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Monday
Oct212019

Bless

One of my favourite words in the English language is ‘bless’.

It was something my parents said often; ‘Ah, bless you,’ when someone did something thoughtful, or ‘Oh, bless her’ when they heard of someone going through a hard time.

These days, this has been abbreviated to ‘bless’ and is used by entirely secular folk, sometimes in the way mum and dad did, other times in a slightly patronising but fond way, for example in reference to someone who has paid with a cheque in an envelope, with a stamp, delivered by a postie.

If everyone in the world could use that beautiful word with genuine feeling, how different life would be. Bless is such a gentle word. Even if used in the patronising sense, it conveys not, ‘what a hopeless old fuddy duddy’ but rather something along the lines of, ‘how charming that there are still people today who post letters with cheques in them’.

The word comes into its own with prayer as well. More often than not, it’s impossible to know what to pray for. This might be if you are bringing the catastrophe of global warming to God, or the state of chaos and carnage in Syria, or maybe the marriage breakup of people you love dearly, when it’s not clear what the ‘best’ outcome would be.

So, when I pray for others, sometimes the only word I use is ‘bless’. I think of a person or situation, and I lay them at God’s metaphorical feet, and simply say ‘bless, bless, bless. I have no idea, most loving God, what to pray for, so bless, bless.’

The only time I have trouble with the word is when people say God has blessed them, for example, in finding a life partner or conceiving a child. These things can be blessings, without doubt, but I reject the sense that God is somehow singling them out for special treatment. What does that say about the faithful person who yearns to find a long love but never does? What does it say about the grieving childless one – has God turned God’s back on them? Life is full of utterly random wonder and devastation. Bad stuff happens, as does grace, and mostly it has nothing to do with how deserving or otherwise we are.

Despite this, the word bless continues to delight me, and not just as an aid to intercessory prayer. In the story described in Genesis chapter 12, God says to Abram, ‘I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing’. I treasure the abbreviation of this: ‘blessed to be a blessing’.

If we feel blessed, great, but feeling blessed isn’t an end in itself. We are blessed to be a blessing, so that God’s love, received with joy, is multiplied by being shared. We are not blessed simply for our own satisfaction and delight. We are blessed to be a blessing. And to hold the world up to God, even if the only word we use is ’bless’.

This was published in the September edition of The Melbourne Anglican

Sunday
Aug252019

Long, slow fashion

When my mum died, 21 years ago, I inherited a jacket I had always loved. It was a glowing peacock greeny blue, and she bought it when she and my dad lived in Dublin in the 1980s.  Inside it is a cloth label depicting a dinky little cottage nestled under a mountain. Two leafless winter trees, blue sky and wispy clouds are included in the picture, and underneath the cosy scene are these words:

‘Donegal Handwoven

This tweed was handwoven from pure new wool in my small cottage in County Donegal, Ireland. Like my forefathers, I have put something of my own character into this cloth: ruggedness to wear well, softness for comfort, colours from our countryside. Joy and health to you who wear this.’ Underneath is a proud flourish of a signature – W. McNelis.

There have been some profoundly disturbing articles in the media over the past year or so, and some confronting statistics. Such as the fact that 6000 kilograms of clothing are dumped in landfill by Australians every ten minutes. And that the average Australian buys 27 kilograms of new clothing and textiles each year. Our addiction to fast fashion, it would seem, is one of many practices contributing to environmental disaster.

Mum was all class; not conventionally beautiful but always elegant. She was never terribly well off, so she bought very little, but what she did buy lasted.

Like mum, I’ve never had a lot of disposable income. I’m an op shop fanatic, but have also been guilty, on occasion, of a department store shopping spree, bringing home a five-dollar T-shirt or three, something I can’t imagine mum ever doing.

Her jacket has survived serval moves and endless numbers of culls as I have attempted to accumulate less, travel lighter, declutter my wardrobe and my life. Although the lining is slightly torn, the coat is still toasty warm, and every time I wear it, I get appreciative comments. As W. McNelis wished, it does bring me joy. They don’t make garments like that anymore.

I have many of mum’s things still: the dinner set that was a wedding present in 1954, an antique wall hanging and a very old wooden and brass chest, both of which she bought in India. Like her jacket, they are treasured, and will, I hope, be passed on to my own offspring one day, along with the conviction that having fewer possessions and looking after them might go a small way towards saving the planet.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 25 August 2019

Monday
Aug122019

Looking for hope 

This weekend I am taking a train to a monastery in the west of the state, to stay a few days on my own.  It’s the best thing I can think of to do at the moment, ‘weary and worn and sad’ as I am, after a period of physical and emotional challenges to the ones I love the most and at the end of project managing a major conference.

It’s not just tiredness that’s besetting me, however. It’s a deeper malaise. My writing vocation that has brought such satisfaction no longer seems the clarion call it once was. Way more troubling is the state of the world. I am deeply despondent from reading daily of Trump and Brexit, domestic violence and Adani and detention for some of the most traumatised people on the planet. The world has always been a brutal place; the environmental crisis is not simply a game changer, it is likely to be the game ender. I can see no way out of oblivion, and our leaders seem not to give a toss. I almost envy the very old, who don’t have to see what comes next.

At some level, however, I know that the God I follow is the bringer of hope, even, perhaps particularly, out of harrowing situations. Hope that isn’t a cheesy ‘happy ending’, hope that will give me and other people of good will the energy and humour not to give up, to ‘mount up with wings as eagles; run, and not be weary; walk, and not faint’.

I also know from a lifetime of experience that the enemy of hopefulness is sometimes as simple as physical exhaustion. Sometimes the road back to hope starts with catching up on sleep.

For a contemplative introvert like me, hope is also restored by silence and solitude.  I have been on countless retreats over the last four decades; the last time I went to this particular monastery, I was heavily pregnant with a baby who is now 25. It was where I went in order to recoup from a life full of small children, a busy parish in the middle of a bustling country town. It is where I first stumbled upon the writings of John Main, founder of the World Christian Meditation Community, which has been one of the richest blessings on my Christian journey. I have memories of nothing but peace and rest there.

I go back as a 60-year-old knowing that the only thing I need to take with me is trust. I look back at the young woman whose life since my last visit has been chock full of joy and heartache and richness and, through it all, a steadily increasing awareness of the boundless love of God. I need to trust that the God who is love will meet me in the days I set aside, to restore my soul, in the process freeing and energizing me to be a more effective channel of God’s peace.

This was published in the August edition of The Melbourne Anglican

 

Tuesday
Aug062019

Is it possible to read too much?

Is it possible to read too much?

I get through around 80 books each year. My choice of reading covers everything from thrillers to theology, but overwhelmingly I read fiction.

‘You’re so good, the way you read so much,’ people sometimes say. But there’s nothing remotely noble about this endeavour. Reading for me is like eating chocolate; pure, unadulterated pleasure. I’m just lucky my favourite indulgence isn’t bad for me.

Sometimes, though, I wonder.

Knowing that I have a thing for Scottish Islands, a mate recently lent me a book set on a small island off the west coast of Scotland. ‘Thanks!’ I enthused. ‘I’ve never heard of this author. How is that I read all the time and am constantly discovering wonderful writers I’ve never heard of?’ and proceeded to read Now we shall be entirely free by Andrew Miller.

A week later, I was trawling over my ‘List of books read in 2019’ which I keep religiously at the back of my hard copy diary. Who should I see there but Andrew Miller, whose novel The Crossing I had gobbled up over the summer holidays?

It all came rushing back. Including a conversation with my husband, who had also enjoyed The Crossing when I had said ‘How is it that I read all the time and am constantly discovering wonderful writers I’ve never heard of?’

This was when I began to wonder if a person can over-read. I perused the list of books I’d read in the last six months and could barely recall the plots of any of them. I devour books (no coincidence that so many of the words used to describe reading – devour, insatiable, voracious, consume – are eating words) like a kid eats fairy floss, desperately, as though there were a risk that someone might forbid me. Like a chain smoker, if I don’t have my next book ready to go when I close the last page of the current one, I feel edgy and incomplete.

Of course, there are volumes I linger longingly over, the details of which are clear in my memory and will remain so. There are works I return to again and again. Mostly, though, I’m unable to stop myself tearing through fiction like there’s no tomorrow.

This is no virtue; it simply proves that if you love doing something enough, you’ll find the time to do it. As for whether it’s good for me to read quite so much, like any addict, I’m willing to risk it.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on Sunday 4 August

 

Wednesday
Jul242019

Bearing the sorrows

In this part of the world, Mothers’ Day comes hard on the heels of Good Friday, which seems apt to me.

I’ve no truck with the theory of substitutionary atonement. I can’t believe that a God whose other name is love required a blood sacrifice to render God’s own creation acceptable and no longer repellent. That’s not how I read the Gospels, nor is it the God I have experienced in a lifetime of faith.

So I’m not sure what to make of the language about Jesus on the cross ‘bearing the sins of the world’. The suggestion, however, that Jesus was bearing the sorrows and griefs of the world, makes perfect sense.

As I have said before, over and over, when the creation and its human creatures are in pain, God’s heart is the first to break. This is what I believe. And the closest I have come to this divine characteristic is in relation to my own offspring.

I remember as a teenager being distraught about a breakup with a boyfriend and saying to my sympathetic mother, ‘It’s alright for you, you’re happily married and you never have to go through this!’ Admirably, she restrained herself from commenting on my infantile notions of what a long marriage entailed. What she did say was, ‘We go through it all with you. That’s just as bad.’

Now I know what she means. One of the things you sign on for, when you become a parent, is the anguish of witnessing the suffering of your children without, usually, being able to do a damn thing about it. When they are little you can protect and shelter them to some extent. When they are grown, all you can do is try and be there when and as they need.

Now that all my offspring are well and truly adult and responsible for themselves, this grief intensifies. Over the last decade, when they have endured the normal, agonising slings and arrows of misfortune that even the most fortunate life dishes up, grieving for them has been the most painful thing I’ve had to do, more crippling than my own sorrows.

Not long ago, when another drama shook our family, I wailed to a close friend, ‘I don’t want to be a mum anymore. It hurts too much.’

Pain is not the emotion I primarily associate with parenthood. For me, overwhelmingly, mothering has been an experience of laughter and love. Furthermore, I’ve learnt profound lessons through the dark periods, and these have given me an insight into the way the God who is love feels about every last one of God’s creatures. And I am grateful for that insight.

There are as many ways to learn about God as there are human beings. The way of motherhood is no more sacred than any other. But it is a significant part of my calling, so it is one of the ways I learn about God’s love.

This was published in the July issue of The Melbourne Anglican