Loneliness

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Recently I have been struggling with feelings of loneliness. They have been coming and going ever since I started to think about becoming Catholic in a small, Protestant town. Our parish isn’t big enough to run RCIA classes, and so I didn’t get a chance to meet other converts or people who were thinking of becoming Catholic. I turned to the internet for help. The feeling that a new part of my life was opening up and that I didn’t have many people to share it with, drove me to read articles and blogs about people’s experience of becoming Catholic. It also, eventually, was part of the reason I decided to start this blog, in the hope that someone else would find it useful, and also because I felt that if I didn’t write about what happened, I would explode.

Before I was received into the church, I worried about the reaction of the family. I braced myself for opposition, but it didn’t come. They were glad that I was going to church again, even if the church I had chosen was way down their list of desirable ones. Things have moved on. Twenty years ago, the Catholic church wouldn’t even have been on their list of Christian churches, and now it sits somewhere above the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventist church.

My relatives more or less politely ignored the news that I was becoming Catholic, hoping perhaps that having got back on the ladder of Christian churches, I will now work my way back up to the refformed Protestant ones at the top. In a way, this was almost the best possible outcome. I faced no strife and no stress. However, I hadn’t realised how painful it would be to go through a huge, life-transforming experience in which my family showed no interest. They thought that I had chosen something inferior, whilst I felt that I was hovering on the edge of a mystery of breathtaking magnificence.

With the pain of definitively choosing a different path as far as religion went, came unexpected feelings of loneliness. When I left the church and drifted into agnosticism, enjoying quiet feelings of superiority over my religious family, I didn’t feel any loneliness. Perhaps that was because I had plenty of like-minded friends to keep me company, but more likely it was because I didn’t really care that much about what my family thought or felt. Becoming Catholic has softened the boundaries between me and them. The irony is that through taking a step which I knew would cause them pain and which would have been unthinkable when I was younger, I have become more considerate. I care more about them, and it hurts that they can’t share in this part of my life.

One night last week, I didn’t sleep well, because I was troubled by the thought that my family may never able to understand the choices I have made as far as faith is concerned. I was also remembering the people who helped me on my spiritual journey over the years, many of them nudging me, although neither they nor I was aware of it at the time, towards Catholicism. I was grateful to have had these people in my life in the past, but I was also feeling very lonely and lost.

The Tablet arrived the next day. After browsing a few other articles, I turned to the Living Spirit section and the following quote by Thomas Merton hit me like a punch between the eyebrows:

As to your own desolation and loneliness: what can anyone say? It is the desolation of all of us in the presence of death and nothingness, but Christ in us bears it for us: without our being consoled. To accept non-consolation is to mysteriously help others who have more than they can bear.

My narrow vision opened up, and I caught a glimpse of the interconnectedness of all beings, something I know instinctively from my experience of carrying a child in my body and watching my own emotions mirrored in it’s face and moods in the months after the birth. When my children go through difficult times at school, I still feel as if I am going through it with them.

Thomas Merton’s words unscrolled a new picture in which God isn’t giving me the easy comfort I crave, not because he hasn’t heard me or doesn’t care or is angry, but because there is somebody out there somewhere whose loneliness is too hard to bear, and if I take on a little of it then there will be less to go around. In this new vision, I was lonely, but I was not alone.

On the same day, I came across the following quote about Mother Teresa and how she felt her own suffering was linked to sharing the suffering of others. The link to the page is here.

Contrary to reports in the press, Mother Teresa did not suffer a “crisis” of faith. In fact, her struggle was not with faith at all, but with the “loss of feeling” of faith, with the loss of a felt sense of the divine. As she stepped out of the convent and into the slums of Calcutta, what had been her usual consolation in prayer abruptly ended.

Though she would not understand it until later, she was being asked to share the same inner darkness, the same trial of belief suffered by the poor and destitute — and to do so for their sake, and for the love of her Lord.

For a few days I was able to concentrate on feeling grateful for what I had, instead of longing for some instant fix that would take away these painful feelings or distract me from them. However, my rational mind soon began to argue. It wants to shut down the vision of interconnectedness, telling me that it’s all nonsense. However, at the moment when I read the words, I knew instinctively that they were true.

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A reluctant reader

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I wanted to write a blog entry about something I came across in The Tablet at the end of last week. When I started thinking about it, I realised that The Tablet played a role in my conversion, although it wasn’t anything sudden, more of a steady drip drip effect over the years, and I decided that I needed to first write a post about that.

For those who don’t know, The Tablet is a weekly newspaper which covers national (British) and international news from a Catholic viewpoint. It also contains church news, spiritual reflections and reviews. Close to ten years ago, one of my in-laws gave us a gift subscription to The Tablet and my husband has kept up the subscription ever since.

At first I refused to read The Tablet. Not only was I not a Catholic, but I didn’t want anything to do with religion, and I was wary about reading anything written from a Christian viewpoint in case I felt that I was being preached at or put under pressure to convert. My husband encouraged me to read it for the analysis of international affairs. When he’d finished with each issue, he left it on top of the bed on my side. Sometimes it was easier just to open The Tablet than to move it somewhere else. Soon I was hooked and looking forward to the next issue. I started with the news items, and then went on to the book and film reviews. Anything to do with the church or spirituality was avoided like the plague.

A Catholic world view came across in the news articles, and I was impressed that Catholics cared about issues like poverty or the environment or mental health. I cared very much about the environment. Many years ago I struggled with the view, among some of the Christians I knew, that if God is going to give us a new heaven and a new earth anyway, why bother looking after this one? This attitude was also coloured with the belief that since the earth will be trashed during Armageddon anyway, there is really no point taking care of it. These attitudes contributed to me leaving the church, although they were by no means the only reason. Incidentally, I am challenged, delighted and filled with new hope by the Pope’s encyclical on the environment, but going into my thoughts on this would require a post all to itself.

Nowadays, when I read the Tablet, I enjoy the articles on spirituality and even try to read some of the pieces on church issues although I sometimes give up before I reach the end. Reading an article on an ecclesiastical issue, is like starting to watch a film half-way through, and trying to pick up the thread of the story, as well as struggling to work out unfamiliar concepts such as encyclicals, canon law and papal infallibility. Another bit I always turn to is the Living Spirit section which has quotes from the Bible or other sources. Now and then I have found a few lines which have spoken directly to my situation there and then, but I’ll write more about that in the next post.

Corpus Christi

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The feast of Corpus Christi got me thinking that I should finally write down my thoughts on transubstantiation, an awfully long and unwieldy word for a simple and deep mystery.

Let me get this clear. I don’t understand how a sliver of bread wafer and a sip of wine can actually become the body and blood of Christ. However, I feel that my faith as a Catholic hinges around the fact that the bread and wine are more than a mere symbol.

I first learnt about the Catholic belief in transubstantiation in a Protestant youth group. Our youth group leader wanted to inform us about errant Catholic beliefs so that we would never be seduced by them. He told us that Catholics actually believe that they are eating the body and blood of Christ. That made Catholics as bad as cannibals, except, of course, that we knew better. The bread and wine couldn’t really become human flesh and blood, and so the Catholics weren’t really practising cannibalism even though the belief that they were consuming human flesh was almost as bad as actually doing it.

Confused by this circular argument? So am I. When I left home and made friends with Catholics, I found them to be gentle, normal people who were quite clearly not cannibals. Hanging around with Catholics and eventually marrying into a Catholic family meant that I occasionally went along to Mass. It was only politeness. After all, I occasionally dragged my friends or husband along to my family’s Protestant church for some reason or another.

Slowly, over a period of years, I began to realise that something was going on in Mass which I had never experienced in a Protestant church. The first few times I attended Mass with friends, I was so preoccupied with how different it was from my own church, as well as worrying about when to stand up and sit down, that I don’t think it made much impact on me. I was disorientated by the fact that the sermon, which could last more than an hour in the church I was brought up in, and which spoke to my enquiring, analytical mind, lasted only ten minutes. Most of the Catholic Mass was a long prayer, words rising and falling, statement and response. Every time I tried to catch the words and hang onto an idea, it slipped away, superseded by another one. My husband said that it was like a meditation; you weren’t supposed to understand everything.

It was only relatively recently that I came to believe in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I was faced with a seemingly intractible situation, something I cared about very much and couldn’t change. I attended Mass with my family, because it helped me pray. I find it hard to explain what happened, but it seemed that in the midst of the suffering and the darkness and the helplessness, I experienced the presence of God in a much more real way than I had ever done before.

Sometimes, for brief moments, I felt God’s presence during the Mass, but more often it was afterwards that I realised I had more patience and peace to face my daily life. I began to long to go to Mass and if I didn’t make it one week, I felt as if I had missed something. There came one very difficult day when I felt an almost unbearable longing to take the Eucharist. The lady behind me must have sensed how I felt because she touched my shoulder and told me that I could go up for a blessing. I didn’t. It felt safer for me to stay seated and watch others go up as I had done for years and years.

By the time I decided to become Catholic, I felt physically, mentally and spiritually drained from the searching and questioning and from worrying about how others would react. Perhaps I looked on the Eucharist as some sort of panacea, a one cure which kills all ills. I asked our priest if taking the Eucharist would make any difference, and all he said was, “It will move you to tears.”

I’m very resistant to tears, especially in public places, but I have gone through the entire Mass damp-eyed on occasions. Once or twice, I have felt as if I was within Christ, singing with his words during the final hymn. This is the kind of experience which you can’t expect or demand. You can only be open to whatever gift is being offered at that moment. Sometimes I have brief moments of sensing God’s presence, and at other times the Mass seems quite prosaic, but I leave with a little more courage or faith. At other times, I have gone to Mass feeling quite self-satisfied, and have felt as if it has shone an uncomfortably bright light on dark corners of myself which I’d rather keep hidden.

I suspect that my faith wouldn’t have got very far without a belief in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Bringing the things which bother me, the sins and failings, and the situations which I am powerless to change to Mass, and abandoning them to God in the belief that he is there listening, is what keeps me going to church.

I don’t know how the bread and wine transforms into flesh and blood, but I know that it transforms me, and that is enough.

Images of Mary

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If you had asked me about Catholicism when I was growing up, I would probably have told you lots of things which I have since discovered aren’t true. Top of my list of misinformation would have been that Catholics ‘worship Mary’. There was an elderly man in our church who took every opportunity (and I really mean every opportunity) to accost Catholics and demand why they worshipped Mary.

Devotion to Mary is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for Protestants who are attracted to Catholicism. I still found this aspect of Catholic teaching challenging, even though I had been married into a Catholic family for many years before I even thought about becoming Catholic.

When I met my husband, I was far too much in love with him to worry about religious questions. After meeting his family, who included several nuns and priests, I realised that although they had a special respect for Mary, it was clearly Christ who was at the centre of things.

For years, I thought of it as a cultural thing. Every Christmas we went through a bit of a pantomine at home. My husband bought Christmas cards with reproductions of classical paintings of the nativity. The Virgin and child were, of course, in the centre of the picture. Even if they hadn’t had the address of a Catholic charity on the back, I wouldn’t have sent these cards to my relatives, because they were just, well, a bit too Catholic looking.

My church was so reformed that Christmas and Easter, the two biggest Christian festivals, were not celebrated, which was not to say that the Christian teaching behind them was not spoken about. Our minister might happen to preach a sermon on Christ’s birth in July, whilst we were taught about Christ’s death on the cross in practically every sermon. However, if you were to visit our church on a Sunday towards the end of December, the sermon would almost certainly not include any mention of the birth of a child in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.

When we were young, my parents didn’t want us to feel left out, and so we celebrated Christmas as a commercial festival. In keeping with this, I sent my Protestant relatives garish pictures of snowmen and Santa Claus, while my husband sent his Catholic relatives classic nativity scenes of the virgin and child. It was something which we teased each other about. However, it now seems symbolic. Mary brought Christ into the Catholic Christmas, whilst the focus of my ultra-reformed Protestant Christmas was getting new toys and eating too much food.

When I was coming close to making a commitment to become Catholic, I felt that other aspects of Catholic teaching such as saints and transubstantiation and marriage as a sacrament, had clicked into place. However, I still didn’t feel that I really understood at a heart rather than head level the role of Mary in the church. I asked Father K if it was all right if I said I was prepared to trust the church on their teaching on Mary in the hope that I would eventually understand it better. He said that this would be fine, and after that, there really were not any major reasons why I couldn’t become Catholic

Going back to where I started with the Christmas cards, in all the traditional paintings of the nativity, Mary is pictured with Christ. God could have found some other way to parachute his Son into the world, but he chose to do it through a woman. Through praying the Rosary and meditating on the Gospel mysteries, I’ve thought more about Mary’s role. It hasn’t brought me closer to feeling any strong devotion to her, but it has brought me further in my devotion to Christ.