Good Friday

Why is the day marking Christ’s death called Good Friday? What is Good about someone suffering a horrific death? Are we meant to be good on Good Friday? Or are we meant to think of God’s goodness in giving us His son. Is it because death was necessary in order to reach the greater good of the resurrection? When I was Protestant or agnostic, Good Friday, simply meant, ‘Great, a day off.’

My train of thought was started by the realisation that today is simply Dihaoine na Ceusta in Gaelic (Friday of the cross), which just tells us what actually happens. This is another example of language throwing a different perspective on things.

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I’m also thinking about how the joy of the resurrection makes no sense without the sorrow of the cross. At the same time, the cross is just a meaningless loss without the resurrection. I’ve reflected before on how the emptiness of the church on Good Friday has helped me to recognise the presence of Christ at other times.

We’ve had a very difficult year, perhaps the hardest of our lives. As I look forward, sometimes I just anticipate more suffering. To be honest, I often just want to curl up in a corner and not even try, because living is so darn hard.

When I was thinking about Gethsemane and Jesus anticipating his suffering and death, I wondered if he only saw suffering, or if he also looked forward to joy. Perhaps he didn’t know exactly what God was going to do. Maybe he didn’t know that after his body was broken, it would be raised to life. However, I think he knew and trusted that God would bring good out of his suffering.

That’s the challenge for me right now: to look ahead in the hope that God will give us strength and also to trust that God knows what He’s about.

Sally Read’s poems

I want to share two things. First of all, I’m sharing a link to Sally Read’s website on which she has a poem about the crucifixion. Sally is a Catholic convert and I really enjoyed reading her book Night’s Bright Darkness, an honest account of her conversion.

A short piece on Easter

Secondly, here is a short reflection on my different experiences of Easter:

We don’t do Easter in our church, but the minister tells us about Christ’s agony on the cross. I feel sad, because it’s my fault Christ had to die, and the nails must have hurt a lot.

Mrs Higgins tells us the Easter story at school. I draw a picture of the stone rolled away from the tomb, but I can’t see Jesus.

I attend a different church when I go to university. My friend’s plump cheeks glow with joy on Easter Sunday as she sings about being saved. I feel angry. What right have these people to be so happy? We could never be sure God would save us.

I’ve stopped doing church altogether by the time I spend Easter in Spain. On Good Friday, I wake in the night, and see men walking down the street in silence, bowed down by the weight of chains. I think of my childhood, dragging the weight and guilt of my sins without hope of relief.

Many years pass. Easter is marked as no more than a holiday, a few days of freedom. I begin to let go of the guilt and pain. Perhaps, just perhaps, God created me for joy.

My faith is no bigger than a grain of mustard seed when I begin attending Mass with my husband. I’m taken aback by Easter. I see the joy of the resurrection in the faces around me, feel it in the water splashed on my cheeks, smell it in the incense, and hear it as we once again sing, ‘Glory to God in the Highest, And on earth peace to people of good will’. I don’t yet taste it.

Over the next few years, I learn the rhythms of the church: forty days of fasting and prayer, the solemnity of Holy Week. On Good Friday, I find the tabernacle open, the statues hidden in purple drapes. Jesus is dead and in his tomb. I weep in the empty church, feeling as if I have lost a loved one.

Easter comes, but it feels as if Lent continues. My daughter is ill and her condition worsening. As I kneel in church early on Sunday, I don’t look for Easter joy. How can it come this year? Something catches at my heart, opens it a chink and God’s love floods in. Later, we drive up the mountainside and take a hike. My daughter has a few hours reprieve, and Easter Sunday feels like a taste of heaven.

My daughter’s condition worsens. She spends most of the summer in hospital, and things slowly turn around. I learn a new rhythm in the hopes and disappointments of caring for someone with a long-term health condition. In each small sacrifice, I share in Christ’s death, and in her tiny steps towards recovery, I see signs of resurrection.

I am learning that Easter is present every day, in suffering and joy, in the death of self and worn out dreams, and in the slow turning of my soul to God.

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Plunged into the night

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I’ve taken the title of this post from a quote by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, from his book “Between man and man”. I wrote it down many years ago when I was questioning the strict religious faith in which I had been brought up.

In the signs of life which happen to us we are addressed. Who speaks?

It would not avail us to give for reply the word “god” if we did not give it out of that decisive hour of personal existence when we had to forget everything we imagined we knew of god, when we dared to keep nothing handed down or learned or self-contrived, no shred of knowledge and we were plunged into the night.

When I left home to go to university, I questioned everything and dared to keep nothing. As I danced to R.E.M.’s song ‘Losing my religion’, I thought, that’s me (yes, I know that’s not what it’s about). All the certainties of the religion I was brought up with where slipping away like sand through my fingers.

The other song which spoke to me was ‘Every River’ by the Scottish band Runrig:

You ask me to believe in magic
Expect me to commit suicide of the heart
And you ask me to play this game without question
Raising the stakes on this shotgun roulette

The church demanded unquestioning belief and I couldn’t do that. It was like trying to believe in magic. If I had forced myself to suppress my doubts and questions, I would have killed a part of myself.

I lost my faith, not for an hour or days, but years. I’ve described some of that process in these four posts: Don’t go to church …, I took a scunner to churches, Do we need to be born again? Sent into Exile.

Even though I had no religious faith, Martin’s Buber’s words held out the possibility that one day I, too, would be able to answer, god, to the questions of life.

‘God of Surprises’ by the Jesuit priest Gerard W. Hughes also gave hope that I could eventually go beyond the questions and doubts without reverting to unquestioning belief. He devotes a chapter to discussing the stages of religious development: infancy, adolescence and maturity, and argues that all are necessary.

In the stage of infancy, our senses are involved: smell, sight, sound, taste, feeling, and this is also important in worship. When we are children, we like clear rules and boundaries. We aren’t able to understand grey areas and complex issues. Rules and clear teaching are also necessary in faith, but there is a danger that we may get stuck there. When this happens, our religion can become separated from our experience of life.

In order to integrate religion with our life experience and reach a holistic understanding, we need to question. This is the adolescent or critical phase of religious development. Hughes writes that God is present in all things and that there is no issue, however complex, which falls outside the scope of religious inquiry.

He warns that when a church doesn’t allow questioning and exploration, ‘There will be a disharmony between the teaching of the Church and our everyday life, and the teaching presented will split off and become a part of our consciousness which has nothing to do with the rest of our human experience. A church isolated from our human experience can only survive as long as it can succeed in forbidding its adherents to ask questions and think for themselves.’

These words summarise my experience of church as a child and adolescent. My questions could not be contained within the church setting, and as a consequence, I left.

I still believed that there was a God, but I rejected Christianity with a bitterness which was related to the way my questions had been suppressed. Sometimes I even longed for God, but I knew that I could not go beyond this stage by myself. Moving on required some kind of grace.

Gerard Hughes describes the third stage in religious development as the mystical element, where we encounter God not through external rules or intellectual reasoning, but through our inner thoughts and feelings. He emphasises that elements of all three stages are crucial for religious maturity.

I became caught in the adolescent or critical stage for many years. I would have described myself as an agnostic who leant towards a belief in God. I didn’t make much of an effort to move beyond this stage. Sometimes, it takes crisis for us to turn back to God and try prayer again.

How I changed from criticising and kicking back against religion to being to turn to God is a mystery, a matter of grace. If I go back to Runrig’s song ‘Every River’, the next verse says:

But you came to me like the ways of children
Simple as breathing, easy as air
Now the years hold no fears, like the wind they pass over
Loved, forgiven, washed, saved

It speaks of the mystery of faith: going through questioning to a child’s trust with an adult’s understanding.

PS – I had a pretty difficult week, but managed to look at some other blogs and am going to try to keep on reading other peoples’ stories.

God takes all

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It’s close to Christmas and the anniversary of my reception into the Catholic church has come around.

I was sitting in church after Mass thinking back over the last few years, when the phrase came to me, ‘God takes all.’ I couldn’t get it out of my head all day and a few minutes ago, I realised that this is the title of this post although I will have to write it to find out why.

God’s presence

From the moment that I felt a call to become Catholic, I felt an almost miraculous sense of God’s presence. It wasn’t up there or down there or just at my side or behind my neck; it was everywhere. Like a fish becoming aware that it swims, dives and floats in a medium called water, I became aware that I existed in the presence of God.

I began to understand the phrase in the Mass, “Through Him and with Him and in Him.” He was St. Patrick’s breastplate:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

It was a time of miracles: moving consciously in and with and through Him, sensing the Communion of Saints during the feast of St Peter and St Paul, glimpsing a man in white robes walking up the side aisle during Mass.

Just over three years ago, when I was still trying to decide if I could make the leap and become Catholic, the sense of God’s presence left me. I was a simple fish again, moving through the day, feeling the aloneness of my little body, and wondering if I had really remembered this thing called water.

Loss

God took away the sense of His presence and it was from that point of loss and confusion that I decided to become Catholic. I realised that I couldn’t just do it for the nice feelings. I also knew that I couldn’t become Catholic and take the Eucharist unless I was willing to let God be in charge.

However, I wanted to keep a lot of things to myself. My prayers went something like this: ‘Do what you like with me as long as you don’t touch my kids. And by the way, I will find it very difficult to hand over X, Y and Z.” In the end, I felt that I didn’t have the guts to hand myself over to God. The best I could manage was, ‘I can’t do this, but I want to be able to do it.’

On the anniversary of my reception into the church, I stayed in the church on my own after Mass and thought back over the time since I became Catholic. The last year has been incredibly challenging as we gradually realised that one of our children has a serious, chronic illness. From this perspective, all the things which I thought were vital to my sense of self –  reputation, success in work, creativity – don’t seem to matter anymore.

I was feeling utterly exhausted by another round in the battle with this seemingly intransigent illness, empty and drained of all confidence, creativity and energy. In every area of my life – motherhood, work, interests, marriage – I have been weighed and found wanting. That’s when the thought popped into my head, ‘God takes all.’ I am still puzzling over what that means.

Abandoning myself to God

During that moment in the church, I realised the extent of my helplessness and impotence. I was trying to say, ‘Over to You, because I’ve just about reached the end of the line.’

In my distress, I was able to do what I can only pray to be able to do in easier times, and that is, abandon myself to God. It’s such a strange thing to say. Abandonment is a word I associate with babies being left in cardboard boxes or dogs being left behind when their owners move house. It speaks of giving up on something or someone, not being able to put any more effort into it.

Maybe abandonment is the right word. At times, I feel that I can’t do any more on my own. All I can do is abandon the expectation that I can’t make things right and sort things out, and hand the situation over to God.

God gives all

Has God taken all? Of course not. God gives all. I breathe, we have food to eat and a roof over our heads, but my current difficulties have allowed me to glimpse my utter dependence on God. I am beginning to understand the opening lines of the Magnificat which Mary sang during her Advent:

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid

I’ve underlined the word lowliness which I’ve also seen translated as nothingness.

The hard bit is to take the next step from realising my nothingness, let go of my pain and cynicism and despair and believe that in God’s hands miracles not only can happen, but always will happen, even if it isn’t the obvious miracle of physical healing.

Reconciliation

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

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I am a Catholic Presbyterian or a Presbyterian Catholic. I’m not sure which. In any case, I will never cease to be what I started out as.

Where I started out

The culture and religion of my childhood was rooted in Highland Presbyterian tradition. We were in the world, but not of it. We dug our feet into the ground and stubbornly resisted the flow of wider culture.

I wore a long dress or a skirt to church and always covered my head with a hat or an ugly grey beret. I was encouraged to find fulfilment in marriage and childbearing rather than a career. Listening to modern music was forbidden. I wasn’t allowed to take part in school dances, not even Scottish ceilidh dancing. On the Sabbath Day, I was not allowed to do or even talk about anything which wasn’t either absolutely necessary or connected in some way with God and religion.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water

When I went to university, the gap between what everyone else, even other Christians, was doing, and what I was supposed to do, became unbearable. I kicked against the traces and got out. However, once you throw out some of your upbringing, it’s very difficult to keep your orientation. Without a guide light, how can you pick and choose your values? If you reject some of them, why not throw them all away? In many ways, I threw the baby out with the bathwater.

A Catholic or a Presbyterian?

When I first thought about becoming Catholic, I thought that I could draw a line under my previous church tradition and put it quite firmly in the past. I wanted to emphasise the differentness of being Catholic as opposed to being Presbyterian. I thought that I would gradually become more and more Catholic until all the Presbyterian was squeezed out of me.

That’s not how it works. God wants us to be whole. He doesn’t want divisions, even within our own lives between what we were and what we are now. In some mysterious way, God, through Christ, can take the pain of the past and not only heal but transform it.

Fr. Michael Seed is a Franciscan Friar who is a convert to Catholicism. In the publication, “Thinking of becoming a Catholic?”, he writes about converts:

They are now members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And they continue with their communion with whatever they were formerly.

They don’t cease to be Anglicans or Methodists or Quakers. I have never ceased, ever, to be a member of the Salvation Army or a Strict and Particular Baptist. …They are all beautiful signs of God’s grace. Catholicism embraces all the previous states of your life.

How is that possible? Because Jesus founded only one Church. … In the ceremony of reception you embrace in a unique way every denomination, because Christ is present, in some way, in all denominations.

Reconciliation

Reconciliation goes further than forgiveness. With forgiveness, you let go of something which has wounded you, and free yourself and others to move on. However, the past may still be a painful place which you try to forget.

Reconciliation transforms the past. It twines loose ends together and tucks them in so that what didn’t at the time seem like the right thing or enough becomes exactly what it was meant to be.

C.S. Lewis wrote ‘The Great Divorce’ which refers to the great divorce between Heaven and Hell. In a vivid dream, the narrator visits a dull, grey place where nothing is of good quality, no-one is happy and people argue with their neighbours and move further and further apart. They are offered the chance to take a bus trip to Heaven. Although heaven is beautiful, the reality of it is so painful that many choose to leave on the return bus.

At the end of ‘The Great Divorce’, the narrator has a vision in which he looks back at his life, and understands that if he turns towards God, even the most painful things he has gone through on earth will be transformed and become a part of his experience of Heaven. Conversely, if he turns away from God, misery and resentment will eat backwards through memories of his life on earth, contaminating even pleasures and moments of happiness.

Since becoming Catholic, there have been brief moments when I have almost understood what C.S Lewis meant. Rather than nursing my wounds, I have experienced total acceptance of the past and gratitude for what has been and what is.

That is a grace which only God can give. In the next post, I will write about a few of the things in the Presbyterian church which prepared me to become Catholic.

God’s mercy

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

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An attack of ‘bad image of God’

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

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

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

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

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

High pews and short legs

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

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

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

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

Double back flipping Calvinism

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

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

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

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

Believing in God’s mercy

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

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

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

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

Similarities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why not differences?

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

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

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

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

Reading on a little , I found the following:

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

A new conversion story

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‘Night’s Bright Darkness’ is the story of the poet Sally Read’s conversion from atheism to Catholicism in nine brief months. It opens with a description of Sally as a young student nurse laying out a body for the first time. She doesn’t spare the reader the practical details of handling a dead body. When she had finished, the Irish nurse who was instructing her told her to open the window “to let his soul fly”. However, Sally was an atheist and the idea of the soul seemed like an anachronism.

Her life was not without compassion. She trained to become a psychiatric nurse in order to help the weak and vulnerable. She sought for some spark of personality left in patients whose minds had gone, leaving behind the living husk of the body. When her father died, she didn’t allow herself any delusions. She remained firm in her belief that there was no transcendent being, and that all that was left of her father was his ashes. During this difficult period, her atheist convictions almost pushed her into the void. She describes sitting down one day and saying, “This is hell.”

God did not step in at that point. However, he caught up with her years later when she was living in Italy with her husband and small daughter. Research for a book she was working on, brought her into contact with a priest. ‘Night’s Bright Darkness’ tells the story of how from that small opening her life and convictions were turned upside down.

Some things I like about this book

‘Night’s Bright Darkness’ is not always a comfortable or an easy read, but it is a beautiful book. True to her poetic calling, Sally Read doesn’t waste words. Each passage counts. She gives vivid, succinct descriptions of her life in London and Italy. The story is fast-paced as the fire of her conversion rapidly burns through her previous liberal and atheist beliefs.

At times she grapples with describing experiences which go beyond the logic of the five senses. She describes grace “as if I had been blindly rifling a thick black backdrop before I unexpectedly put a hand through where the two halves of the fabric met.”

The book is not written in strict chronological order. The author has divided it into chapters on the Father, the Spirit, the Son, the Church, the Mother and the Mystery. Each contains relevant reflections on her life before and after she became Catholic. She mentions things which I recognise from my own journey towards the church, but hadn’t really thought about. Writing about her first confession, she says, “The Catholic Church, which I had always seen as wrapped in barbed wire and brambles, was as yielding, accommodating and non-judgemental as a mother.”

Sally Read does not shy away from describing the painful adjustments her family had to make in order to accept not just her new faith, but the fact that she had also changed as a person. I appreciate her frankness in writing about things which are probably experienced by many converts. Conversion affected all of my relationships, and it took some time before I and the others in my life could accept these changes.

This book fills a gap

My own conversion was like a deep, strong current pulling me seemingly unstoppably to a place I had just about sworn I would never go. During this period, I trawled the internet devouring conversion stories in the hope that they would help me understand what was happening.

Most of the stories I found were written by North Americans. Almost all of them described the painful process by which Evangelical Protestants question their church and eventually, despite all their initial objections, turn to the Catholic church for answers. These stories were important. They helped me to understand and answer the questions I had about Catholic faith as someone coming from a Protestant background.

However, I longed to find a conversion story from a culture closer to my own. I also carried the burden of turning away from the church, mocking belief and wanting nothing to do with organised religion.

None of the conversion stories I read during this period described the process of going from almost hating churches to a deep hunger for the Eucharist. However, ‘Night’s Bright Darkness’ fills this gap. It describes how God can turn a life in a completely different direction and replace atheism with the peace of his presence.

It’s important to record these mysteries because the fire of conversion eventually cools. Sally Read says, “We have to remember…, because these feelings, so right and pure, get muddled and muddied in the daily tramp of life and all its obligations. History disappears down the long line of dates; the supernatural recedes into some distant sky.” I appreciate this story, because at a time of doubt and darkness, it has helped me to remember the sure sense of God’s presence which drew me into the church.

Towards the end of the book, Sally Read describes her struggles to bear witness to her faith as a mother, as a writer and translator, as a parishioner organising adoration, and as someone whose love for her faith spills over into conversations. As she says in the last paragraph, this is an unfinished story about an ongoing journey. She writes with insight, honesty and passion, and I hope that she will share more in future books.

A sense of peace

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Peace comes up many times in the Mass, from the opening line of the Gloria, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will”, to the priest’s words just before the sign of peace, “May the peace of God be with you always”, and the peoples’ reply, “And with your spirit”, and to the prayer just before communion, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Grant us peace.”

Right at the very end, we are sent away with the words, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”

Consolation

A number of years ago, the illness of a close family member caused me great anxiety, and my search for some way of dealing with this pain, brought me into the Catholic church.

At the time, I probably didn’t realise that I was searching for peace. The thought uppermost in my mind was that if I prayed, perhaps, against the odds, my loved one might make a recovery. I had no intention of ever becoming Catholic, but I remember more than once crying all the way through the Eucharistic prayer. Even then I sensed that this was a place and a time when I could hand my burden over to God.

Nothing got better right away, but I found that when I went to Mass, I left with the feeling that I was more able to carry what had seemed too heavy for me to bear. Over time, I began to experience what might be called consolations, glimmers of light when I felt faith rather than just forcing myself to have it because I had run out of alternatives.

Something quite incredible happened. One day I felt that I was being asked to become Catholic. From that moment onwards, I experienced an incredible sense of peace and of God’s presence. It was like living my life with beautiful music playing in the background. All I had to do was be still in order to feel the presence of God.

It is impossible for me now, looking back, to remember exactly what this felt like. It was something I hadn’t experienced before, and I thought it would last forever. I could hardly wait to be received into the church, because I thought that I would be bourn along for the rest of my life on a wave of joy and peace. How wrong I was.

Into the Corryvreckan

The sense of peace and of God’s presence left me quite abruptly. I felt confused and distressed and alone. As I said to our parish priest, I wasn’t just all at sea; I was in the Corryvreckan (a stretch of sea off the Scottish island of Jura where the water can become a turbulent whirlpool depending on the tide).

I felt let down and abandoned. Yet a strong, sure current, under the surface turbulence, still pulled me on. I knew what I had to do. In the middle of these feelings of confusion and desolation, I made the decision to become Catholic.

I still hoped, of course, for consolation, and it was very painful to realise that entering the church didn’t bring back the sense of God’s presence, and that I still had to deal with doubt. Later I read St Therese’s ‘Story of a Soul’, where she describes how the sense of God’s presence left her, plunging her into a spiritual dryness. This continued until moments before her death. Mother Teresa, who recently became a saint for her work with the poor in Calcutta, experienced decades of spiritual darkness and dryness.

I eventually stopped looking for consolation. Basing faith around longed-for moments of joy and peace, was like being a spoilt child who holds out for sweeties. Accepting the doubt and the dryness has made it easier to bear.

God’s presence in the moment

The easy sense of God’s presence has never returned. However, something quite different has happened. Through acceptance, I have experienced moments of intense gratitude for what is, moments when I don’t fret about the future or regret the past. This has brought me to a different kind of awareness of God, perhaps tiny glimpses of what Eckhart Tolle writes about in ‘The Power of Now’, when he describes resting in the presence of God by living in the present moment.

At the start of this journey, I thought that God’s presence was just for me, wafts of peace and joy to insulate me from the pains of life. However, I am discovering that God’s peace brings a kind of restlessness. When I begin to feel gratitude for what I have, that makes room for an awareness of those who have much less. I am brought back round to the last words of the Mass, the words I used to dread, because it meant the end of a little pocket of peace, and a return to the daily difficulties of life: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”

I am not sure how this last bit will work out in my life. I wrote this post a few weeks ago, and didn’t have time to post it because I started a challenging new job which has brought quite a bit of un-peace. I would appreciate prayers. Thank you.