Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Abide with me

Continuing on the theme of comfort in the midst of transitions, departures, and death, this hymn struck me today:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word;
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus bide with me.

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

-Hen­ry F. Lyte, 1847

Monday, July 26, 2010

Death is not our home

As I mentioned once when a friend was shot, I have a tendency to respond to death by railing against it, which ought to strike me a bit like railing against the ocean for lapping up on the shore. “Death is natural,” people would reason with me. “Death is just a part of life.” “This world is not our home.” “Our citizenship is in heaven.” “He has gone on to a better place.” (Etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.)

I was never sure what exactly I was protesting. On the surface, after all, these adages were true, and I certainly had no argument against them other than the fact that my spirit kept rejecting them like a failed organ transplant. If death was indeed as natural as it seems to be, why would it shock us as it does? If this world was not our home, why would we have to keep reminding ourselves of the fact?

It didn’t help that Scripture is not half as clear on the topic as we make it out to be. It was downright frightening to imagine all the unsatisfying sorts of resolutions that could fit within the vague descriptions of the afterlife that were given to us by a God who never seems to spell the future out as clearly as we expect him to.

If this were a theological blog, that would have been a great set-up to introduce N. T. Wright, whose eschatology (theology of the end times) regarding the New Creation and the Resurrection (of us) I found to be quite healing after my years of railing. (He infamously says that “Heaven is not our home; we’re just passing through”—as we wait for our coming bodily resurrection in the transformed earth.) For now at least, I am friends with too many Biblical scholars to feel comfortable presenting Wright’s eschatology. Let’s just say that I have found great hope in the belief that just as the material creation fell (not only our souls) and just as Christ’s material body was raised from the dead (not only his soul), we are awaiting the restoration of the material creation (not only the spiritual), the resurrection of our material bodies (not only... well, you get the idea).

On the contrary, this is still my listening-blog, and yesterday as I sat through a funeral hearing my rector encourage the grieving family with the emphatic hope that the dead man had gone on to his true home where we would eventually spend eternity with him as well, I forbade myself from questioning his eschatology. Instead, I remembered my sister-in-law’s grandmother who died this past spring. When her son talked to her a bit about the possibility of a bodily resurrection, the dying Appalachian woman simply brushed him off by interjecting, “I don’t know what will happen, but as long as Jesus is in charge I know it will be good.” After a long life of walking beside Jesus, she had confidence in his goodness, and it was enough to face the unknowns on the other side of death.

I may not ever be graced with the simplicity of faith that Appalachian woman had, the faith that could find comfort in adages about heaven or that would not care either way. I’m grateful at least that in the Church my overly-intellectual faith can learn from her simplicity, that her confidence in the person of Christ can shed hope on my endless queries. As I learned from my unsettled spirit, a robust eschatology is important; as I learned from that grandmother, intimacy with Christ is more important.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Dwarven Hermeneutics

In the past two months, I joined the Catholic Church, moved out of my cottage, submitted my first potential article for publication, spent a month in Ireland, bought a house in the Midwest, and enjoyed a week at the beach with my family. My brain has not been able to function more than one or two steps ahead.

Suddenly, as the dust of the past two months settles, the next step is my move across the country to start my PhD at a school I never expected to get into, and I am realizing something for the first time: I am afraid. Though my transition into academia surprised neither my friends nor my family, it still does surprise me, and I have a keen awareness that I have no idea what I am getting myself into or where it will take me.

I am quite a little girl with a finite brain stepping out into a world of intellectual giants. I feel like Bilbo Baggins, stumbling out the door with no hat, no stick, no pipe, not even a pocket handkerchief. But here's to the unplanned adventure, and here's to hoping for some Longbottom pipe weed along the way!
There were days when giants roamed the earth
With minds of iron, hearts of witty fire,
And we have tread their steps, for what that's worth,
Like bumbling dwarves aspiring to admire.
But in the caverns of these footprints, we
Have chiseled half with hubris, half with awe,
And nestled in sophomoric flattery,
Pontifications on the dirt we claw.
And I have trembled half with terror, half
With love, and stumbled on my hobbit toes,
Afraid to find a troll along the path,
Discovering as he nears he also grows.
Be gentle, giant, if ambition's charming
From a midget seeking her disarming.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Southern Welcome

After a day of recovering from jet-lag, I drove from my parents’ house in the country to the nearby city to run a few errands (finding that I was never quite sure which side of the road to drive on after five months in Ireland). The South gave me a (literally!) warm hello.

I began my stroll congratulating myself for losing the limp I had maintained for the past four weeks after an ill-fated leap from the ruins of a castle. “Hey,” shouted a construction worker from the roof of a house, “you got a bit of a limp there! Is it a ball injury?” Oh well.

Lest I suspect the alleged limp was only momentary, an hour later another stranger stopped me with genuine concern in his voice. “Are you okay?” he asked. “You’re limping there! Do you need help?”

One of my last errands involved some repair work for my car. I dropped car off and waited in the waiting room for my mom to pick me up. The summer heat was bordering on oppressive outside (or so I thought... those who had been around all summer commented later that the day was rather mild), and we in the waiting room were thankful for the AC.

“Do you want a coke or water or anything?” the man behind the counter asked the three of us as we waited. (“Coke,” incidentally, refers to any carbonated drink, called “soda” or “pop” or “soft drink” in other American cultures.) We all turned him down. Five minutes later another employee asked us the same thing. Again we turned him down. When the third employee offered a beverage, I finally accepted a water to keep them from offering. It didn’t work; I was asked a fourth time.

On our way home, we stopped at a rural produce stand. The owner greeted us warmly and kept chatting us up while we browsed, throwing a couple extra items in for free when we checked out. “Come by anytime,” he told us as we left. “If I’m not here, just take what you want and leave some money in the can.”

As I returned to my parents' house, I knew that the South had welcomed me home, that Southern hospitality was still fit to rival the Irish hospitality I had been enjoying for the past month. In this case, all the hospitality offered came from strangers, all people who had never seen me before and would likely never see me again. Southerners are not hospitable out of self-interest, out of a calculated investment with a hope of return. They are not even hospitable in an enlightened attempt to make the world a better place, to do their part to benefit the common lot of humanity. From what I have been able to tell from the past 22 years, Southerners are overtly hospitable simply because that is the decent way to be.

Oh my beloved South, how I shall miss thee!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Delightful misery

“Why Padraic, how are you now?” the cheerful Irishman asked as we navigated the isles at Tesco on our work-day at the priory.

“Terrible, terrible,” the priest answered brightly as if he had won the lottery, “but nobody cares now, do they? And how are you?”

“Truthfully about the same, but isn’t that always the case?” came the chipper, polite answer. “But you can’t complain about the weather we have today at any rate. What are you here for?”

“This young lady and myself are getting an apartment ready for some visitors tomorrow,” Fr. Padraic began, and the conversation never returned to their mutual miseries.

The Irish are without a doubt the most delightfully miserable people I have ever met. Their suffering is quite real and never forgotten, but that is somehow not enough to ruin an otherwise lovely day (or even to worsen a rainy one).

As I commented last year, the Irish wear suffering like a well-worn t-shirt. It is unmistakably present, but has become so well-worn over time that it could almost be considered comfortable. After all, there is always tea to greet the morning and beer to greet the night, and perhaps even a few cigarettes to get you from one to the other.

Of course, I don’t mean to minimize their pain and oppression over the centuries, to brush it aside and gloss over the raw evil of it. But they sort of do that for me.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

This is the will of God...

'Tis the season of transitions: graduations, moves, new jobs, new programs, new unknowns. In this season, I am always struck when people declare "God's will" for their (or my) future. Here are a few that have struck me and given me pause this week.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
-I Thessalonians 5:16-18

Yes, it is his will that we see and enjoy everything in love. And it is in our ignorance of this that we are most blind. Some of us believe that God is almighty, and may do everything; and that he is all wise, and can do everything; but that he is all love, and will do everything—there we draw back. And as I see it, this ignorance is the greatest of all hindrances to God's lovers.
-Julian of Norwich.

May you filled with the immense joy of the Lord. May it lighten your steps every day of your life. May you forever be aware that the peace of the Risen Christ surrounds, protects and guides you and that God's will for yourself and all people is quite simple: to be happy, always happy in the Lord.
-Fr. Padraic

Sunday, July 11, 2010

But all shall be well

One day my soul may be wide enough to take in the mystics. In the mean time, I have nevertheless managed to find encouragement in Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love, and the intimacy described therein provides balance for my all-too-intellectual approach to the Faith. This paragraph struck me yesterday. I don't know if this is the kind of statement that can start a fight ("Are you saying that sin does not exist?" or "Are you saying God does not hold us accountable for sin?"), and I don't mean to tread dangerous ground. But I at least find it healing to remember that my sin is a twistedness rather than a contrary force of evil, and that God looks at my sin with the compassion of a doctor rather than the sternness of a judge.
But I did not see sin. I believe it has no substance or real existence. It can only be known by the pain it causes. This pain is something, as I see it, which lasts but a while. It purges us and makes us know ourselves, so that we ask for mercy. The passion of our Lord is our comfort against all this—for such is his blessed will. Because of his tender love for all those who are to be saved our good Lord comforts us at once and sweetly, as if to say, “It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” These words were said most tenderly, with never a hint of blame either to me or to any of those to be saved. It would be most improper of me therefore to blame or criticize God for my sin, since he does not blame me for it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Misfit Mortality

This poem comes from a more melodramatic stage of my writing, but the subject of death is rather conducive to such a style at any rate. I wrote it five years ago when it looked like my mother had cancer; for some reason, the death of my dog reminds me of these lines, awkward and choppy though they may be.

July 1, 2005
It seems our life is but a struggle we
Will lose with death, for but a moment here,
Like grass on rocky crags that fights with fear
Until the mudslide wins supremacy.
“But death is natural,” they say to me,
Like incantations echoing to sear
It on our disbelief. Nay, it is clear
That breath is; death we taste unnaturally.

With spirits that reject what bodies taste,
We fight what Reason knows we can’t defeat.
“This world is not our home,” they say in haste...
“But still it could be,” adds a homesick breeze,
“For maybe once it was,” his heart agrees,
And proves man is a longing piece of meat.

Groaning together

Rahab was born the summer when I was sixteen, a tiny, blind, black sausage. I was in the room when she arrived. I loved her because she was the smallest of the litter. I loved her because she was the blackest. I loved her because she took a liking to me, and while her wiggly brothers and sisters squealed away, she would nestle in my hands and fall asleep there peacefully. Rahab chose me as much as I chose her.

She was mine, still the only dog I have ever had that was fully my own. I trained her. I slept with her. I took her camping at night and slept soundly in the woods, waking with the alert German Shepherd having hardly moved an inch beside me. I understood her timid, self-conscious personality quirks. I empathized with the way that she carried love and fear together like a hand and glove, with the way she longed for encouragement and shrunk from disfavor.

This evening, less than a week before returning to the US, I received the word that my 11-year-old dog is dead. I don’t know if I’ll ever be old enough to lose an old friend well, but today is not that day at any rate. I will miss my Rahab.

The death of an old dog should come across as an entirely natural event, a regular phenomenon for my strange demographic of humanity that cares for smaller creatures with shorter life-spans. Nevertheless, as my soul utterly rejects the news as if it came from a cheap, tasteless dime-store novel written by an author with no internal consistency or artistry, I can’t help but think that death is wrong, even if it is real.

I wonder if the death of animals is an example of creation groaning with us in the pains of childbirth as we await the fullness of redemption. Perhaps it is. Creation groans, Rahab groans, I groan: Come, Lord Jesus; something has gone terribly wrong out there!
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Nothing covered up

Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.
-Luke 12:2-3
We felt like we were in a war-zone right away. On one side of the river we were welcomed into the city with red, white, and blue and a sign that read “Londonderry – West Bank – Loyalists Still Under Siege – No Surrender.” On the other we were greeted by green, white, and orange and a sign that read “You Are Now Entering Free Derry” to introduce a host of disturbing murals commemorating the victims of Bloody Sunday (1972) and the Troubles. The tension was almost palpable.

I had come to Derry to deliver a gift to a Franciscan friar, and had failed to connect the city I was visiting with the news of the previous week: 38 years after the shootings in Derry that had served as an iconic representation of the Troubles, the Saville Report had just been published a week earlier, and the British government officially recognized the killings as atrocities.

The killings had become burned in the Irish memory, a travesty of justice white-washed by the perpetrators which, even if extreme, was certainly an iconic example of what they suffered throughout the centuries. Over lunch on Sunday I was struck by two things: how present the pain still is (an Irish couple described the sheer terror they had experienced whenever they had to drive through the North and stood the risk of being shot if they failed to notice a road blockade), and how much an apology makes a difference nonetheless. Present pain not withstanding, there were seeds of hope and goodwill.

Though there is nothing pragmatic about it, no tangible removal of consequence, confession is nevertheless powerful. When a party can strip its pride and dignity to say “I was absolutely wrong,” can expose hidden (in this case, quite ineffectively) wrongs to the light, can do so even when they are decades old and even if the admission is not forced, there is a place for healing. Some wrongs cannot be “made right”; they can only be admitted to be wrong. And no wrongs are private wrongs; all are public, and can only be healed publicly.

This past weekend, I was given hope for that healing in Northern Ireland, and it was beautiful indeed.

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A few recommended articles: