Author: alphabetbeing

Mark

I have a curious liking for Ordinary Time, which I suppose has some relationship to the reasons I find Luke’s “the angel left her” speaks to me. Most of our lives are lived in ordinary time, liturgically and figuratively.

My last attempt at a blog series, on Marxism and Christianity, was a conspicuous failure, falling as it did at the hurdle of my health. Still, I want to try again, this time with a series of posts on Mark’s gospel throughout the Ordinary Time of this coming year. It will be a good discipline for me to think about this gospel, which we read on (most of) the Sundays of this year. In many ways it is foundational to our understanding of the Christian story, being used – as most scholars think – by Matthew and Luke to compose their own gospels, and inspiring a good number of critical and imaginative studies. Sometimes the series will look at passages, sometimes at themes, and sometimes at works about Mark. I will find it useful writing it; I hope somebody at least finds it useful reading it!

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Keeping faith with reason

Matthew’s story of the visit of the Magi is ripe for reflection: the topic of art and poetry, it can help to communicate central themes of the Christian gospel. Matthew himself almost certainly intended that the story speak of the inclusion of the Gentiles within God’s covenant and of the fulfillment of God’s promises to God’s people.

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Myself, I am struck by an aspect of the account which speaks to a contemporary need. The Magi (Greek magoi – the sense is of something intermediate between a priest, a magician and a scientist) are led by the sight of a star. I imagine these wise ones (the plural magoi doesn’t force an image of an all male group, even if that is what was intended in context) pondering maps, charts and books of lore in order to interpret the appearance of the heavenly body.

Unlike Luke’s shepherds, the Magi do not get a vision of angels. There is nothing obviously revelatory about anything that happens to them. Instead, their natural reason, their human capacity to reflect on the world around them leads them to Jerusalem.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Catholic tradition for me, and especially of the Dominican strand within it, is our high view of human reason. Even without access to God’s self-revelation as communicated in the Bible, our Church thinks, human beings can come to know things about God. Nor does possession of that self-revelation render human reason irrelevant. Rather, through our reasoning about and grappling with the content of revelation we come to appreciate it better. It is though we were both the shepherds and the magi at the same time. Needless to say, for me, the combination is most clearly seen in the Summa Theologiae.

I think that at the present moment there’s a tendency to retreat from our high view of reason. Partly that’s for understandable reasons – contemporary culture can have too narrow a view of reason, as something cold, bloodless, and discarnate, whereas we want to affirm that our religion is the stuff of emotion, ritual, and raw, animal, self-giving love. Rather than ditch reason as the sole preserve of Mr Spock types, though, we could reclaim a more generous understanding of reason. More challenging is the modern world’s relegation of religion to the sphere of the non-rational, or even the irrational. For many friends and foes of religion alike, faith is a matter of blind acceptance, where it starts reason stops. Upon passing the church door, one ceases to be a thinker. Whether or not one considers that to be a good thing is very much a secondary matter.

This is disastrous for all sorts of reasons. It effectively involves the abandonment of any claim that the Christian faith is saying anything true (the notion of a truth with which we cannot reason is nonsensical), so if it is intended as a maneuver to protect faith from criticism it is self-defeating. That aside, it is both dangerous and beneath our dignity as human beings to put our ability to reason to one side. The use of religion to further bigotry and violence ought to persuade us of this if more abstract considerations do not. Crucially though, and seasonally, in the Incarnation God has assumed and redeemed everything it is to be human – including our reason – the thoughtfulness of our engagement with our faith is not a pretension, or simply a pass-time, but a witness to that redemption, to the fullness of our redeemed humanity. It is therefore a matter of faith that we continue to reason.

Mary’s prayer

Apart from the obvious doctrinal associations with Christmas, keeping the 1st January as the feast of Mary, the Mother of God has the feel of placing the coming year under her patronage.

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I want to say something in favour of the idea of Mary as patron, as someone we cry out to when things are tough. I’ve fallen back myself on the kind of folk religion which whispers a Hail Mary or touches her icon, a type of prayer that an earlier, more sophisticated and more stupid, version of myself would have decried. There is something very human about claiming the patronage of Mary – we’re reaching out to one of us (and she is one of us, the sillier excesses of saccharine piety have never quite been able to hide the peasant women), asking for help. We’re reminded that we’re never alone; David Cameron’s pernicious ideological slogan “we’re all in it together” was not true of British society, it is true of the communion of saints. More than that though, because Marian devotion has flourished at a popular level, for all its many problems, it has had the capacity to preserve parts of religiosity underplayed by official theology and liturgy. A case in point is emotion – I don’t mean the soppy fake emotion of Victorian hymns to our Lady – I mean the fear and longing, the desire and the pain, of the anguished cry for help, all there in the words “Mary, pray for me”. That patriarchal society genders emotion as female means, I think, that in our present situation Mary is a uniquely natural recipient of this kind of prayer – before anyone supposes this blasphemous, remember that part of belief in the Incarnation is belief that Christ, as a human being, is limited, in particular he is limited by being male, but not female.

The patronage of Mary shows us to be fully human, with needs and emotions, and to exist in community with others. That is what we are called to be by our creation and redemption, and it is good to be reminded of it at the beginning of the year.

Rachel weeping for her children

The feast of the Holy Innocents adds a much needed dark side to Christmas, a reminder that from the outset incarnate Love was met with hatred by our race, unable as we so often are to cope with love in all its challenging purity. Today has, unfortunately to my mind, become in recent years an occasion for banging the drum about abortion laws. I have no intention whatsoever of dealing with that particular hot potato in this post. Suffice it to say, however, that even if you believe (as the Church has never authoritatively taught, and numerous figures in the tradition have denied) that an embryo is from the outset a person, the parallels between the aborted and the Holy Innocents are limited.

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The victims of Herod are honoured by the Church as martyrs precisely because their killing was an act of opposition to Christ himself. They were killed, according to Matthew’s gospel, as a political action by a leader wanting to shore up his power in his territory and . If you want parallels, I’m afraid you need to look no further than the contemporary Holy Land. Here Christian as well as Muslim Palestinian children are constantly on the receiving end of occupying power. A particularly alarming case has become prominent this Christmas.

As believers in the Incarnation, particular things and particular places matter to us because of their association with Christ’s earthly life. We can hardly then ignore the situation in Palestine, and Holy Innocents day is an excellent time to recommit ourselves to speaking out and to solidarity. For Christians to focus their activism on the wearily familiar issues around reproductive ethics and sexuality is, after all, safe: it involves no serious challenge to geopolitical power. Yet we are not called to be safe, and for the Palestinians safety is no option.

And the angel left her

For some time I’ve been fascinated by the final verse of this Sunday’s gospel. ‘And the angel left her’. This is when the hard work begins. I think for most of us the experience of life as Christians is often of living in the time after the angel has, figuratively, left us.

There are times when it all makes sense, where it is very easy to see the world and our lives in terms of the gospel, when we somehow feel all part of it and are very conscious of being loved by God and by others. There are other times when all of this is not there. And there are times, frequent for some of us, when the opposite is the case: when life seems as though we are not ‘favoured by God’, where nothing appears to make sense, and when we feel utterly abandoned.

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Amidst all the copulsory happiness that the well-meaning can inflict  on us over Christmas it is worth reflecting on the fact that the person the Church believes to be the foremost redeemed human being lived most of her life in the time after the angel left her. Without signs or obvious affirmation she persisted, that trust in God’s word, in spite of there being no sense how it could be fulfilled (‘how can this be?’) was how she lived out her fidelity to the covenant. Similarly, for many of us, that empty experience of sheer trust beyond comprehension, in the midst of life’s bleakness, will be how we live out the call of our baptism.

As is so often the case, T.S. Eliot captured this state well:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing

The point here is that the absence of clear vision has the character of a gift – we are safe from the idolatry of present experience or contemporary thought; we are in no danger of thinking that we have happened upon the Kingdom in its finality. I say that this has the character of a gift, because sometimes the angel’s leaving will not take the form of a gift at all, but of an evil we should resist blessing – my own episodes of depression would be a case in point here. Nevertheless, these occasions can be used by the God who turns the fallenness of creation into the stage of redemption.

Yet however the angel leaves us, leave he must. For unless the angel leaves we will never grow up.

Living in the future

The first part of Advent, ending on 16th December, looks forward to the Last Things, to Christ’s return in glory in fulfilment of the promise of the Kingdom. It is not a time of preparation for Christmas. Nor is it, on the other hand, a time of glum-faced refusal to participate in premature secular festivities, a mini-Lent of dismal world-denial amidst Mammon’s fairy-lights and mince pies. It is something much more interesting than either of these things, an opportunity to re-orientate our understanding of time towards the future.

The perennial call to put Christ back into Christmas, as though the incarnate Word were every absent from human fellowship or celebration, is a modestly irritating part of a much more general trend in Christian culture. There is a sense that things are on the back-foot, that in the West at least we’re on the decline. Wasn’t the past better? Isn’t there a temptation to want to Make Christianity Great Again? For Christians who go along with this line of thought (and if we’re honest, we have all done this at some point) the focus of our faith is the past – the past of a more flourishing Church and, of course, the past to which scripture bears witness, the life of Jesus and the history of Israel.

But the past ought not to be our focus. The Church, in whichever age, does not exist for its own sake, but for that of the Kingdom. And revelation, the past and completed nature of which I happily affirm as a Catholic, is not simply some kind of divine transmission of facts to make us better informed. It took place for our salvation. It too looks to an end subsequent to itself.

So if not the past, perhaps the Church ought to live in the present. After all, any number of spiritual tomes of varying quality can be found exhorting us to live in the present moment. Once we move beyond lightly baptised mindfulness however, the desire for contemporaneity can dominate church life very quickly. Are we up to date, relevant, modern? Is there anything about us that doesn’t sit comfortably with the prevailing climate? If so perhaps we ought to jettison it for the sake of our continuing place in a society which would otherwise find us irrelevant (notice how this liberal approach to time is every bit as based in fear as the conservative alternative; and again, we’ve all taken this position from time to time).

The problem with this gratuitously modern Christianity is that it quickly loses any capacity to be prophetic. It is too immersed in modern society to be able to subject it to any criticism (that this is a problem is less obvious than it should be because people have tended to assume that Christian criticisms of modernity will be about sex, rather than about, say, starvation or the threat of nuclear holocausts). It therefore fails to undertake one of the central tasks for which we were baptised.

It is only, I think, if our basic orientation is to the future, rather than either the past or the present, that Christians can have a relationship to society which serves the cause of the Kingdom. Not for nothing was the idea of an eschatological provisio, always holding existing structures to account, a key theme in Latin American liberation theology. Living in the world, yet alert to the coming Kingdom, we celebrate what is good without making ourselves too comfortable with the present. Our job is to be urging humankind forward towards the Kingdom we make present in our sacraments, and in the light of which we judge the present.

And, in spite of it not being a preparation for Christmas, if we see the first part of Advent like this Christmas will take on a new meaning. It will be no longer a nostalgic reminiscence of a long-ago baby, but the celebration of the intrusion into an unjust world of a still-active upsetter of all that stands between us and full humanity.

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Saying that Christ, the Lord, is King

Over this weekend a number of my non-Christian friends have been sharing links to a story about the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden on their social media accounts. These friends, secular leftists to a person, are generally under the impression that the Swedish state church’s appeal to its clergy to stop using the word ‘Lord’ or male pronouns of God is bizarre. And they are certainly right.

Whatever else makes a body of people part of the Christian tradition, a commitment to use, recall, and grapple with the scriptures is surely an essential condition. The Swedish strictures, if taken seriously, would make this impossible. If, as I suspect to be the case with the Swedish church, you think characteristic scriptural language about God is damaging to justice and equality amongst human beings then the honest thing to do would be to declare yourself  post-Christian. That is perhaps what the Church of Sweden ought to do.

 

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It would have been better though if it had never got into the kind of muddle over religious language that leads to this sort of censoriousness in the first place. Consider what the Swedish archbishop says,

Theologically, for instance, we know that God is beyond our gender determinations, God is not human

This is indeed true, but it only follows that one shouldn’t (for instance) use the word ‘he’ of God if one supposes that in doing so one is making an assertion that God is male. But that’s not what is going on with religious language. It does not, in the main, seek to describe the contours of divine reality (a very few uses of language, called by Aquinas analogical, do speak truly directly of God, but they are exceptions). Rather it points towards it playfully, pointing out the inadequacies of our words before God by placing contradictory and unsettling images before us. God is not only Lord for the books of the Hebrew Bible, but a woman in labour, a fortress, a rock, and a case of dry rot. If she is Lord, he is also a servant, a shepherd, a steadfast hope, and a vengeful judge. We do not, other than by covenanted grace, know where we stand with God. His thoughts are not are thoughts, we are creatures, she the creator.

The kind of liberal who thinks that in using the word ‘Lord’ (generally, in the Old Testament, a rendering of the tetragrammaton) one is saying that God is a celestial version of Donald Trump or Prince Philip, and that this is a bad thing, is simply the photographic negative of the fundamentalist who thinks that God is indeed the Top Bloke and holds this to be a very good thing. Neither party thinks about rejecting the fundamentally idolatrous understanding of religious language which they hold in common.

And that is where I would leave things were it not that I’m writing on the feast of Christ the King. For whilst the archbishop is right that God is not human as God, God is of course human as the man Jesus. And as a man we call him King and Lord. Now these uses of language can’t be so swiftly dismissed as metaphorical, can they? After all, don’t we believe that Christ does, and one day will more fully and completely, possess the foremost place in a human community, known as the Kingdom? What does someone like me, who thinks that human hierarchy and kingship has brought in its wake nothing but bloodshed and oppression, say about the fact that my Church invites me today to celebrate the fact (as it takes it to be) that Christ is the King?

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Just this, that the Kingship of Christ is an ironic, subversive, affair which undermines human institutions of domination through superficially assuming them. His crown is made of thorns, and his kingly life one of service. His reign is not over his subjects, but rather one which, through grace, his sisters and brothers come to share. If we affirm this man as our king, if we affirm that kingship looks like this, and that we too hope to share in it, then we can no longer have any time for anything less, for any structure that subjugates or dominates. If Christ is the King then Caesar is not. And what a strange kind of King Christ is.

Creation and the country

Today is the feast of St Francis. He gets special treatment in the calendar and offices of the Dominican Order; he is referred to as ‘Our Seraphic Father’ and one generally gets the impression that he is regarded as a Good Thing. This reflects the shared origins of our orders in medieval mendicancy and similarities in their emphases (on creation and the Incarnation, and so on).

In the world more generally, St Francis seems to get regarded as a cross-between Doctor Doolittle and Alan Titchmarsh. He is all about ‘nature’, in the modern sense of that word, where the contrast is with ‘culture’ rather than ‘grace’. He is the saint for people who like green stuff, of the countryside, of animals.

I don’t for one second want to join in the mean-spiritedness that has greeted Christian concern for the environment or the, disgracefully late in so many cases, consideration of non-human animals in the light of the history of salvation. But precisely because these things are important we ought not to tie them up with an inadequate theology of creation. And this is what I think some presentations of Francis, along with some of the celebrations of harvest which happen at this time of the year in the northern hemisphere, are in danger of doing.

Francis did care for non-human animals and his surroundings, and he did so on the basis of an understanding of the world as created. Yet for exactly the same reason he contemplated themes such as poverty, concerned himself with the well-being of his fellow-human beings, and condemned what he saw as wrongdoing.

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Creation, for Francis, as for Thomas is implicated in everything, because everything other than the Creator is created. Dogs and dandelions are created, but so is the beggar, and so is your act of giving money to the beggar. Trees are created, and so are trade unions. Creation is not a matter of God winding up the world at the beginning and leaving it to run (Thomas thinks that it is perfectly possible that the world have no beginning). Nor does it consist in God’s creating a ‘natural’ environment as the playground for human freedom. It certainly isn’t a matter of God making things happen in a way that explains them better than do scientific theories. Rather, creation is God’s eternally continual action of making there be something rather than nothing, God’s loving beings into existence at every moment of their existence. God as Creator is not one more item on the stage of the world; God is why there is a stage. In particular God does not compete with us for freedom – us doing things cannot threaten God’s status as Creator. God’s creating our free actions, as God does, is not a barrier to our freedom, but the condition of it.

This much is an entirely standard Catholic understanding of creation. But for all that, a very different view is commonplace, which I think is damaging. It is neatly summed up by the harvest hymn:

We plough the fields and scatter,

the good seed on the land,

but it is fed and watered,

by God’s almighty hand.

There’s a neat division of labour here. God acts through ‘nature’, and we get on with the merely human task of agriculture. Creation, we might say, is stuff God does, but that we don’t do. And stuff that we do is not creation.

Perhaps the least serious problem with this is that it is impossible to square with a sensible understanding of the world as susceptible to scientific enquiry. We have perfectly good theories of the weather and God’s almighty hand does not feature in them. On this point, at least, the kind of criticism made of some religion by people like Richard Dawkins is absolutely correct. But surely God does send the rain, doesn’t he? Well, it’s a perfectly good metaphor; but the truth of the matter is that God creates the rain, just as she creates the ploughing and watering. Any thought that the rain (or the growth of trees, or the sunshine, or that meteor – pick your favourite ‘natural’ event) is a special action of God’s, akin to my sending the cat out at night is the beginning of idolatry, or re-enchanting the world and re-establishing a nature god of the kind the doctrine of Creation was supposed to dethrone.

More serious is the view of human freedom implicit in (what we might call) the bucolic theory of creation. If God’s action competes with ours, such that what God creates we do not make, and vice versa, then very serious consequences follow. The way we view politics and history will be corrupted (Herbert McCabe wrote in several places about how idolatry and oppression go together). We cannot both appeal to God to rid the world of war and injustice, and see victories in these respects as divine work, whilst also fighting to transform the world ourselves, and identifying our own agency as effective in some respects. The result, almost inevitably, of thinking this position through properly is political quietism – trust in the Lord, and keep your head down.

Then there are the questions: where is God? What is of God? It is easy for those who live in beautiful countryside surrounded by wildlife to imagine themselves part of creation. The divine associations of this kind of setting are reinforced, for example, by the fact that most retreat centres are in the countryside (although this is also a product of the divinisation of ‘peace and quiet’, which needs another blogpost). When doing the garden outside the cottage, it’s not hard to see yourself as a co-worker with the Creator. The picture of God as the maker of ‘nature’ will do you no harm in this respect.

It is, however, a false picture. And whilst there is not for one moment anything wrong in approaching God through the beauty of the natural world, there is a real danger in supposing that God is only creatively present in the natural world. Apart from the danger of heresy, with which God (if not ourselves) can cope, there is the danger of writing off most of the human race. What about factories, call-centres, schools – is God not creatively present here as much as in the field or the garden? Yes absolutely (although, we should add, God’s creative action might, providentially, move to transform these places to make them more just – what is is not what will be). What about people who live in flats, bungalows, doorways – what about those who don’t have views of landscapes? Are their lives not lived out in the space God has generously created for them? Isn’t the city, just as much as the countryside, becoming the Kingdom?

We cannot have a theology of creation which renders those who don’t fit into the ‘We Plough the Fields’ view of reality second-class citizens. “For the Kingdom belongs to such as these”.

“Do not be afraid”: faith and anxiety

I haven’t written much about the relationship between my faith and my mental health. It’s not that I think there are two unrelated facts about me, that I’m a Catholic and that I have bipolar disorder. There cannot be anything that is in principle incapable of being thought about with reference to God. Yet I am nervous of broaching the topic.

So much stuff on religion and mental health is frankly terrible. When we’re not being called upon simply to have more faith, those of us with mental illnesses have to endure them being glibly regarded as occasions for mystical encounter (the lazy identification of St John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul with depression is a particularly damaging example of this), or talked about piously in terms of spiritual struggle. Worse still, there is a cottage industry producing gruesome books of prayers for people with depression, anxiety, and no doubt other illnesses, the contents of which vary from the corny to the moralising. None of this is for me.

 

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In fact, I don’t think that my faith has a lot to say about my illness in its specifics. For sure, bipolar is an instance of God’s creation not being everything it is ultimately called to be, in the language of Romans 8, of it crying out like a woman in labour. But that is true of all illness, physical as well as mental, and much else besides. There is a temptation to think that mental illness is more deserving of theological attention because it is somehow more ‘inner’, to do with the mind, perhaps with the soul. My Dominican instinct sees this line of thought as far too dualistic to deserve credence. I am an animal; I am not a mind trapped in a body (nor, it has to be said, is ‘mental’ illness a purely ‘inner’ affair, as anybody who has seen me pacing about sleepless in the small hours will attest).

So that’s my default, not theologising about my illness. Then I had a terrible month.

Whilst hypomanic, I had an episode of acute anxiety, something I’d not had in this form before. I was on edge: my stomach was in knots, my heart pounding, my fingers and toes tingling. My mind, already racing, was like a dog chasing a ball, trying to find anything to be frightened of. It succeeded, constantly: intimate things, things to do with my friends and my relationship, things to do with the world around me were causes of fear. I was afraid of losing people, my relationship, friendships; everyone and everything mutated into a threat; and everybody – so I thought – hated me, so wouldn’t care (and if they didn’t hate me already, well I was bound to do the wrong thing soon enough). I reacted by being intensely volatile, storming away here, screaming there. I retreated into self-harm. It was terrifying for my girlfriend, who was closest to me during this time. It was no doubt unpleasant for a much wider circle of people. I myself, although used to living with mental illness, had no idea what was happening to me, which fed back into the fear.

Eventually, through ending up in A&E, I got appropriate treatment and things, whilst far from perfect, are much better now. It is the treatment that has caused me to think about anxiety in the light of my faith. Apart from drugs, an important part of the response to an episode like this is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – essentially challenging fearful and other negative thoughts as they arise. It is here I’ve found that a Christian input is helpful. After all, the point of CBT is to challenge damaging thoughts with other thoughts you take to be true. And when it comes to issues of fear and trust, the things I hold to be both true and most useful are in Christian revelation.

“Do not be afraid” – the theme echoes through the gospels. These are the angel’s words to Mary, those of Christ to the disciples fearful of the stormy sea, and of Jesus risen from the dead. At this point we need to be careful: people with mental illnesses are all too used to being told to snap out of it, and “do not be afraid” if heard as an imperative will just be a case in point. I can easily imagine being told not to be afraid whilst anxious, failing, criticising myself for the failure, and then being frightened that I will never be able to be unfraid. The seemingly impossible command would just feed into the cycle.

“Do not be afraid” is not a command in the relevant sense, however. It would be silly to tell somebody not to be afraid. The words can only make non-pathological sense if they are accompanied by the gift of the means not to be afraid. “Don’t be scared”, a parent says to a child whilst clasping their hand. We take on board the surgeon’s “don’t be worried” because of her expertise and actions, not simply because she is saying those words. Similarly Jesus doesn’t just tell people not to be afraid. Through reaching out to them with that self-giving generosity which establishes the Kingdom of God, he places people in a situation where they need no longer be frightened. “Do not be afraid” is an invitation to participate in something that is being provided.

Fear is corrosive. It eats away at our capacity to be everything we could be, and damages our relations to others; we cling to them desperately, as though they were in danger of slipping away. This is not, of course, to say that those of us with anxiety are to blame for our condition: but it is to explain something of why the condition is so damaging. To say that fear is conquered in the Kingdom is just to say that we are offered, as a gift, a way of life whose foundation is an unconditional love for each one of us. That love has been tested to the point of death, and remains unconquered. Our worth is not so fragile as to be under threat. And the things we value – our relationships, our projects – in as much as they are good (and they generally are) will persist into the fullness of the Kingdom, albeit perhaps in ways we can’t anticipate.

I find attending to that view of the world helpful because it is a gentle reminder that there is no ultimate reason for the kind of fear I was feeling. I can answer individual fears “do not be afraid”, not as though I were trying to reprogram some malfunctioning thinking machine but rather as part of the ongoing journey of reorientating myself towards the Love from which I came and which, in spite of it all, calls me back.