On darkness

This morning I preached at our joint All Age service about darkness. This afternoon I was heartened to read this, by James Martin SJ, about newly-canonised Mother Teresa and her own battle with spiritual darkness.

What follows are some improvisations on the words I shared today.


I’m afraid – not of the dark – but of darkness.
This darkness is difficult to describe.
It is…

The darkness of depression and anxiety that creeps up on me sometimes.
The darkness of knowing that I might fail: in my parenting, in my ministry, or some other area.
The darkness of a fear that grips when I hear of more violence, more hate, more terror in the world around.
The darkness of thinking that this might be all that there is.
The darkness of a world without life, a tragedy without hope, a death without resurrection.

It is the darkness that lurks, as Doctor Who warns Amy Pond,

Exactly where you don’t want to look. Where you never want to look. The corner of your eye.

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It is a darkness described by Mother Teresa:

In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing.

This darkness is very real and frightening.

Anyone who has wrestled with God – or God’s absence – in the long hours of night will know the suffocating, crushing, oppressive feeling of being surrounded by a darkness that is more than an absence of light.

This darkness is not right.
This darkness is not peaceable or calm.
This darkness is not harmless.

There is something in this darkness that is a theology without a language.
We barely talk about it, maybe because we are scared or embarrassed, or possibly because we don’t need to give it attention beyond that which it demands.

This is the darkness of spiritual warfare, spiritual battle, spiritual oppression.
It chokes, it robs us of life, it cuts us off from all that is holy.
It tells us of God’s absence, of love’s failure, of hope’s flight.

And yet, paradoxically, it is a darkness that I know more deeply the nearer I draw to God.
In this way, spiritual darkness is vocational.

With each glimpse of God, another small part of his kingdom is illuminated.
We see the good, and the bad.
The redeemed, and the not yet.
The light, and the darkness.

With each whisper from the Holy Spirit, we hear a little of her wordless groaning of intercession.
We hear cries of joy and pain.
Of laughter and sorrow.
Of relief and grief.

Perhaps only in the darkness do we see how much we need the light of Christ.
Perhaps only in the darkness do we come to know prayer as throwing ourselves on the mercy of God and saying I cannot live this life alone. I need God to get me through.
Perhaps only in the darkness do we feel most deeply the pain of those around us, and find the resources and compassion to bring light to the darkness of another.

This darkness is not from God.
It is more than God’s absence.
Yet with God’s presence, it flees.

Perhaps this darkness is always there, always threatening, always looming, but never victorious.

The closer we draw to God, the more we know love, light and hope.
Yet the more we know these things, the more we are called to journey through the darkness that they will one day defeat.

If you’re in darkness, hang in there. Shout prayers and scripture and the name of Christ at whatever lurks in the corner of your eye, right where you never want to look, and it will flee.

 St Patrick’s Breastplate
Christ be with me, Christ within me
Christ behind me, Christ before me
Christ beside me, Christ to win me
Christ to comfort me and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mouth of friend or stranger.

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Eggs and Fish: A meditation for all whose prayers go unanswered

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?

It’s not true.

God doesn’t always give.
We don’t always find.
The door doesn’t always open.

Who among us has not wept and pleaded in prayer; desperately seeking an answer from God?

Even our most noble, self-giving, and good hearted requests to God may be met with a wall of silence.

Giving up is an option:
God hasn’t heard me.
God hasn’t answered me.
God isn’t there.

If you need to give up, then stop here.
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For me, giving up on God is not an option.
I have lived with God too long.

So how do we deal with it when we pray for an egg and we’re handed a scorpion?
How can we go on with God, when the things we pray for don’t happen?
When the opposite happens?

Why does a good God seem to turn away when we cry for his help?

 

I don’t know.

 

I don’t know why some prayers are answered even as we speak them, yet others bounce off the ceiling and roll sadly to our feet.
I don’t understand the haphazard ways in which we hear “yes”, “no”, “maybe”.
Or silence.
I don’t know why God blesses some people in some ways with some answers.
And not others.

But I do know that every time I pray, prayer changes me.
Persistent prayer teaches me more about God, and more about my inner self.

What is it I truly desire?
Who do I believe God to be?
Where will I find happiness?
Who do I think is my true self?

Over time, prayer becomes an exploration of these questions.
Perhaps we find answers.
Perhaps we don’t.
Perhaps we discover better questions.

The biggest lesson I have learned about prayer is that persistent prayer, even 5 minutes a day, leads to peace.

And peace reframes our prayers.

God becomes not a benevolent and kindly old man who wants to slip a pound coin into our sweaty palm because he’s feeling especially generous one day.
Instead, God becomes a partner with us as we seek to grow, and change the world around us.

I don’t believe in a God who wants to be begged, pestered or nagged before he gives in to us with pity.

I believe in a God who has good gifts to give his people.
I believe in a God who calls us to join him in bringing those gifts to others.
I believe in a God who weeps with us in sorrow and laughs with us in joy.
I believe in a God who knows me intimately, who knows what I desire before I ask, who has blessed me richly in all I have.

Persistent prayer has taught me about this God.

I no longer pray just to get things from God.
When I do, I know I have regressed: I’m tired, depressed, beaten.

I pray because I love God and I love life.
I pray to change myself and change the world around me.
I pray to help me cope with a particular situation.
I pray because prayer is oxygen in this smog-filled place.

So if you’re that person, asking, seeking, knocking, and meeting only silence, then for the love of God keep going.

Pray as you can:
pray with words and sobs,
pictures and paint,
nature and dreams.
Just pray.

We won’t find the goodness and realness of God in God’s assent to our every whim, no matter how noble, how good, how selfless.

We find God’s goodness  when we persist in spending time with him, and find ourselves more fully transformed by prayer into who we truly are.

This is true gift.
This is real life.
This is the stuff of eggs and fish.

The downward spiral of spiritual apathy…

…or why we all feel so tired, unfulfilled and sad.

Do you ever have moments of emptiness that are impossible to fill?

Times where you pour good food, great sex and extravagant purchases into a black hole that refuses to be satisfied?
Feelings of inexplicable guilt that are impossible to assuage for more than a fleeting hour?
A desperate need to flee your circumstances in your quest for happiness?

The problem might be acedia.

Acedia is a disease of the soul. We are so ignorant of its existence, never mind the damage it can inflict, that we probably have never heard its name.

Acedia is the spiritual apathy that leads us away from what gives us life.
It is a neglect of the soul, a hardening of the heart, and an embrace of everything that stops us from knowing ourselves.

In his book Finding Happiness, Abbot Christopher Jamison unpacks why acedia is such a problem for us. He examines it in terms of monastic life:

“I know that a monk can be overwhelmed by spiritual exhaustion; is it worth persevering, they wonder. The thought grows that this way of life isn’t valid for me any longer, that my companions are not right and that I should be doing something else, not wasting my life here. As the discipline of the monastic life becomes distasteful, so it is slowly worn away: less prayer, less self-awareness and a growing rejection of the life of the community. Alongside this is often found the impulse to replace spiritual exercises with more and more good deeds.”

The symptoms of acedia include:
– restlessness
– downheartedness
– exhaustion
– a lack of peace
– a yearning to escape
– anxiety
– feeling uncentred and unfulfilled.

Jamison argues that disdain for the familiar and a desire to give up are at the heart of acedia.”

Sound familiar?

Whether we are religious or not, we neglect the inner life at our peril. We are part of and we perpetuate a culture where profit and success are cherished above everything that is sacrificed for them: relationships, peace, rest, fun, prayer and stillness. When we feel unfulfilled or guilty or restless, the temptation is to continue to flee from our inner self.

We fill our lives when we should be emptying them.
We stay on the treadmill when we should be hitting the stop button.

I have started to identify what I think is an acedia cycle in my own life:

acedia cycle

It starts well (1). I give time to prayer, stillness, contemplation and reading.

From this place of rest and refreshment, I am able to live and minister effectively and happily (2). A healthy inner life feeds a healthy outer life, and an active outer life is rooted in a healthy inner life.

But then eventually I will begin to neglect the inner life (3).
Perhaps a busy week or a change of routine means that my times of stillness are pushed out.
Perhaps I lose the discipline of regular reading, and I forget the value of words that nurture my soul.

This neglect takes me to a place of acedia (4).
I feel increasingly unfulfilled, and I seek fulfilment in my work.
Working hard means I start to feel tired.
When I feel tired, I feel guilty and frustrated.
I try to deal with my guilt by working harder (5).
When I work hard I feel self-satisfied, and perhaps smug.
And then I feel tired and guilty again.
The drive to work harder means rest and stillness become of little value, and I enter a downward spiral of guilt and overwork that leads eventually to…

Exhaustion, illness and burnout (6), which necessitate rest and recovery (7). In the past, it hasn’t been until this crisis moment that I have become aware of my habit of overwork.

I am learning to recognise the warning signs, but the moment this downward spiral begins is the moment that I need the greatest self-awareness, humility and discipline. It’s also the moment I most need to hear the challenge that comes from God and others: How did you get to be so busy?

And so I am left wondering:

  • What other destructive cycles have acedia at their heart?
    Greed and over indulgence?
    Consumerism and affluenza?
    Gambling and other addictions?
    Infidelity and unhealthy attitudes to sex?
    Others?
  • Are there people who live consistently in the downward spiral of acedia and never find freedom from it?
  • If you recognise yourself in any of this, what are the warning signs that you need to be aware of to regain a balance and nurture your inner life?

Jamison offers two remedies for acedia:

  • The first is to fill our minds with things that will nurture us: resist gossip, and don’t read rubbish. Instead, read books that nourish, and talk about things that build up.
  • The second is to devote time to prayer, meditation or reflection. This should be regular and disciplined. But I don’t think it has to be onerous. Halfway through the morning, I make a cup of coffee and take it in the garden. The ten minutes I spend there, silent and contemplative, give my soul enough nourishment to get through the rest of the day. In this way prayer becomes a time to be cherished, and not a millstone.

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Acedia afflicts us all, and it will take each of us a lifetime to overcome. However much we fall into its grasp, let us not be so ignorant of its dangers that we cannot even name the source of our unhappiness, our unsettledness, our guilt and our anxiety.

St Thomas the Apostle: A meditation for the faithless  

This meditation can be used in different ways. You could sit with it for a while and take time to reflect on different words and phrases. But most of us flick by things like this at more of a pace: just more words that we absorb in our hurried catching up. That’s okay too. This piece is intentionally short for that reason. Maybe a word, an idea or a question will remain with you into the day. Stop here for as long as you are able. And no longer. Use this place as a quiet pause, a deep breath, a moment for your soul to listen and speak.

It might help you to know a bit more about the story that has inspired this piece. If so, you can read it here.


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You are worried you are faithless
Because questions overwhelm certainty:
Heart-wrenching doubts that threaten to pull you
Away
From what, for one, fleeting moment,
Felt like truth.

Faith seems ungraspable
Slippery as sand through your hands.
You may hold a little, for a time,
And yet when you unwrap your clenched fist
What is left, but mere grains?

Do not worry about your questions:
Hear them
Cherish them
Sing them from the rooftops
Because faith and doubt are dancing partners
And there are greater threats to overcome.

Worry, instead, about your apathy
A spiritual sleepiness
That can’t be bothered to move words to action.

Worry about your shallow fears
Of failure, of imperfection, of humiliation
Which will bolster your ego and cripple your faith.

Worry about the certainty
That slams a door on dialogue
And silences the gentle wooing of the Spirit.

Worry about the damning shame
That shouts YOU ARE NO GOOD
And drowns out Vocation’s voices.

Worry about false security
The pillars of health and wealth that hide your need of faith:
One day, these pillars will crumble.

Worry about the need to control
And loosen your white knuckle hold on life:
Let go before control is snatched from you.

Worry about your worry
Spinning out of control
And refusing to be bound by loving reason.

But never worry about your questions
Never fear your unknowns
Never tame your explorations
And
Never rest
In your quest for faith.

 

Bridging the (generation) gap

Generalisations are as good as it gets!
Ann Morisy, in Borrowing from the Future (2011).

It’s been quite a day. The consequences and opportunities of today’s Brexit will not be clear for some time. Our politicians, civil servants and economists have a massive job ahead.

The rest of us need to start building some bridges. The best people, nay, the only people, up to this task are you and I. Where to start: Social class? Nationality? Politics?

How about age?

Lord Ashcroft Polls have shown that in the EU Referendum, the older the voter, the more likely they were to vote to leave the EU. Social media was quick in its condemnation: the youngest in society (many of whom were not allowed to vote) will pay the price (and arguably bear the brunt) of this decision, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

Baby Boomers have been pitched against Millenials (and before you read further, revisit Ann Morisy’s quote at the top of this post!).

Here’s the thing: I’m a Millennial. At times I feel undervalued, disenfranchised, hard done by, and misunderstood. I am frustrated that the Establishment doesn’t seem to hear or value my opinions, probably because fewer of my contemporaries vote than those of older generations. I feel sad that my generation and younger are often caricatured as lazy, uncaring and disengaged. I believe that for someone in their teens, 20s or early 30s life is tougher now than it was a generation or two ago.

But I spend a lot of time with Baby Boomers. I see how hard life can be for someone living on a state pension. I hear how uninspired, confused, and frightened many Boomers are by the pace of change that my generation seem to thrive and capitalise on. I know how painfully aware Boomers are that they may be ‘out of touch’ with younger generations. And, critically, I am yet to meet someone of my parent’s or grandparent’s generation who doesn’t care about the future of their children or grandchildren.

The problem seems complex, and yet it’s actually very simple. The problem is this: The world is changing so fast around us that we have lost the ability to talk to one another. The pace of change we are trying so desperately to keep up with affects not only our technology. It has an impact on our relationships, our behaviour, and our language. And it has hit our inter-generational relationships especially hard.

Maybe we have lost the ability to say and hear (Boomers to Millenials, and Millenials to Boomers):

I care about you.
I feel let down by you.
I want the best for you.
I am worried about you.
I’m confused.
I feel that life is hard for me.
I’d like you to challenge yourself.
Life isn’t like that for me.
It seems like you had/have things so easy.
I’m frightened about the future.
I don’t understand.
Please tell me about…
I love you.

We have bridges to build. So let’s talk. Let’s talk free of blame and guilt and anger.

Boomers, hear us when we say that life is so very different for us than it was for you. Some things are much easier. Other things are tougher – or different. Let us tell our stories of hardship without feeling that we are blaming you. Listen to our cries for help – our need for your wisdom of experience and your encouraging words of comfort that remind us of what is really important (and we know it’s not property, pensions or prosperity!).*

Millenials, know that Boomers care deeply about our future. Open your eyes to see that they carry a burden of guilt, bewilderment and responsibility about the fact that so few of them were able to sustain such a good quality of life for more than a generation or two. Hear their words of wisdom about life’s real priorities. Listen to stories of what has made their lives so wonderful (and know that it is not wages or wealth).

Perhaps, just perhaps, as we talk, and as we hear, we may come to a better understanding of one another. We are parents and children. Grandparents and grandchildren. We want to see each other happy and we love one another dearly.

Listening, really listening, is rarely comfortable. It will challenge and move us, sadden and gladden us. Hearing one another’s stories will ask us to acknowledge our own weaknesses and fallibilities.

And yet what bricks do we have for our bridge, but our stories and our questions and our ears? The rebuilding must start now, and it must happen quickly. Without this bridge, we will lose something precious and irretrievable. We will lose each other.


* And a personal note. Thank you to those Boomers – Ann Morisy and my parents and many, many others – friends and relatives and colleagues – who have noticed and drawn attention to the plight of Millenials. Thank you to every person who has already listened, and heard, and understood, and asked. You have taught me so much.

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Barnabas: A meditation on encouragement

This meditation can be used in different ways. You could sit with it for a while and take time to reflect on different words and phrases. But most of us flick by things like this at more of a pace: just more words that we absorb in our hurried catching up. That’s okay too. This piece is intentionally short for that reason. Maybe a word, an idea or a question will remain with you into the day. Stop here for as long as you are able. And no longer. Use this place as a quiet pause, a deep breath, a moment for your soul to listen and speak.

It might help you to know a bit more about the story that has inspired this piece. If so, you can read it here.


Speak words that bring strength, encouragement and comfort
(adapted from 1 Corinthians 14:3)

Child of strength
(I know you don’t feel it)
You have more steel than you know
And the disturbance within you is only a sign that
You are changing, journeying, living.
Do not be afraid of turmoil:
Have you forgotten your strength?
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Child of encouragement
Courage was planted
As a seed deep inside your heart
Long before you met Fear’s sweet seduction.
You cannot lose your courage
Any more than you can lose your heart
Though, as with your heart, it may wither with neglect.
Whose kind words watered the tender shoots of your courage?
Whose generous gaze shone sun on your emerging petals?
tulip

Child of comfort
Always be ready to console.
Be the arms that held you tight
As you wipe away tears of another’s broken heart.
Watch with eyes that notice:
Whose head is bowed?
Whose shoulders droop?
Who smiles shakily through misery’s fog?
Offer them this gift:
The best that they cannot see in their self.
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Julian of Norwich: A meditation on wholeness

This meditation can be used in different ways. You could sit with it for a while and take time to reflect on different words and phrases. But most of us flick by things like this at more of a pace: just more words that we absorb in our hurried catching up. That’s okay too. This piece is intentionally short for that reason. Maybe a word, an idea or a question will remain with you into the day. Stop here for as long as you are able. And no longer. Use this place as a quiet pause, a deep breath, a moment for your soul to listen and speak.

It might help you to know a bit more about the story that has inspired this piece. If so, you can read it here.


God did not say ‘You will not have a difficult time; you will not be burdened; you will not be distressed’, but he said, ‘You will not be overcome’. God wants us to pay attention to these words so that we can always be strong in trust, in wellbeing and in woe. God loves us and delights in us, so he wants us to love him and delight in him, and trust him completely, and all shall be well.

Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 68

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 All shall be well.

How much did she cling to these words as she drifted in and out of sleep?
How much did they echo deep inside her mind, as she felt vaguely the priest’s anointing thumb press firmly on her forehead?

Did they seem solid and full of promise?
Or hollow shadows of a life that could have been?

Did her own soul feel the warm comfort of words that would shine so much light into the dark suffering of others?

In the years that followed, was it easier for her to speak these words to those who sought her counsel, and God’s love, than it was for her to hear them herself and believe?

All shall be well.

Not words of empty, saccharine nothingness.
Not a rebuke to end our complaining and silence our pain.
But a precious truth wrought by the wrestling of one near to death and close to God.

All shall be well.

Except sometimes, all is not well.

What is the “all” in my life?
Which parts of me need liberating, transforming, redeeming?

Even the darkest, most twisted and disturbing parts of me are not beyond redemption.
Just as Julian’s hours of darkness birthed a spiritual movement, so the most awful things I face may bring surprising liberation.

No experience is wasted.
Nothing will be left behind; cast off as meaningless.
All shall be made well, and all that is well shall make me whole.

All shall be well.

This is not trite comfort.
It comes at a cost.

It asks me to embrace every part of myself and my story.
It asks me to embrace those around me.
There are no lost causes.
There are no wasted moments.

Are there parts of my life I would rather turn from, suppress, be free of?
Are there people in my life I would rather turn from, suppress, be free of?
What would give me the courage to believe that these could be made well?

Can I offer all that I have been, all that I am, and all that I will be, placing myself into God’s hands?
Can I truly trust, in wellbeing and in woe, that all shall be well?

All shall be well.

Catherine of Siena: A meditation on becoming yourself

This meditation can be used in different ways. You could sit with it for a while and take time to reflect on different words and phrases. But most of us flick by things like this at more of a pace: just more words that we absorb in our hurried catching up. That’s okay too. This piece is intentionally short for that reason. Maybe a word, an idea or a question will remain with you into the day. Stop here for as long as you are able. And no longer. Use this place as a quiet pause, a deep breath, a moment for your soul to listen and speak.

It might help you to know a bit more about the story that has inspired this piece. If so, you can read it here.


If you are what you ought to be, you will set fire to all Italy, and not only yonder.
Catherine of Siena, Letter T368

It is the hardest thing in the world.
To become yourself.
It involves more than simply being.

You learned quickly to hide your self away.
The knocks of childhood and the taunts of adolescence
Pushed your self into a shell that calcified and cocooned.

Becoming yourself is a conscious uncovering that leaves you vulnerable;
Emerging from your shell of self-preservation to stand naked in the world.

Becoming yourself is active resistance;
Breaking the chains of others’ expectations that hold you captive.

Becoming yourself is an act of courageous stepping up;
Grasping that you alone can do the work you are called to do.

Becoming yourself requires you to
know yourself,
love yourself ,
embrace yourself.

Becoming yourself is to become tinder for another;
You are not becoming yourself for your own self’s sake.

As you become yourself
You may never feel the heat of the fire you leave in your wake.

As you become yourself
You may never see the sparks left behind by your authenticity.

As you become yourself
You may see only sad, smouldering ashes where you thought there would be a blaze.

To become yourself is to take a risk:
You risk finding nothing inside your shell.
You risk stripping everything away to be left ashamedly exposed.
You risk fizzling out before you set the world on fire.

As you become yourself, may you come to know your precious complexity.
Beneath your precious complexity, may you find quiet simplicity.
In your quiet simplicity, may you find still pools of peace.

And bathed in peace, may you set the world alight.

Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.

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A clockwork check-up

We have a clockwork baby mobile. It has a dial that turns and coils a spring. At the release of a switch, controlled by cogs, the spring slowly uncoils itself and turns the mobile.

Sometimes, the mechanism gets stuck. The dial will no longer wind, but the cogs won’t turn and the switch will not release the spring.

If the mobile is unscrewed, the coiled spring bursts from the mechanism as it releases its tension, and the mobile spins frantically out of control until it dissipates the energy that it has held captive.

Our souls are a little bit like clockwork.

Things happen. We are wound up, and our complex mechanism of cogs: our emotions, social graces, spirituality, common sense, rest and relationships, deal with the energy that is generated. Under normal circumstances, we are able to release our tension appropriately, creatively, beautifully.

But sometimes, our mechanism is a bit battered. Over time, as we cycle through coiling and uncoiling our springs, we get out of sync with ourselves. The mechanism jams. The switch fails. Our spring gets tighter and tighter with no way of releasing the tension. Eventually, the energy has to go somewhere.

Perhaps we implode.
Perhaps we explode.
Perhaps we seize up completely.

Repairing a jammed clockwork mechanism is a simple task, but it takes a bit of time and care, and you need the right tools.

20160414_111528Can you give your own clockwork mechanism a check-up?
What winds you up?
What helps you to release tension healthily?
Are you feeling tightly wound at present?
What tools do you need to dismantle your own mechanism, release the tension, and reset the spring?

The Annunciation: A meditation on partnering with God

This meditation can be used in different ways. You could sit with it for a while and take time to reflect on different words and phrases. But most of us flick by things like this at more of a pace: just more words that we absorb in our hurried catching up. That’s okay too. This piece is intentionally short for that reason. Maybe a word, an idea or a question will remain with you into the day. Stop here for as long as you are able. And no longer. Use this place as a quiet pause, a deep breath, a moment for your soul to listen and speak.

It might help you to know the story that has inspired this piece. If so, you can read it here.


She could have said no, you know.
Even as the angel told her what would be, Mary still had a choice.
The angel waited for her response.

God sought Mary’s yes.
He wanted her permission, her assent.

Mary could not have done this alone.
But neither could God.

Nothing will be impossible with God, says the angel.
And nothing would have been possible without Mary.

Mary needed God.
God needed Mary.

God’s suggestion
and
Mary’s assent
heralded an alliance of Heaven and Earth.
A union so perfect, so complete, so potent, that it would set the world alight.

And so as Mary cradled that embryo – then foetus – then baby, with her body, so God himself cradled Mary.
She became overshadowed by the Most High: held, protected, empowered.

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Have I known moments of annunciation? Perhaps…

…a creeping feeling of what will be.
…a prompt to become more fully who I really am.
…a nudge towards my destiny.
…an invitation to partner with God and await what unfolds ahead of me.

I don’t have to say yes.
But are there things that God cannot do without my yes?

Do I ponder, perplexed and disturbed as Mary was, on how God might be using my own moments of annunciation – and my quiet submission to them – to change my own small corner of the world?

And do I know that I am cradled, even as I seek the courage to say “yes”?