even weigh up the rights of the baby against the rights of the mother. It was silent on this, as if an unborn child had no rights at all.
When the ‘Yes’ vote won last week, my ‘Yes’ friends put up self-congratulatory posts and talked about going out to celebrate with champagne. In Dublin, people were partying in the streets.
There should have been no partying on this one. Even if they felt that the mothers’ rights weighed heavier than those of her unborn child, there should have been an acknowledgement that at the heart of every decision to terminate a pregnancy, is a tragedy, both for the mother and the child which dies.
It’s not acceptable to euthanise an old person when they can no longer look after themselves, or even to abandon your dog or cat if you feel it is a burden. However, it seems that we have reached a point, where it is perfectly acceptable to kill an unborn baby. Perhaps this is because we can’t see or hear it’s suffering. By its very nature it is silent.
Articles like Vonny Moyes writing in the Scottish newspaper, The National, celebrate the fact that since the Irish campaign, women no longer even have to show regret over an abortion (Vonny Moyes writes brave articles on health, parenthood and womens’ rights, but I have to disagree with her on this one). It seems that secular society is moving towards a consensus that the unborn have no rights and no value.
God works in silence, through the small, the weak and the powerless. Today we have the feast of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary to Elizabeth where she says in the Magnificat, ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.’ What if God sees things differently? What if every human life has value no matter how small, weak, old or sick?
What does it take to choose life?
To choose to protect an unborn life, whether that’s through the law or in a decision to continue a pregnancy, you need both belief and faith.
The first is belief that the unborn child has value, in and of itself, despite the fact that it is completely dependant on the mother’s body for survival.
The Catholic Church has been described as ‘holding out’ on the issue of abortion, as if everyone else has moved on. However, I’m glad the church is standing firm. Sometimes, when I’ve gone to church feeling troubled, I’ve had a strong feeling that I’ve entered a refuge. The church has been described as the barque of Peter or an ark. Would I feel safe, if the church didn’t defend the rights of the voiceless? As an unemployed mother with a sick child, I’m in a vulnerable position. Would I feel valued if the church said that it was okay to end a defenceless life?
Secondly, you need faith to open yourself to the possibility of pregnancy, accept the changes in your body, give birth, tend for a tiny, helpless human being, bring up a child. You have to have faith that what you’re doing is valuable and that you’ll get the help you need at each stage.
I don’t know what it is to experience an unwanted pregnancy. However, I do know what it is to have a child with an illness that no-one expected or planned for, and which meant huge changes to my own life and that of the whole family, including having to stop work and even facing difficulties over finding living accommodation when she was in hospital. I know what it is to feel unsupported, and totally out of my depth or so worn down that I can hardly face the next hour or the next day. Faith helped me to keep going even if it didn’t always make me feel better.
Many women facing unwanted pregnancies, may not have religious faith. However, faith and belief can also come from other places: from a supportive family where children are celebrated as a gift. It should, of course, also come from society, but we have a long way to go. I could say a lot about the way single mothers are ostracised and women side-lined at work after having a child, but I’ll leave that for another post. All I’ll say, is that if we want women to choose life for the unborn, we have to do a lot more to support and value mothers.
This might seem like a strange title for a post at the end of May, but until a few days ago, the wind still had a cold wintry bite.
I live in a wet, windswept corner of the Scottish Highlands where we are used to grey skies, rain and above all, cold weather. Temperatures of less than 10 C in July are not uncommon.
Spring can be cold, with frost in May or even June. Sometimes the excess rain can be a problem, with potatoes put into the ground in dry, sunny days in April, rotting in flooded soil after a wet spell in May. In the past, people built the soil up into long ridges (feannagan or lazy beds) and added sand and seaweed to improve drainage. Nowadays, we still do much the same thing although they are smaller and we just call them raised beds.
My hobby is growing vegetables and it’s always a toss-up. Do I plant earlier and give the plants more time to grow? We only have a very short growing season with winter gales returning from September. Or do I hold off and plant later in May when we can usually be sure of milder weather.
This year, I was a bit over-enthusiastic. We had a cold but sunny winter and a similar, although slightly less bitter, spring. After a run of sunny days in April, I was chafing at the bit. I wanted to get planting. Surely the sun would have warmed up the soil.
I had ordered some Jerusalem artichoke roots, and they were already sprouting shoots. In the first week of April, I got the kids to dig some holes and we planted them.
Jerusalem artichokes grow from roots, a bit like potatoes although they look more like a ginger root. You can eat the root, but they have a reputation for causing flatulence. The reason I’m growing them is that they form a tall, flowering plant which makes a good wind break (I mean wind as in weather …)
I planted the Jerusalem artichokes near my vegetable beds and then tried to be patient. Two weeks passed, with no sign of the new shoots, but it was early yet.
Three weeks went by and there was still no sign of the Jerusalem artichokes, but I wasn’t too concerned. I busied myself planting peas, beetroot, potatoes and carrots.
After four weeks had passed, I began to get worried. When it got to five or six weeks, I gave up altogether on my roots. They must have rotted in the soil.
The pea seeds also seemed to have rotted. Out of thirty seeds planted, only two to three had come up. Likewise there was no sign of the carrot or beetroot seedlings. Meanwhile the plants I’d started indoors and put out in April were huddled under a net, their growth slowed by a biting east wind.
Planting requires a mixture of skill and judgement. Is the seed fresh? Have I added enough feed to the soil? Is the ground warm enough? In the end, though, it requires an act of faith to put a dead-looking seed in the soil in the hope that it will sprout into green life.
This year, I felt like I’d got the planting wrong. It just seemed like another thing in a long list of things which had gone wrong in my life, despite my best effort.
However, all was not lost. I’d simply not had enough patience. A few days ago, I saw the first Jerusalem artichoke shoots poking above the soil. It had taken more than six weeks, but they were there. The beetroot shoots have come up, as well as some of the peas. I’ll fill in the gaps with the peas I started indoors.
Only one carrot seedling was in sight. Just to make sure of getting carrots, I started planting more seed, and in the process uncovered a few seedlings. Oops, I should have been more patient.
Signs of spring
When I look at the seedlings in the vegetable patch, I feel as if God is chuckling at me for having so little patience and faith that anything would grow.
I need to have more patience in my own life, too. The last year has been incredibly difficult with one of my kids getting ill and having to give up any kind of work. However, even though there has been no rapid, dramatic change for the better, there are still signs of spring.
Sometimes I am like one of the green seedlings put out too early and exposed to the wind. Because I’ve been bitten by the wind, I’m afraid to grow and try new things even though the weather has taken a turn for the better.
Maybe, too, our lives are a bit like the Jerusalem artichoke roots. Even though we can’t see what’s going on, perhaps God is getting things ready and making things grow.
Why is the day marking Christ’s death called Good Friday? What is Good about someone suffering a horrific death? Are we meant to be good on Good Friday? Or are we meant to think of God’s goodness in giving us His son. Is it because death was necessary in order to reach the greater good of the resurrection? When I was Protestant or agnostic, Good Friday, simply meant, ‘Great, a day off.’
My train of thought was started by the realisation that today is simply Dihaoine na Ceusta in Gaelic (Friday of the cross), which just tells us what actually happens. This is another example of language throwing a different perspective on things.
I’m also thinking about how the joy of the resurrection makes no sense without the sorrow of the cross. At the same time, the cross is just a meaningless loss without the resurrection. I’ve reflected before on how the emptiness of the church on Good Friday has helped me to recognise the presence of Christ at other times.
We’ve had a very difficult year, perhaps the hardest of our lives. As I look forward, sometimes I just anticipate more suffering. To be honest, I often just want to curl up in a corner and not even try, because living is so darn hard.
When I was thinking about Gethsemane and Jesus anticipating his suffering and death, I wondered if he only saw suffering, or if he also looked forward to joy. Perhaps he didn’t know exactly what God was going to do. Maybe he didn’t know that after his body was broken, it would be raised to life. However, I think he knew and trusted that God would bring good out of his suffering.
That’s the challenge for me right now: to look ahead in the hope that God will give us strength and also to trust that God knows what He’s about.
Sally Read’s poems
I want to share two things. First of all, I’m sharing a link to Sally Read’s website on which she has a poem about the crucifixion. Sally is a Catholic convert and I really enjoyed reading her book Night’s Bright Darkness, an honest account of her conversion.
A short piece on Easter
Secondly, here is a short reflection on my different experiences of Easter:
We don’t do Easter in our church, but the minister tells us about Christ’s agony on the cross. I feel sad, because it’s my fault Christ had to die, and the nails must have hurt a lot.
Mrs Higgins tells us the Easter story at school. I draw a picture of the stone rolled away from the tomb, but I can’t see Jesus.
I attend a different church when I go to university. My friend’s plump cheeks glow with joy on Easter Sunday as she sings about being saved. I feel angry. What right have these people to be so happy? We could never be sure God would save us.
I’ve stopped doing church altogether by the time I spend Easter in Spain. On Good Friday, I wake in the night, and see men walking down the street in silence, bowed down by the weight of chains. I think of my childhood, dragging the weight and guilt of my sins without hope of relief.
Many years pass. Easter is marked as no more than a holiday, a few days of freedom. I begin to let go of the guilt and pain. Perhaps, just perhaps, God created me for joy.
My faith is no bigger than a grain of mustard seed when I begin attending Mass with my husband. I’m taken aback by Easter. I see the joy of the resurrection in the faces around me, feel it in the water splashed on my cheeks, smell it in the incense, and hear it as we once again sing, ‘Glory to God in the Highest, And on earth peace to people of good will’. I don’t yet taste it.
Over the next few years, I learn the rhythms of the church: forty days of fasting and prayer, the solemnity of Holy Week. On Good Friday, I find the tabernacle open, the statues hidden in purple drapes. Jesus is dead and in his tomb. I weep in the empty church, feeling as if I have lost a loved one.
Easter comes, but it feels as if Lent continues. My daughter is ill and her condition worsening. As I kneel in church early on Sunday, I don’t look for Easter joy. How can it come this year? Something catches at my heart, opens it a chink and God’s love floods in. Later, we drive up the mountainside and take a hike. My daughter has a few hours reprieve, and Easter Sunday feels like a taste of heaven.
My daughter’s condition worsens. She spends most of the summer in hospital, and things slowly turn around. I learn a new rhythm in the hopes and disappointments of caring for someone with a long-term health condition. In each small sacrifice, I share in Christ’s death, and in her tiny steps towards recovery, I see signs of resurrection.
I am learning that Easter is present every day, in suffering and joy, in the death of self and worn out dreams, and in the slow turning of my soul to God.
It’s the last week of Lent, and I’ve got to admit that I’ve been pretty lousy at it. For one thing, we have lots of birthdays in Lent and children have to have cake. I’ve been told that birthdays are an exception, like feast days.
This made me wonder. How many saints have feast days in Lent? I can only think of only St Joseph (19th March) and St. John Ogilvie (10th March). Did anyone ever try to find as many saint’s feast days as possible so they could wriggle out of Lent? Okay, I know that’s not the spirit of the thing.
This Lent I’m realising that it’s not so much about what you give up as what you put in. My resolution of going to bed earlier to spend some time in prayer or reflection did not go too well. Just five more minutes on facebook, email or online news, I told myself each night and five became ten and before I knew it, I was heading up to bed at my usual time too tired and too distracted to try to pray.
Show me your face
Hmm. Okay, I’ve tried harder over the last week and have finally managed to finally get into my Lenten book Muestrame Tu Rostro by Fr Ignacio Larrañaga (literally, show me your face, but the English translation is Sensing Your Hidden Presence).
Ignacio Larrañaga’s book From Suffering to Peace helped me through a difficult time, and I was looking forward to reading another of his books. However, I got bogged down in the first few chapters of Muestrame Tu Rostro. If I hadn’t made a commitment to at least try to read it during Lent, I’d probably have abandoned it.
The first problem was that I was trying to read the original version. I love reading Spanish, but my ambitions sometimes exceed my abilities. I have to read slowly, and it takes a lot more commitment to persevere with a Spanish book than an English one.
My second stumbling block was that Fr Larrañaga starts a book about prayer by talking about the difficulties and discouragements of praying. He illustrated this with examples of people who dedicated their lives to God, but never experienced anything but dryness in prayer and a sense of God’s absence. Hmm, I can recognise myself when it comes to the feeling that nothing is happening, and perhaps maybe I’m just talking to myself.
A lot of work for little effort?
He also talks about how prayer, unlike many other things in life such as studying a language or practising music, doesn’t yield results which related to the effort put in. For instance, someone could keep an all-night vigil in church and leave with absolutely no feeling of peace, and another person could turn their thoughts briefly to God as they walk through a crowded station and feel filled with peace.
Fr Larrañaga also talks about the transcendence of God and the inability of our finite minds to grasp the mystery of an infinite God. As soon as we approach what we think is an encounter with God, God slips out of our grasp and recedes further. After reading the first few chapters, I felt the same way about Muestrame tu Rostro as I felt about the Cloud of Unknowing: this is just too discouraging and I want to give up on the book and maybe give up on prayer, too.
However, I persevered and although I’m only about half-way through, I’m glad I did. The book becomes more encouraging as you go on, with practical advice on prayer, such as using the Psalms or set prayers to start you off. It has exercises to help people empty their minds and prepare themselves for prayer.
Unfortunately, I have nodded off each time I tried the meditations, but no less a person than St. Therese of Lisieux admitted to falling asleep in prayer. She said that just as parents love their children when their asleep, God continued to love her when she fell asleep in prayer.
I have also found useful what Fr Larrañaga says about abandoning ourselves to God. If there is something we can do to change a situation, we get behind it and give it one hundred percent. If nothing remains to be done, then we stop resisting the situation and let go so that we don’t hurt ourselves and others by our non-acceptance. Fr Larrañaga gives some simple prayers for accepting what can’t be changed: physical appearance, personality, our parents, hurts from the past.
Making time for prayer
He also emphasises the importance of setting aside time each day to withdraw into prayer. If we don’t have these ‘off’ times, we become distracted and pulled in many directions, exactly what I experience when I click quickly from one internet page to another. Fr. Larrañaga says that when our minds are full of anxieties and thoughts about what needs done, an encounter with God is almost impossible.
I’m still reading, but now find the book encouraging rather than overwhelming. Fr. Larrañaga emphasises that it is important to set time aside for prayer, even if we don’t ‘feel’ anything or see results. He often repeats that faith, hope, patience and perseverance are necessary. Even if our prayers don’t seem to do anything, we believe by faith and hope that God’s grace is at work.
Doubts have been getting to me, like maggots burrowing under my skin, nibbling holes in the beliefs I took for granted:
Was Christ just a good man or was he really God? Even if he is God, how can I believe he’s really present in that scrap of wafer and sip of wine? I don’t feel anything. Shouldn’t I feel something?
Square up to hard, cold facts and face life alone without clinging onto this comfort blanket you call faith. Or if you need some consolation, make up your own beliefs. Cherry pick a few things from the smorgasbord of New Age religion. Much better than unpalatable beliefs about a man who was God dying on the cross and hiding himself in the form of bread and wine.
So say the doubts.
Do doubts have a place?
I thought that this blog was mainly going to be about faith, but I quickly realised that it was just as much about doubt. If I look at the word cloud on the right, I see that I’ve categorised 20 posts under doubt and 30 under faith. In fact, many are under both categories
The priest who instructed me in the Catholic faith encouraged me to ask questions and even said that doubts and questions are part of faith; they can’t be separated from it. At one point, I hoped to eradicate doubt through asking enough questions and reading enough answers. However, I’m beginning to accept that I’ll never run out of questions or reach certainty about belief.
Probably a good thing; there is nothing so frightening as someone who is certain they are right.
Doubt and uncertainty have their place because God is infinite and I cannot know Him in the way that I might know a book, a place, an animal or even a human being.
Doubts and questions are part of learning
Doubts and questions are also vital to the process of learning. From his research on child development, Piaget concluded that children are continually constructing a model of the world. When they encounter a new piece of information which doesn’t fit their previous ideas, they have to modify their model to fit the information. However, if the information is too many steps ahead of their current ideas (try telling a five year old child or even many adults that astronauts aren’t actually weightless; they’re just falling), they will reject the new idea and not learn anything.
As adults, we risk becoming too rigid and no longer learning. We carry with us our ‘facts’ and way of seeing things, and reject anything which doesn’t fit into our world view.
However, if we go into any branch of knowledge at an advanced level, we find that it isn’t just about facts. True, there are things which we are fairly certain about, and which are unlikely to change, but at the edges, where the research is being done, ideas are being thrown around, models are tried out, rejected, modified, tried again.
Science progresses through questioning
Over the course of the 20th century, huge advances were made in physics. Old models could no longer explain observations and new theories were developed.
Newton’s theories of forces and gravity were superseded when Einstein showed that they no longer applied to objects travelling close to the speed of light. If you travel fast enough, all sorts of weird things can happen: time dilates and lengths shorten.
Strange things happen when you look at very small particles. An electron can behave like a wave under certain circumstances, but if you measure its exact path, it will behave like a particle. We can’t say what state a fundamental particle will be in until we measure it; we can only give a probability. It’s not just that it’s difficult to measure, it actually isn’t in either one state or the other until it is measured. (Look up George Gamow’s story of the bank clerk Mr Tompkins who plays quantum billiards).
Even Einstein struggled with the idea that quantum theory deals with probabilities rather than definite predictions. He made the famous statement, “God does not play with dice.”
Perhaps nothing beats the advances in our understanding of the universe. Astronomers have recently admitted that only 4 % of the universe is in the form of the ordinary matter and energy with which we are familiar. The rest is dark matter and dark energy
No, don’t think Star Wars. Dark matter simply means that it reacts only very weakly with the ordinary matter of which the earth, the sun and the other planets are made of. We can’t see it and it also doesn’t emit measurable radiation such as microwaves or radio waves. However, we know it’s there, because of its gravitational effect (see Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall).
It was my job to ask questions
As a research scientist, it was my job to constantly ask questions and take nothing for granted. For each problem solved, many more opened up. When data didn’t match my model, I couldn’t just ignore it; I had to find out why.
When I think about it, perhaps science and the development of faith have more in common than I realised. In science, absolute proof is impossible. However, we can test an idea to see if it works. If it doesn’t, we reject it.
The same goes for faith. The test is life. I can look at how I feel when I let the doubts convince me that all I am is animated dust, and I can look at what happens when I try to trust that there is a purpose in life, even in the difficult things.
In science, questions can be painful. A model might have served us well up until now, but we have to let go of it, when it no longer explains all the observations. Sometimes the new model, like relativity or quantum theory can make frightening predictions.
In faith, too, it’s hard to detach ourselves from an image of God or an idea of faith which no longer matches our life experience. Faith which doesn’t acknowledge our experience of life, which causes us to warp ourselves or erase a part of our personality is not genuine. Perhaps, as in science, questions and doubts are a necessary part of moving on to a deeper level of understanding.
I’ve taken the title of this post from a quote by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, from his book “Between man and man”. I wrote it down many years ago when I was questioning the strict religious faith in which I had been brought up.
In the signs of life which happen to us we are addressed. Who speaks?
It would not avail us to give for reply the word “god” if we did not give it out of that decisive hour of personal existence when we had to forget everything we imagined we knew of god, when we dared to keep nothing handed down or learned or self-contrived, no shred of knowledge and we were plunged into the night.
When I left home to go to university, I questioned everything and dared to keep nothing. As I danced to R.E.M.’s song ‘Losing my religion’, I thought, that’s me (yes, I know that’s not what it’s about). All the certainties of the religion I was brought up with where slipping away like sand through my fingers.
The other song which spoke to me was ‘Every River’ by the Scottish band Runrig:
You ask me to believe in magic Expect me to commit suicide of the heart And you ask me to play this game without question Raising the stakes on this shotgun roulette
The church demanded unquestioning belief and I couldn’t do that. It was like trying to believe in magic. If I had forced myself to suppress my doubts and questions, I would have killed a part of myself.
Even though I had no religious faith, Martin’s Buber’s words held out the possibility that one day I, too, would be able to answer, god, to the questions of life.
‘God of Surprises’ by the Jesuit priest Gerard W. Hughes also gave hope that I could eventually go beyond the questions and doubts without reverting to unquestioning belief. He devotes a chapter to discussing the stages of religious development: infancy, adolescence and maturity, and argues that all are necessary.
In the stage of infancy, our senses are involved: smell, sight, sound, taste, feeling, and this is also important in worship. When we are children, we like clear rules and boundaries. We aren’t able to understand grey areas and complex issues. Rules and clear teaching are also necessary in faith, but there is a danger that we may get stuck there. When this happens, our religion can become separated from our experience of life.
In order to integrate religion with our life experience and reach a holistic understanding, we need to question. This is the adolescent or critical phase of religious development. Hughes writes that God is present in all things and that there is no issue, however complex, which falls outside the scope of religious inquiry.
He warns that when a church doesn’t allow questioning and exploration, ‘There will be a disharmony between the teaching of the Church and our everyday life, and the teaching presented will split off and become a part of our consciousness which has nothing to do with the rest of our human experience. A church isolated from our human experience can only survive as long as it can succeed in forbidding its adherents to ask questions and think for themselves.’
These words summarise my experience of church as a child and adolescent. My questions could not be contained within the church setting, and as a consequence, I left.
I still believed that there was a God, but I rejected Christianity with a bitterness which was related to the way my questions had been suppressed. Sometimes I even longed for God, but I knew that I could not go beyond this stage by myself. Moving on required some kind of grace.
Gerard Hughes describes the third stage in religious development as the mystical element, where we encounter God not through external rules or intellectual reasoning, but through our inner thoughts and feelings. He emphasises that elements of all three stages are crucial for religious maturity.
I became caught in the adolescent or critical stage for many years. I would have described myself as an agnostic who leant towards a belief in God. I didn’t make much of an effort to move beyond this stage. Sometimes, it takes crisis for us to turn back to God and try prayer again.
How I changed from criticising and kicking back against religion to being to turn to God is a mystery, a matter of grace. If I go back to Runrig’s song ‘Every River’, the next verse says:
But you came to me like the ways of children Simple as breathing, easy as air Now the years hold no fears, like the wind they pass over Loved, forgiven, washed, saved
It speaks of the mystery of faith: going through questioning to a child’s trust with an adult’s understanding.
PS – I had a pretty difficult week, but managed to look at some other blogs and am going to try to keep on reading other peoples’ stories.