Eye of the Needle
"They go out, they go out, full of tears,
The woman is threading a needle. Her sight is good, her hands steady, she has licked the end of the thread in order to make it apt for the operation. When she was younger, her sight was better, her hands steadier, but she lacked experience. Invariably the thread would miss the tiny aperture, splay out and force her to begin again. When she is older, her sight will deteriorate and her hands shall no longer be steady, but she shall make up for physical frailty in other ways. Now she stands at the cusp of her life, the moment when experience begins to pay off and physical power is only just beginning to wane. The summer is ended and the leaves on the trees across the meadow are turning out in their autumn hues: red, gold, orange, magenta. The work of summer is interred in the earth, the harvest brought in and the seeds sown for next spring. October is there in all its glory, the eighth month, the month of the Rosary: the endless, eternal round of thanksgiving and offering.
And yet the woman is tired. Hope alternates with despair. Is it worth burying more bulbs in the earth? Will they be eaten by parasites, or killed by a particularly savage frost? Will the work of her hands come to fruition this year? In the church, a coffin lies before the sanctuary. A number of people she knows have died in the last year. Will she be alive in the spring? Will any of us be alive? Will there be a spring? Kiss the ground, for tomorrow you die. November comes, the month of the Holy Souls.
It was at this time of year that I visited Ruth, one evening, after her three boys were in bed in the small back room of the student appartment she shared with her husband, when he was working on his graduate studies at Harvard. We sat at her kitchen table, discussing materials for a women's study group. We wanted to tackle the fundamental question of feminine nature - what is it, how you distinguish between culturally determined models, and the foundational givens engraved in God's plan? We shared a glass of wine and some jokes. I remember she had let her hair down. It was extraordinary hair, reaching down to her knees. She normally wore it up during the day. I asked her laughingly how long she had been growing it, and she said since childhood.
It takes nine months for a child to grow in the womb. Forty weeks. The Israelites stayed in the desert for forty years. In Lent, we put ourselves, interiorly, in the desert for forty days, as Jesus did before the commencement of his public ministry.
The season of Advent, however, lasts only four weeks. This ought to be manageable: but how difficult it is to wait for Christmas, quietly, as the shops fill with consumer commodities for months beforehand and the streets are decked out in celebration of the "festive season" - only to be dismantled on Christmas eve in time for the sales starting on Boxing Day. Our times are not their times, and yet we march to their tune, unless we high-tail it to some remote spot away from the rest of the modern world. And it is so difficult to resist the urge to panic, to over-achieve our Christmas effort, if indeed we do take the feast seriously. Which makes us impatient - to get everything done, all material manifestations of jollity firmly tucked under our motherly belts.
In her book The Reed of God, the poet and mystic Caryll Houselander describes how often impatience ruins the Advent, the waiting, the gestation periods of our lives. "A seed contains all the life and loveliness of the flower, but it contains it in a little hard black pip of a thing which even the glorious sun will not enliven unless it is buried under the earth. There must be a period of gestation before anything can flower."
A little later, she writes: "We live in an age of impatience, an age which in everything, from learning the ABC to industry, tries to cut out and do away with the natural season of growth. That is why so much in our life is abortive. We ought to let everything grow in us, as Christ grew in Mary. And we ought to realize that in everything that does grow quietly in us, Christ grows. We should let thoughts and words and songs grow slowly and unfold in darkness in us.
"There are things that refuse to be violated by speed, that demand at least their proper time of growth; you can't, for example, cut out the time you will leave an apple pie in the oven. If you do, you won't have an apple pie. If you leave a thought, a chance word, a phrase of music, in your mind, growing and cherished for its proper season, you will have the wisdom or peace or strength that was hidden in that seed."
How can I say it? How can I express what has gone awry in the cycle of the seasons, the cycle of life, the planting and growing and reaping? Yesterday I passed a field in which they were burning the chaff. At least I thought it was the chaff, only my daughter Sophie exclaimed that they were burning the hay. Sure enough, as I looked more closely, it seemed that the stacks of hay, standing dotted around the field, were being burned. She was scandalised. Perhaps, I ventured, the proper hay has been taken away and this is only what was left over. But the smouldering pyres were suspiciously large. I did not have time to find out who the farmer was and ask him or her what was being burned. I don't have time for anything much.
I am a mother in a world that demands a great deal of mothers. There are burning pyres in my own backyard, because I don't have time to gather in the harvest. Once I had a greengage tree, which never produced much fruit. Then one year, to my delight, it was covered in the little green plums. I picked a few, but they were still too hard. Let them ripen in their own time, I thought. We had a few sunny days, what they call an Indian Summer, and I got ready to pick the fruit. But things happened. My mother needed attending to, school events, parish activities, work (to pay for the house, to pay for the garden in which the tree stood), other work (to clean the house, to clothe and feed and soothe and nurture the inhabitants of the house, the garden in which the serpent must be kept at bay), children, spouse, parents, siblings, friends, neighbours.... If I think of it as a whole, it takes my breath away. One night, the fine weather ended, and as it will in England, reversed itself dramatically. A rain-storm beat down upon the garden, with high winds to add a little spice. In the morning, the greengages lay, squashed and sodden, at the foot of the tree.
After I left Boston, Ruth had a daughter. Then she had another little boy. About seven weeks later she found him dead in his cot. The following year she found herself pregnant again, and noticed that she had a lump in her breast. The doctor told her not to worry about it. The baby was born, another daughter, and Ruth nursed her, still worrying about the lump. Still the doctors ignored it. A year later she insisted that the lump be examined. She was told that she was in the advanced stages of breast cancer. The resulting chemotherapy resulted in her hair falling out. The hair she had been growing since childhood.
The woman stands at the turning point of her life, empty-handed. She reflects on the tasks she accomplishes each day, as John Henry Newman once put it, "the ten thousand little details and complications of daily life and family history" which disappear from the record "like the fall of the leaves in Autumn". She is approaching the end of her monthly cycle, and she knows that once again there is no child occupying the allotted space. All will fall, will be expelled in a torrent of blood. The newspapers are full of talk about embryo experimentation, women being artificially supplied with embryos after years of infertility, scientists manipulating genetic information for the "benefit of mankind". Another pro-life activist has been arrested outside a clinic in the US. Meanwhile British farmers are going out of business over BSE, scrapie, a host of plagues. Mummy, why do they give cows bits of dead cow to eat? I thought they were supposed to eat grass.
A wondrous thing, the woman's body. A delicate eco-system of hormonal surges, oestrogen to make her fertile, progesterone to maintain a pregnancy. Interfere with the system, and she won't conceive, or she will conceive but lose the child. Poison the system with artificial hormones, load the woman with stress, and it, she, collapses. Out in those fields they are fighting a battle with nature, artificial fertilisers, insecticides, the works. And the food is full of nitrates. Does it matter? How can she tell. She is a busy mother, a dutiful daughter, she has no time to investigate the complexities of the food chain. The decision to buy organic carrots in the supermarket causes anguish: they are three times the price of the 'ordinary' carrots. If she were to apply this principle across the board, how much harder would she have to work, to supplement the income already overstretched by rising interest rates?
In Russia there is nothing on the shelves at all. In Kosovo they are sheltering under the trees in the freezing rain. Many people have no roof over their heads at all. Many people are dying. Many people are dying without knowing where they are going. At least Ruth knows. At least Ruth is giving herself knowingly.
When we left Boston, another friend of mine, and a friend of Ruth's, was in labour. The baby had only been in the womb for twenty two weeks or so. They did everything they could to stop the mother from miscarrying, but at around midnight on the last day of the year, as we were suspended over the Atlantic, her child, our godson, was born, and died. Before he died his father baptised him. His little lungs were not sufficiently formed to enable him to breathe the air of this earth. He was just too young to be "viable". In the same hospital, babies older than him... are being deliberately wrenched from the womb. It takes my breath away. They know not what they do.
Farmers too are desperate to survive in an atmosphere which puts success, industrial standards, red-tape, before nature, before people. Everyone is desperate. Everyone is hurting. Everyone is slaughtering their own interests and feeding them to the mob. It doesn't help to yell at anyone. But perhaps it helps to weep a little. What a hallowed thing is this womb, and how stricken. How stricken are we. In the vale lacrymarum, the vale of tears.
When the women reached the tomb on Easter Sunday, an angel greeted them and asked: "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" What do we prefer: death or life? Relics or real-live persons, standing right here, right now, under our noses? Nothing to do with these persons can be enshrined, controlled, encapsulated. But they needs must be served, succoured, loved. Who is going to do this if all we are interested in is politics and balance sheets? It is good to honour the dead. I do not know the woman in the coffin in the church, but I bowed to her remains when I went to the communion rail, for even a stranger's body is worthy of respect. A woman's body that has on it the marks of eight decades of work, women's work, that work which falls like the leaves to the ground, and yet in the eyes of God is infinitely precious. It is those leaves that compost down to make the humus which fertilises the earth for new seeds to germinate, in secret. Dust to dust. Humus... humility. And yet sometimes the downcast eyes must be raised up, a little. We raise one another up: I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for what you do, for who you are.
Ruth had another baby after her cancer treatment. The doctors, who hadn't taken her initial symptoms seriously, thought she was mad. The baby was healthy. She was called Sophie. Who is wise, and who is mad, in all this? When Sophie was a few years old, Ruth discovered that her cancer had spread. She lived out the last years of her life as she had lived the rest: actively, that keen analytical mind tackling every issue that came her way, director of religious education in her cathedral parish, campaigner for the unborn, mother, wife, friend... She and Michael visited us seven months before she died. We went to Littlemore, the place where Newman had retreated at the turning point of his life, and in the little chapel there we said the rosary, that great round of prayer about the events in Our Lady's life, the events which expressed her intimacy with God incarnate, God made flesh, God reducing himself to the size of a baby in a human woman's womb. Incredible, I thought, as we walked in the garden afterwards. You create a universe, and you become tiny, fragile, vulnerable, just to prove you love us. You take bread, and make it your body, and feed us on yourself, like a mother. Not just in our infancy, but for all time. Ruth and I received holy communion together, she the extraordiary woman who faced death, I, the ordinary woman who did not. And we were one, in one body.
Ruth died in September. We prayed for a miracle, but she still died. Ruth and I have a mutual friend who was unable to be with her at the end, and yet who loves Ruth so much that, she told me, she had done things she never thought herself capable of doing, just in order to be able to end up in the same place as Ruth. This is the communion of saints. This is why He binds us together, in one body, his body. This is why we wait with His mother during Advent, wait with Him in the garden, run to meet Him at the tomb. Our reverence for Him spills over in all those little acts of reverence for His creatures, for one another. Those gifts lovingly wrapped, meals lovingly served, attentions lovingly given to even the most difficult child, the most cantakerous pensioner. Love makes us pray with care, invest our liturgy with beauty and wonder, our intentions with warmth and sincerity.
"There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real. It is the fundamental fact of being, as against not being; it is unthinkable, yet we cannot unthink it, though we may sometimes be unthinking about it; unthinking and especially unthanking. For he who has realized this reality knows that it does outweigh, literally to infinity, all lesser regrets or arguments for negation, and that under all our grumblings there is a subconscious substance of gratitude" (G.K. Chesterton, from the first chapter of Chaucer).
Love cannot compromise. It is a seamless garment: it requires proof. Actions embody the word of the heart. Love is a perpetual Christmas, a never-ending Epiphany. We can give of ourselves in the very moment when we perceive what it is that we receive. The gift, the sacrifice, becomes the thanksgiving, the eucharist. It hits us, suddenly, how fortunate we are, and we desire, with all our hearts, to give something back. The other day, when I had done something for my seven-year old daughter Rosie, she suddenly flung her arms around my neck and said, with fervour: "Oh I love you so much!" And she asked me what she could do to help me prepare the dinner. I was smitten to the core. At that moment, we could refuse each other nothing. How much more must our tiny motions of thanksgiving touch the heart of our heavenly Father?
I do not have the spirit of sacrifice, a friend said to me, a trifle despondently. Yet, I reflected afterwards, if one of my children were in danger, I should throw myself in front of a ten-ton truck to succour them. If every soul that crossed my path were perceived as my child, I should have the true spirit of sacrifice. Sacrifice is nothing other than love, a love so burning that it carries us to its ultimate conclusion. If we were all true mothers and true fathers, in the very depths of our souls, the will of the Father would indeed be done on earth as it is in heaven.
"For it was you who created my being,
This piece appeared in the ‘Second Spring’ section of Catholic World Report, December 1998