Two sides of Easter

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When I was a child, Easter meant eating Cadbury’s cream eggs which covered my hands with goo. My Mum also gave me a boiled egg to decorate with felt tip pens. Lurid blue and green ink smudged on the egg white when I cracked it open, but I ate it anyway. Back in these good old days, there was no such thing as non-toxic ink, and so I if I’ve turned out to be a little bit wacky, I’ll blame it on that.

Joy

Easter, like Christmas, was a strictly non-religious experience, because we didn’t celebrate it in church. I was a student living away from home when I went to my first Easter day service in a Baptist church. It should have been a joyful experience. The church was packed with smiling people, and the choir sang their hearts out, but I felt annoyance, bordering on anger. I had been brought up with such an emphasis on Christ’s suffering and death that I couldn’t understand why they were so happy.

My next Easter experience, many years later was Mass on Easter Sunday. This time I was much less resistant to joy. I was almost overwhelmed by the different sensations: light from the candles, the smell of incense, the sound of singing, the feel of droplets of holy water, from a brush which the priest flicked enthusiastically over the congregation.

At that point, I didn’t understand Lent, or the fact that Easter Sunday is the culmination of a week of preparation which follows the last week in Christ’s life, his death and resurrection.

Sadness

My experience of Easter is like a patchwork. Due to other commitments, I can’t take part in everything, and even if I could, I don’t think I could take it all in at once. This year my new patch in the Easter quilt was a short time of prayer in the church early on Good Friday.

I couldn’t take part in the Maundy Thursday Mass or the Good Friday prayers, but I saw that there was prayer in the church from Thursday night until Friday morning. I gathered my courage and slipped in for a few moments between dropping the kids at school and going to work.

The church felt different. The statue of Christ was draped in cloth and a curtain partly covered the entrance to the side chapel. I crept into the side chapel and found empty rows of chairs facing a little brass box surrounded by a profusion of flowers. The atmosphere was that of a Chapel of Remembrance. It felt as if someone had died. The church itself was a bare shell, too large for the swaddled figure of Christ and the gaping doors of the tabernacle.

Although I had read that the sacrament is taken out of the tabernacle and placed elsewhere to symbolise Christ’s death and burial, it was a shock to see the church like this. Somehow I had thought that these ceremonies occurred later on Good Friday, and had expected to find the church in more or less normal condition.

Even though this was a re-enactment of events which occurred over 2000 years ago, it felt like a bereavement. I knelt in the side chapel and cried as if I had lost a loved one.

Balance

Mine is not a certain faith. I shuffle forwards, testing each step. I keep going, not because I have any assurance that there is anything beyond what my five senses can tell me, but because of a feeling, deep down, that this is what I am meant to do.

The sadness I felt in finding the church empty, testified in a reverse way to the fact that there must usually be a presence there, even if I have no strong awareness of it. The grief I felt at finding Christ symbolically entombed, showed me that, even through the muddle and guddle of everyday life, a part of me longs for him.

I joined the Easter vigil on Saturday, when light is brought into the dark church from a fire lit outside in the night. Throughout the next few days when doubts pecked at me like black corbies, or crows, I remembered that I cannot understand light without knowing darkness, life is precious because we also experience death, and that faith arises from questions and doubts.

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God’s providence

Another thing I’m getting used to about being Catholic, is the mysterious habit people have of leaving cards with prayers or thoughts on them at the back of the church. A short while ago, the table at the back of the church was scattered with prayer cards. Someone must have bought a bumper pack. I eyed them suspiciously, turned one over, and decided that I wouldn’t take any. There were too many to choose from, and someone else might need one more than me.

About two weeks later, there was only one sort of prayer card left. Since nobody else wanted them, I decided to pick one up. I was feeling pretty useless that day. The things that were happening in my life were difficult, and didn’t seem to make much sense. I read the prayer, as I walked away from the church, and it spoke right to me, particularly the part about perplexity. It gave me assurance that even when things are painful and confusing, God is still at work. Here it is.

God’s providence by Cardinal John Henry Newman

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.

Therefore I will trust Him. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me- still He knows what He is about.

Thinking of a mother I know

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Mothers Day (6th March in the UK) has come and gone. I was showered with gifts: a hand-painted box, a card, a picture of Batman and Robin saving a city from evil villains and a shower gel which makes me smell like a cake. It’s nice to feel appreciated.

My friend’s story

On Mothers Day, my thoughts turned to a friend who has recently been separated from her son. We’ve known each other since university. Looking back, she was at the root of many of the crazy, fun things I did in that time. We hitch-hiked around Scotland together. Our first lift was in the open back of a fish truck, which didn’t make us attractive passengers for anyone else. I remember trecking along lonely roads in the north-west sticking our thumbs out, hoping that the one car which passed that hour might pick us up. We stopped speaking somewhere in Wester Ross. I have no idea why, but remember the relief when we forgave each other.

When you can survive a trip roughing it round the Highlands and still be talking to each other at the end, then you know that you’ve found a real friend.

Becoming mothers

We became pregnant at the same time. My friend gave birth two weeks before me. She phoned afterwards to tell me that it would be one of the hardest things I would ever go through, but that I could do it.

We’ve never lived close to each other, but we’ve made the effort to visit. Since her son came along, my friend has focussed most of her energy on caring for him and making sure that he has the best chances in life.

She wanted her son to learn and achieve his best. Sometimes I worried that she would push him too much, or that he would become spoilt, but when I saw them together, I realised that they have a fantastic relationship. They are at ease with one another and laugh and chat. Her son is a kind and caring person, and patient with my younger children. My friend isn’t just a good mother; she is an excellent one.

My friend was always creating fun learning experiences for her son, such as visiting a new place or a museum, going for a walk, reading a book, playing a game or making something together. Two years ago, we visited them in England, and arrived to find Scottish flags made out of blue and white card strung between the trees. When I remarked on the work that must have gone into making them, my friend said wryly, “It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have a TV.”

Difficulties

Things haven’t been easy. My friend gave up a well-paid job to have her son and has never got back on the career path. She has struggled to make ends meet. Her son’s father, absent from the start, continually adjusted his income to wriggle out of maintenance payments. This led to legal challenges to get the school fees paid as well as money for food and rent. Like chancery in Dicken’s Bleak House, I saw no end to it and advised her to walk away from the court battles. However, it was very important to her that her son would get a private education, and the only way to afford this was to pursue his father for money.

After many years of marking his presence in his son’s life with expensive presents and occasional holidays, her son’s father wanted more involvement. His mother was reluctant to co-operate. She made a few mistakes, which one of us hasn’t, but the consequences have been awful. By some sleight of hand and with the help of skilful lawyers, her ex-partner managed to gain custody of their son. When I heard, it was almost unbelievable, a gross injustice, like the news that disabled people’s benefits are being cut or that many people now rely on food banks. However, there is a danger, for us as onlookers, that what strikes us as manifestly unfair, can gradually become accepted as the status quo.

Its been six months now. My friend’s son is living with his father pending a final court decision. In the meantime, she is going through an agonising wait. It’s David against Goliath. She could scarcely afford a lawyer, but has managed against the odds to get legal aid.

A prayer or a positive thought

I am writing my friend’s story, because I want to remind myself that something has gone wrong when a boy who has lived for over ten years with his mother, goes to live with a father who until recently tried to dodge his responsibilities.

All I can do is pray. When it comes to prayer, I don’t know where to start. It isn’t like an internet shopping list: click here for next day delivery. Although the boy’s father might seem like the villain of the piece, perhaps he also feels a need to love his son and spend time with him. I am hoping that by some miracle a solution can be worked out that gives everyone what they need.

I pray that mother and son will be reunited, and that my friend will receive the love and support she needs. I pray that no matter what happens, her son will never forget the love she has given him and the values she has taught him. I pray that her ex, regardless of whether this move was motivated by revenge or a desire to save money, will learn to genuinely love his son. I hope that a miracle of love will come out of it all. Most of all I want to send my friend a big hug, with the hope that a few other people might read this and add their own prayers and thoughts.