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?

 

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 so that He can dig a deeper ditch. 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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It’s not easy to become a mother

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Pregnancy, birth and bringing up a small child aren’t easy, even in the best of circumstances when you have support from a partner and/or family and friends. I’ve been fortunate to have always had someone sticking by me. The first time I gave birth, I had a well-paid job to return to, but it was still tough.

Having a child is a sea change in a woman’s life. It affects her physically, mentally and I believe, also, spiritually. I went from only thinking about myself to always thinking about them, and now am at the point of recognising that one of the people I also need to look after is myself (forgotten sometimes in the avalanche of requests).

In the past women, were only valued as wives and mothers. Nowadays, when it comes to work, women can play on the same field as men, but things are by no means equal. As I’ve found out through personal experience, if you have a child, attitudes change. You might be seen as a shirker or someone who’s voluntarily jumped off the career rat-race. In my case, it meant losing any chance of promotion and a permanent position.

I want to talk about the abortion referendum in Ireland, and I feel it’s important to start from a point of empathy and compassion. Without having walked her walk or been in her shoes, I can’t judge any woman who’s felt unable to continue with a pregnancy. Given the same situation, would I have made her choices? I’ll never know.

So what I say is directed, not at individuals, but at the Yes campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the Irish Constitution. The Eighth Amendment protected the unborn child by giving equal rights to both. Until now, abortion was only available in Ireland in very limited circumstances, such as if the mother’s life was at risk (including by suicide).

The campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment

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In the last few months and weeks, my Facebook feed was flooded with links to newspaper articles about the referendum. From the ‘Yes’ side came heart-breaking stories about women whose child died in the womb and were not given the option of inducing a miscarriage until the body expelled it naturally. I read about mothers whose baby had a fatal foetal abnormality, but weren’t given the option of terminating the pregnancy in Ireland.

The gist of the articles and messages was, vote Yes to give women access to proper medical care. Who wouldn’t want to vote ‘Yes’ if it meant better healthcare for women? For a long time, I was genuinely confused. Was the repeal all about making provision for women whose unborn babies had died in the womb? If so, I had a lot of sympathy.

Only recently, I realised that the ‘Yes’ vote was about making abortion available to everyone, on demand, in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. There was very little acknowledgement of this in the Facebook shares from my ‘Yes’ friends. The emphasis seemed to be about helping people in tragic circumstances.

In the last week or two, however , the tone of the shared messages changed and became quite aggressive: our bodies our choices, think of the suffering women have to go through with an unwanted pregnancy.

I imagined all these women, shut up and silent for too long, now almost literally screaming through facebook shares and posters and protests. They were shouting so hard that it was hard to hear anything else. Their message almost put the moral burden on people to vote ‘Yes’. If they weren’t, they were going to let women down, oppress them, leave the country in darkness etc.

My reaction to the campaign

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I tried not to have a knee-jerk reaction, ‘I’m Catholic, so I think abortion is wrong.’ I really tried to understand the others’ point of view, particularly that of women who feel, for whatever reason, that their pregnancy is an unbearable burden.

What bothered me about the ‘Yes’ campaign is that there was little or no recognition of the fact that a life would be lost. In the debate about women’s rights over their own bodies, they didn’t acknowledge the fact that an unborn baby would die.

The women were shouting, and the unborn babies were silent.

The thing which upset me most about the ‘Yes’ campaign was that it didn’t even weigh up the rights of the baby against the rights of the mother. It was silent on this, as if an unborn child had no rights at all.

When the ‘Yes’ vote won last week, my ‘Yes’ friends put up self-congratulatory posts and talked about going out to celebrate with champagne. In Dublin, people were partying in the streets.

There should have been no partying on this one. Even if they felt that the mothers’ rights weighed heavier than those of her unborn child, there should have been an acknowledgement that at the heart of every decision to terminate a pregnancy, is a tragedy, both for the mother and the child which dies.

No value?

It’s not acceptable to euthanise an old person when they can no longer look after themselves, or even to abandon your dog or cat if you feel it is a burden. However, it seems that we have reached a point, where it is perfectly acceptable to kill an unborn baby. Perhaps this is because we can’t see or hear it’s suffering. By its very nature it is silent.

Articles like Vonny Moyes writing in the Scottish newspaper, The National, celebrate the fact that since the Irish campaign, women no longer even have to show regret over an abortion (Vonny Moyes writes brave articles on health, parenthood and womens’ rights, but I have to disagree with her on this one). It seems that secular society is moving towards a consensus that the unborn have no rights and no value.

God works in silence, through the small, the weak and the powerless. Today we have the feast of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary to Elizabeth where she says in the Magnificat, ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.’ What if God sees things differently? What if every human life has value no matter how small, weak, old or sick?

What does it take to choose life?

To choose to protect an unborn life, whether that’s through the law or in a decision to continue a pregnancy, you need both belief and faith.

The first is belief that the unborn child has value, in and of itself, despite the fact that it is completely dependant on the mother’s body for survival.

The Catholic Church has been described as ‘holding out’ on the issue of abortion, as if everyone else has moved on. However, I’m glad the church is standing firm. Sometimes, when I’ve gone to church feeling troubled, I’ve had a strong feeling that I’ve entered a refuge. The church has been described as the barque of Peter or an ark. Would I feel safe, if the church didn’t defend the rights of the voiceless? As an unemployed mother with a sick child, I’m in a vulnerable position. Would I feel valued if the church said that it was okay to end a defenceless life?

Secondly, you need faith to open yourself to the possibility of pregnancy, accept the changes in your body, give birth, tend for a tiny, helpless human being, bring up a child. You have to have faith that what you’re doing is valuable and that you’ll get the help you need at each stage.

I don’t know what it is to experience an unwanted pregnancy. However, I do know what it is to have a child with an illness that no-one expected or planned for, and which meant huge changes to my own life and that of the whole family, including having to stop work and even facing difficulties over finding living accommodation when she was in hospital. I know what it is to feel unsupported, and totally out of my depth or so worn down that I can hardly face the next hour or the next day. Faith helped me to keep going even if it didn’t always make me feel better.

Many women facing unwanted pregnancies, may not have religious faith. However, faith and belief can also come from other places: from a supportive family where children are celebrated as a gift. It should, of course, also come from society, but we have a long way to go. I could say a lot about the way single mothers are ostracised and women side-lined at work after having a child, but I’ll leave that for another post. All I’ll say, is that if we want women to choose life for the unborn, we have to do a lot more to support and value mothers.

I’ll end with a link to a profound article from the ‘No’ side of the Irish campaign where a woman talks about her experience of having an abortion.

The heart of the matter

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I’ve started re-reading Graham Greene. I read his books many years ago in my teens and early twenties along with most of the other books considered classics.

I’ve begun with The Heart of the Matter. I doubt I got much out of it as a young woman, because the only thing I remembered was that it was set in a hot place, so hot that the protagonist couldn’t touch his wife at night without sweat running between them. I understood that this was a symbol of the problems in their marriage, but I didn’t remember or understand much more.

I’ve really enjoyed rediscovering Graham Greene, and can’t think of any modern writer who can match his prose for creating setting and atmosphere in a few sentences. I’ll try to say a few things about the novel without too many spoilers.

A love square

The main character, Scobie, is a respected policeman serving in the British colonial service in Sierra Leone. The second world war is on, making it difficult or impossible for the colonial administrators to take their annual leave. In the hot climate and small colony, gossip breeds, tempers fray, men become corrupt. Sometimes people even go mad.

Scobie, however, keeps well out of it. He’s been there fifteen years and has grown to love the place and the indigenous people. All he wants is to do his work in peace. However, other people stand in his way. One is his wife who is unhappy and desperately wants to get away for a while. In trying to make his wife happy, Scobie commits his first mistake. He accepts a loan from a corrupt businessman to pay for an extended holiday for his wife.

Scobie finds himself in a love triangle, or perhaps it’s a love square. He has made promises to three people: his wife, his mistress and God. He loves all three of them in different ways. However, his promises are incompatible. Whatever he does, he’s going to let one of them down.

Can God cope with disappointment?

God, Scobie reasons, can cope with disappointment better than a mortal. He can do without Scobie’s love, and the policeman decides on a course of action which, he believes, will keep his mistress and his wife happy, even if it cuts him off from God.

The prose is spare, yet in a few deft words, Graham Greene paints vivid pictures of the colonial town and the heat. Each scene tightens the noose around Scobie’s neck as he becomes more morally compromised.

Scobie is a Catholic, a convert in some ways lukewarm and going through the motions of keeping the rules. However, he has great respect for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He agonises over whether to take communion when he believes himself to be in a place of mortal sin.

Did Scobie love God?

Scobie is a flawed character, someone who made what seemed at first to be small mistakes. Instead of getting everything out into the open, he covers them up and falls deeper into error.

The novel poses questions about rules versus God’s mercy which are relevant to all of us since we all make mistakes and can identify to some extent with Scobie.

I felt that Scobie, despite his choices, was a man who loved God. Some of the passages were so beautiful that I felt myself open out to deeper love of God. In the end, isn’t that what great literature is meant to do, open our hearts a little more?

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Who gave you authority …?

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One issue which I thought about often before becoming Catholic is authority. This is one of these issues like Mary and the saints or confession which polarises people either for or against the Catholic church.

When I began to investigate the Catholic faith, I found many blog articles on authority, from both Catholic and Protestant viewpoints. I’ve read complex articles by Protestants explaining how their own particular church traces its apostolic authority back to Jesus and the apostles.

I’m not going to get into arguments about which church has the best pedigree. To be honest, I don’t know much about theology or church history and a lot of these arguments go over my head. I also feel very uncomfortable about arguing along the lines of ‘we have authority and you don’t.’ More and more, I feel that this blog should be about building bridges rather than digging chasms.

A year or so before I began thinking about becoming Catholic, something happened related to church authority which really shook me to my core. However, I haven’t told the story until now, because it involved other people. Because it isn’t just my story, I can only tell the bare bones.

The bare bones of a story

Someone close to me was in hospital fighting a difficult illness. A lady, also known to me, paid a visited and delivered a religious message laying the blame for the illness on events in the past.

I believe the lady really thought that her message could ‘fix’ what she saw as the cause of the illness. However, her words caused the sick person distress and anxiety. Within a week, their condition had deteriorated to the extent that they had to be moved to a different ward. Although they eventually recovered, the road back was slow and difficult, and it was a long time before I stopped wondering, ‘What if this hadn’t happened …?’

Church responsibility

It turned out that the lady had taken the message to the hospital with the approval and perhaps even the encouragement of her church. It also turned out that this church was an independent, recently-formed organisation.

Although I wasn’t one of the main players in this story, I was deeply affected because someone I loved had become sicker. I confided in an Episcopalian priest (the Anglican church in Scotland). Her reaction was not quite what I expected. She shared my anger over the incident. However, most of her anger was directed, not at the lady who visited the hospital, but at the church which had sent her.

The Episcopalian priest saw the problem as one of authority. She thought that the church had acted very irresponsibly by encouraging someone to share a frightening message with a sick and vulnerable person.

This incident went through my mind when I began thinking about becoming Catholic. Who gave authority to come up with this message, send someone with it, start the church in the first place? By a strange coincidence, I had known one of the people who started the church.

Questions

My mind got stuck in a loop of questions. On the one hand, I had Father K telling me about apostolic succession: Jesus laid hands on his disciples and gave authority to them, they in turn laid hands on others and passed authority on to the next generation of disciples, and so on, all the way to the present day.

On the other hand, I knew that the number of different Protestant denominations had reached thousands and counting. I was brought up in a church which had branched off many times, becoming thinner and weaker with each break. Some of the things we believed seemed eccentric and out-dated to people in mainstream churches.

In Scotland, and in the Highlands in particular, people tend to break away and form new churches rather than staying, talking to each other and trying to heal their divisions. Was this Christian?

I remember thinking about the church which sent the message to the sick person, and the strange coincidence that I knew one of the people who started it. What was to stop me starting my own branch of Christianity? The thought made me giddy, but the answer was nothing but time and energy if I remained Protestant and unaffiliated to any denomination, and well, an awful lot, if I became Catholic.

Which way to go?

I became confused and distressed thinking about authority. I couldn’t return to the church of my childhood, where there had been undue emphasis on God’s judgement rather than God’s love. If I didn’t go there, which of the plethora of Protestant churches should I try next?

The incident at the hospital was frightening, not because anyone had intended evil. Quite the opposite. The church believed that they were doing good. However, the effect was harmful. It is possible to take parts of the Bible out of context, giving too much emphasis to one thing rather than another, and come up with dangerous messages.

Safer with authority

As I investigated Catholicism, it was a relief to learn about the Magisterium of the Catholic church, authority and teaching based on the Bible as well as church tradition handed down from the church fathers. Teaching can evolve from what’s gone before, but no-one, not even the Pope, can make a total break and ignore 2000 years of tradition.

Some people might prefer to be totally free to make their own interpretation of the Scripture. Catholics are also encouraged to practice Lectura Divina (reading the Scriptures and asking the Holy Spirit for guidance). However, as someone who couldn’t read the Bible for many years without encountering an angry, unforgiving God on every page, I found it reassuring to enter a church with a central authority and body of teaching.

Part of the reason I became Catholic was that I felt safer, like a child who prefers rules and limits to being left alone to do my own thing.

I realise that it’s not only the Catholic church which has a system of authority and teaching. This was clearly an important issue for my Episcopalian friend when I shared this story with her.

In the end, I’m glad I can’t just start my own church, even if I wanted to!

Christ at the heart of Lent and Easter

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I’ve been a bit troimh-cheile over the last week, which is a Gaelic word that means being in a bit of a guddle, which is a Scots expression that means, well, a bit all over the place. A bad cold has left me not wanting to do too much. I wanted to share some thoughts on a TV programme on Lent and am only now getting around to it.

Last week, I watched Traisg ‘s Caisg, a programme on how Lent is kept in the Western Isles of Scotland. It is in Scottish Gaelic with English subtitles and has some lovely shots of island landscapes. I realise that anyone outside UK can probably only watch the clip. However, the programme gave me a lot to think about.

A bit of background

Firstly, a bit of background. The Western Isles stretch north to south about 40 miles off the northwest coast of Scotland. Thanks to causeways, you can travel along the whole 120 km length with only two ferry crossings. They are also known as the Outer Hebrides, the name coming from the Irish St Bridget.

The Southern Isles, Barra and Vatersay, north to Benbecula, contain some of the few Catholic communities which survived both the Reformation and the Highland clearances. The Northern Isles, North Uist to Lewis, are strongholds of reformed Presbyterianism. Despite the religious differences, the islands share the same language, culture and administrative council.

It’s worth saying a bit more about this. Until the mid 19th century, the main church in the Scottish Highlands was the Church of Scotland. However, people became unhappy that their landlord had the power to choose the local minister. After the Highland clearances, when landlords evicted large numbers of people from their ancestral homes, feelings came to a head. In 1843, 450, or about a third of the ministers, walked out, giving up their churches and manses to form the Free Church.

The new Free Church was particularly strong in the Highlands. The Free Church also did a lot to mitigate the effects of the Highland potato famine. It had radical roots, even if it is now seen as the status quo. Ministers gave up their churches, homes and a reliable source of income. Sometimes they preached from boats until new churches were built.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the Highland Free Church has fragmented many times due to disagreements over doctrine and church practice (just take a look at this diagram, and it doesn’t show all the splits). Even in the last year, people have formed new churches, rather than resolving differences.

Whatever the particular branch, Highland Presbyterian churches tend to be distinct from the Church of Scotland. Usually, they observe a strict Sabbath, and have unaccompanied Psalm singing instead of hymns, although this has eased up recently. Another difference, which was strong when I was growing up, is that Christmas and Easter are not celebrated in church. When I was a child, we simply marked them as commercial festivals, a time to give presents and over-eat at Christmas and to get chocolate eggs at Easter.

A look at Lent and Holy Week

This brings me back to the programme on Lent in the Western Isles. It gave interesting insights into local traditions, such as eating a chicken on Shrove Tuesday or putting no iron in the ground on Good Friday. The programme highlighted not just the forty days of Lent, but also Catholic traditions around Holy Week from Maundy Thursday through to Easter Sunday.

I wish I had watched something like this a few years ago as it brought together Holy Week traditions which I just picked up as I went along. The programme explains how the events around Jesus’ passion are re-enacted in the church, such as the covered statues and bare altar on Good Friday in memory of Christ’s death and burial, or the five pieces of incense put into the Easter candle, to symbolise the wounds of Christ.

I was wondering why the programme went into such detail on Holy Week, when I realised that it was probably aimed at helping Protestants understand how Catholics prepare for Easter.

Christ at the heart of Lent and Easter

It took me a long time to accept Easter. Many years ago, I attended my first Easter service in a Baptist church, and my reaction was anger. What did these people have to be happy about? Wasn’t religion supposed to be a long, cheerless trudge without any joy?

I was a considerable way into my journey towards Catholicism before I could stop looking over my shoulder at the church tradition I had come from. For a long time, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that they were right about not celebrating Easter and that the Catholic tradition was wrong.

Another thing, I struggled with was the leftover belief that Catholics worship statues and symbols instead of Christ. This programme on Lent did a very good job of showing that Christ as at the heart of Catholic practice related to Lent and Easter. We use images and symbols as an aid to bring us deeper into a mystery which goes beyond our senses and our mental processes. The symbolism of a church in darkness, and the Easter fire being used to light the candles which will then bring new light into the church, can help us move deeper into the mystery of the resurrection.

I also think that these signs and symbols speak to the child within us. After all, don’t we have to become like little children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?

So what is it about rules ….

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I love being Catholic, except at the start of Lent …

I’m thinking about Ash Wednesday and Lent and about why religions have rules. All the monotheistic religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity – have rules about what you can and can’t do if you want to remain in communion with the religion.

Different kinds of rules

Some of these are moral rules, such as not killing, stealing or sleeping with someone elses’s spouse. A lot of these moral rules have been absorbed into society as either laws or expectations of what is decent behaviour.

Other rules are to do with taboos or showing respect in a place of worship. For instance, taking your shoes off in a mosque or covering or uncovering your head in church depending on which sex you are, or being silent at set times.

The third type of rule is trickier. I’m thinking here of the rules to do with fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and giving up something for the six weeks of Lent. This would be similar to Ramadam for Muslims.

My experience of Protestant churches was that there are generally no rules to do with fasting. However, the church in which I was brought up had high expectations of how we should keep the Sabbath. We were told not to do, say or think anything which wasn’t connected with God or religion. Needless to say, I totally failed. Although this rule was based on the fourth commandment, the way it was interpreted was so strict that I think it probably came under the third type of rule: religious practice.

So what is it about rules ….?

So, why is this third type of rule there? Not for a moral reason. After all, I’m probably not going to upset anyone if I eat chocolate during Lent.

When I was a young woman, still chafing from religious rules which were almost impossible to keep, I would have argued that this type of rule is only there to place a heavy burden on people. Jesus himself spoke out frequently against the Pharisees and their rules, which often drove people away from God, rather than bringing them closer. In no less than three Gospels, Jesus says that it would be better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea than to cause ‘these little ones’ to stumble (Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2).

After my experience of legalistic religion, I didn’t want anything to do with Christianity for many years. Now that I’ve become Catholic, I find that there are rules related to religious practice, such as fasting for an hour before Mass or giving up something for Lent. These aren’t onerous rules and exceptions can be made, for instance if you are ill or poor or a guest at a meal, you are excused from fasting on Ash Wednesday.

Before becoming Catholic, I became quite annoyed when my husband encouraged the children to give up chocolate for Lent. I couldn’t very well guzzle chocolate if the kids were giving it up. I hated giving up my autonomy for some silly religious reason.

My first reaction to Lent helps me to understand what it’s about. I think that Lent and other rules related to religious practice are there as an act of devotion. By making small changes in my behaviour, remembering not to eat or drink right before Mass, or buy chocolate during Lent, I’m voluntarily giving up a small part of my freedom. My thoughts turn to the reason why I am doing this, and I remember God.

I think it’s a bit like rearranging your day so that you can see someone you love, or going out of your way to cook something they like or go with them somewhere. If we love someone, we give up a bit of our autonomy to share things with them.

An act of devotion?

For various, very good reasons, I’m not giving up a lot this year in terms of food. A bigger challenge might be to give up time, to stop writing or surfing the internet a bit earlier and go to bed with a book which helps me turn my thoughts to God. Whether we give up big things or small things, the aim should be to love God more rather than see how well we can keep a rule.

My final thoughts bring me back to the rules of my childhood. I could brush my hair on the Sabbath Day, but not wash it. I could polish my shoes for church, but not wash clothes. We could cook Sunday dinner, but not prepare it; all the vegetables had to be washed and peeled the night before. I wasn’t allowed to play and had to sit still, even on sunny days, and read Christian books.

I experienced the many rules around the Sabbath as constricting and stifling. However, the old people in the church loved keeping the Sabbath as an act of devotion. What crushed the life out of me, was a delight to them.

Practices which bring one person closer to God, might drive another away. For this reason, it’s good that the church isn’t too prescriptive about rules. There will be some people who will give up a lot during Lent and spend many hours in prayer, and others, like me, who can only manage small things. Whether what we do is big or small, it’s important to do it as an act of devotion rather than just for the sake of keeping a rule.

God takes all

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It’s close to Christmas and the anniversary of my reception into the Catholic church has come around.

I was sitting in church after Mass thinking back over the last few years, when the phrase came to me, ‘God takes all.’ I couldn’t get it out of my head all day and a few minutes ago, I realised that this is the title of this post although I will have to write it to find out why.

God’s presence

From the moment that I felt a call to become Catholic, I felt an almost miraculous sense of God’s presence. It wasn’t up there or down there or just at my side or behind my neck; it was everywhere. Like a fish becoming aware that it swims, dives and floats in a medium called water, I became aware that I existed in the presence of God.

I began to understand the phrase in the Mass, “Through Him and with Him and in Him.” He was St. Patrick’s breastplate:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

It was a time of miracles: moving consciously in and with and through Him, sensing the Communion of Saints during the feast of St Peter and St Paul, glimpsing a man in white robes walking up the side aisle during Mass.

Just over three years ago, when I was still trying to decide if I could make the leap and become Catholic, the sense of God’s presence left me. I was a simple fish again, moving through the day, feeling the aloneness of my little body, and wondering if I had really remembered this thing called water.

Loss

God took away the sense of His presence and it was from that point of loss and confusion that I decided to become Catholic. I realised that I couldn’t just do it for the nice feelings. I also knew that I couldn’t become Catholic and take the Eucharist unless I was willing to let God be in charge.

However, I wanted to keep a lot of things to myself. My prayers went something like this: ‘Do what you like with me as long as you don’t touch my kids. And by the way, I will find it very difficult to hand over X, Y and Z.” In the end, I felt that I didn’t have the guts to hand myself over to God. The best I could manage was, ‘I can’t do this, but I want to be able to do it.’

On the anniversary of my reception into the church, I stayed in the church on my own after Mass and thought back over the time since I became Catholic. The last year has been incredibly challenging as we gradually realised that one of our children has a serious, chronic illness. From this perspective, all the things which I thought were vital to my sense of self –  reputation, success in work, creativity – don’t seem to matter anymore.

I was feeling utterly exhausted by another round in the battle with this seemingly intransigent illness, empty and drained of all confidence, creativity and energy. In every area of my life – motherhood, work, interests, marriage – I have been weighed and found wanting. That’s when the thought popped into my head, ‘God takes all.’ I am still puzzling over what that means.

Abandoning myself to God

During that moment in the church, I realised the extent of my helplessness and impotence. I was trying to say, ‘Over to You, because I’ve just about reached the end of the line.’

In my distress, I was able to do what I can only pray to be able to do in easier times, and that is, abandon myself to God. It’s such a strange thing to say. Abandonment is a word I associate with babies being left in cardboard boxes or dogs being left behind when their owners move house. It speaks of giving up on something or someone, not being able to put any more effort into it.

Maybe abandonment is the right word. At times, I feel that I can’t do any more on my own. All I can do is abandon the expectation that I can’t make things right and sort things out, and hand the situation over to God.

God gives all

Has God taken all? Of course not. God gives all. I breathe, we have food to eat and a roof over our heads, but my current difficulties have allowed me to glimpse my utter dependence on God. I am beginning to understand the opening lines of the Magnificat which Mary sang during her Advent:

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid

I’ve underlined the word lowliness which I’ve also seen translated as nothingness.

The hard bit is to take the next step from realising my nothingness, let go of my pain and cynicism and despair and believe that in God’s hands miracles not only can happen, but always will happen, even if it isn’t the obvious miracle of physical healing.

Changed in translation

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Today I am thinking about how meanings can be changed or given a different emphasis when we translate from one language to another, or even when we use a different translation in our own language.

I’m aware that there’s a big dispute going on just now about whether we will go on using the current translation of the Mass. I began going to Mass when the old translation was still in use and I had just got used to that when the new translation was brought in.

All change is challenging and I think it’s particularly difficult when it comes to something as close to us as prayer. Initially I felt as if I was going to a version of the Mass which had been put through the hands of a poor writer of science fiction, with clunky words like oblation and merit thrown in.

I’ve got used to it, over time. I can understand the reluctance to introduce another change, and yet it’s important to get language right. Our choice of words can present both bridges and barriers to our understanding.

Mary’s way

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The thing which set off me off on this train of thought was learning the Gaelic word for rosary. Thanks to Reidio nan Gaidheal’s thought for the day, I now know that it is Conair Mhoire. According to MacLennan’s Gaelic dictionary, conair means a path or a way. It can also mean a set of beads, or, interestingly, a crown.

Dwelly’s dictionary had an even more comprehensive set of meanings for conair. As well as a path or a crown, it can be a haven, a blessing, a help or a circle.

I am excited because learning a new word in Gaelic has brought a whole new set of meanings and connotations to praying the rosary. The rosary has been a haven and a blessing to me, a prayer where I can rest when my worried mind won’t give me peace to sleep or to pray in any other way.

It’s nice that the Gaelic word has other meanings and isn’t just used in a religious context. I read in Mitch Finley’s ‘Rosary Handbook’ that rosary comes from the Latin rosarius which means a bouquet of roses. This is another nice image, but I don’t get roses very often, only on special occasions, and yet I turn to the rosary almost every day.

I like the idea of the rosary as a way to Christ, conair Mhoire, or Mary’s way. We find the way to Christ through meditating on his birth, ministry, death and resurrection.

I usually say the rosary prayers in Gaelic although I sometimes deliberately switch to English just to get a different perspective. Words are only pointers to something much bigger and I find that hearing a prayer or reading a part of the Bible in another language can sometimes nudge me closer to an aspect of the truth.

This happened with the Hail Mary prayer. The first line is taken from the angel Gabriel’s greeting at the annunciation. In Gaelic, Hail Mary is ‘Fàilte dhut, a Mhoire’, which literally means welcome, Virgin Mary. Suddenly I have gone from Hail, an old-fashioned greeting where I imagine myself waving at the Virgin Mary from a long distance and shouting to be heard, to fàilte where she seems much closer. This soft word (pronounced faltcheh) has me visualising opening a door and welcoming the Virgin Mary inside.

A barrier or a bridge?

Words can intentionally or accidentally be used to give positive or negative connotations. I was brought up with the old-fashioned King James Version of the Bible and became used to hearing prayers where God was referred to using old words like thou, thee, thy and thine. Although the minister might have intended these words as a sign of respect or even affection, the effect was to make God seem very far away and hard to reach.
When I left home, I was shocked to encounter groups of evangelical Christians who treated God as a friend and even believed that he loved them and was interested in them. Sometimes this could seem a bit too cosy, but it challenged me. I can still remember the moment when I realised that I didn’t believe God loved me, and that it was almost impossible to believe in a loving God.
Language had contributed to this feeling, and language helped me to overcome it. On a trip to France, I bought a Bible in a modern French translation. This led to another moment of shock: God was addressed with the familiar form tu, rather than the formal form vous. In every language I have managed to learn, God is addressed using the familiar form. This includes Gaelic, where I spoke to my grandmother and elderly aunt using the formal form sibh. God, on the other hand, is addressed using the familiar form, thu.
My French translation of the Bible didn’t immediately result in me believing in God’s love. However, it gave me a neutral space. Reading the Bible in French, allowed me to put aside my fears and expectations and see what was there, rather than the tyrannical, oppressive God who seemed to stride through the well-thumbed pages of my KJV Bible.

Language diversity

Changing our choice of words within a language or switching from one to another can affect meaning.

These subtle and sometimes not so subtle changes which occur within or between languages argue for doing all we can to preserve languages and dialects. When we lose a language, we lose a large part of the culture that goes with it as well as a unique way of seeing the world.

When it comes to Scripture reading or prayer, we are particularly sensitive to the choice of words, because language points to a truth beyond our powers of expression. And yet Jesus came as the Word, and words can help us find the way.

St Margaret of Scotland

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Today is the feast day of St Margaret of Scotland. Until I became Catholic three years ago, I knew her simply as Queen Margaret and to be honest, I’ve had very mixed feelings about her. Whenever anything is written about the decline of Gaelic, fingers are pointed at Margaret of Scotland.

Sometimes I think, read, write and even dream in Gaelic, but the language which I have learnt and love is spoken by less than 2 % of the Scottish population. It was once a national language spoken by all sections of society from the Scottish royal family down to the ordinary people. Placenames show that it was spoken in almost every corner of Scotland from the Borders through to the Western Isles.

Was Queen Margaret to blame for 1000 years of language decline?

Queen Margaret was born in Hungary and returned to England as a child where her brother had a claim to the Anglo-Saxon throne. After the Norman invasion in 1066, she set sail for the continent with her family, but a storm caused them to be washed up on the shores of Scotland. They were welcomed by King Malcolm Canmore (Ceann Mor or big head in Gaelic) who fell in love with the beautiful Saxon princess.

He eventually persuaded her to marry him and they had eight children together. He adored her and it is said that the language of the court was changed from Gaelic to Saxon to make her feel more comfortable. Many people say that this was the first step on a slippery road which led to what was once a national language being on the UNESCO definitely endangered list.

Because of this, I haven’t felt particularly warm towards St. Margaret. However, Scottish saints are quite thin on the ground and I feel that I should take another look at history.

Gaelic in the years following Queen Margaret

Is it fair to blame one lady for one thousand years of language shift? Both Queen Margaret and her sons encouraged Norman and English families to settle in Scotland, but many of them became Galicised (such as clann Fraser or na Frisealaich). Robert de Brus was one of these Normans encouraged to settle in Scotland by Margaret’s son David 1st.  He married a Gaelic speaker and his son Robert the Bruce, possibly Scotland’s most famous king, grew up speaking both Scots and Gaelic.

The 12th to 14th centuries, after Queen Margaret’s death, were a time when Gaelic culture enjoyed a golden age with the Lordship of the Isles, a semi-independent kingdom on the Western seaboard of Scotland.

Gaelic was spoken by the Scottish Royal family until almost five hundred years after Queen Margaret’s arrival in Scotland. King James IV (1473-1513) was the last Scottish King to speak Gaelic.

Other factors contributing to the decline of Gaelic

Many other things have contributed to the decline in Gaelic, such as the Iona Statutes in 1609 which stated that Gaelic chiefs had to send their eldest sons to be educated in the lowlands. They learnt a foreign English-based culture and eventually come to despise the culture they had been born into.

The schools act in 1872 brought in English as the sole medium of teaching. This was later modified in the early twentieth century to allow some teaching of Gaelic at the teacher’s discretion. However, Gaelic was still marginalised. My grandmother was fortunate to have a teacher who taught her to read and write her native language, but a generation later my father was taught to be ashamed of it. This was a major factor in not passing it on.

I’ve wandered a long way from St. Margaret of Scotland, but the point I’m trying to make is that it would be ridiculous to blame an 11th century Queen with Saxon origins for the fact that I grew up hearing Gaelic being bounced around above my head between adults without being able to speak or understand it myself. Many, many other things contributed to that situation, and my story is by no means unique. I know many people my age who have Gaelic speaking parents, but grew up unable to speak it themselves.

A queen who became a saint

So what made Queen Margaret a saint? She and Malcolm had eight children which just about qualifies her for sainthood in my opinion! However, she found time to do a lot of other things.

She rebuilt the Abbey set up by St. Columba on the island of Iona. She set up a free ferry from Queensferry in Edinburgh, so that pilgrims could cross the Forth and visit the relics of St. Andrew in St. Andrews. She fed the poor and introduced reforms to the Scottish church to bring it into line with the way things were done in the rest of Europe.

What was most important wasn’t just what she did (she sounded as if she was a very busy lady), but the fact that she tried to live a life of devotion and prayer.

Significance

Sometimes I feel so insignificant, so small and powerless and recently, even useless.

What do you do? Are you working? It’s a question people often ask.

The current answer is ‘no’. I don’t do anything, but that isn’t true. I am a mother. I shop, I cook, I clean and organise the house. I liase with the school, I help with homework, read bedtime stories, give hugs and support my kids when they are troubled.

 And yet, here in Western Europe in the early twenty-first century, that is seen as not particularly important, because I am no longer have a career or a job outside the home. No-one pays me to look after my children, although if I looked after other peoples’ children that would be seen as a job.

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Becoming a full-time Mum

I once had a job which I was passionate about. When I met people, I could say. Yes, I do this and I’m contributing to something important. It was something I took for granted until I became a mother and I had to put in a Herculean effort just to continue working part-time.

When kid number three was on the way, it seemed like a good time to stop. I’d achieved what I wanted, and felt that I needed a different kind of job and a new challenge. Apart from anything else, the childcare costs were going to exceed what I brought in. It was time to stop juggling and concentrate on the family.

Trying to get back to work

I’ve never regretted that decision, but I underestimated how difficult it would be to start again once all the kids were at school. Having given up one career, I had to retrain to do another one. That required a lot of hard work and humility (more than I had in me at times).

I gave it all I could and it still wasn’t enough. For a long time I blamed myself and my weakness and failures. Perhaps I just wasn’t a strong enough character or the right type of person. Maybe I had intrinsic faults which meant that I couldn’t do this job.

Over time, however, I’ve come to realise that it just wasn’t meant to happen. God allowed me to get so far and no farther. There is no point over-analysing what went wrong or labelling myself as a failure. One of my children became ill and needed me. It felt like a return to the intensity of mothering a child in the baby phase or the terrible twos. For a while, I tried to juggle medical appointments and work, but it became too difficult.

Unable to work

I stopped working and joined the ranks of those who are not ‘economically active’: those who are too old, too young, too sick or too stretched caring for loved ones to be able to work.

At this point in my life, I cannot use my time and energy to produce something which anyone else wants to buy. In our society, almost everything has a price tag and we often mistreat things which we can’t market or sell, such as the air or the oceans and forests. However, no-one would argue that these things don’t have a value, even if we sometimes only realise it after we’ve polluted our environment.

Believing that I have a value

My struggle recently has been to believe that God loves me and values me even if I am not successful or busy or paid a wage. I am alive, breathing, present in the moment and through faith I believe that there is value and purpose in my life.

Recently I left the supermarket with two heavy bags of shopping. I felt a little sorry for myself that I was the one who had to go and buy the milk and bread when it ran out and that I no longer had a car to help bring it back. I stopped in the sunshine for a few moments and made a decision. I could tell myself a sad story about how well I’d done at school and how hard I’d worked to build up a first and then a second career, and how, after all this, I didn’t have a job. Or I could stop analysing the past and predicting the future and instead just enjoy this moment.

I tried this little Catholic trick of St Francis de Sales which I heard about through Father Mike Schmitz website and offered the walk to God. Many people would just see me as a middle-aged lady walking uphill with her shopping in the daytime when most people have more important things to do. However, by turning to God and accepting the situation, I felt that each step I took was significant. By being willing to be who I was in that moment, with circumstances I would never have chosen, I was letting God be God, and that can change everything.