Small things

I have a natural talent for acting on impulse and making small, apparently insignificant mistakes which lead to full scale disasters. When I was younger, I was perpetually locking myself out of houses, losing keys, missing trains and getting meeting places mixed up. Once the kids came along, they slowed me down. I could no longer operate in a perpetual whirl of ‘important’ activity which took up so much of my attention that I couldn’t remember little things like keys or allowing enough time to reach an appointment. When I could no longer leave the house without weighing myself down with pushchair, changing bag and emergency snacks, it became easier to remember not to lock myself out.

These days I’m usually a lot more careful about things, but occasionally I still manage a spectacular disaster.

Take today for instance. I was making preparations for my daughter’s party and was feeling very virtuous about my organisational skills. The hotel was booked, the cake was bought, and the party favours were ready, and I even still had a few hours to relax before it all got underway.

An apparently innocuous white envelope arrived in the post. I was tempted to put it to the side and open it later, but my husband had been complaining about my habit of not opening boring-looking post. I opened the envelope. It contained a new bank card and the accompanying letter told me to sign it straight away. Okay, I did that. The letter also instructed me to immediately destroy my old bank card, even if the date hadn’t yet expired. Being one of these security and safety-minded people who likes to stick to rules, I immediately got out a pair of scissors and cut up the old bank card. With the new one in my purse, I was ready to go, or was I?

In a few hours time, I was due to turn up at a restaurant with a dozen hungry girls. It might be a good idea to check that my new bank card worked. I whizzed off to the nearest cash machine to test it. My pin was rejected three times. I rushed back home and phoned the bank. After a short conversation, I realised with a cold, shivery feeling that the new card had been issued for my personal account, which I have hardly used since my marriage. I have long since forgotten the pin number for this account, and so the new card was essentially unuseable. At the same time, I had just destroyed the card for my joint account, which I relied on to get cash from the bank and to pay the shopping.

An apparently small thing, opening an envelope, had led to a very awkward situation. I got around it by asking my husband very nicely if he would come along to a girlie party which he had no intention of attending, in order to pay the bill at the end. He’s a good man, and he bailed me out.

This spectacular near-failure of one of my plans, got me thinking. When I was younger, I made lots of plans. I was going to travel the world, have an interesting career, and possibly save the planet at the same time. I worked hard and achieved many of the things I aimed for. Apparently I was quite good at making plans.

My plans stopped working out quite the way I had imagined around the time I had children. If you open yourself up to the possibility of kids, there’s a lot you can’t control. Will the child be healthy, will it be a boy or a girl, what sort of things will it like, and how on earth can I protect this tiny, fragile scrap of humanity.

Many years later, and with the youngest child at school, I’ve been trying to make plans again, and they’re not working out. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m no good at plans. I’m beginning to think that I should leave the big plans to God. Perhaps I’ve got my priorities wrong. Maybe the things I see as small and insignificant, such as smiling at someone or cuddling a child and listening to them, are actually the things I should be concentrating on, rather than trying to chase the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Thinking about the importance of small things, has brought me round to another saint, Thérèse of Lisieux. I know little about her except that she spent nine years of her life in a Carmelite convent and died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. She developed what became known as a little way of childlike trust in God and a conviction that it is not great deeds but little acts which bring us closer to God.

In his book “Catholicism”, Robert Barron writes of Thérèse, ‘… once comparing herself to a little child who, knowing her deep incapacity to please the Lord by her own exertions, stands before him and simply lifts up her arms, hoping to be raised up.’

I’m still a long way from that child-like trust.

Would you trust any major plans to a woman who deliberately cuts up her only functioning bank card? If the answer is ‘No’, I don’t blame you. Neither would I. That’s why I’m going to try to leave the big plans to God.

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A confession about Confession

I gathered all my courage and went to first confession. I felt about as willing as a dog heading for a bath, but I fortified myself with the thought that in almost every Protestant to Catholic conversion story I had ever read, new converts testified to feeling a great sense of peace after confession.

A note to non-Catholic readers: we are given the opportunity, and even encouraged, to confess to a priest whom we don’t know so well, especially for first confession. I can’t express how relieved I was when I found this out.

Before we started, the priest who was going to be hear my confession tried to reassure me. He said that he had never taken part in the Sacrament of Confession, either as the one listening to confession or as the one confessing their sins, without having some sense that God was at work. This encouraged me a little, and I really hoped that he was right.

I went through my pathetic collection of sins, the ones committed long ago, which still bothered me, and the ones which are like persistent weeds in the garden, and keep coming back no matter how much you try to get rid of them. It isn’t easy to voice these things, and confession was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Before I went to confession, I worried that I would be set a time-consuming and difficult penance like visiting strangers in hospital or volunteering for a charity. However, I was simply given a prayer to say in the church afterwards. The priest pronounced absolution and that was it. I felt no relief or peace or sense of God’s presence. All I felt was an awful sense of my own sin and worry that I had made a total mess of confessing it.

Maybe this magic feeling of lightness and peace would only work after doing penance, and so I said my prayer, as fervently as I could, although I was burdened by a heavy sense of my own unworthiness and sinfulness. Afterwards I didn’t feel better. If anything, I felt worse.

I scuttled home feeling like a small, low creature which could do nothing good, and which should best stay out of everyone’s way. I am a mother, and so when I reached home, I just had to get on with what needed to be dealt with. However, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something had gone horribly wrong and that God was angry with me and wouldn’t forgive me.

When I got the chance, I thought back over what I had confessed and wondered if I had got it wrong. Maybe I should have tried to remember every single sin I had ever committed. However, that would have been impossible. Even if I had attempted it, the confession would have taken days. Father K had instructed me to pray for guidance, and to confess the things which bothered me, and that’s exactly what I had done.

I couldn’t understand why I felt so bad. The day before I made my first confession, I went to the church to pray. I was alone and yet not alone, as if there was an unseen presence which expected me there and welcomed me. I felt great peace. The next day, after making confession, I felt anything but peaceful. Something must have gone very badly wrong.

When I had time to indulge my feelings, I wept and read Psalm 51 in which David says, “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.” Sackcloth is hard to come by these days, but I did the next best thing and dressed in old clothes. I felt as if I was carrying an impossible burden, like dragging chains which were attached to great heavy lumps of stone so that I could hardly inch forward.

I was due to be received into the church in a few days time, but I decided I would probably have to cancel since I didn’t feel as if my sins were forgiven. However, I had already told lots of people, including my family who had taken the news better than I expected. I didn’t want to cancel, but I also didn’t want to commit a sacrilege by taking Communion unworthily. Maybe I could ask Father K about being received into the church without ever taking Communion. That seemed like a very good solution.

At this point the game was up. Attending church without ever taking Communion, where had I heard that before? I was behaving like the people in my Calvinist church and refusing to believe that God could forgive me. It took a lot of faith. If I believed Jesus’ teaching when he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” then I had to believe in God’s mercy in spite of my feelings that God hadn’t forgiven me.

By faith, I tried to put the miserable feelings of sinfulness and unworthiness aside, and believe in God’s forgiveness. The priest had heard the worst I had ever done, but instead of shouting and telling me that I was an awful person, he had shown compassion. My image of God was worse than the example of the priest who represented him. Clearly I had to challenge my own warped image of God and believe that the true God could show compassion and forgiveness.

Turning up at the church for my reception and confirmation was an act of faith. I told Father K that I had found confession very difficult. I said, “I’m not doing very well with sacraments. I’m not expecting to have feelings of peace and joy after today. I might still feel guilty and miserable.”

He replied, “If you don’t feel peace and joy after today, you can sue me.”

A week later, after I had been received into the church, I looked back on the confusing, painful experience of confession, and realised that it had been absolutely necessary, like painful but life-giving surgery. Without confession, I wouldn’t have realised that I still had deep-rooted unbelief in God’s love and forgiveness, and without a priest to listen to me, I wouldn’t have had an example of how God’s compassion works.

Any readers who’ve stuck with the last few posts will be pleased to know that that’s all I have to say on confession for the moment. Maybe I should have entitled this post, ‘A Calvinist goes to Confession and comes back a bit less of a Calvinist’. However, that would have been a bit long. Oh, and just for the record, I didn’t sue Father K.

More on Saints

March 10th was the Feast Day of Saint John Ogilvie. I went along to Mass and found out some interesting things:

Feast days are celebrated on the anniversary of a Saint’s death or martyrdom, which might seem a bit morbid unless you think of it as celebrating their birthday in heaven. This turns on its head our ideas of birthdays as marking another year in this world.

On a Saint’s Day, the priest wears vivid red robes to symbolise the blood shed by the Saint. Sometimes all this colour coding makes me feel as if becoming a Catholic has sent me back to the nursery stage. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 18:3, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

All my senses are engaged at Mass. There is the sight of colours and pictures and symbols, the touch of holy water, the taste of bread and wine and the smell of incense. That’s not to forget, of course, the importance of hearing, in listening to the Word. Hearing was the one sense I was used to associating with churches when I was a child as sermons often went on for over an hour, and there was nothing to look at but rows of hats and bald heads in a gloomy church interior.

I have been warming to St. John Ogilvie ever since I found out that, like me, he was brought up in a Calvinist family. I tried to pray a novena in honour of St. John Ogilvie in the nine days leading up to his feast day.

When I started, it didn’t seem like a big deal to say a prayer every day for nine days, but it became increasingly difficult. Round about day five or six, I felt as if I couldn’t trust God, and the last thing I wanted to do was pray to Him. If I hadn’t been in the middle of a novena, I’d probably have just distracted myself with other things and told myself that I was too busy to pray. However, because I had committed to saying the prayer, I was forced to face my lack of trust and bring the feelings to God. It hurt. By the ninth day, I felt is if I had been through a painful spiritual fitness regime.

Father K says that Catholics don’t pray to saints; they pray through them. I’m still trying to understand what that means. The novena asked the saints for their prayers, just like I might ask a friend for their prayers when I am in difficulty. I don’t know of any Christian believers who have a problem with asking others for their prayers. The difficulty for Protestants lies in asking saints who have passed on for their prayers. If we pray at all then we can’t believe that the barrier between this world and the next is as solid and opaque as the evidence of our senses would suggest. The difference between the Catholic and the Protestant worldview is that Catholics believe that those who have passed away still take an interest in us and in some way still participate in God’s work in our lives through their prayers.

In the culture that I come from, there is a sense that the unseen world is just behind a veil and there are many stories of interactions between the dead and the living. This awareness is stronger among those who still have links to traditional cultures. Because of my family links, the Communion of Saints was one of the Catholic beliefs which came to me more naturally.

A Calvinist prepares for confession

I’ll make no bones about it. Confession was probably the Catholic teaching with which I struggled the most. Again and again, I came back to the question, why not just confess my sins to God?

Two passages in the Bible challenged this view. One is the verse in James 5:16 ‘Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”

The other is the passage in John 20:23 where Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, ‘“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” The Catholics belief that this passage describes Jesus establishing the Sacrament of Confession.

In my first post on confession, I described how some of the things I had done in the past came back to bother me as I investigated Catholicism. They bothered me so much that I couldn’t wait for some future date when I might or might not become Catholic, and so I confessed them to God. I felt a great sense of peace afterwards, which would suggest that I had never actually confessed them to God before.

Now I know that Protestant readers are going to say, ‘Stop right there’. You confessed them to God and that’s enough. However, these things had come back to bother me in the context of investigating Catholicism. When I confessed them to God, I told Him that I wasn’t trying to bypass Confession. Therefore I think that the peace I felt would have been falsely won if I had dodged out of Confession.

I mentioned in the last post, that I was brought up in a Calvinist church where many people didn’t take Communion, because they didn’t believe that they are worthy. These people struggled to believe that God has forgiven them.

In one of my conversations about Confession, I blurted out, ‘There’s nothing you can do about Protestant guilt.’ I had a good think about what I had said, and realised that the church in which I grew up, provided no clear path for those burdened by guilt, to talk over the things which were bothering them and receive assurance that God can forgive. This may have happened in informal conversations between individuals and their minister. However, many people were waiting for God would to give them assurance that they were saved. They faithfully attended church and lived exemplary Christian lives without ever receiving Communion.

Some people in my Protestant church did put themselves forward for church membership and Communion. Perhaps they were troubled by a less sensitive conscience. Leaving it up to something as subjective and dependent on the individual and their circumstances as a feeling of assurance, doesn’t work. Some people will come to the conclusion that God has forgiven them and others will always doubt that they are forgiven.

These thoughts led me to the conclusion that some formal way of helping people deal with guilt was necessary and I accepted the idea of Confession. As I prepared for it, my biggest fear was that I would bare my soul, confess my sins and at that at the end the priest hearing my confession would say, “I’m sorry. One of these sins is just too bad and I amn’t allowed to absolve you.”

Father K told me that a priest could absolve almost any sin, including murder. However, he mentioned that one sin required permission from Rome, and I immediately started worrying that I had committed the one and only sin which parish priests weren’t allowed to absolve. This sin was so rare that Father K no longer had it on the tip of his tongue. He did some research and told me that a sin leading to ex-communication from the Catholic church was the only one parish priests couldn’t deal with. Obviously that didn’t apply to me, but I was still very nervous as I got ready to go to Confession. I’ll write one more post about Confession and I promise that that will be the last you’ll hear about it for a while.

Something else beginning with ‘C’

I grew up in a family and in a church which subscribed to Calvinist beliefs. Of course, as a child I didn’t know that I was a Calvinist. I listened to the church’s teachings in sermon after sermon, but it was a long time before I became aware of the underlying beliefs.

Calvinism is a bit like time travel; it seems simple at first, but if you think out all the consequences, then you get tied up in knots. Calvinists believe that because God is all-powerful, He has already pre-ordained everything which happens. This means that before the world was created, God decided who would be saved and go to heaven and who would spend eternity in hell.

Religion is full of apparent paradoxes, which you just have to accept at one layer of belief and sometime later on, when you are able to go deeper into the mystery, you catch a glimpse of a bigger picture where the paradoxes resolve. Paradox aside, Calvinism raises some serious problems. Where does our free will come in, if God has decided everything, and how can a loving God create people knowing that no matter what they do, they will go to hell?

When I was looking into becoming Catholic, I came across the writing of Frank Schaeffer, who was brought up in Switzerland as the son of American Calvinist missionaries. In his novel ‘Portofino’, the main character is a boy called Calvin. He wrestles with the Calvinist beliefs of his missionary parents, in a way that would be funny, if it wasn’t also sad. For instance, he tries to escape the fact that God already knows exactly what he’s going to do, by doing something so fast and so unexpected that he hopes he’ll get one step ahead of God’s pre-ordained plan.

In the novel ‘Portofino’, Calvin and his parents believed that they were among God’s Elect whom he had pre-ordained to be saved. However, most members of my own family, doubted that they were among the Elect. They believed that unless God gave you assurance of salvation, preferably in some kind of Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus type conversion, then you were not saved. If God hadn’t already shown you that you were numbered among the Elect, who were you to approach the God of the universe and ask for His forgivenes? Who indeed.

I grew up with a feeling of hopelessness. I was caught no matter what I did. If I didn’t try to live as a Christian and attend church, I was damned. On the other hand, even if I tried to live a Christian life, at the end of it, I might still find out that I was pre-destined to Eternal Damnation.

The effect of this kind of teaching was that many people, including myself, did not become church members and take communion. They doubted that God would actually forgive them and feared taking communion unworthily.

So there you have it: Calvinism, the Highland version.

I’ll finish with the thoughts of Emily MacDonald on Highland Presbyterianism. She was born in England and her uncle Lord Leverhulme had just bought the island of Lewis when she made her first trip there in 1918. She married a young doctor from Lewis in 1923, and although they settled in England, she retained a great affection for the island and visited on holiday. In ‘Twenty Years of Hebridean Memories’, she writes:

A very strict form of Presbyterianism is observed by a large number of the inhabitants, and I feel that the beliefs held prevent many truly Christian men and women from receiving the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. They pass through life debarred from this service, because they dare not venture to partake of it for fear they be not worthy. …. What a help and comfort this service might be to hundreds of good-living Lewis men and women, whose chief ‘sins’ are that they read novels and write letters or take a walk and discuss mundane problems on Sunday afternoons though it is likely that they have attended church in the morning and will do so again in the evening.