God’s mercy

I wrote this piece a while ago and didn’t post it. I’ve recently had another attack of what I call ‘bad image of God’ (usually accompanied by bad image of self). However, I’m recovering and am posting this in the hope that it might be helpful.

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An attack of ‘bad image of God’

The biggest struggle I have experienced in my journey to becoming Catholic has been trusting in God’s mercy. A diary entry written a few months after I was received into the church says:

I am nobody, nothing. God hates me. He’s hovering in heaven, ready to squish me, to make me suffer in the most excruciating way possible, both psychologically and physically. He wants me to hurt, is even now planning how to do it.

Maybe I should just give up, ask for oblivion. Even death won’t help. It will just give him the chance to inflict more and never-ending torment. I can’t escape. I would despair except that I have children. I have to try to love them, even though it’s imperfect. I’m never good enough. God is always angry with me. He doesn’t forgive. I don’t want to go near Him because He will push me away.

And yet, grumpy and moody as I am, I try to forgive my children.

At the time that I wrote these words, I absolutely believed them, although I also experienced moments when I experienced God’s love and mercy.

High pews and short legs

These feelings of mistrust in God’s mercy came from deep in my childhood. I sat on hard, scratchy cushions on a pew that was too high for my short legs and watched the preacher. His face was thrown into relief by the pulpit light so that it seemed to be full of clefts and hollows which changed as he moved. As he spoke about God’s judgement and hell and our own sin and unworthiness, his voice rose and fell and his face twisted with emotion.

When I was very young, all I thought about was getting through the long sermons. I swung my legs and wriggled and twisted and traced pictures in the patterns of the wooden shelf where we rested our Bibles and Psalm books. I ate the sweeties that my grandmother gave me, trying not to sook on them and just let them rest in my mouth. If I was careful, four sweeties would almost last me through an hour-long sermon.

At some point, I began to understand the preacher’s words. I realised that when he talked about sinners who were going to be lost in hell unless they threw themselves on God’s mercy, he was including me.

I did what the preacher told me to. I turned to God and asked Him to forgive my sins. It was logical. I didn’t want to go to the never-ending fire that the preacher described so graphically, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Double back flipping Calvinism

This decision brought me peace until I became a teenager and realised that it wasn’t as simple as that. God’s mercy wasn’t to be obtained by simply asking for it, not for a reformed Scottish Presbyterian. Many people in our church, including my own family, were double back flipping Calvinists (although I think that the theological term is double predestination).

They believed that God had decided before the start of time who would be saved and who wouldn’t. Therefore, it made no difference if we turned to God and asked for forgiveness. If God had decided that we were among the Elect, we would be saved and if we weren’t, then we would be damned regardless of how many times we petitioned God for mercy. In fact, it was sheer insolence to even ask for God’s mercy unless He first gave a sign that we were numbered among the Elect.

This was too much for me. I could ask God’s forgiveness, but could never be sure that I would ever receive it. Although I didn’t leave the church for several more years, my faith and trust were already damaged. My feelings of guilt and unworthiness grew until the only way I could cope was to leave the church in which I had grown up.

I tried different churches. However, I was dogged by the image of a God who would never love or forgive no matter how hard I tried to please him or how much I needed his help. I suffered from low self-esteem and depression. The only way to escape this bogey God who was always breathing disapproval down my neck was to turn my back on religion.

Believing in God’s mercy

It didn’t end there. Many years later I felt called to become Catholic. This brought me a lot of joy, but also the challenge of facing my own negative images of God.

During the first year or so after becoming Catholic, even the Sacrament of Reconciliation did not give me immediate relief from the feelings of guilt and mistrust in God’s mercy. Confessing to a priest was such a strange and unfamiliar thing. Perhaps that was the reason I didn’t experience the feelings of relief and lightness that other people reported. Often, however, I would feel that the burden of guilt and doubt had lifted a few hours or a few days later. On one beautiful occasion I stood in the sunlight in the church after confession and felt as if the doubt and guilt which was crushing me lifted in an instant, allowing the love of God to flow in.

The shock I felt after re-reading the diary entry above shows that God has made some progress with me, even if it seems to have been slow and imperceptible. Believing in God’s love and forgiveness is an ongoing challenge as the stresses and strains of life continually throw up new situations in which I have difficulty trusting Go

My other great challenge is to forgive. I will write more about that journey in the next post.

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Bread and blogging

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I am thinking today about what a humble thing it is for Jesus to say that He is the bread of life. He could have said that he was the caviar of life or the chocolate truffles or the sirloin steak, and He might have got more adulation and attention.

Bread might not seem very exciting, but we need it every day. Sometimes I might vary it and have pitta bread or gluten-free toast or corn crackers, but I’ll eat bread in some form.

I wonder sometimes if Christ gets fed up of me coming to Him asking for help with the same old problems and sins and failings, with a few new ones added from time to time for good measure. I always seem to be needy. I don’t seem to get things right on my own.

If I keep fresh bread for longer than twenty-four hours, it will go hard and stale. Grace is like bread. I have to accept it at the time and ask for more the next day. I can’t store it up and hope that I can skim along for the next few days without turning to God.

When we pray the Lord’s prayer, we say, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ It took me quite a while to get my head around the fact that Mass isn’t just a Sunday thing. The Eucharist is celebrated every day.

Once I began to understand that the Eucharist is our daily bread, it made sense that Mass is celebrated every day. If other commitments allow, I like to go to mid-week Mass. Sometimes I worry that I am being greedy if I go to Mass more often. If Jesus was the chocolate or the cream or the cake of life, then maybe I would be greedy to want the Eucharist more than once a week. However, He is the bread of life. I need to seek His presence every day.

Jesus didn’t say He was the sirloin steak or the chocolate gateau of life. He doesn’t bring perks and special treats to His followers. He simply is the way, the truth and the life. I am still seeking this way through Him.

I think of the bakers who make the bread, knowing that what they make will be eaten. There will soon be nothing left of it but a wrapper and a pile of stale crumbs. Their job is quite different from a carpenter who makes a chair or a table that may last a lifetime, or a builder who makes a house that may last centuries.

When I write blog posts, I think that I am more like a baker than a carpenter or a builder. Unlike the baker, I don’t write this blog every day, but when I post something, I am creating something ephemeral. I’m not making a book which will be printed on paper or even writing letter which might be saved and re-read a few times.

I put down the thoughts I’m having at the moment. Sometimes they are a little heavy, like German rye bread or Scottish oatcakes, but at other times they are light and fluffy like the inside of a freshly baked baguette. They will shimmer in the virtual world for a short while and appear in a few people’s WordPress readers and a day or two later they will be forgotten.

My thoughts spill over and need to go somewhere and so I write them down. Maybe they will be a moment of encouragement or a bite of bread for someone else, just as other peoples’ words have encouraged me.

Silence and mental illness

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I’ve had to learn to be silent as a Catholic for many reasons. There is the Catholic culture of privacy as opposed to the evangelical culture of wearing your faith on your sleeve. There is my own timidity; converting to a new religion feels like being washed up on a foreign shore. In the area where I live, Catholics are in a small and perhaps not entirely accepted minority. Keeping quiet about my faith has seemed to be a matter of necessity. I’ve also felt, perhaps mistakenly, that other Christians see me as someone who is travelling in the second-class compartments as far as faith is concerned. This is another reason I don’t talk.

Apart from blogging, I don’t discuss faith much, partly by choice, partly by nature and partly because of circumstances.

Mental illness

Today I am thinking about another area of my life in which I have chosen silence, or had it forced upon me by circumstances, and that is mental health. For a lot of my adult life, I have struggled with depression, and at the same time many people close to me have fought their own battles with mental illnesses.

I’m by no means special or unique. In the UK, one in four people have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

I have learnt a lot from mental illness, just as I’ve learnt from physical illness (I suffered chronic ill health in my late teens and early twenties). However, it is so excruciatingly painful that I wouldn’t actively choose to go through it.

I was lucky enough to get treatment and although I still have the odd bad day or even bad week, my mental health is much better.

Those close to me have also suffered difficult and complex mental health problems. Statistics tell me that my circle of family and friends is not unique. However, apart from a few brave and honest friends, I seldom hear people talk about their struggles with mental health.

Supporting someone

Twenty years ago, when I was first supported someone with mental health problems, I was silent, partly because of a sense of shame. I wasn’t ashamed of the person I loved. I completely understood and accepted why life had been too much for them and that they had suffered a breakdown. However, I was ashamed of their condition. It was like trying to hide the fact that there was an infectious illness in the family. If people knew that someone close to me was struggling so much, would they not start to worry that I would get it too? Would this affect my ability to get and keep a job?  

There were a lot of taboos around mental health back then. Attitudes have improved since, partly because of campaigns such as the Scottish ‘See Me’ mental health campaign.

Reasons for silence

Many years later, and I am again supporting someone through a mental illness, and I am still silent. This time I’m not ashamed of my loved one. They are incredibly brave and dealing with inner pain which is sometimes overwhelming. If I am silent, it is to preserve their dignity and help them keep their slender hold on normality.

I want, as much as possible, for them to be able to keep going. I don’t want them to approach each encounter with the worry, “How much does this person know about my situation? Are they going to judge me or think I’m crazy? Have I really disappointed them by becoming ill?”

Silence comes at a cost. If a close friend or relative had a stroke or broke a leg or fell ill, I could talk to other people. I could share news of progress or setbacks or difficult things which had happened. I would get sympathy and encouragement and even prayers. People would understand why I’m low on energy or why I sometimes find it difficult just to do practical things like shopping and cleaning, never mind do any kind of work.

Because I am dealing with a mental and not a physical illness, I’ve taken the decision to be quiet and share no details. I’m writing this post, because I feel that I have to express my feelings in some way and maybe these thoughts will encourage someone else who is going through something similar.

I’ve been helping someone else pick up the shattered pieces of their emotions and I feel drained and broken myself. When I got to Mass, I have less than nothing to offer God. Right now I feel physically, emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. I have no answers and I can only try to trust

In the meantime, I try to remember to let go of my own pain and worry and enjoy little things. I take time to read a book in the sun, sit in the park and notice flowers, savour a cup of coffee and say hello to dogs (and their owners).

Doubts and reaching out to God

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One thing I really missed and sometimes still miss about being Protestant is socialising before or after church as well as discussions about faith.

I learnt that I have to go to Mass with only one aim: to encounter Christ. If I go to to meet people or catch up with friends, it is likely that I will be disappointed. The person next to me may be on their knees in prayer before or after Mass. My friend may leave immediately after Mass has ended. Sometimes I catch up with them on the street outside and sometimes I don’t.

I can usually forget about chatting to the priest about my struggles with life or faith. He disappears into the sacristy directly after a weekday Mass, and on Sunday he is busy shaking hands at the door with every single person who comes out.

Discussing faith as a Protestant

As a Protestant, I was presented with a smorgasbord of churches. Each had different agendas, different forms of worship and sometimes even different beliefs. I treated churchgoing a bit like clothes shopping; I tried different places in an attempt to find the church which suited best. People were usually eager to talk to a visitor. Often these conversations were a subtle attempt to find out if the other person’s beliefs were ‘orthodox’. If we agreed on belief and the form of worship we preferred, we would both feel more comfortable.

When I began to express doubts, I felt as if I was put in quarantine. People still talked to me, but in a cautious way. They approached me with the attitude that they had the answers and that they could talk me back to faith.

Getting used to being silent

I might have shopped around as a Protestant, but as a Catholic, I pretty much have to take it or leave it as far as forms of worship are concerned. When I visit a Catholic church I haven’t been to before, the church may look different. It could be old and lavishly decorated, or modern with minimal decoration. However, the priest will follow exactly the same liturgy that our priest follows at home. Across the world, Catholic churches follow the same Mass, Bible readings and feast days.

Likewise since belief or practice doesn’t vary from one Catholic church to another, there’s less to discuss. I don’t have to enquire about whether they prefer adult baptism or infant baptism when I visit another Catholic church.

Whether we become Catholics as children or adults, we all receive instruction in the faith. After that, we follow a journey from the head to the heart. We are all somewhere on the spectrum between belief and doubt, and God alone knows where we really are.

 As a new Catholic, I wanted to talk about the journey my soul was making, my struggles as well as new insights I’d been given. I wanted to reassure myself by having someone listen and accept what I said, and maybe even say, ‘I’ve felt that too.’

Discussion has its place. This blog is a way of expressing my thoughts on faith and I am thankful to have it. If I couldn’t write about my thoughts and try to put some order into them, I would probably burst. I have also really appreciated reading about other peoples’ faith journeys in their blogs.

However, I have few opportunities to chat about faith face to face. One of the most difficult things about being Catholic has been offering God my silence. Only be living through boredom, doubts and a frustrated desire to express myself, do I finally turn to God. Faith is much more than what I assent to in words. Ultimately it can only be lived by me as an individual, even if it is within the context of a wider community.

Doubting Thomas

I’ve been trying to follow this train of thought ever since the Mass reading on doubting Thomas. I always thought that Thomas was a bit of a numpty (that’s Scots for intellectually challenged). He didn’t believe the other disciples and Mary Magdelene when they said that they had seen the risen Christ. He even said that if he saw Christ he wouldn’t believe the evidence of his own eyes.

In his homily, the priest put a different spin on the story of Thomas. Rather than pitying him for his doubts, he said that in many ways Thomas was right. The way we perceive things with our mind or with our eyes, is not the whole story. We can be misled. Only by taking hold of something and living it, can we fully experience it.

When I first began attending Mass sporadically, our priest asked me how I was doing. I told him that I wasn’t sure if I believed anything at all when it came to God and Christianity. He didn’t react with disapproval or try to convince me with arguments. He simply said that when it comes to faith, you have to do it, and then he got up and walked away.

Thomas realised that when it comes to faith you can’t trust the evidence of others. Sometimes you can’t even trust your own senses. However, despite his doubts, Thomas reached out towards the risen Christ, and cried out, “My Lord and my God.”

Like Thomas, I find that the evidence of others, however powerful their experiences, can’t convince me to believe. Discussion can be helpful, but it will never clear away my doubts. The paradox of faith is that only by practising it, can I move towards belief. I go to Mass with my doubts, problems and failures. I reach out to Christ in the shaky belief that He is present in the Eucharist. I take it in fear, because how else can you take it, and I ask Him to be my Lord and my God.