Retreat

This summer I spent a few days in Pluscarden Abbey in Moray, the only medieval monastery in the UK which is still being used for its original purpose.

I simply didn’t know what to expect, beyond the fact that the womens’ guesthouse was in an isolated spot some distance from the main abbey and that I would have to bring my own food.

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Arrival

A taxi from Elgin was the only way to get there without a private car although I later realised that there is a pilgrim walking path which I would try to take next time. The taxi left the town and was soon travelling through wood and farmland along winding single-track road.

The driver, perhaps a little worried about leaving me outside the abbey when there was no-one in sight, set me down by the front entrance and rang the bell. A sleepy-looking monk appeared, muttered something about ‘meridian’ (which I later learnt was afternoon nap), and gave me a key to the women’s guesthouse.

The guesthouse was at the end of a track beside a large field. Each of the rooms bore the name of a saint. I chose St Clare, because she had been a friend of St Francis of Assisi, dumped my bags on the floor and burst into tears with relief that I had got here and could finally rest.

The last year has been difficult. When faced with challenges, I have learnt that I simply can’t operate without prayer. However, sometimes I don’t pray or don’t make it a priority. The week before going to Pluscarden had been particularly busy trying to finish things before I left, some of which could have waited. By the time I reached the Abbey, my nerves were so jangled that I couldn’t have gone on another day.

My first prayer was that my own state of un-peace would not disturb this peaceful place.

Awe

Bells rang out to announce each office. On first seeing the medieval church with its grey, stone walls, gothic arches and stained glass windows, I simply felt awe. The daily Bible readings during Mass are read out in English. Apart from that, everything else is in Latin although there are leaflets for each Office with the Psalms both in Latin and in English.

The Psalms are sung in Gregorian chant which after a while seemed to get inside me and go through my mind like the rhythm of prayer, even when I wasn’t in the church.

More than the building itself, I was impressed by the monks’ faith. Apart from producing their own food and some products, such as honey, to sell, they don’t have any way to earn money. And yet they open up their home to guests without charging any fee although donations are gratefully accepted. That takes faith.

The monastery was founded in 1230 and a community lived there for over 300 years until Scotland separated from the Catholic church in 1560 when it fell into private hands. By the twentieth century, it was a roofless ruin. However, the current owner, the Marquis of Bute, offered it to the Benedictine Community in Prinknash, England.

In 1948, five monks went north to live in the ruined abbey. Somehow, while spending five hours a day praying the Divine Office, these monks oversaw the restoration of the Abbey. As one monk said to me, ‘If they hadn’t prayed eight times a day, very little would have got done.’

Overwhelmed

In Pluscarden, everything revolves around prayer. On the website, the Prior says, ‘We came to the monastery to pray: we’re not in a hurry; we have nothing better to do.’

To say I was completely overwhelmed by the formality and beauty of the prayers and the solemnity of the Latin Mass would be an understatement.

Just as they had in Rome, my Protestant criticisms rose again. Was I really part of a church which spoke Latin, and made liberal use of the incense burner and holy water shaker? Why did the church expect its monks to pray seven times a day and rise once in the night for prayer? Wasn’t that a bit excessive? And while I was at it, I might as well have a go at the rules governing Catholic laypeople, the Sundays and the Holy Days of Obligation. My Protestant voice told me to pick and choose, take the bits I was comfortable with and leave the rest, whilst my agnostic voice told me to step back, view it from a distance without getting too involved or committed.

I didn’t expect to be assailed by doubts in a monastery, but that’s sometimes what happens when you take time to be still and another layer of doubt and mistrust is uncovered.

Refuge

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I overcame my doubts (with some help!)

During the Latin Mass, I listened for the bell and the words of the consecration as the priest lifted up the bread and wine, and I felt more peaceful. Christ was here. God is transcendent, but also immanent.

Compline was my favourite office, the last of the day, when we sat in the candlelit church for a few moments silence before an act of contrition and a Psalm. It ended with an anthem to the Virgin Mary. As a former Protestant, I struggle with devotion to Mary. How much is too much? How can focussing on Mary bring me closer to her son. However, sitting in a medieval chapel in the evening listening to the monks sing Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) sent goosebumps up my spine and left me with a sense of peace.

During my time in Pluscarden, I often thought of ‘Seven Storey Mountain’ by Thomas Merton, a convert and Cistercian monk. He describes saying the Rosary with the other monks as they returned from the fields and says, ‘Who knows what grace overflows into the world from that valley, from those rosaries, in the evenings when the monks are swinging home from work!’

I felt gratitude that there was such a place as Pluscarden. Surely some of these prayers must overflow, not just to guests, but to the wider world. It was also a place where I began to learn about recognising grace in the small things in life.

Take away

What will I take away? Calmed nerves and an increased feeling of peace, but that won’t last unless I continue in prayer. The monks’ witness is strong. I’ve seen what can happen if you make prayer a priority: medieval ruins can be rebuilt and become a refuge for Catholics, other Christians and people of other faiths or none at all.

I’ll also bring back an appreciation of the Divine Office, the challenge and delight of praying the Psalms and the words of the Prior when he paraphrased St John of the Cross and said that our mission as Christians is to ‘have faith where there is no faith, hope where there is no hope and love where there is no love.’

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Doubts

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Doubts have been getting to me, like maggots burrowing under my skin, nibbling holes in the beliefs I took for granted:

Was Christ just a good man or was he really God? Even if he is God, how can I believe he’s really present in that scrap of wafer and sip of wine? I don’t feel anything. Shouldn’t I feel something? 

Square up to hard, cold facts and face life alone without clinging onto this comfort blanket you call faith. Or if you need some consolation,  make up your own beliefs. Cherry pick a few things from the smorgasbord of New Age religion. Much better than unpalatable beliefs about a man who was God dying on the cross and hiding himself in the form of bread and wine.

So say the doubts.

Do doubts have a place?

I thought that this blog was mainly going to be about faith, but I quickly realised that it was just as much about doubt. If I look at the word cloud on the right, I see that I’ve categorised 20 posts under doubt and 30 under faith. In fact, many are under both categories

The priest who instructed me in the Catholic faith encouraged me to ask questions and even said that doubts and questions are part of faith; they can’t be separated from it. At one point, I hoped to eradicate doubt through asking enough questions and reading enough answers. However, I’m beginning to accept that I’ll never run out of questions or reach certainty about belief.

Probably a good thing; there is nothing so frightening as someone who is certain they are right.

Doubt and uncertainty have their place because God is infinite and I cannot know Him in the way that I might know a book, a place, an animal or even a human being.

Doubts and questions are part of learning

Doubts and questions are also vital to the process of learning. From his research on child development, Piaget concluded that children are continually constructing a model of the world. When they encounter a new piece of information which doesn’t fit their previous ideas, they have to modify their model to fit the information. However, if the information is too many steps ahead of their current ideas (try telling a five year old child or even many adults that astronauts aren’t actually weightless; they’re just falling), they will reject the new idea and not learn anything.

 

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Photo credit: NASA

 

As adults, we risk becoming too rigid and no longer learning. We carry with us our ‘facts’ and way of seeing things, and reject anything which doesn’t fit into our world view.

However, if we go into any branch of knowledge at an advanced level, we find that it isn’t just about facts. True, there are things which we are fairly certain about, and which are unlikely to change, but at the edges, where the research is being done, ideas are being thrown around, models are tried out, rejected, modified, tried again.

Science progresses through questioning

Over the course of the 20th century, huge advances were made in physics. Old models could no longer explain observations and new theories were developed.

Newton’s theories of forces and gravity were superseded when Einstein showed that they no longer applied to objects travelling close to the speed of light. If you travel fast enough, all sorts of weird things can happen: time dilates and lengths shorten.

Strange things happen when you look at very small particles. An electron can behave like a wave under certain circumstances, but if you measure its exact path, it will behave like a particle. We can’t say what state a fundamental particle will be in until we measure it; we can only give a probability. It’s not just that it’s difficult to measure, it actually isn’t in either one state or the other until it is measured. (Look up George Gamow’s story of the bank clerk Mr Tompkins who plays quantum billiards).

Even Einstein struggled with the idea that quantum theory deals with probabilities rather than definite predictions. He made the famous statement, “God does not play with dice.”

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Perhaps nothing beats the advances in our understanding of the universe. Astronomers have recently admitted that only 4 % of the universe is in the form of the ordinary matter and energy with which we are familiar. The rest is dark matter and dark energy

No, don’t think Star Wars. Dark matter simply means that it reacts only very weakly with the ordinary matter of which the earth, the sun and the other planets are made of. We can’t see it and it also doesn’t emit measurable radiation such as microwaves or radio waves. However, we know it’s there, because of its gravitational effect (see Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall).

It was my job to ask questions

As a research scientist, it was my job to constantly ask questions and take nothing for granted. For each problem solved, many more opened up. When data didn’t match my model, I couldn’t just ignore it; I had to find out why.

When I think about it, perhaps science and the development of faith have more in common than I realised. In science, absolute proof is impossible. However, we can test an idea to see if it works. If it doesn’t, we reject it.

The same goes for faith. The test is life. I can look at how I feel when I let the doubts convince me that all I am is animated dust, and I can look at what happens when I try to trust that there is a purpose in life, even in the difficult things.

In science, questions can be painful. A model might have served us well up until now, but we have to let go of it, when it no longer explains all the observations. Sometimes the new model, like relativity or quantum theory can make frightening predictions.

In faith, too, it’s hard to detach ourselves from an image of God or an idea of faith which no longer matches our life experience. Faith which doesn’t acknowledge our experience of life, which causes us to warp ourselves or erase a part of our personality is not genuine. Perhaps, as in science, questions and doubts are a necessary part of moving on to a deeper level of understanding.

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’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.

Doubts and reaching out to God

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One thing I really missed and sometimes still miss about being Protestant is socialising before or after church as well as discussions about faith.

I learnt that I have to go to Mass with only one aim: to encounter Christ. If I go to to meet people or catch up with friends, it is likely that I will be disappointed. The person next to me may be on their knees in prayer before or after Mass. My friend may leave immediately after Mass has ended. Sometimes I catch up with them on the street outside and sometimes I don’t.

I can usually forget about chatting to the priest about my struggles with life or faith. He disappears into the sacristy directly after a weekday Mass, and on Sunday he is busy shaking hands at the door with every single person who comes out.

Discussing faith as a Protestant

As a Protestant, I was presented with a smorgasbord of churches. Each had different agendas, different forms of worship and sometimes even different beliefs. I treated churchgoing a bit like clothes shopping; I tried different places in an attempt to find the church which suited best. People were usually eager to talk to a visitor. Often these conversations were a subtle attempt to find out if the other person’s beliefs were ‘orthodox’. If we agreed on belief and the form of worship we preferred, we would both feel more comfortable.

When I began to express doubts, I felt as if I was put in quarantine. People still talked to me, but in a cautious way. They approached me with the attitude that they had the answers and that they could talk me back to faith.

Getting used to being silent

I might have shopped around as a Protestant, but as a Catholic, I pretty much have to take it or leave it as far as forms of worship are concerned. When I visit a Catholic church I haven’t been to before, the church may look different. It could be old and lavishly decorated, or modern with minimal decoration. However, the priest will follow exactly the same liturgy that our priest follows at home. Across the world, Catholic churches follow the same Mass, Bible readings and feast days.

Likewise since belief or practice doesn’t vary from one Catholic church to another, there’s less to discuss. I don’t have to enquire about whether they prefer adult baptism or infant baptism when I visit another Catholic church.

Whether we become Catholics as children or adults, we all receive instruction in the faith. After that, we follow a journey from the head to the heart. We are all somewhere on the spectrum between belief and doubt, and God alone knows where we really are.

 As a new Catholic, I wanted to talk about the journey my soul was making, my struggles as well as new insights I’d been given. I wanted to reassure myself by having someone listen and accept what I said, and maybe even say, ‘I’ve felt that too.’

Discussion has its place. This blog is a way of expressing my thoughts on faith and I am thankful to have it. If I couldn’t write about my thoughts and try to put some order into them, I would probably burst. I have also really appreciated reading about other peoples’ faith journeys in their blogs.

However, I have few opportunities to chat about faith face to face. One of the most difficult things about being Catholic has been offering God my silence. Only be living through boredom, doubts and a frustrated desire to express myself, do I finally turn to God. Faith is much more than what I assent to in words. Ultimately it can only be lived by me as an individual, even if it is within the context of a wider community.

Doubting Thomas

I’ve been trying to follow this train of thought ever since the Mass reading on doubting Thomas. I always thought that Thomas was a bit of a numpty (that’s Scots for intellectually challenged). He didn’t believe the other disciples and Mary Magdelene when they said that they had seen the risen Christ. He even said that if he saw Christ he wouldn’t believe the evidence of his own eyes.

In his homily, the priest put a different spin on the story of Thomas. Rather than pitying him for his doubts, he said that in many ways Thomas was right. The way we perceive things with our mind or with our eyes, is not the whole story. We can be misled. Only by taking hold of something and living it, can we fully experience it.

When I first began attending Mass sporadically, our priest asked me how I was doing. I told him that I wasn’t sure if I believed anything at all when it came to God and Christianity. He didn’t react with disapproval or try to convince me with arguments. He simply said that when it comes to faith, you have to do it, and then he got up and walked away.

Thomas realised that when it comes to faith you can’t trust the evidence of others. Sometimes you can’t even trust your own senses. However, despite his doubts, Thomas reached out towards the risen Christ, and cried out, “My Lord and my God.”

Like Thomas, I find that the evidence of others, however powerful their experiences, can’t convince me to believe. Discussion can be helpful, but it will never clear away my doubts. The paradox of faith is that only by practising it, can I move towards belief. I go to Mass with my doubts, problems and failures. I reach out to Christ in the shaky belief that He is present in the Eucharist. I take it in fear, because how else can you take it, and I ask Him to be my Lord and my God.

Easter thoughts

Easter was a joyful day.

I was away from home and I went to an early morning Mass in an unfamiliar church. There was no fancy music to pull at my emotions and the homily was delivered by a middle-aged priest with a flat, level voice. However, I was moved to tears of happiness.

Sometimes I feel nothing when I go to Mass and at other times, often when I just go without expecting anything, I feel very emotional as if something is working in me which I can’t grasp or understand. It is hard to put what happened into words, but I will try.

I live in a time of continual change. My wee country of Scotland is going through a time of uncertainty. It is like one of the smaller Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) ferries which take shuttle people and cars and food and newspapers to and from the islands. At the moment, it is so stormy that everyone on the boat is either vomiting or trying very hard not to vomit. Meanwhile the Calmac staff, whose stomachs are hardened by many choppy crossings, go around handing out paper bags. They do their best to clean up sick patches on the upholstery with paper tissues and smelly sprays.

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By Gerry Zambonini (Mull-26  Uploaded by Vclaw) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The UK is like a creaky ship from the heyday of the empire, built in the style of the Queen Mary with luxury quarters for the first class and less salubrious third class cabins in the bowels of the ship. It sails straight through the waves, but we’re all afraid it might be about to hit an iceberg. Things change every day. Yesterday a general election was announced just two years after the last one.

As for myself, I am experiencing uncertainty about work and the health of a family member. I see myself as a little boat, perhaps one of the wooden corracles used on the west coast of Ireland. I have left one shore far behind. It is out of sight, no longer even a faint blue line on the horizon, and the next stretch of land is not yet visible. In every direction, I see only sea. Sometimes it is pleasant to be out on the sea, but at other times, the waves are large and threaten to swamp my little boat.

Just as I can’t see land, I can’t see who is steering and guiding my little coracle. However, Easter Sunday gives me hope that Christ is risen, not defeated by death, and that He is there even if I can’t see Him.

I almost felt Christ’s love, not just for me but for every single person in that church, however, ordinary and insignificant we seemed to be. Easter gave me hope that God loves me. I don’t need to struggle on the treadmill of trying to be young enough and attractive enough and strong enough and rich enough and wise enough and important enough to gain the approval of others.

I can’t earn God’s love. He offers it freely despite my faults and failures. Believing in God’s love is an an ongoing challenge. I’ll say more about that in the next post.

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.

The sacrament

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I want to go to Mass. I don’t want to go.

I am afraid of my impossible expectations. Nothing ever turns out the way I think it should. I fear this unreachable God. I am overwhelmed by the distance between us. I worry that I will take the Eucharist and feel nothing. Most of all, I fear discovering in my deepest, inner self, that there is no God.

I fear longing, and I fear not longing.

I keep my head down, trying to dodge the voice which asks what business I have attending Catholic Mass? I was brought up a doughty Protestant. Who am I kidding that I’ll ever make a good Catholic? My life doesn’t stand scrutiny. If you hold it to the light like an old garment, all you will see is holes.  

At the last moment, when there is really almost no time left, I know I have to go.

I scuttle in at the tail end of the Gloria. Another failure. I am crushed inside.

I tell God about the things which are tearing me apart. I try to turn towards Him, an imperfect, scratched piece of metal, such a dull reflection of His light.

We say Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts. I bend to my knees in relief, hide my face and my tears in my hands, and say, God do with me what you will.

And then I go up for that tiny sliver of bread, a flat little wafer handed over with compassion. I look at it in my palm, hardly bigger than a thumbnail. I can’t take in the thought that Jesus lies there. I really can’t believe it. All I can do is take, eat, kneel and hope and pray that I will experience what I cannot comprehend.

I pray for mercy. I ask that Jesus will come into the hovel of my soul and stay a little while, because I am too weak and small and poor to do anything myself.

I leave the church, forcing a smile and exchanging a few words. I hold things together long enough to take myself off to a quiet place, and then something cracks. Walls, barriers, defences crumble. Tears flow again. I am breaking up inside and I can hardly bear it. There is darkness in front of me. I am afraid to go forward. I can’t go back.

All I can say is, Sweet Jesus, I feel as if you have taken hold of my heart and pulled it out through my mouth. I have nothing left. You have taken it all. You have it all. If you want me to love others, you will have to do it through me, because I am nothing. I have no strength on my own.

We shall not be overcome

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In the last week or so, I have been trying to hold onto St Therese’s image of clinging onto God. When asked to help train novices, she wrote that if she had tried to do the work in her own strength, she would have given up right away.

Returning to work

Recently I have been asking myself what it means to do things in God’s strength. The difficulties I face are so great that I sometimes wonder how I am going to keep going at all. Over the past year or so, I have been trying to start working again.

Giving birth to children, trying to juggle work and childcare, and finally giving up my career and ambitions so that I could bring up my children were huge challenges at the time. However, trying to return to the relentless routine of the workplace is also a difficult period in a woman’s life which, I think, goes largely unrecognised. One minute you are at the beck and call of small people, their needs and sicknesses, and the next you are supposed to be punctual, scrubbed clean, well-ironed and thinking about nothing but professional problems.

It is difficult enough if you are slotting back into the job you were doing before you went on maternity leave (I’ve done that too). However, if your old job is long gone and you have to retrain to do a new one, starting on the very bottom rung, the path ahead can seem impossibly difficult.

Over the last while, I have felt as if I am trying to climb Mount Everest with several kids strapped to my back and without proper equipment. I lumber slowly forwards while lithe young graduates gallop past like gazelles in super-dry clothing with tiny, ultra-lite backpacks strapped to their backs.

A long, long time ago, it feels as if it happened to someone else in a story, although it was actually not much more than a year back, I prayed about whether I should try to do this job. It felt like the right thing to do. In fact, it was the only choice which brought me peace.

It all feels too much

Now that I’m in the thick of it, I just feel confused and exhausted. The job is tiring and there’s so much to learn. Over the last week, the kids and I have all go sick, and what do you do when you have to work and there is no wider family or in-laws or out-laws (to borrow a phrase from one of my in-laws) to help out?

Sometimes it all feels too much. I have conversations with God along the lines of, “Are You sure you’ve got the right person, here? It seems like there’s so many other people out there who could do this job better than me. I keep making mistakes. Some days almost feel like an unmitigated disaster. I’m asking You for help, but all these obstacles appear in the way, including the ones made by my own inexperience.”

Keeping going

Two things keep me going. One is Gerard W. Hughe’s advice based on Ignatian spirituality. He says that in a time of desolation, you should never go back on a decision made in a time of consolation. If I’m honest with myself, I can look back on times when I did enjoy doing this work, and when I felt that I had confirmation that I was on the right path.

The other thing which keeps me putting one foot in front of the other, is the thought that it wouldn’t be faith, and I probably wouldn’t be learning much, if God magically cleared every obstacle out of my path.

I often think of the words of Julian of Norwich, the medieval anchoress who lived alone in a cell attached to St Julian’s church in Norwich.

He did not say, ‘You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-weary, you shall not be discomforted.’ But he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’ God wants us to heed these words so that we shall always be strong in trust, both in sorrow and in joy.