The word that is life


Recently I spent a morning talking to a woman about her children. Two had run away from school in their teenage years, one to domestic work in Brazil and one to work in the mines. She has never seen them since. As she spoke, her youngest child sat next to her, twining her arms around her mother and now and again looking into two fragments of a broken mirror, which she held together in front of her face.

Later that day, as so often here, I was filled with a hundred and one thoughts, about a technical college for teenagers, about a really good primary school, about a feeding programme for pregnant women, about a hardship fund for secondary school parents – about all the things I desperately wanted to see done. The difference is that when I think these thoughts now, I know this work is not mine to do. I could no more become a good primary teacher than a good ballerina, and the thought of running an agriculture college is like the thought of becoming a professional musician – possible, perhaps, but utterly unrealistic. Once I wondered if I had the vocation to this kind of work, but not the generosity for it; now I know I have the generosity for it, but not the vocation.

I am absorbed by my work here, sifting UNICEF reports, sleuthing out statistics, interviewing parents, teachers and community members, and bringing together all the pieces that make up the picture of the educational injustice facing indigenous people here in Guyana. It’s not work at the coalface, but it is very necessary. I have been thinking much of a speech Ignacio Ellacuria SJ gave in 1982:

‘The university should become incarnate among the poor, it should become science for those who have no science, the clear voice of those who have no voice, the intellectual support of those whose very reality makes them true and right and reasonable, even though this sometimes takes the form of having nothing, but who cannot cite academic reasons to justify themselves.’

I can cite the academic reasons, and so my job here is to speak the word that is life for these people – the word that is justice, education and dignity. But even as I immerse myself in this social scientific work, I know that my deeper call is to speak the Word that is life, that is Christ. I am a theologian.

I have oftentimes shied away from being a theologian, particularly in academic clothing, because it seems so impractical, so useless and so privileged. I have felt that I ought to be and do something different, and that, if I was more generous-hearted, I would be doing something different. It seemed to me sometimes that only my lack of faith and some suspected self-indulgence kept me from throwing theology up in the air, and going off to do something more practical and worthwhile.

Increasingly, however, I recognise that the path that brought me to theology was graced, and not mistaken. I have begun to recognise that overlooking my gifts is overlooking the gifts of God. Theology remains my calling, I think, though I still do not know what shape it will take, and I still harbour doubts about academia.

I find myself thinking of something a nun said to me when I was 20 or so, when I first thought seriously about religious life and went to visit a few communities. ‘A vocation,’ she said, ‘is what you find you have when you can’t do anything else – and you’ve tried.’

Strong like turtle


We arrived in Sawariwau just before 5pm, and discovered that everyone was in a village meeting that had been going on since before 9am without a break. When they eventually emerged and came over to greet us, I said ‘You must be tired!’ One of the women, Edna, just laughed. ‘Sister, you have to be like us!’ she said ‘Strong like turtle!’

I think back home, we’d say ‘strong like a bull,’ or ‘strong as a bear’. We’d choose something big and ferocious, something muscular and aggressive. But here, strong is like tortoise, or a land turtle, as they get called here. The next day, we met a little girl with a pet tortoise which, like most pets of small children, put up with a lot, including regularly being airborne. The week before, we’d sat with a teacher in Karaudarnau who told us about a friend’s pet tortoise, which she put out to roam, assuming it wouldn’t go far. The tortoise made an unnoticed bid for freedom and went off into the undergrowth, never to be seen again. Tortoises may not look like much, but they have a quiet, unassuming determination.

Edna named a kind of strength that I have been admiring in Amerindian people, and learning a great deal from. Our bull-and-bear kind of strength means that we take a ‘win or lose’ mentality with us into conflict situations. The choice is between being a victor, or being a doormat. Amerindian people rarely get to be victors in our sense: colonised in the past and marginalised in the present, they are the poorest communities in Guyana, and the most exploited and pushed around. But they have a way of not being a victor that is definitely not being a doormat. It’s being a tortoise. Amerindians put up with a lot, with quiet determination, and they have a way of ‘disappearing’ from situations in which things are being forced on them. You won’t hear raised voices, and most often you won’t see people fighting back, but don’t mistake that quietness for assent or defeat. It’s the sound of a tortoise walking off into the undergrowth.

The path to launching our Quality Bilingual Programme for Wapichan Children has not been as smooth as we’d hoped. Often, in our exchanges with the government, we find ourselves in frustrating situations. Exasperated as I often feel, I know bull and bear tactics won’t work here. We need to be strong like turtle. And the Amerindians I’m working with are teaching me how.

The Friendship of the Vows

I’m writing this from Georgetown, Guyana, to a cacophonous background of beeping horns and chattering parakeets. I arrived last night. This morning I fly to Lethem in the interior, and later this month begin my mission for the next three months or so: supporting the beginnings of a bilingual education programme for indigenous children in South Rupununi. If it comes off, it will be the first time Wapichan children have been able to have formal education in their own language as well as in English, in a curriculum appropriate for their needs and experience.

That’s the next three months or so, but in the last few months a lot has happened as well. On Wednesday last week, I made my first profession in the Congregation of Jesus. It was such a grace, and such a joy. It felt very much like something for which I have been waiting –and something for which God has been waiting, with great patience and gentleness– for the whole of my life.

There’s so much I could write, but I find that the deeper things go, the harder it is to say anything at all. So I just want to share two images that I was praying with in the run-up to my vows, and which say something about where I find myself at the moment. Both are images from the Painted Life of Mary Ward. (Internet limitations here mean you’ll have to look them up yourself!

The first image, number 10 in the series, is a picture of Mary Ward as a young woman. It was around the time that she was preoccupied with thoughts of martyrdom. She had grown up not just with the stories of martyrs in times past, but with the present reality of Catholics, including relatives and family acquaintances, dying for their faith in England. At this age, she had a ‘burning desire’ to be a martyr. This, she thought, was the ultimate way to give your whole existence to God. In the painting, Mary is kneeling, embracing a gallows tree, holding a guilloting and surrounded by a grim selection of torture instruments, from cutlasses to a rack. In an inset in the top left corner, a row of priests are hanging by their necks, while others are hung, drawn, quartered and burned. The picture speaks of youthful ardent desire, and faith as a heroic struggle. Here, self-gift to God is a kind of self-immolation – perhaps even a kind of violence against oneself.

Over time, Mary’s desire for martyrdom waned. Initially, this change troubled her, and she wondered whether she was just going cold on the idea. But God showed her that she was called to a different kind of martyrdom: living the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in religious life. On the face of it, this is not the most inspiring understanding of religious life. But the painting of this scene shows something more profound and beautiful than the substitution of one sort of martyrdom for another. The vows are not portrayed as armed to the teeth against the desires of the flesh, or portrayed as executioners of the passions. Rather, the three vows are portrayed as three young women –three friends– embracing one another. God offers Mary something less heroic and less dramatic than her dreams of martyrdom, something more beautiful, gentler, tender, and ultimately profound: God’s own friendship, discovered through the friendship of the vows. The vows are not heroism, not a grand gesture of self-gift, and not an act violence against ourselves: they are the quiet coming-near of God who desires our friendship, and desires our good.

‘It is good pleasing the Friend of friends, and labouring in eternal works, and above all to be entirely and forever at our Master’s disposal.’

(Damian Howard SJ’s homily for the first profession of three Jesuit novices had some nice things to say about heroism and communion:

In high heels, backwards

My grandmother Madeline was heard to say that Ginger Rogers was twice the dancer Fred Astaire was, because she had to do everything he did, but backwards and in high heels. When I see a portrait of Mary Ward hanging next to a portrait of St Ignatius, as in our house in Alltöting, I can’t help thinking along the same lines.

I am in Germany at the moment. It’s an opportunity for meet our German sisters, and to undertake the last experiment of my novitiate – a two week pilgrimage in the footsteps of Mary Ward, from Feldkirch to Innsbruck. It’s also been an opportunity to see some of the Mary Ward materials and archives in CJ houses in Germany. This is how I found myself, on Tuesday, in a room in our convent in Alltöting, with two huge portraits of Mary Ward and Ignatius hanging side by side and, on the next wall, a cupboard containing some of Mary Ward’s belongings: her walking shoes, two pilgrim hats, a rosary and psalter, and a remarkable seventeenth century travel clock.

I found myself moved – greatly and surprisingly so. At the time of her death, Mary Ward could hardly have hoped that, over 400 years later, two novices of her Institute would be standing in front of her earthly belongings. I was so full of gratitude for all that she has given me. It seemed to me beautiful and fitting that these are all the things we have from her: no great shrine or church, no house, not even a body, though we have the gravestone. All we have from Mary Ward are the things for a pilgrimage: shoes, hat, prayer beads, clock. They spoke to me so clearly of a woman who had left everything behind, and who was absolutely open to the will of God, wherever it would take her.

I found myself hugely moved, too, by all the women whose faithfulness and courage meant that I could stand there, in front of those objects. Women who persevered after the order was suppressed, refusing to give up on the apostolic life to which God had called them, and in which Mary Ward had led them. Women who preferred to take private vows and live as a secular association, rather than trade in their apostolic freedom for recognition as religious – who would rather be called ‘Mrs’ and get on with their mission than forsake it for the title of ‘Sr’. Women who refused to hand over precious documents, like letters from Mary Ward and biographies of her, when this was demanded as the price of their recognition as religious women. Women who kept on commissioning pictures of Mary Ward holding the Constitutions, with a ray of light spelling out ‘Hic Regula Vitae’ falling on the open book, which often reads ‘Scientia Iesu Crucifixi’. Women who never lost sight of Mary Ward’s founding vision to ‘take the same of the Society’ – to take the same spirituality and rule of life as the Society of Jesus, whose constitutions they secretly handed down for generations. The history of Mary Ward’s Institute is a history of women’s apostolic life surviving and flourishing against all odds. If the early history of the Society of Jesus is Fred Astaire, Mary Ward’s Institute looks a lot like Ginger Rogers.

To be standing there, hundreds of years later, a novice in Mary Ward’s Institute, and formed by the Constitutions that Mary Ward so desired, was a joy and a privilege.

‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.’ (Mt 11.25)

Guyana, Guyana


The last time I blogged, I was in the middle of my three month experiment in Guyana. I’ve now been back for nearly a month, and embroiled in the process of applying for my first vows and being interviewed, as well as picking up my volunteering in York and Leeds, settling back into life here, and preparing for my next experiment in Germany.

It’s been hard to know what to share about the experience of Guyana, partly because it was such a huge experience, and I am aware that its lessons and graces will continue to unfold for years to come. I have already shared something of the experience on the CJ website here, and the Tablet reflections I was writing while I was there. Here –without much coherence- are two of the other discoveries of Guyana. I’ll add more when I have time.

  1. Mary Ward’s mission: education. Guyana was an opportunity for me to connect with the mission of Mary Ward herself. In an era where few thought women were worth educating at all, Mary Ward saw that education was key to women’s human dignity and flourishing, and key to the health of the Catholic faith in Europe.

Guyana showed me, for the first time, how much education is key to human dignity and flourishing. The Amerindian populations of the interior, with whom I was living and working, are failed badly by an education system that ignores their language and culture. Roughly 1/3 of Amerindian children never pass the exam that gets them to secondary school, and those who do get there struggle. Lack of education means Amerindian communities are fractured, as people emigrate to seek unskilled work in Brazil, further accelerating the erosion of Amerindian cultures and languages. Amerindians communities struggle to find trained teachers and medics, and leaders and role models for young people are few. Lack of education means these communities are all but defenceless in the face of rapid social change, and the predations of mining companies. Lack of education exacerbates social problems, including early pregnancy, alcoholism and domestic abuse.

I have always taken education somewhat for granted, and in fact my background in university research and teaching means that I typically associate work in education with wealth and privilege. In Guyana I could see the desperate need for education as a human right, as the key to communities’ survival and flourishing. I could see how much the education system failed indigenous peoples. And I could see many, many children who were beautiful and bright, and who deserved the world.

The Jesuits, together with a team of teachers, cultural experts and concerned citizens, are piloting bilingual education in three primary schools from this September. For the first time, children will begin education in their mother tongue –Wapishana in this case- and have the opportunity to learn with culturally relevant materials. Please, please pray for the success of this project.

  1. Mary Ward’s mission: pastoral care. Mary Ward and her ‘English Ladies’ divided themselves between two apostolates. On the one hand, there was the work of education for women and girls in mainland Europe. On the other hand, there was the underground mission in England, supporting the work of clandestine priests by catechesis, visiting, and anything women could do to support the faith in an environment where Catholic institutions were banned, and priests were hunted.

Guyana is not a hostile environment for the Catholic faith, and yet in many ways the situation is similar to that faced by Mary Ward. The shortage of priests is acute. Most communities will see a priest four times a year; the rest of the time, laypeople conduct communion services. The lay leaders are magnificent, and it is wonderful to see how vibrant the church is in Guyana. Yet, as in Mary Ward’s time, the lack of pastoral accompaniment from priests and sisters causes difficulties. Other denominations, preaching against the Catholic church, cause confusion and division. People lack guidance on pastoral and moral issues, and many lack anything more than basic formation in their faith.

In this kind of situation, it would be possible for a sister to feel like second best. A bit like turning up in a small rubber dinghy to rescue people in a flood,when what is really needed is a large ship, when what you need is the sacraments, a sister is not that much help. But in Guyana I experienced just how much sisters can do, and just how indispensable they are. When priests are peripatetic, sisters do so much of the vital work of pastoral accompaniment and education. In one sense, the lack of sacramental power brings us closer to the people, and helps us to share their burdens. It reminded me all over again that Jesus himself ministered from this place of powerlessness. He was not a priest or a Pharisee, and he did not hold any position of power that compelled people to listen to him or guaranteed him an audience. He had an authority that came from the Spirit, and he gathered people by attraction, not by force. It’s not that sisters lack all status and authority –historically perhaps we have had rather too much– but that our nonclerical state is, at the very least, an invitation to minister as Jesus did, from a position of deliberately chosen powerlessness, drawing others by attraction and by the authority that the Spirit gives.

More anon.

The way of the cross

I have now been in Guyana for over a month. There is so much I could say about my time here so far – about the new discoveries, about the beauty of the people and the landscape, about all that I am learning, and the consolation and joy of ministry here. What I want to write about, though, is something about why I am here.

I’m here because one of the things that emerged from the Exercises was a call to be with the poor, and to accompany people who are suffering in some way. I thought that Guyana would give me an opportunity to test that call and to explore it. From the beginning, then, I have been trying to feel out what God intends for me here – what he wants me to learn, how he wants me to grow, or what he wants me to experience.

In many ways, poverty and suffering are not uppermost in my experience here. Life is simple, even basic, but I do not get a sense that people are ground down by material poverty. People have homes, and people have enough to eat. There is basic education and healthcare. Yet the longer I spend here, the more I become aware of an undercurrent of quiet suffering, much of which goes unspoken and almost unnoticed.

Education here is very poor. In the interior, where I am, most children do not go to secondary school but remain in ‘primary tops’ – they do not pass the end-of-primary school exam, so they stay there. Of those who do go to secondary school, a very small percentage pass their examinations in Maths and English: failure rates in recent years have ranged between 60%-90%. Those children who are fortunate enough to get into secondary school have to study far from home and family, cramped into dormitories. The experience is not good for their mental health. The barriers to learning are huge, and this underachievement, frustration, and sad waste of potential has become ingrained and accepted as inevitable. The lack of education severely limits the opportunities for young people – many go to Brazil, where they are exploited as cheap labour. Others go to the mines.

A life of faith here is difficult, too. The people are wonderful and deeply faithful, but they are defenceless against other denominations who come in to villages preaching against the Catholic Church, and not infrequently offering material bribes for people to join their congregations. The result is confusion, desolation and division within communities. The lay leaders in the Church here are fantastic, but they do not have the resources or the formation to handle situations like this, and the priests and religious are too few – many villages see a priest only four times a year, and the four sisters cannot cover much ground either. The flock of Christ is vulnerable here, like sheep without a shepherd.

Many communities are facing a loss of their indigenous culture, or pressure to forsake it in the name of development. One of the reasons indigenous children do so badly in the education system is that they are educated in English, not in their mother tongues. They study a curriculum that reflects the experience of the coast, not the reality of life in the interior – they study things they have no experience of and do not need to know about, and the importance of their own experience, culture and knowledge is ignored. Here, being indigenous means being limited, undereducated, exploited, being almost defenceless in the face of rapid social change, and unable to take advantage of it. The resulting frustration finds its way out in drinking and domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, hopelessness, passivity, emigration and the weakening of community life. The people are hugely resilient, but the word that springs to mind is defenceless. This is the suffering that remains silent and does not open its mouth.

How can I accompany these people? I do not know – at the moment it is just being present to the wounds. I find myself wondering a lot about what I would do if I had the resources: so much is possible, and there are so many ways in which I would love to open up spaces in which indigenous people here can flourish in the way they should be able to. But I think my task for now is just to accompany the people on their way of the cross.

Lately I have been reading Jean Vanier a lot, and reflecting on his invitation to live with the unguarded heart of Jesus:

To understand how Jesus lived and acted,

to understand his compassion and anger,

we must understand

that there were no barriers around his heart,

as there are in us,

barriers which prevent us from being truly compassionate,

barriers which block the flow of love,

barriers which separate us from God

and from reality,

barriers which separate us from pain. (Jean Vanier, Jesus the Gift of Love)

On Friday, during the Stations of the Cross, I was thinking of this, and my own attempts to be a bit more like the condemned and misunderstood Jesus – to stand defenceless, not opening my mouth in the usual reflexes of self-defence and self-justification. Jesus does not do this – he does not guard himself in any way. And part of me, I think, felt that that was the way of serenity and peace. But it is actually the path of suffering. I think this is what God wants me to learn here – to understand more of what it means to be alongside his suffering people. He wants me to walk not just in the steps of Simon of Cyrene, who strengthens and consoles, but in the steps of Jesus, who is beaten and does not shield his face against insults and spittle.

Perhaps, in these people, Jesus is showing me more of that call to be with the poor. I made my initial response, and now he is asking me, ‘Can you drink the cup that I must drink?’ Because in this people, in their poverty and lack of education and frustration and violence, Jesus is drinking the cup. Jesus is present with the poor and suffers with the poor – their suffering is his suffering. I have always known this, but now I am beginning to understand it. Jesus suffers with his people, not as a strong man, leading and comforting, but as a weak man, beaten to the ground and not opening his mouth. This is not the silence of peaceful consolation, but the silence of innocent suffering that, unbelievably, does not speak out in self-justification or self-defence, and for whom nobody speaks.

Pray, if you do, for the people here. And pray for me, that I continue to listen for the call of Jesus and respond with generosity.

Lord, I know that there will be times when I will abandon you in your suffering people.

There will be times that I am afraid for myself and I run away.

There will be times I watch from a distance.

There will be times that I wish you would speak up, or act in self-defence.

There will be times when I deny you.

Lord, you will walk your way of suffering nonetheless.

You will be merciful about my failures, and you will look on me with compassion.

Please give me the strength to accompany you, and above all

to respect your suffering and to learn from it –

not to make you walk my way of the cross, or the stations that I would have you walk,

but to walk your own way of suffering.

Help me to accompany you.

Help me to love you in your suffering and be faithful to you in it.

Mary, you remained close to your son throughout his suffering.

You bore him then as you always had done.

Keep open in me the space that faithfully bears Jesus.

Keep me close to him, and ask the Father to place me with his Son.

The love that knows its way forward

theo-to-guyana-2b-17It’s two years to the day since I walked out of the front door of my parents’ house and began the long walk to the London CJ house to begin my postulancy. I couldn’t have imagined then that exactly two years later I would be getting on a plane to Guyana.

Several people have asked me what I will be doing in Guyana. In practical terms, the details are pretty sketchy. For most of the three months I’m there, I’ll be staying with some Ursuline sisters, joining them in their ministry to the local Amerindian community in Karasabai and surrounding villages. The sisters work with a team of six Jesuit priests who minister to the Catholic communities in the interior.

In spiritual terms, I am doing the same thing I was doing when I walked to Willesden: following Jesus in what Jean Vanier calls ‘the love that knows its way forward’, even though I do not know where it will end up. I find it very hard to be articulate about this, because I scarcely understand it myself, except that I am convinced that it is the invitation of Christ and that it needs to be followed with everything I’ve got.

What has grown in me over the last two years is a need to be with the poor. This hasn’t emerged as a sort of preoccupying idea, or a feeling that I ‘ought’, but as something very real: I have discovered the desire to be with the poor through being with people who are poor, in various ways. I don’t feel the need to fling myself into social activism and projects, although committing myself to the poor does mean committing myself to their life and flourishing. It is just a need to be with, to give my life and share theirs, as far as I am able.

Following this desire took me to Manchester, and to my last placement in a homeless day centre. Though I have done lots of homeless work over the last ten years, I sensed that I would have a lot to learn about accompanying people day-in, day-out over a longer period. It’s hard to put into words what I actually learned. I think that Jesus brought me into their company not so that I could do anything for them, but so that they could show me something. I have always been so capable and strong, so proudly self-sufficient, and what a great big fat camel I felt when I was with them! Here I am, laden down with all my riches, working out what to shed and how, while they walk unburdened straight into the kingdom of God! This, I think, is what Jesus gives me through their friendship: a glimpse of their absolute preciousness, the desire to bear witness to it, and above all, the desire to enter the kingdom in which they are so much at home. I saw my own poverty and weakness in a new way: together with them I felt ‘black and beautiful’ (Sg 1.3). And I understood all over again that this vocation is not about doing, but about becoming in myself a great open space for God, an expanse in which the kingdom can be built, a space for encounter. This is what the vows are beginning to mean to me – they are about keeping that space clear, opening it up, protecting it.

So that’s why I’m going to Guyana. It is the next step in ‘the love that knows its way forward’. While I’m there, blog posts may appear, but they’ll be in the form of round-robin letters!