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Recently I visited the baile mor (big city). Okay, Inverness is big to us. As I was walking along the river bank, I passed St. Andrews Cathedral and decided to go in for a few moments of prayer.
St Andrews is Episcopalian (Anglican in Scotland). Since becoming Catholic, I’ve tended to avoid going into non-Catholic churches. Part of this has been worry about feeling awkward, but mostly I’ve been afraid of sitting in a cold, empty building and feeling as if God wasn’t there.
However, on this particular day, I was feeling open and curious. What would be different, what would be the same? A splendidly-dressed man in full Highland regalia stood just inside the door beside a table with information. Okay, that was certainly different. Maybe he was just there for the tourists.
The rituals which I found so difficult when I first went to Catholic churches, have almost become automatic responses. I looked around for a holy water font. Not seeing one there, I looked towards the front. Yes, there was an altar, but where was the tabernacle. Did they have them in Episcopalian churches? I was in a quandary. Should I curtsey towards where I thought the tabernacle might be?
Stop making a stupid fuss, I told myself. Do what you always did in Protestant churches. Walk down the aisle and take a seat in a pew.
Further up the church, I spotted something familiar: a stand for candles. They were tall, thin ones rather than squat tea lights, but so what. A candle is a candle. I lit one and read the prayer beside it, which was exactly the same as one I’d read in many Catholic churches.
I chose a pew near the candles and faced the next decision. Should I kneel or sit? I would normally kneel if I went into a Catholic church to say a prayer. There was a cushioned kneeler on the floor. However, the other people in the church were all sitting, and I decided to do the same.
Trying to pray
Next, I tried to pray. I’ve been reading a book on contemplative prayer by Ignacio Larrañaga which recommends starting with an exercise to calm yourself and clear your mind, such as concentrating on breathing or pulse. Sometimes thoughts intrude. On other days I manage a verbal prayer, a thank you or a please help. Often, I nod off, even sitting up, but wake up feeling more peaceful.
Fr. Larrañaga says that contemplative prayer should have no other aim beyond just being in God’s presence, being open to God and just letting ourselves be seen by God. Contemplative prayer, he says, should go beyond words.
Unfortunately, I’ve seldom managed to get into this state of praying or being which goes beyond words and mental processes. Fr Larrañaga says that it takes patience, perseverance and above all, grace. Sometimes you can do a lot of work for little apparent result or at other times a little work can yield a huge result.
Reaching a state of peace
In St Andrews Cathedral in Inverness, I had one of these rare moments when I entered God’s presence and just was. Without doing more than the most basic exercises to calm my mind and place my worries in God’s hands, I reached a state of peace and well-being.
I looked around the Cathedral, watching the flickering candles and smoke trailing from one which had guttered out, listening to an organist practice hymns, observing a woman priest – yes, a woman! – prepare the altar for Communion. A mother came in with a pushchair, sat at the front for a few moments, and then left.
I saw all this without letting my thoughts snag on any of it. At the same time, I experienced an incredible calmness and peace and sense that God was there.
Can you take something back from contemplation?
The organist finished practicing with a loud chord which jolted me out of the state of prayer and into simply sitting on a wooden pew in a dim church.
The fruits of contemplation are not something which you can take away, exploit or trade with. I can’t even describe to myself what happened. All I remember is that I felt as if I have been falling over the past year, further and further as false securities have been stripped away. Only faith gave me hope that somehow, despite all appearances, God is there.
However, in this brief period of contemplation, I felt that instead of falling, I was being held. I had finally reached the bottom, touched the ground of my soul, and discovered that God is there.
I left the cathedral and went shopping on the Longman Road in a state of bliss. Now, anyone who knows the Longman Road will acknowledge that this alone is proof that something supernatural happened. It is a busy, polluted road going through an industrial estate: the kind of place you only go if you really need something, like a car part or a D.I.Y. tool and not normally associated with states of peace and joy.
If course, I bobbed back up to the surface very soon like a cork in a bottle. Over the next few days, I felt irritable and neglected prayer. If that’s the standard, how on earth am I ever going to reach it again? Perhaps there’s no point even trying. A strong experience of God is a gift. However, if I don’t set time aside for calmness and prayer, I’m not making myself available to receive the gifts that God might want to give.
The fact that God chose to make His presence felt in a non-Catholic church, is a reminder that no-one has a monopoly on Christ. It also strengthens my conviction that God doesn’t call people across religious divisions so that He can dig a deeper ditch. Rather he wants us to bear witness to the fact that God is present on both sides of the divide and in the no-man’s land in between.