Don’t go to church ….

… Until you find the church you can’t stay away from, and then keep going.

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I’m being deliberately provocative here, but that sentence sums up my own experience of churches. It didn’t make sense to go to church, until what was happening in the church began to make sense to me. I would be tempted to give this advice to people, except that I should be old enough to realise that giving advice and matchmaking are two things which it’s best not to meddle in. The last time I dared to try matchmaking resulted in two female targets furiously paddling away in their kayaks, while the male target enthusiastically paddled after them. Never again.

I took a scunner to churches. Scunner is a great Scots word, which means more than just taking a dislike to something. It brings with it a feeling that you have had too much of a thing and have taken a strong dislike to it. There’s also the sense of the kind of sicky dislike you get when you’ve gorged yourself on something, walnut whips, perhaps, or salt and vinegar crisps, and then can’t face ever eating that food again.

I was brought up in the Highland Presbyterian tradition. I’ve written a bit about my experiences in an earlier post. I was seeped and saturated in religious belief. We thought that our church was the only church which was still faithful to the principles of the New Testament church. We believed that people who attended other churches were at the very best second-class, lukewarm Christians and in the worse cases, they were not saved at all.

I thought that I had a strong faith. However, when I left home, the tensions between my traditional beliefs and my experience of life, particularly over the issue of Sunday observance, became so great that I felt I had stark choices:
1. I could become a hypocrite, pretending to believe, while quietly going my own way
2. I could stick to the church’s rules and risk losing my reason
3. I could jettison my beliefs.

In practice, I tried to reach a compromise, between option 1 and option 3. The beliefs with which I was brought up, had been strong and clear and uncompromising, with no questioning or debate allowed. I couldn’t question one part of my belief without the whole thing threatening to fall down. I felt like a tree which had been struck by the woodcutter’s axe, and which was leaning precariously to one side without actually falling.

I tried going to other churches, even though I was still cynically questioning faith and Christianity, but I found them to be too informal. I didn’t like the choruses they sang, because I was used to the psalms, and I positively cringed if the music was accompanied by a band. Most of the time, I mentally criticised these churches for being different from the traditional church in which I was brought up. Yes, I know, it wasn’t logical. I tried other churches, because I had rejected my own, and yet I wasn’t happy with any of the new experiences, because they were different from what I was used to.

Around this time, something happened which showed me how weak the foundations of my faith really were. It began innocuously enough, when I attended a discussion group on science and religion. At the end of six weeks of discussions, a small lady who wore a tartan skirt and a woollen jumper and a cross around her neck, announced that the Catholic chaplaincy was organising a retreat in daily life which was open to anyone, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. A few pennies dropped, and I realised that this lady, was actually a nun. If I had known that at the start, I would have been quite prejudiced against her, but since she had already made a good impression on me by her thoughtful contributions to the discussion, I decided that I would have to revise my opinion of nuns.

Since I was experiencing a lot of disquiet and turmoil about faith, the retreat in daily life sounded attractive. It lasted several weeks and involved setting aside time each day to meditate on Bible verses, as well as meeting with a spiritual advisor every week. A few group meetings were also held with the others taking part in the retreat. When I look back, it seems to be a bit of miracle that I decided to do this retreat, considering that I had been brought up to believe that Catholics weren’t even Christians. However, at the time, I experienced no struggle. I was willing to try anything which might help me make sense of things.

A kind but firm nun guided me on the retreat, and what came out of it was the humbling realisation that despite all my knowledge about Christianity and the Bible, I hadn’t really got anywhere spiritually. On the last day of the retreat, a candlelit service, with Bible readings and prayers, was held in the chapel. Each of the participants was asked to summarise in one word what they had learnt through the retreat. I knew clearly which word I had to use, but it cost me a lot to speak it in front of strangers in the half-lit silence of the church. My word was ‘Starting’, and by saying it aloud, I acknowledged that I was really only at the beginning of an uncharted journey. Up until this point, I had thought that I was so knowledgeable that I could have written the guidebook.

I look back and think, what would have happened if I could have started this journey then, but after the peace of the retreat, I returned to my old habits of cynicism, doubt and criticism. It didn’t even occur to me that the Catholic church, which had organised the retreat, might also help me on this spiritual path. I wonder why I wasn’t nudged in this direction, and the only answer I get is that God waits until we are ready to turn to Him, and I wasn’t ready then.

There is more to tell about my journey away from the church, but this post is already long enough and I’ll continue it in another one.

Some thoughts on Mary in October

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In the liturgical year, October is the month of the Rosary when the Hail Mary is said in the church. I thought it would be a good time to put down my last thoughts about Mary, the mother of Christ. As a former Protestant, who had to take the church’s teaching on Mary on faith, I have turned out to have more thoughts about this than I expected.

The doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into heaven comes from Catholic church tradition rather than directly from the Bible. It was a stumbling block for me, and I think that many Protestants have experienced the same thing when approaching the Catholic church. I thought that the doctrine of the Assumption had suspicious whiffs of Mary being promoted to an equal place with Christ, or even usurping him.

As I was drawn further into investigating Catholicism, I realised that to worry about Mary towering over the church and dominating it like some kind of overbearing matron is to completely miss the point. In my experience of the Catholic church, what is overwhelmingly emphasised is Mary’s humility, her trust in God and her total submission to His will. When an angel was sent to announce that she would conceive a child by supernatural means, she had a chance to say, “No way. That’s too difficult,” but she didn’t.

Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God, is known in Latin as her fiat. I first came across this term in the book ‘Catholicism’ by Thomas Howard. Thomas Howard was an American evangelical who converted to Catholicism. In his book he emphasises that Mary is honoured because of her submission to God’s will. She is also an example of how God likes to work, taking an unknown Jewish girl, rather than a rich or powerful person, to be a key part of his plan.

Until I began saying the Rosary and meditating on the Gospel mysteries, I never thought about how difficult it must have been for Mary to let God work in her life. If someone had asked me for a quick opinion, I would have said that being the mother of Jesus was an easy job. After all, wasn’t he without sin. Probably he didn’t even cry as a baby. Bringing him up must have been a cinch compared to my experience of coping with colicky, sleepless babies and toddler tantrums.

Meditating on the mystery of Mary and Joseph finding Jesus in the temple soon put paid to that idea. Mary and Joseph had walked a day’s journey from Jerusalem before they realised that their twelve year old son was not among the group of friends and family returning from the temple. They returned to Jerusalem, a day’s walk away, and scoured the city for a further three days, before coming across their son teaching in the temple. When they found him, he was remarkably cool about being parted from his parents for five days, but Mary and Joseph must have been in a fever pitch of worry. This is the only recorded incident from Jesus’ childhood, and it shows a boy who already has his own firm ideas about his priorities and mission in life. Bringing up God’s son, must have been demanding and challenging, and required a great deal of trust in God for the strength and wisdom to meet the task.

This isn’t even to mention the challenge of assenting to be a teenage, single mother (“I conceived a child by the Holy Spirit” – try telling that to your parents), or making a long journey to Bethlehem in the final stages of pregnancy knowing that there would be a rush on hotels and lodgings.

The ultimate test of Mary’s trust in God, was when she followed her only son on the route to Calvary and stayed with him as he suffered a brutal and degrading death. A few months ago, a group of men were executed for drug trafficking in Indonesia. The day before the execution, the mother of one of them issued a final appeal for mercy. Her emotion was so great that it was almost impossible to make out words in her warbling cry of distress.

Facing the death of a child, especially a foreseeable, violent, preventable death, is the worst thing a mother can go through. Catholics believe that even at the foot of the cross, Mary did not lose her faith in God or her assent to his will. Mary is addressed as ‘full of grace’ because she fully co-operated with the work of grace in her life.

Although I prayed the other mysteries of the Gospel, it was a long time before I could meditate the mysteries of Mary’s assumption into heaven and her crowning by Christ. When I finally did, I found that they challenged my own life. If Christ valued his mother so much that he wanted to bring her body and soul into heaven and honour her with a crown, how do I honour my parents?

Our parish priest often says that Christ is there to lead us to God the Father, and Mary, by her example of humility and submission to God’s will, is there to lead us to Christ. I still don’t fully understand this aspect of Catholic teaching. However, I have found my own faith to be strengthened by meditating on Mary’s example.

Encouragement

I got a lot of encouragement from this quote from St Pio of Petrelcina, a Capuchin priest . Again I found this quote in The Tablet just around the time that I really needed it.
Do not anticipate the problems of this life with apprehension, but rather, with perfect hope that God, to whom you belong, will free you from them accordingly. He has defended you up to now. Simply hold on tightly to the hand of his divine providence, and he will help you in all events, and when you are unable to walk, he will lead you.