Reconciliation

The last post I wrote on difficulty in believing in God’s mercy is less than half the story. Here’s some more.

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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

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.

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.

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.

Easter joy

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Joy was the emotion that struck me the first time I was in a Catholic church at Easter.

As a child, I saw church as a kind of Sabbath day penance. We were Presbyterians and proud of it. We sat on hard pews and listened to a long sermon which lasted at least an hour. The minister said a lot about sin, but not much about love or joy.

In between the two long church services, we were quiet, not talking or laughing or playing, because the Sabbath day belonged to God, and God liked you to be solemn and serious.

The first time I was in a Catholic church at Easter, I was just beginning to think about becoming Catholic. I didn’t understand the context of Easter Sunday coming after more than six weeks of preparation. My vague idea of Lent was that it had something to do with giving up sweeties. It was quite a while before I realised that Catholics don’t just give up something during Lent; they also try to give more of themselves by making time for prayer and sharing their time and money with others.

Lent is something which I’m still learning about. Last year I was shocked to discover the emptiness of the church on Friday, when the Host is taken out of the tabernacle and the statues are shrouded in cloth to symbolise Christ being in the tomb.

This year, I felt that I learnt more about Holy Week, when the church re-enacts the last week of Jesus’ life, from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through to the last supper and his death on the cross. Even though I couldn’t attend a Mass during Holy Week, I went into the church to pray and tried to go through the daily Mass readings, which followed the last week of Jesus’ life. These events occurred 2000 years ago, as far as we count time, but I felt that through the church I was participating in them in some way.

On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I knew on an intellectual level, that Christ had risen and that this would be celebrated in the Easter vigil on Saturday. However, I felt that I was sharing in the Jesus disciples’ confusion and grief, and in their long vigil between his death on the cross and the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

Holy week seemed very long and I got weary concentrating on the events which led up to Jesus death. Whenever, I went into a church to pray, all I saw was a man on the cross, his face distorted by intense pain. Wasn’t this focus on suffering and death a bit macabre and unhealthy? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on the fact that he has risen, rather than making ourselves dwell on the fact that he went through an unfair trial on trumped up charges and that he was handed over to Roman soldiers and tortured to death?

Despite these feelings, I recognise that if Christ hadn’t suffered, I wouldn’t be able to relate to Him. If He had come in triumph rather than sharing in our poverty and smallness and failure and death, I might subjugate myself to Him as King, but He wouldn’t be my Saviour. If Christ hadn’t suffered, if God hadn’t suffered, then He could not understand my suffering.

Without death, resurrection has no meaning, and Easter is just a muddle of fluffy bunnies and cute chicks and sweet chocolate. Without the silence and darkness of the church on Easter Saturday, the candles that are brought in during the Easter vigil would have no significance. It is only because I tried in my flawed way to take part in Lent and Holy week that the joy of Easter Sunday broke over me like a wave.   

Easter thoughts

Easter was a joyful day.

I was away from home and I went to an early morning Mass in an unfamiliar church. There was no fancy music to pull at my emotions and the homily was delivered by a middle-aged priest with a flat, level voice. However, I was moved to tears of happiness.

Sometimes I feel nothing when I go to Mass and at other times, often when I just go without expecting anything, I feel very emotional as if something is working in me which I can’t grasp or understand. It is hard to put what happened into words, but I will try.

I live in a time of continual change. My wee country of Scotland is going through a time of uncertainty. It is like one of the smaller Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) ferries which take shuttle people and cars and food and newspapers to and from the islands. At the moment, it is so stormy that everyone on the boat is either vomiting or trying very hard not to vomit. Meanwhile the Calmac staff, whose stomachs are hardened by many choppy crossings, go around handing out paper bags. They do their best to clean up sick patches on the upholstery with paper tissues and smelly sprays.

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By Gerry Zambonini (Mull-26  Uploaded by Vclaw) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The UK is like a creaky ship from the heyday of the empire, built in the style of the Queen Mary with luxury quarters for the first class and less salubrious third class cabins in the bowels of the ship. It sails straight through the waves, but we’re all afraid it might be about to hit an iceberg. Things change every day. Yesterday a general election was announced just two years after the last one.

As for myself, I am experiencing uncertainty about work and the health of a family member. I see myself as a little boat, perhaps one of the wooden corracles used on the west coast of Ireland. I have left one shore far behind. It is out of sight, no longer even a faint blue line on the horizon, and the next stretch of land is not yet visible. In every direction, I see only sea. Sometimes it is pleasant to be out on the sea, but at other times, the waves are large and threaten to swamp my little boat.

Just as I can’t see land, I can’t see who is steering and guiding my little coracle. However, Easter Sunday gives me hope that Christ is risen, not defeated by death, and that He is there even if I can’t see Him.

I almost felt Christ’s love, not just for me but for every single person in that church, however, ordinary and insignificant we seemed to be. Easter gave me hope that God loves me. I don’t need to struggle on the treadmill of trying to be young enough and attractive enough and strong enough and rich enough and wise enough and important enough to gain the approval of others.

I can’t earn God’s love. He offers it freely despite my faults and failures. Believing in God’s love is an an ongoing challenge. I’ll say more about that in the next post.

Brokenness

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I am going through a time of stress at home and at work. The one feeds into the other and I have quite simply reached the limit of my strength.

I remember these cheesecakes which my mother used to make which involved making a biscuit base by putting digestives in a plastic bag, tying up the end and then battering them with a rolling pin. At the moment, I feel like those biscuits after they’ve had a good whack with the rolling pin.

At times of stress, the cracks show. The hairline faults, which I thought I’d patched up long ago, become glaringly obvious. The things I have acquired and achieved in an effort to buffer myself against the difficulties of life melt away. Very little stands between the adult I am now and the lonely, frightened child I once was.

I love and respect my parents, but they were not and never could have been perfect. They brought me into an imperfect world. Rather than setting impossible standards for myself, I have to accept my own brokenness. I am an imperfect mother, partner, friend and work colleague. I try to do my best, but I often stumble and fail.

Weakness

When I first thought about becoming Catholic, I thought that it would make me stronger and more resilient to the challenges of life. I knew enough to realise that if I was serious about being Catholic I had to try, as much as I was able, to hand over my life to God. What I didn’t realise was that this would take me to a place where my own strength and knowledge and ability counts for nothing, and where I have no choice but to acknowledge my own helplessness and dependence on God.

As I try to learn more about my faith, I am reminded over and over that God chose the small, the poor and the weak of this world. He chose people that no-one else would even consider. The shepherd boy David was chosen to fight the warrior giant Goliath and inspire the Israelites to victory over the Philistines. A poor peasant girl gave birth to God’s son. Jesus chose uneducated fishermen to be his first disciples and to found his church.

Recently I was watching Lord of the Rings. It is based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien who was a Catholic. The first time I watched the film many years ago, I was oblivious to its Christian message. Now it is glaringly obvious. A small Halfling or Hobbit, who struggles to get through the day without a second breakfast, is the only person able to take the ring of power into the heart of Mordor and destroy it. The strong ones and the obvious leaders cannot carry the ring because they would be tempted to use it for themselves.

Hope

I am weak and flawed, but faith gives me hope that God can use my brokenness. A while ago, I was reading Saint Faustina’s diary. She wrote that she asked Jesus why He wanted to use her when she was such a weak, miserable person. He replied that it was precisely because of her weakness that God wanted to use her. I don’t have time to hunt the quote right now, but will have a look for it.

Caryll Hauslander in her book ‘The Reed of God’ says:

It is a great mistake to suppose that those who have inherited the material for their life from suffering generations, and who have poor health and a timid approach or some vice or weakness, have not been designed and planned by God as much as others who seem luckier in the world’s eyes. … He can choose what seems to us the most unlikely material in the world to use for a positive miracle of His love.

Last thoughts

I wrote this post a weak ago, but felt too confused and crushed to post it. Since then, I have been reminded that even in the middle of exhaustion and apparent failure, it’s important to keep a sense of humour.

Secondly, I realise that I waste a lot of energy concentrating on the things which aren’t going well and very little remembering the things which are ticking along nicely without drawing any attention to themselves.

Finally, when I really thought I had no more strength left, I got the chance to rest and refresh myself.

Similarities

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Recently I’ve been reading ‘From MTV to Mecca’ by former MTV presenter Kristiane Backer who converted to Islam in 1995 at the age of 30. She later became a Sufi, part of the mystical branch of Islam.

The book leapt out at me from the library shelves because I thought that it would be interesting to read about the experiences of another convert, even if the religion they converted to isn’t my own. I expected to find parallels in the process of conversion. What I didn’t expect, and what has delighted and challenged me, was to find parallels between the Muslim and the Catholic faith.

Here is a very rough list of the things which struck me as being similar:

  • Muslims, like Catholics, have a tradition of saints and believe that a spiritual blessing can be received through the relics of holy men and women.
  • Both Muslims and Catholics pray for the souls of the dead.
  • Physical posture, such as kneeling, is used in worship.
  • Both faiths have a period of fasting or eating restrictions (Ramadan and Lent).
  • The Muslim and Catholic faith both have traditions of pilgrimage to holy sites
  • The word Islam actually means ‘surrender to the will of God’. Surrendering to God’s will lies at the heart of the Christian faith as we follow the example of the Virgin Mary who gave God her fiat when she said, ‘Let it be done unto me according to Your will.’
  • In Sufi tradition, the heart is seen as a cup through which Divine Love can flow. However, before it can be filled, the cup needs to be emptied of the ego and unhealthy habits and attachments. Sufi’s say ‘Die before you die’ and Jesus said that unless the wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will not produce fruit.
  • The Muslim, like the Christian, tries to turn to God through regular prayer and remembering God in their daily life. They call this practice dhikr.

I have had many ‘Aha’ moments reading Kristiane’s book when I have recognised something which I have experienced or read about or striven towards. These similarities have led me to the conclusion that the One God whom we recognise as Catholics also works through other faiths and religions.

My own faith, often assailed by doubts, has been strengthened

by reading about the pull Kristiane felt towards Islam and the many ways in which she has sought God through the Muslim religion. Sometimes I wonder if I am on the right path, if I am on any path at all, or even if there is a path. However, seeing that paths which are different on the surface lead towards the same spiritual principles of turning to God and seeking to do His will, has helped me in my struggle with doubt.

As I read this book, I think of my elderly Sufi friend who pointed me towards a spiritual path before I became Catholic.

I think also of the many ordinary Muslims whose lives have become complicated by attitudes to the few people who take an extreme interpretation of their religion. If we take a long hard look at Christian history, we will find extremists on both the Catholic and Protestant sides. Kristiane Backer also wrestles with this and concludes that love is at the heart of the Sufi tradition. As she says, there is no such thing as a Sufi terrorist.

Why not differences?

I could quite easily have written a post called differences. Perhaps the most significant difference for Christians is that Muslims honour Jesus as a prophet rather than the Son of God. However, my own background has led me to look for God at work in the lives of others rather than concentrating on what sets us apart.

My faith journey started in a little church where we believed that everyone who held different beliefs to ours, including other Christians, was on the broad road to hell. As a young woman, I rejected church and Christianity, but never quite ditched my belief in God. Despite difficulties with organised religion, I developed an awareness of God’s presence, and felt that I recognised God working in the lives of people from different religions or no religion at all.

When I thought about becoming a Catholic, I didn’t want to close myself off to this awareness of God in the lives of others. If becoming Catholic meant believing that my Protestant family and friends were all going to hell, then I would have to regretfully turn away.

I brought these difficulties to our parish priest. He pointed out that while the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that Baptism is necessary for salvation, it also says, God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments (CCC 1257).

Reading on a little , I found the following:

‘Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.’ Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity. (CCC 1260)

I took this to include people who may have been born and brought up in cultures and communities where the Catholic church or the Gospel was very foreign to them. God calls some people to jump across religious divides, I am one of them, but is everyone called to do this?

Only God can judge the heart of another. When I see love being practised between people, I think that God must be at work and that they are living out the message of the Gospel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is God extravagant?

Flowers

I didn’t usually notice the flowers in the church, but they were particularly beautiful. While I was admiring the mixture of creams and whites and greenery in front of the altar, I realised that there were another two vases on either side of the altar. Two smaller vases stood on either side of Jesus’ feet. Mary hadn’t been left out; she had two vases of her own, making a total of seven.

Seven vases of flowers. Who needed that many in a church?  They served no purpose except to look nice and add a bit of grace to the altar. Surely one wee bunch could do the job. They were nice to look at, but we could do without them. The only flowers that made it into the wee church of my childhood were the silk ones on the ladies’ hats, and it never occurred to us that a few fresh ones might brighten the place up a bit.

These flowers were lovely, but was it right to buy expensive ones like lilies. I hated to think how much they had cost. Come to think of it, should the church be buying any flowers? They would be better spending the money on the poor.

Hmm. Wasn’t there a Gospel story which went something along these lines. I thought a moment, and then I had it. Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume, and then Judas Iscariot complained about the extravagance, suggesting that the money could have been better spent on the poor.  Jesus accepted Mary’s extravagant gift by gently rebuking Judas, ‘You will always have the poor, but you won’t always have me.’ (John 12:8)

I accepted the rebuke and bent my head to concentrate on the Mass. If someone wanted to spend money filling the church with beautiful flowers as an expression of their gratitude to God, who was I to judge?

Everything in moderation?

After I got home, I realised that my cramped reaction to the flowers was very similar to my reaction to the Roman churches filled with art and decoration. My feeling in both cases was that neither flowers nor paintings were necessary in churches. A little of  both might be permissible, but to fill the church with decoration was extravagant. Things like flowers and paintings which are there simply for their beauty, are probably just as indispensable as sleep.

ngc_2082_barred_spiral_galaxy_constellation_schwertfisch_216380

When we collect, appreciate and try to create beautiful things, we are imitating God. He gives us beauty in profligate, reckless abundance. On top of our own world teeming with life, we have been given the amazing and humbling vastness of space. Here are a few facts:

  • If you look up at the sky on a clear night, you will see a white smudge stretching across the sky. You are looking into just one of the spiral arms in our local Milky Way galaxy.
  • The sun is just one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
  • There are thought to be around 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.
  • It takes light, travelling at 300 000 000 metres per second, four years to reach us from the closest star Proxima Centauri.
  • Andromeda, our closest galaxy, is 2.5 million light years away.

Have a look at the  scale of the universe . It is a great site which attempts to give people some kind of idea of the immensity of the universe.

Is God extravagant? There is no such thing as moderation when it comes to the universe. The facts speak for themselves.