April 24, 2012

I am in the throes of last-minute assignment frenzy, but am taking a break between papers to throw down a few ideas around this topic, prompted by my friend Richie, who asked “…you say a few times that you don’t judge people. What does this look like? Are you saying that you don’t recognise that what someone has done is wrong?”

Good question.

Allow me to begin answering it by giving you a little personal history. There was definitely a time in my life when I was highly judgemental. It started with being raised in a very critical environment, both of me and of seemingly everyone else around us. I was exhausted by all that bitterness and began to reject it. But, I continued to be very critical of myself. Constantly judging myself meant that I was in a non-stop game of comparison: how do I compare to him/her in a, b or c. I have moderate talents so sometimes I’d come off well; other times, catastrophically badly. As a result of all this comparison, I was judging not only myself but everyone around me, non-stop. I seemed to be stuck in the cycle from which I had first emerged, and rejected, or so I thought! Compared with those who came off badly, I looked pretty good in my own head. It was a deeply unhappy place. This led to the much-coveted personality trait of self-righteousness. Oh, how we all love a self-righteous prig!

Anyway as I wandered into faith I began to try to repeatedly repent of all this stuff, which literally understood, means to turn away from it. What I was failing to do (or even consider) was turn away from the self-judgement. It was only when I began to give myself permission to accept myself that I began to understand how I could accept others. Accepting yourself doesn’t mean you like everything about your attitudes or behaviours, but it does give you permission to rest in your own company without judgement, in the very same way you would with a trusted friend. This in turn allows you to stop competing with those around you. This is tied up with the idea of grace – but that’s a post for another day. :)

Then, with age, comes a lot of realisations. The realisation of my privilege has been a biggie. That was what I was talking about in that previous post about choices versus chances. How do I know what I would have become, given different circumstances? I can’t know.

Fundamentally I approach myself and my fellow human beings with two Christian truths in tension (you could call this my “operative theology”):

  1. We are all imperfect, cracked and broken to some degree. As a result we act in violence or confusion and make mistakes and wrong choices.
  2. We are all created by a God who looked on his whole creation, including us, and said, “It is very good!” As a result there is something at the core of each of us that is beautiful; something that has the potential to grow.

Anyone who engages with this reality embarks on a wrestling match of epic proportions. Pretty much my whole purpose in this life is to allow that something beautiful in me to continue to grow and grow. I will insist on feeding the violent wolf, though. Or – as someone put it to me recently – I will insist on watering the weeds!

If the above is what I believe about everyone, and if I am in a space where I am accepting of myself, then I do not need to judge anyone else. I can disagree with their actions, yes – I can observe while they feed the wolf. But what is the role of a judge? It’s the one who gets to condemn or set free. In short: it’s the person designated to form conclusions. I will never be the one to form conclusions about me or you or anyone. Why? Because none of us is finished yet. Further than that still – the judge needs to know all the facts of the case. I cannot, and never will, know all the “facts” that form another person. One small fact can be all it takes to have a verdict or case overturned. So I need to let go of the position of judge: like most other jobs, I am simply not qualified for the role.

That’s not to say I don’t sit in the judge’s seat from time to time and bang the gavel about – just ask the husband unit about that. :)


newsflash: irish government uses cloak-and-dagger methods to recruit poor people for shit jobs

April 23, 2012

Yesterday, April 22nd 2012, I encountered this job advertisement on

Job Title  : Data Entry Clerks
Job Type  : Permanent / Full-time
Job Description  : We require experienced data entry clerks to work within a government department
The Job Applicant  : Testing will be required as part of the interview process to ensure you can reach this level of typing. You must have at least 2 years previous experience working in a busy clerical role. An ECDL qualification is desirable. Previous customer service experience also required and you must possess a good telephone manner. This is an excellent opportunity to work within a Government Department. This position is contracted from April to November at the moment.
Further Details  : You must be capable of typing at 40 words per minute
Date added : 19/04/2012

It was untypically vague for a civil service post, but a job is a job. Amongst several other similar jobs, I applied for it.

Today I received a call at 13.42 to invite me for an interview for the post. The interview was scheduled for 16.30 today. The woman on the phone was clipped, disinterested and cold. I asked her to be specific about the job, but she glossed over the details – “Data entry for a government body based in the city centre”. She said she was calling from a recruitment agency and gave me the address of the interview, which was in an industrial estate about 30km from my home, and accessible by 2 buses (about 2 hours travel time). I agreed to attend immediately, and then quickly found myself a kind human to give me a lift (a blessed 25 minute journey by car).

I arrived at 16.25. A receptionist asked me to sit in the lobby and wait. I waited with approximately six other applicants. Each applicant looked harried and harassed; all of us vaguely sweaty in our hastily ironed suits. Everyone looked pretty desperate. Eventually the woman who had rung me earlier appeared and handed out application forms to everyone. They were essentially blank CVs, and six pages long. We were told to fill them out and she left. We were guided by the receptionist to a room with empty office desks, so as to more easily fill in the forms. Meanwhile, another batch of applicants was drifting into the reception area.

At 17.10 a woman in a white dress who I had not met before came into the desk-room and without introducing herself handed everyone another sheet of paper which explained that we would each perform a typing test, followed by a short interview. It also mentioned that the posts were shift-work (7.15am – 3.45pm and 3.15pm – 11pm) and that the pay would be €11.46 per hour. I did a quick sum: €401.10 per week, gross. A take home pay of about €330, given my personal tax credits and all civil service taxes and charges. Not the worst: last summer my take home pay was €298. It also explained that the posts were with the Local Government Computer Services Board and that they were being created to process data relating to the household charge.

With a sense of dawning reality I suddenly understood why the job description failed to mention this, and why the original clipped, disinterested woman had shirked my questions on the phone. She had been instructed to! I suddenly felt a little ill. As I object to the household charge in its current form, I began to consider leaving. I paused and decided to play it by ear.

At 17.30, the woman in the white dress came into the desk-room and asked, “Who arrived at reception first?” It happened to be me. I rose and followed her into an office where two other administrators were making multiple frantic phone calls, speaking in loud, irritable voices. She did not introduce herself.

She sat me at a laptop in the middle of the room. The browser was set to She described slowly to me how to work the website and said that my aim was 40 words per minute. (Normally my typing speed is somewhere around 80 wpm.) She said to call her when I was ready.

She returned to her own desk and began making phone calls. As I laboriously typed out a stupid paragraph about astronauts, the phone on my desk rang repeatedly and the three women around me spoke in loud voices, one of them complaining to someone on the phone that she didn’t have access to a computer right now. It was extremely difficult to concentrate. I achieved a score of 63 wpm. Although you are allowed to have, apparently, unlimited attempts, I wanted this over with. I sat for a while and waited until White Dress Woman was finished speaking on the phone. I beckoned and she came over, and oohed and aahed over my score, while I cringed. She invited me to yet another desk, in the very same room, for our “interview”.

I slid my completed application form and a copy of my CV across the table to her. It was at this point that she scanned it to register my name, and told me hers.

She asked me the following question:

“Can you start tomorrow?”

Taken aback, I said, “Yes” meaning that I was available to start tomorrow. Inwardly something was screaming “NO WAY!”

The next question was, “Have you worked for a civil service department before?” (Quick glance at my CV.) “Oh yes, I see you have.”

That was the end of the questioning.

She then told me that I could present tomorrow morning for work, but I needed to be aware that they could not offer me a contract of longer than one month. (At this point, it is worth glancing back up to the original job advertisement under the sections ‘Job Type’ and the last line of ‘The Job Applicant’.)

At this point I said, “No thank you” and promptly left, completely demoralized. As I walked out the door she told me to give her a call if I was ever looking for a more suitable job. Ha!

In a bizarre twist of fate, I had received a phone call just one hour preceding this farce of an interview, offering me a temporary post in the Department of Social Protection (a.k.a. the dole office), starting Monday.

Well. Ain’t it funny how these things go.

the post where chip monk loses friends and followers

April 21, 2012

The topic of abortion is such a complete shitstorm. And it is so, I believe, not for any of the reasons that either side of the debate claims, but because our number one value is autonomy – the freedom to do whatever we as individuals think is right.

The trouble with personal autonomy is of course that nobody is actually an individual but rather everyone is a member of a community, and our autonomy leaks into the public sphere, bleeding out of our very pores, and then our convictions clash. Nobody cares what the hermit thinks of abortion, as the hermit will never need one, and will also never vote one way or the other. The only context for virtue is relationship.

I will never be in favour of abortion. No doubt, nothing I say here will change the mind of anyone who disagrees. But it is a profoundly violent act, committed against three parties: mother, baby and community (community includes Dad). Choosing not to view it as violence unfortunately doesn’t change its violent content. Where not carrying out an abortion also has violent consequences also doesn’t empty abortion of its violent content.

In cases where the violence suffered by the mother is greater than that suffered by the child were nature to take its course then dogma can be set aside and we must fight to save Mum’s life. An ectopic pregnancy (eccysis), for example, will never be viable. Mum and baby will die. So the baby must be removed from the fallopian tube in order to save Mum. But we are not talking about ectopic pregnancies, because there is no moral dilemma there. Ectopic pregnancies are surgically dealt with as a matter of course in Irish society. We all know someone who has been through it and nobody bears judgment for such a mother. In 99% of abortion cases we are not seeking the end of such a pregnancy, despite what anyone may say.

I am, as I have said here before, a committed reformed Christian. My position on non-violence is coloured by this. My anti-abortion stance however pre-dates my faith conversion. My mother is a pro-life atheist: yes, such people exist. And my position was compounded not by anything I have ever heard in a church (in 15 years’ church attendance I have never heard a sermon on the topic of abortion – I have also never read a Christian book on the subject nor been involved in a bible study that discussed it), but by my foray into the world of ethics. It was the raging arguments in philosophy class that ultimately led me to the position that abortion is morally indefensible.

I am not a Roman Catholic. Reformed Christians do not believe in mortal sin. Sin is sin, as far as scripture seems to be concerned. In fact, the message of scripture as far as I can discern is that the astonishing grace of God cannot be blocked by our sin. Therefore I do not argue that abortion will send you to hell: no more than any other violence. This means that my actions and decisions are not motivated by fear, but gratitude.

Do you hear judgement? If you do, it might be because you you view me through the post-Christian lens. My passion, as I have also said here, is prison ministry. I work with male sex offenders. I have a strict policy of non-judgementalism. I neither judge them personally nor judge what they have done. Their offences are no barrier to my friendship, care or love. Many of them have confessed horrors to me that you could only imagine in your darkest nightmares.

If you’ve had an abortion, I do not judge you. I do not even judge what you have done. That isn’t my job and I am grateful for that, because I would make a biased, foolish and selfish judge. However I will use my vote to legislate against any move that means that violence is normalized further in Irish culture. Many women do not regret their abortions. I am glad that they are not riddled with guilt: guilt is a luxury we cannot afford and serves no purpose, and shame and secrecy only breeds pain and darkness. But many women do regret them. Very few women on the other hand regret having their children.

I believe that women who are firmly convinced that abortion is the correct path for them will find the means to procure one. In 2010, 4,402 Irish women crossed the water to do just that, joining with 189,574 British women. But I subscribe to the unpopular belief that it is a good thing when destructive options for our lives come with limitations (as I write this, I understand that the women involved do not agree that their actions are destructive, but you must permit me my autonomy in this instance and allow us to agree to disagree). For these reasons, and also because I believe in the inherent value and beauty that lies dormant in the potential of every in-utero fertilized egg, will I never be in favour of abortion.

There is no middle ground here. That is why the debate rages. And let it rage. But let us not pour rage on one another: we can only speak our truth quietly and clearly.

living gently?

April 16, 2012

What does it mean to live gently, really?

I was absolutely staggered yesterday to read that for every one American soldier that dies in battle this year, a further twenty-five veterans will commit suicide. What?

I am stunned. I am horrified. I could actually cry. Scrap that: I should cry. So should you.

Because there seems to be no talking to those who are pro-military. There seems to be no convincing the empire of the United Kingdom and the United States that war is utterly dehumanising; that war and armies and “support our troops” rhetoric and wearing poppies creates space for us to be the exact opposite of that which we were meant to be as human beings. What will it take? Will this be enough? I doubt that one soldier will leave the army as a result of this statistic.

I am an evangelical Christian – an adult convert. Evangelical means “of or according to the teaching of the Gospels or the Christian religion”. The hallmarks of evangelicalism are a commitment to scripture and orthodox Christian tradition. I worship in an Irish Presbyterian church. The vast majority of Presbyterian churches in Ireland are evangelical.

The evangelical church in the United States is at about 26.3%, or almost 83 million people strong. You would be hard pressed to find many communities amongst that number who are anti-war. Pacifist voices are silenced and pacifist theologians are slandered. We are all familiar with the propaganda machine that talks incessantly about wars on terror and fighting for freedom. We have heard the love-songs to the flag. The United States and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom are nations in love with an idea which when lived out results in 25 times more casualties off the battlefield than on, at their own hands, because so mutilated is their humanity that they can no longer live with themselves.

Let’s pretend that the primary purpose of a soldier isn’t to be a state-sponsored killing machine. Let’s forget for a moment about the untold misery inflicted by our western militaries on other nations. And let’s temporarily suspend the arrogance of western democracies. Let’s push under the carpet the atrocities carried out by soldiers in every war in every age. Let’s forget rape as a weapon of war and gas that melts your face off before you die. Let’s set aside the fact that Guantanamo Bay is still alive and kicking, and it’s still holding people without charge, and it’s torturing and starving them and sexually humiliating them and stealing them from their towns in the middle of the night and leaving their communities devastated. Let’s just put that to one side for now.

And let’s examine what it is doing to the American soldiers themselves and their communities. This culture is a trap. If someone you adore is in the army then all of a sudden you find yourself in the position of needing to be in favour of your side being the brute force that wins, because the alternative is that your son or husband is dead. And if fundamentally you view yourself as a good person who works hard and loves his family, then it just Does Not Compute that being a soldier might be morally wrong and arguably completely at odds with the Gospel. It doesn’t matter that you are a Christian. It doesn’t matter that the bible says any of the following:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. – Paul speaking in his letter to the Romans 12:14

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. – Paul speaking in his letter to the Romans 12: 17-18

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Paul speaking in his letter to the Romans 12:20-21 quoting Deut. 32:35

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. – Jesus speaking, as recorded by Matthew 5:43-45

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. – Jesus speaking, as recorded by Luke 6:35

It only matters that our side wins, because that means getting our loved ones back.

The following statements have been said to my face by evangelical Christians regarding violence and war:

“I have the right to feel safe.”

“The army was good for [him]; before he joined the military he just played video games all day.”

“Anyone who does not support the troops hates America.”

“Pacifism is the response of pussies.”

I could go on. I despair.

Your soldiers are dying. They are dying at their own hands because they are subscribing wholesale to an ideology that kills their humanity by being an essentially destructive force that shapes their very being. Please, Christians at least, stop being soldiers. Please end the pro-war rhetoric and take up the cross and follow Jesus. He has shown us what it is to live gently. When one of his closest friends, Peter, tries to defend him with violence, the response of Jesus is to reprimand his friend and heal his enemy. Can you hear me? Can you hear me?

I am angry at the violence in the world. I am angry at the violence in my own heart. Why do you think I love the prisoners so much? Because I am angry about what has been done to them. Because I am angry about what they have done. I am so angry that I am going to pour every bit of love I’ve got into them because the only thing that drives out darkness is light. Hello? Is anybody there? It is time to stop dying. For fuck’s sake. For Christ’s sake. Let’s all just fucking live.

hangin’ around

April 15, 2012

It just so happens that the posts on this blog that have received the most attention were on the subject of unemployment. This blog is not about unemployment in particular, though. And I hope as soon as possible to stop talking about being unemployed by, you know, getting a job. Proper, paid employment, as opposed to the voluntary stuff I am currently doing (and which incidentally I do not plan to stop once gainfully employed).

But I wish to talk about something that happens to you when you have been unemployed for a long time. I have not worked a paid position in seven months. My job prior to that was a temporary position that lasted just over four months. Before that, I was unemployed for four months, and my job prior to that stint on the dole lasted just three months. This could go on back in time for a while: you get the picture. Funnily enough it all started at the beginning of the recession when the orgnisation for whom I was working suddenly ran out of money and let me go without so much as honouring the one year contract for which they had employed me (did I mention I left a permanent job for that one?). It’s all been downhill since then.

For quite a long time, I have remained chipper about not working. I have chosen to view it as an opportunity. I have told myself I will probably never have this much free time ever again.

And yet somehow, the time itself becomes an utter burden.

It is not a coincidence (but it does seem unfair!) that the more time I have, the less I do. Oh, I write the occasional blog. I swim sometimes. I read a lot on current affairs. I spend a few hours at the prison. I do some reading and writing for my part-time college course – I have six assignments due by April 26th. I cook some nice meals. I read some interesting books and watch some nice movies. I apply daily for jobs (I would estimate that 1% of the jobs I apply for receive an acknowledgement of application, and a far, far smaller number than that offer an interview – I have had two interviews in seven months). But I also spend a hell of a lot of time on the couch by myself, watching television or more likely, aimlessly browsing the web. Household chores pile up around me and I ignore them. Everything becomes covered in dust. The garden becomes almost comically overgrown. Deadlines for personal projects come and go. This past week, I only went out twice. Once was to buy a less-than-half-price garden table and two chairs so that I can have coffee in the garden in the mornings. (The unmade table is still sitting in its box on the floor beside me.) The second outing was to take my 91 year old Godmother and her 89 year old sister out for lunch. Aside from this, a friend called in for coffee one day, and I had the husband-unit most evenings for company.  And I wouldn’t be stuck for companions if I wanted them – I have a couple of lovely friends who live nearby who are stay at home mothers, and one or two who are also unemployed. But somehow socialising during the day feels faintly odd and guilt-ridden (SHOULDN’T YOU BE APPLYING FOR JOBS?) and it always comes with the constraints of bad weather, being broke, or the children needing naps, feeding and clean nappies.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not depressed. I have my down days all right, but mostly I am just lethargic as hell. Doing anything spontaneous seems to be completely out of the question. If an event is in the diary in advance, I can do it. But the chances of me being ready to go somewhere or do something at a moment’s notice are decidedly slim. It’s as though my head is full of air or gas. Or little blocks that cram together inside my skull, like in Tetris. I actually need to reserve mental space to process doing things in advance of carrying them out. It’s miserable. If I want to go swimming, for example, I need to decide I’m going to the pool at least the day before, and even pre-pack my gym bag. If I don’t, it’s highly unlikely to happen that day. I just can’t seem to get it together to do things quickly. You’d imagine that all that free time would create spontaneity but it’s the exact opposite. Everything that I would like to do, provided it’s low cost, is theoretically at my disposal, and somehow this breadth of choice has become crippling. I can’t seem to get any bloody thing done. It kind of makes me fearful for retirement. You can understand why some people just end up rotting and becoming eternally miserable. Even though there is an unlimited amount of interesting stuff that you could be doing, you just end up doing nothing. And although you feel quite listless most of the time, you never get properly tired out, so you never sleep deeply. It’s a vicious cycle.

There is a sort of sepia-toned stillness that comes with lethargy. I feel like I am sitting in it, even as I type this post. It sort of swallows you. It only gets punctured by things like music. And laughing. And, I imagine, running (I never run). Thankfully, an occasional epic, vital day blasts through the yellowness and bursts into bloom before your eyes, so you hang on for those.

capturing a moment

April 14, 2012

Maybe it’s all the talk this week on Twitter about eternity, or Eoin’s musings on change, but it’s gotten me thinking about time, and how we attempt to capture perfect moments.

I have a truly dreadful memory. Short-term it’s not too bad: I can remember your name and your personal history. But I am useless with the semi-distant or distant past. People tell me stories from school or college in which I play a starring role and I can’t remember anything they’re describing. One close friend once described to me in detail a series of original jokes that I told to a group of rapt friends in primary school one lunch-time while they laughed hysterically. I do not recall anything like this ever happening! It can be kind of depressing. Memory is an elusive thing. It’s no wonder we try to imprison important moments and keep them safe for revisiting in our minds.

When I was eleven years old I was given my first pair of glasses and told that my need for them would diminish as my eyes finished developing. Unfortunately the prescription was wrong and it irreparably damaged my eyes. My eyesight as a result has gotten worse with every passing year. I also have a stigmatism in both eyes and have been advised against using contact lenses. As a result I have always felt that I view the world through a window. When I take my glasses off at the top of a mountain or by the sea, everything becomes immediately unfocused. When I put them back on the focus of course returns, but I am behind a glass screen again again. I sometimes feel a little alienated from my experiences because of this. Cameras never help. Every photograph I take is like a picture through a window through a window. Sometimes I feel like this, combined with my poor memory, leave me doomed to forget everything good. It is also possible to ruin a perfectly lovely moment by trying to capture it. The attempt of capturing interrupts the moment. And yet we want to hold on to it somehow.

I am a naturally nostalgic person. I read comforting books over and over. I watch my favourite programmes over and over. There is an episode of the Royle Family where Denise goes into labour with her first child and has a little meltdown on the bathroom floor while waiting for the taxi to arrive to take her to the hospital. Her dad, Jim, sits down next to her and reassures her that there’s nothing to it and, in a rare moment of honesty, reveals to her how her birth had made him feel. I watch that episode at least twice a year, and I weep every time. It is such a perfect episode. I allow myself to re-live the joy and the humour and the beauty and the pain over and over. I think it  might be linked a little to anxiety. If you’re anxious, you naturally gravitate towards the things that ease the anxiety, rather than risking something that might trigger it. It’s a fool’s game, really.

Sometimes a smell can transport me back someplace in a heartbeat. That can be quite shocking actually. You’re walking past a shop and suddenly you’re seven again. Or, you pass the perfume shop and you smell a certain aftershave and in an instant you’re with your first boyfriend again. The smell of motor oil reminds me of my father.

The prisoners I work with are trapped in their memories; the good and the bad. This profoundly affects their present, as you can imagine. One of the men I see regularly is getting one re-socialization day release per month right now, in preparation for his permanent release. He describes these days to me in minute detail, from the moment he wakes and leaves the prison to the moment he returns. He dwells firmly in those days in the 29 or 30 prison-days between releases. The thoughts of them literally fuel his survival.

Charlie Brooker released a trio of short movies last year called Black Mirror. Episode 3 was called An Entire History of You and depicts an alternate reality where all citizens have a chip implanted in their bodies that records every moment of their lived experience – everything they see, hear and do. Memories can be played back in what’s called a “re-do”, either in front of the eyes or on a screen. It’s a scary little dystopian fantasy on the dangers of memory that speaks to our obsession as a culture with documenting everything. A few months ago I was with a few friends in our local having a few beers on a Saturday night. We’re a low-key gang; not a pair of stilettos (or a pair of chinos for that matter) in sight. A group of glammed-up young women sat at the table next to us and spent the next couple of hours snapping photo after photo of themselves. There was no conversation to speak of; no laughter. Just lots and lots of time with their arms round each other, giving dazzling smiles to the camera, and the occasional trip to the bar or toilets. What they seemed to be failing to do in all this recording and documenting was have a great time together. This was no attempt to capture a beautiful moment. It was an attempt to create an illusion of a fantastic night out – probably more for themselves than for anyone else. We’re all familiar with this phenomenon. How does it shape us – how does it shape our futures – when we fiddle with our present for the sake of looking back?

There is a lot to be said for living in the moment. After all, this moment is all we’ve got. But where does the moment belong once it’s gone, and what moment is coming? If anyone figures out how it’s done, do send me a Tweet…

the gift of womanhood

April 8, 2012

Being a woman has distinct disadvantages. We’re all familiar with them; there is no real need to detail. As a feminist I feel I am more aware of them than if I were not, and as a Christian feminist, more so. An ancient Jewish daily morning prayer begins with “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman.” Who’d wanna be one, eh? Bleeding, crying yokes that we are. Not to mention our damned vulnerability.

And yet women (including me) persistently enjoy being women. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had in and from these bothersome bodies of ours, and a lot of intensely enriching relationships to be had between us, and then there’s the whole possibility of growing babies; no labs or white coats required. Then there are our feminine rituals – the ones that haven’t destroyed us, that is – and the freedom to be camp without anyone noticing. It can be nice, in this place (the western world) and in this time, to be female. Our privilege makes it so.

But what I am reflecting on today goes a little further than that.

When I first began to think vaguely about working as a prison chaplain a number of years ago, I always imagined that it would be with women. I never in a thousand years thought that I would work with exclusively male drug dealers, rapists, paedophiles, thieves and murderers. It seemed too unrealistic. What would we have in common? How would we speak to one another? What if they made lewd comments or shouted at me as I walked around? What if they hurt me? Wouldn’t me and my presence be utterly irrelevant to them? And as I train as a chaplain in a male-only prison, and I work this role out, and work my way into it, I find myself not only falling in love with a group of broken, violent people but finding in the midst of that experience a profound gift in my very femaleness. This Easter morning I worshipped in an all-male prison chapel and knew communion with those men.

There is something in each of us that flourishes under the care of both sexes. Men give something unique to women, and to men, that women cannot give to women or men. And mirroring that, women give something to men, and to women, that men cannot give to women or men. I cannot quantify these qualities. What I do know is that bruised and broken people of either gender require the care of people of both genders in order to fully heal. Perhaps that is what is truly meant by complementarity of the sexes.

From a purely sociological perspective, in prisons, men behave better around women. There is an irony inherent in that statement as I know full well that being a woman has been a deep and painful disadvantage to all victims of some of the men to whom I now minister. Gender matters where crime is concerned. And yet in the group context, it remains true. I have realised that I, a raging sandstorm of a person, am a calming presence to those men, and I find myself in distinctively female roles with them – being mother or sister. That is not to suggest a co-dependent bond or inappropriate relationship, but broken men, particularly violent ones, find healing in a woman being willing to sit with them, worship with them and even share in their deepest realities, in a room with the door closed. I am cognizant of risk but I do not feel fear, and they know this.

There is something about my femaleness that compels the men to behave in a way that they would not in my absence. They are subject to fits of gallantry and leap out of seats for me. They compete to open doors. They call me “Miss” respectfully, if they do not know my name. They take me aside and offer assurances of protection, should anybody bother me or speak to me inappropriately (I keep waiting for this to happen but so far, it has not). I am offered cup after cup of tea or coffee, made with their own very limited supplies in their cells. I am given cards, notes, jokes, miraculous medals and presents. They wait in line outside my office to show me a new photograph that has come in the post of a loved one. It is utterly surprising. It is also a treatment, rightly or wrongly, that I would not receive if I were male. It is a privilege that makes me feel that my enjoyment of it is something akin to greed. I sincerely wished my husband was with me in that chapel this morning, just so he could share in it.

It is a great mystery of humanity that men and women would have all the same longings and hopes and ambitions and preferences and potentialities and still, there is something that sets them apart from each other – something beyond the physical, I mean. I don’t know what it is and I don’t care particularly to define it, as defining it could really only serve bigotry and sexism. But there is something real in it, and at this moment in my life, I embrace my femaleness and all that it enables as I try to love those we have decided are unloveable.