I’ve got your back

At least that’s what I thought she said. I hadn’t really expected anyone to speak to me just then, as I was leaving the chapel after Mass. So I only just picked up on the fact that someone was talking to me towards the end of the sentence. I apologized to Sr Johanna, who repeated, ‘It’s nice to have you back.’

It was nice to be back at the Abbey, particularly as I was able to be there for vigils, lauds and Mass on the feast of St Benedict. Lucky me! I giggled a bit to myself later, thinking how incongruous it would have been for Sr Johanna to say ‘I’ve got your back.’ But it wouldn’t have been untrue. At least that’s what I think about monastic life. Wherever I happen to be, whether or not I am able to join in, I know that the nuns are praying, seven times a day, for all of us.

I’m grateful for my regular visits; the time I spend in the abbey is a precious gift. I am also grateful, for the abbey–maybe more grateful–when I am not there. When I am not there, especially immediately after a visit, I find myself noticing when it’s time for lauds, or none, or compline. I am always happy if I manage to say compline with the children at 7:50–that’s when compline happens at the abbey.

Still, sometimes life gets busy, and I forget that the office is being sung. Even then–perhaps especially then–those praying have ‘got my back.’

Deo gratias.

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Moving

No vans required. I am moving all my blogs (yes, there are a number of them…) to a new website: atheologianinthefamily.net. When I started this blog, I had thought that Lewis and I would contribute to it together, and it would mostly be theological reflection.

But my theology and my life are of a piece. I have been inspired by the prologue to the rule of Benedict, in which he describes the monastery as ‘a school for the Lord’s service.’ For me, the family is that school. Home is where we learn to love, to give, to trust, and to think. It seems to me that the most difficult place to live out the Christian faith is at home, in the family, where the daily vexations and struggles are utterly relentless. I once wrote to a friend that if anyone else tried my patience as unremittingly as my children do, I would find some means of escape. So here I am, learning to love those who are at once the easiest and most difficult people to love: those who are closest to me.

And I continue to be a theologian. I’m not a part-time theologian and a part-time mother; I am a full-time theologian and full-time mother. I think theology while I am cooking and disciplining and reading stories; I think about parenting while I am reading theology and Scripture and writing about ‘academic’ topics. These things live together in my soul, and I am both of them at the same time, by training and by temperament. As a teenager, I was certain that my future vocation had to be meaningful, and that I would have to practice it while fulfilling my other life’s goal: being a mother.

So here I am, having found that when dreams come true, they don’t always look like we expected or hoped. Living the dream means making ends meet and coping with defiance and struggling to meet deadlines and staying up late preparing for teaching. Sunny days and happy times grace my daily life, and usually I can see that my life is uncommonly good. Except when I can’t, and then the whole project of living and parenting and writing seems like it proceeds in deepest darkness. Fortunately the light continues to shine, even when my eyes are shut tight against it.

I am grateful for all who have followed this blog, and hope that you will enjoy the new one.

light and peace to you all.

the alternatives

I will admit that sometimes God seems callous and distant. You know those moments when your life seems adrift in a storm, and prayer consists mostly of panicked cries of ‘Lord, do you not care that [I am] perishing?’ Answers never come immediately when I pray that way, though if I am able to recall that Jesus is the ultimate storm-calmer, that’s usually ‘answer’ enough.

In the worst of those moments of faith-testing, I consider the alternatives. If the storm in my life is pure chance, and there isn’t really a God who can save me, then what? Well, I’d be out of a job, for a start. There’s not much point in teaching theology or writing books on the Church (my next project) if God doesn’t exist. But that’s not what pulls me up short–I fantasize about going to medical school (I’m older than Patch Adams, so it really is a fantasy) and saving as many children of the world as I could. Even without going to med school, I can think of work I might find fulfilling.

You might also ask about ethics, morality–how would I live? How would I order my life? I wonder about that, too. But I know some amazing people who believe a whole lot of different things; I have a respected friend who is an atheist, and other friends all over the world-religions map. Although as a Christian theologian and ethicist I think we have something unique and life-giving to offer, it’s not a moral vision. (We have one, and I think it’s good and true. But it’s not the main thing we have going for us as Christians.)

And there are all sorts of little things that would have to change about my life if I gave up on God. But that’s not the reason I don’t give up. (Of course some will argue that I don’t give up on God because the Holy Spirit continues to draw me to Jesus. Fair enough. But keep reading, anyway, please.) The real reason (now my students, if any of them are reading this, are going to laugh) I don’t give up is that it is a mystery.

I don’t mean just that there is a profound mystery at the heart of the Christian faith, which there certainly is. I mean that it’s all a mystery. The reason that bad things happen to good people is a mystery, whether you believe in God or not. Unless you believe, I suppose, in reincarnation, and blame the unwarranted bad things on sins committed in a previous life, it’s just a mystery. And here’s where I come back to God: I find myself making a choice not between a thing that doesn’t make sense and a thing that does, but between mystery-with-redemption and mystery-without-redemption. It’s always a mystery. But I come back to Wisdom 8:1, over and over again: wisdom ‘arranges all things delightfully’, even if that delightful arrangement isn’t revealed until the end of time.

At least that’s the way I see it. Maybe that’s the gift of faith; if it is, I can only say Deo gratias.

How to buy happiness

I still miss David Foster Wallace. I wish he were still around to say the sorts of things he said in his commencement address at Kenyon College. Fortunately, some researchers are finding evidence to support Wallace’s claims about the dangers of self-centeredness. This is of particular interest to me just now because both of my sons are overawed by the richest men in the world. Wealth, they seem to think, makes people important, worthy of our interest, and–most of all–happy. The evidence, described in an article in The Week (excerpted from an article by Michael Lewis published in The New Republic), suggests otherwise.

Not only does more money fail to increase your happiness, it seems to infect your soul. The studies found a correlation between selfish acts and even dishonesty (in the service of gain) and wealth. My 11-year-old son, who dreams of being a world-class soccer player (and compensated accordingly), listened as I read the first several paragraphs of the article, and that’s saying something. He listened, because the article begins with a wonderful description of a tennis camp (really, you should read this article–it’s good, and it won’t take long) in which the lines were drawn not between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ but between the ‘givers’ and the ‘takers’.

You won’t be surprised to learn that in terms of happiness, the ‘givers’ are the ‘haves’ and the ‘takers’ are the ‘have-nots’–regardless of their net worth (and generalization extends only to those for whom net worth is an applicable category). In fact–and this is the lesson I took away from the article–the only way some extra money can make you happy is if you spend it on someone else. And there are plenty of opportunities to do that these days, so many opportunities that the whole word could become a happier place if we all were to treat our neighbors to a meal, or a tent, or whatever they need most urgently.

So, in a sense, money can buy happiness. You just can’t buy it for yourself.

Liturgy of Light

My two younger children attend a Montessori school centered on the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I am a huge fan of the school, and of the catechesis, and on Friday I was reminded powerfully of the reasons why. After the youngest child’s time in the Atrium, parents received the following message about their experience from guide Sarah Kulwicki. There is nothing to be added to what she says, except perhaps to pray that God grants us the grace to experience Jesus in the way these children do.

Liturgy_of_Light_1Today in the atrium we had a special Easter celebration called the “Liturgy of Light.” 

 For the Liturgy of Light, we enter the atrium with the lights off and gather around the atrium Paschal candle.  The Paschal candle, or the Easter candle, reminds of about the light that came back into the world after Jesus rose to new life on Easter Sunday.  The imagery of light is an important theme for the 3-6 year old in the atrium.  Do you remember being a young child? Maybe you were afraid of the dark.  Light brings us a feeling of security, of warmth.  Early in the year we hear from the prophet Isaiah (who lived 700 years before Jesus was born!) who said that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  Who is this light?  The children joyfully respond, “Jesus!”  Jesus is security, Jesus is warmth. 

 As we lit the Paschal candle, I proclaimed “Jesus is the light which no darkness can overcome.”  We remember that ever since that glorious Easter day, the light, Jesus, has remained with us even to this day.  I read the scripture passage of the women discovering the empty tomb and finding out that Jesus was alive again.  Then, one by one, I lit a small candle for each child using the light from the Paschal candle.  The awe, wonder, and reverence during this moment was amazing.  The children gazed upon the light, carefully holding it in their hands.  We sang joyful Alleluias and “This little light of mine.”  At the end, each child brought forth their candle to place next to the Paschal candle.  We were able to see how all of our individual lights together made an even brighter light.  Jesus shares his light with us, and we can share his light with others. 

 As a follow up during the work time, children had the choice to spend more time with the Paschal candle lit and their own individual candle lit.  There was a small group of children that remained at the Paschal candle after the presentation and asked if they could do it again.  I lit the candle again and asked, “Do you want to say a prayer out loud, sing a song, or sit and enjoy the light in silence?”  They asked to sit in silence.  They quietly gazed upon the light.  A child asked, “Can I get the Good Shepherd to hold to say a prayer?”  She brought it to the rug and chose to say a silent prayer in her heart.  She passed it to the next child.  Each of us took turns saying a silent prayer.   They asked me to read the scripture passage again.  They laid on the ground and looked at the light of their candles.  This spontaneous moment of prayer and reflection lasted about 20 minutes. I am grateful to have been a part of this beautiful moment guided by the awe and wonder of the children.

May the light of Christ be with you this Easter Season!

Mind control

A few years ago, I was in the habit of reading the newspaper at the weekend. One of the UK papers ran a column-of-sorts in its weekly newsmagazine, featuring brief interviews with well-known people. Many of them I had never heard of before reading about their first kiss, their biggest accomplishment, their most treasured possession, and the like. The questions were not always the same, but one that recurred frequently was, ‘What would your superpower be?’

It just so happened that during that same stretch of time in which I was reading the paper regularly (or at least the weekend magazine–I make no pretensions to being interested in news in general), I was also engaged in a struggle against some darkness in my own life. It was ugly, and I never want to go there again. I really thought that if only I could get a person or two to come round to my way of thinking, the darkness would recede a little. Maybe even a lot. So my answer to the question, ‘what would your superpower be?’ came without any hesitation: mind control.

What foolishness, you think, and of course you’re right. But at the time (and you know how these things are), it seemed like a reasonable solution to the problem. Impossible, but otherwise perfect. Usually the superpowers identified by the folks in the interviews fit into the usual range: flying, invisibility, and that sort of thing. One day, though, I was brought up short by something completely different: to make people’s dreams come true. In other words, this interviewee wanted the ability to bring contentment to the lives of others.

Suddenly my own desire seemed vulgar and selfish, which of course it was. Probably not at exactly the same moment, but as a part of the same general process, I realized that the mind over which I most needed control was my own. I modified my desired superpower just a little: ‘mind control–starting with my own.’

Years passed. A couple of months ago, I was talking with my 11-year-old son, and the topic of abilities came up–not exactly superpowers, but astonishing abilities that might or might not be possible. I suppose it is a sign of my continued self-centredness than I can’t recall my son’s idea for a helpful power. But I do remember the very first thing that came to my mind: ‘perfect self-control.’ Though I hadn’t thought about superpowers in quite a long time, I remembered at once the struggle I’d had, and my old desire to manipulate others’ thoughts.

Somehow, in the intervening years, I had acquired a measure of the mind control I sought. Not perfect control, of course, but at least the desire for it. In my world now, distractions and vexations tug at me, and the darkness lies in anger and despair–when I lose my temper or find myself wanting the success or gifts of another. I would love to have the ability to resist the distraction and bear the vexation, to carry on with my mind fixed where it ought to be: on the road ahead, a road I think of as the path of discipleship.

I don’t have that ability. Not yet. Probably I will never have it perfectly. To desire it, though, seems the next best thing, and for that I am profoundly grateful.

Deo gratias.

What are people for?

Peter Singer is right. He’s recently argued that infants born with severe disabilities are not deserving of the same level of care as you, or me, or our healthy babies. He’s right, that is, if you believe that people are ultimately for walking and talking and interacting with other human beings on this earth. If that were the purpose of human life, if human life had no spiritual or eternal dimension, Peter Singer would be right: use the resources we have for the people who are fulfilling their purpose in life.

But that is not what human life is about, ultimately. Each human being is created for eternal delight in God. And the relationship of each human being to the God in whom we have our being originates with God, not with us. The Scripture tells us that God fashioned us while we were still in the womb; God knows us more intimately than we know ourselves. God gives us our purpose, which is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever (as the Westminster Shorter Catechism has it). Our ability to give glory to God, and to enjoy God, comes from God. Whether or not we appear able to do these things or not is irrelevant: ‘faithful is he who calls you, who also bring it to pass’ (I Thess. 5:24). Delight in God does not depend on our cognitive abilities, but on the relentless love and boundless generosity of the God who brought us into being so that we could enjoy God forever.

Regardless of our abilities, we human beings share one characteristic (which Peter Singer no doubt denies): we are made in the image of God. We who are able to recognize ourselves as participating in God’s being should do everything in our power to allow God’s love and God’s glory to be seen in and through us. Those who are not able to see it nonetheless participate in that love and that glory–and are less able to obscure the image through the evil inclinations of our hearts to which Genesis 6: 5 refers.

Because we are all sharers in the divine image, Nostra Aetate 5 reminds us that ‘We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men as his brothers are so linked together that the Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).’ The council makes no special provision: every person is created in the image of God, and deserves to be treated as our brother or sister. Thus even the relationships we have with one another depend upon a generous self-gift, a love that does not ask to be returned–a love that does not seek its own. We love insofar as we are able, not insofar as the beloved is ‘deserving’ of our love.

No doubt Peter Singer would disagree, and without the belief that we are creatures of a God who has made us for relationship with God and for participation in divine life, what he says makes a lot of sense. But the babies whom he regards as undeserving of our care (and all those whose human lives Singer would find substandard) remind us that we all are destined for the same end, and all equally unable to reach that end without grace. The Holy Spirit who works in us works in us all; we are all in need of the Spirit’s work, whether we have the power of speech, or abstract thought, or mobility. We are for delighting in God, and God makes it possible for each one of us to do just that.

Deo gratias.