Something beginning with ‘C’, and it isn’t a breakfast cereal

It’s time to tackle the ‘C’ word, and no, I’m not talking about Crispies or Cornflakes. I want to write about Confession. It’s a hard one to talk about. I’ve hung around Catholics for most of my adult life, and in all that time only one person has ever even mentioned confession.
When I started thinking about becoming Catholic, I saw confession as some sort of antiquated tradition, which most people ignored in practice, although kids were still required to confess the sweeties they stole before taking first communion.
As a Protestant, I thought that confession was one of these things which probably should have been turfed out at the Reformation, but which the Catholic church had stubbornly held onto. My problem was that if I wanted to become Catholic, I wasn’t allowed to take any special short cuts. Even though I was an adult, I would have to become like a little kiddie and go through this thing called confession. If I saw saints as an box ticking exercise, then I saw confession as a bit like seeing a doctor for an unpleasant and intrusive check-up, even though you feel perfectly well.
There were so many other things I liked about Catholicism, that I decided I was just going to have to grit my teeth and go through with it, and so I made an effort to try and find out more about confession. The first surprising fact which came up was that Martin Luther himself had recommended the practice of confession in the new church he was founding. The great Christian apologist and Anglican C. S. Lewis also practised confession regularly.
It was all very well for them to like confession, but why did I have to go? Couldn’t I just confess my sins to God? Father K’s answer was that most of us tend not to confess our sins to God. When I stopped and thought about it, he was right. I had often begged God to help me out of a difficult situation, but how often had I actually said I was sorry for the sin which had led to the mess?
Two strange things happened as I investigated Catholicism. Firstly, I began to be bothered by things which had happened years ago, and which I’d put behind me as ‘unwise choices’ or ‘mistakes’. At the time, I’d been aware that I was at best bending and sometimes breaking the rules, but, preoccupied with my own hurt, I hadn’t thought about how my actions had affected other people. I began to care about the hurt I had caused to others while only thinking about my own needs.
Secondly an accident occurred for which I was partly responsible. Someone suffered a painful and inconvenient injury, which fortunately was not serious. For quite a while, my apology was not accepted by one of the people involved. Around the same time, I became aware that a different person hadn’t forgiven me for something I had done many years before. These two situations weighed very heavily on me, and I began to feel that it would be a great relief to go to confession and hear someone pronouncing absolution. When one of these situations was resolved, the relief of being forgiven was absolutely incredible.
By the time I was preparing to make first confession, I had come to see it as something strange and frightening, but absolutely necessary. When I’m brave enough, I’ll write another post about how it went for me, but first of all I think I need to write about Calvinism.

Advertisements

Don’t try to change your religion …

My husband once went to listen to a talk by a Buddhist monk who was speaking at an inter-religious event. The monk told a hall full of people that they shouldn’t try to change their religion. Instead he recommended people to work within the religion in which they were brought up in order to find God.

I can see where he was coming from, because I know first hand how difficult it is to make a radical change in your religious views. I refuse to say that I changed my religion, because I was brought up in a Christian church and I have recently been received into a different Christian church.
All the same, I’ve had to make some drastic changes in my religious outlook. When I was a child, Catholics were talked about in the same way as the poor pagans in Africa. By the time I was a teenager, a few more thoughtful people in our church were beginning to say that there might be a few true believers within the Catholic church. When I announced that I wanted to marry a Catholic, I was warned about marrying into a different religion. In practice, however, my family were incredibly generous and accepting of my husband and his family.
All the same, it’s one thing to marry a Catholic and quite another to decide to become Catholic yourself. Most people won’t do what I did, because it’s too darn difficult. On the positive side, I had years of being married into a Catholic family who turned out to be, well, normal. They didn’t seem to worship images or even to worship Mary. Among my in-laws were several nuns and a priest, who visited us regularly in the early years of our marriage. On the other side of the balance, I still had my anti-Catholic attitudes. Every week I longed to go to Mass, but when I tried to actually go, it was incredibly difficult. I felt as if I was wading through a thick sludge of anti-Catholic prejudice.

I don’t know if God expects most of us to change religions. I prefer to think that, like the father in the parable of the lost son, he comes out to the fields to meet us where we are rather, than expecting us to come into his house before he’ll even talk to us. After all, his house might seem strange and foreign and frightening to people who’re not used to it.
However, I do think that we are all asked to stick our heads over the barriers which divide us. We are asked to talk to our neighbours without attaching conditions or demanding that they cross over into our territory before we begin a conversation. In short, we’re asked to love.

One of my closest friends changed religions when she was young. She is now eighty years old and her freedom to get about and do things has shrunk in many ways. However, she often tells me how grateful she is to God for giving her this period of her life. She is thankful each day for little things. No longer under pressure to achieve, she is content to just be and accept her life as it is.
This lady was brought up with a very harsh version of Catholicism and decided as a teenager to leave the church. She found it impossible to live without some sort of spirituality, and when she discovered Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, she realised that she had found her spiritual path. I was nervous about telling her that I had decided to become Catholic, because I didn’t know if old hurts would make her bitter. However, she wrote the following in her letter:
I hope that you find in this church everything which you have already sought. Religions for me are just different ways to HIM, who has no name, no form and no colour. In the deepest centre, in the mystical heart of every religion, we find the same thing. That is the wonder of mysticism. It should not lead to religious wars and conversions. In this place we are all brothers and sisters, and we sing and dance to praise HIM in our different ways and yet together.

More thoughts about Ash Wednesday

I was quite a way through the day before I found out that Catholics are supposed to fast on Ash Wednesday. It was a bit too late by then, but how was I supposed to know when no-one had told me? I guess that Catholic converts are supposed to just pick up these things as they go along. I’d probably have run a mile if I’d been handed a manual of rules when I decided to become Catholic, so it’s just as well that I wasn’t.
I guess that the rules only make sense if they help you get to the spirit of what’s behind them. Many years ago, when I married, people wondered if I was going to become Catholic like my husband. My reaction was, “No chance. Why would I exchange one traditional church and its heavy burden of rules with another?”
Now I’ve come full circle. I didn’t keep rules (apart from traffic ones) for many years. I no longer feel I have to keep religious rules to please other people, or because I’m scared of the consequences of breaking them. I could just ignore this new set of rules, but if I did, maybe I would miss out on an important lesson which the rule is trying to teach me. Somewhere in the middle, between keeping rules for the wrong reason and ignoring them altogether, is a very narrow path where keeping the rule leads to a deeper understanding of some aspect of faith.
Why do religion at all? Is it for the show of the thing, or for the spirit? God is bigger than all of our religions, but without the discipline of some kind of religious practice can we really know God? I’m sure that we can have some knowledge of God without religion, but will we be challenged to go further? I don’t know the answers. I’m just throwing up questions here.
How long are you supposed to keep the ashes on your forehead? There’s another question I don’t know the answer to. I didn’t want to wipe them off right after leaving church, and so I walked home through our mainly Protestant town, with a hat that didn’t quite pull down all the way to my eyebrows. I’ve made some mental notes to prepare for Ash Wednesday next year:
1 Grow a long fringe and/or
2 Bring a low brimmed hat to church

Queuing up for ashes

Today I queued up to receive ashes on my forehead. I’ve stood in line for cinema tickets, at supermarket tills, at airport check-in desks and, only recently, to receive the Eucharist. This is the first time I’ve joined people quietly waiting their turn to receive a sign of penance and be reminded of their mortality.
I haven’t been too sure about Ash Wednesday. It seemed like another strange thing which Catholics do and Protestants don’t. Becoming a Catholic is like entering a foreign country where people have different customs which I’m struggling to follow. It’s a very humbling to be probably at least half-way through my life and realise that I have so much to learn.
I wondered if I would go to the church today. I was curious, but a little bit scared, because it wasn’t a regular Saturday evening or Sunday morning Mass. I asked myself, as I often do, what’s the point of going to church not just on Ash Wednesday, but on any day at all.
Last year, I went to Mass on Easter Sunday for the first time in my life. The church was packed and there was an incredible feeling of joy and celebration. It wasn’t quite my first Easter Sunday service ever, but I hadn’t attended many because Easter wasn’t celebrated in the church I grew up in.
I decided today that I can’t expect to understand the full meaning of the Easter celebrations if I don’t also take part in Ash Wednesday and Lent. After I got over hoping no-one noticed that I didn’t know what to do, I was glad that I went. The church was solemn and quiet and I felt that we are all in this together, struggling, failing, and yet still turning towards God. I had read that last year’s Easter palms were burnt to make the ashes we received, and I thought about how sorrow and joy are often closely interlinked.
I was glad that I made the effort to go out today, because it was a chance to set aside other things for a short while and be silent. Sometimes my mind wanders and nothing seems to happen when I go to Mass, but how do I know what God is doing in the times I am quiet and empty? I can’t pretend to understand what it’s all about, but in accepting the ashes I acknowledged that my own efforts aren’t enough. I didn’t create myself and ultimately, as a friend of mine once said to me, we’re not the ones in charge. The smudge of ashes on my forehead was a reminder that I need to make space for God.

Jumping up or reaching down?

I went to school at a time when it was fashionable not to teach grammar. The theory was that as long as we could speak, read and write English, we would get through life. I arrived in secondary school knowing what a verb and a noun was, but that was about it. The poor lady who had the job of trying to teach us French was shocked that we didn’t know the difference between an advert and a preposition. She finally accepted that she would have to give us some English grammar lessons before she had a hope of trying to get us to understand French grammar.

In the same way, I only started learning Protestant theology when I began investigating Catholicism, in order to try to understand the similarities and the differences. As a child and young adult in the Protestant church, I had a good knowledge of what we believed, but I didn’t understand why we believed what we did. Theology is a bit like grammar. It takes what we do unconsciously and analyses it to understand the structure and the reasons behind it.

One of the big Protestant-Catholic differences which was flagged up in the books I read was the Protestant belief that we are saved by grace alone versus the Catholic belief that salvation is an ongoing process. Have I got that right? I’m not sure, and I get into such knots thinking about this that I am wondering whether the two positions are always so far apart when it comes to practical experience. I’m not going to discuss grace versus works from a theoretical viewpoint. However, I’d like to just say a few words from a personal point of view.

If someone had told me that we are saved by grace alone, when I was still in the Protestant church, I would probably have been quite surprised, and perhaps even annoyed, because it felt as if salvation was hard work. It seemed as if I was standing on tiptoes, with my hands in the air, and jumping up and trying to touch the sky. I knew that I would never manage to please God, but I had to try, because not making any effort would make Him even angrier …

This feeling of always trying and hopelessly failing was probably the main reason I left the church in which I was brought up.
I felt great relief, when I began learning about the Catholic Sacraments. I no longer had to try to do the impossible and stretch up and touch the sky, because God, through Christ, was willing to reach down and bridge the gap. All I had to do was open my arms and be ready to receive. Long before I became Catholic, I felt as if I could bring my struggles and the things which were bothering me to Mass. In abandoning myself to God, I could let go of my worries and failures and trust that God would do the rest. That’s what grace means to me.

I found this quote by one of the Greek fathers, Dionysius the Areopagite, which describes how God reaches down to us:

So let us stretch ourselves in prayers upward to the more lofty elevation of the kindly Rays of God. Imagine a great shining chain hanging downward from the heights of heaven to the world below. We grab hold of it with one hand and then another, and we seem to be pulling it down towards us. Actually it is already there on the heights and down below and instead of pulling it to us we are being lifted upwards to that brilliance above, to the dazzling light of those beams.

Suffering

Not long ago an older person was telling me that their children, whom they had brought up Catholic, no longer attended church. He was probably wondering why I had come back to church after many years of non-attendance. If I could have put the reason into one word, it would be suffering. A painful, apparently unresolvable situation pushed me into seeking out the church. However, one word only tells half of the story. The joy I found in the church and in a renewed relationship with God is what has kept me coming back.
A few years ago, a close family member became seriously ill. Long before that I had kicked against the traces and left the traditional church in which I was brought up. However, I still remembered many of the Bible verses I had learnt as a child, and I decided to cling onto the promise that if we have faith as big as a mustard seed then we can move mountains.
Although I believed in God, I couldn’t honestly have said that I was comfortable with anything more specific than that. I decided to be ecumenical and asked an Episcopalian priest, a Salvation Army cadet and our parish priest for prayers. I wasn’t just hoping. I decided that however bleak things looked, I was going to hold God to his promise and believe that He could change an apparently hopeless situation. A word of warning for agnostics: if you ask people to pray for a loved one, watch out. You will probably be included in their prayers, and you don’t quite know where that will take you.
I asked our local priest for prayers, and wrote in an email, ‘I am not a very religious person …. I don’t feel I am very good at praying. However, I have a strong belief in God and his goodness and that in him we live and move and have our being. I feel that there is very little I can do in this situation but I still have faith that there will be a way through.’
The reply I received, helped me to keep on hoping. He wrote, ‘But you watch, your faith and hope and, above all, your love, will have startling results.’
He was right. I couldn’t have foreseen what would happen. Over the last two years, my loved one has made a long slow journey back to life, and, even more unexpectedly, I have experienced the great joy of becoming Catholic. The prayers of others sustained me through a dark period and it meant a great deal to me that my friends in the Episcopalian church and the Salvation Army expressed their support and happiness that I have finally found a spiritual home.

A Saint or a Hippopotamus?

I didn’t give saints much thought until a week before I was received into the church when Father K, our parish priest, asked me if I had an attachment to any particular saint. He might as well have asked me if I had considered keeping a hippopotamus in a tank at the bottom of the garden and if so, what did I intend to call it. I admitted that I was completely ignorant about saints and he suggested St. Bridget, who, I guess, is the fallback saint for clueless Celtic Protestants like me. St Bridget sounded nice, but I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t bother to find out anything about her.
I had a last minute panic on the morning I was supposed to be received into the church. I wondered if I was going to be called Bridget during the ceremony and was worried that afterwards I might feel as if some stranger called Bridget had been received into the church instead of me. Seasoned Catholics will probably see this worry as being as naïve as Paddington Bear’s misapprehensions about the human world. In defence, I’ll only say that the first confirmation I attended was my own.
I told Fr. K that I would be much more comfortable if he used my middle name as I was sure that there must be a saint associated with that, although I had no idea who. He said that that would be fine.

After my confirmation, I did actually bother to do some research on google and found out that my middle name is associated with a medieval saint who did things, such as deliberately putting herself in danger, which seem totally incomprehensible to me although they probably made sense to people at the time. I felt no connection at all with this lady, but it probably served me right for not making any effort to choose someone.
I thought that was the end of the business. It wasn’t very satisfactory, but I had ticked the required box. However, it wasn’t the end of the story. Very recently I visited a church in which there is a shrine to St. John Ogilvie. He is the only Scottish Catholic martyr from the post-Reformation period. I was brought up in a family who had great respect for the Protestant martyrs, and as I walked past St. John Ogilvie’s statue, I thought about the many Scottish Protestants who lost their lives at the start of the Reformation.

It was safe to say that I had mixed feelings about St John Ogilvie, not least because life-size statues in churches take a bit of getting used to if you are brought up in the reformed tradition. As I sat in the church, I hoped that St John Ogilvie and the Protestant martyrs were shaking hands in heaven in a spirit of reconciliation.
When I got home, I looked up St. John Ogilvie on the internet and read that he, like me, was a convert from Calvinism. This completely changed the way I thought about him. Here was a saint who was relevant, and who could understand where I had come from and what I was going through as a recent Catholic convert. I also read that he concealed his Rosary beads during his trial and torture and that, at the last possible moment, he flung them into the crowd gathered to watch his execution.
Later that day I received an unexpected gift in the post. It was a book on praying the Rosary. I felt as if I, another Protestant convert almost 400 years later, had put out my hand and caught St. John Ogilvie’s Rosary beads.

Can I do Catholic-lite?

When I looked into becoming a Catholic, I thought that I could do Catholic-lite. I wanted to take the parts which were most similar to the Protestant tradition, such as the Gospel teachings, and leave out the uncomfortable extras such as saints and devotion to Mary. It was a bit like choosing a diet version of a cheese spread which claims to have half the fat, and expecting it to have all the taste and goodness of the full fat version.
In the last few months, it’s become increasingly clear that Catholic-lite isn’t an option, as I’ve been gently nudged towards the things I find most challenging.
A few months ago, I was browsing a Catholic blog on the internet and was astounded to find out that the Rosary contains a series of meditations on the Gospel. That might seem obvious to people brought up Catholic, but I didn’t really know anything about the Rosary apart from a vague idea that it had something to do with ‘praying to Mary’.
The same still voice which had planted the desire to become Catholic now made the suggestion that I should learn to pray the Rosary. By this time, I knew better than to argue with this voice, even though this idea was very challenging for someone brought up in a very reformed tradition. I tried to compromise. Acquiring Rosary beads was just a step to far, they were just too Catholic a symbol, but I would learn to pray the Rosary.
I began meditating on one mystery a day, praying while I was walking the dog, or at night when I couldn’t sleep. I used my fingers to count off the prayers. I was surprised, and even slightly embarrassed, to realise that I found this method of prayer comforting, and not in the least repetitive or boring. As a Protestant, I hadn’t given much thought to Mary’s role in the Gospel story. Because I was saying the Hail Mary, it seemed natural to imagine some of the Gospel scenes from her point of view, and I gained new insights. I also realised that I have sometimes viewed Christ as a vague divine figure who floated around first century Palestine with his feet hardly touching the ground. Praying the Rosary has helped me to consider Christ’s humanity as well as his divinity.
Although I began to see all these benefits, I still resisted getting the Rosary beads. However, they came to me without me even trying. My husband was away on a work trip and the night before he came back, I woke up in the night with a very strong image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It was so vivid that when I got up in the morning, I looked up the passage in John 10 about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. That evening, as my husband unpacked his bags, he tossed me a plastic case with a brightly coloured picture of Pope Francis on the top. Inside were Rosary beads and on the crucifix was a tiny image of Christ carrying a lamb with a flock of sheep behind him.
I laughed, with joy because I realised that I was finally ready for these beads, with humour because my husband had probably deliberately given me the most Catholic-looking symbol he could find, and with thankfulness for the image of the good shepherd which seemed to be God’s way of saying that it was okay for me to pray the Rosary, even if I had been brought up Protestant.

Why on earth do I want to start a blog?

When I first became aware of blogs about ten years ago, I wondered why on earth people would waste their time writing open letters about their lives on the internet. Blogging held no appeal for me even though I have always liked to write. I was busy trying to figure out what to do with small children and didn’t have time to even read blogs never mind write one. During my children’s pre-school years, I went from being able to write computer code and design web pages, to becoming someone who struggles to send a text message. My phone is ten years old and I am afraid to update it in case I can’t figure out how to actually use it. Okay, I know. All I have to do is hand the new phone over to the kids and they will have it sorted within minutes. However, they may also download games, redesign the background and set the ring tone to rude noises.

My attitude to blogs has changed. Over the last year or so, I have found myself surfing the web and reading about other people’s experiences on blogs and other sites. I was faced with a difficult decision and by searching the internet, I was hoping to make a connection with others who might have been in the same position.

I had heard a still, small voice suggesting that I should become Catholic. This was not easy to deal with as I had been brought up in Scotland in a very reformed Protestant tradition. For a while, I did nothing and told nobody. After six months, the thought still hadn’t gone away, and so I told my husband, a cradle Catholic. After that I told the parish priest. Apart from a handful of close friends, I told no-one else until I had made a definite decision to be received into the church.

There were no RCIA classes running in my parish, and so I had no opportunity to meet other prospective converts although the local priest was very good about making time to answer my questions. Unable to talk to anyone in the same position or who had recently gone through the same thing, I searched on the internet, looking up the blogs of recent or prospective converts, or reading the many sites which gave conversion stories. Whilst these stories were often helpful, the problem I came up against was that most of these people were living in the United States and came from quite a different culture and outlook even if they had also started in the Protestant tradition. It was very difficult to find stories about people who had come to Catholicism from a Scottish Protestant background.

That little thought about becoming Catholic wouldn’t go away, and I was received into the church very recently. Since then, I have felt joy about this great gift, confusion about what to do with it and loneliness. It’s a difficult thing to talk about. Perhaps these things are easier to share in a reflective way in writing. I’m starting this blog because I want to communicate what happened and what is happening in my life as a new Catholic. Maybe there are a few other people out there who will see some connections with their own experience.

Let’s get started

I have never blogged before. I’m starting this because I’ve had a lot going on in my life recently and want to share my thoughts. I am a new Catholic, so new that if I was a baby I would still have red skin and a squished nose. These blogs will just be me trying to come to terms with how I got to this point and what it means for me now. I have no big plans. I can’t promise I’ll still be blogging in six months or a year, but it seems to be what I need to do right now. Here goes. Let’s get started ….