Excess baggage

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I often drop into sacredspace, a site run by the Irish Jesuits which offers a way of praying and meditating on the daily Gospel. Each week they also have some thoughts taken from either a blog or a book.

This week’s piece was Lost Luggage in which Vinita Hampton Wright describes a bag being lost in transit and continuing her travels without even missing the contents. She postulates that we carry around too many burdens, both physical and psychological.

This struck a chord with me because I’ve just had a similar experience. My family life is a bit nomadic at the moment. We are away from home for what was meant to just be a few months. We were due to return today, but have had to delay our return because one of our children is in hospital.

Ten days ago, we moved from one temporary place to another. The bags we had brought with us seemed to have bred during the few months we were here. I felt burdened and harassed by the amount of luggage. Even so, we’d managed to forget quite a lot of stuff. My husband dropped by to pick up a bag of forgotten belongings and I was astonished going through the bag, because I’d actually forgotten that I owned these things.

I have a house stuffed full of belongings and it’s actually a relief to be away from it and realise that there are very few things I miss.

What I don’t miss

  • An old denim skirt I haven’t worn in a long time and keep just in case I run out of anything else to wear.
  • Hand-painted china teaset (even if it was my grandmother’s)
  • Champagne flutes (elegant wedding present, but when was the last time I had champagne)
  • The rest of my jewellery collection. I especially don’t miss the odd earrings I have hoarded just in case the lost one turns up. St Anthony has found a lot of things for me, but I guess there are limits.
  • Bags of baby clothes which we have kept just in case we have grandchildren
  • Boxes of Duplo and baby toys which have been kept for the same reason
  • Books I have already read. Do I really need to re-read Pride and Prejudice for the seventh or eighth time?
  • Ornaments, vases (a cut out 2-litre bottle will do the same job) and other clutter.

What I do miss

  • The dog and all the walks
  • The garden
  • The potatoes I planted before I left
  • The peat stack and the peat bank. At this point I have to admit that my peat stack is very far from a traditional herring bone pattern. In fact, the only way I can keep these peats dry is to put them in old animal feed bags on top of a wooden pallet and to top the whole lot with a plastic tarp.
  • Box of lego for the children
  • Books – the childrens’ books and all the books I haven’t read. I’ve just made a pilgrimage to a second hand bookshop to pick up reading material.
  • My crochet project which was far too large to pack into a suitcase. However, I don’t miss all the half-used balls of wool which I was hoarding ‘just in case’

A place to stay

In the last post, I wrote that I was looking for accommodation, because we wouldn’t have anywhere to stay in three weeks. We have had to change all our plans, because one of our children is ill.

During the last week, I have been flat hunting and I have been thinking about Mary leaving Nazareth for the census in Bethlehem. She was heavily pregnant and it wasn’t a trip that she would have made unless she absolutely had to. She must have worried about finding a place to stay, about when the baby would come and whether the stress of the journey would cause it to come early.

When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem and found all the inns full, they must have been feeling pretty desperate. Up until now, I have imagined Mary exhausted, perhaps already in labour and at the absolute limit of her endurance, being turned away and refused shelter.

In my present predicament of needing to find a place for my family to stay, I have begun to imagine the scene differently. I have hoped and prayed that God provided a place for Mary and Joseph to stay and rest from their travels before Mary actually gave birth. I have pictured her having a few days to settle into the stable, sleep, eat and perhaps even share a joke or two with the census enumerator before giving birth.

I have needed to re-imagine this Gospel scene, because last week I felt that I was getting close to the limit of my faith and endurance. I wanted to believe that Mary had some time to rest before the baby came, because I felt that I was soon going to be too exhausted to do more flat hunting. Before moving again, I needed some time to rest in the knowledge that my family wasn’t going to be homeless.

In fact, we found a place after searching for a week. It is simple and cheap, but we have realised that we don’t need much.

A week ago, this would have felt like a miracle. In fact, someone came forward out of the blue and said that they had a flat to rent. The strange thing about miracles is that the human brain has a way of adapting to them and taking them for granted.

I have a tiny thread of faith, not much, just a mustard seed. I am so frightened and full of doubt. I wish I had more confidence, but this seems like an answer to prayer. Maybe that’s why I am writing about these difficulties here, to record what happens so that I can look back some time and hopefully see how it all fits together even though it just seems confusing and frightening right now.

Dispossessed

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A house of cards

Is life like a precarious house of cards with only the rich enjoying even an illusion of security?  If so our cards have been scattered in the air and are still fluttering downwards. I have no idea where they will land.

We are in the middle of a family crisis. One of our children is in hospital (away from home) and may be there for some time. All our carefully-laid plans are in disarray. We don’t even know where we will be living in a month’s time.

On top of the distress of my child not being with me, and the feelings of guilt (perhaps I didn’t love enough, try hard enough) I have been worrying about practical things. What is going to happen about dog, job, schools and above all, a place to live?

The distress comes not just from what actually ‘is’ happening, but from not knowing what is going to happen. I wanted to own the future, but this crisis has meant that most of our plans will have to be scrapped.

If God has a plan, it’s not clear yet. It is hard to trust that He has a plan, and even more difficult to accept that this illness is part of it.

The illusion of possession

In all this, some of my distress comes from dispossession, or rather the illusion of possession. The things I had planned to happen will not now happen. The future was never mine. I haven’t actually lost anything. All that is gone is an idea of security, my thoughts about how things should be.

I am reading ‘From Suffering to Peace’ by the Spanish priest Ignacio Larrañaga. He says that a lot of psychic suffering comes from the ego. It is full of desires, fears, illusions and above all, a desire to possess. He argues that the only way to eliminate suffering is to lose your ego (yourself) with your fears and desires. Only by freeing ourselves of our ego and desires and by becoming poor, can we become pure in heart and see our situation as it really is. He connects this to the beatitudes (Matthew 5): ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: the kingdom of Heaven is theirs’ and ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: they shall see God.’

“From Suffering to Peace” is written for everyone, both those with a strong faith and those with none. Ignacio Larrañaga recommends exercises to reduce psychic suffering, such as emptying your mind through becoming aware of your body, sounds and what you see. These techniques help us accept and embrace the gift of the moment rather than lassooing our desires around some future idea of fulfilment. In the final chapters, Ignacio Larrañaga discusses the meaning of suffering in the Christian context.

Lack of possessions

Somewhere deep inside me I accept that crisis is an opportunity to recognise my own poverty and thank God for what I have, even if it isn’t what I expected or hoped for.

I think of Jonah the prophet. He was understandably tired after being swallowed and regurgitated by a whale, and then going to preach to the Ninevites. He made a shelter to rest in and God caused a plant to grow around it. Jonah enjoyed the shade until the plant was attacked by a pest and died. Jonah was very angry with God for letting this happen to ‘his’ plant. God replied that Jonah did nothing to grow the plant. It was a gift, coming up in the night and dying in the night.

When he began his ministry, Jesus gave up his possessions. He set off to find John the Baptist, leaving behind ‘his’ family, ‘his’ home, ‘his’ career as a carpenter and ‘his’ community. I imagine that he took very little money and didn’t know where he would sleep that night. For three years he wandered his country preaching. He had no fixed abode and was essentially homeless and yet God provided.

Jesus sent out seventy-two apostles (Luke 10), commanding them to take no money or possessions with them, not even a change of clothes. Whenever I read this Gospel, I can’t help wondering if they got a bit stinky. Did they manage to wash?

Despite the lack of possessions, they came back rejoicing at how well their mission went. Jesus referred to this at the Last Supper (Luke 22), but he said that the next time they went out on a mission they should go well prepared: ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and the same with a haversack; if you have no sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’ (Luke 22:36)

Sometimes it seems that it’s all right to make plans, and at other times when our plans don’t work and we are left with nothing to prop us up, we have to just trust in God.

Thanks

In every Mass, the priest says ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord’ and the congregation replies, ‘It is right and just.’

I can’t pick and choose when I give thanks. God is the same and His love for me is the same whether things are going what I label ‘well’ or whether they are going ‘badly’.

I am very lucky. My child is alive and receiving care. I have to let go and leave her in other peoples’ hands. We have a roof over our heads and even, unlike the seventy-two apostles, a few changes of clothes. The sun is shining and I hear wind in the leaves. For the moment, I have done all I can and I remember the words of Eckhart Tolle, ‘When there is nothing you can do, rest in peace, rest in God.’

Hope

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope. For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.

T.S. Eliot (American poet and Anglican convert)

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Right now that’s how I feel. I want to have hope, but I don’t know what to hope for. Things are difficult for my family. Even a month ago, things seemed as if they could still be normal. But now our options have closed in and it feels as if we are about to go through a narrow tunnel. We have no idea when, how, if we will emerge on the other side and where we will be.

I guess it’s not trust if you can see what lies on the other side. We would appreciate prayers.

Brokenness – some more thoughts

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I’ve hunted up that passage by St Faustina which I was thinking of when I wrote the post on Brokenness.

St Faustina (1905-1938) started life as Helen Kowalska. She was born into a poor Polish family and became a religious in the Congregation of Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. She was a mystic in that she saw visions of Christ and heard him clearly talking to her.

There is a sense in which all of us are called to be mystics and listen to what God is saying to us. However, most of us experience this through feelings or being moved by a Bible passage or something else we read, or perhaps having thoughts which comfort or challenge us. These thoughts might sound very like our own inner voice. We have to sift through this jumble of noise to try to discern what message God has for us.

When I was first drawn to read St Faustina’s diaries, I thought that as a visionary, God’s message must have been crisp and clear, and that she didn’t have to struggle with doubts or with wondering what God wanted her to do.

However, this wasn’t the case. Because she had such vivid and powerful visions, she actually doubted that they came from God, and so did many other people. Soon after entering religious life, she went through a tortuous experience of inner suffering when she felt that God was hidden from her. She also had difficulties finding a Confessor who was able to advise her about the visions and other matters, such as recording her experiences in a diary.

In her visions, St Faustina was asked by Jesus to spread the message of his Divine Mercy. She began this work during her lifetime, although she experienced at times a lot of uncertainty as to how she should do this. She suffered from ill health in the last years of her life and died of tuberculosis at the age of 33. The Divine Mercy revelation was not officially recognised by the church until many years after her death.

St Faustina’s doubts and fears

Here is the passage from her diary from which I have gained a lot of comfort. St Faustina expresses her doubts about being able to carry out her task of spreading the message of Divine Mercy.

January 14th 1937. Today, Jesus entered my room wearing a bright robe and girded with a golden belt, His whole figure resplendent with great majesty. He said, My daughter, why are you giving in to thoughts of fear?

I answered, “O Lord, You know why.”

And He said, Why?

“This work frightens me. You know that I am incapable of carrying it out.”

And He said, Why?

“You see very well that I am not in good health, that I have no education, that I have no money, that I am an abyss of misery, that I fear contacts with people. Jesus, I desire only You. You can release me from this.”

And the Lord said to me, My daughter, what you have said is true. You are very miserable, and it pleased Me to carry out this work of mercy precisely through you who are nothing but misery itself. Do not fear; I will not leave you alone. Do whatever you can in this matter; I will accomplish everything that is lacking in you. You know what is within your power to do; do that.

Closed for Lent

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After this post, which I wanted to write to tie up the previous one, I’m giving up blogging for Lent. This is partly because I want to reduce my screen time, and also because my family faces a lot of challenges over the next few weeks. I would appreciate prayers. Thank you.

Brokenness

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I am going through a time of stress at home and at work. The one feeds into the other and I have quite simply reached the limit of my strength.

I remember these cheesecakes which my mother used to make which involved making a biscuit base by putting digestives in a plastic bag, tying up the end and then battering them with a rolling pin. At the moment, I feel like those biscuits after they’ve had a good whack with the rolling pin.

At times of stress, the cracks show. The hairline faults, which I thought I’d patched up long ago, become glaringly obvious. The things I have acquired and achieved in an effort to buffer myself against the difficulties of life melt away. Very little stands between the adult I am now and the lonely, frightened child I once was.

I love and respect my parents, but they were not and never could have been perfect. They brought me into an imperfect world. Rather than setting impossible standards for myself, I have to accept my own brokenness. I am an imperfect mother, partner, friend and work colleague. I try to do my best, but I often stumble and fail.

Weakness

When I first thought about becoming Catholic, I thought that it would make me stronger and more resilient to the challenges of life. I knew enough to realise that if I was serious about being Catholic I had to try, as much as I was able, to hand over my life to God. What I didn’t realise was that this would take me to a place where my own strength and knowledge and ability counts for nothing, and where I have no choice but to acknowledge my own helplessness and dependence on God.

As I try to learn more about my faith, I am reminded over and over that God chose the small, the poor and the weak of this world. He chose people that no-one else would even consider. The shepherd boy David was chosen to fight the warrior giant Goliath and inspire the Israelites to victory over the Philistines. A poor peasant girl gave birth to God’s son. Jesus chose uneducated fishermen to be his first disciples and to found his church.

Recently I was watching Lord of the Rings. It is based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien who was a Catholic. The first time I watched the film many years ago, I was oblivious to its Christian message. Now it is glaringly obvious. A small Halfling or Hobbit, who struggles to get through the day without a second breakfast, is the only person able to take the ring of power into the heart of Mordor and destroy it. The strong ones and the obvious leaders cannot carry the ring because they would be tempted to use it for themselves.

Hope

I am weak and flawed, but faith gives me hope that God can use my brokenness. A while ago, I was reading Saint Faustina’s diary. She wrote that she asked Jesus why He wanted to use her when she was such a weak, miserable person. He replied that it was precisely because of her weakness that God wanted to use her. I don’t have time to hunt the quote right now, but will have a look for it.

Caryll Hauslander in her book ‘The Reed of God’ says:

It is a great mistake to suppose that those who have inherited the material for their life from suffering generations, and who have poor health and a timid approach or some vice or weakness, have not been designed and planned by God as much as others who seem luckier in the world’s eyes. … He can choose what seems to us the most unlikely material in the world to use for a positive miracle of His love.

Last thoughts

I wrote this post a weak ago, but felt too confused and crushed to post it. Since then, I have been reminded that even in the middle of exhaustion and apparent failure, it’s important to keep a sense of humour.

Secondly, I realise that I waste a lot of energy concentrating on the things which aren’t going well and very little remembering the things which are ticking along nicely without drawing any attention to themselves.

Finally, when I really thought I had no more strength left, I got the chance to rest and refresh myself.

Similarities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why not differences?

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

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

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

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

Reading on a little , I found the following:

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A convert visits Rome Part 2

A visit to Santa Maria d’ Antiqua

After visiting St. Peter, we’d had enough of churches. We decided to be pagans for the afternoon and visit the Roman Forum. I didn’t expect any easy answers to my doubts, and decided to just put them aside for a while.

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The shadows lengthened behind the broken columns in the Forum and we were almost ready to leave, when I noticed the entrance to a church at the bottom of the Palantine Hill. It was called Santa Maria d’Antiqua. It was built in the 6th century, and used until it was buried under rubble by an earthquake  in the 9th century. Hidden for more than a thousand years, it was re-discovered in 1900.

Although some of the wall frescoes had worn away in places, it was easy to imagine that almost every surface of this church had once been covered in paintings. Even after all these years, the colours were still bright and the style fresh and simple. There were paintings of the apostles, scenes from the Old Testament and the life of Jesus as well as the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Jesus. Some paintings depicted events from the lives of the saints and one showed several Popes, with a square rather than a round halo over the Pope who was alive at the time it was painted. On the floor lay the remains of an altar which had contained a recess for relics.

I left Santa Maria d’Antiqua quiet and humbled. This 6th century church contained everything which I had found objectionable in St Peter’s basilica: paintings and decoration, the Virgin Mary, saints, relics and even several Popes.

The destruction of images

If the Protestant narrative was right and the church had wandered away from its New Testament roots, then Jesus’ church hadn’t even lasted five centuries before going badly astray. I either had to accept this narrative, or accept the alternative that the 6th century Christians hadn’t fallen into grave error when they decorated their church with scenes from the Bible as well as pictures of saints and popes.

Other uncomfortable images sat in my mind as I turned over these thoughts. Earlier in our stay in Rome we came across an exhibition showing photographs of historical sites in the middle east before and after occupation by Islamic State. The earlier photos showed ancient temples and statues or the remains of old towns. More recent photos showed the same sites standing in ruins after being deliberately destroyed. The most disturbing photo showed a bearded young man, sane and respectable looking, at work systematically destroying an ancient statue.

As we left the exhibition, I expressed my indignation to my cradle Catholic husband. He was silent for a moment and then said, “You do realise that your Protestant ancestors did exactly the same thing to Catholic churches.”

He was right. In Scotland, very few ancient churches escaped the ravages of the Reformation. Man places such as Arbroath Abbey and St Andrews Cathedral are now just broken walls with grass growing in the interior. I have stood inside the ruins and wistfully wondered what they looked like, before the angry young men, who were Scotland’s Reformers, smashed statues and altars, tore down the roof and encouraged the local population to use the walls as a source of building materials.

Perhaps Scotland’s churches were once as richly decorated as the churches in Rome.

Does God like bling?

If I am going to accept that the people who decorated the 6th century church in Santa Maria d’Antiqua were trying to give glory to God in the best way they knew, then I also have to accept the more modern Roman churches crammed with religious imagery.

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The Virgin Mary and child – Santa Maria d’Antiqua

I prefer the Byzantine art, with its flat faces and bright simple colours, to the paintings of more recent centuries. However, this is simply a matter of taste. Both ancient and more modern churches depicted the same kind of subject matter. My own taste may run towards the very simple, but I also have to admit that the plain little chapel I imagined after my visit to St Peter’s Basilica, looked very like the church in which I was brought up.

The conclusion I have reluctantly reached is that God does like bling. Or perhaps it isn’t so much that He likes bling, as that He understands our need for images and symbols. He also understands our need to seek Him through music, or words or paintings. Even these blog entries are a result of my own fumbling attempts to seek God through trying to express my thoughts.

In a time when very few people could read, paintings were an important way for them to learn about faith. Some of these paintings and images might be more to my taste than others, but they all represent a turning towards God, a seeking. No-one can possess God or know God fully in this life, and paintings, imperfect as they are, point to the Divine.

The visit to Rome was challenging. I may never be entirely comfortable in richly decorated churches. However, whenever I question whether God can also be there, I will remember the visit to Santa Maria d’Antiqua.

A convert visits Rome. Part 1

Before I became Catholic Rome was probably bottom of my list of European cities which I wanted to visit, but things change and I found myself wanting to visit Rome, and then making the opportunity to do so.

I went loaded with expectations. Surely I would feel something profound when I visited the church built on the site of St Peter’s martyrdom. I liked the boldness of going to Rome, and hoped to integrate myself better into this strange thing called the Catholic church. I also hoped for peace and some of these quiet moments when I would feel, just for an instant, the touch of God.

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Trevi Fountain

 

I loved Rome: the coffee, the food, the piazzas and fountains, the narrow alleys with antique shops, and the colourful streets in Trastevere, The visit was rich in experience. However, as far as religion went, I found turbulence and challenge.

On the first evening in Rome, when it was almost dark outside, we wandered into a church near the Trevi fountain. In contrast to the brightly-lit white marble fountain, the church was like a dark tent of deep red and blue, lit by candles and a few electric lights. The richly-decorated side chapels receded into darkness. A mass was underway and near the front of the church, women in dark clothes, some wearing mantillas, recited responses in Italian. Nothing looked or sounded familiar. I had the feeling that I had stumbled upon the rituals of a totally foreign religion.

Even when I visited churches in the daytime, I was overwhelmed by the amount of religious imagery: scenes from the Bible, saints, martyrdoms, or simply decoration covering every available surface.

I was brought up in an ultra-reformed branch of the church. No religious image or symbol was permitted either in the church or in our home. I remember being punished for decorating my Bible with a cross. Given my background, it probably isn’t surprising that all this religious imagery was a real challenge.

A visit to St Peter’s

St. Peter’s, from which I had hoped so much, was too much for me. With the long nave, huge marble columns, more than life-size figures of past Popes and the large, ugly canopy over the main altar, it felt large and draughty and masculine. I stared into the side chapels and found one containing, quite incredibly, relics from the 4th century saint St John Chrysostom. I stared at the painted cupula above, trying to make sense of things, when someone pushed my arm. All they wanted to do was ask if I would take a photo, but I was feeling so confused and overwhelmed that this small nudge pushed me to tears. Fortunately, my husband was on hand to take the photo and exchange small talk.

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I went into a side chapel set aside for prayer and adoration. However, it was covered in so much gold paint and decoration that I felt as if I was inside a jewelled box. Even though I was surrounded by people kneeling in prayer, I had no sense that God was there. I asked God where He was in all of this, but the only thing I took away was a question, “Does God really like all this bling?”

A challenge to faith

I left St. Peter’s with some very uncomfortable questions. Why all these paintings and opulence? Why memorials to saints and past Popes? Why this devotion to saints and relics, and since I was questioning other things, I might as well ask whether the church needed devotion to the Virgin Mary? I yearned for a tiny chapel with white-washed walls, which was totally free of images, and wondered why the Catholic church couldn’t adopt this plan for its interior decoration.

The narrative I’d learnt as a Protestant went something like this: when Jesus founded the church, it was pure and simple and good. However, somewhere along the way (although it wasn’t quite defined when), the church acquired unnecessary and even idolatrous practices, such as confession and praying to the saints and the Virgin Mary. The Reformation came and allowed Christians to return to the simple pure form of worship which had existed in the early church.

After visiting St. Peter’s, I felt the attraction and the persuasiveness of this argument. Perhaps the Catholic church had drifted far away from what Christ intended. Maybe I had made a huge error joining it.

To stop this post becoming too long. I’ll describe in the next one how I received answers to these questions.

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.