The little bird and the Scottish midge

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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.

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One in four

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One in four

Recently I was having a conversation about mental health with someone in my family. I mentioned the fact that one in four people will be affected by mental health problems during their lifetime. A pause followed, in which they digested this statistic, and then they said, “In our family, it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s like almost one hundred percent.”

I had to admit that this was true. I’ve struggled with depression, including severe post-natal depression. Other people in my family have had similar struggles, so many, in fact, that I’ve been guilty of the, “Oh no, not again,” or “Oh no, not another one” feeling when I hear about another crisis.

Statistics just show the average. Some families will have exactly one in four people affected by mental health problems. Other families will hardly be affected by mental illness whilst others will seem to be fighting it all the time.

Down to the fourth generation

Some of our susceptibility can probably be explained by environment and life events, but there is evidence that our genes also play a role. Recently I came across an article describing research carried out on the children and grandchildren of holocaust survivors. It showed that trauma experienced by one generation can actually alter the genes of their children, making them more susceptible to stress and mental health disorders.

I’ve always tried to own my own problems. When I was fighting post-natal depression, I hoped that what I was going through would mean that my children would have less mental health issues to face, not more.

Perhaps it doesn’t work like that. I think of the Bible verse about the sins of the fathers being visited on the children right down to the fourth generation. It seems like a raw deal if God punishes people for mistakes that their great grandparents have made.

Over time I have realised that this verse doesn’t mean that God vindictively causes children and grandchildren to suffer. It simply states a fact: if your life is in a mess then it’s going to have repercussions for the next generation.

Of course, that mess might not be caused by you. Maybe you might have suffered due to war or famine or a natural disaster. If a trauma experienced by the parents affects the genes of the children, does this explain the high levels of depression and alcohol abuse in the Highlands more than one hundred and fifty years after the Clearances?

For how long are the effects of current wars going to be seen in future generations? It is sad to think that those who are lucky enough to survive bombing and displacement and have enough hope left to start a family, might be passing on some of that trauma to their children, no matter how much they try not to.

St Therese and mental illness

I have a fondness for St Therese, perhaps her attitude was, ‘God, I can’t do it on my own. Over to you.’

Her autobiography, ‘Story of a soul’, describes a childhood illness which occurred after her big sister, Pauline, who’d been a sort of substitute mother to her, entered the closed Carmelite convent. Having lost her mother and then her big sister, Therese became ill with what sounds like a severe depression, although there was no such thing as a mental health diagnosis in the 19th century. It also had physical effects and her family feared that she was going to die. Therese herself couldn’t see any way out of the illness, but she prayed and was cured when she turned her head and saw a statue of ‘Our Lady’ smiling at her.

I was searching the web to try to find out more about St Therese and her childhood illness when I came across this beautiful leaflet on St Therese and mental illness. Not only did St. Therese suffer from depression in childhood, but she also bore the pain of seeing her father Louis Martin suffer from mental illness. He spent the last part of his life in a mental asylum. He still became a saint. This gives me hope that mental illness, like physical illness, is something which God allows to come into our lives.

Just as being overweight increases a risk of a heart attack, our choices may increase or decrease our risk of depression. However, there are also other factors outside our control, such as a stressful work environment or a susceptibility to depression which is written into our genes.

The leaflet on St Therese really moved me. It acknowledged the stigma around mental illness and how much of it is suffered in silence. When there is a mental health crisis, people don’t rally round and cook meals for the family the way they might if someone was suffering from a serious physical illness.

For sufferers and carers, mental illness can be lonely. All we can do is follow St Therese’s example, stretch out our arms and say God, ‘I am too little to do this alone. Please pick me up and help me.’

We shall not be overcome

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In the last week or so, I have been trying to hold onto St Therese’s image of clinging onto God. When asked to help train novices, she wrote that if she had tried to do the work in her own strength, she would have given up right away.

Returning to work

Recently I have been asking myself what it means to do things in God’s strength. The difficulties I face are so great that I sometimes wonder how I am going to keep going at all. Over the past year or so, I have been trying to start working again.

Giving birth to children, trying to juggle work and childcare, and finally giving up my career and ambitions so that I could bring up my children were huge challenges at the time. However, trying to return to the relentless routine of the workplace is also a difficult period in a woman’s life which, I think, goes largely unrecognised. One minute you are at the beck and call of small people, their needs and sicknesses, and the next you are supposed to be punctual, scrubbed clean, well-ironed and thinking about nothing but professional problems.

It is difficult enough if you are slotting back into the job you were doing before you went on maternity leave (I’ve done that too). However, if your old job is long gone and you have to retrain to do a new one, starting on the very bottom rung, the path ahead can seem impossibly difficult.

Over the last while, I have felt as if I am trying to climb Mount Everest with several kids strapped to my back and without proper equipment. I lumber slowly forwards while lithe young graduates gallop past like gazelles in super-dry clothing with tiny, ultra-lite backpacks strapped to their backs.

A long, long time ago, it feels as if it happened to someone else in a story, although it was actually not much more than a year back, I prayed about whether I should try to do this job. It felt like the right thing to do. In fact, it was the only choice which brought me peace.

It all feels too much

Now that I’m in the thick of it, I just feel confused and exhausted. The job is tiring and there’s so much to learn. Over the last week, the kids and I have all go sick, and what do you do when you have to work and there is no wider family or in-laws or out-laws (to borrow a phrase from one of my in-laws) to help out?

Sometimes it all feels too much. I have conversations with God along the lines of, “Are You sure you’ve got the right person, here? It seems like there’s so many other people out there who could do this job better than me. I keep making mistakes. Some days almost feel like an unmitigated disaster. I’m asking You for help, but all these obstacles appear in the way, including the ones made by my own inexperience.”

Keeping going

Two things keep me going. One is Gerard W. Hughe’s advice based on Ignatian spirituality. He says that in a time of desolation, you should never go back on a decision made in a time of consolation. If I’m honest with myself, I can look back on times when I did enjoy doing this work, and when I felt that I had confirmation that I was on the right path.

The other thing which keeps me putting one foot in front of the other, is the thought that it wouldn’t be faith, and I probably wouldn’t be learning much, if God magically cleared every obstacle out of my path.

I often think of the words of Julian of Norwich, the medieval anchoress who lived alone in a cell attached to St Julian’s church in Norwich.

He did not say, ‘You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-weary, you shall not be discomforted.’ But he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’ God wants us to heed these words so that we shall always be strong in trust, both in sorrow and in joy.

Small things

I have a natural talent for acting on impulse and making small, apparently insignificant mistakes which lead to full scale disasters. When I was younger, I was perpetually locking myself out of houses, losing keys, missing trains and getting meeting places mixed up. Once the kids came along, they slowed me down. I could no longer operate in a perpetual whirl of ‘important’ activity which took up so much of my attention that I couldn’t remember little things like keys or allowing enough time to reach an appointment. When I could no longer leave the house without weighing myself down with pushchair, changing bag and emergency snacks, it became easier to remember not to lock myself out.

These days I’m usually a lot more careful about things, but occasionally I still manage a spectacular disaster.

Take today for instance. I was making preparations for my daughter’s party and was feeling very virtuous about my organisational skills. The hotel was booked, the cake was bought, and the party favours were ready, and I even still had a few hours to relax before it all got underway.

An apparently innocuous white envelope arrived in the post. I was tempted to put it to the side and open it later, but my husband had been complaining about my habit of not opening boring-looking post. I opened the envelope. It contained a new bank card and the accompanying letter told me to sign it straight away. Okay, I did that. The letter also instructed me to immediately destroy my old bank card, even if the date hadn’t yet expired. Being one of these security and safety-minded people who likes to stick to rules, I immediately got out a pair of scissors and cut up the old bank card. With the new one in my purse, I was ready to go, or was I?

In a few hours time, I was due to turn up at a restaurant with a dozen hungry girls. It might be a good idea to check that my new bank card worked. I whizzed off to the nearest cash machine to test it. My pin was rejected three times. I rushed back home and phoned the bank. After a short conversation, I realised with a cold, shivery feeling that the new card had been issued for my personal account, which I have hardly used since my marriage. I have long since forgotten the pin number for this account, and so the new card was essentially unuseable. At the same time, I had just destroyed the card for my joint account, which I relied on to get cash from the bank and to pay the shopping.

An apparently small thing, opening an envelope, had led to a very awkward situation. I got around it by asking my husband very nicely if he would come along to a girlie party which he had no intention of attending, in order to pay the bill at the end. He’s a good man, and he bailed me out.

This spectacular near-failure of one of my plans, got me thinking. When I was younger, I made lots of plans. I was going to travel the world, have an interesting career, and possibly save the planet at the same time. I worked hard and achieved many of the things I aimed for. Apparently I was quite good at making plans.

My plans stopped working out quite the way I had imagined around the time I had children. If you open yourself up to the possibility of kids, there’s a lot you can’t control. Will the child be healthy, will it be a boy or a girl, what sort of things will it like, and how on earth can I protect this tiny, fragile scrap of humanity.

Many years later, and with the youngest child at school, I’ve been trying to make plans again, and they’re not working out. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m no good at plans. I’m beginning to think that I should leave the big plans to God. Perhaps I’ve got my priorities wrong. Maybe the things I see as small and insignificant, such as smiling at someone or cuddling a child and listening to them, are actually the things I should be concentrating on, rather than trying to chase the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Thinking about the importance of small things, has brought me round to another saint, Thérèse of Lisieux. I know little about her except that she spent nine years of her life in a Carmelite convent and died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. She developed what became known as a little way of childlike trust in God and a conviction that it is not great deeds but little acts which bring us closer to God.

In his book “Catholicism”, Robert Barron writes of Thérèse, ‘… once comparing herself to a little child who, knowing her deep incapacity to please the Lord by her own exertions, stands before him and simply lifts up her arms, hoping to be raised up.’

I’m still a long way from that child-like trust.

Would you trust any major plans to a woman who deliberately cuts up her only functioning bank card? If the answer is ‘No’, I don’t blame you. Neither would I. That’s why I’m going to try to leave the big plans to God.