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.

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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.

Just a piece of bread?

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There’s still a lot I am discovering about the Catholic tradition.

A few weeks ago, a friend unexpectedly sent a link to a Youtube video of Adoration. She said that Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament through this video had a similar effect on her to actually going to church.

Scepticism

I was a bit sceptical, but I thought that I would give it a go. When it comes to religion, I operate on at least three levels. The top one is rational and scientific and only believes in the evidence of my senses, and in things which I can test and analyse and describe with numbers. This part of me says that a piece of bread and a person are very different things. While I accept that a tiny seed can grow into a plant, and a caterpillar can turn into a butterffly, it is quite clear for this part of me that a piece of bread cannot contain a person.

On a deeper level, I still experience doubt about religion, but this part of me reckons that since I am in a mess, and the world is not in a great state, I might as well give it a go. This is the part which keeps me praying and going to Mass, even when I don’t expect too much from it.

That isn’t the whole story. I am sometimes surprised by something which I cannot taste or see or touch, but which nevertheless moves me on a deeper level than thought.

A part of me struggled to believe that Jesus was present in the Host in the church where the video was recorded many months ago, and it seemed like a stretch too far to believe that Christ’s presence could be experienced through an image on my computer screen.

I watched the video twice. There was a lot going on in my life, and each time I ended up in tears without even being quite sure why I was crying. I wrote to my friend that I didn’t think I had felt especially close to Christ, but that I had ended up in tears. She wrote back and said that this was exactly the effect it had on her.

A few brief moments

If the internet version of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, moved me to tears, then I definitely wanted to experience the real version. Unfortunately Adoration takes place in my parish church at a time when I am never free. However, I recently travelled away from home for work, and public transport somehow conspired so that I arrived earlier than expected. I realised that if I hurried, I might just make it to the church before Eucharistic adoration finished at midday.

I didn’t quite run, but I must have been more rushed than I realised, because I clumsily crashlanded into the pew, trying to take off my heavy rucksack at the same time as I knelt down. This had the effect of overbalancing me so that the empty pew in front wobbled forward under my weight and righted itself with a crash. The nuns further down the church kept their heads firmly turned towards the front.

I stared at the thin wafer in which, my religion taught me, the Lord of the Universe dwelt. It wasn’t a symbol or a reminder of His presence. He was really there, or so I was told.

I searched the surface of the wafer, looking for the trace of a face in the shadows and light patches. I wondered what I was meant to see or feel or pray, and told myself not to be disappointed and doubtful if I felt nothing.

Deep inside an emotion jerked, like a string pulling open a floodgate. The tears started and once again I didn’t even know why I was crying. There was something in there of longing and recognition. Deep calls to deep. I wept because the way I had entered the church, late and rushed and carrying a heavy bag, seemed like my hurried and worried life at the moment. I cried, because being a convert is like entering a strange land where you don’t know the customs and haven’t learnt the language properly, and are always a step behind everyone else.

I had hoped that the priest would be late, and would give me a few minutes longer with the Sacrament, but, bang on twelve, he strode efficiently up the side aisle. A few minutes later, he emerged from the Sacristy in white robes. I was confused. Was there going to be a Mass?

He said a prayer and held up the monstrance, the metal stand containing the host. He held it over his head, swinging it from side to side, like a sportsman holding up a cup, and then he returned it to the gleaming tabernacle at the back of the church.

I had had two minutes, perhaps three, in the presence of that sliver of bread. For the next ten minutes I remained in the church, crying tears into my hands. Those few minutes strengthened me for the rest of the day, like a brief and unexpected encounter with a loving friend.

So is it just a piece of bread? The rational part of my mind still struggles to believe that Christ our Lord abides in a brittle morsel of wheat. However, on a deeper level, I know that it wasn’t just a scrap of food which moved me to tears.

Corpus Christi

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The feast of Corpus Christi got me thinking that I should finally write down my thoughts on transubstantiation, an awfully long and unwieldy word for a simple and deep mystery.

Let me get this clear. I don’t understand how a sliver of bread wafer and a sip of wine can actually become the body and blood of Christ. However, I feel that my faith as a Catholic hinges around the fact that the bread and wine are more than a mere symbol.

I first learnt about the Catholic belief in transubstantiation in a Protestant youth group. Our youth group leader wanted to inform us about errant Catholic beliefs so that we would never be seduced by them. He told us that Catholics actually believe that they are eating the body and blood of Christ. That made Catholics as bad as cannibals, except, of course, that we knew better. The bread and wine couldn’t really become human flesh and blood, and so the Catholics weren’t really practising cannibalism even though the belief that they were consuming human flesh was almost as bad as actually doing it.

Confused by this circular argument? So am I. When I left home and made friends with Catholics, I found them to be gentle, normal people who were quite clearly not cannibals. Hanging around with Catholics and eventually marrying into a Catholic family meant that I occasionally went along to Mass. It was only politeness. After all, I occasionally dragged my friends or husband along to my family’s Protestant church for some reason or another.

Slowly, over a period of years, I began to realise that something was going on in Mass which I had never experienced in a Protestant church. The first few times I attended Mass with friends, I was so preoccupied with how different it was from my own church, as well as worrying about when to stand up and sit down, that I don’t think it made much impact on me. I was disorientated by the fact that the sermon, which could last more than an hour in the church I was brought up in, and which spoke to my enquiring, analytical mind, lasted only ten minutes. Most of the Catholic Mass was a long prayer, words rising and falling, statement and response. Every time I tried to catch the words and hang onto an idea, it slipped away, superseded by another one. My husband said that it was like a meditation; you weren’t supposed to understand everything.

It was only relatively recently that I came to believe in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I was faced with a seemingly intractible situation, something I cared about very much and couldn’t change. I attended Mass with my family, because it helped me pray. I find it hard to explain what happened, but it seemed that in the midst of the suffering and the darkness and the helplessness, I experienced the presence of God in a much more real way than I had ever done before.

Sometimes, for brief moments, I felt God’s presence during the Mass, but more often it was afterwards that I realised I had more patience and peace to face my daily life. I began to long to go to Mass and if I didn’t make it one week, I felt as if I had missed something. There came one very difficult day when I felt an almost unbearable longing to take the Eucharist. The lady behind me must have sensed how I felt because she touched my shoulder and told me that I could go up for a blessing. I didn’t. It felt safer for me to stay seated and watch others go up as I had done for years and years.

By the time I decided to become Catholic, I felt physically, mentally and spiritually drained from the searching and questioning and from worrying about how others would react. Perhaps I looked on the Eucharist as some sort of panacea, a one cure which kills all ills. I asked our priest if taking the Eucharist would make any difference, and all he said was, “It will move you to tears.”

I’m very resistant to tears, especially in public places, but I have gone through the entire Mass damp-eyed on occasions. Once or twice, I have felt as if I was within Christ, singing with his words during the final hymn. This is the kind of experience which you can’t expect or demand. You can only be open to whatever gift is being offered at that moment. Sometimes I have brief moments of sensing God’s presence, and at other times the Mass seems quite prosaic, but I leave with a little more courage or faith. At other times, I have gone to Mass feeling quite self-satisfied, and have felt as if it has shone an uncomfortably bright light on dark corners of myself which I’d rather keep hidden.

I suspect that my faith wouldn’t have got very far without a belief in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Bringing the things which bother me, the sins and failings, and the situations which I am powerless to change to Mass, and abandoning them to God in the belief that he is there listening, is what keeps me going to church.

I don’t know how the bread and wine transforms into flesh and blood, but I know that it transforms me, and that is enough.