From the very first moment that my journey towards priesthood was taken seriously by the church I received the simultaneous blessing of motherhood. And those three children are in many and various ways wonderful, inspiring, frustrating, delightful and exhausting. They are also all autistic in completeley different ways, meaning that, along with my husband, we are officially their carers as well as their parents. For one child that “carer” role, proved to be more than we could manage, so we had to hand that over to someone else and learn how to be his parents when we were no longer his carers, a hard blessing but one that has enriched all of our lives.
For two of the children, I had to learn that bad behaviour was more likely to be the result of sensory overload than naughtiness as such. This meant that no amount of reprimanding or reasoning would do anything but escalate the behaviours. These children didn’t know how to self-regulate, so they needed my help to calm down before we could think about tidying up or apologising or seeing what was wrong. For both children, when they were small, this meant sitting them on my knee facing away from me and wrapping my arms and legs around them as the occupational therapist had shown me to apply moderate pressure. This helped them to feel grounded and made them still; it often quietened the screaming too. The elder child who’s sensory needs were that he was hyper-sensitive to touch and sound but had no appreciation of where the ends of his limbs were in space, then needed lying on a duvet cover, which was wrapped round him like a coccoon and dragging along the floor in a straight line for about 4 meters. He would then be so chilled out, he would just sit on the sofa and smile for the next 20 minutes. This didn’t work at all for the younger of the two. Instead he needed pressure applying to the sides of his head (so hard it looked like we were trying to pop his head) for a few seconds, repeated several times. He too would then become relaxed and content to try to do what was asked of him. When our third child came along, neither of these approaches worked. The initial holding panicked her, making things worse. We had to learn to give her time to retreat and calm herself before going in and engaging her on a completely different subject. An hour or so later, she’d be ready to deal with the incident.
As a priest I have often reflected on how God’s experience of loving us must often be like that of my own experience sitting holding a distressed child, waiting for him to calm. I think the longest this ever took in one sitting was three hours. I could only keep myself calm by repeatedly singing Compline, but finally the child fell asleep in my arms. There was my adorable babe and I was blessed by his trust.
When faced with distressed or angry individuals or congregations, as a priest for the longest time I remembered that three hour stint and tried to work out what its equivalent would be. Now I see that that is not always what is required, I have to try to learn who the person/congregation before me is and what it is that they need most. Do they need holding? Do they need space? Do they need physical presence, like the deep pressure? Words to wash over them or prayer to soothe? And in what combinations? I also have to accept that in caring for my own children I have had broken noses and ribs, black eyes and bite marks. I shouldn’t be surprised when I have to bear the cost of caring in ministry too. The gift when we come through each of these moments, each of these painful experiences, is that we gradually learn that the world doesn’t end; love is not withdrawn; loving faithfulness continues, compassion grows , so we can trust one another more.
Thankfully, not all caring is so physically demanding. Sometimes the caring both for my children and for my father-in-law as his cancer advanced, has come down to advocacy. We have had to learn that, whilst government agencies will tell us what they can provide, it is our job to keep stating what those we care for need. Slowly and with respectful negotiation the ready made packages are shelved and real needs are met.
It’s just the same here with churches and the communities they serve. We have to work out not only what churches should be doing, what a minister should be doing but what particular gifts and callings we have; what God is asking of us and whether we have the resources to meet that calling or whether we need to make partnerships to see God’s work come to fruition. It’s not easy and the temptation to do what is easy and known rather than what is truly needed is strong. My job is to keep on advocating for the real needs but that means I need to know the people I serve and the communities they serve intimately, holding them all before God in prayer. Sometimes that means I have to spend time researching the communities I serve. Reading council files, reports by other churches and charities, trying to discern how we might serve that won’t be pushing in for self aggrandisement or doubling up services unnecessarily but genuinely providing something needful, that is within the gifts and energy of the congregation.
The gift to me, in all this is that I am learning to look at places, situations and people and to see how they might be if they were truly flourishing. Very,very slowly, I’m also being gifted with acquaintances and knowledge that will help me to facillitate that flourishing, by calling on the gifts of others.
Within my role as a priest for many years the bulk of the caring I offered was centred around the time of bereavement. Here in Scotland this takes up much less of my time, and the focus has shifted to be with those who are dying and those accompanying them as much as with those who are mourning after the event. These are some of the most privileged moments of the ministry I have to offer. Ministering to those near the end of life is always moving. Often my role is to reassure the person of God’s love and blessing through prayer and anointing and to give permission to the dying person to rest now. Especially when people have experienced long illnesses, they need permission to stop fighting for life. Permission to be at peace.
In church I often find myself pulled in different directions. One of the things I feel it is most important to help people to do in our society today is to rest. To learn simply to be. To know that they don’t have to be productive at all times to justify their existence. They exist because they are loved and life is to be enjoyed, savoured, as much as possible. On the other hand, I’m always asking people to do things. Partly because these many things need doing and partly because it’s by being involved in the behind the scenes life of a church in some way that people begin to feel they belong.
As a carer, my role isn’t to do everything for my children but to enable them to be as independent as possible. It’s a real joy to see their pleasure at getting themselves or successfully making a bus journey with an assistant. The pleasure of preparing a drink for someone else or understanding what someone wants and handing it to them, instead of always being the recipient of help is immense. As a priest that’s what I seek to do for the communites I serve. Its an old truism, but a good one, that the best priests make themselves unnecessary.
So that’s my story, much like many of yours I’d imagine. Changing from role to role, moment to moment, trying always to offer the best loving-attention I have and being frustrated by low energy levels and resilience at times. The good news for me is that I know, through it all, that I am cared for by God, who is infinitely gracious, and by those I work closely with. What a lot to be thankful for!