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.

It’s a mess!

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Messy room

It started with a hairline crack near the door, just a split in the wallpaper, but underneath I felt loose plaster. When we moved into the house I had painted over three (yes, three) different patterns of wallpaper to brighten up the small room, but I wouldn’t get away with a quick lick of paint this time.

For a long time, I tried to ignore the grubby marks and the widening cracks on the wall. Recently I gathered my courage, borrowed a steamer from a friend and set to work. As I pulled off the stiff paper chunks of plaster came with it. The next day, I found a few of them hidden in my dog’s blankets. She decided that they were big enough to be worth gnawing on.

Now that the wallpaper’s off, we see the mottled, stained walls underneath. A big hole goes right down to the bricks and I still have to chip out more loose plaster around it. The place is a mess.

Messy life

Recently at Mass, I heard the passage in Jeremiah 18 where God compares Himself to a potter making something new out of a lump of clay that didn’t turn into anything worthwhile at the first attempt. The priest said that even if our lives are in a bad state, we can hand the mess over to God and trust Him to create something new. After Communion, I knelt down in prayer and thought about the messes in my life.

I thought about leaving the religious tradition in which I was brought up, which gave me certainty and security and the approval of my family. I thought of the anger I came to feel against religion, which caused me to oppose any kind of religious upbringing for my children. I thought of the force, which I might call God, which drew me into a mystery where there are no clear-cut certainties. This path eventually led me into the Catholic church.

I am in a place where I am like a little child, having to learn things again. It’s messy and painful. I feel that I have let my family down, both the older and younger generation, for different reasons. On that particular day, I was staying with my parents. I felt intense guilt for telling them that I was going out for a walk and a cup of coffee without also mentioning that the walk included a detour past the local Catholic church where I attended Mass.

Handing it over to God

Before I became Catholic, I asked our priest what difference taking Holy Communion would make. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “It will move you to tears.”

I couldn’t do any more with my mess and I tried to hand it over to God. This time, I couldn’t hold back the tears. I have often been damp-eyed after Communion, but I have never let go and cried with such abandon.

Nothing looks the way I (and I imagine many other people in my life) think it should. I don’t understand what is happening, but I think of the broken walls in room I am decorating. Once I took off the wallpaper, the walls looked an awful lot worse. Maybe things have to be stripped down to the core, revealing an even bigger mess, before anything can get better.

That dreaded word conversion

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I remember being totally confused as a little girl, when I heard my uncle talking about a barn he had converted. Had the barn undergone some kind of religious experience?

I left the Protestant church I was brought up in and searched for some alternative belief system or set of experiences which would bring meaning to my  life. From time to time, I came across people who convinced me that I needed to be converted. It never came to anything. A few days later, after the euphoria died down, I remained the same messed-up self that I was before.

After trying it several times, I gave up and shrunk away from anything which smacked of conversion. I wouldn’t have said that my life wasn’t in need of improvement, but I didn’t feel that I could change according to a formula. I stopped going to church altogether, and would have described myself as an agnostic who leant towards a belief in God.

Conversion is a very personal thing. You can’t force it on anyone. A human being might look at the barn and decide that it needs to be converted into a studio flat. From the cow’s point of view, however, conversion would be a disaster. It would turn the barn into something totally useless.

Caught in the end

For various reasons, I started attending the Catholic church. Despite my aversion to conversion, I was caught in the end.  I can remember exactly where I was sitting in the church and what the priest was saying. He was telling a story about someone who asked him if he expected to make any conversions to Catholicism. He paused, and I waited, knowing that if he told us that he expected to make converts, then I would be out of that church as fast as my legs could carry me, and probably never come back. I hated the trapped feeling I got when someone didn’t accept me as I was, but just saw me as a potential proselyte.

“I leave conversions to God”, was what the priest actually said. Instead of feeling relief – I was let off the hook, wasn’t I? – I experienced disappointment. Until that moment, I had not realised that I actually wanted to become Catholic. I found out that I actually wanted someone to convince me that there were good reasons for me to convert.

The thought was so daring and so strange for someone brought up strict Protestant, that I didn’t know what to do with it. I hugged it to myself like a joyful secret, reasoning that if it was from me, it would fade away, but if it was from God then I wouldn’t be able to get rid of it. After six months, the thought still hadn’t disappeared and I realised that I would have to do something about it.

No-one cheers you on

On my journey to becoming a Catholic, I was by turns frustrated, disappointed and relieved that I received little encouragement. Catholic friends were politely interested. The priest made himself available to discuss things, but left it up to me to decide if I wanted to return with more questions.

After making a decision to be received into the church, things seemed to get even harder. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that I was so discouraged, but it felt disappointing. If I was planning on joining a Protestant church, I would have been the centre of attention. People would have been solicitously cooing and clucking over me, like a newborn baby. As a wannabee Catholic, I felt that I had to give each door a hard shove before it opened.

I realise now, of course, that people were giving me space. They didn’t want to put me under any kind of pressure and were keeping their distance, so that I could back away with dignity if I felt it wasn’t for me. They knew that if what was pulling me into the church was from God, then it wouldn’t be snuffed out by a draught of cold air.

That loaded word conversion

A while ago, I took part in a survey of religious converts, to or from any kind of religion, being carried out by Leeds Beckett University. If anyone is interested, the survey is open until 30th June 2016. Their initial findings show that about two thirds of converts experience a ‘light bulb’ moment when they realise that they have to change their belief system, just as I did. However, this moment of decision doesn’t come out of the blue, but after extensive reading about the new belief system.

So where does that leave me with that loaded word conversion? It speaks of dusty things from the past being ripped out and replaced with squeaky clean surfaces, sparkling bathrooms and smooth floors. I couldn’t live up to that image, and in the end, didn’t want to even try.

A change of direction may creep up on us gradually. In my case, there was a definite moment, an instant, in which I recognised that change of direction. However, a change of heart is a slow, lifelong process. I have to be patient with himself.

 

Protestant or Catholic?

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Am I Protestant or Catholic? I’ve been received into the Catholic church, but as far as identity goes, this isn’t an easy question to answer. Over the past few weeks I’ve had exhausting dreams in which I’ve been attending Mass, and then rushing off to go to one or other of the Protestant churches I attended as a child.

When I decided to become Catholic, my husband, who was raised Catholic, warned me that I would always remain Protestant. At the time, I dismissed his comment, because I had been through huge changes in my thinking and beliefs. I felt that I was already more Catholic than Protestant.

Now that all the excitement and euphoria and challenge and worry of converting has died down, I realise that he made a very astute comment. I was brought up steeped in the Highland Protestant tradition. From my mannerisms and background, people assume that I am Protestant, and in a way they are right. I can’t change the fact that my Protestant background is woven into me, a fundamental part of my identity.

I have chosen to become Catholic, or perhaps it is better to say that I was invited to become Catholic; the idea certainly didn’t originate with me. After making a long hard journey into the church, it is painful to realise that Catholics will always spot me as someone who wasn’t brought up in their tradition. Sometimes I feel as if I am going around with a label pinned to my back which reads ‘Brought up Protestant’. Not only that, people in the know can often work out, after a short conversation, exactly which flavour of Scottish Protestant.

Where am I in all this, caught between two traditions and not really belonging in either? Before I was received into the church, a priest told me that I would always have my Protestant identity. He said that becoming Catholic was like adding another layer of clothing on top of the Protestant layer on which was already there. He told me that I didn’t need to lose my Protestant identity, or try to distance myself from it. His words gave me comfort at a time when I was worried that I was betraying the people who had loved me and brought me up and taught me to worship God in a particular kind of way.

I understand better now that I can’t and shouldn’t try to remove that Protestant layer, even though it can at times feel so deep and strong that I wonder if I really am in any way Catholic. In Mass recently, I had an image of the Protestant part of me as being like a thick, deep layer of soil. Into that grows a Catholic root, long and strong enough to go right through the soil, down to the core of my being, the quiet place where God speaks and identity no longer matters.

I need the soil to nourish the plant, as well as the plant to bring life to the soil.

So, am I Protestant, or am I Catholic? The best answer I can give is that I am both, but that I am a practising Catholic. That is confusing and difficult for me, and perhaps also for other people, but I hope that God works in the pain and the discomfort of being neither completely one thing or the other.

Schroedinger’s cat attempts to go to church

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I recently faced a dilemma which most converts come across at one time or other: What do you do on Sunday when you are visiting your non-Catholic relatives? There were three possible options:

Option One – attend the Protestant church with my parents

Because I more or less developed an allergic reaction to any form of organised religion (see Don’t go to church), this was a sticky option. I had pointedly avoided my parents’ church for years. I wondered if I should go to show respect for their beliefs, and to make the point that I have changed. Before I announced that I was becoming Catholic, a request to attend my parents’ church would have been met with unreserved delight, and hope that I was finally seeing the light. However, nowadays it could potentially cause a lot of embarrassment. I had no idea what I would say if some well-meaning person turned to me after the service and asked, “Which church are you going to these days?”

Option Two – attend Sunday Mass at the local Catholic church

I grew up near this church. My friends and I dared each other to run past the gates, screaming in terror. A few years later, I considered it a normal part of life that the boys from our school would beat up the boys from their school. I was secretly proud that the boys from our school won most of the fights, or so they said.

When I walked into the church to light a candle, I felt uncomfortable almost to the point of feeling sick. It was the second hardest thing I ever did after telling my parents that I was going to become Catholic.

Option 3 – don’t go to church at all

A friend of mine, who is also a convert, gently pointed out that it was possible to just do nothing and not go anywhere. I didn’t find this option very attractive, because it seemed like reverting to the default position I had held through all the long years of agnosticism. I was afraid of disappointing God by just doing nothing.

Decisions

I tried to pray, and ask which choice would lead me a little further along a path of peace and reconciliation. However, I received no clear answer. All through Saturday, and even on Sunday morning, I was as undetermined as Schroedinger’s famous cat, whom Terry Pratchett said could be dead, alive or bloody furious. I was in a superposition of states; I simply did not know what to do.

Shortly before I would have to go out, if I wanted to make it to any kind of religious service, I realised that I was in a state of such tension, that I would become physically ill if I tried to attend church. I fell back to default position 3 with a bump. I wasn’t going anywhere, and the relief unwound at least five knots in my stomach.

I worried that I had let God down and disappointed Him. Doubts snapped at my heels like yapping terriers. Why on earth did I have to rock the boat by becoming Catholic? Why couldn’t I have just shut up and put up, and remained in the Protestant church, even though I was never really at home there, and towards the end felt pretty miserable. Perhaps I was meant to feel miserable.

On Monday morning, seeking some kind of peace or at least a feeling of resolution, I set out on a long walk, which I timed to coincide with Mass. When I arrived at the Catholic church, about forty elderly people were already there saying morning prayer beforehand. I didn’t have a Missal and I didn’t catch all the words, but what I heard was enough. The Psalms and Gospel verses reaffirmed my faith. I was participating in something which went far beyond my troubles. I could only see a few dozen people with greying hair, some of whom very obviously had their own physical ailments, but these prayers were being said in churches across the world. This dark, echoing, rather ugly church seemed in some mysterious way to graze the edge of something much, much bigger. I felt still and safe in what had once been the heart of the enemy.

After Mass, I had an image of myself as a tiny, frail bird. In my mind’s eye, it was bright yellow, like a canary, but it couldn’t have been a canary, because I can’t sing for toffee. I imagined that Christ was holding the tiny bird in His hands and gently protecting it, because it was too small and weak to fly far.

I felt that He was gently reproaching me for my contortions, when I tried to stretch tiny wings and be in two places at once. He knew that Option 3 is the only one I can manage right now.

He is in both places, but I can only be in one. Someday, when I am strong enough and whole enough, He may send me out to flit between the two places, but it will be a thing of lightness and joy, and not a fearful obligation. I will know within myself when it is right.

Why faith is like an organ transplant

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I haven’t put anything on this blog for a while. This is partly due to a crazy workload and partly due to the smallest person in the house playing chords on my computer in accompaniment to a lego movie. The computer was traumatised by the experience and has since then gone into retirement and refused to communicate with the outside world.

I’ve lately been thinking that taking a step forward in faith is like having a crucial organ transplant. Even though I know that I need it, my whole system has revolted against it. I feel as if I am struggling to adjust to and accept this grafted on thing which is so essential and yet feels so foreign and strange.

It’s been a turbulent year since I became Catholic. Instead of the peace and comfort which I had hoped for, I feel as if I have been picked up, turned upside down and stretched and challenged. I have borne things which I felt should have broken me, and yet it wasn’t me who bore them. I am learning to let go, open my hands and ask God to take the things which are too big for me.

I have pondered in wonder the difficult journey which has brought me from a very reformed Protestant tradition to becoming Catholic. I’ve longed to tell other people, talk it over with them, try to understand it, but it’s my journey, not theirs. Most people can’t relate to what’s happened. I’m a strangely-shaped jigsaw piece which doesn’t fit into anyone’s picture, not even my own, of how things should be.

I’ve asked myself why this has happened? Is being Catholic intrinsically better than being Protestant or Muslim or Hindu? I struggled with this question before I even became Catholic. I would feel very uncomfortable if the answer was a resounding ‘yes’. Perhaps it’s the wrong question. The only definite answer I’ve reached is that I was quite definitely asked to become Catholic. My only responsibility is to answer that call or reject it, and what happens to others is between them and God.

Many times I have raged at God. Why did He ask me to do something so difficult? Why is it okay for other people to remain in the clear stream of reformed thinking or bathe in the balmy waters of agnosticism? I liked being agnostic. I was comfortable with it. I could keep God at arm’s length while believing in His goodness in a vague sort of way. Why on earth did I have to be plunged into the melting heat and depth and darkness of this mystery called faith?

The sense of God’s presence has gone, and I’m left with only the occasional glimmer of light. I’ve encountered a taxonomy of doubt, each subtly different from the last, and yet something within has told me to go on. There is quite simply no other way.

When the doubts have been hushed and I slip into church cradling a tiny kernel of faith, I am overwhelmed by feelings of unworthiness. Who do I think I am, mocks the voice within, to go to a Catholic church and think that I’ll ever belong? An ex-Protestant can’t ever be a proper Catholic. I’ll always be a foreigner in a strange land.

In the last few weeks, I’ve stopped trying to force answers or solutions to the things which feel so difficult and confusing. I can’t understand what has happened, never mind why. In one sense I will always be becoming whatever it means to truly be Catholic, but I have stopped puzzling over the process. My spiritual immune system has calmed down a little, and I am beginning to accept that this foreign, life-giving transplant of faith is part of what I am.

I recently watched ‘My Mediterranean’, a BBC documentary in which Adrian Chiles, himself a Catholic convert, travels around the Mediterranean and asks exactly the question which has puzzled me. Do we, through our different religious traditions, all worship the same God? He met Jews, Muslims and Christians who were celebrating the presence of God in their lives in quiet, unobtrusive ways. It reminded me that God isn’t limited by the human desire to sort things into categories. I also enjoyed Adrian Chiles matter-of-fact conclusion: I think there probably is a God, so stop worrying about it, and enjoy your life.

It’s a timely reminder. I need to stop fretting over the ‘why’s’, thank God for what is and enjoy the gift of life.

Rushing around

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I’m trying to recover over Christmas from a very busy and rushed period of my life. A while ago, I read with total absorption ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, the story of Thomas Merton’s conversion and entry into the Gethsemane community of Trappist monks. There were some things I could relate to in the events reading up to Thomas Merton’s conversion. He had come from a background in which there was very little religion. Although my upbringing was saturated in religion, I had turned away from it and wanted absolutely nothing to do with the church. In his case and mine, the call to grace came sudden and unexpected, although many little things led up to it.

However, I felt that I couldn’t relate to what happened after Thomas Merton was received into the church. In fact, I became quite jealous of the freedom, support and opportunities he had to explore Catholicism. When he became Catholic, he was a graduate student with a fairly flexible timetable. This allowed him to start each day with Mass and Communion. He wrote:

After the spiritual mangle I have gone through, it will never be possible for me to do without the sacraments daily, and without much prayer and penance and meditation and mortification.

Writing about the period of his life, a year or so after his conversion, he  said

I was being fed not only with the rational milk of every possible spiritual consolation, but it seemed that there was no benefit, no comfort, no innocent happiness, even of the material order, that could be denied me.

He visited Cuba, taught English in a Catholic University and then followed the call to become a monk in the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemane. It wasn’t easy, and he experienced struggles discerning his vocation, but the contrasts with my own situation were huge. I became a Catholic at a time when I had many family responsibilities. On top of that, I started retraining to do a demanding job. Where is God in the harassed life of a busy mother? Thomas Merton became a monk to dedicate his life to prayer and contemplation. He had plenty of peace to discover his new faith, didn’t he?

By the time, I read the end of his autobiography, I realised that perhaps things weren’t quite so simple. Thomas Merton entered the monastery expecting peace and consolation and time to read and write and pray. However, he found out that it was a difficult life and a tough rule. The monks had a busy life, working in the fields producing their own food.

A few months after he entered the monastery, Thomas Merton became ill with the flu. He had been so busy up until then, that he actually welcomed the illness, writing:

My secret joy at entering the infirmary came from the thought: “Now at last I will have some solitude and I will have plenty of time to pray.” I should have added: “And to do everything that I want to do, without having to run all over the place answering bells.” I was fully convinced that I was going to indulge all the selfish appetites that I did not yet know how to recognise as selfish because they appeared so spiritual in their new disguise.

Thomas Merton’s life as a monk was busy and full of duties. He gave up his ambitions to be a writer, but was told by his superior, fortunately for many people, such as me, not to stop writing as it was part of his vocation. In the epilogue to ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, he addresses God directly:

You have got me walking up and down all day under those trees, saying to me over and over again: “Solitude, solitude.” And you have turned around and thrown the whole world in my lap. You have told me, “Leave all those things and follow me,” and then You have tied half of New York to my foot like a ball and chain. You have got me kneeling behind that pillar with my mind making a noise like a bank. Is that contemplation?

Before I went to make my solemn vows, last spring, on the Feast of St. Joseph, … It seemed to me that You were almost asking me to give up all aspirations for solitude and for a contemplative life. You were asking me for obedience to superiors who will, I am morally certain, either make me write or teach philosophy or take charge of a dozen material responsibilities around the monastery, and I may even end up as a retreat master preaching four sermons a day to the seculars who come to the house. And even if I have no special job at all, I will always be on the run from two in the morning to seven at night.

.But before I could even begin to pray, I had to drop that kind of thinking.

By the time I made my vows, I decided that I was no longer sure what … the contemplative vocation was …. In fact I could not be sure I knew or understood much of anything except that I believed that You wanted me to take those particular vows in this particular house on that particular day for reasons best known to Yourself, and that what I was expected to do after that was follow along with the rest and do what I was told and things would begin to become clear.

That morning when I was lying on my face on the floor in the middle of the church, with Father Abbot praying over me, I began to laugh, with my mouth in the dust, because without knowing how or why, I had actually done the right thing, and even an astounding thing. But what was astounding was not my work, but the work You worked in me.

Thomas Merton knew what it was to be busy and rushed and asked to do a multitude of things when he was gasping for some peace and quiet. The only thing he knew for certain was that this was God’s will for his life. Somehow, in the midst of that, God was there, and that was enough.

Do we need to be born again?

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During the phase of my life when I was trying different churches, I was several times persuaded that I needed to be saved and to be born again. The young and enthusiastic Christians I came across, convinced me that if I just asked Jesus into my life, I would experience a dramatic and more or less instant change. I grasped at this in the hope that it would somehow take away my doubts and problems, spiritual and otherwise.

I wanted to be accepted by the bright, happy people around me. I wanted to smile like them and have all my worries wiped away. Each time I decided that I needed to be saved, I was carried along on a wave of positive feeling for several days. However, after the endorphins wore off, I settled back into doubts and depression, feeling even worse than I did before, convinced that I must be at fault if this magic cure didn’t work.

By the time I had tried to be born-again for the third time, and hadn’t experienced any major transformation in the way I thought or felt, I was embarrassed and disillusioned. I eventually became angry, because I felt that I had been manipulated and put under pressure to commit myself to something that wasn’t right for me. These feelings contributed to my cynicism about churches, and were certainly a big part of the reason why I steered clear of churches for many years.

I am still trying to understand these experiences. Why didn’t being saved and born again work for me? Was I like the hard ground by the path which Jesus talked about in his parable of the sower. The seed didn’t grow there, because the listeners didn’t understand the gospel and birds came and ate the seed before it could take root.

Do we need to be born again? In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus made it clear that we do. No-one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the spirit.

My problem lay in seeing being born again as a formula that would more or less instantly change my life. As anyone who has had a child knows, giving birth is not a quick and pain-free process and it doesn’t take the same time for everyone. My first labour lasted from 8 am to 5 pm precisely. Afterwards my boss wrily remarked that I had just put in an average day’s work. I know many people, however, who have endured labour pains for two days.

The traditional church in which I grew up put a lot of emphasis on people’s lives turning around in a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus type of conversion, so much so, that people who didn’t have this experience doubted whether they were really Christians. However, although Saul’s life changed direction in an instant, he didn’t become the apostle Paul overnight. In Galations 1, he tells us that he spent three years in the desert before travelling to Jerusalem to begin his ministry.

A new life in Christ isn’t a strong drug that instantly cures our doubts and uncertainties and worries. I was young and immature. I thought that being born again would bring me into some Disneyland-like Nirvana where I would be happy and untroubled. I didn’t realise that to really grow spiritually, I had to go into the desert, and face my fears and doubts in a place where God was the only one I could turn to.

This has been a difficult post to write. I have had to work through lingering feelings of anger and resentment, and realise that the people who pushed me into having born-again experiences were well-meaning and enthusiastic. The prayers I made then did mean something. I am sure that they helped me in some way to eventually find a spiritual path, but God, thankfully, didn’t answer them in the way I hoped he would.

A friend was talking to me about ambitious parents who try to get their children to talk or walk or read before they’ve reached that developmental stage. He said, “You can’t get grass to grow any faster by pulling it.”

We might be given the job of sowing a seed, but it’s God who prepares the ground and provides the right conditions for it to grow. That seed may lie in the ground a long time before it is warm and moist enough for it to germinate. My life is proof of that.