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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Beach clothes

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Last week brought images of a woman on a beach in the south of France being asked by armed guards to either leave the beach or remove, yes remove, her over-shirt. She was dressed in leggings, headscarf and long shirt. Apparently her modest clothing was not secular enough to fit in with the new regulations on France’s beaches, where the burkini is banned (a full body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women).

I don’t get it

I just don’t get it. When I go to the beach, I am usually pretty much covered in clothes from head to toe, and no-one complains. Admittedly this is Scotland where there is almost always a stiff wind coming off the sea. If I venture near a beach in winter, I usually wear a long coat, jeans, boots and a hat. I have a scarf pulled up so that only the bridge of my nose and my eyes are showing. In fact, I don’t show any more skin than if I was wearing a burka.

Recently it’s actually been warm enough to wear a swimsuit. While the locals show off plenty of tender, white skin, visitors from sunnier climes, who don’t realise that 15 degrees Centigrade is a heat wave, have enjoyed the weak, northern sun in jeans, long shirts and jumpers and wide-brimmed hats. No-one has asked them to strip off.

Something has gone wrong if women are targeted for wanting to cover themselves up. The pressure to keep up with fashion and show off your body can be just as much of a restriction on women’s freedom as covering up for religious reasons. In the Highlands of Scotland, many women cover their heads to go to church and long skirts are de rigeur for the older generation. A look at photos of Victorian woman’s bathing attire will show something which resembles a baggier, lycra-free version of the burkini.  If a woman feels more comfortable covered up, the decision should be left to her.

Love

The secular laws in France are, whether or not that was the original intention, targeting Muslims and in particular, targeting women, themselves a more vulnerable group. In the UK, there is also a tendency to react to terrorist acts, or simply to the fact of being in contact with those from another culture and religion, by perceiving our Muslim neighbours as oppressive and potentially violent.

Last week I had a reminder that the heart of the Muslim religion is love. I watched a wonderful DVD called Bab’Aziz or The Prince who contemplated his soul. It is based around the ideas of Sufi mysticism, and is a visually beautiful film about a blind dervish and his granddaughter who wander through the desert looking for a gathering of dervishes. Their journey through the desert is a metaphor of the journey of the soul. It is demanding to watch, slow in places and then switching quickly to follow the stories of the different characters who are encountered on the way.

I cannot describe the effect that this film had on me, except to say that it left my soul panting for God as the deer pants for the water. At the end, I wanted to run to God, as a child runs to her Father, and tell Him that I wanted to give Him everything, except that my hands were too small to hold whatever that everything is. It will take a lifetime to scoop up small handfuls and offer it back to Him.

The film left me with the same feeling I have whenever I have the privilege of talking to an elderly friend of mine who is a Sufi. I recognise the hunger for God and the search for God in the other, and that lights the flame in my own heart. It seems to me that although, on the surface, there are many different traditions and ways of approaching God, underneath there is only one way and that is love, which is the hardest way of all. From Bab’Aziz:

The people of this world are like the three butterflies in front of a candle’s flame. The first one went closer and said, ‘I know about love’. The second one touched the flame lightly with his wings and said, ‘I know how love’s fire can burn.’ The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame and was consumed.

Why faith is like an organ transplant

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I haven’t put anything on this blog for a while. This is partly due to a crazy workload and partly due to the smallest person in the house playing chords on my computer in accompaniment to a lego movie. The computer was traumatised by the experience and has since then gone into retirement and refused to communicate with the outside world.

I’ve lately been thinking that taking a step forward in faith is like having a crucial organ transplant. Even though I know that I need it, my whole system has revolted against it. I feel as if I am struggling to adjust to and accept this grafted on thing which is so essential and yet feels so foreign and strange.

It’s been a turbulent year since I became Catholic. Instead of the peace and comfort which I had hoped for, I feel as if I have been picked up, turned upside down and stretched and challenged. I have borne things which I felt should have broken me, and yet it wasn’t me who bore them. I am learning to let go, open my hands and ask God to take the things which are too big for me.

I have pondered in wonder the difficult journey which has brought me from a very reformed Protestant tradition to becoming Catholic. I’ve longed to tell other people, talk it over with them, try to understand it, but it’s my journey, not theirs. Most people can’t relate to what’s happened. I’m a strangely-shaped jigsaw piece which doesn’t fit into anyone’s picture, not even my own, of how things should be.

I’ve asked myself why this has happened? Is being Catholic intrinsically better than being Protestant or Muslim or Hindu? I struggled with this question before I even became Catholic. I would feel very uncomfortable if the answer was a resounding ‘yes’. Perhaps it’s the wrong question. The only definite answer I’ve reached is that I was quite definitely asked to become Catholic. My only responsibility is to answer that call or reject it, and what happens to others is between them and God.

Many times I have raged at God. Why did He ask me to do something so difficult? Why is it okay for other people to remain in the clear stream of reformed thinking or bathe in the balmy waters of agnosticism? I liked being agnostic. I was comfortable with it. I could keep God at arm’s length while believing in His goodness in a vague sort of way. Why on earth did I have to be plunged into the melting heat and depth and darkness of this mystery called faith?

The sense of God’s presence has gone, and I’m left with only the occasional glimmer of light. I’ve encountered a taxonomy of doubt, each subtly different from the last, and yet something within has told me to go on. There is quite simply no other way.

When the doubts have been hushed and I slip into church cradling a tiny kernel of faith, I am overwhelmed by feelings of unworthiness. Who do I think I am, mocks the voice within, to go to a Catholic church and think that I’ll ever belong? An ex-Protestant can’t ever be a proper Catholic. I’ll always be a foreigner in a strange land.

In the last few weeks, I’ve stopped trying to force answers or solutions to the things which feel so difficult and confusing. I can’t understand what has happened, never mind why. In one sense I will always be becoming whatever it means to truly be Catholic, but I have stopped puzzling over the process. My spiritual immune system has calmed down a little, and I am beginning to accept that this foreign, life-giving transplant of faith is part of what I am.

I recently watched ‘My Mediterranean’, a BBC documentary in which Adrian Chiles, himself a Catholic convert, travels around the Mediterranean and asks exactly the question which has puzzled me. Do we, through our different religious traditions, all worship the same God? He met Jews, Muslims and Christians who were celebrating the presence of God in their lives in quiet, unobtrusive ways. It reminded me that God isn’t limited by the human desire to sort things into categories. I also enjoyed Adrian Chiles matter-of-fact conclusion: I think there probably is a God, so stop worrying about it, and enjoy your life.

It’s a timely reminder. I need to stop fretting over the ‘why’s’, thank God for what is and enjoy the gift of life.

What about other people?

I am going to try to tackle a subject which, after confession, presented one of the biggest challenges when I thought about become Catholic. It’s also been a challenge to write about and this blog post has been re-drafted many times over the past few weeks. Unlike Confession, this isn’t a particularly Catholic problem or even a Christian problem. I think I would have had difficulties no matter which religion I was thinking of following.

For close to twenty years, I had as little to do with formal religion as possible. Whatever the rights and wrongs are of this decision, I undoubtedly learnt much from my experience of being outside the church. Apart from a flirtation with atheism which lasted only a few months, I never stopped believing in God although there were periods when I slipped into agnosticism and concluded that God was unknown and unknowable.

Over time, even though I practised no religion, I often felt that I was touched by God through encounters with other people. Sometimes these were people whose lives crossed mine directly and sometimes they were people I read about who had done something remarkable to help others or overcome great difficulties. Not all of them were Christians and many of them were not religious.

After my first and second pregnancy, I suffered persistent health problems and started to practise yoga, meditation and Tai Chi, although not all at the same time. This helped my body to heal, but also helped me, until then a stressed type A personality, to achieve a more balanced and peaceful state of mind. When I concentrated on my breathing, I also became aware of God in me and around me. However, I avoided churches and anything to do with Christianity until I was faced with a difficult situation and it seemed I could do nothing but pray.

Despite the fact that I came to Mass, I had absolutely no intention of ever again making a formal commitment to any religion until I quite suddenly experienced what might be described as a call to become Catholic. This delighted, terrified and confused me. However, I worried that being Catholic involved believing that Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists were outside the limits of God’s mercy, and that even my Protestant family and friends were on paths which led to a spiritual dead end.

If the answer to any of the above questions was ‘yes’, then I was quite clear what my response to Catholicism would be. To borrow a phrase from our recent referendum campaign, I was going to say, ‘No Thanks.’

I had recognised God at work in my life when I was still firmly planted in the Protestant church. After I decided to have nothing to do with churches, I gradually realised that that didn’t change the fact that God was still there, quietly working in my life. Therefore I would be dishonest if I signed up for a religion which forced me to believe that everyone outside it was on a path to hell.

This question particularly affected me because I was brought up in a church which had branched off many times from other churches since the Reformation, each new group believing that they were right and that the prospects of the previous group, as far as salvation was concerned, were at best precarious. We were very suspicious of other Protestant groups, complaining that they did not keep the Sabbath day or that they held only one church service on Sunday. Catholics were probably seen as being at least as bad as pagans, and probably worse since they had corrupted Christianity.

I was very wary about committing myself to a religion if that meant not recognising God at work in the life of another, unless they fulfilled all the conditions which I or my religious group had devised about what God’s work should look like.

When I began asking Father K about Catholicism, he said he would give me a copy of the catechism to help me with my questions. Fine, I thought, remembering the booklet-sized Shorter Catechism which I had learnt off by heart as a child. When Father K, presented me with a black book thicker than the Bible, I thought he was winding me up. Did he really expect me to get through it? I haven’t read it all cover to cover, but it has been useful.

When I asked Father K about the Catholic church’s attitude to other religions, he told me to look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1257, which says that God works through His sacraments, but that he is also above them. The Catholic idea of sacraments still seemed very mysterious to me and so I kept on hunting in the catechism until I found this:

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 (CCC 1260).

That was good enough for me and I took it as proof that I could join the Catholic church without having to mentally condemn all of the rest of the world’s population. I was still faced with the challenge of how I as an individual could reconcile the feeling that God is at work in all people with
a very strong and specific call to become Catholic.

I came back to the verse, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways.” God is infinite and I am finite and limited in my understanding. He may be at work throughout humanity in many different ways, but it was clear that he wanted to work in my life in a very specific way.

I’ll leave the last words on the subject to the Jesuit, Father Gerard W. Hughes, who wrote in ‘Cry of Wonder’:

Experience was beginning to teach me that perhaps God was not nearly as fussy about religious denominations as we the clergy. God was to be found in all kinds of people, manifesting Godself in the genuine love, compassion and truthfulness of their lives.

Don’t try to change your religion …

My husband once went to listen to a talk by a Buddhist monk who was speaking at an inter-religious event. The monk told a hall full of people that they shouldn’t try to change their religion. Instead he recommended people to work within the religion in which they were brought up in order to find God.

I can see where he was coming from, because I know first hand how difficult it is to make a radical change in your religious views. I refuse to say that I changed my religion, because I was brought up in a Christian church and I have recently been received into a different Christian church.
All the same, I’ve had to make some drastic changes in my religious outlook. When I was a child, Catholics were talked about in the same way as the poor pagans in Africa. By the time I was a teenager, a few more thoughtful people in our church were beginning to say that there might be a few true believers within the Catholic church. When I announced that I wanted to marry a Catholic, I was warned about marrying into a different religion. In practice, however, my family were incredibly generous and accepting of my husband and his family.
All the same, it’s one thing to marry a Catholic and quite another to decide to become Catholic yourself. Most people won’t do what I did, because it’s too darn difficult. On the positive side, I had years of being married into a Catholic family who turned out to be, well, normal. They didn’t seem to worship images or even to worship Mary. Among my in-laws were several nuns and a priest, who visited us regularly in the early years of our marriage. On the other side of the balance, I still had my anti-Catholic attitudes. Every week I longed to go to Mass, but when I tried to actually go, it was incredibly difficult. I felt as if I was wading through a thick sludge of anti-Catholic prejudice.

I don’t know if God expects most of us to change religions. I prefer to think that, like the father in the parable of the lost son, he comes out to the fields to meet us where we are rather, than expecting us to come into his house before he’ll even talk to us. After all, his house might seem strange and foreign and frightening to people who’re not used to it.
However, I do think that we are all asked to stick our heads over the barriers which divide us. We are asked to talk to our neighbours without attaching conditions or demanding that they cross over into our territory before we begin a conversation. In short, we’re asked to love.

One of my closest friends changed religions when she was young. She is now eighty years old and her freedom to get about and do things has shrunk in many ways. However, she often tells me how grateful she is to God for giving her this period of her life. She is thankful each day for little things. No longer under pressure to achieve, she is content to just be and accept her life as it is.
This lady was brought up with a very harsh version of Catholicism and decided as a teenager to leave the church. She found it impossible to live without some sort of spirituality, and when she discovered Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, she realised that she had found her spiritual path. I was nervous about telling her that I had decided to become Catholic, because I didn’t know if old hurts would make her bitter. However, she wrote the following in her letter:
I hope that you find in this church everything which you have already sought. Religions for me are just different ways to HIM, who has no name, no form and no colour. In the deepest centre, in the mystical heart of every religion, we find the same thing. That is the wonder of mysticism. It should not lead to religious wars and conversions. In this place we are all brothers and sisters, and we sing and dance to praise HIM in our different ways and yet together.