voices in the wilderness

So this is it. Lockdown. And how are we finding it so far? Incredibly difficult, I suspect. Not taking away from those people who have health concerns or who are otherwise high risk, I can’t imagine how hard that must be. But for a great majority of us we are facing a different challenge. We know rationally that we are probably not in any great danger, yet some-how we are still lying awake at night, at least some of the time. We are still feeling fear.

I had a friend whose child went through a phase of asking what her second favourite of various things was. Children do this a lot, they expect you to have a favourite colour or a favourite number, which most of us don’t beyond the age of about eight. A second favourite is an even bigger challenge. ‘What’s your second favourite magnet?’ She was asked. Then, more challenging still in the presence of her husband, ‘who was your second favourite boyfriend?’.

But apparently, what most of us do have, hard-wired, is a second biggest fear. Our first biggest being death, pretty obviously. Our second? Public speaking, apparently. Or anything that leads to embarrassment or shame. What is at the route of this is loss of identity, and it stems from a very ancient time within ourselves when this would have amounted to death anyway. Because it would have meant expulsion from the tribe, isolation. Which would have inevitably meant death. So, we are facing our two biggest fears, which is essentially one fear, and we are facing them largely alone.

Except we are not alone, we never are when we are in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place we go to hear two voices in particular. Some of us might be slightly familiar with it at this time of year, but this feels like Lent SUPER, or Lent MAX. Extreme Lent, if you will. Robbed of all those things that normally make up our lives and our sense of who it is we are, stripped bare of our identity, we are so vulnerable to who we listen to. Because someone will always want to step in and tell you who you are, or tell you what the answers are.

I read somewhere else that the three temptations, the three lies the devil tells in the wilderness, are that you are what you have, you are what you do, and you are what other people think of you. You are what you have, as in, turn these stones to bread or have enough toilet roll. You are what you do, as in, save yourself, or magically get this whole situation right and save yourself of your family. You are what others think of you, as in, the whole world will worship you, or admire your clever Pandemic opinions on social media or your touching rendition of a Leonard Cohen song from your balcony. All empty promises, feeling ever more empty as the supermarket shelves empty, and one more meeting is cancelled everyday, and those likes and hits just can’t take the place of hugs and smiles.

But you will indeed be tempted to jump at it because the feeling is just so damn unpleasant isn’t it? The unravelling. I know that at the start of this lent, before I knew we were going to be in a global pandemic situation -cause lets face it, no-one expects a global pandemic situation – I found myself thinking that I had already been in lent for about two years. For various reasons I had been in a prolonged period of feeling like I didn’t know who I was, or rather, so much of what I thought made up my identity. And I found it written, in one of my prayer journals, simply It Feels Like Dying.

Which in a way it is, it was. And one way or another, whatever we believe, we are all people of the resurrection. We see dying and renewal all around us all the time. Cycles of withering, and decay and growth and hope. Not without painful and difficult bits, but inevitable and constant. Sometimes we must face physical death but much, much more often we must face the death of bits of ourselves, shed snake-like skins, prune wilted blossoms, some of which fall away easily to the wind, but many others kick and scream and cleave to us all the way.

Because there is another voice in the wilderness, whatever you want to call it. I believe it is promised to us, the voice that indeed lead us there to speak tenderly to us. Saying you, only you. There is part of you that is eternal once all the rest of this has passed away. And that is the part of you that I love beyond your imagining.

And so my hope for you in this difficult time is that you hear even the smallest echo of that voice, just a glimpse of the face that loves you amidst all of this. Those of us who are lucky enough to have people around us who love us might catch it in the eyes and words of other people. People who long to be close to the real us if we would only let them. Now is the time to let them. But more than that, I hope you find what only comes in the deep silence you find when you fall off the edge of everything else. That is, the truth of your own astonishing preciousness. The lies you have been listening to your whole life about who you are and what you are worth probably won’t be vanquished without much tears, mess and swearing, but I wish you the joy and the peace and the freedom of discovering yourself on the other side of it all, unravelled but strangely whole, and completely beloved.

following the star…

We are having a large star put up on our roof today. On our street everyone really goes to town with their decorations but we have never joined in before. The Other Half of Our Street takes it all very seriously, with a big co-ordinated effort and white lights only, whereas for the riff-raff on Our Half Of The Street, anything goes. Its like Fairy-light Fight-club. But our plain white star is quite restrained.

I feel quite emotional about it. It feels, well, hopeful. And hope is tricky isn’t it? I am aware that as a woman of faith, I always have hope. But its a deeper, darker kind of hope. Not a its-all-going-to-be-ok hope. Not a guided-every-step-of-the-way hope. I suppose following a star must have actually  been pretty bleak. I mean, if you actually wandered towards a real star, it would be very dark and you wouldn’t have a clue where you were going, just a distant glimmer. Maybe that’s what this time of year is all about.

I have written before about how Christmas represents the hope that everything really can be different. That power can be born in the vulnerable, a king in a manger, a young woman believed. And while that can be true, this year I am painfully aware that it isn’t always. The angry child inside me, inside so many of us I am sure, stamps her feet and shouts “why isn’t it better?”, “why can’t someone fix this”, “surely if people knew the truth then all of this would get sorted out?”. But the adult knows that the child on the waiting room floor, the people waiting for universal credit, the woman whose house has been destroyed to build another pipeline, all these people want someone to fix it for them. Deeply, deeply shitty things happen all the time and no-one puts it right.

Especially not God. God can do solutions, he can do everything, but he doesn’t always. People of exceptional faith seem better at dealing with this. Look at Mary. She had it really rough, but, knowing that she was going to get the only soundbite that would come from a poor woman for pretty much centuries, she managed to fire out some belting lines about how God sends the rich away empty and destroys the might of princes. Facing a pregnancy that was going to look illegitimate, a future of all kinds of persecution, and eventually having to watch her son die in brutal and humiliating circumstances, her hope was still perfect. Based, probably, on the knowledge of her son as God-is-with-us. With us and in us, as in everything.

Because I have come to understand recently that God is in the storm and not just the voice that calms it. In the water as well as the walking on water. A few weeks ago we listened to Haydn’s creation in the church. I thought it would be floaty and serene but it wasn’t, it was turbulent. The music was crashy and angry in places, and the wind howled around the building at the same time. And in that slightly jarring and uncomfortable place I found a new peace. The peace of knowing that God could be in my own darkness as well as my good bits, in pain as well as healing, in anger as well as kindness, when anger is wounded love, and God is love.

He is, of course, in everything apart from lies. That’s the one place He Simply Cannot Be. Which is rotten when we are all so surrounded by lies at the moment aren’t we? And its inevitable. Because wherever there are people who can’t accept their vulnerability, who can’t look in the mirror and see their wounds and own them as part of their God given loveliness, we will have to have lies to cover it up. We will have to shunt the misery down onto those more vulnerable. We will have to have power that only exists by making others powerless.

So maybe that’s what the hope of Christmas is. That we can enter that stable, and see the child lying in straw, and the child lying in coats, as totally vulnerable, but totally visible. And know that when we speak the truth, and keep our eyes on those in most need, those with the least armour, we will set our selves up for things to not always end well in the world’s terms. But that the worlds terms are not, ultimately, all there is. We can lift our eyes to the stars. And we can cry out. Knowing not only that we are heard, but that God is as much the cry as the one we cry to, because it was him who put the cry there in each of us as surely as he planted each star.


On Holy and patient toasters…

I have been alone in the presbytery for a lot of the summer, between priests, as I inadvertently managed to tell a telephone salesman.
“Mummy, when Fr Martin is away, are you the priest?” My daughter asked me.

“Is that because you and Fr Martin aren’t married?”
Oh Gosh. I thought. Really not the case. “Erm…no. Mummy can’t be a priest because she’s a woman. And Fr Martin isn’t allowed to marry anyone”. Bloody hell, I thought. Our religion makes no sense at all.

Read the full article here

families at Mass together…

“We went to a rubbish church when we were in [English town redacted],” my seven-year-old son is telling my eight-year-old daughter. “Zero points out of 10.”
Blimey, I thought. My son is notoriously not a massive Mass fan, and has been known to etch-a-sketch ‘church is boring’ by halfway through the Kyrie, but by anybody’s standards, scoring zero is harsh.
“What score does Mass at our church get?” I asked.
He thought for a moment: “Five.”
I’ll take that, I thought, but there is plenty of room for improvement. I kept the thought in mind as I prepared for a ‘family Mass’ at our church.

Read the full article in the Scottish Catholic Observer here

Seeing Jesus and listening to George Michael…

I saw Jesus on my street the other day… Well, sort of.
Not like that time when I saw Prince William in Newington. Or Neil Tennant on platform six of Leeds train station. I didn’t see Jesus quite like I saw those two. But I saw him. And he stayed for a while and rolled a cigarette on the bonnet of a car, just opposite my window. Which seemed a bit out of character but who am I to judge?

It reminds me a bit of the warden when I was in halls of residence who wouldn’t let me get into trouble for anything because he harboured some strange belief that I was an angel. I never liked to burst his bubble that real angels probably don’t disable their fire alarms so that they can sit and smoke cigars while they listen to Bob Dylan, so perhaps I should have been eligible for the fine or reprimand after all…

On loss…

We are incredibly good at dealing with death in the Catholic Church, but what of other losses we live with? Loss of health, identity, homeland, youth.
What about those things that are painful in a messy, undefineable way? Relationships that failed for reasons we don’t understand, people who walked out of our lives deliberately, not taken by death.
Or, people who are still with us bodily, but the persons we loved left some time ago. After all, we are living longer but dying slower, people can leave us in cruel increments rather than all at once.

Read the full article on the Scottish Catholic Observer here

On broken tellies and the resurrection…

…So, back to those tellies, we broke the first one drawing the curtains. Knocked it right over and the screen smashed. So come Easter Monday, facing a rainy day of school holidays, I went to John Lewis to purchase a new one. Came back all pleased with myself, all hunter gatherer and provider, then KNOCKED THAT ONE OVER AND SMASHED IT TOO. And it felt like no greater depth of despair could have been plumbed. I completely fell to pieces with it. I am rubbish. I am a terrible person. I can’t do anything right.

read the full article here