Just a brief note to say that I will no longer be using this blog. I can now be found at https://fumblethroughfaith.wordpress.com/
Just a brief note to say that I will no longer be using this blog. I can now be found at https://fumblethroughfaith.wordpress.com/
2016 has been an awful year for me. I’ve lost one job, started a new one, and given up volunteering for a charity that has meant a great deal to me for many years. Relatives have suffered ill health, I was nearly sectioned, and I’ve had no less than 3 failed and destructive relationships (points 2 and 3 might have more than a passing relationship to one another). I went from starting the year quite sure I was called to be a nun, to ending it quite sure that I was called to almost anything but. I’ve probably not had a year as full of epiphany and development since I was a very small child.
My faith has taken quite a blow this year. It’s very challenging to have the rug pulled out from under your feet, vocation-wise, and be left unsure of where you stand or where you belong. I’ve felt upset, confused, angry, and frustrated. Above all else, I’ve felt distant from God, more so than I ever have in the 4 years since I started going to church. My prayers seem to have fallen on deaf ears, and it’s taken me longer than I care to admit to realise that this is primarily because I’ve been praying for the wrong things, from the wrong place.
A lot of people hate resolutions, but I feel like it’s good to have ideals as long as they are undertaken with the understanding that they are often very challenging to maintain. Since I was a small child, one of my greatest loves has been reading and writing, and these have both suffered over the past few years. It’s all too easy to eschew them for other ‘more important’ things that feel they should take precedence over what feels like a leisure activity. But, for me, reading and writing is often an act of prayer, and therefore should take precendence over most other things. So, this coming year, among other things, I’ve decided to read a book a week, write a blog post a week, and write in my private journal every day. I hope that, through these things, I will reconnect with God, with my faith, and with the hope that faith promises to us all, especially at this most special time of year.
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old[…]
The greatest blessing in disguise when it comes to mental health recovery is the self-awareness that you suddenly receive. On one hand, it’s great: you can start to understand where behaviours come from and how you can learn to live with your condition. But it also brings with it a keen sting of embarrassment, as you distance yourself from events and realise just how ill you’ve been and how much it’s impacted on your behaviour. Repentance asks you to both relive things you’d rather forget and take ownership of actions you’d rather relinquish. In order to make any headway, you have to work through that process and so much more besides, until you arrive at the point when you can say ‘I did these things, I am sorry for these things, I am ready to change myself so I never do these things again’. This is no easy feat.
The natural desire to dwell on and overanalyse past words and deeds ensures that we feel an inescapable guilt. Instinct makes us want to atone for the past, as if we can somehow undo what has been done. Having to do this for actions which are, I believe, largely due to my mental health feels like constantly having to apologise for an embarrassing acquaintance that you wish would go away. I assume that people constantly judge me on my past conduct, that nothing I do now can ‘fix’ the broken image people have of me. This makes ownership of the events even harder, and is probably why it’s taken me so long to come to terms with them. The guilt that comes with this is horribly toxic, and ignores the fact that the commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves works both ways: we also need to love and be kind to ourselves just as much as we are to others.
It’s easy to frame repentance as simply remorse and apology, but it’s so much more. It’s about changing past behaviours, and this can’t be done without a good deal of moving forward and moving on. Dwelling on the past, focused on feelings of embarrassement and shame, won’t change anything: it cannot reshape the present. Learning about yourself, about why you’ve done certain things, and what you can do to stop them happening again, is the change that matters. The act of confession in the Anglican Church says nothing about God helping us to make up for past transgressions. Instead, it calls us to ‘serve [God] in newness of life’. The focus is on leading a new way, asking God to ‘lead us out from darkness / to walk as children of light’. At no point do we ask God to fix the past: only to help us leave it behind.
So, then we get to the difficult task of moving on. How can we make headway after having done terrible things? Put simply: grace. Grace is the undeserved gift which forgives us, inviting, even insisting, that we leave the past and look to the future. Grace gives us leave to put guilt and shame aside, to realise that we cannot change the past and that it no longer has any hold over us. Grace gives us the freedom to change. God’s saving gift of grace to us through Jesus is greater than any transgression we could ever commit. Human instinct demands justice for actions, and the cost of grace is turning aside from the human way of doing things. Justice is God’s alone, but instead of justice, God has chosen grace. We must choose it too.
Since moving into a new room a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been keen to set up a special prayer space in my new abode. My old house was too small, but my new room is lovely and spacious, and as such I’m lucky enough to have a mini bookcase in my bedroom dedicated to prayer and spiritual development:
The books themselves are important to me – most of them are compilations of prayer or Office books – but the thing I’m most excited about is the space on top of the bookcase.
After recently reading How to Pray by John Pritchard, in which he places emphasis on the physical space in which we pray, I realised that I didn’t really have anywhere special to go and talk to God. I have church, but that’s no good at midnight when I need to take time to engage with prayer. Of course, one can pray anywhere, and praying in front of an icon is no more or less valid than praying on a bus or a park, but having a dedicated prayer space can help with the frame of mind and concentration needed. I certainly feel at the moment that, as well as prayer in day to day life, I need somewhere at home where I only ever go to pray, that doesn’t remind me of anything else. I wanted to keep it simple, so there are only a couple of things on the top of the bookcase, all of which are very special to me.
The cross is self-explanatory – when praying to God, what better to look at than the symbol of his sacrifice? Looking at the cross always brings to mind, for me, not only this but also the words of Julian of Norwich during her illness and near death: ‘everything except the cross was ugly to me, as though crowded with fiends’. Everything should be ugly to us except the love displayed through the cross, and the joy we can take in this demonstration of God’s special care for His creation.
To the left of the cross I have an angel statue which was given to me by some dear friends at my baptism. Whenever I look at it I’m reminded of the day on which I gave my life to God, and of my baptismal promises to reject evil and to fully love God. I’m also reminded of a sweet conversation with my friends in which they told me they’d hunted high and low for an angel with short hair, as I had short hair at the time.
In between the cross and angel, not very visible in the picture, is an ammonite fossil which I found on the beach at Whitby. This reminds me of my vocation, as I was staying with a community at the time, but also of my favourite saint, Hilda, who was Bishop of Whitby and one of the greatest women the church has ever seen.
Finally, I have a new addition to the space: a prayer pot. I often find it hard to bring other people into my prayer without it feeling very contrived and awkward. So, I now have a pot which contains dozens of screwed up little pieces of paper, each with a name or intention written on it. Each day, during prayer, I can take a piece of paper out and pray for that person, remembering the times I’ve had with them, and coming to better understand them through God. Even when I’m not praying for them, they’re there, real, physical reminders of the people, permanently next to the cross and in the most special place I can personally offer them.
So, when I pray, I am reminded of the passion and crucifixion of my Lord, of my baptismal vows, of the strength to be drawn from the examples of the saints and from prayerful discernment of my vocation, and of God’s love expressed through friendship and the loving kindness of the people I know and have known. These things together enhance my prayer life beyond words, and I am ever grateful to the loving God for speaking and listening to me every day through prayer and contemplation. Amen.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
I’ve always skimmed over these verses as almost boringly self-explanatory: we must love everyone, because to not love everyone would be to not love God. In comparison to all the fun parables and riddles Jesus often gives us to contemplate, “love God and love others” feels like a powerful point mundanely delivered. At a recent Bible study, I had the privilege of discussing this reading with some very perceptive fellow Christians. So, having previously viewed this passage as a frustratingly vague point poorly delivered, I’d like to share my thoughts on it over the past week.
As mentioned above, Jesus replies to the Pharisees in a very direct and straightforward way. Parables and questions are often thrown out to make the Pharisees look and feel stupid, else to make them incriminate themselves, but this is rather different. Love is, on its surface, fairly uncontroversial. The greatest commandment is not complicated, but almost absurdly simple. To love God and love others. No caveats, just a single verb: to love. Yet this love is probably one of the most difficult things for us to live out in our daily life.
To love everyone is impossible. The Bible itself regularly reminds us of this. It has pagans cowering terrified before God, begging to be forgiven for their heresies, only to be slaughtered; it has people being murdered by despotic rulers who believe that massacres are the will of God. Good people do terrible things because they cannot forgive and cannot bring themselves to let go of their own pride and love others. The Bible is a great collection of writings on the human condition, yet it never lets us forget that we are bad, categorically bad, at forgiveness – a badness which throws into stark relief the perfection and consistently of God’s own forgiveness.
So, it’s important to make a distinction between ideology and reality. There are people I won’t love, people I haven’t loved, and people I won’t ever be able to bring myself to love. I’m sure everyone feels the same – it’s hard to love people who’ve treated you with less respect than you feel you deserve. Rather than beating myself up over this, though, I remind myself that God knows we cannot reach the ideal set out for us. As Paul reminds us in Romans, we all fall short of the glory of God, and that’s okay. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reach that ideal, to learn from our failings, and to strive for it even (perhaps especially) when we feel sure we will never reach it. After all, we will never truly understand the nature of God, but that doesn’t mean all theological pursuit is futile; on the contrary, it is essential that we try our utmost to understand God as much as we possibly can. So, to examine and strive for universal love while finding it impossible to love everyone is not contradictory: it is human.
The passage from Matthew is interesting in that it offers not one, but two commandments. However, if we remind ourselves of what the world is, a pure sacrament to God’s love, it’s not hard to bring these two commandments together as one. We are an emanation of God’s pure love, the love which is the essence of the divine. Love of others, good deeds, are often seen as a conduit through which we show our love of God, perhaps because these two commandments are written as discrete – we do things for other people because we love God, we forgive people because we love God, but we often skip the actual, genuine love of other people bit. There is no distinction between loving God and loving others, because we have been made in God’s image. We are God’s creation, and when we are in strife with one another, we hurt God. We cannot use people as a path to God, because then we miss the point: God isn’t distant and far away, but HERE, in the world, and there is something of God in every person.
What about people who commit atrocious acts? Who feel no repentance? Well, the key word there is “person”; no matter what narrative we would like to write for the people we consider the worst, we have to accept that they are people too, as deserving of love as anyone else. We as humans all have the capacity to do awful things, and we need to consider which part of our humanity allows atrocities and terrible acts to be justified in the minds of some. We don’t do that by demonising or punishing: we do that by loving care and fellowship. Humanity is by necessity a mixing of the good and the bad: we all live distant from God, we are all imperfect, and we all have the capacity to do excellent things and to do awful things. We need to understand this. This is why the attitude towards “bad people” is so damaging. It’s uncomfortable, but the people who often most need love are those who commit the worst acts. This is why systems of restorative justice are both the most effective and the best example of extending God’s loving kindness. To understand all is to forgive all. That is where we find love. That is where we find God.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
[…] Do not be wise in your own eyes (Proverbs 3:5-7, NRSV)
As I write this, I’m in the middle of a severe and difficult depressive episode, with some paranoid delusion thrown in for good measure. These episodes in my life, when I am thrown into a mental state impossible to deal with, are the times when I most need God, yet feel most abandoned by the love, care and guidance of the Almighty. I know, on an intellectual level, that God hasn’t upped sticks and left me to struggle alone. Being a good little Anglican, I can draw on scripture, reason, tradition and experience to come to the sure conclusion that God is most certainly not partial to abandoning or neglecting anyone, especially not in their times of greatest need. This conclusion is all well and good, but right now it simply doesn’t feel true. I believe in an all-loving God who guides and cares for me, but what use is that belief when my life is broken and fragmented, when God feels absent, when I have no faith in what I believe?
The words ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ are often used interchangeably, but there is a vast gap between believing something to be true and having faith in its ability to effect a difference in the world. It’s often assumed that, if not synonymous, the two at least go hand in hand, inevitably following on from one another, but it seems like faith tends to follow rather reluctantly behind belief, if indeed it deigns to follow at all. I felt almost defeated when I first came to believe in God, a reaction not dissimilar to that described by CS Lewis in Surprised by Joy:
In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. […] The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?
Far from being a solution to all the world’s ills, belief in God can bring with it any number of negative responses. We can easily believe in God while still trusting ourselves a great deal more than we trust that belief – one only has to look to Satan to see a model of perfect belief entirely unsupported by faith. For us, our inability to place faith in our belief is rarely quite so willful, but a fundamental tenet of Christianity is the inevitable doubt that comes from a frequent disconnect between what one believes to be true and what one feels worthy of placing faith in.
Belief comes from our will to assent to something we have carefully considered and found to be true beyond reasonable doubt. Belief is nice and neat, and our desire to often cast off faith in the unknowable in favour of concrete and sound fact betrays one of the downsides of living in a post-enlightenment society where empiricism is exalted to almost fetishistic levels. The Proverbs quote at the beginning of this post is often rolled out as incontrovertible proof that Christianity is a religion of anti-intellectualism, of encouragement in acceptance without question – this isn’t helped by the fact that the word ‘insight’, a word relating much more to wisdom, to capital T Truth, than to clinical facts, is historically translated as ‘understanding’. The passage, however, categorically does not encourage us to eschew education or intellectual enquiry, both of which are necessary and invaluable; on the contrary, it asks us simply to accept that these things can only offer us so much.
Faith requires that we put to one side our confidence in being able to calculate what is fact and what is fiction. It instead asking us to put our trust in something which we may not be able to see or feel – something which we may believe, but into which we have no insight. It asks this of us even when we feel shaken, ruined, and in a dark place where utter nihilism looks increasingly appealing. It’s times like this when we most need to put any theoretical and carefully sculpted belief on the back burner, to stop trying to work our life events into a narrative which supports our intricately structured theology, and surrender ourselves to the mystery of faith. God asks us to trust that, even if we don’t feel it, the Holy Spirit is working in our lives. By accepting this, we build up our relationship with God and increase our love and care towards the entirety of His creation. It is the love which flows from faith, not the arrogance of belief, which will lead us to the living Kingdom of God.
A couple of weeks ago, as part of my ongoing journey of vocation discernment, I went to visit a fantastic Anglican religious order in the north of England. I’ll write a fuller blog post about that another time, but while there I read a book, written in the 1950s by one of the sisters in the community, called I Choose the Cloister. It was brilliant, and struck at the core of my being in a way that few books ever have. It challenged me, made me question myself, and, mostly importantly, made me think long and hard about my personal shortcomings. Reading about the way women have, and do, fight with themselves for decades in order to live a Christ-like life helped me come to realise how proud, vain and arrogant I am, especially when it comes to my faith. I’m certainly guilty of constantly pointing out and complaining about other people’s fault while trying to exonerate, rather than address, my own. So much for the cloistered life being a mild and gentle one.
This might all sounds bad – “I read a book that made me realise I suck at everything!” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement – but I Choose the Cloister book did to me what all good spiritual writing, and the Bible itself, has the power to do to us all. It helped me to realise my faults, yes, but most importantly it reinvigorated my faith in the infinite grace and guiding spirit of God. It reminded me that, no matter how seemingly insurmountable my sins, no matter how inadequate my penitence may feel, God will never fail to forgive and accept me: nothing is beyond the power of the Holy Spirit.
I Choose the Cloister does an excellent job of highlighting the way in which, in our naivety, we can often act in what feels like a humble, faithful way while actually adding to our pride. James 2 famously informs us that faith without works is dead, and it’s therefore quite natural to feel that service to God hinges solely on good works. To this end, we give up things, we offer our time and resources, we do an astonishing variety of fantastic things in the name of caring for God’s creation. And this is excellent. But this doesn’t necessarily represent Christian humility. Instead, it can often have the contrary effect, feeding one’s own ego, making us less Christ-centred and more self-centred: rather than building up Christ, we build up ourselves. It’s nice to think that all we have to do to be good Christians is give people our money, and live simply. In these instances, however, when the focus is so purely on the works, and the outcome seems to be nothing but a nice feeling of self-satisfaction, we act for ourselves, and not for God.
Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicholas encapsulates perfectly this struggle we have between doing things for ourselves and doing them for God. In the third section, Nicholas tells us that he gives everything away, sells his land, gives all his money to the poor in an attempt to act out his faith, yet ‘love demanded more’. He becomes more earnest, casting aside everything joyful in his life in order to focus more truly on God; this, however, is no more effective, and ‘love desired more still’. It is only when he breaks down, praying to God, and begging for ‘sweet humility’, that ‘love was satisfied’. When I sung this in 2012, not long after becoming a Christian, I thought this was an odd request. Begging for humility? Aren’t you already pretty darn humble if you’ve given away everything, living for other people? No, God tells us. You can give your things, your time, your words, your actions, sure; but these are nothing without giving your spirit to the one who knows best your gifts, your needs and your purpose. I Choose the Cloister ends with one of the sisters praying a prayer which played incessantly on my mind for a full week after I first read it, a prayer which perfectly encapsulates this humility:
Give me to practise
That supreme liberty of will,
Which is to strip my will of every liberty.
My visit to the sisters made a profound impression on me. It most certainly helped me to grow in my faith, in ways I can’t even begin yet to comprehend. The initial purpose of the visit was to help me in my attempts at working out what on earth God might be calling me to. I was hoping to leave feeling very strongly that it was or wasn’t what I should do; instead, I left with a far more complex set of emotions and questions than I had when I arrived. I was worried that, since I didn’t immediately feel that I was absolutely meant to be there, that I must have got it all wrong, and God was chuckling merrily at the very notion of me thinking I might be called to life in a religious community. Feeling a bit stressed and confused about the whole thing, not to mention angry with myself for presuming I might be good enough to have a vocation, I went to work – in a bookshop – the next week, and the first book I saw, right on top of the pile of new acquisitions, couldn’t help but make me turn my eyes upwards and smile. God has a pretty wry sense of humour sometimes, and this serendipitous sign, what my friend called a ‘Godincidence’, is perhaps my favourite to date.