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.

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.

Two sides of Easter

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When I was a child, Easter meant eating Cadbury’s cream eggs which covered my hands with goo. My Mum also gave me a boiled egg to decorate with felt tip pens. Lurid blue and green ink smudged on the egg white when I cracked it open, but I ate it anyway. Back in these good old days, there was no such thing as non-toxic ink, and so I if I’ve turned out to be a little bit wacky, I’ll blame it on that.

Joy

Easter, like Christmas, was a strictly non-religious experience, because we didn’t celebrate it in church. I was a student living away from home when I went to my first Easter day service in a Baptist church. It should have been a joyful experience. The church was packed with smiling people, and the choir sang their hearts out, but I felt annoyance, bordering on anger. I had been brought up with such an emphasis on Christ’s suffering and death that I couldn’t understand why they were so happy.

My next Easter experience, many years later was Mass on Easter Sunday. This time I was much less resistant to joy. I was almost overwhelmed by the different sensations: light from the candles, the smell of incense, the sound of singing, the feel of droplets of holy water, from a brush which the priest flicked enthusiastically over the congregation.

At that point, I didn’t understand Lent, or the fact that Easter Sunday is the culmination of a week of preparation which follows the last week in Christ’s life, his death and resurrection.

Sadness

My experience of Easter is like a patchwork. Due to other commitments, I can’t take part in everything, and even if I could, I don’t think I could take it all in at once. This year my new patch in the Easter quilt was a short time of prayer in the church early on Good Friday.

I couldn’t take part in the Maundy Thursday Mass or the Good Friday prayers, but I saw that there was prayer in the church from Thursday night until Friday morning. I gathered my courage and slipped in for a few moments between dropping the kids at school and going to work.

The church felt different. The statue of Christ was draped in cloth and a curtain partly covered the entrance to the side chapel. I crept into the side chapel and found empty rows of chairs facing a little brass box surrounded by a profusion of flowers. The atmosphere was that of a Chapel of Remembrance. It felt as if someone had died. The church itself was a bare shell, too large for the swaddled figure of Christ and the gaping doors of the tabernacle.

Although I had read that the sacrament is taken out of the tabernacle and placed elsewhere to symbolise Christ’s death and burial, it was a shock to see the church like this. Somehow I had thought that these ceremonies occurred later on Good Friday, and had expected to find the church in more or less normal condition.

Even though this was a re-enactment of events which occurred over 2000 years ago, it felt like a bereavement. I knelt in the side chapel and cried as if I had lost a loved one.

Balance

Mine is not a certain faith. I shuffle forwards, testing each step. I keep going, not because I have any assurance that there is anything beyond what my five senses can tell me, but because of a feeling, deep down, that this is what I am meant to do.

The sadness I felt in finding the church empty, testified in a reverse way to the fact that there must usually be a presence there, even if I have no strong awareness of it. The grief I felt at finding Christ symbolically entombed, showed me that, even through the muddle and guddle of everyday life, a part of me longs for him.

I joined the Easter vigil on Saturday, when light is brought into the dark church from a fire lit outside in the night. Throughout the next few days when doubts pecked at me like black corbies, or crows, I remembered that I cannot understand light without knowing darkness, life is precious because we also experience death, and that faith arises from questions and doubts.

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.

Sent into exile

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

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

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

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

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

Looking back

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

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

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

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

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

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.

I took a scunner to churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t go to church ….

… Until you find the church you can’t stay away from, and then keep going.

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I’m being deliberately provocative here, but that sentence sums up my own experience of churches. It didn’t make sense to go to church, until what was happening in the church began to make sense to me. I would be tempted to give this advice to people, except that I should be old enough to realise that giving advice and matchmaking are two things which it’s best not to meddle in. The last time I dared to try matchmaking resulted in two female targets furiously paddling away in their kayaks, while the male target enthusiastically paddled after them. Never again.

I took a scunner to churches. Scunner is a great Scots word, which means more than just taking a dislike to something. It brings with it a feeling that you have had too much of a thing and have taken a strong dislike to it. There’s also the sense of the kind of sicky dislike you get when you’ve gorged yourself on something, walnut whips, perhaps, or salt and vinegar crisps, and then can’t face ever eating that food again.

I was brought up in the Highland Presbyterian tradition. I’ve written a bit about my experiences in an earlier post. I was seeped and saturated in religious belief. We thought that our church was the only church which was still faithful to the principles of the New Testament church. We believed that people who attended other churches were at the very best second-class, lukewarm Christians and in the worse cases, they were not saved at all.

I thought that I had a strong faith. However, when I left home, the tensions between my traditional beliefs and my experience of life, particularly over the issue of Sunday observance, became so great that I felt I had stark choices:
1. I could become a hypocrite, pretending to believe, while quietly going my own way
2. I could stick to the church’s rules and risk losing my reason
3. I could jettison my beliefs.

In practice, I tried to reach a compromise, between option 1 and option 3. The beliefs with which I was brought up, had been strong and clear and uncompromising, with no questioning or debate allowed. I couldn’t question one part of my belief without the whole thing threatening to fall down. I felt like a tree which had been struck by the woodcutter’s axe, and which was leaning precariously to one side without actually falling.

I tried going to other churches, even though I was still cynically questioning faith and Christianity, but I found them to be too informal. I didn’t like the choruses they sang, because I was used to the psalms, and I positively cringed if the music was accompanied by a band. Most of the time, I mentally criticised these churches for being different from the traditional church in which I was brought up. Yes, I know, it wasn’t logical. I tried other churches, because I had rejected my own, and yet I wasn’t happy with any of the new experiences, because they were different from what I was used to.

Around this time, something happened which showed me how weak the foundations of my faith really were. It began innocuously enough, when I attended a discussion group on science and religion. At the end of six weeks of discussions, a small lady who wore a tartan skirt and a woollen jumper and a cross around her neck, announced that the Catholic chaplaincy was organising a retreat in daily life which was open to anyone, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. A few pennies dropped, and I realised that this lady, was actually a nun. If I had known that at the start, I would have been quite prejudiced against her, but since she had already made a good impression on me by her thoughtful contributions to the discussion, I decided that I would have to revise my opinion of nuns.

Since I was experiencing a lot of disquiet and turmoil about faith, the retreat in daily life sounded attractive. It lasted several weeks and involved setting aside time each day to meditate on Bible verses, as well as meeting with a spiritual advisor every week. A few group meetings were also held with the others taking part in the retreat. When I look back, it seems to be a bit of miracle that I decided to do this retreat, considering that I had been brought up to believe that Catholics weren’t even Christians. However, at the time, I experienced no struggle. I was willing to try anything which might help me make sense of things.

A kind but firm nun guided me on the retreat, and what came out of it was the humbling realisation that despite all my knowledge about Christianity and the Bible, I hadn’t really got anywhere spiritually. On the last day of the retreat, a candlelit service, with Bible readings and prayers, was held in the chapel. Each of the participants was asked to summarise in one word what they had learnt through the retreat. I knew clearly which word I had to use, but it cost me a lot to speak it in front of strangers in the half-lit silence of the church. My word was ‘Starting’, and by saying it aloud, I acknowledged that I was really only at the beginning of an uncharted journey. Up until this point, I had thought that I was so knowledgeable that I could have written the guidebook.

I look back and think, what would have happened if I could have started this journey then, but after the peace of the retreat, I returned to my old habits of cynicism, doubt and criticism. It didn’t even occur to me that the Catholic church, which had organised the retreat, might also help me on this spiritual path. I wonder why I wasn’t nudged in this direction, and the only answer I get is that God waits until we are ready to turn to Him, and I wasn’t ready then.

There is more to tell about my journey away from the church, but this post is already long enough and I’ll continue it in another one.

What have bank cards to do with faith?

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What have bank cards to do with faith? Since starting this blog, I’ve had a lot of mishaps with bank cards. Even though I didn’t really intend this blog to be about bank cards, I felt a need to vent my feelings by writing about these muddles. I thought that the unfortunate series of incidents with bank cards had come to an end in the spring. However, I made another careless mistake recently, and this time I was not quite so sanguine about it. I began to wonder if bank cards and faith are not quite such wholly unrelated subjects after all.

The muddle started off simply enough. I relaxed. I was on holiday abroad, and I sat in a busy cafe and ate ice cream with my family and didn’t think too much about the purse I had shoved deep into the rucksack beneath the swimming stuff and the sun lotion. We went for a swim in a lake, and hiked back along a quiet mountain path as shadows lengthened in the soft evening light. We didn’t quite reach our holiday house, before the children began to flag, and we stopped to rummage through the rucksack for the emergency food rations. By the time we got back, the hillside was in shadow and we cooked a quick meal and bundle the kids into bed. My husband unpacked the rucksack afterwards. I knew that I should really have checked where my purse was and put it back into my handbag, but I was far tired and it didn’t seem to matter. I was hardly going to need it that night.

The next morning, I was just about to hunt for my purse so that I could go out and buy milk when I suddenly fell victim to the holiday tummy. The least said about the next few hours the better, but I can report that I was not in any condition to worry about where my purse was, never mind try to locate it. I wasn’t quite sure where this evil bug had come from. A few days later, when we were out and about, I caught one of my children filling the water bottles from the bowl of the fountain where people spit and pee and let their dogs bathe, rather than from the stream of running water. All was then clear.

To give me a bit of peace and quiet, my husband took the kids out for a longer hike. I recovered remarkably quickly and decided to hike up the mountain to meet them. Before I left, I hunted unsuccessfully for my purse, but expected that it was probably still in the hiking rucksack, which my husband had taken with him. Mild anxiety turned very quickly into total panic, when I met up with the rest of the family and found out that my purse wasn’t in the rucksack.

I walked back to the holiday house to check again. Although I was walking through some of the most stunning scenery in Europe, I was utterly miserable, because I was coming to the following conclusions:

– My purse must have either been stolen the previous day in the cafe or been lost on the way back to the holiday house.
– In either case, I was very unlikely to ever see it again.
– Because it had taken me almost twenty-four hours to realise this, someone had probably used my bank card and my driving license to take a large sum of money out of our bank account.

I tried to pray, but my faith felt like a threadbare rag which no longer covered me. I was assaulted by feelings that I was a bad, good-for-nothing person whom God couldn’t possibly love, and that God had just been waiting for me to relax and let my guard down, in order to punish me.

A thorough search of the holiday house, including under beds and in drawers and kitchen cupboards, revealed no sign of the missing purse. I phoned my bank to cancel my card, and just before the credit on my phone ran out, I heard the assistant gabble something about all cards held in this name will be cancelled. Now I had another thing to worry about. It was a joint account. Did that mean that the bank would automatically cancel my husband’s card too?

Because half of our holiday money had been in my purse, we didn’t have enough money left to pay for train fares to the airport. While my husband went out to try and make another withdrawal from the cash machine, I went through the following worst case scenario:

– We won’t be able to get any more money out because
a) a thief has already emptied the account, or
b) the bank has also cancelled my husband’s card
– We won’t have enough money for food and so we will have to starve ourselves so that the children can eat.
– We won’t have enough money for trains to the airport. I couldn’t think of a way around this one.

My husband returned with some money, and none of these fears were realised, but it was still a pretty grim evening.

The morning sun, brought a little more hope and optimism, even though my schedule for the morning was going to be a long, hot hike to the tourist office on the off-chance that someone had handed in a lost purse, with possibly a detour via the police station, to officially report a missing purse.

Just before I set out, my husband said that he would make one last search of the house. I didn’t have any hopes that this would yield anything. However, he shook out the covers and checked the bed. There it was, wedged between the bed and the wall. I had checked under the bed the day before and had totally missed it. All night, I had been worrying about the missing purse, while I was lying right beside it.

I am utterly convinced that God must have a sense of humour.

I am still not sure quite how or why this mix-up happened, but it showed me that when push comes to shove, I still have a shockingly bad image of God as a petty tyrant who is waiting to pounce if I let down my defences for a moment and actually enjoy myself. There’s no point blaming it on my Calvinist upbringing. It’s my problem now, and I have to deal with it. The incident also showed me how vulnerable I feel and how little faith I have when the security of my bank card and access to money is (apparently) taken away.

I think I need to revisit ’30 Lies About Money’ by Peter Koenig, an unusual book which begins by stating quite frankly that it is about the relationship between money and soul.