What do you do all day? Care…

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!

Rev’d Lynsay

Almsgiving and Mercy

Today the Astonishing Community remembers Tabitha the Almsgiver. People are always quick to talk about how they give of their time and talents, but sometimes giving of our financial resources is necessary too.

Fausto Gomez OP describes the need to give alms as a pathway to mercy. How does this description make you feel?

Mercy Pathways

Fausto Gomez OP

The paths of mercy are many, in particular the works of mercy (cf. CCC 2447). In his Bull of Proclamation of the Jubilee of Mercy Misericordiae Vultus, the Face of Mercy (no. 15) Pope Francis writes: “It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy.”

The three classical exercises of penance are paths of mercy: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. “Prayer with fasting and alms with uprightness are better than riches with iniquity… Almsgiving saves from death and purges every kind of sin” (Tob 12:8-9; Dan 4:27; cf. Mt 6:2-4, 5-6, 16-18; cf. EG 193). Often, prayer is presented as directed to fasting and almsgiving – to virtuous living.

Fasting to be a good act must be accompanied by almsgiving. Fasting without almsgiving is not a saving act on the way to heaven. It is insufficient as John Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine tell us. St. Peter Chrysologus (406-450) writes: “He who does not fast for the poor fools God.” On the other hand, fasting with almsgiving is pleasing to God.

In the teaching of Sacred Scriptures, patristic and classical theology true almsgiving is a necessary expression of mercy. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis writes: “The wisdom literature sees almsgiving as a concrete exercise of mercy towards those in need” (EG 193). For those who believe in God, almsgiving is an obligation (Tob 1:7-11; Sir 7:10). Why? Because, all need to practice charity as love of neighbor, as merciful love, which is the highest expression of love of neighbor. All the Fathers of the Church recommend strongly and persistently sharing of goods, almsgiving. St Cyprian, the first Father to give us a theological treatise on almsgiving, entitled On Almsgiving, speaks of almsgiving as an obligation of all Christians. He says that almsgiving is an act of mercy, an act of justice, and a means of penance for our sins and for obtaining forgiveness for them. 

Almsgiving is an outward or external act of mercy. It is also an expression of justice in the sense that the poor are entitled to it. Almsgiving, however, is more than justice: it is merciful love, the love that gives value to almsgiving and everything in life (1 Cor 13:3). Without charity as merciful love of neighbor, almsgiving may be unjust, for in this case it does not make people involved equal; charity does (José María Cabodevilla).

Authentic almsgiving is what is called formal almsgiving. There is material almsgiving and formal almsgiving. Giving to others in need without love is merely material but not formal or authentic almsgiving: “Almsgiving can be materially without charity, but to give alms formally, that is for God’s sake, with delight and readiness, and altogether as one ought, is not possible without charity” as love of God and neighbor (St Thomas Aquinas).

Not giving alms when one can give (cf. Mt 25:41-43) is a source of condemnation. We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren” (CCC 1033; cf. Mt 25:31-46).

In case of real need, corporal need is more important than spiritual need, which is generally more important: “a man in hunger is to be fed rather than instructed, and for a needy man money is better than philosophy, although the latter is better.” Love of neighbor, St. Thomas adds, implies beneficence and almsgiving, “for love of neighbor requires not only that we should be our neighbors’ well-wishers, but also his well-doers.”

The classical theory of charity and mercy may appears as more concerned with the individual person than with the social order or disorder.  Hence, almsgiving may be used as a cover up for injustice. Of course, true almsgiving as a pathway of mercy cannot be unjust for it necessarily presupposes justice. Today more than yesterday, we speak of almsgiving not only to a person but also to a needy poor people, an ethnic group, the poor, the refugees, and the excluded from the banquet of life. Corporate almsgiving – donations -, or the Church’ s Caritas are much needed, irreplaceable in our world; the rich nations  are obliged to share with the poor ones as taught by the social doctrine of the Church (cf. Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, GS, 69; Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, PP, 23, 26, 43). In the midst of poverty and misery, excessive spending and squandering are sins (CCC, 2409). As Christians, we are called to practice a simple life style: “Let us live simply so that others may simply live” (Canadian Bishops).

Moreover, each one of us always needs to give something to the poor: to concrete individual poor person: “Sometime of real contact with the poor is necessary” (Pope Francis).

Merciful and compassionate love urges Christians and all humans to “loving the unlovely, the unlovable, the least, the lost, and the last.” Mercy is not only sharing with the materially poor, although this aspect is much underlined, but also with all others in need, especially those in urgent need.

The merciful Jesus hopes to be able to tell you and me after crossing the bridge that links this life and the afterlife: “Come…, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you… For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me … “Why, Lord?” Because “In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me” (Mt 25:34-40).

St Elizabeth of Hungary