Thursday, 25 August 2016

The school of love

Life is school.  This bothers me, I don't like school, but life is a school; a school of love.  We are here to learn how to love and we finish our training with death.  There are no repeats if we don't get it right first time, if we don't do as well as we ought to have done. At the moment of death, the stark reality of the depth of our love will be made known, and that is the 'grade' we will have for eternity.  There is no increasing this grade after our bodies have been separated from our souls.

This school throws challenges our way and all we are asked to do is respond with love and in responding with love, learn even more about love and how to love.  Some challenges are part of everyone's curriculum and discipline; the boring everyday work of growing in virtue, the discipline of regular prayer, the 'duties of state' we must undertake and do well and do with goodness in our hearts.

Some challenges are more random and we may wish never to experience them, but they will happen.  Sometimes they are life changing 'accidents', like being caught up in earthquakes, floods or severe illness.  God doesn't coldly sit on His heavenly throne and say: hmm today I'll send an earthquake and see how my little ones react.  Earthquakes happen, floods happen, illness happens.  The fabric of the universe is broken and the cause of that brokenness is our first disobedience and every sin, even minor ones are capable of ripping that interconnected, beautifully weaved, delicate beyond measure fabric to shreds.  It is only God's mercy that prevents this from happening.  But the earthquakes and floods don't mean God as stopped being merciful or somehow forgot to be merciful to prevent them happening. They are part of our school of love.

Most things we learn at school aren't the things on the curriculum or things carefully incorporated into the timetable.  And this is how it is in the school of love.  Random things come our way and the challenge is to respond by putting God first and responding with love.  We cannot plan for them.

Some challenges are part of our vocation.  A vocation is a known path to the Kingdom of God, and there are really only three; priesthood, consecrated religious life and marriage.  God gives us a path to follow, and that path becomes our means of sanctification and everything that happens subsequently is part of that vocation.  Many of the 'lessons' on this course are interior struggles.  Many of the 'lessons' seem nearly cruel, of would be cruel if you didn't respond to them with love. For some, the vocation never gets off the ground, it is never 'consummated' on earth, but the rebellion against it and the battling with the enemy who hates it are what brings us to God.

I was married to a man who should have been a priest, though he never made it through seminary.  But the priesthood was his vocation, God doesn't make mistakes [that men enter the priesthood who shouldn't is not of His doing].  It doesn't mean our marriage was invalid, it doesn't lessen the vocation of marriage, it doesn't mean our marriage wasn't fruitful in love and loving witness to God (even if it was childless).  But as we grew in our faith (returning to the older rite of Mass had a massive impact), he remembered his vocation and he became more and more wounded.  He saw how the enemy had constantly put horrendous things in his way (most of which he submitted to, including sexual abuse in seminary) so that his vocation eventually became an impossibility (before he met me he'd procured an abortion for someone and that is automatic disqualification from the priesthood). But the vocation was still there, and the longing in his heart grew, and he just handed it over to God as the strain on his body became too much.  My husband had taken on probably the most difficult classes in the school; the class of failure and disappointment.  This class leads to God, it cannot fail but lead to God, if you respond with love. He died beautifully.

I'm not sure whether I too am on that path of failure and disappointment. I'm not sure where I am, or why things are as they are for me. I don't even know what my classes are in the school of love though I do feel like many of the classes I am attending are not ones I should be at. I don't think I'll ever be more than a mediocre pupil in this school but I am a fighter and there are some things that I know I must fight for even if I lose.

Friday, 19 August 2016

What I'm really thinking....

Public examination results for the UK's senior school age pupils are out this week and next.  For various reasons, professional and personal, I get to hear about a lot of the results.  I think I'm supposed to rejoice with the happy and commiserate with the not-so-happy.  I find it all so difficult and do my best to hide from having to act in this way.

My big problem is that to me it has such a hollow ring to it and I'm reminded in particular of three deaths.

Two pupils I have taught (separated by years and location) who were recognised nationally for their intelligence and aptitude were dead within a year of their results (misadventure and natural causes) and a third who'd never been recognised for much but who was a gentle, sensitive soul committed suicide at this time, fearful of what lay beyond the safe envrionment of school.

So excuse me, my dears, if the smile on my face as you tell me how well you have done looks a little fake; it is.  I want, like St Philip Neri, to question you as you tell me your plans, I want to say like him: and then what.......? and I want to repeat it and repeat it until you see that something is missing.

You see, my dears, you are living a lie and one I (as a teacher) am partly responsible for propagating.  The lie is self-betterment, self-determination, achievement and progress.  The lie is that you are climbing a ladder, one rung at a time and you have it in you to reach all the way to the top, and that reaching the top of that ladder is somehow important. The lie is to believe in your results, that they are part of who you are, that they help you become more of who you are. Don't most school assemblies echo this sentiment?  And even if you happen to be religious, there is a danger you are turning God into your own little "genie in Cath Kidston bag", something to charm you up the ladder and see to your needs and your goals.

And, my dears, life is so much better than this, the only progress we are celebrating with your results is the fact that you are becoming more likely to end up an overworked apparatchik of the God-less state.

So instead, tell me about your creativity; tell me that you still paint or sew, write poetry or play in a band.  Tell me about the work you do with your hands; the things you have made, the creatures you have nurtured.  Tell me you see enchantment in the world.  Tell me you love life and the more you live it the more you love, even amongst illness and death and difficult things. Tell me you love learning for its own sake, not for qualifications.Tell me you love doing nothing; tell me you can rest and be content. And then perhaps you are finding the God who loves you so much.

And if I see a glimmer of genuine happiness in you, then I too will be happy and the sad stares of those who have died will not haunt me as much as they do.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Today

Today is the 395th anniversary of the natale of my one of my patrons, St John Berchmans and the 48th anniversary of my conception.  I celebrate his sainthood, it would be a bit odd to celebrate one's conception as well as one's birthday, and as one gets older, birthday celebrations get more and more muted. I got 3 birthday cards this year (4 if you count an e-card from Sergio Aguero and everyone at MCFC). However, Saint John came to find me a few years ago (I did not pick him, he found me) and guided me through some difficult times. It was only more recently when I discovered the coincidence in the dates, that I have got to wondering if our conceptions aren't somehow celebrated in heaven.

I never paid any attention to my conception until one night when a teenager, I'd come home from some grotty Manchester music venue on the last train to find my parents still up and somewhat merry on fermented grape juice. (I've never understood the fascination with wine).  Mum, disgusted as I 'fragranced' the kitchen with the stench of beer, sweat (I was a mean if somewhat unorthodox regular on the dancefloors) and cigarette smoke, blurted out "anyway you were a burst condom and it was your father's fault".  She then proceeded with an unrepeatable tale involving a hairdryer, clothespegs and the scarcity of prophylactics in Ireland.

This tale had a strange effect on me. I found God. I mean, if my parents hadn't been planning me, but I came into their lives, I was still planned, I was still wanted and it was God who wanted me to be conceived at that time, on that day, with those parents (whom He must love greatly in giving them to me).... for His good purpose.

He shoots, He scores.
So, what exactly is God's good purpose for me? He's not for saying, but He is leading me on. Where to? I don't know, but He is in charge.  I think I might know, but it is best not to say.

St John Berchmans, who by the grace of God, found holiness in the ordinary 'duties of state' done with love, pray for me.


Friday, 5 August 2016

irreversibility


This started off as a much needed clear out of my late husband's stuff.  Stuff had to be burned.  Much of his research work involved interviewing category C prisoners, this was stuff that needed obliterating.  I'd successfully seen to all the digital material some years ago.  The volumes of paper needed tackling. Today seemed like a good day.  The farmers were doing something similar in the nearby fields.  A bit more smoke wouldn't be noticed.

Paper doesn't burn very well. There is an art to keeping the incinerator going and stopping it smoking.

I like the irreversibility of burning.  Stuff just goes.

It was just a bit more difficult letting go of my own stuff.  Several weeks back the cottage had a serious attack of mildew.  It was virtually overnight.  I told one of the men in black and he raised a thoughtful eyebrow and suggested I get the place reblessed.  He may be onto something, he may not.  One has to be careful who one prays for, there can be consequences, but if the worst the enemy can do is make a mess of my furniture and stain a wall, then so be it. Praising God, liberal doses of Old Rite Holy Water and a dehumidifier work wonders. The alternative theory for the mildew was a man-made change in the microclimate around the north facing wall which is made of very porous chalk lumps. The sad thing was that the sum total of all my academic work in Physics was left a soggy, stinky mess; from A'level to the completion of my Thesis the whole lot, gone.  It wasn't in a great state before this, it had been stored in various unsuitable places over the years. Digitally, there was nothing apart from some 3 and 1/2 inch floppy discs (showing my age). My achievements were all on paper.

It was the burning of the rotten lab books that really hurt.  Damn, I was good! I was neat, I was thorough and the work was cool.  I have just one academic paper to my name.  There should have been more.  Those lab books mostly contained work I was doing for greater beings, higher up the food chain than I. One never gets any credit for doing this type of work.

I now have nothing to show for my life in my late teens and well into my twenties.  It has all gone.  Perhaps one day this will feel liberating.  Right now it hurts, oh the vanity, oh the pride!  Though the irony of my main love in Physics being the Second Law of Thermodynamics, irreversibility and Entropy has not been lost on me.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Family (3)

Last year I went to my father's birthplace, the reason for going had little to do with family but it ended up being an important trip to 'lay some ghosts to rest'.  My visit coincided with the Chinese festival of the Hungry Ghosts and there were constant reminders of the dead and remembrances of the dead. The Taoist devotions are colourful (I love Chinese Opera), but to me their underworld is a very real hell.  It has overlords and material goods are constantly needed for the happiness of the dead and the overlords need keeping 'sweet'. I have no living family left in that part of the world and I felt like I was walking with the dead as I travelled through the back streets away from the tourist routes, retracing my grandfather's trips to work and visiting the cafes my grandparents had frequented since before the Japanese Occupation.  I went to the churches where they heard Mass, were married, acted as godparents to a significant part of the area's Catholic population. Praying before the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succor that my grandfather had prayed infront of every day of his working life, I felt like I was stepping back into his past and offering prayers for his intentions, and there was peace in praying for those.  I was praying for those who went missing during the war, praying for the victims of the war and the Communist insurrection that followed and I prayed for my blood family, Taoist and Catholic, the figures in the shadows, those hardly talked about, the fugitives from China, the murderer, the abused, the good, the heroic and the wicked.

This year, there is a calling to do the same in my mother's birthplace, Dublin.  There is even less of a narrative for me to go off here.  My grandmother disowned her own family except for one aunt who came over to England and was living on the Wirral. My mother is an only child and the narrative she tells is never consistent.  Grandfather was an engineer and a gentle man and grandmother a fiercely independent and head-strong, self-made woman who ran her own fashion house, I remember them well but we never discussed our history. I simply don't know what pain there was in my family's past in Ireland, just that everybody seemed to be running away from something and I just want to go and stare it in the face.

 And that seems to be the point, I know there are some deep wounds, but the story behind them has got lost and indeed is not important because the telling of any tale distorts the truth and it becomes legend. Place is important and walking streets and visiting places of significance can do much to heal wounds if approached prayerfully (it certainly worked in Penang). 

Dublin is also the place of my own birth.  I feel the need to connect to that too, there is something restless in my own soul, some connection with place that needs to be reestablished.  I need to visit places important in my own history: it is almost as if I'm being told to 'go home' one last time, pick something up that I carelessly left behind and have forgotten about but will recognise when I see it and wonder how I ever survived without it..... Or perhaps I simply have too much time to think.....
The Rotunda maternity hospital in Dublin, where my journey of bewilderment and 'wrong turns' started over 47 years ago.
*****