Rushing around

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I’m trying to recover over Christmas from a very busy and rushed period of my life. A while ago, I read with total absorption ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, the story of Thomas Merton’s conversion and entry into the Gethsemane community of Trappist monks. There were some things I could relate to in the events reading up to Thomas Merton’s conversion. He had come from a background in which there was very little religion. Although my upbringing was saturated in religion, I had turned away from it and wanted absolutely nothing to do with the church. In his case and mine, the call to grace came sudden and unexpected, although many little things led up to it.

However, I felt that I couldn’t relate to what happened after Thomas Merton was received into the church. In fact, I became quite jealous of the freedom, support and opportunities he had to explore Catholicism. When he became Catholic, he was a graduate student with a fairly flexible timetable. This allowed him to start each day with Mass and Communion. He wrote:

After the spiritual mangle I have gone through, it will never be possible for me to do without the sacraments daily, and without much prayer and penance and meditation and mortification.

Writing about the period of his life, a year or so after his conversion, he  said

I was being fed not only with the rational milk of every possible spiritual consolation, but it seemed that there was no benefit, no comfort, no innocent happiness, even of the material order, that could be denied me.

He visited Cuba, taught English in a Catholic University and then followed the call to become a monk in the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemane. It wasn’t easy, and he experienced struggles discerning his vocation, but the contrasts with my own situation were huge. I became a Catholic at a time when I had many family responsibilities. On top of that, I started retraining to do a demanding job. Where is God in the harassed life of a busy mother? Thomas Merton became a monk to dedicate his life to prayer and contemplation. He had plenty of peace to discover his new faith, didn’t he?

By the time, I read the end of his autobiography, I realised that perhaps things weren’t quite so simple. Thomas Merton entered the monastery expecting peace and consolation and time to read and write and pray. However, he found out that it was a difficult life and a tough rule. The monks had a busy life, working in the fields producing their own food.

A few months after he entered the monastery, Thomas Merton became ill with the flu. He had been so busy up until then, that he actually welcomed the illness, writing:

My secret joy at entering the infirmary came from the thought: “Now at last I will have some solitude and I will have plenty of time to pray.” I should have added: “And to do everything that I want to do, without having to run all over the place answering bells.” I was fully convinced that I was going to indulge all the selfish appetites that I did not yet know how to recognise as selfish because they appeared so spiritual in their new disguise.

Thomas Merton’s life as a monk was busy and full of duties. He gave up his ambitions to be a writer, but was told by his superior, fortunately for many people, such as me, not to stop writing as it was part of his vocation. In the epilogue to ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, he addresses God directly:

You have got me walking up and down all day under those trees, saying to me over and over again: “Solitude, solitude.” And you have turned around and thrown the whole world in my lap. You have told me, “Leave all those things and follow me,” and then You have tied half of New York to my foot like a ball and chain. You have got me kneeling behind that pillar with my mind making a noise like a bank. Is that contemplation?

Before I went to make my solemn vows, last spring, on the Feast of St. Joseph, … It seemed to me that You were almost asking me to give up all aspirations for solitude and for a contemplative life. You were asking me for obedience to superiors who will, I am morally certain, either make me write or teach philosophy or take charge of a dozen material responsibilities around the monastery, and I may even end up as a retreat master preaching four sermons a day to the seculars who come to the house. And even if I have no special job at all, I will always be on the run from two in the morning to seven at night.

.But before I could even begin to pray, I had to drop that kind of thinking.

By the time I made my vows, I decided that I was no longer sure what … the contemplative vocation was …. In fact I could not be sure I knew or understood much of anything except that I believed that You wanted me to take those particular vows in this particular house on that particular day for reasons best known to Yourself, and that what I was expected to do after that was follow along with the rest and do what I was told and things would begin to become clear.

That morning when I was lying on my face on the floor in the middle of the church, with Father Abbot praying over me, I began to laugh, with my mouth in the dust, because without knowing how or why, I had actually done the right thing, and even an astounding thing. But what was astounding was not my work, but the work You worked in me.

Thomas Merton knew what it was to be busy and rushed and asked to do a multitude of things when he was gasping for some peace and quiet. The only thing he knew for certain was that this was God’s will for his life. Somehow, in the midst of that, God was there, and that was enough.

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Purple is for Advent

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I had heard of Lent and giving up chocolate in the weeks before Easter, but it was a not entirely pleasant surprise to find out that Advent is also a time of self examination and penance when Catholics prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ.

The reformed church in which I grew up did not recognise Christmas as a religious festival. Some people did not celebrate Christmas at all, and others kept it as a purely commercial festival for the sake of the kids. Christmas for me was a time of quietly counting Christmas trees glimpsed through open curtains, delving into stockings, unwrapping presents from gaudy paper and over-indulging in food. Although I knew the story of Christ’s birth, I was more likely to hear it in July than at Christmas time.

The idea that the time leading up to Christmas is one of self-restraint as Catholics prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, came as a bit of a shock. I find it hard to reconcile what is going on inside and outside the church at this time of year.

Outside, shops are full of tinsel and bright Christmas displays. I brave packed department stores and queues at checkouts and leave with heavy bags and an empty feeling that I have somehow missed the point. Harried mothers exchange notes on how much shopping there is still left to do. I feel the burden of Christmas as an annual commercial ritual, which becomes more costly every year.

Inside, the church is quiet, waiting, the only decoration is the four candles in the Advent wreath. Extra time has been set aside for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The readings from the prophets talk about God’s mercy, a people being redeemed and returning from exile, streams flowing in the desert dryness. The cry of John the Baptist from the wilderness echoes down the years.

The priest wears purple, just as in Lent. I always thought that purple was a royal colour, a sign of wealth, more suited to celebration than penance. I wondered, why purple was used, and in the liturgical year book for England and Wales for 2013-2014, I found this beautiful explanation. For those who don’t know, as I didn’t until recently, a new liturgical year begins at the start of Advent.

The Year begins in darkness a deep purple darkness where we long for light and the bright shimmer of a star is a sign of hope and life. In the Liturgical Year, purple or violet is a colour of longing, renewal and expectation: in Advent and Lent, at funerals or in the Sacrament of Penance, purple should speak to us of that which we long and yearn for: like a deer longs for running streams, so we yearn for the living God to come to us, to heal us, to be with us. Our purple is a sign of all we long for: the presence of Christ, the washing clean of all sin, the resurrection of the dead.

Purple is also a sign of kingship and majesty the One who comes, the One who heals, the One who raises the dead is himself the King who reigns from the cross….The Church and the liturgy should be waiting not quite there yet, just around the corner….Advent is the unfilled glass polished and made ready speaking in its emptiness of what is to fill it.

 

Just a piece of bread?

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There’s still a lot I am discovering about the Catholic tradition.

A few weeks ago, a friend unexpectedly sent a link to a Youtube video of Adoration. She said that Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament through this video had a similar effect on her to actually going to church.

Scepticism

I was a bit sceptical, but I thought that I would give it a go. When it comes to religion, I operate on at least three levels. The top one is rational and scientific and only believes in the evidence of my senses, and in things which I can test and analyse and describe with numbers. This part of me says that a piece of bread and a person are very different things. While I accept that a tiny seed can grow into a plant, and a caterpillar can turn into a butterffly, it is quite clear for this part of me that a piece of bread cannot contain a person.

On a deeper level, I still experience doubt about religion, but this part of me reckons that since I am in a mess, and the world is not in a great state, I might as well give it a go. This is the part which keeps me praying and going to Mass, even when I don’t expect too much from it.

That isn’t the whole story. I am sometimes surprised by something which I cannot taste or see or touch, but which nevertheless moves me on a deeper level than thought.

A part of me struggled to believe that Jesus was present in the Host in the church where the video was recorded many months ago, and it seemed like a stretch too far to believe that Christ’s presence could be experienced through an image on my computer screen.

I watched the video twice. There was a lot going on in my life, and each time I ended up in tears without even being quite sure why I was crying. I wrote to my friend that I didn’t think I had felt especially close to Christ, but that I had ended up in tears. She wrote back and said that this was exactly the effect it had on her.

A few brief moments

If the internet version of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, moved me to tears, then I definitely wanted to experience the real version. Unfortunately Adoration takes place in my parish church at a time when I am never free. However, I recently travelled away from home for work, and public transport somehow conspired so that I arrived earlier than expected. I realised that if I hurried, I might just make it to the church before Eucharistic adoration finished at midday.

I didn’t quite run, but I must have been more rushed than I realised, because I clumsily crashlanded into the pew, trying to take off my heavy rucksack at the same time as I knelt down. This had the effect of overbalancing me so that the empty pew in front wobbled forward under my weight and righted itself with a crash. The nuns further down the church kept their heads firmly turned towards the front.

I stared at the thin wafer in which, my religion taught me, the Lord of the Universe dwelt. It wasn’t a symbol or a reminder of His presence. He was really there, or so I was told.

I searched the surface of the wafer, looking for the trace of a face in the shadows and light patches. I wondered what I was meant to see or feel or pray, and told myself not to be disappointed and doubtful if I felt nothing.

Deep inside an emotion jerked, like a string pulling open a floodgate. The tears started and once again I didn’t even know why I was crying. There was something in there of longing and recognition. Deep calls to deep. I wept because the way I had entered the church, late and rushed and carrying a heavy bag, seemed like my hurried and worried life at the moment. I cried, because being a convert is like entering a strange land where you don’t know the customs and haven’t learnt the language properly, and are always a step behind everyone else.

I had hoped that the priest would be late, and would give me a few minutes longer with the Sacrament, but, bang on twelve, he strode efficiently up the side aisle. A few minutes later, he emerged from the Sacristy in white robes. I was confused. Was there going to be a Mass?

He said a prayer and held up the monstrance, the metal stand containing the host. He held it over his head, swinging it from side to side, like a sportsman holding up a cup, and then he returned it to the gleaming tabernacle at the back of the church.

I had had two minutes, perhaps three, in the presence of that sliver of bread. For the next ten minutes I remained in the church, crying tears into my hands. Those few minutes strengthened me for the rest of the day, like a brief and unexpected encounter with a loving friend.

So is it just a piece of bread? The rational part of my mind still struggles to believe that Christ our Lord abides in a brittle morsel of wheat. However, on a deeper level, I know that it wasn’t just a scrap of food which moved me to tears.