Our Own Calvary

Look at a crucifix. Reflect on whom that corpse embodied.
The Architect of the Universe, compacted into that bleeding mass.
Can I honestly say, and accept in the depths of myself:
“Yes, it’s inescapable. I am worth that.”
-William J. O’Malley, Holiness

image-15da1f18-35e6-4b33-aa11-39f487b1e07a
I recently watched the film Calvary and I found myself deeply affected by it.

What really stood out to me was the rawness, the brokenness of the characters. How they represented our woundedness, a fallen world. It was real. And then how the protagonist, Fr. James, like Christ, meets his flock where they are. He loves them and accepts them in their brokenness.

We all carry our own crosses. We all trek towards our own calvary, bearing the weight of past failures, grief, imperfections, regrets…

and Anxiety…

As I walk my weary way on this earthly pilgrimage, I often consider the weight of my own cross. I wonder what my life would be like without Anxiety, without Obessisive Compulsive Disorder. The days when I struggle to focus, when I notice my jaw clenched tightly shut and my shoulders tense and I have to remind myself to relax. Days when I feel both happy and sad simultaneously. A deep pain that can’t really be explained but which is overlaid with a gratitude. A gratitude that my hurt, my brokenness is not who I am, and that there is a hope beyond any earthly experience, no matter how horrific.

My burden, as small as it is in relation to the world’s pain, helps me to love and appreciate goodness both in myself and in others. What I notice too is that without Christ’s help, without Him walking by my side, helping me carry my cross, if He were to leave me for just an instant, I would be crushed by the weight.

Redemptive suffering is not easy. It can sound romantic sometimes to “offer it up”. To offer ones hurts and sorrows up to God as a prayer – a way of asking Him to enter into our suffering and bear it with us and for us. Which He does.
And as beautiful as it is, it is not easy. When we suffer, we want to not suffer and when I was in my darkest space a year ago in London, I wanted to die. I didn’t want to “offer it up.”

Yet… God was with me in that darkness and that Calvary I experienced in London has been followed by a resurrection. New life, joy, peace… Am I still burdened by anxiety? Yes but I have come to see that I can do nothing by my own strength. And that takes the pressure off!

When we look around the world today and see a broken, fallen world. When we see “nothing new under the sun,” and we feel hopeless, all we can do is trust in the ressurection. Trust that God will have the final say and He will make all things new.

God loves us. We’ve become so desensitised to that saying but I challenge you now to reconsider it. God, the Creator of life and the One who holds everything in its place, who is holding this moment, right now as you read, in existence. This God loves you.

Have you ever been so frustrated and hurt that all you want to do is smash something or hit someone? Well Christ took our blows. He saw our pain, entered into it and as we poured our rage, pain, turmoil, confusion, hatred into each lash, each hammering and piercing of flesh, as we lifted Him up
and mocked Him from our own insecurities, mocked Him from our own fears and pride, He took it all on and loved us, and forgave us.

And now we are weary. We’ve poured and poured and poured our pain out, we’ve tried filling the emptiness with everything we can think of, and now, exhausted we collapse.

It is here, with our faces in the dust, that Christ comes to us.

If the world seems hopeless to you right now, consider that dark day on Calvary as God hung from that Cross. The day God died. And from that darkness and desolation, when all seemed lost, Christ’s victory was won.

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
— St. Teresa of Avila
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Who Am I?

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM“; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”

On My Way!Who Am I? Sometimes I think this question is at the root of our human experience. It is what drives us. It is a desire to know ourselves, to know where we fit in and what makes me “me”. What is my identity?

We are social beings, we thrive in community. I believe one of our greatest fears is that people will reject us. As a result we live by the book, following the script written by countless generations before us.

Imagine a scenario where a group of people come together for a book club. They were all supposed to have read a chapter of their current book before the meeting but none of them has.
They make small talk and divert the conversation for as long as they can, each one of them feeling embarrassed and scared of what the others might think. Some even lie about the chapter and make up opinions so as to appear to have done the reading.

Finally, one person confesses to having not done the reading and the tension is broken, everyone admits and the group laughs, feeling closer and more bonded than before.

This book club is a lot like life. We jostle for our place in society pretending to have it all together but we are all just lost on the inside. We’re afraid to admit it but if we do, we find that everyone is really in the same boat, and there is liberation in knowing this. It takes the pressure off.

I find it interesting how many people take those “tests” on Facebook:  “What Disney Character Are You?”, “What Is Your Celebrity Alter Ego?”, “What City Should You Really Live In?”.

I’ve taken plenty myself. Sure, they can be a laugh but I feel those tests are so popular because we desire identity, we are searching for meaning and for who we are. We like it when our ideas of who we are are affirmed, which is often why those tests are flawed because we will answer according to what we want the outcome to be.
Which describes you best: Shy, Adventurous, Bookish, Fun?
I secretly want to be an adventurer so I choose adventurous. The result tells me, “You are an explorer! Seeking adventure and thriving off change!” – Yes! No… I am actually insecure and afraid of so many things. I want to be an explorer because I believe that will fulfil me. But will it?

A year ago today, I boarded my plane and began my journey to London. This was my adventure. This was my initiation; I was going to find my place and my identity.
Well, this did happen, but not in the way I expected at all! So here I am, on the Feast of St.Dominic, back in Cape Town recovering from a traumatic, life changing, OCD episode but strangely, in so many ways, I’ve never been happier.

I’ve admitted that I didn’t do the reading.

Somehow, in that surrender, lies the key to feeling more at peace in my own skin. Realising that I am who I am, warts and all, and that is enough. I am not claiming to have reached “enlightenment”. I am still insecure and afraid of many things, I still fear rejection, I am still human. And that is fine and good. But just as shading gives a drawing definition, our flaws help shape our character.
My insecurities affect me, but they don’t define me.

St. Augustine’s most overused quotation is, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rests in you.”

The quote’s popularity is, in itself, telling. We relate to the phrase “our hearts are restless” so much because we are restless. We seek
and seek but we do not find because we seek in the world.

But we are not made for this world. At least, that’s my belief. We desire more, something greater which cannot be found in this life.

An image comes to mind of a barren wasteland in which I stand, seeking out some form of life, some sign of colour in a colourless world. I run and run, seeking in vain, trying so hard to feel and to see something which I haven’t felt or seen before but I know exists somehow. Eventually I trip and fall into the dust. At first, I want to give up, and so I weep, as all feels lost.
But then I open my eyes and notice that where my tears have fallen, a small flower has sprouted and it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

It is in surrender that we find what we are seeking, we cannot find it on our own.

And what we are seeking is God. Nothing else. And He is waiting for us all.

No matter your creed, code, culture or religion, try and say a prayer
now. Reach into that place in yourself that is hurting, and then lift it up to the I AM, the Divine Being. Realise that He is here, right now, within you, around you and that you are in Him, and He IS Eternity.

Peace and Happy Feast of St. Dominic.

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – Jesus Christ

The Happy Ending

Busted beatle in Limpopo

“Everything will be alright in the end and if it’s not all right it’s not the end”
Patel… or John Lennon.

“Shut it”
Me
This is not a post about pessimism.

This is a post about reality.

Usually when it comes time for me to write  my blog post, I am wrestling with ideas and topics, carving out arguments, chomping at the bit to get writing.

Today is different. None of my “theological questions” feel that important. Rather, I’ve been pondering the idea of “the happy ending”.

How often has someone told you that things will work out?
“Don’t worry, everything will be okay in the end. These things sort themselves out.”
To be honest, that is easy to say when one is a reasonably well off middle class individual.
And in many cases, in those circles, it is true that things will “work out”.

But tell that to the people in South Sudan, the people in the Gaza Strip. Tell that to starving children, or the people dying alone in hospital.
“It will be okay!”
Actually, for many of them, it won’t.

Israeli Soldier

Israeli soldiers deployed in Nablus during Operation Defensive Shield, April 2002

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, because saying things will be okay is how we make reality easier to deal with.

I believe in prayer, and I believe in the power of prayer to affect some sort of change in the world. How? I have no clue but I have experienced it in my own life and know God hears our prayers. Usually He surprises me with the way He answers them though.

But when it comes to praying for a situation like the one in Israel and Palestine, where do you start?

This is one of the biggest arguments against the existence of God. How could an all loving God allow such suffering to happen on earth?

I discussed this recently with a friend and we concluded that there is no way to answer this question. The “text book” answers are embarrassingly bad attempts at explaining the existence of pain and death in the world.

Genesis recounts The Fall of Man and to me that was the early Jewish people trying to explain what they observed in the world. They were trying to answer that very same question. Why is there suffering? The conclusion? Because “man”.

You see, free will is an interesting thing. If you stopped a baby from trying to walk out of fear that she would fall down and hurt herself, how would the baby learn to walk? Genesis seems to be saying that God gave us free will to choose right or wrong because if He made us only capable of choosing “right”, then it is no longer “right”. We are just preprogrammed robots and our “choosing good” means nothing. The same applies to love. The Church would argue that God gave us free will so that we may freely choose to love Him. God will not force us to love him or choose Him.
He loves us so much that He refuses to impose Himself on us but rather tries to get our attention through gentle whispers.

So, we have free will to choose wrong. And we readily do.

I have no explanation for suffering. When I was in London last year, I experienced two of the worst weeks of my life as a result of a recurrence of my Anxiety Disorder – Primarily Obsessional OCD.

I can remember sitting in my matchbox-sized room thinking, what if I don’t get better? (Typical OCD thinking) I remember begging God to help me but at the same time asking myself, why should He? What if He has given up on me? What if I am destined to be another statistic? A mental case, locked up for life. A tragic story of a young life gone too soon.

Because that happens and what can we say in those situations. “It will be alright”?… Please. It’s usually best to not say anything in such cases.

But before I send you into a spiral of despair and existential meltdown, I’d like to challenge you and myself to think of how to do something about the suffering around us and two, (bare with me here if you aren’t Catholic… or Christian) find a picture of a crucifix. Here I’ll help:

Basilica of Saint Sabina - Crucifix

One of the earliest depictions of the Crucifixion in the Basilica of Saint Sabina, Rome

And think about the fact that Christians (we, us, I) believe that the man hanging on that cross is God (well, not literally the little figurine on the cross, but you know what I mean).

GOD, the Being that spoke the Universe into existence, dead on a cross, after being beaten and tortured. “Everything will be alright in the end. And if it’s not alright it’s not the end.”

Flip, I guess His disciples were like, “This dude said He was God. Now He’s dead. Peace out!”

We all know the rest of the story though.

So the point is, suffering. Everyone suffers. People die of cancer, children get bombed in Gaza, people die in their own faeces in hospitals here in South Africa. Where is God?

On that cross.

Before you roll your eyes, let me try elaborate. The way I see it is that if Jesus took on humanity’s sin and suffering (as we believe) then that includes all suffering, from the beginning of time to the end of time. (That’s a lot of suffering)

Why did He do this? Because our freewill remained so important to Him that rather than click His fingers and solve all the problems, He stepped into the ring and showed us how to suffer and showed us that we are not alone.

So in taking all of humanity’s sufferings on Himself that means that all suffering finds its meaning in the cross. That child dying of starvation, his death is not meaningless. He is innocent and his death is unjust and not the will of God but in his dying he is “making up for what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” Colossians 1:24. The Church has a specific and complex teaching on this which I believe and extend to the idea that a dying child’s sufferings join with Christ’s sufferings on the cross and so, in a mysterious way, bring about the salvation of mankind. That little child, in union with Christ, saves me. And all I can do in response is fall before God and weep in sorrow and in joy in the knowledge that His love for me is too vast to fathom and that He gathers all the little children to Himself. And we are all His little children, stumbling along on this earthly pilgrimage.

So I can’t explain why there is suffering, but I can say that I believe that God can take our suffering and transform it, even when it seems utterly and completely hopeless.

Even when it is the end and it is not alright, God will always have the last word. Not suffering and not death.

Wood engraving Crucifixion of Jesus 1866 by Gustave Doré.

Crucifixion of Jesus 1866 by Gustave Doré.

“Set your troubled hearts at rest. Trust in God always; trust also in me. There are many dwelling places in my Father’s house; if it were not so I should not have told you; for I am going to prepare a place for you.”
Jesus:
Speaking to his disciples soon before his crucifixion.

Everything has to start somewhere, right?

The evening in rural KwaZulu Natal

I believe in God.

Sometimes I wonder why I do and sometimes I wonder why it seems as though I can’t not.

I believe in God for two reasons:

My mum told me to.

He changed my life.

But let’s track back a little. I’ve already made three (apparent) presumptions: That God exists, that God is involved in human affairs and that God is “He”.

I believe God exists – The honest reason for this is that it has always seemed impossible to me that there is nothing; That the universe willed itself into existence and that matter was just like, you know, hiding in gaseous vapours and stuff before it decided  to randomly explode into thousands of complex planetary systems. I do accept the concept of the Big Bang; I just believe someONE commanded it to happen.

After that it all gets a little hazier. We can’t prove empirically that God intervenes in human affairs (although some might say we can) and we can’t prove God reveals himself as “He”. This we draw from our religious traditions.

I’m not going to rattle on about the arguments for God, Thomas Aquinas and the first cause theory yada yada. Look it up if you like. What I am more interested in sharing is my own experiences of God.
And that is why I have started this blog.

Here are some Cereal Box Facts about me:

I am Catholic.

I am 25 years old. (at the time of writing!)

I was born in Zimbabwe, went to High School in Zambia and then College in South Africa but I have a British Passport and the EU is the only place in the world where I can lawfully reside without a visa, yet I have spent a grand total of 4 months living in the UK in my whole life.

I struggle with my Faith on a daily basis.

I love my Faith.

I have Purely Obsessional OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)

I have considered becoming a priest.

I have considered getting married.

I am single. (At time of writing – but most probably even if not time of writing)

I have slowly come to realise that there is very little I can be certain of in this life.

____________________________

Let us expound:

I grew up feeling that God was important. I went to a Catholic primary school, went through the usual, first confession, first communion routine and I sincerely believed that there was a big guy in the sky watching over us all.

I was a very impressionable youngster and also very easily frightened (these fears were in fact the first manifestations of my anxiety disorder). I was afraid of the devil and I was afraid of offending God somehow. I had repetitive prayers and tics I would do to ease my anxiety.

However, I ambled along through life and I had a reasonably good childhood with mud flinging, romping with the dogs, fishing and all the rest. In 2001, when I was 12 years old, my family (i.e: my mother, sister and I) moved from Zimbabwe to Zambia. Although a hard time for me, life in Zambia wasn’t bad and I grew into a skateboarding, Taekwon-Do obsessed, pimply teenager.

Me with my Taekwon-Do group back in the day

God didn’t feature that much except for an occasional trip to Mass at the Jesuit seminary and my phases of obsessive prayers to ease anxiety for whatever reason.

Finally I came to Cape Town with my mother and I studied at a film school while she looked for work.

In my second year at Varsity my life came crashing down. My father had died a few months prior and my anxiety disorder finally caught up with me. I plunged into a depression and a truly dark horrid time. I scraped the bottom of the barrel and while I was down there I turned to God for help. Eventually I got through and emerged, rather shaken, on the other side. God receded into the background again but I still knew there was something important in all of this “God stuff.”

Third year came and went and I bumbled along as usual. I can’t say my life had any spark or joy, my main focus was finishing film school and being a good editor. My psychological state was not good and I was desperately looking for comfort and companionship.

In this time I went to Mass sporadically and on one evening I showed up, not too happy about life and heard the priest announce a Prayer and Life course was starting the next day. Why not, I thought and the next evening I showed up in all my scepticism.

It was the beginning of a wild ride. We were challenged to read the Bible daily and reflect on certain passages for half an hour each night. We experimented with different forms of prayer: contemplative, imaginative, written etc. Once the course was over I definitely felt a stronger connection to God but I was still unconvinced about this whole Catholic/Christian thing.

I hadn’t been confirmed so I decided to do the RCIA course (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) which is basically a yearlong course that introduces people to the Catholic faith (which most Catholic churches offer). At the end of the course the catechumens (as they are called) get either baptised or confirmed or both depending on what their story is. I was pretty sceptical about the whole thing but once I started I slowly found myself wanting to learn more and more and before I knew it I had fallen in love with the Church (you will notice I didn’t say God).

Does that mean I finally knew without a doubt that God existed? Nope. Since then I’ve been up and down and all around in regards to my faith but what I can say is that I can note a stark contrast between my life before I decided to commit myself to God and after. This is not a difference in quality or joy or “goodness”. The difference for me is the sense that I am not alone. The thought that the Being that created the Universe knows and cares about me is a comforting one. But just because I believe it, doesn’t make it true. The only thing I can compare it to is breathing through a piece of cloth your whole life so you are always struggling to take in a deep breath and then one day it’s removed and suddenly you can breathe. I am not talking about mystical experiences or divine revelation but simply a shift in attitude, a shift in perception and perspective that occurred only once I gave God a little bit of myself to work with.

Yes, I believe in God. For me, without God there is no reason for this moment to exist, there is no reason for the universe to hold itself together, to function in an ordered way. And if there is no God then consciousness is one heck of a cruel joke of nature.

But this blog is not an attempt to prove or disprove anything, rather it’s a dialogue. A person of faith trying to give people a glimpse into what goes on in the mind of one, OCD, displaced believer – and why he continues to believe when it sometimes doesn’t seem logical.

Enjoy the ride.

Matchbox pinhole camera picture taken by Kirsty at tea time!