God’s mercy

I wrote this piece a while ago and didn’t post it. I’ve recently had another attack of what I call ‘bad image of God’ (usually accompanied by bad image of self). However, I’m recovering and am posting this in the hope that it might be helpful.

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An attack of ‘bad image of God’

The biggest struggle I have experienced in my journey to becoming Catholic has been trusting in God’s mercy. A diary entry written a few months after I was received into the church says:

I am nobody, nothing. God hates me. He’s hovering in heaven, ready to squish me, to make me suffer in the most excruciating way possible, both psychologically and physically. He wants me to hurt, is even now planning how to do it.

Maybe I should just give up, ask for oblivion. Even death won’t help. It will just give him the chance to inflict more and never-ending torment. I can’t escape. I would despair except that I have children. I have to try to love them, even though it’s imperfect. I’m never good enough. God is always angry with me. He doesn’t forgive. I don’t want to go near Him because He will push me away.

And yet, grumpy and moody as I am, I try to forgive my children.

At the time that I wrote these words, I absolutely believed them, although I also experienced moments when I experienced God’s love and mercy.

High pews and short legs

These feelings of mistrust in God’s mercy came from deep in my childhood. I sat on hard, scratchy cushions on a pew that was too high for my short legs and watched the preacher. His face was thrown into relief by the pulpit light so that it seemed to be full of clefts and hollows which changed as he moved. As he spoke about God’s judgement and hell and our own sin and unworthiness, his voice rose and fell and his face twisted with emotion.

When I was very young, all I thought about was getting through the long sermons. I swung my legs and wriggled and twisted and traced pictures in the patterns of the wooden shelf where we rested our Bibles and Psalm books. I ate the sweeties that my grandmother gave me, trying not to sook on them and just let them rest in my mouth. If I was careful, four sweeties would almost last me through an hour-long sermon.

At some point, I began to understand the preacher’s words. I realised that when he talked about sinners who were going to be lost in hell unless they threw themselves on God’s mercy, he was including me.

I did what the preacher told me to. I turned to God and asked Him to forgive my sins. It was logical. I didn’t want to go to the never-ending fire that the preacher described so graphically, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Double back flipping Calvinism

This decision brought me peace until I became a teenager and realised that it wasn’t as simple as that. God’s mercy wasn’t to be obtained by simply asking for it, not for a reformed Scottish Presbyterian. Many people in our church, including my own family, were double back flipping Calvinists (although I think that the theological term is double predestination).

They believed that God had decided before the start of time who would be saved and who wouldn’t. Therefore, it made no difference if we turned to God and asked for forgiveness. If God had decided that we were among the Elect, we would be saved and if we weren’t, then we would be damned regardless of how many times we petitioned God for mercy. In fact, it was sheer insolence to even ask for God’s mercy unless He first gave a sign that we were numbered among the Elect.

This was too much for me. I could ask God’s forgiveness, but could never be sure that I would ever receive it. Although I didn’t leave the church for several more years, my faith and trust were already damaged. My feelings of guilt and unworthiness grew until the only way I could cope was to leave the church in which I had grown up.

I tried different churches. However, I was dogged by the image of a God who would never love or forgive no matter how hard I tried to please him or how much I needed his help. I suffered from low self-esteem and depression. The only way to escape this bogey God who was always breathing disapproval down my neck was to turn my back on religion.

Believing in God’s mercy

It didn’t end there. Many years later I felt called to become Catholic. This brought me a lot of joy, but also the challenge of facing my own negative images of God.

During the first year or so after becoming Catholic, even the Sacrament of Reconciliation did not give me immediate relief from the feelings of guilt and mistrust in God’s mercy. Confessing to a priest was such a strange and unfamiliar thing. Perhaps that was the reason I didn’t experience the feelings of relief and lightness that other people reported. Often, however, I would feel that the burden of guilt and doubt had lifted a few hours or a few days later. On one beautiful occasion I stood in the sunlight in the church after confession and felt as if the doubt and guilt which was crushing me lifted in an instant, allowing the love of God to flow in.

The shock I felt after re-reading the diary entry above shows that God has made some progress with me, even if it seems to have been slow and imperceptible. Believing in God’s love and forgiveness is an ongoing challenge as the stresses and strains of life continually throw up new situations in which I have difficulty trusting Go

My other great challenge is to forgive. I will write more about that journey in the next post.

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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.

 

A confession about Confession

I gathered all my courage and went to first confession. I felt about as willing as a dog heading for a bath, but I fortified myself with the thought that in almost every Protestant to Catholic conversion story I had ever read, new converts testified to feeling a great sense of peace after confession.

A note to non-Catholic readers: we are given the opportunity, and even encouraged, to confess to a priest whom we don’t know so well, especially for first confession. I can’t express how relieved I was when I found this out.

Before we started, the priest who was going to be hear my confession tried to reassure me. He said that he had never taken part in the Sacrament of Confession, either as the one listening to confession or as the one confessing their sins, without having some sense that God was at work. This encouraged me a little, and I really hoped that he was right.

I went through my pathetic collection of sins, the ones committed long ago, which still bothered me, and the ones which are like persistent weeds in the garden, and keep coming back no matter how much you try to get rid of them. It isn’t easy to voice these things, and confession was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Before I went to confession, I worried that I would be set a time-consuming and difficult penance like visiting strangers in hospital or volunteering for a charity. However, I was simply given a prayer to say in the church afterwards. The priest pronounced absolution and that was it. I felt no relief or peace or sense of God’s presence. All I felt was an awful sense of my own sin and worry that I had made a total mess of confessing it.

Maybe this magic feeling of lightness and peace would only work after doing penance, and so I said my prayer, as fervently as I could, although I was burdened by a heavy sense of my own unworthiness and sinfulness. Afterwards I didn’t feel better. If anything, I felt worse.

I scuttled home feeling like a small, low creature which could do nothing good, and which should best stay out of everyone’s way. I am a mother, and so when I reached home, I just had to get on with what needed to be dealt with. However, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something had gone horribly wrong and that God was angry with me and wouldn’t forgive me.

When I got the chance, I thought back over what I had confessed and wondered if I had got it wrong. Maybe I should have tried to remember every single sin I had ever committed. However, that would have been impossible. Even if I had attempted it, the confession would have taken days. Father K had instructed me to pray for guidance, and to confess the things which bothered me, and that’s exactly what I had done.

I couldn’t understand why I felt so bad. The day before I made my first confession, I went to the church to pray. I was alone and yet not alone, as if there was an unseen presence which expected me there and welcomed me. I felt great peace. The next day, after making confession, I felt anything but peaceful. Something must have gone very badly wrong.

When I had time to indulge my feelings, I wept and read Psalm 51 in which David says, “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.” Sackcloth is hard to come by these days, but I did the next best thing and dressed in old clothes. I felt as if I was carrying an impossible burden, like dragging chains which were attached to great heavy lumps of stone so that I could hardly inch forward.

I was due to be received into the church in a few days time, but I decided I would probably have to cancel since I didn’t feel as if my sins were forgiven. However, I had already told lots of people, including my family who had taken the news better than I expected. I didn’t want to cancel, but I also didn’t want to commit a sacrilege by taking Communion unworthily. Maybe I could ask Father K about being received into the church without ever taking Communion. That seemed like a very good solution.

At this point the game was up. Attending church without ever taking Communion, where had I heard that before? I was behaving like the people in my Calvinist church and refusing to believe that God could forgive me. It took a lot of faith. If I believed Jesus’ teaching when he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” then I had to believe in God’s mercy in spite of my feelings that God hadn’t forgiven me.

By faith, I tried to put the miserable feelings of sinfulness and unworthiness aside, and believe in God’s forgiveness. The priest had heard the worst I had ever done, but instead of shouting and telling me that I was an awful person, he had shown compassion. My image of God was worse than the example of the priest who represented him. Clearly I had to challenge my own warped image of God and believe that the true God could show compassion and forgiveness.

Turning up at the church for my reception and confirmation was an act of faith. I told Father K that I had found confession very difficult. I said, “I’m not doing very well with sacraments. I’m not expecting to have feelings of peace and joy after today. I might still feel guilty and miserable.”

He replied, “If you don’t feel peace and joy after today, you can sue me.”

A week later, after I had been received into the church, I looked back on the confusing, painful experience of confession, and realised that it had been absolutely necessary, like painful but life-giving surgery. Without confession, I wouldn’t have realised that I still had deep-rooted unbelief in God’s love and forgiveness, and without a priest to listen to me, I wouldn’t have had an example of how God’s compassion works.

Any readers who’ve stuck with the last few posts will be pleased to know that that’s all I have to say on confession for the moment. Maybe I should have entitled this post, ‘A Calvinist goes to Confession and comes back a bit less of a Calvinist’. However, that would have been a bit long. Oh, and just for the record, I didn’t sue Father K.

A Calvinist prepares for confession

I’ll make no bones about it. Confession was probably the Catholic teaching with which I struggled the most. Again and again, I came back to the question, why not just confess my sins to God?

Two passages in the Bible challenged this view. One is the verse in James 5:16 ‘Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”

The other is the passage in John 20:23 where Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, ‘“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” The Catholics belief that this passage describes Jesus establishing the Sacrament of Confession.

In my first post on confession, I described how some of the things I had done in the past came back to bother me as I investigated Catholicism. They bothered me so much that I couldn’t wait for some future date when I might or might not become Catholic, and so I confessed them to God. I felt a great sense of peace afterwards, which would suggest that I had never actually confessed them to God before.

Now I know that Protestant readers are going to say, ‘Stop right there’. You confessed them to God and that’s enough. However, these things had come back to bother me in the context of investigating Catholicism. When I confessed them to God, I told Him that I wasn’t trying to bypass Confession. Therefore I think that the peace I felt would have been falsely won if I had dodged out of Confession.

I mentioned in the last post, that I was brought up in a Calvinist church where many people didn’t take Communion, because they didn’t believe that they are worthy. These people struggled to believe that God has forgiven them.

In one of my conversations about Confession, I blurted out, ‘There’s nothing you can do about Protestant guilt.’ I had a good think about what I had said, and realised that the church in which I grew up, provided no clear path for those burdened by guilt, to talk over the things which were bothering them and receive assurance that God can forgive. This may have happened in informal conversations between individuals and their minister. However, many people were waiting for God would to give them assurance that they were saved. They faithfully attended church and lived exemplary Christian lives without ever receiving Communion.

Some people in my Protestant church did put themselves forward for church membership and Communion. Perhaps they were troubled by a less sensitive conscience. Leaving it up to something as subjective and dependent on the individual and their circumstances as a feeling of assurance, doesn’t work. Some people will come to the conclusion that God has forgiven them and others will always doubt that they are forgiven.

These thoughts led me to the conclusion that some formal way of helping people deal with guilt was necessary and I accepted the idea of Confession. As I prepared for it, my biggest fear was that I would bare my soul, confess my sins and at that at the end the priest hearing my confession would say, “I’m sorry. One of these sins is just too bad and I amn’t allowed to absolve you.”

Father K told me that a priest could absolve almost any sin, including murder. However, he mentioned that one sin required permission from Rome, and I immediately started worrying that I had committed the one and only sin which parish priests weren’t allowed to absolve. This sin was so rare that Father K no longer had it on the tip of his tongue. He did some research and told me that a sin leading to ex-communication from the Catholic church was the only one parish priests couldn’t deal with. Obviously that didn’t apply to me, but I was still very nervous as I got ready to go to Confession. I’ll write one more post about Confession and I promise that that will be the last you’ll hear about it for a while.

Something beginning with ‘C’, and it isn’t a breakfast cereal

It’s time to tackle the ‘C’ word, and no, I’m not talking about Crispies or Cornflakes. I want to write about Confession. It’s a hard one to talk about. I’ve hung around Catholics for most of my adult life, and in all that time only one person has ever even mentioned confession.
When I started thinking about becoming Catholic, I saw confession as some sort of antiquated tradition, which most people ignored in practice, although kids were still required to confess the sweeties they stole before taking first communion.
As a Protestant, I thought that confession was one of these things which probably should have been turfed out at the Reformation, but which the Catholic church had stubbornly held onto. My problem was that if I wanted to become Catholic, I wasn’t allowed to take any special short cuts. Even though I was an adult, I would have to become like a little kiddie and go through this thing called confession. If I saw saints as an box ticking exercise, then I saw confession as a bit like seeing a doctor for an unpleasant and intrusive check-up, even though you feel perfectly well.
There were so many other things I liked about Catholicism, that I decided I was just going to have to grit my teeth and go through with it, and so I made an effort to try and find out more about confession. The first surprising fact which came up was that Martin Luther himself had recommended the practice of confession in the new church he was founding. The great Christian apologist and Anglican C. S. Lewis also practised confession regularly.
It was all very well for them to like confession, but why did I have to go? Couldn’t I just confess my sins to God? Father K’s answer was that most of us tend not to confess our sins to God. When I stopped and thought about it, he was right. I had often begged God to help me out of a difficult situation, but how often had I actually said I was sorry for the sin which had led to the mess?
Two strange things happened as I investigated Catholicism. Firstly, I began to be bothered by things which had happened years ago, and which I’d put behind me as ‘unwise choices’ or ‘mistakes’. At the time, I’d been aware that I was at best bending and sometimes breaking the rules, but, preoccupied with my own hurt, I hadn’t thought about how my actions had affected other people. I began to care about the hurt I had caused to others while only thinking about my own needs.
Secondly an accident occurred for which I was partly responsible. Someone suffered a painful and inconvenient injury, which fortunately was not serious. For quite a while, my apology was not accepted by one of the people involved. Around the same time, I became aware that a different person hadn’t forgiven me for something I had done many years before. These two situations weighed very heavily on me, and I began to feel that it would be a great relief to go to confession and hear someone pronouncing absolution. When one of these situations was resolved, the relief of being forgiven was absolutely incredible.
By the time I was preparing to make first confession, I had come to see it as something strange and frightening, but absolutely necessary. When I’m brave enough, I’ll write another post about how it went for me, but first of all I think I need to write about Calvinism.