Ecumenical

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Recently I visited the baile mor (big city). Okay, Inverness is big to us. As I was walking along the river bank, I passed St. Andrews Cathedral and decided to go in for a few moments of prayer.

St Andrews is Episcopalian (Anglican in Scotland). Since becoming Catholic, I’ve tended to avoid going into non-Catholic churches. Part of this has been worry about feeling awkward, but mostly I’ve been afraid of sitting in a cold, empty building and feeling as if God wasn’t there.

However, on this particular day, I was feeling open and curious. What would be different, what would be the same? A splendidly-dressed man in full Highland regalia stood just inside the door beside a table with information. Okay, that was certainly different. Maybe he was just there for the tourists.

Different rituals

The rituals which I found so difficult when I first went to Catholic churches, have almost become automatic responses. I looked around for a holy water font. Not seeing one there, I looked towards the front. Yes, there was an altar, but where was the tabernacle. Did they have them in Episcopalian churches? I was in a quandary. Should I curtsey towards where I thought the tabernacle might be?

Stop making a stupid fuss, I told myself. Do what you always did in Protestant churches. Walk down the aisle and take a seat in a pew.

Further up the church, I spotted something familiar: a stand for candles. They were tall, thin ones rather than squat tea lights, but so what. A candle is a candle. I lit one and read the prayer beside it, which was exactly the same as one I’d read in many Catholic churches.

I chose a pew near the candles and faced the next decision. Should I kneel or sit? I would normally kneel if I went into a Catholic church to say a prayer. There was a cushioned kneeler on the floor. However, the other people in the church were all sitting, and I decided to do the same.

Trying to pray

Next, I tried to pray. I’ve been reading a book on contemplative prayer by Ignacio Larrañaga which recommends starting with an exercise to calm yourself and clear your mind, such as concentrating on breathing or pulse. Sometimes thoughts intrude. On other days I manage a verbal prayer, a thank you or a please help. Often, I nod off, even sitting up, but wake up feeling more peaceful.

Fr. Larrañaga says that contemplative prayer should have no other aim beyond just being in God’s presence, being open to God and just letting ourselves be seen by God. Contemplative prayer, he says, should go beyond words.

Unfortunately, I’ve seldom managed to get into this state of praying or being which goes beyond words and mental processes. Fr Larrañaga says that it takes patience, perseverance and above all, grace. Sometimes you can do a lot of work for little apparent result or at other times a little work can yield a huge result.

Reaching a state of peace

In St Andrews Cathedral in Inverness, I had one of these rare moments when I entered God’s presence and just was. Without doing more than the most basic exercises to calm my mind and place my worries in God’s hands, I reached a state of peace and well-being.

I looked around the Cathedral, watching the flickering candles and smoke trailing from one which had guttered out, listening to an organist practice hymns, observing a woman priest – yes, a woman! – prepare the altar for Communion. A mother came in with a pushchair, sat at the front for a few moments, and then left.

I saw all this without letting my thoughts snag on any of it. At the same time, I experienced an incredible calmness and peace and sense that God was there.

Can you take something back from contemplation?

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The organist finished practicing with a loud chord which jolted me out of the state of prayer and into simply sitting on a wooden pew in a dim church.

The fruits of contemplation are not something which you can take away, exploit or trade with. I can’t even describe to myself what happened. All I remember is that I felt as if I have been falling over the past year, further and further as false securities have been stripped away. Only faith gave me hope that somehow, despite all appearances, God is there.

However, in this brief period of contemplation, I felt that instead of falling, I was being held. I had finally reached the bottom, touched the ground of my soul, and discovered that God is there.

I left the cathedral and went shopping on the Longman Road in a state of bliss. Now, anyone who knows the Longman Road will acknowledge that this alone is proof that something supernatural happened. It is a busy, polluted road going through an industrial estate: the kind of place you only go if you really need something, like a car part or a D.I.Y. tool and not normally associated with states of peace and joy.

If course, I bobbed back up to the surface very soon like a cork in a bottle. Over the next few days, I felt irritable and neglected prayer. If that’s the standard, how on earth am I ever going to reach it again? Perhaps there’s no point even trying. A strong experience of God is a gift. However, if I don’t set time aside for calmness and prayer, I’m not making myself available to receive the gifts that God might want to give.

The fact that God chose to make His presence felt in a non-Catholic church, is a reminder that no-one has a monopoly on Christ. It also strengthens my conviction that God doesn’t call people across religious divisions to dig deeper ditches. Rather He wants us to bear witness to the fact that God is present on both sides of the divide and in the no-man’s land in between.

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9 thoughts on “Ecumenical

  1. Agellius June 17, 2018 / 10:36 pm

    I won’t argue that non-Catholic churches don’t “have” Christ. It’s certainly better to profess Christ than not to. If there is any difference between a Protestant church and Islam, for example, then we have to admit that Protestants know Christ. But churches with the valid priesthood and sacraments do have a monopoly on Christ in the Eucharist, the importance of which, for me, cannot be overestimated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • canach June 18, 2018 / 9:52 am

      Yes, I am convinced intellectually and also from my experience of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, that Christ is present in the Catholic church in a way I did not experience in any Protestant church. I struggled to experience Christ in Protestant churches. It was more of a head than a heart thing for me, and eventually I gave up. However, that doesn’t mean He wasn’t there.

      Like

  2. Charles Johnston June 19, 2018 / 10:57 pm

    Enjoyed this post. I’m a convert myself from an evangelical church, and my fathers family were from Inverness too. Seems we’ve got a few things in common lol. God bless.

    Like

    • canach June 20, 2018 / 8:49 pm

      I just read your conversion story and really enjoyed it. I am Scottish Presbyterian (Highland variety) turned Catholic but in some ways once a Presbyterian always a Presbyterian (I wrote about that here https://scotinprogress.com/2017/06/01/reconciliation/) Some of my conversion story here https://scotinprogress.com/2016/06/12/that-dreaded-word-conversion/. Why I gave up on church many years ago here and next 3 posts https://scotinprogress.com/2015/10/27/dont-go-to-church/ (just if you’re interested!) I can identify with fear of large groups in your account of RCIA but in my case would really have enjoyed chance to connect with other people. My parish was too small for RCIA.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Charles Johnston June 20, 2018 / 8:53 pm

        So you did the one on one instructions with a priest? I would’ve liked that, but I ended up loving Rcia despite my early reservations. I actually ended up back at Rcia this year as a volunteer sponsor lol

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      • canach June 20, 2018 / 9:01 pm

        Yes, I just had individual instruction, which was a bit strange at first although my small son came along and did drawings or looked at books while we discussed the catechism! I’d love to have had the chance to connect with other converts, but didn’t. Sometimes God goes against what we think we want/ need. Part of the reason I started blogging was to connect with other converts/Christians and also because I thought I would explode otherwise. What happened was such a huge thing – devout Presbyterian to agnostic who hated religion to Catholic.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Charles Johnston June 20, 2018 / 9:03 pm

        Yep that’s a big pendulum swing lol. I went from Presbyterian to non denominational evangelical to “Christian” to Catholic

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Lynden Wade June 21, 2018 / 11:47 am

    To me, the differences between denominations is usually style of worship. Some styles of worship I find just don’t suit my personality. But what I look for in a church is love for God, trust in Jesus’ sacrifice, and trust in the Bible. That could be a RC church with rituals or a community church meeting in a hall and singing choruses. I’ve been Baptist for many years, but just moved to an Anglican church. Like you, I worry about when/if to bow, kneel etc, but no-one is that fussed what I do, really!

    Liked by 1 person

    • canach June 21, 2018 / 5:41 pm

      I would agree with all these things, but I would have to put Eucharist top of the list. Without the Eucharist, this child of God would soon feel hungry and thirsty.

      Liked by 1 person

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