The last post I wrote on difficulty in believing in God’s mercy is less than half the story. Here’s some more.
I am a Catholic Presbyterian or a Presbyterian Catholic. I’m not sure which. In any case, I will never cease to be what I started out as.
Where I started out
The culture and religion of my childhood was rooted in Highland Presbyterian tradition. We were in the world, but not of it. We dug our feet into the ground and stubbornly resisted the flow of wider culture.
I wore a long dress or a skirt to church and always covered my head with a hat or an ugly grey beret. I was encouraged to find fulfilment in marriage and childbearing rather than a career. Listening to modern music was forbidden. I wasn’t allowed to take part in school dances, not even Scottish ceilidh dancing. On the Sabbath Day, I was not allowed to do or even talk about anything which wasn’t either absolutely necessary or connected in some way with God and religion.
Throwing the baby out with the bath water
When I went to university, the gap between what everyone else, even other Christians, was doing, and what I was supposed to do, became unbearable. I kicked against the traces and got out. However, once you throw out some of your upbringing, it’s very difficult to keep your orientation. Without a guide light, how can you pick and choose your values? If you reject some of them, why not throw them all away? In many ways, I threw the baby out with the bathwater.
A Catholic or a Presbyterian?
When I first thought about becoming Catholic, I thought that I could draw a line under my previous church tradition and put it quite firmly in the past. I wanted to emphasise the differentness of being Catholic as opposed to being Presbyterian. I thought that I would gradually become more and more Catholic until all the Presbyterian was squeezed out of me.
That’s not how it works. God wants us to be whole. He doesn’t want divisions, even within our own lives between what we were and what we are now. In some mysterious way, God, through Christ, can take the pain of the past and not only heal but transform it.
Fr. Michael Seed is a Franciscan Friar who is a convert to Catholicism. In the publication, “Thinking of becoming a Catholic?”, he writes about converts:
They are now members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And they continue with their communion with whatever they were formerly.
They don’t cease to be Anglicans or Methodists or Quakers. I have never ceased, ever, to be a member of the Salvation Army or a Strict and Particular Baptist. …They are all beautiful signs of God’s grace. Catholicism embraces all the previous states of your life.
How is that possible? Because Jesus founded only one Church. … In the ceremony of reception you embrace in a unique way every denomination, because Christ is present, in some way, in all denominations.
Reconciliation goes further than forgiveness. With forgiveness, you let go of something which has wounded you, and free yourself and others to move on. However, the past may still be a painful place which you try to forget.
Reconciliation transforms the past. It twines loose ends together and tucks them in so that what didn’t at the time seem like the right thing or enough becomes exactly what it was meant to be.
C.S. Lewis wrote ‘The Great Divorce’ which refers to the great divorce between Heaven and Hell. In a vivid dream, the narrator visits a dull, grey place where nothing is of good quality, no-one is happy and people argue with their neighbours and move further and further apart. They are offered the chance to take a bus trip to Heaven. Although heaven is beautiful, the reality of it is so painful that many choose to leave on the return bus.
At the end of ‘The Great Divorce’, the narrator has a vision in which he looks back at his life, and understands that if he turns towards God, even the most painful things he has gone through on earth will be transformed and become a part of his experience of Heaven. Conversely, if he turns away from God, misery and resentment will eat backwards through memories of his life on earth, contaminating even pleasures and moments of happiness.
Since becoming Catholic, there have been brief moments when I have almost understood what C.S Lewis meant. Rather than nursing my wounds, I have experienced total acceptance of the past and gratitude for what has been and what is.
That is a grace which only God can give. In the next post, I will write about a few of the things in the Presbyterian church which prepared me to become Catholic.