In the past two weeks, I have had two quite marvelous joys. First, snow in Oxford, loads of it, real, fluttering, wreathe-the-world-in-white-mystery snow and an early morning walk with Thomas through the unspoilt wonder to complete the gift. And second, a visit to Florence, a golden gem of a city whose art stole my breath (Caravaggio! Fra Angelico! Giotto!), whose colorful and luscious food definitely grew this belly a bit more, and whose friendly people took great joy in exclaiming upon said belly and the baby inside (the family orientation of the culture was a surprising delight).
I write to you now from the early morning hush of our in-between week of home time before we fly to the Netherlands for Christmas. I've been brooding on this post for two weeks and think I finally have it reduced to words. I am curled rather exhaustedly on the couch as I begin, a fitting start to this post. I'm accompanied by a very Charlie Brownish little Christmas tree whose homecoming involved the combined and rather strained efforts of myself and the most taciturn taxi driver I have ever encountered. Having dragged the tree into my living room and cut the netting, I discovered a lopsided little being with gaps so evenly spread that there was no way to conceal them. Idealistic me rebelled. Realistic (and pregnant) me sank onto the couch, drank a cup of (decaf) tea, then decked my little tree person in simple white fairy lights and a few storm-blue baubles.
Now, I find the imperfection of my tree strangely comforting. We make cozy, slightly bedraggled companions in the early mornings when I drag myself out of bed to read some Isaiah aloud to my bump and listen to choral classics in the early, shivery quiet. Thomas is usually at morning prayer, a service we've both attended together for the past couple of years. These days, I just can't quite summon the energy, so I sit in the hushed mornings, trying to learn again how to rest. Mostly I try to pray my way through the thrumming worry that sits at back of my days as I process the changes in my body, my capacity to work, my sense of the vast unknown that lies ahead of a me that really likes to fell more in control than this.
I find it all surprisingly hard.
I am discovering how much I dislike to feel helpless. I've never been much good at the acceptance of my limitations but the fact that rest is hard for me is a surprise; as an introvert I love time alone, I'm not high energy, I'm a bit of a homebody who glories in the fact. But I am discovering that I feel almost threatened in this season by my own incapacity to work, to keep up the way of life Thomas and I have known in our first years of marriage, even my ability to concentrate or pray, or heck, be emotionally stable. I used to laugh at Goudge's description of a character whose husband grew used to the fact that in seasons of pregnancy she periodically became 'unstuck' and simply needed to weep.
I don't laugh anymore.
I sometimes want to weep myself. And as my energy wanes and this precious baby grows and I shift from three (nay, ten) years of intense writing or academic work, jobs on the side, and a full social schedule, to a space in which my mind and body must grow quieter in preparation for the new work and gift of my child, I find I am surprisingly afraid. I find I am threatened in my sense of self, my worthiness to receive love now that I am no longer able to do and provide quite as much as before.
Who am I when I am exhausted? When I cannot, for a season, fulfill my own ideals of what it means to provide for our home, or be in community, or work towards the writing that drives me, or be as emotionally stable as I desire? As an idealist, I think that the shape of my life is often a ceaseless reaching toward the embodiment of the beauty that I can imagine, the love I can see as possible, the laughter that could be kindled between friends, the worship I ought to give, the strength and peace I can bring to relationships. But who am I when I cannot reach for those goals?
And what does it mean to be loved when I cannot respond or give equally? How can Thomas like me when I am a barely contained and daily changing hurricane who finds laundry more overwhelming than ever? How can God respond to me when I cannot concentrate or pray for more than a minute together and often just don't want to pray at all? Perhaps more to the point, how can I love myself when I cannot be what I think I should be in order to be competent... and loved?
Questions, urgent questions, that have led me in the past weeks into a startling and lengthy excavation of my own ability to trust, to believe that love holds me when I can do nothing to deserve it. I'm always a little shocked to find how much of the Gospel I can grasp by intellect and how little I sometimes act as if its true. But I've been gently led into that difficult and luminous thing called trust, by lopsided Christmas trees, by Thomas' amused, profoundly gentle, and utterly faithful care, and by three moments of specific epiphany in which the sheer gift of Love, unmerited, unearned, just prodigally given to a frustrated me made Love a burning reality waiting only for my acceptance.
First, the challenge of a mentor. Early in my pregnancy this past summer, when these insecurities began to simmer, I spoke about them with a friend here in town, seeking some sort of means by which I could get back on top of my emotions and sense of stability. 'It sounds just like what I used to feel when I was learning to walk on a tightrope' laughed my former-acrobat-now-Anglican-priest-friend. I looked forward to similarly helpful metaphors in the spiritual techniques of balance I was sure would follow. But his next words were a challenge. 'What if you let yourself fall? Do you believe you will be caught? If you totally fall apart, if you weep or can't keep on top of house things or give way to anxiety, do you actually trust the love of your husband... and of God?'
Second, the whisper of the Holy Spirit. Last week, as we sat in a service of communion in our beautiful old church, I found myself praying before I went up to receive the bread and wine. My heart surged with a sense of wanting to give, to be more present, to honor the gift of Christ's presence, the fulness of the beauty around me, the deeper realization of God's redemption that I come to every year as I think about the Incarnation. What can I do, Lord, what can I give? The answer, this flutter of a voice speaking in my inmost heart: Just receive me. Open your hands. All I want is for you to let me give myself to you...
Third. Last. A painting by Caravaggio encountered in Florence. The Incredulity of Thomas, a scene in which the famed doubting Thomas is given the gift of having his frank, child-like desire to touch the scars of the risen Jesus, granted. I have always loved this story; notice, please, that Jesus doesn't rebuke Thomas. He fulfills his request, he urges him to doubt no more, he answers that stubborn, pragmatic desire by yielding his glorious self to the probing hands of a needy man.
I could have stared at that painting for hours. It seemed to shimmer from its place in the narrow gallery (or maybe that was just the fact that I was getting teary). The longer I looked, the more I saw of myself in Thomas, and the more I understood of what real love is in studying the face of Christ. I see myself in the suddenly timid hand of this disciple who almost cannot dare to touch what has so generously come as the answer to his demand. I see myself in the wrinkled bewilderment of his face, the crouch of his awed shoulders. It's as if he didn't expect the extravagant answer. Now that Love is in reach he's almost afraid.
And in the face of Christ, in that tender, gentle face turned down to meet the lowered face of Thomas, I begin to understand something of a love that is a total givenness. A love that puts itself in the hands of needy humans, that does not deny but rather grants their whimpered requests for assurance, their fearful need to touch and see. I love the hand of Christ, guiding Thomas to actually take hold of what he has yearned to touch, the receive the assurance he craves and is now afraid to receive. I love the way Christ holds back his robe, baring his heart in total gift to those frail and faulty disciples, crowding round, hungry, desperate, curious.
Doubt no more.
Jesus' words aren't a rebuke, they are an invitation to Thomas to receive what is already given. To let Love come alive to him, to open his eyes and see what's already there, given totally into his hands
Doubt no more.
Those are the words that echo with me here in my small front room in the frosty mornings as I sit, a little lonely, a little timid, with Isaiah open on my lap, learning to know myself held by God's joyous, unstinting affection. The fear falls away as I begin to rest in its givenness, as this Love helps me to trust my frail self to Thomas' unfailing love, to that of my family, far away, to the friends who give and provide when I cannot. Those are loves I couldn't have earned to begin with. The idea that my own capacity to provide and perform made me lovable wasn't strength; it was actually doubt. And in my weakness, a helplessness that I begin to recognise as blessed, it begins to wash away.
I'm lifting my face with Thomas, reaching out a trembling finger. I'm learning to trust. To recognise the fulness of what's been given.
I'm really, truly touching love.
I guess all the change is pretty good after all...