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.

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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.’

Mary as Christ’s mother

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Marian devotion was my biggest sticking point when thinking about becoming Catholic. I had no instinct for it. Eventually I decided that since I was convinced about other aspects of Catholic faith, I would trust the church on this one.

Even before I was received into the church, I felt drawn to praying the Rosary. I wouldn’t be without it now. Meditating on the life of Jesus and Mary in this way often brings me peace when nothing else can.

However, I still puzzle over devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Our priest says that people fall into two errors when it comes to devotion to Mary: either they show too much devotion, or not enough. But what is enough? What role does she play? How does she fit into the picture? When praying the Rosary, she sometimes emerges as a concrete, human figure, but at other times she can seem elusive. Most of the time I feel more connected to my favourite saints than I do to Mary, the mother of Christ.

A dream

Recently I had a dream which helped me understand Mary’s role a little better. It was the kind of vivid dream which wakes you in the middle of the night and keeps sleep away for a while. In this dream, I was in a modern-looking church in which benches fanned out in a semi-circle from the altar. I felt apprehensive as I looked around. Many of my relatives and friends where spread out around the church and I knew that they would take a dim view of a Catholic Mass.

When, the priest began, I was on edge, hoping that the Protestant visitors weren’t feeling too out of place. It turned out to be one of those days when a hymn was sung in praise of the Virgin Mary. I felt like sinking through the floor of the church as I imagined the reactions of my Protestant friends. Why on earth did they had to turn up on a day when particular devotion was shown to the Virgin Mary? In my experience, Catholics are much more likely to sing a hymn in praise of the Eucharist than in praise of Mary or the saints.

 At this point, the Protestant visitors began protesting. I can’t remember everything that was said, but they argued strongly against Marian devotion. One of my relatives delivered the final blow. He stood up and declared that Catholics give Mary an equal position to Christ. They claim, he said, that she is co-mediatrix, an equal partner in our salvation.

My faith tottered. I wondered if I was deeply offending God by having any devotion to the Virgin Mary. I knew that I had to stand up and say something, but I had no idea what. I got to my feet and to my surprise words came to me. I said that Mary was as much a partner in Jesus’ work of salvation, as my mother was in my getting a degree.

An Analogy

These few words were enough. I awoke. It was dark and I was in my own bed, but the dream still felt very present. When I thought about it, it seemed that I had been given a good analogy.

My mother never had the chance to get a college or university education. She didn’t understand my degree subject, and I enjoyed teasing her by coming out with strange facts which she had trouble accepting. However, without her help, I would never have got a degree. She gave birth to me and brought me up to have a respect for education and knowledge.

My parents provided financial support. My Mum fed me up at half-term and sent me off again with packages of food. She didn’t bat an eyelid when I turned up with some of my strange new friends from university and told her that they needed a meal or a bed for the night. When I was lonely or things were difficult, I called her from a red telephone box in the rain. At the time I took my mother for granted, but now that I’m a mother myself, I appreciate her a lot more. Without her support, I wouldn’t have achieved what I did.

There is a parallel with the role of Mary in God’s plan of salvation. Christ, her son, did it all, and yet she was an essential part of God’s plan. She gave birth to Christ, and brought him up to love others and to love God. She encouraged and supported him, and even followed him to the foot of the cross.

Christ was fully human and yet fully divine. Like other human beings, he didn’t come from no-where. He had a family and that family helped to create the circumstances in which he could carry out his ministry and his work of salvation. Perhaps part of the reason we show devotion to his mother, is because he wants us to join him in appreciating the part she played in his life.

Only say the word

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The title for this post comes from the words of the Centurion to Jesus when he asked him to heal his sick son: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my son shall be healed. I think that they are some of the most beautiful words in the Bible.

Images of my soul

When I was a child, I thought of my soul as a small, wrinkled, prune-like organ. It was located somewhere in my head, probably right at the back.

As I grew older, I realised that the soul is not a physical organ like the heart and the liver. I stopped thinking much about it, and even questioned whether it existed.

When I began attending Mass, I still didn’t have any more than a vague belief in God, but the prayer said just before Communion, based on the Centurion’s words, made a huge impression on me: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

Now I had a new image for my soul as a windowless hovel. It was a dark, damp place that had once had strange, failed ambitions of grandeur. The walls were covered in peeling wallpaper and rotting wood panelling, which was falling off the walls.

Healing

As I watched other people go up to take the Eucharist, I imagined what sort of work Jesus would have to do if he came under my roof.

First of all, he would open the tightly shut door, and let light and fresh air into the dirt and decay. He would light a fire to warm the damp interior. Each week at Mass, I tried to give Him permission to strip away a little more of my ego and false securities. I imagined Him patiently pulling off layer after layer of old wallpaper and rotting wood and burning it on the fire.

This was a very painful process, because I had deeply entrenched ideas of what I wanted to do for my own power, honour and glory. Each time when I thought that I had opened my hands and tried to let go of everything, I discovered another layer of worthless rubbish stubbornly clinging to the walls.

Yet another image of the soul

This work of stripping away what isn’t necessary, and trying to orientate myself towards God, will be a lifelong task. I can only co-operate in it. Alone, I am powerless to change myself.

Recently another gentler image of the soul has floated into my mind. I see a modern, furnished room. I can’t quite picture the walls or the dark corners, but I do see a zebra-print sofa with red cushions. Don’t ask me why this is in the image. I can be a bit eccentric, and I do admit to owning a pair of zebra-print pyjamas. However, I wouldn’t be seen in public wearing animal prints, and I can safely say that I would never choose a zebra-print sofa.

The décor is a bit bizarre, but this image of my soul is of a room where someone might conceivably sit and rest for a while.

Recently I was assailed by doubts and feelings of inadequacy. I felt as if God was saying that there is a place and time for recognising faults. However, if I only concentrate on them, it’s like turning off the light and heat in the room. Very quickly, my soul once again becomes a dark, dank place where no-one wants to stay for long.

A place to rest

I would like my soul to be a place where Christ can come and rest for a while. Sometimes I wonder, how I can redd it up for him. Redd it up is what we say in Scotland when we are cleaning to get ready for something. For instance, when I was a child, we redd up the house and gave it a good clean for the New Year. My mother gave all of us jobs to do.

This brought me to think that Mary was the person who redd up the house for Christ when He was a child. She would have wanted the place he stayed to be clean and tidy for Him. Now I am wondering if this image of Mary redding up the house, is going to get me a little closer to the role of Mary. As Christ’s mother wouldn’t she want our souls to be warm and welcoming places for Him?

Our parish priest says that Mary’s role is to lead us to Christ and Christ brings us to the Father. I still don’t understand what this means. However, I wonder if these images of my soul are bringing me a little closer.

Some thoughts on Mary in October

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In the liturgical year, October is the month of the Rosary when the Hail Mary is said in the church. I thought it would be a good time to put down my last thoughts about Mary, the mother of Christ. As a former Protestant, who had to take the church’s teaching on Mary on faith, I have turned out to have more thoughts about this than I expected.

The doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into heaven comes from Catholic church tradition rather than directly from the Bible. It was a stumbling block for me, and I think that many Protestants have experienced the same thing when approaching the Catholic church. I thought that the doctrine of the Assumption had suspicious whiffs of Mary being promoted to an equal place with Christ, or even usurping him.

As I was drawn further into investigating Catholicism, I realised that to worry about Mary towering over the church and dominating it like some kind of overbearing matron is to completely miss the point. In my experience of the Catholic church, what is overwhelmingly emphasised is Mary’s humility, her trust in God and her total submission to His will. When an angel was sent to announce that she would conceive a child by supernatural means, she had a chance to say, “No way. That’s too difficult,” but she didn’t.

Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God, is known in Latin as her fiat. I first came across this term in the book ‘Catholicism’ by Thomas Howard. Thomas Howard was an American evangelical who converted to Catholicism. In his book he emphasises that Mary is honoured because of her submission to God’s will. She is also an example of how God likes to work, taking an unknown Jewish girl, rather than a rich or powerful person, to be a key part of his plan.

Until I began saying the Rosary and meditating on the Gospel mysteries, I never thought about how difficult it must have been for Mary to let God work in her life. If someone had asked me for a quick opinion, I would have said that being the mother of Jesus was an easy job. After all, wasn’t he without sin. Probably he didn’t even cry as a baby. Bringing him up must have been a cinch compared to my experience of coping with colicky, sleepless babies and toddler tantrums.

Meditating on the mystery of Mary and Joseph finding Jesus in the temple soon put paid to that idea. Mary and Joseph had walked a day’s journey from Jerusalem before they realised that their twelve year old son was not among the group of friends and family returning from the temple. They returned to Jerusalem, a day’s walk away, and scoured the city for a further three days, before coming across their son teaching in the temple. When they found him, he was remarkably cool about being parted from his parents for five days, but Mary and Joseph must have been in a fever pitch of worry. This is the only recorded incident from Jesus’ childhood, and it shows a boy who already has his own firm ideas about his priorities and mission in life. Bringing up God’s son, must have been demanding and challenging, and required a great deal of trust in God for the strength and wisdom to meet the task.

This isn’t even to mention the challenge of assenting to be a teenage, single mother (“I conceived a child by the Holy Spirit” – try telling that to your parents), or making a long journey to Bethlehem in the final stages of pregnancy knowing that there would be a rush on hotels and lodgings.

The ultimate test of Mary’s trust in God, was when she followed her only son on the route to Calvary and stayed with him as he suffered a brutal and degrading death. A few months ago, a group of men were executed for drug trafficking in Indonesia. The day before the execution, the mother of one of them issued a final appeal for mercy. Her emotion was so great that it was almost impossible to make out words in her warbling cry of distress.

Facing the death of a child, especially a foreseeable, violent, preventable death, is the worst thing a mother can go through. Catholics believe that even at the foot of the cross, Mary did not lose her faith in God or her assent to his will. Mary is addressed as ‘full of grace’ because she fully co-operated with the work of grace in her life.

Although I prayed the other mysteries of the Gospel, it was a long time before I could meditate the mysteries of Mary’s assumption into heaven and her crowning by Christ. When I finally did, I found that they challenged my own life. If Christ valued his mother so much that he wanted to bring her body and soul into heaven and honour her with a crown, how do I honour my parents?

Our parish priest often says that Christ is there to lead us to God the Father, and Mary, by her example of humility and submission to God’s will, is there to lead us to Christ. I still don’t fully understand this aspect of Catholic teaching. However, I have found my own faith to be strengthened by meditating on Mary’s example.

Did Jesus have brothers and sisters?

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Does it matter whether Jesus had brothers and sisters? I’m asking this question at the start of this article, because for a long time it seemed to me that it didn’t matter. Quibbling about whether Jesus had siblings seemed as irrelevant as arguing about whether other historical figures had brothers and sisters. Unless they played in an important role in the story of someone’s life, such as Cleopatra scandalising Rome by murdering her sister on a temple steps, what did it matter?

In several places, the New Testament refers to Jesus’ brothers or brothers and sisters. The theological argument seems to hinge around whether the Bible literally means Jesus’ siblings when it refers to his brothers and sisters, or whether it meant wider family connections. The other argument concerns the translation of Matthew 1:24 and 25. Protestant translations say that Joseph did not have relations with his wife until she gave birth to her son whilst the New Jerusalem Bible uses the word when. A lot hangs on one word.

I don’t know any ancient languages and so I couldn’t study the originals and make up my own mind. I had to trust the theologians, but which ones should I believe? Catholic doctrine rests on centuries of tradition, which is discounted by modern Protestants. Interestingly, however, the Protestant reformers, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, believed in the perpetual virginity of Jesus’ mother.

These things were going around in my head, and I decided to put myself in Joseph’s shoes. Imagine the following scenario.

You are a man living in a traditional society. You are engaged to be married to a young girl. She seems like the sort of person who will make you a good wife until you find out that she is expecting a baby. You feel deceived and disappointed, but rather than publicly shaming her, you decide to quietly end the engagement. Before you can do so, however, an angel visits you in a dream, and tells you not to end the relationship, because your fiancee hasn’t cheated on you. She is, in fact, carrying a child which she has conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Son of God himself.

You are profoundly affected by this experience. Instead of breaking up with your fiancee, you marry her, and provide her with a home, respectability and protection. Even though you both have to travel to a distant village for a census when she is heavily pregnant, you help her to find a safe place to give birth to the baby. You do all this, because you are a pious man and believe that you are following God’s will for your life.

After the child is born, what do you do? Do you demand marital relations with the woman who has borne the Son of God?

My gut reaction was, NO WAY!!!!! If I was in Joseph’s position, I would not dare. It would take a crass, unpious man to demand marital relations with a woman who has conceived a child by the Holy Spirit, and Joseph was neither of these things.

By thinking of it in this way, Mary remaining a virgin after giving birth to Jesus, seems like the only possibility.

To get back to the question, I asked at the beginning, does it matter whether Mary remained a virgin and whether Jesus had siblings? I think it does. By saying that Mary and Joseph had other children, the Protestant church puts an emphasis on Jesus’ humanity. Yes, Jesus was fully human, and it is very important to remember this. However, he was also fully divine. By losing him somewhere in a muddle of other children, we forget his divinity and the absolute uniqueness of his birth.

The Catholic teaching that Mary remained a virgin and had no other natural children, helps me to keep sight of the miraculous and extraordinary nature of Jesus birth. He was the only human child ever conceived by the Holy Spirit. He was God’s only Son, and his divinity shimmers out through his humanity in the story of his conception and birth.

I’ll give the last word to blog article on the perpetual virginity of Mary. It was written by Fr Longenecker, who was an evangelical before he became an Anglican priest. He is now a Catholic priest.

Some more thoughts on Mary

This Saturday is the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and so I thought it was time to finish this blog post and put it up. The picture here is of the Shiant Islands off the West Coast of Scotland. The island on the left is known as Eilean Mhoire, the island of the Virgin Mary.

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I really thought that after writing two posts on my thoughts about Catholic teaching on Mary, I had run out of things to say. Not that this isn’t a rich subject, but I was a bit blank, and didn’t really have much of a personal reaction or gut feeling about it. As I explained in a previous post, this was a part of Catholic teaching on which I felt pretty neutral. I was neither for nor against, and in the end, when I decided to become Catholic, I decided to stop sitting on the fence and trust the church’s teaching in this regard.

As far as I can see, the three aspects of Catholic teaching on Mary, which differ from Protestant teaching are:

Mary, by God’s grace, was conceived without sin and kept free from sin all her life. This is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. I got really confused about this at first because I thought that Immaculate Conception meant that Christ was conceived free from sin and I didn’t have a problem with that bit and so wondered what all the fuss was about.

Mary remained a virgin, even after she gave birth to Christ.

At the end of her life, Mary was taken up into heaven. This is known as the Assumption.

The Bible doesn’t specifically spell out any of these teachings. Part of the problem for Protestants, therefore, is not just the beliefs themselves, but the fact that they derive from church tradition rather than directly from the Bible.

When I began thinking about becoming Catholic, I was quite open to the idea that the Bible is part of a wider church tradition. In fact, after some bad experiences as a result of the way people interpreted the Bible, I welcomed the idea that ancient tradition helps us to correctly interpret and live out Biblical teaching. At the same time, however, I was suspicious of any ‘add-ons’ to the Christianity I had been presented with as a child.

I don’t know what I was hoping for, when I began to investigate Catholic teaching on Mary. Maybe I was a bit wistful. Perhaps I hoped that it would all click and that I would feel as if I had gained an extra mother in heaven.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception began to make sense one day when I was out for a walk, turning things over in my mind, and remembered being pregnant and the feeling I had at times of being in total union with my unborn child. Sometimes I held my baby and time seemed to stop as well as the boundaries between one being and another. In the light of my own experience of pregnancy, I could not believe that Mary could have been pregnant with the Son of God and at the same time been bogged down in sin. The two just couldn’t go together.

After I began to think of it in this way, it was easy to accept that Mary was sinless when she was pregnant with Christ. What about the time before then? That wasn’t quite so clear to me, but it also seemed strange that there would be an abrupt change in her life, from sinful to sinless. I’m going to link here again to a blog article by another Protestant convert discussing how he came to accept the Immaculate Conception.

Protestants will object that if Mary was born sinless then she couldn’t have been saved through Christ’s death on the cross. However, when Pope Pius IX proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, he stressed that it was by God’s grace working through Jesus Christ, The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin. (Pope Pius IX, 1854). Because God is eternal and outside time, Christ’s sacrifice was effective to save Mary from sin, even though her son had not yet been born and died.

If Mary never sinned, does that somehow put her above needing her son’s sacrifice on the cross? Somewhere on the internet (unfortunately I don’t remember where to acknowledge the idea), I read a brilliant explanation of the two meanings of the word saved. You can be saved from drowning by someone who jumps into the water and pulls you out. However, you could also be saved from drowning by someone who pulls you back before you fall into the water. The way in which Mary was saved from sin by her son’s sacrifice, without actually herself committing sin, is more like the second meaning of the word saved.

I think that’s enough for now. I’ll try and write about the other two differences between Protestant and Catholic belief in another article.

Statues of Mary

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From time to time, we visit the Southern Isles off the west coast of Scotland. The southern part of the Western Isles are Catholic from Barra north to Benbecula. More or less undisturbed by the Reformation, there are shrines to the Virgin Mary at the edge of the road. On a hillside in South Uist, stands a 25 foot tall statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms as she looks down over the north part of the island and out towards the sea. It is known as Our Lady of the Isles or in Gaelic, Bana Thighearna nan Eilean. The statue was built in the nineteen fifties, at a time when a huge military establishment was proposed on the island which would have resulted in the displacement of the native people and their way of life. In the end, a scaled down version of the military range was built and no-one was displaced, although the hillside where Our Lady of the Isles stands is topped by radar domes, making it a strange juxtaposition of mother and child and military might.

The last time I visited this statue, I had already made the decision to become Catholic. I watched my children playing at the foot of the statue, looked out over the lochs and crofts of South Uist, and wondered how devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, was going to work out in my life. This is something which comes instinctively to Catholics, but which is a great challenge to Protestants. As we clambered back into the car, and drove northwards, over the causeway to the island of Benbecula, I felt a deep, settled sense of peace, the kind of feeling which you can’t explain or manufacture for yourself. It comes as a gift.

That was the only time I have ever really experienced a felt connection to Mary the mother of Christ. It is one of these things which doesn’t come naturally, but until it does, I’ll just keep on trusting the church’s teaching in this regard.

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That isn’t quite the end of the story. A few days later, I was walking past a statue of a lady, and experienced an instantaneous feeling of peace as I thought to myself that it was nice to see another statue of the Virgin Mary. It took a few seconds for my mind to catch up and realise that I had returned to a mainly Protestant town, and that I was looking at an image of a rich lady who had lived in the nineteenth century. By the standards of her time, she was considered a good person, but from a modern point of view she was someone who lived a priviledged lifestyle whilst others around her lived in poverty.

As a reformed Protestant, I was brought up to regard religious statues as idolatrous, but I asked myself what’s worse: erecting a statue of Mary and baby Jesus or putting up a statue to glorify a politician, a landlord, a member of the royal family or a military dignitary? If we take the view that religious statues are idolatrous, then we should be consistent and ban any statues which glorify influential people, whether they are dead or alive.

If we look at it another way and say that putting up a statue of a notable person is not idolatrous, but a way of honouring them and reminding us of their life or their achievements, then isn’t that exactly what a religious statue does?It’s not put there, so that we can worship a slab of stone, but as a reminder of a person’s life and how God used them.

Given a choice between an image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a statue of a rich nineteenth century lady, I would choose a statue of Our Lady any day.

Images of Mary

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If you had asked me about Catholicism when I was growing up, I would probably have told you lots of things which I have since discovered aren’t true. Top of my list of misinformation would have been that Catholics ‘worship Mary’. There was an elderly man in our church who took every opportunity (and I really mean every opportunity) to accost Catholics and demand why they worshipped Mary.

Devotion to Mary is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for Protestants who are attracted to Catholicism. I still found this aspect of Catholic teaching challenging, even though I had been married into a Catholic family for many years before I even thought about becoming Catholic.

When I met my husband, I was far too much in love with him to worry about religious questions. After meeting his family, who included several nuns and priests, I realised that although they had a special respect for Mary, it was clearly Christ who was at the centre of things.

For years, I thought of it as a cultural thing. Every Christmas we went through a bit of a pantomine at home. My husband bought Christmas cards with reproductions of classical paintings of the nativity. The Virgin and child were, of course, in the centre of the picture. Even if they hadn’t had the address of a Catholic charity on the back, I wouldn’t have sent these cards to my relatives, because they were just, well, a bit too Catholic looking.

My church was so reformed that Christmas and Easter, the two biggest Christian festivals, were not celebrated, which was not to say that the Christian teaching behind them was not spoken about. Our minister might happen to preach a sermon on Christ’s birth in July, whilst we were taught about Christ’s death on the cross in practically every sermon. However, if you were to visit our church on a Sunday towards the end of December, the sermon would almost certainly not include any mention of the birth of a child in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.

When we were young, my parents didn’t want us to feel left out, and so we celebrated Christmas as a commercial festival. In keeping with this, I sent my Protestant relatives garish pictures of snowmen and Santa Claus, while my husband sent his Catholic relatives classic nativity scenes of the virgin and child. It was something which we teased each other about. However, it now seems symbolic. Mary brought Christ into the Catholic Christmas, whilst the focus of my ultra-reformed Protestant Christmas was getting new toys and eating too much food.

When I was coming close to making a commitment to become Catholic, I felt that other aspects of Catholic teaching such as saints and transubstantiation and marriage as a sacrament, had clicked into place. However, I still didn’t feel that I really understood at a heart rather than head level the role of Mary in the church. I asked Father K if it was all right if I said I was prepared to trust the church on their teaching on Mary in the hope that I would eventually understand it better. He said that this would be fine, and after that, there really were not any major reasons why I couldn’t become Catholic

Going back to where I started with the Christmas cards, in all the traditional paintings of the nativity, Mary is pictured with Christ. God could have found some other way to parachute his Son into the world, but he chose to do it through a woman. Through praying the Rosary and meditating on the Gospel mysteries, I’ve thought more about Mary’s role. It hasn’t brought me closer to feeling any strong devotion to her, but it has brought me further in my devotion to Christ.

Can I do Catholic-lite?

When I looked into becoming a Catholic, I thought that I could do Catholic-lite. I wanted to take the parts which were most similar to the Protestant tradition, such as the Gospel teachings, and leave out the uncomfortable extras such as saints and devotion to Mary. It was a bit like choosing a diet version of a cheese spread which claims to have half the fat, and expecting it to have all the taste and goodness of the full fat version.
In the last few months, it’s become increasingly clear that Catholic-lite isn’t an option, as I’ve been gently nudged towards the things I find most challenging.
A few months ago, I was browsing a Catholic blog on the internet and was astounded to find out that the Rosary contains a series of meditations on the Gospel. That might seem obvious to people brought up Catholic, but I didn’t really know anything about the Rosary apart from a vague idea that it had something to do with ‘praying to Mary’.
The same still voice which had planted the desire to become Catholic now made the suggestion that I should learn to pray the Rosary. By this time, I knew better than to argue with this voice, even though this idea was very challenging for someone brought up in a very reformed tradition. I tried to compromise. Acquiring Rosary beads was just a step to far, they were just too Catholic a symbol, but I would learn to pray the Rosary.
I began meditating on one mystery a day, praying while I was walking the dog, or at night when I couldn’t sleep. I used my fingers to count off the prayers. I was surprised, and even slightly embarrassed, to realise that I found this method of prayer comforting, and not in the least repetitive or boring. As a Protestant, I hadn’t given much thought to Mary’s role in the Gospel story. Because I was saying the Hail Mary, it seemed natural to imagine some of the Gospel scenes from her point of view, and I gained new insights. I also realised that I have sometimes viewed Christ as a vague divine figure who floated around first century Palestine with his feet hardly touching the ground. Praying the Rosary has helped me to consider Christ’s humanity as well as his divinity.
Although I began to see all these benefits, I still resisted getting the Rosary beads. However, they came to me without me even trying. My husband was away on a work trip and the night before he came back, I woke up in the night with a very strong image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It was so vivid that when I got up in the morning, I looked up the passage in John 10 about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. That evening, as my husband unpacked his bags, he tossed me a plastic case with a brightly coloured picture of Pope Francis on the top. Inside were Rosary beads and on the crucifix was a tiny image of Christ carrying a lamb with a flock of sheep behind him.
I laughed, with joy because I realised that I was finally ready for these beads, with humour because my husband had probably deliberately given me the most Catholic-looking symbol he could find, and with thankfulness for the image of the good shepherd which seemed to be God’s way of saying that it was okay for me to pray the Rosary, even if I had been brought up Protestant.