Doubts and reaching out to God

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

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

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

Discussing faith as a Protestant

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

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

Getting used to being silent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doubting Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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More thoughts on Advent

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Calendars and chocolate

Every morning almost the first thing my children do is open their Advent Calendar and eat the chocolate. After this highlight has passed they have to wait another 24 hours before they can open the next door.

I think that my dog now understands the word Advent. While they are opening their chocolates, she sits patiently on the floor and follows every gesture until someone remembers to open the Doggie Advent Calendar and give her a thin, brown slab which looks very like chocolate. It’s okay. I checked. There’s no cocoa in it, just chocolate flavouring.

My dog has to do a lot of waiting. She lurks under the table while we are eating and waits to be fed afterwards. She waits to be taken out for walks. While we’re out at work, she sleeps and looks after the house and then almost turns inside out with joy when we return.

Waiting

I’m not very good at waiting. As I’ve already mentioned, I’m trying to do a new job which involves learning new skills. That’s a lot more difficult than acquiring knowledge.

Knowledge can be broken down into manageable steps. I can see how far I’ve gone and how far I’ve still to go. However, I don’t learn new skills easily. Although I try hard, I tend to be tense and worried and impatient with myself when I don’t make visible progress. It took me two years to learn to swim and four attempts to pass my driving test.

It’s hard for me to be patient in the situation of learning a new job. I have to be humble enough to accept my own failure; I make mistakes every day. Experience is only gained through trying, failing and trying again. Often I feel as if I am trying to climb an icy slope in skis; every time I make a little progress, I fall and slither back down again.

Caryll Houselander’s meditations on Advent

In the middle of this, I am reading Caryll Houselander’s ‘Reed of God’. The Reed of God refers to Mary’s emptiness and her willingness to be used by God, like a reed which is fashioned for breath and music. Our parish priest recommended it, because I am still struggling, as a Catholic convert, to understand the role of the Virgin Mary.

Three things have surprised me about Caryll Houselander’s writing. The first is the simple and direct way in which she writes, turning over what I thought were familiar ideas and showing them in a new light.

The second is the fact that I often forget that the meditations are on Mary, the Mother of God, because Christ is at the centre of them.

The third thing which has surprised me is relevant these meditations, written during the Second World War, are to my life at the moment.

Writing about Advent, Caryll Houselander says:

‘Advent is the season of the secret, the secret of the growth of Christ, of Divine Love growing in silence.

It is the season of humility, silence and growth.’

She writes about Christ growing within us unseen, like a baby in the womb, or a seed in the soil. In the darkness of winter, it looks as if nothing is happening, but hidden in the soil, a seed is beginning to sprout.

Just as the Mother of God waited for Christ to grow within her, a time of quietness and darkness is necessary for Christ to grow within our souls. Even if nothing seems to be happening, we must recognise by faith that Christ has taken root within us. If we do then we will learn to see that our lives are not insignificant, because where we go, Christ goes with us.

‘By His own will Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent: He was absolutely helpless; He could go nowhere but where she chose to take Him; He could not speak; her breathing was His breath; His heart beat in the beating of her heart.

To-day Christ is dependent upon men.’

Work, too, is a part of this process of waiting and growing. For Caryll Houselander it is something into which a person must patiently put the whole of themselves, whether it is in the creation of something which takes time, such as a sculpture, or something apparently ephemeral, such as sweeping the floor. She writes:

‘The permanency in it is in the generation of Christlife. That outlasts time itself. It is eternal.’

My own Advent

Reading ‘The Reed of God’ has helped me to recognise and accept my own season of Advent. It is a period when progress, if any, is slow and almost imperceptible. At a time when God’s presence is lighter than a breath, something so quiet and gentle that it is hard to recognise amongst the noise and business of my life, I must learn to nurture the life of Christ within. Caryll Houselander says, ‘We must fold our concentrated love on Him like earth, surrounding, holding and nourishing the seed.’

Growth can be painful. These words from ‘The Reed of God’ have given me encouragement to be patient:

‘If only those who suffer would be patient with their early humiliations and realise that Advent is not only the time of growth but also of darkness and hiding and waiting, they would trust, and trust rightly, that Christ is growing in their sorrow, and in due season all the fret and strain and tension of it will give way to a splendour of peace.’

Lent …. again

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Just when there is a stretch in the days, and the wind dies down and the sun casts a pale shadow through the cloud, Father K stands up at the end of Mass, waves an envelope with the SCIAF collection box, and reminds us that Lent begins on Wednesday.

What, Lent? Already? My health hasn’t been great recently, so I haven’t indulged in coffee or chocolate for a while. Now that my stomach has finally settled down, I find out that there are only a few days left to enjoy it.

Why, oh why, oh why, did I join a church which has an annual six week period of penance? Because I had to, is the answer. I’m not talking about external pressure, but about the still, small voice inside, which said that this was the way I must go. I might not always like it, or feel like doing it, and I might moan about it, but I have to go on.

What I used to think about Lent

As a Protestant, I had very vague ideas about Lent. I knew that it had something to do with Pancake Tuesday, and using up all your eggs. However, I thought that it was a sort of medieval thing which people didn’t do any more.

I got a bit of a shock some years ago when my husband announced that it was Lent, and that it would be a good idea for us all to give up chocolate until Easter.

My angry reaction was out of all proportion to the small sacrifice involved. I enjoyed my wee nibble of chocolate now and then and no-one, certainly not some stuffy, traditional church, was going to dictate if and when I would give it up.

However, I knew that small children will not give up chocolate biscuits, if they see their mother eating them, and so I went along with it. I started without much good grace, but soon realised that giving up something made me conscious of others who had much less than I had. It made sense. Perhaps this was the first step on a slippery slope which eventually brought me into the Catholic church.

How things are now

Even though I’ve done Lent a few times, it doesn’t get any easier. I’m a bit apprehensive. Last year was difficult. Without even trying to turn up at church in a penitent mood, I found that I was quite affected by Lent and became very conscious of my own failings and inadequacies.

In a world where resources are so unevenly distributed, and where foodbank collection points have become a permanent feature in the local supermarket, I hope that doing without small luxuries for a while, will help me to be grateful for what I have, and remember others who don’t have enough.

Lent is mirrors the forty days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and praying. When I think of Lent, I remember that Christ gave up far more than I can ever understand just to take on human form. I’m sure that he enjoyed his human life. He started his public ministry at a wedding feast, after all. However, he willingly gave up his life.

I’ve just used up all the cocoa in the house. I’m still not sure what this year’s Lent will involve, but I think that it may require an internet diet. If I write this blog, it might just be to put up quotes I’ve found useful. Best wishes for the Lenten season.

 

 

 

Purple is for Advent

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I had heard of Lent and giving up chocolate in the weeks before Easter, but it was a not entirely pleasant surprise to find out that Advent is also a time of self examination and penance when Catholics prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ.

The reformed church in which I grew up did not recognise Christmas as a religious festival. Some people did not celebrate Christmas at all, and others kept it as a purely commercial festival for the sake of the kids. Christmas for me was a time of quietly counting Christmas trees glimpsed through open curtains, delving into stockings, unwrapping presents from gaudy paper and over-indulging in food. Although I knew the story of Christ’s birth, I was more likely to hear it in July than at Christmas time.

The idea that the time leading up to Christmas is one of self-restraint as Catholics prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, came as a bit of a shock. I find it hard to reconcile what is going on inside and outside the church at this time of year.

Outside, shops are full of tinsel and bright Christmas displays. I brave packed department stores and queues at checkouts and leave with heavy bags and an empty feeling that I have somehow missed the point. Harried mothers exchange notes on how much shopping there is still left to do. I feel the burden of Christmas as an annual commercial ritual, which becomes more costly every year.

Inside, the church is quiet, waiting, the only decoration is the four candles in the Advent wreath. Extra time has been set aside for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The readings from the prophets talk about God’s mercy, a people being redeemed and returning from exile, streams flowing in the desert dryness. The cry of John the Baptist from the wilderness echoes down the years.

The priest wears purple, just as in Lent. I always thought that purple was a royal colour, a sign of wealth, more suited to celebration than penance. I wondered, why purple was used, and in the liturgical year book for England and Wales for 2013-2014, I found this beautiful explanation. For those who don’t know, as I didn’t until recently, a new liturgical year begins at the start of Advent.

The Year begins in darkness a deep purple darkness where we long for light and the bright shimmer of a star is a sign of hope and life. In the Liturgical Year, purple or violet is a colour of longing, renewal and expectation: in Advent and Lent, at funerals or in the Sacrament of Penance, purple should speak to us of that which we long and yearn for: like a deer longs for running streams, so we yearn for the living God to come to us, to heal us, to be with us. Our purple is a sign of all we long for: the presence of Christ, the washing clean of all sin, the resurrection of the dead.

Purple is also a sign of kingship and majesty the One who comes, the One who heals, the One who raises the dead is himself the King who reigns from the cross….The Church and the liturgy should be waiting not quite there yet, just around the corner….Advent is the unfilled glass polished and made ready speaking in its emptiness of what is to fill it.

 

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.

More on Saints

March 10th was the Feast Day of Saint John Ogilvie. I went along to Mass and found out some interesting things:

Feast days are celebrated on the anniversary of a Saint’s death or martyrdom, which might seem a bit morbid unless you think of it as celebrating their birthday in heaven. This turns on its head our ideas of birthdays as marking another year in this world.

On a Saint’s Day, the priest wears vivid red robes to symbolise the blood shed by the Saint. Sometimes all this colour coding makes me feel as if becoming a Catholic has sent me back to the nursery stage. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 18:3, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

All my senses are engaged at Mass. There is the sight of colours and pictures and symbols, the touch of holy water, the taste of bread and wine and the smell of incense. That’s not to forget, of course, the importance of hearing, in listening to the Word. Hearing was the one sense I was used to associating with churches when I was a child as sermons often went on for over an hour, and there was nothing to look at but rows of hats and bald heads in a gloomy church interior.

I have been warming to St. John Ogilvie ever since I found out that, like me, he was brought up in a Calvinist family. I tried to pray a novena in honour of St. John Ogilvie in the nine days leading up to his feast day.

When I started, it didn’t seem like a big deal to say a prayer every day for nine days, but it became increasingly difficult. Round about day five or six, I felt as if I couldn’t trust God, and the last thing I wanted to do was pray to Him. If I hadn’t been in the middle of a novena, I’d probably have just distracted myself with other things and told myself that I was too busy to pray. However, because I had committed to saying the prayer, I was forced to face my lack of trust and bring the feelings to God. It hurt. By the ninth day, I felt is if I had been through a painful spiritual fitness regime.

Father K says that Catholics don’t pray to saints; they pray through them. I’m still trying to understand what that means. The novena asked the saints for their prayers, just like I might ask a friend for their prayers when I am in difficulty. I don’t know of any Christian believers who have a problem with asking others for their prayers. The difficulty for Protestants lies in asking saints who have passed on for their prayers. If we pray at all then we can’t believe that the barrier between this world and the next is as solid and opaque as the evidence of our senses would suggest. The difference between the Catholic and the Protestant worldview is that Catholics believe that those who have passed away still take an interest in us and in some way still participate in God’s work in our lives through their prayers.

In the culture that I come from, there is a sense that the unseen world is just behind a veil and there are many stories of interactions between the dead and the living. This awareness is stronger among those who still have links to traditional cultures. Because of my family links, the Communion of Saints was one of the Catholic beliefs which came to me more naturally.

More thoughts about Ash Wednesday

I was quite a way through the day before I found out that Catholics are supposed to fast on Ash Wednesday. It was a bit too late by then, but how was I supposed to know when no-one had told me? I guess that Catholic converts are supposed to just pick up these things as they go along. I’d probably have run a mile if I’d been handed a manual of rules when I decided to become Catholic, so it’s just as well that I wasn’t.
I guess that the rules only make sense if they help you get to the spirit of what’s behind them. Many years ago, when I married, people wondered if I was going to become Catholic like my husband. My reaction was, “No chance. Why would I exchange one traditional church and its heavy burden of rules with another?”
Now I’ve come full circle. I didn’t keep rules (apart from traffic ones) for many years. I no longer feel I have to keep religious rules to please other people, or because I’m scared of the consequences of breaking them. I could just ignore this new set of rules, but if I did, maybe I would miss out on an important lesson which the rule is trying to teach me. Somewhere in the middle, between keeping rules for the wrong reason and ignoring them altogether, is a very narrow path where keeping the rule leads to a deeper understanding of some aspect of faith.
Why do religion at all? Is it for the show of the thing, or for the spirit? God is bigger than all of our religions, but without the discipline of some kind of religious practice can we really know God? I’m sure that we can have some knowledge of God without religion, but will we be challenged to go further? I don’t know the answers. I’m just throwing up questions here.
How long are you supposed to keep the ashes on your forehead? There’s another question I don’t know the answer to. I didn’t want to wipe them off right after leaving church, and so I walked home through our mainly Protestant town, with a hat that didn’t quite pull down all the way to my eyebrows. I’ve made some mental notes to prepare for Ash Wednesday next year:
1 Grow a long fringe and/or
2 Bring a low brimmed hat to church

Queuing up for ashes

Today I queued up to receive ashes on my forehead. I’ve stood in line for cinema tickets, at supermarket tills, at airport check-in desks and, only recently, to receive the Eucharist. This is the first time I’ve joined people quietly waiting their turn to receive a sign of penance and be reminded of their mortality.
I haven’t been too sure about Ash Wednesday. It seemed like another strange thing which Catholics do and Protestants don’t. Becoming a Catholic is like entering a foreign country where people have different customs which I’m struggling to follow. It’s a very humbling to be probably at least half-way through my life and realise that I have so much to learn.
I wondered if I would go to the church today. I was curious, but a little bit scared, because it wasn’t a regular Saturday evening or Sunday morning Mass. I asked myself, as I often do, what’s the point of going to church not just on Ash Wednesday, but on any day at all.
Last year, I went to Mass on Easter Sunday for the first time in my life. The church was packed and there was an incredible feeling of joy and celebration. It wasn’t quite my first Easter Sunday service ever, but I hadn’t attended many because Easter wasn’t celebrated in the church I grew up in.
I decided today that I can’t expect to understand the full meaning of the Easter celebrations if I don’t also take part in Ash Wednesday and Lent. After I got over hoping no-one noticed that I didn’t know what to do, I was glad that I went. The church was solemn and quiet and I felt that we are all in this together, struggling, failing, and yet still turning towards God. I had read that last year’s Easter palms were burnt to make the ashes we received, and I thought about how sorrow and joy are often closely interlinked.
I was glad that I made the effort to go out today, because it was a chance to set aside other things for a short while and be silent. Sometimes my mind wanders and nothing seems to happen when I go to Mass, but how do I know what God is doing in the times I am quiet and empty? I can’t pretend to understand what it’s all about, but in accepting the ashes I acknowledged that my own efforts aren’t enough. I didn’t create myself and ultimately, as a friend of mine once said to me, we’re not the ones in charge. The smudge of ashes on my forehead was a reminder that I need to make space for God.