Posted by: Louise | October 24, 2011

reflections on faith

Humans are new here. Above us, the galaxies dance out towards infinity. Under our feet is ancient earth. We are beautifully moulded from this clay. Yet the smallest stone is millions of years older than us. In your thoughts the silent universe seeks echo. An unknown world aspires towards reflection. Words are the oblique mirrors which hold your thoughts. You gaze into these word mirrors and catch glimpses of meaning, belonging and shelter. Behind their bright surfaces is the dark and the silence. Words are like the god Janus, they face outwards and inwards at once.
John O’Donoghue (Anam Cara)

I was reminded of John O’Donoghue’s writing recently. His books are all beside the bed, and gathering dust – just a little. But one of the Still Life 365 submissions mentioned him so I picked up a book and blew off the gathering dust.

Right at this moment it feels like a lot of things are coming together, not in a good or a bad way, just in a way. Astro Boy has begun to learn the trombone. I am still not sure how I have become the mother of a child who plays the trombone. How does that come about? How does an eight year old decide ‘the trombone – now that is the instrument for me’? The trombone? He is really enjoying it, so far.

On Wednesday nights I go to a dance class, which is mostly lots of stretches and moving about to loud music – Listen to the words. Aren’t they beautiful? my teacher says (It is she who likes Beyonce)- with a bit of choreography at the end. You are doing brilliantly. It’s not about being perfect. You are beautiful. We all want to record her and have her say those nice things to us when we are struggling with the kids’ homework or the housework or…. And then we go for tea and hot chocolate and share recipes and little psychological gems and swear (in vain) that tonight we will be home and in bed before midnight.

Then there is Still Life 365 and the guest editing and the Artist to Artist talk. I struggled so much with that – accounting for myself, reconciling all the different parts of me in to one place. I have a lifetimes practice of minimising myself – Oh, that was nothing – which I am quite sure is profoundly irritating for people because I couple it with a lifetime of overachieving.

I’m not really an artist. Writer? Oh no. That’s just something I do. Academic? No. I just happen to work as a lecturer in a college, but I’m not an academic. I am irritating myself right now.

That Artist to Artist interview was the first time ever that I have brought myself as a mother and an artist and a professional together in the one place. And maybe that is what is going on. All the different bits of me aren’t quite so spread out at the moment or segregated. I am (experiencing) more of myself at the moment in a personal wall of mirrors kind of way. All these parts of me are being reflected back at me from so many different angles. I am seeing myself in 3-D.

People are talking about faith. Not just faith, but about knowing and not knowing, believing and not believing, and holding them together within you. Angie at Still Life with Circles explored it back in September. More recently Catherine at Between the Snow and the Huge Roses wrote a piece that has been rolling around my head for days now, that and a few of those late night recipes.

I don’t talk about faith much.

There is a lifetime’s habit of not talking unless I believe I can clearly explain myself – unless I can control the outcome of my words. All that makes for, I now realise, is someone who is very quiet about the things that matter to her most. I was at a teaching workshop recently where someone said You can only control what you say, not what others hear. It has taken me an awfully long time to realise that.

And so I haven’t spoken about faith much…

But I think about it all the time.

When I was pregnant with Laura, it was a coming together of so much. K had been so very, very sick. He had lost his job. His Mum was dying and then there was new life growing in me. This baby was ‘meant to be.’

We had our twelve week scan and they told us there was a risk our baby might have down’s syndrome. This was devastating news. K’s Mum had been buried the day before. How much more could we bear. But, when I was six my infant sister had died. She had down’s syndrome. Somewhere in this would be healing for all of us as we welcomed our child into our family.

At twenty four weeks a fear much bigger than down’s syndrome was realised. Our baby had a hole in its heart. So we asked the doctor to tell us what sex the baby was. We needed to find out something that wasn’t a medical condition, something that was just a neutral fact. But it wasn’t really a neutral fact because I have six brothers and my only sister died. My brother has four sons and a daughter. We don’t do multiple girls in our family. Girls are rare and celebrated. Not in a way that means the boys are loved any less. (But you know that.) They are just rare.

I prayed my way through the pregnancy. I began reading my bible again after so very many years. I wrestled with so much turmoil and then a few weeks before Laura was born found some kind of peace – a peace that allowed Laura to just be Laura and not a replacement life for K’s Mum or my sister or anything really. She was simply our ‘meant to be.’

But then she wasn’t.

And with her loss went all the easy comforts of faith, the ‘meant to be’s. Torn up and scattered in the wind as the tiny white coffin was lowered out of sight.

These days there is belief amidst a tumultuous sea of What the f*** is going on? A very fragile belief. I haven’t lost it, but please don’t poke holes at it. Please.

There is new awareness. An awareness of connection. But this too is very fragile. Somedays I am so clear about what this connection is. I feel my missing daughter despite her absence. I feel connected to so many people the world over because we share something so terrible that others dare not speak of it. We are connected despite our physical distance. I feel the physicality of love and loss and presence and absence. Somedays this is all so clear and fits so obviously with the world, the universe and far beyond. But when I try to grasp it and write it down and cry Eureka, the thoughts slip through my fingers and this awareness is a fog.

I am changed these days. I am able to hold knowing and not knowing within me and not judge myself (too harshly) for my uncertainty. I am more forgiving of my humanness. I wonder how I ever survived the unending barrage of criticism and judgement I have subjected myself to. I still subject myself to it. I just don’t listen quite so intently at the moment – or I try not to, some of the time.

I don’t know about prayer. I mean, I really don’t. What type of prayer works? Not the kind I have engaged in, it would appear. So what is prayer, if it isn’t a six year old saying – please don’t let my sister die? Or a 7/9/11 year old asking for another sister, as her fourth, fifth and sixth brother arrived. What difference would it make to God if they were boys or girls? Or an anxious mother asking for her child’s heart to strengthen as she grew within her. I was being realistic then, I thought. I wasn’t asking for diagnosis reversal, just strengthening. So I am stuck on prayer. I still pray sometimes, but it would appear that I continue to get it wrong because my prayers still aren’t being answered.

What do you believe about meaning and purpose? I once was asked (and sorry Cathy it has taken me so long to answer) The answer is I do not know, but I will continue to live and write and reflect upon this life in my thoughts and in my words. I will continue to hope. Hope for answered prayers or glimpses of meaning or more connection. And for now that is all.


  1. I love the quote from John O’Donoghue.

    Also love the choice of trombone! I completely mystified my parents by choosing the oboe. And then my little sister chose the bassoon! Guess we are just a double reed instrument kind of family.

    It’s interesting what you have written about not wanting to talk unless you feel you can explain yourself clearly. I feel that, perhaps, that quality is one of the marks of the true academic, the natural academic? And interestingly I find myself in a discipline that attempts to articulate rather fuzzy concepts using the very precise language of mathematics. Perhaps I just decided to retreat from words entirely at that point in my life! Then G died and now I just spout away, sometimes talking in circles or ending up making the opposite point to the one that I had intended! Perhaps because, as you say, I realised that it meant I couldn’t express myself in areas that were suddenly very important to me, messier, more human fields.

    I also had a very strong sense that my babies were ‘meant to be’, on the basis of deaths in the family, a grandparent and, sadly, our extended family had also lost a baby prior to my daughter. Twins surround us a little here, in the family and amongst our friends, and it felt like we were meant to join that club. Similarly but kind of opposite to your feelings about Laura, ubiquity as opposed to uniqueness. And I felt very certain and very peaceful, beyond the naivety of a first time mother. I will never, ever feel that way about anything again, not that gentle, peaceful certainty that the world would look after me. It seems ridiculous, looking back, that I could have ever, ever believed such a thing.

    I still pray for things but my expectation of a reply depends on which of the many versions of God that I can seem to hold simultaneously in my mind might be listening. I also tend to use ‘rote forms’ of prayer a lot more than I did. Pre-written words written by someone else that I speak aloud? Perhaps because I feel, like you, that whatever I was doing previously, I obviously wasn’t doing it right. Sigh.

    But I think I am one of those people who needs belief. I need belief in order to live. So I’ve had to conjure it up and perhaps the only way I can do so is the rather unsatisfactory double think that I described in the post you’ve linked to here. But yes, it is not a faith that can bear strong light or being jabbed with a stick. A poor thing but mine own.

    And as someone who seems to have a rather mean critic residing inside her head, I know it is hard to shut that internal, judgmental voice up. But I am usually now, fine with admitting that I don’t know, that I can’t understand, that I am uncertain. G’s death left me feeling foolish but I find that I know longer mind (so much) looking like a fool? And now what a massive long comment that doesn’t make much sense at all! Sorry Louise!

    • Thank you Catherine, for your “massive long comment”. It is lovely, as always, to find company in this place. I nodded my way through every sentence of it, even the bit about the oboe. I love that you and your sister and my astro boy can have such clarity at sucha young age. xx

  2. “There is a lifetime’s habit of not talking unless I believe I can clearly explain myself – unless I can control the outcome of my words. All that makes for, I now realise, is someone who is very quiet about the things that matter to her most. I was at a teaching workshop recently where someone said You can only control what you say, not what others hear. It has taken me an awfully long time to realise that.

    And so I haven’t spoken about faith much…

    But I think about it all the time.”

    I love that you bravely wrote about this, Louise. And I feel very unfriendly towards anyone who would “poke holes at it.” Hopefully no one has, and my ready-loaded anger is not worth holding.

    I have always thought if faith didn’t involve the ability – and encouragement – to ask as many questions as a human mind could wrestle up, it isn’t real. Or it isn’t worth having. Or it’s a false version of what *is* real.

    This idea of whether prayer “works” also brings up a lot of questions. Prayer reminds me of why I talk to my husband: because I like him. Not because I want something. I always kind of wonder when people say, “I prayed, and then God gave me {x}. That’s how prayer works.” Is it?

    Thank you for wading into this topic. I have thought about your post ever since I first saw it. I love Catherine W for responding and writing out her thoughts, too.

    Hope to read more, when and if you feel like it.

    Cathy in Missouri

    • Oh Cathy. Your demands on faith are so great. Of course it needs to encompass all our doubts and questions and anger. I am not used to that being encouraged, but wouldnt it be wonderful.

      And what you say about prayer and your husband… of course, again. We do get so caught up in answered and unanswered prayer as though that is prayers purpose.

      xx from Ireland on a very wet and windy day.

  3. Your comment made me smile, Louise. I never thought about these being “demands on faith” – less so, great ones. Very interesting. I like that you said it.

    I wonder, why IS there so little encouragement to sift through all the doubts, questions, and anger? What are “they” so afraid of?

    The more I ponder, that’s what made me suspicious (of some things) from the start. I remember as a child, asking questions – and being told that I should close my mouth and leave the questions. That’s when I knew the adults were floundering. I encountered the same problem trying to find help in stopping the predator who took my innocence (and my brother’s, too).

    For a long time, this drove me away from faith altogether. As I got older, I saw increasing examples of it being a “false front” – which you could poke your finger through on a whim. Not much of a God…

    However, that is not where I stand now. But even in the midst of faith, I carry on wondering about all the people who could not withstand questioning when I needed to do it. I still want to know what they were so afraid of. And I still think that a God who is afraid of questions sounds a lot more like a politician than a deity. Thankfully in this century, in this country, I’m still “allowed” to think like that without being burned at the stake. 🙂

    I so enjoy hearing your take on things, and find your insights and perspective valuable. And I promise not to write a novel in the comments every day. 🙂

    Cathy in Missouri

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