‘He hath made every thing beautiful in his time’

A couple of months ago, I had a brilliant conversation with a friend. It started with a discussion of different kinds of evangelism. We both came fairly quickly to the conclusion that ‘explicit’ evangelism, that of engaging in direct conversation for the sole purpose of trying to convert someone, is mostly ineffective. This style of proselytising often promotes the wrong things: first and foremost, it tends to push the idea that accepting a very particular set of dicta is akin to being essentially ‘fixed’, the only alternative being eternal condemnation decreed by a supposedly loving God.

Evangelism isn’t, and shouldn’t be, its own programme. It should instead arise naturally from one’s deeply personal and individual faith, the faith which both requires and compels us to live the most Christlike life possible, the faith which, above all else, asks us simply to love. Most importantly, it’s about developing and learning to express a real and a deep love for God’s creation, the pure emanation of God’s love: us. The full spectrum of humanity and the natural world. To appreciate the world around us is to appreciate the divine. To quote the fantastical musical version of Les Miserables, ‘to love another person is to see the face of God’.

The expression of this love, hard as it can be, is how we must introduce others to God. If we can really live out our lives in the spirit which Jesus calls us to, no explicit evangelism is necessary. The experience of this love is often seen as the result of successful conversion, a sanctioned conduit to understanding the nature of the divine, but I disagree. This love, and this tenderness, is the divine. It is God, and it is Jesus.

While I was talking to my friend, she mentioned an experience she had a few years prior. She was watching her parents sitting at the kitchen table, talking and laughing. In that moment, my friend saw her parents’ faces transfigured into what they described as the personification of perfect beauty and love. In their laughter, and in their smiles, she felt that she was truly seeing God. What greater evangelism, and what greater testament to God, than to be love and beauty in the world? To be the loving kindness of God? To be the harmony and peace which Jesus has given to us?

Far from needing to have God explained in cold and necessarily inadequate terms before feeling this peace and love, the peace and love is itself the essence of faith. Thomas a Kempis, talking about the superfluity of ‘lofty discourse’ on the nature of God, says that he would ‘far rather feel contrition than be able to define it’, and I feel the same about the topic at hand. It’s of infinitely more importance to feel God than it is to understand God, more important to feel than it is to be able to define the cause of that feeling, and that experience.

Advertisements

Absence

It seems customary, after a long absence from blogging, and regardless of how few followers one may have, to apologise for having been away for so long. I’m not going to. The four months since I last posted have been exciting, stressful, and just a little odd. I needed a break from writing here to focus on ‘real life’. More importantly, I needed to take a step back and consider what I was hoping to gain, and offer others, through broadcasting my thoughts here.

My desire to write a public blog was initially driven by a need for accountability. I wanted to turn writing into a normal part of my life, as it was before I became ill a few years ago. If I knew other people were reading what I wrote, it would give me the push I needed to make it a regular habit. But over the past few months, despite not updating this site, I’ve been writing almost every day in my personal journal: it’s become a very welcome habit. Why, then, do I still want to write here?

I think my motivation for public writing comes from a sense of wanting to feel connected with other people. It’s well and good filling pages of notebooks with ranting and pontificating, but keeping them private, away from the possibility for debate and discussion, feels like rather a mean way to treat them. Much better that I give them a public airing and leave myself open to the possibility of looking stupid than preciously guard them lest anyone disagree.

The above was initially concerning to me on the grounds that forcing oneself out into the world in such a way could be considered arrogant and forceful. I’m currently reading Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, in which he warns his fellow Religious to ‘guard against familiarity’ with others: ‘We must live in charity with all men, but familiarity with them is not desirable’. His reasoning stems largely from the fact that we may irritate other people by being excessively open with them, when they would frankly rather you shut up and left them alone. It’s definitely an important thing to consider in most social interactions – I can’t imagine there are many people who don’t worry about imposing themselves or their conversation on other people every now and then – but blogging seems beautifully to get around this. Nobody is forced to engage with what one writes, and there is no sense of imposition.

I want to use this space as a way to help me develop my understanding of my own faith, and my current understanding of God, by simply putting it out there, open to be criticised or disagreed with by anyone, anywhere in the world. The internet is a space where you can’t regulate who sees or responds to your thinking in the way that you can in real life. It’s forcing me out of my comfort zone, and that can only be a good thing.

On Prayer

One of the worst things about depression is the absolute apathy that can come with it. It’s not all doom, gloom and misery; most of the time it’s simply a numbness.

I’ve been very frustrated with myself for not managing to write much recently. It’s a double cruelty that depressive episodes not only burden one with such emotional lethargy, but they also take away the ability to engage with any kind of outlet which might alleviate the difficulty. I find it hard to write because I find it so, so hard to care in moments like this. I even find it hard to pray because I just cannot formulate the words, or even the general sentiments, in my mind.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe contains a lovely little description of prayer. The children are told that Aslan knows full well what they need, and will give it to them in due course, but he likes to be asked all the same. I know that my ability to pray doesn’t stop God from knowing my mind, or knowing what I need, and I know that God understands and is compassionate when I find myself unable to pray, but I’d desperately like to be able to ask. Instead, I find that these acutely apathetic episodes stop me from being able to.

In times like this, I’m hugely grateful for the Lord’s Prayer. At a Mass I recently attended, the priest talked about the difficulties of prayer, and of the difficulty we all at least occasionally face when we try to sit down and talk to God. In these times, the priest said, when we can’t work out what to say, or can’t focus our minds, or can’t even work out what exactly it is we need to pray for, God has given us a beautiful and simple prayer which can be used over and over without becoming stale:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from evil.

Amen.

Jesus and Socialism

Christianity, and in particular the faith propagated by my own church, the Church of England, is viewed by many as a warm, cosy blanket into which we retreat from the harsher realities of the world. It’s easy to see why people view it as such: the Anglican church is, to many, a comforting English tradition, fitting in with afternoon cricket games, boarding school and afternoon tea. I often make jokes about church really being about tea, biscuits, and gossip. I made one such joke to someone the other day, and was met with the response: ‘Really? Isn’t it about…you know…revolution?’

I make no secret of my ardent socialism. I believe that a socialist world would be a far better world than the one we currently live in, and I believe it’s an ideal to which we should strive in order to secure happiness, harmony and equality. For a long time I had a great deal of animosity towards the church because I saw it as an institution whose main job was to uphold a conservative status quo, not to encourage and enact an overturning of deeply engrained injustices in the world. In one of my first conversations with a now good friend, he told me he believed that one couldn’t be a Christian without being a socialist; my immediate response was to balk at the suggestion that Jesus and the Bible had anything pertinent to say about justice or equality. Being nice and kind to other people, sure, but not serious, grass roots social action. A few years later, and having actually read the Bible, I’m now quite happy to entirely retract my previous sentiments and agree with my friend.

The New Testament in particular presents us with several undeniable instances of communal living being the ideal towards which all Christians should strive, and I want to focus on a couple of those in this post. It’s tempting to also sift through scripture to find some passages promising condemnation of the rich and the greedy, but I want to focus less on the negative and more on the positive: rather than discussing what we shouldn’t do, I want to explore what the Bible tells us we should do once we dedicate our lives to Jesus.

John is probably my favourite Gospel, but Luke runs a close second. While John expresses the beautiful and the sublime to be found in the story of Jesus and in the profession of faith, Luke is rather more straightforward, giving us some excellent practical theology. 3:10-11 is a lovely example of Luke’s blunt and direct narrative: John the Baptist, instructing people in ways to prepare themselves for the coming of the Christ, tells the crowds who have come to be baptised by him: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (NRSV). There is nothing ambiguous or figurative here: this is a direct command. In order to prepare ourselves to love and follow Jesus, it is a moral imperative that we share what we have, that we abandon any greed which we are harbouring. This passage encourages a certain level of discomfort, as it demands that we who have much absolutely must give what we have to those who have little.

Given that Acts is traditionally attributed to St Luke, it’s no surprise that we seem this theme of sharing and of communal living in both texts. The Book of Acts presents a beautiful view of communal living at one of the most important points in the New Testament. After the Holy Spirit has descended on the people at Pentecost, and they begin to truly understand the significance of what happened at the crucifixion:

“Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:43-47, NRSV)

This is one of my favourite verses in the entire Bible – like the aforementioned passage from Luke 3, it’s so easy to overlook, but in it rests the most beautiful and perfect view of living in harmony with the world. It’s reminiscent of the peaceful living presented in Psalm 104, and reminds me of the ‘fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ in the words of the Grace. It reminds us that we are all one body in Christ, and reinforces the need for us to live together, to live communally as that one body, all striving towards peace and harmony in God’s creation to better glorify His name. I have an ESV Study Bible which has a very fun bit of commentary on this passage of Acts: “Though some people have referred to this situation as “early communism”, this is clearly not the case…”. I’m sorry, ESV editors, but it absolutely is the case, and it is the most perfect model we have of living a Christlike and Christ-centred life.

“Click.”

Trigger warning: this post contains open discussion and description of suicide, self harm, and eating disorders.

I haven’t posted on here for a couple of weeks because I’ve unfortunately been really struggling with my mental health. Depression is something I’ve struggled with for several years, and doctors are increasingly convinced that I may suffer not just from depressive episodes, but from a rapid-cycling form of bipolar disorder. I’ve alluded to my mental health in a previous post, and I’m generally fairly open about it with my friends, but I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and written – or said – the whole story.

I want to first clarify something that a lot of people are, sadly, not quite aware of. By ‘depression’, I don’t mean simply that sadness and lowness of mood that everyone feels every so often. That’s a perfectly normal part of the human spectrum of emotions. Depression is a clinical illness, and we are realising more and more that it has a strong physiological basis. Studies are even being done into the efficacy of MRI scans to detect depression: they work 80% of the time. I find it very useful to view the problems I have with mental health as very solid and tangible diseases. Some people prefer not to, but for me, recognising the illnesses as chemical imbalances which are affecting the functioning of my body and brain helps me to separate them from my sense of self, to make a disconnect between my brain, which is a functioning organ that can go wrong, and my mind, which contains something essential about me and my character. A lot of therapy is based around the acceptance of mental illnesses as a part of ‘you’, and while I do accept this to some extent, I want to think that there is still a distinction between the way my illnesses make me act and my actual, true ‘self’.

Secondly, depressive episodes are not necessarily linked to traumatic or upsetting events or circumstances. There is no specific reason that I started cutting myself when I was 12, and have done it on at least a semi-regular basis ever since. In Hangover Square, an excellent book by Patrick Hamilton, the protagonist has some form of mental illness, most probably schizophrenia. The description in the book of the way his episodes manifest is probably the closest I can get to an explanation of what it feels like to have a mood disorder. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the book to hand, but from memory: there is no explanation, and no triggering cause, for Hamilton’s protagonist. The text represents the switch from ‘normal’ to a world described as distant, foggy and colourless with just a single word: ‘click’. That’s it. The brain goes ‘click’, and the world is altered. Some people experience their swings between different moods as a far more gradual process, but for me it certainly isn’t. I can be perfectly fine and happy one moment, and the next, for no apparent reason, ‘click’. This is the nature of depression and several other mental illnesses.

As for my personal experience, I’ll try to lay it out as simply as I can. On my good days, I’m incredibly talkative and outgoing. I love the world, I love people, and love being around them. I have my off days, when I can’t really be bothered to do anything, or I’ve had some bad news or argued with someone and decide to mope and binge on Netflix, but for the most part I’m pretty much fine. I have ‘bad days’ perhaps 25% of the time, and on these days, I literally cannot bear to leave the house. I feel physically sick at the thought of another human being looking at me, because I absolutely despise myself. I feel too exhausted to pull myself out of bed and get dressed. Even if I did have the energy, I fail to see any reason to engage with the world. I can’t imagine a worse human being than me. I feel entirely alienated from the entirety of the human race. I will never experience what other people experience, because I’m not capable of being human. Strong suicidal feelings come along with this, and I have tried to kill myself twice in the past. Even if I don’t try to end my life, I experience intensely strong suicidal ideation: I plan what I would do to end my life, and I think about the ways I could do it in order to make sure it minimises the pain to other people. When I’m not suicidal, I still tend to self-harm during these periods, typically by cutting myself. Over the past 12 months I’ve also developed a lot of anxieties around food, which seem to feature more and more in my depressive episodes. I go through cycles of binging and purging, and find it almost impossible to have a healthy attitude towards food. Even when I’m not feeling at rock bottom, I feel anxious about food and about eating – something about it feels invasive and unnatural, and I can’t reconcile myself to it. This, in turn, reinforces all the other anxieties I have about myself and about the world, and the cycle continues.

It’s so hard to explain to someone that you might be gregarious one day and unable to leave the house the next despite nothing in your circumstances having changed. There’s no physical pain, no neurological trauma, nothing, as far as anyone else can see, that would affect your ability to go outside and have a conversation. I think it’s this that makes depressive episodes in particular difficult for others to understand. When I’m ill, there’s nothing tangible that I really can explain. This also makes it so, so difficult to accept myself. Why have I felt compelled in the past to constantly harm myself with increasing severity, even attempting last year, in all sincerity, to take my own life? I think people can often forget the peripheral issues that come about as a result of suffering from an illness that will cause you, at worst, to kill yourself. It’s a deeply uncomfortable topic to talk about, and one of the reasons that I often feel so desperate to put up a wall between the ‘real’ me and the ‘ill’ me. I don’t want to accept that I am a human being who willingly and deliberately harms myself and tries to take my own life. I believe wholeheartedly in the sanctity of life, and all the uncomfortable connotations of that sentiment. How, then, can I be so hasty to desecrate the one life over which I have total control? The only answer I can find that allows me to sleep at night is that I don’t have control. That’s what my mental illness takes away from me: the control that I once felt I had over my life. I can rationalise every single reason why I shouldn’t do something, but then my neuropathy goes ‘click’, and I’m helpless.

This is a bit of a messy blog post, and deliberately so. It’s tempting to go back through it and polish it up a little, to try to restructure it and make it read more fluidly and prettily, but I think it’s important for discussion on the topic of mental health to be raw, honest, and perhaps a little bit vulnerable.

Silence

Last year, before I became jaded and disillusioned and left university, I wrote an essay on Roman Catholic liturgy in Hamlet. One paragraph was about the relationships between death and silence in the play, and unsurprisingly focused on Hamlet’s dying words:

I cannot live to hear the news from England,
But I do prophesy th’ election lights
On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice.
So tell him, with th’ occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited – the rest is silence. (5.2.339-43)

Hamlet’s silence is key throughout the play, and turns his inaction into the main action of the text itself. I was mainly interested in the way English translations of the traditional Requiem Mass were inserted into the play, so the silent requiem aeternam alluded to as Hamlet draws his final breath rather struck me. Silence and the unspoken seem naturally to couple both with religious expression in Hamlet, and in our attempts to understand the divine in a broader sense.

Silence in the Bible both fascinates and troubles me. The scriptures are full of challenging silences which often fall at points when we most need and desire explanation. One example which I heard recently in church is that in the story of Samuel. The Lord calls Samuel three times; three times, Samuel mistakenly believes the calls are coming from Eli, with whom Samuel is staying. This third time, however, Eli realises Samuel’s mistake and instructs him to listen to the Lord when he calls again. On the fourth call, God tells Samuel:

“Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering for ever.” (Samuel 1, 3.11b-14, NRSV)

This is a terrifying message to receive from God, yet Samuel gives no response. The narrative here, as in many other places, does not allow for the individual to respond to God, despite the harrowing nature of the exchange. Such silences are startling, and there is one particularly troubling one that I want to dwell on.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most well-known yet challenging passages in the Bible. God asks Abraham to abandon his paternal love and instinct and commit one of the most unnatural and disturbing acts imagine: murder his own son. Abraham, it should be noted, is not a silent character throughout scripture. Just four chapters prior, he has successfully interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah, sparing the lives of the innocent. He’s certainly has no aversion to debating God when he perceives injustice in the Lord’s actions and requests. But here, Abraham does as God asks, and does it in silence.

I’ve had several responses to this over the years, and I still can’t quite make up my mind what I think about it. It’s often lauded as a beautiful and moving story of Abraham’s unrelenting faith in God, but this feels like particularly hollow theology to me. Are we meant to love and respect a God who would test one of his children with something so horrific? What kind of benevolent Lord would ask someone to kill their child, just to see if they would? Is God really that selfish and insecure? How is it loving, or just? The response in the end is indeed merciful – God tells Abraham to stop, and instead sacrifice a ram – but that hardly seems to negate the horror in the preceding verses.

Another interpretation is that Abraham knew God did not truly wish for Isaac to be killed, and so Abraham acted in the knowledge and faith that he would not have to complete the act. This, too, feels hollow. If this view is correct, then what do we even gain from the narrative? What are we learning? There’s nothing remarkable, in this interpretation, in what Abraham does, not in what God does. They’re both acting out a meaningless charade, both knowing that the other is not sincere.

This leaves me viewing this as one of the most uncomfortable silences in the Bible. It is the moment when God is the most unreasonable, the most warranting of the often unfair description of Him as capricious and tyrannical, and yet we are given nothing but silence in response to it. It makes God seem unjust and unmerciful, and presents Abraham as terribly inconsistent, sometimes arguing against God’s unjustness and something abiding by it. Yet still, despite these apparent problems with the story, I find myself drawn to it again and again as an example of…what, exactly? I don’t know, but I’m constantly drawn back to and intrigued by it in a way I simply cannot articulate.

Choices, choices, choices.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve recently dropped out of university. I’m confident that this was the correct decision, and I don’t regret it. As I also mentioned, this has left me with an excess of free time. Great! Time to get into a better prayer routine, dedicate myself to my church, plough through my to-read pile, practise piano…but it also leaves me with a terrifying number of options which I’ve previously had no cause to consider. For the first time in my life, I have serious choices to make. Since I was about 15, I knew I wanted to do A levels, because I knew I wanted to go to university. I never really questioned this path (which is odd, really, considering the fact that nobody else in my family has done A levels or gone to university). Now, though, with that set progression and goal taken away, what on earth do I want to do with myself for the next few months? The next few years?

There’s a horrible amount of pressure on 20-somethings to find a purpose in life – not just purpose, but a purpose. “What do you want to do at university? Why? What career do you want? Where do you want to live? Do you want to get married? Will you have children?”. This creates the expectation that everyone my age should already have a set life plan, when in reality I think most people have no idea what they want to do. At the moment, I’m torn between studying theology, studying languages, studying nursing, leaving university for a few years and just focusing on being well in myself, getting married and having kids (not that I’ve found a willing partner in crime yet), becoming a nun, or none of the above. This, in theory, should be lovely. I have so many options! God, and mental health, willing, the world lays prostrate at my feet, and no power can stop me from choosing whatever will genuinely bring the most joy and meaning to my life. Instead of rejoicing in this, however, I feel paralysed.

There’s currently a great deal of research being done into the effect of the modern world’s glut of choice on people’s general wellbeing; the conclusion isn’t propitious. Barry Schwartz’s 2003 book The Paradox of Choice is a great exploration of the correlation between excessive choice and lessened wellbeing in the Western world. In a way, Schwartz argues, we were better off when we had less choice – we didn’t have dozens of career paths open to us, we didn’t have 90 different types of cereal to choose from at the supermarket – in short, we had a small, set number of options in life which could not be subverted. This goes against the most basic principles of our modern society, from basic consumerism to more important questions of social mobility. But, right now, I can only agree with him.

The truth is that I have no idea what I want. I don’t know what will make me happy. I have too many choices. By choosing one thing, I feel like I shut everything else off forever and commit myself to a path that might ultimately make me more miserable. It may come as a surprise to a lot of people that faith, rather than making this easier, is only increasing the difficulty of this consideration right now. I believe everyone has a vocation, but how am I supposed to know what God’s chosen for me? I don’t know how to best use my life to serve God. I don’t know if other people find it as easy as they make it appear, or if this is a perennial struggle for everyone of faith. It’s scary to think that there’s something right for me that I just can’t see. Am I letting God down by being so flittish? Is it okay for me to be this unsure? Am I just not trying hard enough to work out what to do? What if I make the wrong decision?

Somewhere, deep down, I do ultimately feel that God doesn’t mind me being so singularly hopeless and indecisive right now. God understands. God isn’t judging me. Maybe being so confused and indecisive right now is exactly what I should be doing, anyway. I’ve spent so many years being dead set on a certain path in my life – maybe this is God’s way of releasing me from such thinking, and allowing me to enjoy the entirety of life and consider possibilities which were previously closed off to me.

Right now, I have no real responsibilities or obligations. I have an abundance of time in which to begin a true process of discerning God’s will, considering the tens of options available to me each and every day, and discovering the best way to use my life to respect and glorify God. It is, indeed, both a precious gift and an impossible curse.