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.   

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A convert visits Rome Part 2

A visit to Santa Maria d’ Antiqua

After visiting St. Peter, we’d had enough of churches. We decided to be pagans for the afternoon and visit the Roman Forum. I didn’t expect any easy answers to my doubts, and decided to just put them aside for a while.

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The shadows lengthened behind the broken columns in the Forum and we were almost ready to leave, when I noticed the entrance to a church at the bottom of the Palantine Hill. It was called Santa Maria d’Antiqua. It was built in the 6th century, and used until it was buried under rubble by an earthquake  in the 9th century. Hidden for more than a thousand years, it was re-discovered in 1900.

Although some of the wall frescoes had worn away in places, it was easy to imagine that almost every surface of this church had once been covered in paintings. Even after all these years, the colours were still bright and the style fresh and simple. There were paintings of the apostles, scenes from the Old Testament and the life of Jesus as well as the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Jesus. Some paintings depicted events from the lives of the saints and one showed several Popes, with a square rather than a round halo over the Pope who was alive at the time it was painted. On the floor lay the remains of an altar which had contained a recess for relics.

I left Santa Maria d’Antiqua quiet and humbled. This 6th century church contained everything which I had found objectionable in St Peter’s basilica: paintings and decoration, the Virgin Mary, saints, relics and even several Popes.

The destruction of images

If the Protestant narrative was right and the church had wandered away from its New Testament roots, then Jesus’ church hadn’t even lasted five centuries before going badly astray. I either had to accept this narrative, or accept the alternative that the 6th century Christians hadn’t fallen into grave error when they decorated their church with scenes from the Bible as well as pictures of saints and popes.

Other uncomfortable images sat in my mind as I turned over these thoughts. Earlier in our stay in Rome we came across an exhibition showing photographs of historical sites in the middle east before and after occupation by Islamic State. The earlier photos showed ancient temples and statues or the remains of old towns. More recent photos showed the same sites standing in ruins after being deliberately destroyed. The most disturbing photo showed a bearded young man, sane and respectable looking, at work systematically destroying an ancient statue.

As we left the exhibition, I expressed my indignation to my cradle Catholic husband. He was silent for a moment and then said, “You do realise that your Protestant ancestors did exactly the same thing to Catholic churches.”

He was right. In Scotland, very few ancient churches escaped the ravages of the Reformation. Man places such as Arbroath Abbey and St Andrews Cathedral are now just broken walls with grass growing in the interior. I have stood inside the ruins and wistfully wondered what they looked like, before the angry young men, who were Scotland’s Reformers, smashed statues and altars, tore down the roof and encouraged the local population to use the walls as a source of building materials.

Perhaps Scotland’s churches were once as richly decorated as the churches in Rome.

Does God like bling?

If I am going to accept that the people who decorated the 6th century church in Santa Maria d’Antiqua were trying to give glory to God in the best way they knew, then I also have to accept the more modern Roman churches crammed with religious imagery.

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The Virgin Mary and child – Santa Maria d’Antiqua

I prefer the Byzantine art, with its flat faces and bright simple colours, to the paintings of more recent centuries. However, this is simply a matter of taste. Both ancient and more modern churches depicted the same kind of subject matter. My own taste may run towards the very simple, but I also have to admit that the plain little chapel I imagined after my visit to St Peter’s Basilica, looked very like the church in which I was brought up.

The conclusion I have reluctantly reached is that God does like bling. Or perhaps it isn’t so much that He likes bling, as that He understands our need for images and symbols. He also understands our need to seek Him through music, or words or paintings. Even these blog entries are a result of my own fumbling attempts to seek God through trying to express my thoughts.

In a time when very few people could read, paintings were an important way for them to learn about faith. Some of these paintings and images might be more to my taste than others, but they all represent a turning towards God, a seeking. No-one can possess God or know God fully in this life, and paintings, imperfect as they are, point to the Divine.

The visit to Rome was challenging. I may never be entirely comfortable in richly decorated churches. However, whenever I question whether God can also be there, I will remember the visit to Santa Maria d’Antiqua.

A convert visits Rome. Part 1

Before I became Catholic Rome was probably bottom of my list of European cities which I wanted to visit, but things change and I found myself wanting to visit Rome, and then making the opportunity to do so.

I went loaded with expectations. Surely I would feel something profound when I visited the church built on the site of St Peter’s martyrdom. I liked the boldness of going to Rome, and hoped to integrate myself better into this strange thing called the Catholic church. I also hoped for peace and some of these quiet moments when I would feel, just for an instant, the touch of God.

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Trevi Fountain

 

I loved Rome: the coffee, the food, the piazzas and fountains, the narrow alleys with antique shops, and the colourful streets in Trastevere, The visit was rich in experience. However, as far as religion went, I found turbulence and challenge.

On the first evening in Rome, when it was almost dark outside, we wandered into a church near the Trevi fountain. In contrast to the brightly-lit white marble fountain, the church was like a dark tent of deep red and blue, lit by candles and a few electric lights. The richly-decorated side chapels receded into darkness. A mass was underway and near the front of the church, women in dark clothes, some wearing mantillas, recited responses in Italian. Nothing looked or sounded familiar. I had the feeling that I had stumbled upon the rituals of a totally foreign religion.

Even when I visited churches in the daytime, I was overwhelmed by the amount of religious imagery: scenes from the Bible, saints, martyrdoms, or simply decoration covering every available surface.

I was brought up in an ultra-reformed branch of the church. No religious image or symbol was permitted either in the church or in our home. I remember being punished for decorating my Bible with a cross. Given my background, it probably isn’t surprising that all this religious imagery was a real challenge.

A visit to St Peter’s

St. Peter’s, from which I had hoped so much, was too much for me. With the long nave, huge marble columns, more than life-size figures of past Popes and the large, ugly canopy over the main altar, it felt large and draughty and masculine. I stared into the side chapels and found one containing, quite incredibly, relics from the 4th century saint St John Chrysostom. I stared at the painted cupula above, trying to make sense of things, when someone pushed my arm. All they wanted to do was ask if I would take a photo, but I was feeling so confused and overwhelmed that this small nudge pushed me to tears. Fortunately, my husband was on hand to take the photo and exchange small talk.

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I went into a side chapel set aside for prayer and adoration. However, it was covered in so much gold paint and decoration that I felt as if I was inside a jewelled box. Even though I was surrounded by people kneeling in prayer, I had no sense that God was there. I asked God where He was in all of this, but the only thing I took away was a question, “Does God really like all this bling?”

A challenge to faith

I left St. Peter’s with some very uncomfortable questions. Why all these paintings and opulence? Why memorials to saints and past Popes? Why this devotion to saints and relics, and since I was questioning other things, I might as well ask whether the church needed devotion to the Virgin Mary? I yearned for a tiny chapel with white-washed walls, which was totally free of images, and wondered why the Catholic church couldn’t adopt this plan for its interior decoration.

The narrative I’d learnt as a Protestant went something like this: when Jesus founded the church, it was pure and simple and good. However, somewhere along the way (although it wasn’t quite defined when), the church acquired unnecessary and even idolatrous practices, such as confession and praying to the saints and the Virgin Mary. The Reformation came and allowed Christians to return to the simple pure form of worship which had existed in the early church.

After visiting St. Peter’s, I felt the attraction and the persuasiveness of this argument. Perhaps the Catholic church had drifted far away from what Christ intended. Maybe I had made a huge error joining it.

To stop this post becoming too long. I’ll describe in the next one how I received answers to these questions.

Purple is for Advent

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I’m reblogging this post from the first Advent after I became Catholic. Although I didn’t admit it at the time, I wrote this piece just after making the embarrassing mistake of picking up the wrong colour of Mass book. I didn’t realise that New Year and a new mass book begins at the start of Advent. The post still reflects what I’m trying to understand about Advent. I’ll put up another one with new thoughts in the next week or so.

When I became Catholic, I had heard of Lent and giving up chocolate in the weeks before Easter. 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.

Sent into exile

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This is definitely the last post I’m going to write about how I left the church. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 are here. The phase of my life when I was trying out different churches ended quite abruptly and not entirely by my choice.

I met no lack of people who were eager to tell me about the churches they attended. Several people recommended a church in central London, and I eventually decided to try it out. On the day I visited, the sun was shining. Young people were approaching it from all directions. I felt hopeful. Perhaps I would find some peace here.

From the moment, I came in sight of the church, however, I felt a force pushing me back. It was like walking into a strong wind, except that the air was still. Determined to go on, and either ‘find God’ or prove that he wasn’t to be found, I pushed on. The force seemed to get stronger, the closer I got to the church. When I reached the church steps, it suddenly stopped.

I sat down in an empty pew at the back of the church, and became annoyed when a youngish man with greasy hair took the seat next to me. I cynically noted that the singing was led by an attractive, willowy blonde. When the pastor asked the congregation to make the sign of peace, the man beside me would not let go of my hand and began to chat me up. I decided that the only way to avoid him was to run out of the church..

It was the first time I had ever left a church in the middle of a service. I felt as if God had decided to send me into exile. From that day on, with very few exceptions, the only time I darkened the door of a church was when I attended a wedding or a funeral.

Looking back

I don’t want to make the narrative of this story that I never fitted into Protestant churches, because they were no good, and that if I had only started going to a Catholic church earlier, I would have been okay. I had, at times, a pretty appalling attitude when I attended church, and so it wasn’t surprising that I didn’t get much out of the experience. However, I think that the main reason I never found what I was looking for, was that I simply wasn’t ready. I had too negative an image of God and too many difficult experiences to get over. I simply couldn’t, at that stage in my life, really believe in God’s mercy.

These four posts about leaving the church have been difficult to write, but I wanted to show that I didn’t go from being a nice, devoted Protestant girl to switching my allegiance to becoming Catholic. I was a hard nut to crack. I viewed church-going as being as destructive and harmful a habit as smoking. I avoided events in church halls out of fear that someone would use the opportunity to proselyetise.

God used suffering to bring me back to the church. However, I can’t really explain what has happened, except that it’s some kind of miracle. Going to church doesn’t make sense until you start to see the sense in it. On the surface, churches don’t have a huge entertainment value. There may only be a few people gathered there (try going to a weekday mass in a small town), the responses might be lost in an unclear mumble, or the voices singing the hymns may be weak and wandering out of tune.

The miracle occurs within. I can’t explain the universe of feeling contained within the chant of the Kyrie Eleison, the only part of the liturgy still in the Greek language used by the early Church. Nor can I explain the longing I feel for the Eucharist and why a sliver of wafer and a sip of wine can make me feel as if I have attended a feast fit for a King.

I started this series of posts with a provocative statement: Don’t go to church until you find the church you can’t stay away from, and then keep going. Sometimes I start to forget this new way of seeing things and am tempted to think I’m too busy to go to church. Often it’s on these days, when I feel that I’m managing quite fine on my own, thank you very much, but still keep going,  that God has the most to say to me.

I took a scunner to churches

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I took a scunner to churches, (for a full definition of scunner, see previous post) but before I gave up on organised religion, I visited a lot of different ones.

I moved to London, where there were churches aplenty, and became angrily determined to try as many churches as possible until I either found the right one, which would make Christianity click into place, or bitterly declared that I had tried everything, and that there was absolutely nothing in this religion business.

My attitude to finding the ‘right church’, was as immature as my hope that I would find my one True Love who would swing me onto his horse, metaphorically-speaking, of course, before we galloped off to the happily ever-after. I longed for something I called God, to fill in the cracks and inadequacies in my life. I went to church looking for nice feelings, but I wasn’t spiritually mature enough to realise that faith isn’t just about feelings. Genuine faith means going on, even when you feel desperately alone, in the belief that God is still there.I wasn’t yet ready to realise that God isn’t like a dose of paracetamol or a swig of alcohol, taken to lessen pain or provide a brief high.

When I went to churches, I took with me a wistful longing, but it was wrapped deep in my cynical, critical attitudes. I didn’t go to church with the kind of humble, receptive frame of mind which is required in order to get something out of it.

One example sticks out. I usually tried to slip out without speaking to anyone, but when I visited a church in the States, I was caught at the top of the steps by a beaming man who asked me how I had enjoyed the church service.

I coldly informed him that I had not enjoyed the choruses or the band, because my church permitted us to sing nothing but the Psalms of David without musical accompaniment.

I cringe inwardly as I remember the way his smile collapsed into a look of bewilderment. Before he could recover, I swept down the steps with all the haughtiness of a nineteenth century debutante practising for her presentation to the Queen.

With attitudes like these, it’s not surprising that I got very little out of trying different churches. Sometimes, however, things did penetrate my hard carapace. I remember attending a charismatic church with a friend who was concerned about me. Afterwards we talked for a while with an older person in the church, and I trusted him with parts of my story.

What he said about God’s love cut through all my defences. I realised that although I gave intellectual assent to what the Bible said about God’s love, the words were actually devoid of meaning. My deity placed impossible demands on me and called it love. The gulf between my idea of God’s love and what love should actually be, was impassable and unbridgeable. I didn’t know how I would ever manage to trust God.

In the next post, I’ll continue the story of how I finally stopped going to church.

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.