Wednesday, 23 October 2013


I'm borrowing, with great gratitude, this icon from Kirsten's Episodes and Interludes. It's a type of icon that originated in Macedonia and I was astonished to read, when tracking it down, that it's sometimes described as Our Lady with the Playing Child. It doesn't look like play to me...

I see an anguished mother struggling with a struggling child. An unbreakable bond of love between them - yet here she struggles to hold him and because of the inadvertent clumsiness and awkwardness of how they are together he grabs - or slaps? - her face.  Look at those eyes. Is she saying "No one told me it would be like this"? Or is she saying "This is how it always is this side of heaven"?

The joy and terror of her vocation. The pain and weariness of the journey and the birth. The tenderness and wonder of receiving and holding him. The prophecy of the sword. The losing and finding of the growing-up child. The rebuke and the miracle at the wedding. "Woman, behold your son".  The secret meeting on Easter morning (thank you, Ignatius!) too intimately wonderful to be told to the Gospel writers. Her life and his woven of Sorrowful, Joyful and Glorious mysteries. I don't want it to be like this. I don't like it. But as a kind friend told me in another struggling time, "it is what it is what it is what it is..."

Today my fingers were guided through the threads of Google to find this:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?

It's Kahlil Gibran.  A couple of days ago, maybe even last night, I might have dismissed it as trite and chucked the iPad across the room. But morning's a better time for me and this morning I'm quite glad to have found it. 

I'm still struggling. Some things still feel like a slap in the face (I've been revisiting bits of my past story). But, ultimately, it's not me doing the holding. Thank God.
And apologies if the spacing or anything else here looks a big odd. I think Blogger's struggling this morning too!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

On the edge...

Idly following threads which began in my inbox, I found this delightful picture this morning - here. Huge and happy h/t to Erik Kwakkel. And I enjoyed his comment about the monk's face peering out at us from the letter Q:
"The pilot, looking spooked, has mixed feelings about the empty margin his sparkly Q-plane is heading for, the wordless abyss that nobody ever returns from."

Margins, edges, borders and boundaries... Liminal spaces. Scary, challenging, creative, empty yet fertile... If you look at the little images of extraordinary hybrids and fantastic creatures drawn in the margins of many Mediaeval illuminated manuscripts (have a look here, for example) you'll see just what creative (and unsettling) places margins can be!

Esther de Waal has written an excellent book about the edge-places we may inhabit, called Living On The Border - it grew out of her reflection on living on the borders of England and Wales. She begins the book by saying this: "There is a traditional saying of ancient wisdom: 'a threshold is a sacred thing'. In some places of the world, in some traditional cultures, in monastic life, this is still remembered.  It is something, however, that we often forget today..."

I'm still thinking about what it meant for me to be a deacon and how I might now live out some of that charism in my new(-ish; nearly 14 years as a Catholic - I'm a slow thinker!) life. The deacon was always associated with the doors of the church - the door-keeper and go-between.  It's cold and uncomfortable to stand in the doorway, but it's a place of mission, of encounter, of transformation. A "sacred thing" indeed.  There is a huge paradox I'm still exploring of what it means for me to be grounded, nurtured, held and to belong (without that, I know, my growth will be stunted and my ministry weakened) and yet not to lose sight of my place in the doorway.

Pope Francis spoke in his Chrism Mass homily about the image of Aaron's anointing, and how the oil ran down to the edges of his garments. This is the centrifugal dynamic of ministry - out to the edges, always; its origin and template is the outpouring love of God - the oomph of God, as James Alison puts it. And it's in the threshold places we remember this. In speaking to a parish on the outskirts of Rome, Pope Francis even said that "reality is understood not from the centre but from the suburbs, the margins." 

So the little monk sails out into the margin in his letter Q, which begins a whole clutch of question words in Latin. A letter we'd rather not get in Scrabble, but which carries a high reward if we can use it.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

To the chemist's shop

From C S Lewis' Screwtape Letters: ...For the Enemy [i.e. God] will not be used as a convenience.  Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the Stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist's shop. 

Powerful and challenging words. They go with Lewis' notion of "Christianity and..."; I feel another blog post simmering about that (if I get around to writing it.  Blog friends - are any of you as disorganised as I am, having all sorts of ideas at odd moments but always putting off the discipline of writing them down?)

Anyway, back to the Stairs of Heaven and the chemist's shop. I do know, or think I know, what Lewis means. But maybe there's also a sense in which we do use the Stairs of Heaven to get to the chemist's shop - if we only realised it: a way that is the opposite of using God as a convenience, but is rather a way of "finding God in all things."  A way of realising that we stand on holy ground wherever we are, and behaving with appropriate reverence to the people and things we encounter. I suppose we're back to mindfulness again, and reverence for the present moment, but it's a mindfulness not turned in ourselves but an awareness of constant communion, constant dialogue with the Other and the other - God in and through all his creatures. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts it in Aurora Leigh:

No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim... Earth's crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God.
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

It's half way through October, the month of the Holy Angels.  "Turn but a stone and start a wing", as the hymn says. And soon it will be the thin, holy month of November - saints and souls. Look for the wings under the stones and the fire in the bush.

The picture above, by the way, is of one of my favourite chemist's shops - Barry Shooter in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. I always think of Lewis' quote there: just round the corner are the famous (and very steep!) Town Steps, and the top of those is the church of Our Lady and St Peter. At quiet moments in the Mass you can hear the cry of the gulls and when you come out of church you see the sea - beautiful and often wild - at your feet. Heavenly! And after Mass you can pop into the chemist's on your way to lunch.