I ain’t no mystic (On suffering and the nature of ‘mystical’ resistance)

I’ve been besotted of late by a young Argentinian nun, called Sister Cecilia Maria. Before I was ordained I was planning my sabbatical (for Methodist presbyters ten years after ordination) I wanted very much to go to Latin America and meet with liberation theologians and women of faith so I was drawn to Cecilia Maria immediately. 

Photos of the sister appeared on social media last year when many people noticed how, as she lay dying in hospital, her face showed the brightest of smiles. It turns out that it was not just in her dying, but also in her living that this smile shone. Shining like a star. In every photo I could find of her there was this smile broad and welcoming, inviting and somehow mysterious – if a smile can be such? Her appearance was of someone who was utterly taken up with joy, in the truest sense of the word. The internet was full of the holiness of this woman, her prayerfulness, her “holy face”. 

Her smile made me smile too, in part because I ain’t no mystic but I know her secret. Sister Cecilia Maria practised a profound form of resistance. 

The world tells us that physical illness is something to fear, an experience into which we are thrown, tumultuous and violent – the very last thing any of us would seek for ourselves or any other. The world is right, it’s shit. It hurts. It’s hard. It makes you cry unexpectedly. The world is right illness is horror. Mr-smells-of-ciggerettes-registrar, has just been to consent me for a surgery, I like this man greatly but when I see him I am reminded of the day more than a year ago, when he came into the high dependency unit pulled the curtain round and reopened my surgical wound with just his fingers to expediently get out sepsis. This is illness, it’s horrific and it messes with your mind as much as your body. It’s scary and dark and incredibly lonely, never doubt it.

However I believe it is possible to practise a form of resistance, to shut out the labels the world seeks to shove onto the sick (poor, brave, tragic, weak, needy, pitiable) and chose to find places, spaces and faces of joy. To notice God in the midst of immeasurable sadness and to be so enveloped and caught up in love that our faces – our words – our attitudes- radiate the shining of the stars in the heavens above. Don’t get me wrong, on Sunday night as I vomited a litre of bile and blood all down my favourite (designer chic) pyjamas I was not radiating some holy light – apart from the rosy cheeks which suggested a raising temperature. I’m not some kind of real life denying holy woman. I know though that Sarah the clinical support worker who mopped me up with such sweet gentleness and care enveloped me in a holy kind of compassion; the junior doctor who looked much like Harry Potter clearly overawed by the size of my (now 5) files and was at least ten years younger than me patted my arm and called me ‘love’ a crass but humbling attempt at pastoral care like bambi learning to walk it enveloped me in a kind of holy generosity; the housekeeping lady who shuffled round my bed so quietly the next morning so as not to wake me from my fitful rest and today in a warm Caribbean accent declared “Girl you look a million dollars better” – that’s God right there, enveloping me in holy love. 

Like me, Sister Cecilia Maria liked to write and in many photos of her she has her notebook, when she was no longer able to speak she used it to continue to communicate with her community the discalded Carmalite sisters in Santa Fe, and her family. She wrote of her journey with God as a person given over to faithfulness to the Church and as a disciple who was suffering increasing physical pain and I suspect some psychological pain too. One quote from her writing strikes me particularly right now, “When you obey, even with the small things, how peaceful you feel inside, it is truly beautiful because you start to know Him, he talks to you in your conscience in the secret of your heart.” 

My obedience is always to notice God, in the dark and the light places, spaces and faces. Small obedience just to notice but a huge act of mystical resistance to the powers that threaten to overcome. This way we can be both really living and living really, rooted in deep suffering and smiling like the shining of the stars. 

Lista p’la proxima batalla! Ready for the next battle. 

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Dear Church of England,

I know that before I was born you began talking, sharing a conversation with my tribe. The established church and the free church desiring to work together whether in pragmatism or in some spirit of a Church family greater than our own tribe. It fell apart a bit for us when the question of episcope arose, particularly around that time – episcope with or without vaginas. You see we don’t have bishops in the Methodist church in Britain, but we do have vaginas and some of the possessors of this anatomy minister in senior roles. You have those now too and I’m pleased.

I’m sure there’s a way forward for us as travelling companions engaged in the mission of God but I doubt it’s more than that. You see we are different. Not always differently good and definitely not just differently bad. We are different. Same journey different bodies. On some days I am obese and prone to breathless walking, self indulged and focused inwardly, the gospel journey tiresome and extraneous to my body. On other days I almost forget my aching knees as I am overtaken by the sights, sounds, experiences while I walk briskly towards divinity. That’s my body; Methodism, different every day. You too, as you wander or waddle alongside me, Anglicanism, you’re a bit of a giant sometimes lumbering awkward, sometimes arching your back with grace as you move forward. We walk together but we are not the same although we are both bodies.
I know this mostly because of how you understand and respond to human sexuality in your body. You had some conversations recently, shared conversations to help  you respond to what you have termed the ‘issue’ of human sexuality. It was an encouraging task your body entered into, to listen and to hear the thoughts and views of the many parts of your body, to hold such thoughts in the light of the divine and to see where you may end up.

You didn’t ask me to share in the conversation. I’m sure some of my non-conformist siblings (the ones who have climbed our invisible deniable hierarchical structures) were asked and engaged in your shared conversation, a nod toward the necessary ecumenism the photo prime place of many men dressed in black pretending each other’s ordination vow is as valid as their own. I didn’t share in shared conversation though, not formally, not intentionally, so I thought I would even though it seems your conversation may have concluded. Of course it is your conversation, not mine, I just walk along side you a different body on the same journey.

In my Methodist body I have known us ashamed of our nakedness and afraid to name our usually hidden parts, who wouldn’t be, no one wants to be exposed. We seem to be moving on from this strange inbuilt sense of shame and fear to recognising sexuality as being part of Gods creative gift to us. We also have begun to recognise how deeply damaging and hurtful sexuality can be when misused and abused, when mixed up with power, control and violence. Sexuality in our body is intimate. Sexual orientation forms a part of our sexuality, but it’s also to do with love in ways that are greater than the gender of whom we are attracted. For some members of our body their sexual orientation means they have fallen in love with someone of the same gender as them; for other members of our body their gender is not so clear cut as being called male or female; for some members of our body their sexuality is horribly damaged by the actions of others; for some members of our body identifying themselves as sexual beings is just too much, too difficult; for yet others there are centuries of theological and institutional teachings on sex, sexuality, sexual orientation and gender to still reflect on and figure out. And then there are are many, many other circumstances.

We don’t have a perfect comfortable or entirely happy attitude towards human sexuality. We had some conversations too, there are more still to be had, I don’t know where we will end up. However we did do something which you have thus far failed to do and that why I will walk with you but I can’t be part of your body in any greater way – not unless or until you too reach this place we are in.

We decided we would love all our parts without judgement or suspicion. I know sometimes it may not feel like it but we are trying from here in the muddy grass roots to over there in our invisible hierarchy we are trying to do what we have promised. If you are called to ordained ministry in the Methodist church in Britain and you fall in love and get married or enter into a civil partnership whether that be with someone of a different or the same gender to you then we will love you and give thanks for your relationship, you are no more or less called into ordained ministry.

We will love all our parts without judgement or suspicion, no need to interview anyone about what sexual activity they are engaging in.

We will love all the parts of our sometimes lazy, sometimes beautiful body. We are walking the same road, two different bodies and I feel sad today that you cannot love your own body (and though I can hear some of your parts tell me it’s not my place ) as we walk together Methodism has a huge responsibility not just to love its own body but to love yours too, until you can. Loving our neighbour, all of our neighbours parts.

Looking good you say? 

I recently changed my profile photo on one of my social media accounts. The photo was nothing special, not posed or glammed up for an occasion or lively night out. Instead whilst I was recovering from what for many would be a short stroll – I sat on a quite comfortable chair in a city centre pub my friend took a quick photo of me on a smart phone. I just managed to smile in time. 

Unremarkable. However the photo when it became my profile picture generated over a hundred “likes” and a selection of overwhelmingly positive comments about how I looked. In part, this is a kind response or celebration of the fact I’m not dead. It’s also an act of encouragement to a sick body which looks very different than it did twelve months ago. It is about how I look though one way or another. 

I wonder if there are any embodied ones out there who, at some time or another, have not struggled in some way with the aseathic of their body? At some point in our lives I believe each of us asks some fairly basic but fundamental questions about the relationship between how we look and how much we are valued. I don’t like that this link is made so easily but it is the reality of the society and culture in which we find ourselves and for some of us those questions are not easily resolved and they stay lurking around tormenting our minds, sometimes motivating our actions for a lifetime. I have wondered if it is possible to overturn the ways in which we understand our bodies so that we might perhaps be less damaging to ourselves and others. 

I write sometimes about how our story, our narrative is “written” on our bodies, our suffering and our celebration, laughter lines, stretch marks, scars, decorations; experiences represented in the body. Of course not everything leaves a mark but perhaps it shapes the way in which you stand tall or stoop low, confidently arriving in a room or attempting to make yourself small and unseen. 

How we look and how much we are valued is unhappily intertwined but perhaps we could use that relationship in a more positive and helpful way? 

The lie we get caught in is one which suggests a particular body, or way of being in your body (embodied) makes you more valuable than someone who hasn’t got that kind of body, face, way of being embodied. It’s hard to escape the lie because we are too easily judged and able to judge others on how we look. Looking good! Or not as the case may be. 

It is possible to accept the reality that our bodies and our value are intertwined without swallowing the lies that suggest our value is based upon an embodied utopia, the selfie-pouting-fad-eating-daily-exercising-ideal-weight-fabulous-clothes-covered-uncovered-body. 

The comments about my photo were overwhelming because the recurrent word used by people was “beautiful”. I appreciated the comments because I knew very well that I was fresh out of hospital and still quite poorly, and I looked it because my body does not lie, I don’t let it. I knew I had a feeding tube attached to my face and that underneath several layers of winter clothes was a very different, somewhat broken dysfunctional horror film body. I appreciated the likes and the comments though because what people were responding too was not a stereotypical aesthetic of beauty as dictated by media and societal standards, the response I think was to the beauty of defiant strength. The kind that wears a feeding tube. 

Strong is beautiful in bodies that choose not to lie. 

It’s that time of year when the darkness threatens to overwhelm and so we light candles, string up fairy lights, seek out light. Light is how we see what is really there. Maybe you can feel brave enough to let the light shine on the reality of your body and find a kind of beauty in it. 

Thin Place 

[Thin Place – and why death is always real but so is life and neither are to be feared but perhaps embraced in some way in order to ‘live’ in the in-between place].
THIN PLACE 

If I could,

and perhaps I should,

tiptoe to the edges of a thin place

dabble and paddle extremities in a lake

of gasping breath;

liquid prayers stretched into a loch

where, in absence of monsters,

divine rest meets earthly motility.

 

Instead this arch of encounter

lies not in beauty

nor in the wash of clean cold immersion

a coracle to navigate;

but 3am redressing

tired wounds of too much

blood-again-bleeding,

body tangled up in a trellis

of tubes, wires, fears.

 

Initiator, daughter, temper,

living barred

so death will now beget life,

here is God.

This thin place smells of

death.

My Bed & the NHS


I’m writing this sitting on my hospital bed, the same bed that has carried me through most of the last five months. I’ve hopefully not got much longer in it. There is little consistency in being ill, but this bed has been my good constant travelling companion. It’s had four different mattresses on it, when I graduated to a normal mattress recently, my bed and I celebrated with extra sleep. This bed has moved with me from ward to ward, it has taken me for scans and procedures when I was too poorly to be moved from it. This bed has helped nurses to wash me and care for me. It was on this bed that the surgeon came with a scalpel and had to open me up again, I’ve bled on this bed and it never objected. This bed knew I wasn’t as brave as I appeared. This bed witnessed a series of medical tourists come to tower over me and pull back sheets without asking on a regular basis. This bed supported me when physio’s taught me to stand again. This bed held on to me when doctors stood by my feet and argued. It was in this bed I laughed outrageously with nurses. This bed provided the canvas from which relationships were fractured or healed. This bed has been my kingdom, my territory, my only space often invaded by others who sit, lean, leer on the only thing that belongs to me here. It has been my good travelling companion when I have been most vulnerable.

If you paid attention to the media you might believe that the current strikes are about contracts, junior doctors or Jeremy Hunt. I want to take the opportunity from this bed to challenge such assumptions. It’s all about my bed.

The current strikes are actually about how we value the vulnerable. The NHS ensures that everyone deserves a bed as good as mine regardless of power or status, finance or education. Imposed contracts and political attacks on health care professionals are just symptoms of the intentional destruction of the NHS. If we allow such erosion without challenge we say very clearly to the poor and vulnerable that they just don’t matter. Junior doctor strikes and consultant cover is about ensuring a safe and immeasurably powerful healthcare system for all which does not exclude the poorest and weakest in our society. We all of us deserve a bed as good as mine.

My bed has cost the nhs hundreds of thousands of pounds. My bed has given me world class medical care in a big teaching hospital. My bed provided me with two of the best specialist consultant surgeons who both terrify and inspire me in equal measure, they prevented me from dying and worked hard to ensure I will have a quality of life. My bed has provided me with access to the gifts of pioneering medical research. My bed has allowed me to influence the training of future nurses and doctors by agreeing to their participation in my care (I consider it a privilege). My bed has offered me specialised deeply caring nursing for which I can never find enough words to express my gratitude. My bed gave me access to an incredibly professional set of hospital chaplains who journeyed with me. My bed has presented me with physiotherapy restoring mobility, specialist nutrition care, repeated opportunities to hang out with a consultant radiologist. I have even spent time with a micro-biologist, they are an actual thing and they do an important job. My bed has ushered me into the compassion of a bunch of gastroenterologists junior and senior all of whom I very fond, all of whom have worked incredibly hard with much skill to make my life better. My bed. 

My bed is something we all deserve when we need it most. Junior doctors are simply trying to ensure you can have a bed as good as mine. 

Death on Good Friday 

The only time I’ve argued with staff in hospital was back in those balmy days on HDU when after the death of a patient the porters came to retrieve the body and closed the curtains on every patient in the ward so that we might be shielded from death as they wheeled the body out. I was furious, in a quite ill and pretty quiet but well articulated way. I don’t want to be ‘protected’ from death as if it is either unusual or bad, I want to see and experience and know. I’m tired of prohibition and the sanitisation of death.

“It might upset some of the patients” was the reason given for this cloaking of death. Perchance let me offer you this, kind staff confused by my outburst; people from whom death has been hidden will be upset and shocked, that’s okay, the opportunity for people who are seriously ill to be confronted with death is not a bad thing but a useful and normal thing.

There’s only one doctor who tells me about my own dance with death, others use different phrases like “you were deteriorating to a point from which we may not have been able to return”, notice the emphasis on ‘we’ as if my dying would be a joint enterprise, an attempt to stand me an extra step away from death again. I do better with Dr Memory-Keeper, who holds the memories which I have deleted and is able to talk of death in real terms, “you so very nearly died that day” is a potentially frightening statement to hear but a helpful one reminding my body of its journey. When I ask a question about the consequences of not following a particular medical course in the future there are no platitudes but simply the answer “if you don’t do that, you’ll die”.

I realise that I have the great privaledge of a vocation which brings me into regular contact with the dying, the dead and the bereaved, yet even within that context I experience widely ranging cultures and attitudes towards death, some which I view as less healthy than others. I was once asked to do a funeral with no body, and no mention of the way in which the deceased had died, “we just want to focus on the good times, on her life, we want to celebrate that”. For sure we did celebrate her life but her body was there and I talked about her dying because what the bereaved came to realise was that death is part of living and it matters and needs to be honoured and most importantly it is part of resurrection.

I held sadness this week as a friend told me of the elements of death in his life, illness of loved ones, changes in circumstances. There was an inescapability of it and the effect it was having upon the course of his life was painful but I also held hope because with death comes resurrection, hard to see when in the midst of dying. I was reminded of the need to accompany the dying, both in the literal prayers with and confession of the dying and accompanying one another as we grapple with death in our life journey.

This year I have missed Holy Week, today is Good Friday, I’m already grieving for my place behind the communion table on Easter Sunday, I will not be celebrating the mass at this major Christian festival, that element of ministry is in death at the moment and I’m not sure when resurrection will occur. I have over the last four months as I’ve been ill, wondered what my identity is without a pastoral and sacramental ministry and I think I’ve come to see that in this dying there is a new and different form of life ahead, this resurrection is like nothing I ever planned for or imagined or wanted it is waiting to be known ahead a little but impossible without some death. The thing about death is that we are always dying.

The next time a patient died the porters came and pulled the curtains round all of the patients, then a nurse tore my curtains open and declared very loudly “Charity has strong views on death, we are opening her curtains”.

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Violence & Enmity

It seemed a good time to brave up and share this.


Theological Spits

Together with Becca Byass and Rob Moore “theological spits” came into being recently, using the tradition of spoken word artists attempting to express some form of theological reflection. Other than expression we hope to encourage others to find ways of noticing God in their everyday, perhaps reflection is passionate and perhaps it rhymes; definitely art and theology make sense as lovers but most of all what matters is simply noticing…. 

If you don’t know much about spoken word artistry check out Andrea Gibson (my current crush) and Megan Beech (astonishingly talented)