In which God chose to limit himself
They all took their places in the semi-circle of chairs around the makeshift altar: Clare, her good friend Pippa, Maria, Bernadette, Mary, little Anne, her baby Dominic, (a little bigger each time Grania clapped eyes on him), along with a couple of other new faces, Bridget and Helen. Catherine was on the phone and the women waited patiently for her, several of them cooing over the baby and passing him round for a cuddle, but Grania’s eye kept being drawn back to Catherine’s icon. She preferred it to the alabaster statuette of Our Lady, she decided.
Over the weekend – when she wasn’t thanking God that Cecilia had survived that heart-stopping accident on the river - Grania had given yet more thought to contacting Nadejda. She’d told Frank all about meeting her at the museum when it first happened, leaving out any mention of the crockery hunt of course, but she can’t have chosen her moment well: ‘Must be desperate for customers, inviting complete strangers in off the street,’ he’d muttered, not meeting her eye, when she told him about Nadejda’s invitation to her classes, ‘out to screw westerners out of an honest day’s pay. Unprincipled bunch, those eastern Europeans. Too much hardship in their lives, blunted their sensibilities.’ He had been too tired to discuss it; hence his sweeping comments about other nationals. He only made those kind of remarks when he was over-stressed.
Then, during mass yesterday, she could not stop staring at the icon in the chapel of the Holy Souls, at the back of Our Lady and the Seven Dolours, easily seen from the pew where they were seated. And when Frank took the children to fly the kite on Gog Magog hills after mass, Grania had rushed to her art crate, unable to resist any longer, and, first off, sketched Nadejda from memory; the result was a little too impressionistic for Grania’s liking, but it had a liveliness to it that she quite pleased about. However, lunch wasn’t ready till two, and Frank was so displeased with the delay that Grania had had to claim sickness had prevented her from preparing it sooner as she couldn’t countenance his reaction to the truth. Of course, she had only to whisper the word nausea for him to start jumping to conclusions, so she had doubly to let him down by making plain the nausea had nothing to do with morning sickness. In the final analysis, though, it had been her own shyness had held her back from calling Nadejda these past three weeks; as soon as she found out how unschooled and generally ignorant Grania was, Nadejda’d lose patience with her. Still, to console herself, last night Grania’d sketched up a rough copy of the icon in the Fitzwilliam – not a brilliant copy, Grania knew that instinctively – which she’d then tucked away in a drawer so as not to reawaken Frank’s irritation.
Oh dear God, she’d better be asking the Lord’s forgiveness this morning, heaven help her, for having so wilfully neglected her family in the culinary department yesterday. She hoped Our Lady would understand and intercede graciously. They probably didn’t run to Sunday roasts in Palestine 2000 years ago, but the Holy Virgin’d have had plenty of domestic pressures on her, no doubt about it, and would have had to make her excuses in front of St Joseph over other matters for sure.
Ah, and there was Catherine now, so they could all get started. Catherine always sat in the middle of the semi-circle these days; an unspoken understanding had come about among the women that this was her appointed place. Anne was next to her, which Grania was pleased to observe.
‘Now,’ Catherine patted her knees with both hands, ‘Perhaps we should begin by reflecting on how the causes that we prayed for last week are doing?’ She looked round left and right expectantly.
There was a doubting mutter from someone (Grania couldn’t see who said this): ‘Is it really such a good idea to put God to the test like that, I thought you weren’t supposed to…’
‘Actually,’ Anne said nervously, ‘I don’t know if anyone’s interested, but Saint Augustine said that when we pray we’re not telling God anything he didn’t already know, nor trying to be persuade him to change his mind, but more that we are trying to ally our purpose with His.’
‘Well, isn’t that a lovely deep observation?’ Catherine commented, her voice bright as if she were speaking to a child, ‘I’ll rephrase: what has God’s purpose been, then, for all the causes we’ve been petitioning for.’
‘My father’s out of danger now; they say he’s going to be fine,’ Maria wrapped her arms around Dominic – he now taking a turn on her lap – and looked radiant with relief. He’d had a dodgy heart problem, and been fitted with a pace maker. Grania had a feeling Frank had been the surgeon in charge of him, but she’d never have known for sure. He never told her who his patients were and indeed people rarely made the connection between Mrs Grania Murphy and Mr Murphy the cardiac surgeon.
‘My niece is doing ever so much better,’ Bernadette told them, ‘so thank you for all your efforts,’ she nodded round at everyone.
‘Well,’ Bridget sighed, ‘I’m afraid we couldn’t do much for Jodie.’
Grania drew in a sharp breath. Jodie was a teenager, related somehow to Bridget – second cousin type relative – who’d got herself into trouble. Of course, they’d all been praying she’d keep the child; there’d even been mention of a baby-shower, second-hand items of course, to help Jodie’s mum bear the expense of an early grandchild.
They all shook their heads in various attitudes of regret.
‘Let’s pray that the poor girl can learn to live with herself,’ murmured Grania. There was that about not being able to have as many children as you wanted: at least you’d never be faced with the appalling crisis of an unwanted baby. Tears poked at the corner of her eyes and she gave one deep sniff to dispel them.
‘How anyone could get pregnant unwittingly these days,’ Catherine sounded truly bewildered, ‘when contraception is so readily available.’ Her voice was full of sorrow. She’d made such an effort with Jodie’s mum, after all, insisting on visiting her last week with Bridget to reassure her of the rosary group’s support and prayers.
‘Perhaps she was forced against her will…’ whispered Anne, blushing scarlet.
‘Ooh, no,’ Bridget looked a tad surprised, then rolled her eyes in disapproval, ‘not our Jodie. She’s not the sort that needs persuading even, never mind forcing. No, it’s a crying shame, it really is. That girl’s got a lot to learn about life, she really has. But maybe this’ll teach her a bit of responsibility. If there’s any good gonna come of it…’
‘Well, perhaps we can persuade her mother to get some decent contraception method sorted,’ Catherine suggested matter-of-factly.
Grania noticed Anne gasp and stare at Catherine in surprise.
‘One that doesn’t rely on Jodie to remember to use it,’ Catherine continued, frowning in concentration. ‘I mean, Catholic or no, prevention is surely a less tragic option than abortion.’ For Catherine herself, of course, Grania reflected, contraception was no longer an issue, as Gervase had taken care of that himself, so to speak, shortly after Elena had been born. Frank had been funny about it for weeks afterwards, teasing Gervase like a schoolboy to his face with daft remarks about firing blanks, then expressing moral disapproval to Grania behind his back.
‘How come some prayers aren’t answered then?’ It was Clare’s brazen voice, of course. ‘Like Jodie getting her abortion when we prayed that she wouldn’t?’ None of the other women would be so darn cheeky to ask such a question in present company. But Catherine, bless her, was as prepared for her as ever. She turned to her left and smiled at Anne. ‘I’m sure Anne can explain. She’s got a degree in theology,’ she told them all proudly.
Anne swallowed and gave a nervous smile, her doe eyes rounder than ever. ‘Well, one answer is that we pray for the wrong things, that we don’t know what’s good and bad, and it’s up to us to find the good in everything that happens,’ Anne explained, her words tumbling out of her mouth in a frantic flurry. She took a deep breath and her voice settled into a more comfortable pace. ‘But in actual fact the question of how a good God can let bad things happen has been exercising theologians for centuries. You see, if he is good and all powerful, and lets bad things happen then, logically, he must either have a bad streak in him or he can’t be all powerful. So-o,’ she smiled round at them, ‘one argument goes that God actually chooses to limit himself.’
Bernadette reached out to grasp Dominic’s fist which was flapping about wildly in front of his face. ‘Boo!’ she mouthed. Anne’s concentration seemed to be thrown for a moment: she gave a little frown, then drew herself taller and started speaking again. ‘Logically, you see, the idea of his omnipotence is difficult to define because he must end up committing to a course of action at some point.’ She paused, with a sideways glance at Catherine who nodded encouragingly.
‘Like, once he commits to creating the world…’ Anne continued, now with much more self-assurance.
‘Ooh, those creationists…’ Clare started up.
‘Shh,’ Catherine hissed insistently, ‘Do go on, Anne, please,’ she apologised.
‘Once he chooses to create the world,’ Anne repeated, slowing her words, ‘he has deliberately rejected the option of not creating the world. So in the very act of exercising divine power, God limits his options.’ She paused, and blinked, ‘So you see in modern theology the tendency is not to regard God as tyrannical but---’
‘There!’ cried Catherine, with a triumphant smile, ‘isn’t it just wonderful having our very own pet theologian along!’ She gave Anne a quick hug with one arm.
‘But I still don’t understand’, Clare had a nerve, ‘why God lets people, and animals, yes,’ she nodded, mouth puckered in concern, ‘let’s not forget that bit of the creation, eh? Why he lets animals and people suffer.’
Anne straightened her back and gave a patient, rather sad smile. She was doing grand in this context, was she not? ‘You see, life is about suffering, if you think about it...’ she hesitated and a dark frown of confusion or something divided Clare’s heavy brow, ‘because we die, you see, we all have to face death, even if nothing else tragic ever happens to us, there is always that frightening prospect at the end,’ she said gently, staring not at Clare but at the little altar table. ‘We are all helpless in that regard. And when God became incarnate in Christ, he limited himself, reduced himself to human status, albeit a divine human – so that like us he would have to face death.’
Clare’s unbecoming scowl didn’t shift.
‘And that’s the point, you see?’ Anne continued valiantly, though her voice was a little wobbly now and her joined hands were raised above her lap in an unrelaxed way. ‘In Christ, God chooses to stand helpless among us and He suffers because, as Bonhoeffer,’ she paused and explained to blank faces, ‘you know, the Protestant theologian, puts it, “only the suffering God can help”.’ She dropped her hands in her lap, and her bottom lip gave a little tremble. How amazing that Anne was so moved by Christ’s Passion, bless her, and it occurred to Grania that perhaps Anne too had suffered greatly over something – losing her mother, perhaps? It wouldn’t do to probe her about it, of course.
‘But,’ Clare then groaned, totally destroying the moment, ‘why didn’t he make us immortal, then?’
‘We’d run out of space on earth, I guess,’ piped up Helen.
‘He could make the earth bigger, then, couldn’t He?’
‘Or make Star Trek happen for real,’ smirked someone else, ‘so we could live in the rest of the universe.’
However, with perfect timing - as this discussion was evidently going nowhere helpful, please God - the baby Dominic gave an almighty squawk, expressing perhaps what the rest of them were thinking about Clare, Grania wouldn’t mind betting.
‘Oh, I think he might be hungry. You’d better start without me,’ Anne hurriedly put the baby over her shoulder and stood up, fairly dashing out of the living room.
‘Isn’t she a help?’ Catherine asked of them all, ‘Just think, any theology issues that turn up, we can just ask Anne. Fantastic. But perhaps we ought to begin. Helen, would you mind?’
Helen put her palms together and began her decade.
Catherine was evidently doing a great job in helping Anne settle into Cambridge life, Grania was pleased to see. Catherine had spoken to Grania about it after mass yesterday, said that Christopher had confided in her during the picnic, and explained to Catherine how nervous Anne was, how he’d been so worried she wasn’t going to like Cambridge; they’d come here only for his work, after all, and it had been quite a wrench from the sheltered life Anne had had in Guildford, with her family around her. ‘So I think she just needs a little - well, it’s an old-fashioned phrase - but forming is the word that springs to mind. I must have her round some time, get to work on her.’
It struck Grania, having observed Christopher and Catherine larking and joking at the school gate this very morning, that they seemed on a quite familiar footing considering they’d only just met; and hadn’t they had plenty to say to one another at that picnic? Grania couldn’t help but notice. In fact, she might just pass a word of warning on to Catherine about it, as sometimes the fellas could get the wrong idea around her. It was just a warmth in her manner, for sure, but it so happened that before now Grania’d heard unkind words muttered about Catherine by upstaged wives, and it would never do for something like that to occur around someone as evidently impressionable as Anne.
Anne at that very moment returned to her seat, infant peering over her shoulder. Grania listened out carefully when it came to her turn to make a petition.
She did so without lifting her head: ‘I give thanks that Cecilia’s life was spared, and ask for strength to better carry out my maternal duties.’
Oh, the poor love, bitten with self-reproach! Grania exchanged a knowing look with Catherine.
‘Well,’ Catherine averted her face from a steaming kettle, ‘I really don’t think you should be blaming yourself like this!’ She sent Anne a short reassuring smile from across the kitchen. Anne shifted Dominic against her arm as she adjusted the bottle, then propped her elbow against the old oak table, not looking entirely at ease.
‘I’m surprised at Christopher, I really am!’ Catherine continued. ‘I mean, he too should have been watching out for his children, honestly, what a ducking of responsibility.’ She shook her head. Meanwhile Grania winced at herself for clattering the handles of several mugs together as she carried them towards the cafetiere.
‘I’ll have words with him if you like.’ Sure it wasn’t intentional but Catherine sounded a little threatening and Anne looked up from her baby in some alarm.
‘No, please don’t. He wasn’t blaming me as such and I’d hate him to think I was gossiping about him.’
‘Darling girl!’ Catherine cried. ‘This isn’t gossip! Where on earth are you supposed to turn when your life’s companion lets you down?’
‘Ahem, Catherine, have you any biscuits?’ Grania kept her voice light, hoping to change the subject. She appreciated Catherine’s intentions, but perhaps she was over-egging things slightly.
‘In the larder,’ Catherine snapped. ‘Listen,’ she then said in a much kinder tone to Anne, ‘of course I don’t want to pry, and of course it’s none of my business how you and Christopher resolve matters between you, but I’m very aware how unsupported someone in your situation can be – miles from home, still finding your way around a new place, little children wearing down your energies.’ She carried the cafetiere high as she made for the hall way, and, passing Anne, rested a hand firmly on her shoulder. ‘I just want you to know, I’m always here for you if you need help. I just don’t want you to think you’re alone, you know.’ Then, with a brusque smile, she added, ‘I help lots of women out. There’s nothing to be ashamed of’, before sweeping out of the room.
‘She really means it, Anne,’ Grania assured her, seeing Anne’s confused look. ‘Don’t be offended by her bossy ways! She just loves helping people out and she’s a heart of gold underneath, she truly has.’
Anne coloured up slightly. ‘Oh no, I wasn’t offended, not at all. I’m grateful to her really, and to you.’
There was a silence. Anne fussed over the baby for a little while and Grania had the impression she was avoiding her eye, then Catherine came back into the kitchen, jauntily swinging an empty tray by her side.
Grania racked her brains for a new topic they could discuss, to take the heat off Anne a little. ‘I never told you, did I?’ she asked, injecting as much interest into her tone as she could muster, ‘I met this fascinating woman in the Fitzwilliam a couple of weeks back.’ She proceeded to tell Catherine and Anne all about it, and Frank’s reaction too.
‘Oh, dear, he does have rather fixed views about things, doesn’t he?’ Catherine commented gravely when she’d finished her account. ‘Get in touch with her anyway. Go on. I dare you.’
‘Catherine, you are a one! Whatever would Frank say, he who adores you so, to hear you leading me astray like this? And anyway, I couldn’t, she’d think me such an ignoramus, if I went along to her icon classes, that she would.’
‘You could just invite her round,’ Anne suggested unassumingly. Grania turned to her. She had a sweet elfin smile on her face as she spoke: ‘Tell Frank you were helping her settle in here in Cambridge. From what you said, it sounds like she could do with some friends here. And then you could find out a bit more about what the art class involves, and whether she’s a nice person, without having to commit.’
‘Now there’s a thought,’ said Catherine, nodding approvingly down at Anne. ‘Tell Frank she’s one of your Hail Mary Club causes, why don’t you!
‘Oh, talking of art,’ she then cried excitedly, patting Grania on the elbow, ‘that reminds me! I’ve invited my friend Antonia round for dinner! She’s married this artist, you see. I need you there. Let me just remind myself when it is, hang on,’ She flipped over the weeks in her enormous wall calendar which hung just by the kitchen door. ‘You know,’ Catherine insisted, ‘my old school friend?’
Grania couldn’t recall, as it happened.
‘That’s it, ah, here we are, the twenty-fifth October. Are you free? You must be. It’s weeks away.’ She turned back to Grania, ‘This new husband of hers, Laurence, his name is, he’s an artist,’ Catherine sounded rather pleased about it. ‘You should come along to keep him company.’
Now, whether or not she and Frank were free that evening, Grania felt a touch guilty standing there in front of Anne making plans that mayn’t include her. She gave what she trusted was a tiny inclination of her head towards the girl, hoping Catherine might leave the details of the inviting until later, when they were alone. Luckily Catherine seemed to catch her drift.
‘And Anne too, why not, are you and Christopher free that evening? Christopher’s an arty type, sort of, with his English degree, isn’t he? Between him and Grania, we might be able to keep this Laurence fellow happy, don’t you think – Gervase doesn’t have much truck with artistic sorts, you see.’ She sent each of them a sparkling smile.
Anne gave a half smile in return. ‘Is Antonia the one who’s divorced?’ she asked Catherine hesitantly.
‘Oh.’ Catherine looked a little bewildered. ‘Fancy you remembering that.’ Then a smile spread across her face. ‘It isn’t catching you know, Anne. And, who knows, maybe with all your theological education you’ll be able to persuade them to repent and do penance.’
Anne now smiled ruefully, ‘Not with my delivery techniques. What I said back there’, she inclined her head in the direction of the living room, ‘went right over everybody’s heads, or perhaps I should say under?’
‘Nonsense,’ tutted Catherine, busying herself with the kettle again. ‘You did really well. You shouldn’t judge yourself so harshly. I understood what you said as, I’m sure, did Grania.’
Not wanting to offend, Grania murmured lightly, ‘Oh, yes.’
‘It must be wonderful to have all that knowledge at your beck and call. Does it strengthen your faith?’ Catherine seized the bubbling kettle, and continued, ‘I should imagine it does.’
‘Well…’ Anne looked thoughtful.
‘I mean it’s hard to take it all seriously, sometimes, isn’t it, but obviously you’ve got the arguments to back it all up.’
Anne laughed. Obviously Catherine was speaking lightly and Anne was taking her words in the right way. ‘Oh,’ mused Anne, ‘I think if it was that simple, theology would be compulsory for all mankind. No,’ she stared ahead, all pensive, ‘faith is everything. I can’t imagine not having it.’ She gave another light laugh and glanced up at Catherine who, it must be said, was looking a little put out.
‘So I can count you both in then, can I? For the twenty-fifth?