God takes all

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It’s close to Christmas and the anniversary of my reception into the Catholic church has come around.

I was sitting in church after Mass thinking back over the last few years, when the phrase came to me, ‘God takes all.’ I couldn’t get it out of my head all day and a few minutes ago, I realised that this is the title of this post although I will have to write it to find out why.

God’s presence

From the moment that I felt a call to become Catholic, I felt an almost miraculous sense of God’s presence. It wasn’t up there or down there or just at my side or behind my neck; it was everywhere. Like a fish becoming aware that it swims, dives and floats in a medium called water, I became aware that I existed in the presence of God.

I began to understand the phrase in the Mass, “Through Him and with Him and in Him.” He was St. Patrick’s breastplate:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

It was a time of miracles: moving consciously in and with and through Him, sensing the Communion of Saints during the feast of St Peter and St Paul, glimpsing a man in white robes walking up the side aisle during Mass.

Just over three years ago, when I was still trying to decide if I could make the leap and become Catholic, the sense of God’s presence left me. I was a simple fish again, moving through the day, feeling the aloneness of my little body, and wondering if I had really remembered this thing called water.

Loss

God took away the sense of His presence and it was from that point of loss and confusion that I decided to become Catholic. I realised that I couldn’t just do it for the nice feelings. I also knew that I couldn’t become Catholic and take the Eucharist unless I was willing to let God be in charge.

However, I wanted to keep a lot of things to myself. My prayers went something like this: ‘Do what you like with me as long as you don’t touch my kids. And by the way, I will find it very difficult to hand over X, Y and Z.” In the end, I felt that I didn’t have the guts to hand myself over to God. The best I could manage was, ‘I can’t do this, but I want to be able to do it.’

On the anniversary of my reception into the church, I stayed in the church on my own after Mass and thought back over the time since I became Catholic. The last year has been incredibly challenging as we gradually realised that one of our children has a serious, chronic illness. From this perspective, all the things which I thought were vital to my sense of self –  reputation, success in work, creativity – don’t seem to matter anymore.

I was feeling utterly exhausted by another round in the battle with this seemingly intransigent illness, empty and drained of all confidence, creativity and energy. In every area of my life – motherhood, work, interests, marriage – I have been weighed and found wanting. That’s when the thought popped into my head, ‘God takes all.’ I am still puzzling over what that means.

Abandoning myself to God

During that moment in the church, I realised the extent of my helplessness and impotence. I was trying to say, ‘Over to You, because I’ve just about reached the end of the line.’

In my distress, I was able to do what I can only pray to be able to do in easier times, and that is, abandon myself to God. It’s such a strange thing to say. Abandonment is a word I associate with babies being left in cardboard boxes or dogs being left behind when their owners move house. It speaks of giving up on something or someone, not being able to put any more effort into it.

Maybe abandonment is the right word. At times, I feel that I can’t do any more on my own. All I can do is abandon the expectation that I can’t make things right and sort things out, and hand the situation over to God.

God gives all

Has God taken all? Of course not. God gives all. I breathe, we have food to eat and a roof over our heads, but my current difficulties have allowed me to glimpse my utter dependence on God. I am beginning to understand the opening lines of the Magnificat which Mary sang during her Advent:

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid

I’ve underlined the word lowliness which I’ve also seen translated as nothingness.

The hard bit is to take the next step from realising my nothingness, let go of my pain and cynicism and despair and believe that in God’s hands miracles not only can happen, but always will happen, even if it isn’t the obvious miracle of physical healing.

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Significance

Sometimes I feel so insignificant, so small and powerless and recently, even useless.

What do you do? Are you working? It’s a question people often ask.

The current answer is ‘no’. I don’t do anything, but that isn’t true. I am a mother. I shop, I cook, I clean and organise the house. I liase with the school, I help with homework, read bedtime stories, give hugs and support my kids when they are troubled.

 And yet, here in Western Europe in the early twenty-first century, that is seen as not particularly important, because I am no longer have a career or a job outside the home. No-one pays me to look after my children, although if I looked after other peoples’ children that would be seen as a job.

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Becoming a full-time Mum

I once had a job which I was passionate about. When I met people, I could say. Yes, I do this and I’m contributing to something important. It was something I took for granted until I became a mother and I had to put in a Herculean effort just to continue working part-time.

When kid number three was on the way, it seemed like a good time to stop. I’d achieved what I wanted, and felt that I needed a different kind of job and a new challenge. Apart from anything else, the childcare costs were going to exceed what I brought in. It was time to stop juggling and concentrate on the family.

Trying to get back to work

I’ve never regretted that decision, but I underestimated how difficult it would be to start again once all the kids were at school. Having given up one career, I had to retrain to do another one. That required a lot of hard work and humility (more than I had in me at times).

I gave it all I could and it still wasn’t enough. For a long time I blamed myself and my weakness and failures. Perhaps I just wasn’t a strong enough character or the right type of person. Maybe I had intrinsic faults which meant that I couldn’t do this job.

Over time, however, I’ve come to realise that it just wasn’t meant to happen. God allowed me to get so far and no farther. There is no point over-analysing what went wrong or labelling myself as a failure. One of my children became ill and needed me. It felt like a return to the intensity of mothering a child in the baby phase or the terrible twos. For a while, I tried to juggle medical appointments and work, but it became too difficult.

Unable to work

I stopped working and joined the ranks of those who are not ‘economically active’: those who are too old, too young, too sick or too stretched caring for loved ones to be able to work.

At this point in my life, I cannot use my time and energy to produce something which anyone else wants to buy. In our society, almost everything has a price tag and we often mistreat things which we can’t market or sell, such as the air or the oceans and forests. However, no-one would argue that these things don’t have a value, even if we sometimes only realise it after we’ve polluted our environment.

Believing that I have a value

My struggle recently has been to believe that God loves me and values me even if I am not successful or busy or paid a wage. I am alive, breathing, present in the moment and through faith I believe that there is value and purpose in my life.

Recently I left the supermarket with two heavy bags of shopping. I felt a little sorry for myself that I was the one who had to go and buy the milk and bread when it ran out and that I no longer had a car to help bring it back. I stopped in the sunshine for a few moments and made a decision. I could tell myself a sad story about how well I’d done at school and how hard I’d worked to build up a first and then a second career, and how, after all this, I didn’t have a job. Or I could stop analysing the past and predicting the future and instead just enjoy this moment.

I tried this little Catholic trick of St Francis de Sales which I heard about through Father Mike Schmitz website and offered the walk to God. Many people would just see me as a middle-aged lady walking uphill with her shopping in the daytime when most people have more important things to do. However, by turning to God and accepting the situation, I felt that each step I took was significant. By being willing to be who I was in that moment, with circumstances I would never have chosen, I was letting God be God, and that can change everything.

So much STUFF

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I am sitting beside the tinsel tree, amongst paper ripped off presents. I feel the weight of the annual seasonal obligation to show my affection for loved ones by giving and receiving STUFF.

On Christmas Eve, I watched Nativity Play 2 with my kids, a story in which a poor school enters ‘A Song for Christmas’ competition. There are a lot of catchy songs, including one that goes something like, ‘this Christmas I don’t care about Peace on Earth; All I want is stuff.’

That song didn’t win, of course. I thought the film might just be another story of underdog wins music competition, but there was a plot twist. The posh school give up their chance to be on stage so that the down-on-their-luck school can perform their winning song, and in turn that school lets the posh school pick up the money prize. So maybe Christmas isn’t just about stuff, although it’s hard to keep sight of that in all the pressure of giving and receiving.

A time when there was less stuff

This Christmas, I am thinking back to a time when my life wasn’t so weighed down with things. In the BC (Before Children) era of our lives, my husband and I tried to walk lightly on the planet, leaving as small a footprint as possible. We cycled and recycled. When our contemporaries were scrambling onto the first rung of the housing ladder, we were more interested in travelling from place to place clocking up experiences.

During my first pregnancy, I took the Scottish superstition that you shouldn’t buy much before the child is born to an extreme. When our baby arrived, we had acquired a small basket for her to sleep in, one blanket, one towel, five sleeping suits (neutral colour), five vests, a changing mat and one pack of newborn-sized nappies.

In those first few days in hospital, I realised that we might need a few more things. The first outing with the newborn in a baby snuggly, was a walk into town to pick up a nappy bucket and other practical items, including the pram which we finally ordered two days before the birth.

Christmas adds to all the stuff

Quite a few years and several children later, we have acquired a house, a car and a lot more stuff. Sometimes Christmas seems like an exercise in weighing ourselves down with even more items. I have tried to mitigate it by buying useful things (socks) or educational things (books and learning games) as well as the toys and gadgets which they simply want. This year I even bought them a Cafod world gift. They scarcely looked at the card telling them that fruit trees had been given to a family on the other side of the world before ripping open the next present.

This year we have encountered the additional hazard of social media where kids post pictures of themselves with the latest electronic gadget or arty photos of the perfect Christmas scene. It’s an uphill battle telling my children that happiness isn’t to be found in things or images.

Happiness without much stuff

I look back many years and see myself walking along a street in a tatty pair of jeans and hideous trainers with bright pink soles. I didn’t have any money to buy new clothes because I was volunteering for a charity, living in very simple circumstances, and paid only a few pounds a week. However, as I walked along that street, I realised the lightness and liberation of not having much.  

I can’t give my children this kind of experience. Cancelling Santa at this stage in their lives would simply cause anguish. However, I hope and pray that even in this culture where there is a tremendous pressure to acquire and to be seen to have things, my children will learn that peace and happiness does not come through STUFF.

Honour

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Three temptations

Bishop Robert Barron in his book ‘Catholicism’ says that humans face three great temptations: sensual pleasures (including money), power and pride. He goes on to show how Jesus was tempted in each of these ways and overcame them, after his forty days in the desert.

I have recently been reading ‘Selfish Society’ by the parent-infant psychotherapist Sarah Gerhardt who identifies three very similar traps. She shows how babies who fail to develop a nurturing bond with a parent or parent figure in the early years of their lives will often try to compensate later on by pursuing material wealth, power or recognition.

She uses research on attachment in babies and the latest advances in neuroscience to show that small babies need a close, nurturing relationship in order to develop empathy and a genuine concern for others. Unfortunately, many parents struggle to develop good relationships with their babies due to the hurt that they themselves received as children as well as pressures from wider society. Sarah Gerhardt gives an interesting analysis of how society has developed to put pressure on parenting and family relationships.

I am getting a lot more from reading ‘Selfish Society’ than from the parenting handbooks which cajoled me into becoming a better, more efficient parent, and left me feeling inadequate when their advice didn’t ‘work’. It has helped me understand why I have struggled at times to build loving relationships with my children.

No longer the golden girl

Out of the three temptations, my weak point is seeking honour and recognition. I don’t like power (although I can sometimes be a control freak) and am indifferent to money as long as I have enough to pay the bills (which is perhaps not as indifferent as I should be). However, a substantial part of me wants to be admired and praised and throws a stooshie (creates havoc) when I amn’t.

Before having children caught up with me, I was very career-focussed. I strove for excellence in my work and received praise and recognition. Sometimes I received awards without even being aware that there was some kind of competition. I worked hard, and although I remained a smallish fish, I was proud of myself for swimming upstream like a salmon and with great effort flinging myself over the rocks into the big pond.

I took it all for granted, until I became a mother. Despite working as hard as I could, the honours and praise began to dry up. Eventually I exchanged an exciting career to become the family cook, bottle-washer and bum-wiper. I was no longer the golden girl, and on top of that I was getting wrinkles! My recent attempts to return to work, have meant retraining and starting again at the bottom.

You’d think that these experiences might have made me indifferent to honour, but, no, it’s still alive and kicking, like an ageing popstar who is past it, but still poses in a tight, shiny outfit that shows off rolls of fat.

One voice among many

Writing a blog is another temptation to seek honour. A part of me wants to collect likes and followers and readers, and thinks that I have failed when I don’t. Another part of me, knowing what the first part is like, has wondered whether it is wise to venture onto the internet at all. All the thoughts I had about becoming a Catholic threatened to boil over if I didn’t do something about them. I wrote the first draft of this post early one morning when I woke up with thoughts turning round in my head. Sometimes I have no peace until I write them down.

Instead of seeing the internet as an online space where I jostle with other people for a little bit of attention, and possibly praise, I’ve begun to turn this on its head. The internet is a way for many people to express themselves, including those who might otherwise have no way to share their thoughts and feelings. The apparent randomness of internet search engines and WordPress readers allows one voice to momentarily be heard and then sink back into the crowd.

When I thought about blogging in this way, I felt relief. I don’t want to stand out, at least, the deeper, wiser part of me doesn’t. All I really want is to express what I am thinking, and if that makes a connection with someone else, well and good, and if it doesn’t, that’s also fine.

I’ll end with a quote from Thomas Merton’s autobiography, ‘Seven Storey Mountain’ in which he describes his first impression of the Trappist monastery which eventually became his home. Oh, and by the way, please don’t like this post (even if you do)!

The logic of the Cistercian life was, then, the complete opposite to the logic of the world, in which men put themselves forward, so that the most excellent is the one who stands out, the one who is eminent above the rest, who attracts attention.

But what was the answer to this paradox? Simply that the monk in hiding himself from the world becomes not less himself, not less of a person, but more of a person, more truly and perfectly himself for his personality and individuality are perfected in their true order, the spiritual, interior order, of union with God, the principle of all perfection. Omnis Gloria ejus filiae regis ab intus.

The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!

Travelling …

Canach is on her travels and seeing some lovely parts of Scotland. Not much internet access, but that is probably a good thing!

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I’ve heard some good news from my friend who was separated from her son. A decision has been made and he will be coming back to live with her. I really hope that everything goes well. I have appreciated people saying that they would pray for her. Sometimes when you care about someone and you’ve been worrying and trying to pray for them for a long time you get kind of, I’m not sure what the word is, reconciled or exhausted. At that point, prayers don’t feel very effective, and so it’s good to know that a few other people are adding theirs. Thank you.