Two years ago, I read Liz Carter‘s stunning and challenging book ‘Catching Contentment: How to be Holy Satisfied‘. Her insights into finding peace and joy in God with no help from life circumstances made it my book of the year. It found an instant place in a collection of books I dub my ‘Pastoral First Aid Kit.’
Now Liz is back with a new title, ‘Treasure in Dark Places: Stories and Poems of Hope in the Hurting‘. Written mainly during lockdown and enforced shielding, and my copy arrived on publication day, last Saturday.
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Liz by email about her life situation and her writing. Enjoy.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I live in Shropshire with my husband Tim, a vicar, and my two young adult children. I’ve been writing for most of my life – from a young age I knew it was what I wanted to do.
How long and in what ways has chronic illness affected your life?
I’ve been ill since infancy with a rare lung disease. I was the sickly child, the one always missing school. The disease is degenerative, so over years has taken more room in my life than I would wish. As a youngster I often felt different; a weakling, an object of scorn when I struggled once again in a PE lesson, someone who simply wasn’t trying hard enough, according to some of my reports. As an adult my illness arrested a teaching career after only five years, leaving me unable to work outside the home at a fairly young age. I was left feeling as if I had nothing to give, as if I was a failure, at life and at faith – surely, I thought (and some people said), I should have been healed, by now? I’d had enough prayer for healing through my lifetime – but it hadn’t happened. I’d only got sicker. Nowadays, I am often hospitalised with pneumonia, and struggle with multiple infections a year, leaving me in a constant state of fatigue and often breathlessness and pain.
Self-isolation during the COVID-19 lockdown must have been distressing. What was it like for you, and what got you through it?
When I received the shielding letter in March I was shocked and fearful. The words haunted me: I had been identified as someone at risk of severe illness if I caught the virus. I had to go into extreme shielding, away from my family, cut off in my room. I did not hug another human being for almost five months, and it was tough. I thought at first I would be okay with it, being used to some periods of isolation due to the infections I catch. But I wasn’t really okay at all, I found. Days were long and nights were sleepless, I was sad and I was scared. I’d been writing a book I thought I would finish, but the words stopped coming. I knew I needed to stop, to allow myself to admit this experience was painful, to sit within it a while. As I did so I found other words beginning to flow; words of honest poetry and re-imaginings of encounters with Jesus, words that took me closer into the depths of God when my own depths seemed fathomless. As I wrote, I found that God’s depths were even deeper still, and more than that, God was abiding there in those depths with me, holding me, in a way no other could.
Your first book, ‘Catching Contentment’, was about being content in Christ regardless of whether someone’s life circumstances were favourable. How did you first learn that for yourself?
To be honest, I’m still learning it – definitely a work-in-progress! It’s been a long journey over years, but the last few years in particular has led me to a greater peace in who I am and my situation, as I’ve delved deeper into what the Bible says about contentment – and how it doesn’t promise a pain-free life for those who follow Jesus. I loved reading more deeply around the words of St Paul, who said he’d found the secret to contentment, and wrote so profoundly of the truths he had discovered, of dying to self and rejoicing in all circumstances, of setting his mind on Jesus and living in the glorious hope we have been given. The more I read of scripture the more I can catch hold of the contentment not found in my wholeness, but in God’s holiness.
In your new book, ‘Treasure In Dark Places’, you are also tackling the question of suffering, but using other modes of creativity, such as poetry. How did you decide to approach this important theme from such a different angle?
I think that sometimes it’s difficult to capture something of the depths of pain and the breadth of hope in prose alone. The book of Psalms is my favourite book of the Bible because it expresses in such beautiful poetry something of the truth of who God is and how God loves, and I think that we need such forms today, as well. Often words of poetry will resonate and comfort deeper places where other words might not reach.
Can you share a short piece from ‘Treasure In Dark Places’ with us, please?
Yes, of course!
I wrote this one early on in the pandemic, when there was much talk of how the vulnerable and shielded would be placed at the bottom of the list for treatment when healthcare became overwhelmed. It was a response born of emotion but also of lament for all those who are suffering through illness or disability, and have been made to feel lesser in these times:
So what am I worth
in this scourge of the earth
it seems I am cursed
as my body is worse
than the young and the fit
I’m a number, an it
I know I’d be missed
but I’m on The List
condemned in a letter
until the earth’s better
I’m measured as less
in infirmity’s mess
But my value’s in more
than my CFS score
worth beyond age
or words on a page
more than a look
at lines in a book
a flawed reflection
of holy perfection
a new creation
of glory’s narration
loved beyond measure
in deep sacred treasure.
You’ve written these books despite the tremendous difficulties of your personal circumstances. Are people with chronic illness undervalued by the church, and if so what can we do to put that right?
Sometimes, yes, I’m afraid so. The undervaluing is expressed in 3 different ways, in general:
1. Sick people who have not been healed do not show enough faith, and therefore we should invest more in those who do.
2. People with chronic illnesses often cannot come to church, or to meetings, or can be ‘flaky’ and drop out far too often, therefore can be difficult to involve fully in the life of the church.
3. People who are long-term ill can be incredibly inspirational and brave, but we shouldn’t ask them to do anything because they probably don’t have enough energy.
All of these make assumptions: unless we are asked, we do not have the choice to say yes or no. Unless we are invited, we cannot grow into the calling God has upon us – for ministry, or hospitality, or anything else. Unless reasonable adjustments are made for our mobility needs and also for the fact that we do ‘flake out’ a lot, we are left on the edges, looking in to where it’s all happening without us.
I think that the pandemic has exposed something of this and many churches have responded so well, offering more and more content online to those who are housebound, and involving these people in leadership more. Churches will do well to keep up online worship when everyone else goes back to normal and sick people are left back in their isolation – I’m so glad my own church is being very pro-active about doing this.
With regards to those churches who assume lack of faith, that’s a simple case of re-examining some of the theology and bringing more compassion and understanding to the table. I’d love to see more of that!
Do you have any particular words of hope or encouragement for others who, like you, are enduring chronic illness or a life-limiting condition?
I find such great hope and glimpses of light when I reflect upon Jesus’ own life, suffering, death and resurrection. The more I think upon it, the more I am amazed at his outrageous and astonishing love for me, and the more this hope shines through the darkness. I would also want to add that it’s okay to release yourself from the bonds of feeling as though you have let God – or others – down, by continuing to be ill, whether physically or mentally. We must find space to be honest before God and others, to share our lament and our sorrow, and it’s in that place of honesty God so often does his redemptive work in our lives.
What is the main message of ‘Treasure in Dark Places’ and who should buy it?
Treasure in Dark Places is a collection of poetry and short stories that point towards hope, especially when it hurts. Its message is a reminder of God’s grace, love and supernatural peace, and a call towards the heart of God, to encounter more of God in our own depths and to lay out our own pain in candour and relief, as God meets us within our own dark places. It’s for everyone who sometimes finds life tough going – not only for those who live with illness, but for people who struggle in any way – I think that’s all of us, really.
Thank you so much, Liz.
Finally, here’s another poem from Treasure in Dark Places: