When what you know as normal comes to a halt

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(When it is 4 degrees C outside and blowing a gale, these seeds are an act of faith that things will get better)

Over the last week, what we think of as our normal life has come to a halt due to coronavirus. As things changed at an accelerated pace, I had a sick, dislocated feeling which was horribly familiar.

Difficult news

The first time I had it was when I took my daughter for a medical appointment and I was told that she was so ill she would have to be admitted to hospital as an emergency. I stayed with her during the long wait for a hospital bed in a calm state which I now recognise as shock.

The sick feeling only hit me when a nurse ordered me home and I had to leave my daughter crying in a ward with strangers. I passed familiar things, a fast food place, a group of houses, but nothing looked right. People were laughing together outside cafés and I wondered how they could chat and laugh when the bottom had quite simply fallen out of my life.

The odds of my daughter dying from her illness were higher than the death rate for Covid-19. She pulled through after 2 months in hospital although she was still struggling with health problems eighteen months on when I received other news which changed life as I knew it.

The day started off like any other day. I got up, had breakfast, made sandwiches for the kids and switched on the radio a little after eight o’ clock. Fortunately, I didn’t catch the start of the news, because if I had, I would have heard a news item about my sister’s death. Even though she wasn’t named, there would have been enough details for me to know that it was her.

I was spared for another few minutes until I went upstairs, checked my mobile, which had been switched off at night, and found eight missed calls. I called back, hoping it was hospital, hoping there was a chance, and my mother told me my sister had taken her life.

It was all over, the terrible struggle with mental illness. I sat in the living room, terribly calm, but the dog knew I wasn’t okay. She came over and pressed herself against me and stayed like that until my husband told me I would have to pack to go to my parents.

Stopping normal

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When you get bad news, shock helps you cope in the short term. You do things you wouldn’t have though possible given the burden you are carrying, but in the long term, unless you take great care of yourself, it takes its toll.

This week, I felt shock again. Here is how it went:

Friday 13th March – We went to the meeting point early in the morning to discover that my son’s school trip had been cancelled due to concerns about coronavirus.

Sunday 15th March – I went to church, nodded to others instead of giving the sign of peace. Many older people were already staying away due to concerns about the virus.

Monday 16th March – I sent my children to school as normal, not knowing it would be the last day.

Tuesday 17th March – St. Patrick’s Day. Increasingly concerned about the coronavirus, we kept the kids off school and worked from home (we are fortunate we can do this).

Wednesday 18th March – frantically booked my daughter a flight home as her college was closing. Received news that the Catholic Church was suspending Masses whilst the Free Church of Scotland and Church of Scotland were also stopping church services.

Thursday 19th March – St. Joseph’s Day. I got up early to shop and found almost no fresh vegetables, very little bread, no toilet paper and very little canned and dried food. This was the last day of public Masses although I couldn’t go as I was looking after kids at home.

Friday 20th March – Schools across Scotland closed today. I made a long journey to meet my daughter at the airport and bring her home.

This weekend – All non-essential travel is banned. Tourists are told to stay away from the Scottish Highlands which normally relies on the tourist industry.

Monday 23rd – we are effectively in lockdown, only allowed to leave the house for essential groceries or to get exercise.

We are all suffering

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This time, we’re all suffering. I can’t go out and look at other people and think, ‘They’re okay.’ Nor can I read about others’ suffering on the other side of the world and allow myself the guilty thought, ‘At least that’s not us.’

We’re all in this together. Whatever we decided to give up for Lent pales in comparison with all the things we have to give up: freedom to go out, meet others, stop in a coffee shop, go to the library or the gym, shop for anything but food.

In his letter announcing the suspension of Masses, the Bishop asked us to say the Our Father often and meditate on what it means to say, ‘Give us our daily bread.’

I eat my food with genuine thankfulness and try not to worry about the shortages in the supermarket.

What has helped me when normal stops

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I think back to what helped when I experienced sudden and difficult changes in my life before and what I hope will help again.

  • I learnt that I am not big enough to control circumstances. I can only take one day at a time, do my wee bit and leave the rest to God..
  • When my daughter got ill, it was an absolute necessity to find some way to switch off my mind (otherwise I was always tense and worrying). I found peace through praying the rosary, as well as through meditation exercises (becoming aware of my body and my breath)
  • Doing ordinary things, such as cooking, hoovering or walking the dog, helped me feel grounded.
  • When I’m under strain and nothing feels right, I have learnt that it’s important to look after myself. Sometimes I need to do something to relax such as read a novel, watch a film, have a bath, even when it’s hard with kids to look after and a new situation to adjust to.
  • I have found out that we don’t always see God healing someone. Sometimes we are asked to be like the royal official who begged Jesus to come to Capernaum and heal his son. Instead of going to the official’s house, Jesus sent him on the long journey home, telling him that his son would live. The official had to leave Jesus in faith. I recognise myself in this story. I prayed many times that my sister would be healed and now I have to believe that she is being healed even though I will never be able to see her healed in this life.

The last thought are words from Hosea (Mass reading on Saturday 21st March).

Let us set ourselves to know the Lord; that he will come is as certain as the dawn, his judgement will rise like the light, he will come to us as showers come, like spring rains watering the earth.

 

Another thought

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I thought I had run out of words, but I find it is important to say one or two more things.

I started this blog because I felt I would burst if I didn’t express the strange journey which brought an agnostic with an allergy to organised religion into the Catholic church. I also wanted to make contact with people who’d experienced a similar journey. Alongside this, I wanted to write well, be admired for it and have lots of people read MY blog.

I was aware of these mixed motives and struggled with them. It’s so hard to give something to God, even if, on the surface, it looks like you’re doing it for Him.

Now, the thoughts and words which bubbled up, gently insisting on being written, have almost dried up, but it wouldn’t be right to leave this blog on a note of desperation.

Devastation

When I wrote the last post, I was devastated physically, mentally and spiritually, by my sister’s suicide. I lost my closest friend. There was a continual ache in my chest. I got easily exhausted, and at least once a week, I had a day of nausea and headaches. Frequently, I just had to give up and go back to bed.

Life felt like a burden. I wasn’t going to do what my sister did, but life was a fruit that had turned dry and sour, all the goodness sucked out of it. I would just have to drag myself through whatever time was left as best I could.

Suicide bereavement

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There’s nothing redeeming about suicide. It’s a story cut off before it reaches a resolution. After a long struggle with mental illness, my sister ran out of strength and hope. She inflicted violence on herself, dying alone without the support of family. Those of us left behind have to face our own helplessness. We loved her, would have done anything to help her, but we couldn’t heal her or save her from her illness.

Suicide leaves a vacuum, an empty space which shouldn’t be there. It can very easily suck away the love, faith and hope of those left behind.

On the face of it, her long fight with the illness, our support and prayers, all came to nothing. For a long time, we carried hope like a little candle lit in our hearts, and now we have no more hope. At least not for this life.

Seeking healing

I must have still had some hope, because I managed to get to a monastery. I arrived in a state which I can only describe as having fallen off faith and hope and love.

In my rucksack, was ‘Redemption Road’, a book by the Jesuit priest, Brendan MacManus, in which he describes walking the Camino de Santiago in search of healing after losing his brother to suicide.

The book opens with a scene in which Brendan leads a retreat for young people. Even while he tries to give them a message of hope and trust, he realises that his own life has not felt right since his brother died.

I recognised myself in this and also in his description of walking the Camino. He had repeated injuries which either made walking very painful, or forced him to take time out and even skip parts of the Camino when he began to run out of time.

Life after suicide bereavement is a physical challenge. You try to keep going through exhaustion and physical pain, but you also have to recognise the times when you simply have to rest.

When I arrived at the monastery, I was in such a bad state that I worried I would pollute the place with my lack of peace.

Moving towards peace

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Fortunately, the opposite happened. The peace and prayers of the monastery began to work on me. Nothing dramatic happened, no revelations or intense experiences, but I was slowly absorbed into the peace.

God worked through the everyday, through cups of tea and trees and birdsong. After a few days, the rhythm of the Psalms and Gregorian chant soaked into me and flowed through my mind even when I wasn’t in the chapel.

I sat outdoors and read ‘Redemption Road’. I was sometimes in tears when Brendan McManus wrote about his brother Donal’s decline, or when he put down positive memories of his brother.

Towards the end of his Camino, when Brendan met a young Mexican family. He wrote ‘They reminded me of myself before suicide wreaked its devastation: how I had been similarly open and optimistic, trusting and believing. Was it just naivety about the world? Could I believe in hope again, was there some rescue after trauma, would negativity be overcome?’

I knew exactly what he meant.

Trust

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By the time I read the final pages of ‘Redemption Road’ and Fr. Brendan’s account of assisting at the Mass in Santiago Cathedral, being asked to read a prayer for the dead, and knowing that his brother was at peace, I knew that something had also shifted in me.

Through small things, walking in the woods, watching birds, I became quietly aware that God was still there and extending an invitation. I could go through the rest of my life with bitterness and suspicion, asking God why this happened to my beautiful sister after all our prayers and all her efforts to struggle with a truly horrible illness. I could continue to endlessly question what had happened to her at the moment of death or afterwards, or I could TRUST.

It sounds so simple, but it’s so hard.

You see, I’ve relied a lot on my own abilities or determination or persistence to get through life. I’ve thought there was a solution to everything given time and application. Oh, and prayer, of course. But prayer was like a dash of salt added to a dish when it was almost ready.

Suicide bereavement brought me up against my weakness and inadequacy. I had failed utterly to protect someone I loved. No matter what I do with my life, I can never make this better. Nor can I even tell myself a consoling story about my sister’s life and death. The sudden and violent manner of her death has left me feeling, quite literally, that I am left with nothing.

Every loss, every bereavement, requires trust. Perhaps suicide bereavement isn’t different in kind, just in scale.

My choice was and still is between dragging myself through life and seeing it as something meaningless or absurd, or trusting that God is still offering me the gift of life and receiving it with gratitude and trust.

After suicide bereavement, there is no longer an in-between. I have lost the ability to enjoy life ‘for its own sake’ and on my terms. Only through making a conscious effort to turn to God, can I manage the debilitating fear that another something awful is just around the corner.

Visiting the monastery, allowed me to heal and to begin to trust. The physical healing felt almost miraculous. The continual ache in my chest lifted. At times, I am quite amazed at how I have been able to do things and even start new projects. However, grief still comes, and I have to be careful to look after my physical and mental health.

Trust and turning to God is a choice which has to be made each day.

A last thought

When he came across a woman who had lost her husband to suicide, the French priest St Jean Vianney said, ‘I tell you he is saved. He is in Purgatory, and you must pray for him. Between the parapet of the bridge and the water he had time to make an act of contrition.’

I used to think of purgatory as a place of purification and suffering. Since my sister died by suicide, I can’t think of it as anything other than a field hospital where wounded souls come for healing, a place where she and other souls who have, for whatever reason, died by suicide, continue their journey into knowing God as love.

Again, I found comfort in the words of Brendan McManus in his small book ‘Surviving Suicide Bereavement. Finding life after death.’ He writes, ‘We have this black and white view: they are lost or found, in hell or in heaven. But in reality it is more like shades of grey. Maybe there is another place between heaven and hell specifically for the healing of suicide? This ’emergency care unit’, an intense healing of hurt or wounds, is where Christ works intensely to love wounded people back to wholeness.’

Holey, Holy and Wholly

I’m writing something I never wanted to write. A short while ago, my sister, who was very precious to me, died in a tragic accident leaving behind a husband and young children. I hate to use the word suicide, because it would suggest some sort of choice on her part. I’ll never know what happened, but I know she wouldn’t have left us unless, in that moment, she felt utterly desperate.

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A death is difficult

The death of someone who should have many years ahead of them is difficult

A sudden death is difficult

A situation where someone seems to have a hand in their own death is even more difficult.

We are still in shock.

In the first few days of shock and tears, I found myself thinking of two things: my sister in her wedding dress absolutely beaming and happy. This came back to me today with the story of Jesus and the wedding feast at Cana. If she had any faith, my sister kept it to herself and at the same time practised love and kindness to others. I am hoping that she is now experiencing God’s love and mercy.

A totally inappropriate joke

The other thing I thought of seemed totally inappropriate. It was a sectarian joke I heard when I was a child. Although things have got better in recent years, Scotland is a country with a Catholic-Protestant divide. Catholics and Protestants go to different schools and when I was a kid, I didn’t meet many Catholics. It’s easier to tell jokes about a group of people if you don’t know any of them personally.

Anyway, this joke kept going through my head, even though it is totally tasteless and wouldn’t be told now after recent terrorist attacks on places of worship. But I’m going to have to tell it to explain what I was thinking about it. It goes like this:

Question: Why did the priest bring a gun to church?

Answer: to make his people holey.

Okay, the joke could have been told about a minister or some other kind of religious leader, but because I grew up in Protestant Scotland, we made it a Catholic joke.

At first, I couldn’t understand why I was thinking about such a tasteless joke after losing my sister, until I went to Mass and began to understand.

I felt as if I was full of holes, as if God had shot holes in my tough exterior, or allowed circumstances to shoot holes in me. I couldn’t stop crying on Baptism Sunday, as if all the holes were letting in, not just pain, but also God’s love. The pain of my sister’s sudden death was flowing through me, as well as the thoughts of all the love that had been between us. But love could flow out of me much more easily, too, through all these holes blown in my defenses.

And there was so much to give comfort: The spirit of Lord Yahweh is on me for Yahweh has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the news to the afflicted, to soothe the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to those in prison, to proclaim a year of favour from Yahweh and a day of vengeance for our God, to comfort all who mourn, Isaiah 61:1-2.

It’s impossible to explain these first few days: the pain, the feeling that you are falling, and that yet even as you fall you know that you won’t fall forever, that there is something there: God, ground, love, to hold you up. I almost understood why Flannery O’ Connor’s short stories have the possibility of God’s grace being brought into peoples’ lives through what seems to be an irredeemable disaster or unkindness.

In these first few days, I prayed that I wouldn’t forget what I learnt from being holey, and that I would be able to trust and give myself wholly to God. And maybe that’s what it means to be holy.

Silence

The strange thing is that it was easier to trust God in these first few days, when I was blown into pieces and had absolutely no choice but to ask Him to help me through the next day, next hour, next second.

Now, maybe I’m trying to rebuild the holes, repair the defences as best as I can, even shoot a few missiles in God’s direction: why me, why her, why us? Why couldn’t You heal her? You heal other people, after all? Why was there this perfect storm which led to her death, so many little things done differently might have had another outcome … But I can’t go there. I’ll lose what’s left if I do.

The hardest thing today is the silence. There’s the silence of my sister. Even when I talk to her in my head or write down my thoughts in my diary, she doesn’t answer.

There’s the silence of others. After the initial whirl of emails and texts and facebook messages and people saying how sorry they are, it tails off, as it had to eventually. I’m sitting at home alone, trying to think of anything but what’s happened and finding I can’t.

There’s my own silence. I can’t talk about what happened. It’s very difficult, even to other people closely affected. We say something, the same thing, over and over, pain bouncing back and forth between us like a hot potato which no-one can bear to hold for long.

The most difficult silence to bear is the one I go into when my weary mind can’t take any more words or thoughts about what is, will be or might have been, when I just breathe and try to be aware of … what? Is God in the silence? Often I don’t feel a Presence. Sometimes I don’t find words to pray, and it hurts more than anything else what happens in this silence. I tell God how I feel and cry. Maybe it’s a healing hurt.

I need to end now, just with the thought that all I can ask for is blind trust. It’s so hard to let go of my beautiful sister and accept that I can’t do any more for her on this earth.

Fire

When I woke up today, You appeared to me as fire.

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What should I call You?

Father

Are You not three and yet one?

Look more closely, at the flames that grow, leap out and fall back, my Son. See the light and feel the heat that comes from me, my Spirit.

But aren’t You the eternal and unchangeable One? How can You grow and leap and dance like a fire and yet never change?

I am still One, always One, burning in a never-ending dance.

I feel uncomfortable seeing You as a fire. It is always moving and changing shape. I thought You were the same yesterday, today and forever.

Watch for a while. It is still there, the same fire, even if the flames are in constant motion. Look at my creation. Plants grow and die back in the autumn, rocks weather, continents move, stars grow brighter and then dimmer. Even ice sheets lose ice in the summer and grow again in the winter. Why do You think that unchangeable means a thing that is frozen and static?

I don’t know. I just feel a bit uncomfortable thinking of You as being in motion. Maybe I want to You to be something set hard and unmoving so that my mind has a chance of one day grasping what You are.

(Laughter) You know that understanding me is impossible. Come closer, little one.

I can’t. I’m frightened.

What are you afraid of?

How can You ask that? Isn’t it obvious? You burn with flames that are hotter than the sun. If I come close, I will be utterly consumed, turned into heat and light without even leaving a cinder.

My dear, why are you so fearful? Didn’t I appear to Moses as a fire?

Moses saw a bush that was burning, and yet didn’t burn up.

Exactly. You will burn, will think that you have lost everything, will be sure that you won’t survive, and yet you won’t be destroyed. Learn this, little one. You will have everything necessary in the moment you need it, not too soon and never a moment too late. Can you trust Me?

It is so hard. You say that I won’t be burnt up, but what will really happen if I move closer to the fire. I cannot approach You and remain unchanged, can I?

Of course not. You will melt, lose what you think is your form, become liquid.

Why must that be?

So that you will flow, become liquid, move to where I want you, fit into the mould I make for you. If you do not melt and abandon yourself to me, you will never discover what I intended you to be.

I am frightened, almost too afraid to say to You, do this. Let me be like the man who said, “I believe, please help my unbelief.” I want to abandon myself to You, I want to melt. Please help the part of me which holds back and wants to remain cool and hard and cold. That is all I can manage right now. I hope it’s enough.

That is all I need. I can make it enough.

Thank you, Father, for showing me the fire.

God’s grace and Calvinism revisited

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As I wrote in my conversion story, I realised that the greatest challenge in my life would be receiving and responding to God’s love.

The Calvinist God

I grew up with a Calvinist God, an angry, intolerant figure who was going to send many of us to hell no matter what if we hadn’t made it onto the list of Elect. After being brought up with a weekly diet of hell, fire and judgement sermons, it was hard for me to believe in God’s love.

This kind of fear was certainly not limited to a Calvinist upbringing. In God of Surprises, Fr Gerard Hughes writes about the Catholic version, comparing religious instruction to a small child being taken to see their Great-Uncle George whom supposedly loves them. Before they leave, however, he shows them the furnace in the cellar and threatens to throw them in if they don’t visit every week.

In the church I was brought up in, only people who had been shown by God that they were among the Elect were considered to be saved. The other people, no matter how devout they were and how much they tried to live good lives, were going to go to Hell. In other words, there was nothing you could do to decide your salvation.

This led to despair. It also led to people not taking part in the Lord’s supper as they felt they weren’t worthy.

I was recently digging around in The Statistical Accounts of Scotland online, which, despite their dry name, are actually fascinating accounts written by ministers on all aspects of their parishioners’ lives. In a report in1845, the Rev Archibald Clerk wrote:

The majority of the people have been brought to regard the Sacraments, especially the Lord’s supper, with horror which causes almost all of them to avoid partaking of it

So, the feeling that we weren’t worthy to receive God’s grace through the Lord’s supper was not a new thing.

How can I trust God?

It’s taken me a long time and many years in exile from the church to even begin to unravel the tangle of love and fear, duty and punishment. When I was drawn back to Christianity and began attending a Catholic church, I felt like a someone who has survived an abusive relationship and is trying to build another one. How could I trust God? How could I believe in His love? How could I believe that He wanted anything good for me? Wouldn’t I be better trying to eke out whatever good I could get out of life on my own?

I also still felt that if I made mistakes or drifted away from God, I had to grovel, beg and persuade God to forgive me. Things had moved on from my perception of God when I was a Calvinist, but not a lot. In my new understanding, God would listen, but would still only grudgingly forgive if I managed to be sufficiently penitent.

Now, I am beginning to see something different. When I ask for God’s forgiveness, it isn’t about changing God’s mind, getting Him to give me another chance or persuading Him that I might have a good bone in me and be worth a bit of love.

No, it’s about healing, healing of the hurt part of me which can’t believe in God’s grace, healing of the part of me that is so twisted and curled in on itself that it is unable to receive the love that God always offers.

God’s grace

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I am beginning to understand my helplessness. I can’t save myself. That may seem like a truism. Haven’t I always been told, no matter what flavour of church I’ve been in, that Jesus saves?

But have I really taken that to heart? Haven’t I tried to ‘earn’ my salvation, by being good, keeping the ten commandments, helping people, respecting the law? As a Catholic, haven’t I sometimes let myself think that I somehow ‘deserve’ salvation by going to Mass regularly? When I’ve slipped up, haven’t I seen the Sacrament of Reconciliation as something I do to make things okay with God again.

Only now am I beginning to understand that I can’t by my own power do anything to heal myself and overcome my faults. All I can do is receive God’s grace and God’s healing. When I ask for forgiveness, whether alone in prayer, or through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it’s about healing the barriers to receiving God’s love and grace, including my own refusal to accept it.

Calvinism revisited

When I look again at the verses which were quoted to back up Calvinism, I see now that it’s all about grace:

Thus he chose us in Christ before the world was made to be holy and faultless before him in love, marking us out for himself beforehand, to be adopted sons, through Jesus Christ. Such was his purpose and good pleasure, to the praise of the glory of his grace, his free gift to us in the Beloved, in whom, through his blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins. (Ephesians 1: 4-7)

The Calvinists almost got it right. So close, and yet so far. They understood that salvation is God’s free gift, that there’s nothing we can do to earn it or add to it. But in teaching that it was wrong to ask God for mercy and salvation, they made a grave and damaging error. We can’t do anything to add or take away from God’s salvation, but it does require an important step on our part: ACCEPTANCE.

God is outside of time and I am in it. And here is the paradox. God is omnipotent, and yet He has limited Himself, taken on human nature, made Himself vulnerable. In giving us free will, He has allowed us to receive or to refuse Him, not just once and for all, but continually. In every moment of every day, He’s there waiting for us to turn Godwards.

I’ll give Julian of Norwich the last word:

This is his meaning: that we should see what he does and pray that it should be done … It is our Lord’s will that, whatever he plans to do, we should pray for it, either in particular or in general. The joy and delight it gives him, and the thanks and glory we shall be given because of it, pass all understanding – in my sight.

a story

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Today, I just want to put up a link to a story I wrote for the Coming Home Network.

The story is about how I went from Highland Presbyterian, to atheist, to agnostic and before eventually returning to the church and became Catholic. Most of all, it’s a story of how ‘I fled him down the nights and down the days’. My journey has taken me from being totally unable to believe in God’s love and mercy, towards beginning to trust that God is love.

Because of this, and maybe also because I’m writing from a female perspective, I’ve tried to put the emphasis on how different events or phases in my life caused me to move towards or away from God, rather than on theology.

The story is called Discovering God’s love and is here.

Coming Home

I can’t speak for other people, but in my case becoming Catholic has felt like finally finding my spiritual home after much wandering. That’s one reason why the title of the Coming Home Network appeals, although I didn’t discover them until recently through a link on another blogger’s site (thank you Charles Johnson).

I’ve enjoyed reading other peoples’ stories on the Coming Home Network and about their journeys from one place to another spiritually. The journey still continues. Joining the Catholic church isn’t an arrival. It’s more like boarding a boat that’s going to help you travel into deeper water and new destinations, using the wisdom of others to guide you into new ways of prayer. Rather than stumbling forward alone, I have the support of others on this journey and the Communion of Saints. One of the amazing things about being Catholic is being able to ask someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta for her prayers.

When I read other about other peoples’ journeys, I see the spark that’s set them alight, the sense that something’s taken hold of them which can’t be explained logically and which won’t let them go.

I recognise that spark. Sometimes I ignore it, muffle it, forget it for a while, or even rebel against it, but I will never be able to say I haven’t seen what is the aim of my life, what I’m longing for.

It’s the pearl of great price, which a merchant sells everything to buy, or the treasure hidden in a field. Once someone discovers the treasure, they go off, sell all their possessions and buy the field (see Matthew 13:44-46).

The Coming Home Network

The Coming Home Network offers resources and support to people who are thinking of becoming Catholic or who are converts. My only quibble is that there is a heavy bias towards American men, and particularly pastors, among the conversion stories. That isn’t surprising considering that the network was originally set up to support Protestant clergy, who had a lot to lose by becoming Catholic.

However, it’s only a small complaint and I’ve enjoyed and learnt a lot from the written stories and videos. Here are links to two of my favourite videos which feature women:

Sr Miriam Heidland, a Catholic revert. I love what she says about our need to be healed.

Another video I really like is an interview with Thomas and Lovelace Howard. Thomas Howard is author of ‘Evangelical is not Enough’, which he wrote after discovering the liturgy through the Anglican church. The title says it all. He isn’t saying that evangelical is wrong, just that it isn’t enough. Reading this book was an ‘aha’ moment.  It helped me understand why I felt more comfortable in churches with structure and liturgy. Further along his journey, Thomas Howard became Catholic. However, for me, the real star of the video is his wife.

In this video, the Howards discuss with Marcus Grodi, not just people who go from the Protestant to the Catholic church, but also the flow in the opposite direction. They acknowledge that both are due, in some mysterious way, to God’s grace.

Yes, it matters which church we’re in, or even if we’re in a church at all, but right down at the most fundamental level is our relationship with God. Sometimes God calls us out of a place we can’t see Him properly into the wilderness or into another place so that we begin or deepen that relationship.

A huge task

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I am thinking a lot about the warning issued earlier this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to act NOW on climate change. There is only a short time left to put measures into place avoid the worst effects of climate change. We have already caused a 1 °C temperature rise over pre-industrial levels. It’s still possible to limit the global mean temperature rise to 1.5 °C, but this requires a radical cut in carbon emissions of 45 % over the next 12 years. In other words, this requires a huge change in the way we use transport, heat and light our homes and produce our food.

If we drag our feet on cutting emissions then the mean global temperature rise will reach or exceed 2 °C, dramatically increasing the risk of weather-related disasters, such as floods, droughts and extreme heat. The effects of a 2 °C rise would be devastating. Only 1 % of corals would survive and insects, which are essential for pollinating our food, would lose 50 % of their habitat.

Some people will see this warning as over-dramatic. Others might sense a conspiracy: are the scientists playing a political game?

Are these scientists for real?

I am taking this warning to heart because I was a climate scientist, before giving up work to bring up my children. I’ve worked in three different countries and three different organisations which were involved in monitoring the climate. This work brought me the privilege of meeting many dedicated climate scientists, some of whom contributed to previous IPCC reports.

I’ve sat through seminars and lectures where people have presented model scenarios. They put in the best knowledge about the present climate and carbon emissions and run their models to see what happens in the future. What happens if we stick our head in the sand and do nothing? What happens if we cut emissions by 50 %, 75 %, and so on?

I learnt that what might seem to the layman to be small rises in global mean temperature of a few degrees centigrade can have huge effects. Some areas, such as the Arctic, will experience mean temperature rises of 4 to 5 °C, causing melting of sea ice and rising sea levels. Increased temperature also means more evaporation, which means more rain and greater risk of floods.

As a scientist, I’ve been involved in making careful measurements of atmospheric gases and have seen how they changed over time in response to the changing climate. My work has also gone through a rigorous peer review process. Nothing can get published in a scientific journal without being reviewed and criticised by at least three anonymous reviewers. They will point out any holes in your arguments and there’s no way you can slip in any assertions without providing solid evidence.

Believe me, the IPCC report and the scientific studies it is based on, are not fantasy or wild guesses. They represent our absolute, best estimate of what will happen in the near-future based on accurate current measurements.

Is there still time?

In the 1990’s, when I began working in this field, there was still time. The dire scenarios predicted for the mid 21st century seemed a long time away, but now they are a lot closer.

What the latest IPCC report is saying is that time is almost running out. There’s no time left to argue. We have to act now.

Hope?

I’ve been feeling really low. In fact, I’ve felt hopeless and overwhelmed. If politicians won’t act, how can my small choices to grow my own potatoes and vegetables or to walk or cycle instead of using a car, make any difference?

And it isn’t enough for a few small nations to act on climate change. This has to be a concerted effort. We must recognise our common humanity and responsibility for the planet. The warning is stark. There’s no part of this planet which won’t be affected by climate change.

Through my daughter’s illness, I have been going through my own test of faith and hope. Recently, someone passed on this quote by the Scottish author, Robert-Louis Stevenson:

To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and the true success is the labour.

Hope doesn’t know the outcome. Hope doesn’t ignore the difficulties. If it was easy and the way was clear, we wouldn’t need hope.

To save our climate, we must travel hopefully

What about faith?

The Presbyterian group I grew up in was suspicious of movements to protect the environment. They saw these efforts as potentially stabilising the ‘God-given’ status quo. The evangelicals I met at university seemed indifferent to environmental issues. Why make an effort to save the climate if the world was going to be destroyed anyway in Armageddon and God was going to give us a new one?

As I learnt about the threat of climate change on my science course, I wondered why God would give us a new heaven and a new earth, if we haven’t taken good care of this one? He’d be like a parent who buys a new expensive toy for their child after they’ve trashed the first one.

At the same time, I met atheist friends who were passionate about climate and social justice issues. This was a factor, although by no means the only one, in drifting away from religion.

Having come back to Christianity, I was very happy that Pope Francis published Laudato Si, his encyclical on the earth, our common home. This signals a change in the church’s attitude, from seeing us as caretakers rather than exploiters of the planet.

Scottish Catholic organisations, such as SCIAF and Justice and Peace Scotland are campaigning against climate change, because it as a social justice issue. Acting to limit climate change is a matter of justice for people living on the margins: on low lying islands, in dry areas where crops often fail, in areas prone to flooding, as well as for our children and future generations.

It is a huge task. As individuals we are small and weak, but God works through our weakness.

I’ll give the last words to Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp, who writes about the economy in The National, a Scottish newspaper. He points out that action on climate change, requires a whole new way of living and a new economic model:

“Our economic system cannot survive unless the population work hard to buy things they do not need and cannot afford….The existential crisis of our age is that we are killing the planet to consume goods we don’t need and that often make us miserable because we borrowed to buy them.”

The little bird and the Scottish midge

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

St Therese called herself a Little Flower, but she also compared herself to a little bird that was trying to fly towards the sun, despite its smallness.

I was thinking about this recently and prayed that I would become a little bird like St Therese, and remain turned towards God despite the times I grow tired, distracted, weak or discouraged by the realisation that I cannot reach God by my own strength.

If St Therese was a little bird, then I must be something even smaller, a tiny humming bird, perhaps. No, that’s still too big. It would have to be something a lot smaller.

The Scottish Midge

I know what. I must be a midge (pronounced midgjee – meanbh cuileag or mini-fly in Gaelic). Anyone who’s visited the Scottish Highlands in the summer, will never forget the midges. They are tiny flies with a wingspan of only 2 to 3 mm, which like to live in damp peaty soil, of which there’s plenty in the Highlands.

Female midges feed on human blood. Lovely. They prefer cloudy days (typical Scottish weather), but don’t like the wind, so you’ll be able to avoid them if it’s windy. They can turn a summer outing into misery by clouding around you and biting any bit of skin they can find.

My worst experience of midges was at Sligachan on Skye where we had the bright idea of getting out the car so that we could enjoy the views of the Cuillin hills while we ate lunch. Big mistake. Within minutes, clouds of midges were hovering around our food and crawling over our faces. I think we ran back to the car.

To avoid them, people cover their heads with midge nets, or slather on all sorts of strange things like smelly baby oil, although I think you now get specially designed midge repellent.

Midges aren’t very pleasant for human beings, but they do have a few good points. One, they are persistent. If you flee from them into your car/house/tent, a few of them will follow you in and have another go at taking a bite. Secondly, they show solidarity. The reason that they will follow you in clouds is that when one midge has taken a bite, she’ll release a pheromone to let her friends know that she’s found a tasty dinner.

A small, weak flying thing

Okay, so I’ve found a small, weak flying thing which is not only particularly Scottish, but also Highland. A midge has its limitations (fortunately for us). It can’t go out in bright sunlight, and if the wind is above 7 miles per hour, it’s grounded.

So, if I’m a midge, then my chances of flying to the sun on my own strength are absolutely nil. That’s what St Therese was trying to say when she compared herself to a little bird. No matter how great her prayers and her efforts, she could never by her own strength encounter God.

That’s what Ignacio Larrañaga says throughout his book on contemplation (Show me your hidden presence). God by is always out of our reach, not because He is deliberately elusive, but because of the differences between His nature and ours. And yet we have to keep setting aside time for prayer and contemplation so that we can allow ourselves to be transformed by God.

We can never reach God on our own, and yet it’s important that we remain turned towards Him, keep fluttering in that direction, ready to receive the grace which will bring us closer.

St Therese as a little bird

Here’s what St Therese had to say on being a little bird:

I look upon myself as a weak little bird, with only a light down as covering. I am not an eagle, but I have only an eagle’s eyes and heart. In spite of my extreme littleness I still dare to gaze upon the Divine Sun, the Sun of Love, and my heart feels within it all the aspirations of an Eagle.

The little bird wills to fly towards the bright Sun that attracts its eye, imitating its brothers, the Eagles, whom it sees climbing up toward the Divine Furnace of the Holy Trinity. But alas! The only thing it can do is raise its little wings; to fly is not within its little power!
What then will become of it? Will it die of sorrow at seeing itself so weak? Oh no! The little bird will not even be troubled. With bold surrender, it wishes to remain gazing upon its Divine Sun. Nothing will frighten it, neither wind nor rain, and if dark clouds come and hide the Star of Love, the little bird will not change its place because it knows that beyond the clouds its bright Sun still shines on and that its brightness is not eclipsed for a single instant.

At times the little bird’s heart is assailed by the storm, and it seems it should believe in the existence of no other thing except the clouds surrounding it; this is the moment of perfect joy for the poor little weak creature. And what joy it experiences when remaining there just the same! And gazing at the Invisible Light which remains hidden from its faith!

O Jesus, Your little bird is happy to be weak and little. What would become of it if it were big? Never would it have the boldness to appear in Your presence, to fall asleep in front of You. Yes, this is still one of the weaknesses of the little bird: when it wants to fix its gaze upon the Divine Sun, and when the clouds prevent it from seeing a single ray of that Sun, in spite of itself, its little eyes close, its little head is hidden beneath its wing, and the poor little thing falls asleep, believing all the time that it is fixing its gaze upon its Dear Star. When it awakens, it doesn’t feel desolate; its little heart is at peace and it begins once again its work of love.

Retreat

This summer I spent a few days in Pluscarden Abbey in Moray, the only medieval monastery in the UK which is still being used for its original purpose.

I simply didn’t know what to expect, beyond the fact that the womens’ guesthouse was in an isolated spot some distance from the main abbey and that I would have to bring my own food.

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Arrival

A taxi from Elgin was the only way to get there without a private car although I later realised that there is a pilgrim walking path which I would try to take next time. The taxi left the town and was soon travelling through wood and farmland along winding single-track road.

The driver, perhaps a little worried about leaving me outside the abbey when there was no-one in sight, set me down by the front entrance and rang the bell. A sleepy-looking monk appeared, muttered something about ‘meridian’ (which I later learnt was afternoon nap), and gave me a key to the women’s guesthouse.

The guesthouse was at the end of a track beside a large field. Each of the rooms bore the name of a saint. I chose St Clare, because she had been a friend of St Francis of Assisi, dumped my bags on the floor and burst into tears with relief that I had got here and could finally rest.

The last year has been difficult. When faced with challenges, I have learnt that I simply can’t operate without prayer. However, sometimes I don’t pray or don’t make it a priority. The week before going to Pluscarden had been particularly busy trying to finish things before I left, some of which could have waited. By the time I reached the Abbey, my nerves were so jangled that I couldn’t have gone on another day.

My first prayer was that my own state of un-peace would not disturb this peaceful place.

Awe

Bells rang out to announce each office. On first seeing the medieval church with its grey, stone walls, gothic arches and stained glass windows, I simply felt awe. The daily Bible readings during Mass are read out in English. Apart from that, everything else is in Latin although there are leaflets for each Office with the Psalms both in Latin and in English.

The Psalms are sung in Gregorian chant which after a while seemed to get inside me and go through my mind like the rhythm of prayer, even when I wasn’t in the church.

More than the building itself, I was impressed by the monks’ faith. Apart from producing their own food and some products, such as honey, to sell, they don’t have any way to earn money. And yet they open up their home to guests without charging any fee although donations are gratefully accepted. That takes faith.

The monastery was founded in 1230 and a community lived there for over 300 years until Scotland separated from the Catholic church in 1560 when it fell into private hands. By the twentieth century, it was a roofless ruin. However, the current owner, the Marquis of Bute, offered it to the Benedictine Community in Prinknash, England.

In 1948, five monks went north to live in the ruined abbey. Somehow, while spending five hours a day praying the Divine Office, these monks oversaw the restoration of the Abbey. As one monk said to me, ‘If they hadn’t prayed eight times a day, very little would have got done.’

Overwhelmed

In Pluscarden, everything revolves around prayer. On the website, the Prior says, ‘We came to the monastery to pray: we’re not in a hurry; we have nothing better to do.’

To say I was completely overwhelmed by the formality and beauty of the prayers and the solemnity of the Latin Mass would be an understatement.

Just as they had in Rome, my Protestant criticisms rose again. Was I really part of a church which spoke Latin, and made liberal use of the incense burner and holy water shaker? Why did the church expect its monks to pray seven times a day and rise once in the night for prayer? Wasn’t that a bit excessive? And while I was at it, I might as well have a go at the rules governing Catholic laypeople, the Sundays and the Holy Days of Obligation. My Protestant voice told me to pick and choose, take the bits I was comfortable with and leave the rest, whilst my agnostic voice told me to step back, view it from a distance without getting too involved or committed.

I didn’t expect to be assailed by doubts in a monastery, but that’s sometimes what happens when you take time to be still and another layer of doubt and mistrust is uncovered.

Refuge

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I overcame my doubts (with some help!)

During the Latin Mass, I listened for the bell and the words of the consecration as the priest lifted up the bread and wine, and I felt more peaceful. Christ was here. God is transcendent, but also immanent.

Compline was my favourite office, the last of the day, when we sat in the candlelit church for a few moments silence before an act of contrition and a Psalm. It ended with an anthem to the Virgin Mary. As a former Protestant, I struggle with devotion to Mary. How much is too much? How can focussing on Mary bring me closer to her son. However, sitting in a medieval chapel in the evening listening to the monks sing Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) sent goosebumps up my spine and left me with a sense of peace.

During my time in Pluscarden, I often thought of ‘Seven Storey Mountain’ by Thomas Merton, a convert and Cistercian monk. He describes saying the Rosary with the other monks as they returned from the fields and says, ‘Who knows what grace overflows into the world from that valley, from those rosaries, in the evenings when the monks are swinging home from work!’

I felt gratitude that there was such a place as Pluscarden. Surely some of these prayers must overflow, not just to guests, but to the wider world. It was also a place where I began to learn about recognising grace in the small things in life.

Take away

What will I take away? Calmed nerves and an increased feeling of peace, but that won’t last unless I continue in prayer. The monks’ witness is strong. I’ve seen what can happen if you make prayer a priority: medieval ruins can be rebuilt and become a refuge for Catholics, other Christians and people of other faiths or none at all.

I’ll also bring back an appreciation of the Divine Office, the challenge and delight of praying the Psalms and the words of the Prior when he paraphrased St John of the Cross and said that our mission as Christians is to ‘have faith where there is no faith, hope where there is no hope and love where there is no love.’

Beyond

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I’m going to be very brave and post a picture of my courgette plant (zucchini to those on the other side of the pond). Woops, no, that wasn’t the bit I was going to be brave about.

Okay, after many rejections, I’ve had a few stories published. Some of these I wrote before my conversion, and some after, but writing has always been a way of spiritual seeking.

I’m sending links to two of them that I thought might be of interest.

An analogy of faith

The first story is Beyond by Christine Grant (the pen name I use) and is in the Winter 2017 issue of Metafore Magazine on page 10 (approx. 3500 words).

It is set in a country hemmed in by mountains, where an unusual situation means that the inhabitants never see the sky. I wrote it shortly after becoming Catholic as an analogy of faith – something which is occasionally glimpsed and never certain.

The opening lines:

Piers scanned the sky, as he did every day, looking for the light that his mother had
sought for the last six years of her life. Today there was no thinning or brightness, no sign that anything lay beyond the layer of steel-grey cloud visible between the high buildings.

Letting go

The second story is One-Way Ticket by Christine Grant (approx 2300 words) and appears in the August 2017 issue of Scarlet Leaf Review.

The second story is about a young man who sells his possessions to buy a one-way ticket to the Grand Canyon. He takes with him one thing which he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to give up, but the beauty of the canyon begins to change him.

The opening lines:

Eric took a deep breath of hot, dry air, glad to be off the bus which had jolted him awake during the overnight journey through the desert. He stuffed his ticket into a bin at the bus stop. He wouldn’t need it again; he wasn’t going back.

Enjoy the summer holidays!