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.

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