Tethered again

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I know that I promised I wouldn’t write any more about the Sacrament of Reconciliation on this blog for quite a while, but almost a year has passed, and I think I could get off with one small little post.

When I considered becoming Catholic, I felt about the same level of enthusiasm for going to Confession that a dog feels about having a bath. My dog doesn’t think that baths are necessary, and I thought that confession was one of these unnecessary things which Catholics had added to Christianity.

Suffice to say that by the time, I actually went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I had changed my views on this considerably. Father K told me that I should go to Confession once a year ‘or when I felt the need to go’. After the trauma of making my first confession, I appreciated that it was useful and necessary, but I couldn’t imagine ever actually feeling the need to go.

I have been proved wrong on that last count. Sometimes I have felt so far away from God, that I have begun to wonder if confession would help. The first time I felt like this, I asked a Catholic friend how you know if you need to go to confession and realised that if I was asking the question then I probably already knew the answer. I told our parish priest how I was feeling. Without putting any pressure on me, he told me that he would hear my confession the next day if I still felt the same way. My answer came in the peace and relief I felt when I knew that I could go and confess the things which were bothering me.

I haven’t felt the incredible feelings of peace which other people talk about experiencing after the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I think that I am resistant to being carried away by feelings. However, I have felt as if I have been unblocked spiritually and able to move on.

There is still a Protestant part of me which is extremely suspicious of things like confession. Recently I was puzzling over the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and trying to justify it to myself. An image drifted into my mind of a helium balloon, bobbing around in the air high above the ground. I was the balloon. The ground was a long way below, but I was tethered to it by a long string. Although I moved around in the air currents, I was reassured that I wasn’t going to be blown high into the atmosphere where I might burst, or be carried away to a far off place.

The long string was my faith and the ground was the ground of my soul, the deepest part of me where God dwells.

Sharp gusts of wind put a strain on the string and it snapped. I began to float away. The strains of life and the bad choices I had made had been too much for my faith and I had lost contact with the ground. I was high up in the sky, and I wasn’t able to retie the other end of the string on my own.

I realised that the Sacrament of Reconciliation was the help that I needed to retie that string and renew my relationship with God.

As I meditated on this, I looked down and saw that some people had grabbed the end of the string, and were smiling and waving up at me. I was too far away to see their faces, but I think that they were the saints, letting me know that I wasn’t alone and that they would help me not to drift away until I had a chance to restore the link of faith.

My very last thought on this was that every time the string breaks and is retied, it gets shorter. The balloon moves a little closer to the ground, and I move a little closer to God.

 

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Purple is for Advent

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I had heard of Lent and giving up chocolate in the weeks before Easter, but it was a not entirely pleasant surprise to find out that Advent is also a time of self examination and penance when Catholics prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ.

The reformed church in which I grew up did not recognise Christmas as a religious festival. Some people did not celebrate Christmas at all, and others kept it as a purely commercial festival for the sake of the kids. Christmas for me was a time of quietly counting Christmas trees glimpsed through open curtains, delving into stockings, unwrapping presents from gaudy paper and over-indulging in food. Although I knew the story of Christ’s birth, I was more likely to hear it in July than at Christmas time.

The idea that the time leading up to Christmas is one of self-restraint as Catholics prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, came as a bit of a shock. I find it hard to reconcile what is going on inside and outside the church at this time of year.

Outside, shops are full of tinsel and bright Christmas displays. I brave packed department stores and queues at checkouts and leave with heavy bags and an empty feeling that I have somehow missed the point. Harried mothers exchange notes on how much shopping there is still left to do. I feel the burden of Christmas as an annual commercial ritual, which becomes more costly every year.

Inside, the church is quiet, waiting, the only decoration is the four candles in the Advent wreath. Extra time has been set aside for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The readings from the prophets talk about God’s mercy, a people being redeemed and returning from exile, streams flowing in the desert dryness. The cry of John the Baptist from the wilderness echoes down the years.

The priest wears purple, just as in Lent. I always thought that purple was a royal colour, a sign of wealth, more suited to celebration than penance. I wondered, why purple was used, and in the liturgical year book for England and Wales for 2013-2014, I found this beautiful explanation. For those who don’t know, as I didn’t until recently, a new liturgical year begins at the start of Advent.

The Year begins in darkness a deep purple darkness where we long for light and the bright shimmer of a star is a sign of hope and life. In the Liturgical Year, purple or violet is a colour of longing, renewal and expectation: in Advent and Lent, at funerals or in the Sacrament of Penance, purple should speak to us of that which we long and yearn for: like a deer longs for running streams, so we yearn for the living God to come to us, to heal us, to be with us. Our purple is a sign of all we long for: the presence of Christ, the washing clean of all sin, the resurrection of the dead.

Purple is also a sign of kingship and majesty the One who comes, the One who heals, the One who raises the dead is himself the King who reigns from the cross….The Church and the liturgy should be waiting not quite there yet, just around the corner….Advent is the unfilled glass polished and made ready speaking in its emptiness of what is to fill it.

 

Don’t go to church ….

… Until you find the church you can’t stay away from, and then keep going.

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I’m being deliberately provocative here, but that sentence sums up my own experience of churches. It didn’t make sense to go to church, until what was happening in the church began to make sense to me. I would be tempted to give this advice to people, except that I should be old enough to realise that giving advice and matchmaking are two things which it’s best not to meddle in. The last time I dared to try matchmaking resulted in two female targets furiously paddling away in their kayaks, while the male target enthusiastically paddled after them. Never again.

I took a scunner to churches. Scunner is a great Scots word, which means more than just taking a dislike to something. It brings with it a feeling that you have had too much of a thing and have taken a strong dislike to it. There’s also the sense of the kind of sicky dislike you get when you’ve gorged yourself on something, walnut whips, perhaps, or salt and vinegar crisps, and then can’t face ever eating that food again.

I was brought up in the Highland Presbyterian tradition. I’ve written a bit about my experiences in an earlier post. I was seeped and saturated in religious belief. We thought that our church was the only church which was still faithful to the principles of the New Testament church. We believed that people who attended other churches were at the very best second-class, lukewarm Christians and in the worse cases, they were not saved at all.

I thought that I had a strong faith. However, when I left home, the tensions between my traditional beliefs and my experience of life, particularly over the issue of Sunday observance, became so great that I felt I had stark choices:
1. I could become a hypocrite, pretending to believe, while quietly going my own way
2. I could stick to the church’s rules and risk losing my reason
3. I could jettison my beliefs.

In practice, I tried to reach a compromise, between option 1 and option 3. The beliefs with which I was brought up, had been strong and clear and uncompromising, with no questioning or debate allowed. I couldn’t question one part of my belief without the whole thing threatening to fall down. I felt like a tree which had been struck by the woodcutter’s axe, and which was leaning precariously to one side without actually falling.

I tried going to other churches, even though I was still cynically questioning faith and Christianity, but I found them to be too informal. I didn’t like the choruses they sang, because I was used to the psalms, and I positively cringed if the music was accompanied by a band. Most of the time, I mentally criticised these churches for being different from the traditional church in which I was brought up. Yes, I know, it wasn’t logical. I tried other churches, because I had rejected my own, and yet I wasn’t happy with any of the new experiences, because they were different from what I was used to.

Around this time, something happened which showed me how weak the foundations of my faith really were. It began innocuously enough, when I attended a discussion group on science and religion. At the end of six weeks of discussions, a small lady who wore a tartan skirt and a woollen jumper and a cross around her neck, announced that the Catholic chaplaincy was organising a retreat in daily life which was open to anyone, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. A few pennies dropped, and I realised that this lady, was actually a nun. If I had known that at the start, I would have been quite prejudiced against her, but since she had already made a good impression on me by her thoughtful contributions to the discussion, I decided that I would have to revise my opinion of nuns.

Since I was experiencing a lot of disquiet and turmoil about faith, the retreat in daily life sounded attractive. It lasted several weeks and involved setting aside time each day to meditate on Bible verses, as well as meeting with a spiritual advisor every week. A few group meetings were also held with the others taking part in the retreat. When I look back, it seems to be a bit of miracle that I decided to do this retreat, considering that I had been brought up to believe that Catholics weren’t even Christians. However, at the time, I experienced no struggle. I was willing to try anything which might help me make sense of things.

A kind but firm nun guided me on the retreat, and what came out of it was the humbling realisation that despite all my knowledge about Christianity and the Bible, I hadn’t really got anywhere spiritually. On the last day of the retreat, a candlelit service, with Bible readings and prayers, was held in the chapel. Each of the participants was asked to summarise in one word what they had learnt through the retreat. I knew clearly which word I had to use, but it cost me a lot to speak it in front of strangers in the half-lit silence of the church. My word was ‘Starting’, and by saying it aloud, I acknowledged that I was really only at the beginning of an uncharted journey. Up until this point, I had thought that I was so knowledgeable that I could have written the guidebook.

I look back and think, what would have happened if I could have started this journey then, but after the peace of the retreat, I returned to my old habits of cynicism, doubt and criticism. It didn’t even occur to me that the Catholic church, which had organised the retreat, might also help me on this spiritual path. I wonder why I wasn’t nudged in this direction, and the only answer I get is that God waits until we are ready to turn to Him, and I wasn’t ready then.

There is more to tell about my journey away from the church, but this post is already long enough and I’ll continue it in another one.

Did Jesus have brothers and sisters?

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Does it matter whether Jesus had brothers and sisters? I’m asking this question at the start of this article, because for a long time it seemed to me that it didn’t matter. Quibbling about whether Jesus had siblings seemed as irrelevant as arguing about whether other historical figures had brothers and sisters. Unless they played in an important role in the story of someone’s life, such as Cleopatra scandalising Rome by murdering her sister on a temple steps, what did it matter?

In several places, the New Testament refers to Jesus’ brothers or brothers and sisters. The theological argument seems to hinge around whether the Bible literally means Jesus’ siblings when it refers to his brothers and sisters, or whether it meant wider family connections. The other argument concerns the translation of Matthew 1:24 and 25. Protestant translations say that Joseph did not have relations with his wife until she gave birth to her son whilst the New Jerusalem Bible uses the word when. A lot hangs on one word.

I don’t know any ancient languages and so I couldn’t study the originals and make up my own mind. I had to trust the theologians, but which ones should I believe? Catholic doctrine rests on centuries of tradition, which is discounted by modern Protestants. Interestingly, however, the Protestant reformers, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, believed in the perpetual virginity of Jesus’ mother.

These things were going around in my head, and I decided to put myself in Joseph’s shoes. Imagine the following scenario.

You are a man living in a traditional society. You are engaged to be married to a young girl. She seems like the sort of person who will make you a good wife until you find out that she is expecting a baby. You feel deceived and disappointed, but rather than publicly shaming her, you decide to quietly end the engagement. Before you can do so, however, an angel visits you in a dream, and tells you not to end the relationship, because your fiancee hasn’t cheated on you. She is, in fact, carrying a child which she has conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Son of God himself.

You are profoundly affected by this experience. Instead of breaking up with your fiancee, you marry her, and provide her with a home, respectability and protection. Even though you both have to travel to a distant village for a census when she is heavily pregnant, you help her to find a safe place to give birth to the baby. You do all this, because you are a pious man and believe that you are following God’s will for your life.

After the child is born, what do you do? Do you demand marital relations with the woman who has borne the Son of God?

My gut reaction was, NO WAY!!!!! If I was in Joseph’s position, I would not dare. It would take a crass, unpious man to demand marital relations with a woman who has conceived a child by the Holy Spirit, and Joseph was neither of these things.

By thinking of it in this way, Mary remaining a virgin after giving birth to Jesus, seems like the only possibility.

To get back to the question, I asked at the beginning, does it matter whether Mary remained a virgin and whether Jesus had siblings? I think it does. By saying that Mary and Joseph had other children, the Protestant church puts an emphasis on Jesus’ humanity. Yes, Jesus was fully human, and it is very important to remember this. However, he was also fully divine. By losing him somewhere in a muddle of other children, we forget his divinity and the absolute uniqueness of his birth.

The Catholic teaching that Mary remained a virgin and had no other natural children, helps me to keep sight of the miraculous and extraordinary nature of Jesus birth. He was the only human child ever conceived by the Holy Spirit. He was God’s only Son, and his divinity shimmers out through his humanity in the story of his conception and birth.

I’ll give the last word to blog article on the perpetual virginity of Mary. It was written by Fr Longenecker, who was an evangelical before he became an Anglican priest. He is now a Catholic priest.