Ecumenical

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Recently I visited the baile mor (big city). Okay, Inverness is big to us. As I was walking along the river bank, I passed St. Andrews Cathedral and decided to go in for a few moments of prayer.

St Andrews is Episcopalian (Anglican in Scotland). Since becoming Catholic, I’ve tended to avoid going into non-Catholic churches. Part of this has been worry about feeling awkward, but mostly I’ve been afraid of sitting in a cold, empty building and feeling as if God wasn’t there.

However, on this particular day, I was feeling open and curious. What would be different, what would be the same? A splendidly-dressed man in full Highland regalia stood just inside the door beside a table with information. Okay, that was certainly different. Maybe he was just there for the tourists.

Different rituals

The rituals which I found so difficult when I first went to Catholic churches, have almost become automatic responses. I looked around for a holy water font. Not seeing one there, I looked towards the front. Yes, there was an altar, but where was the tabernacle. Did they have them in Episcopalian churches? I was in a quandary. Should I curtsey towards where I thought the tabernacle might be?

Stop making a stupid fuss, I told myself. Do what you always did in Protestant churches. Walk down the aisle and take a seat in a pew.

Further up the church, I spotted something familiar: a stand for candles. They were tall, thin ones rather than squat tea lights, but so what. A candle is a candle. I lit one and read the prayer beside it, which was exactly the same as one I’d read in many Catholic churches.

I chose a pew near the candles and faced the next decision. Should I kneel or sit? I would normally kneel if I went into a Catholic church to say a prayer. There was a cushioned kneeler on the floor. However, the other people in the church were all sitting, and I decided to do the same.

Trying to pray

Next, I tried to pray. I’ve been reading a book on contemplative prayer by Ignacio Larrañaga which recommends starting with an exercise to calm yourself and clear your mind, such as concentrating on breathing or pulse. Sometimes thoughts intrude. On other days I manage a verbal prayer, a thank you or a please help. Often, I nod off, even sitting up, but wake up feeling more peaceful.

Fr. Larrañaga says that contemplative prayer should have no other aim beyond just being in God’s presence, being open to God and just letting ourselves be seen by God. Contemplative prayer, he says, should go beyond words.

Unfortunately, I’ve seldom managed to get into this state of praying or being which goes beyond words and mental processes. Fr Larrañaga says that it takes patience, perseverance and above all, grace. Sometimes you can do a lot of work for little apparent result or at other times a little work can yield a huge result.

Reaching a state of peace

In St Andrews Cathedral in Inverness, I had one of these rare moments when I entered God’s presence and just was. Without doing more than the most basic exercises to calm my mind and place my worries in God’s hands, I reached a state of peace and well-being.

I looked around the Cathedral, watching the flickering candles and smoke trailing from one which had guttered out, listening to an organist practice hymns, observing a woman priest – yes, a woman! – prepare the altar for Communion. A mother came in with a pushchair, sat at the front for a few moments, and then left.

I saw all this without letting my thoughts snag on any of it. At the same time, I experienced an incredible calmness and peace and sense that God was there.

Can you take something back from contemplation?

 

The organist finished practicing with a loud chord which jolted me out of the state of prayer and into simply sitting on a wooden pew in a dim church.

The fruits of contemplation are not something which you can take away, exploit or trade with. I can’t even describe to myself what happened. All I remember is that I felt as if I have been falling over the past year, further and further as false securities have been stripped away. Only faith gave me hope that somehow, despite all appearances, God is there.

However, in this brief period of contemplation, I felt that instead of falling, I was being held. I had finally reached the bottom, touched the ground of my soul, and discovered that God is there.

I left the cathedral and went shopping on the Longman Road in a state of bliss. Now, anyone who knows the Longman Road will acknowledge that this alone is proof that something supernatural happened. It is a busy, polluted road going through an industrial estate: the kind of place you only go if you really need something, like a car part or a D.I.Y. tool and not normally associated with states of peace and joy.

If course, I bobbed back up to the surface very soon like a cork in a bottle. Over the next few days, I felt irritable and neglected prayer. If that’s the standard, how on earth am I ever going to reach it again? Perhaps there’s no point even trying. A strong experience of God is a gift. However, if I don’t set time aside for calmness and prayer, I’m not making myself available to receive the gifts that God might want to give.

The fact that God chose to make His presence felt in a non-Catholic church, is a reminder that no-one has a monopoly on Christ. It also strengthens my conviction that God doesn’t call people across religious divisions so that He can dig a deeper ditch. Rather he wants us to bear witness to the fact that God is present on both sides of the divide and in the no-man’s land in between.

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Lousy at Lent

It’s the last week of Lent, and I’ve got to admit that I’ve been pretty lousy at it. For one thing, we have lots of birthdays in Lent and children have to have cake. I’ve been told that birthdays are an exception, like feast days.

This made me wonder. How many saints have feast days in Lent? I can only think of only St Joseph (19th March) and St. John Ogilvie (10th March). Did anyone ever try to find as many saint’s feast days as possible so they could wriggle out of Lent? Okay, I know that’s not the spirit of the thing.

This Lent I’m realising that it’s not so much about what you give up as what you put in. My resolution of going to bed earlier to spend some time in prayer or reflection did not go too well. Just five more minutes on facebook, email or online news, I told myself each night and five became ten and before I knew it, I was heading up to bed at my usual time too tired and too distracted to try to pray.

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Show me your face

Hmm. Okay, I’ve tried harder over the last week and have finally managed to finally get into my Lenten book Muestrame Tu Rostro by Fr Ignacio Larrañaga (literally, show me your face, but the English translation is Sensing Your Hidden Presence).

Ignacio Larrañaga’s book From Suffering to Peace helped me through a difficult time, and I was looking forward to reading another of his books. However, I got bogged down in the first few chapters of Muestrame Tu Rostro. If I hadn’t made a commitment to at least try to read it during Lent, I’d probably have abandoned it.

The first problem was that I was trying to read the original version. I love reading Spanish, but my ambitions sometimes exceed my abilities. I have to read slowly, and it takes a lot more commitment to persevere with a Spanish book than an English one.

My second stumbling block was that Fr Larrañaga starts a book about prayer by talking about the difficulties and discouragements of praying. He illustrated this with examples of people who dedicated their lives to God, but never experienced anything but dryness in prayer and a sense of God’s absence. Hmm, I can recognise myself when it comes to the feeling that nothing is happening, and perhaps maybe I’m just talking to myself.

A lot of work for little effort?

He also talks about how prayer, unlike many other things in life such as studying a language or practising music, doesn’t yield results which related to the effort put in. For instance, someone could keep an all-night vigil in church and leave with absolutely no feeling of peace, and another person could turn their thoughts briefly to God as they walk through a crowded station and feel filled with peace.

Fr Larrañaga also talks about the transcendence of God and the inability of our finite minds to grasp the mystery of an infinite God. As soon as we approach what we think is an encounter with God, God slips out of our grasp and recedes further. After reading the first few chapters, I felt the same way about Muestrame tu Rostro as I felt about the Cloud of Unknowing: this is just too discouraging and I want to give up on the book and maybe give up on prayer, too.

However, I persevered and although I’m only about half-way through, I’m glad I did. The book becomes more encouraging as you go on, with practical advice on prayer, such as using the Psalms or set prayers to start you off. It has exercises to help people empty their minds and prepare themselves for prayer.

Unfortunately, I have nodded off each time I tried the meditations, but no less a person than St. Therese of Lisieux admitted to falling asleep in prayer. She said that just as parents love their children when their asleep, God continued to love her when she fell asleep in prayer.

I have also found useful what Fr Larrañaga says about abandoning ourselves to God. If there is something we can do to change a situation, we get behind it and give it one hundred percent. If nothing remains to be done, then we stop resisting the situation and let go so that we don’t hurt ourselves and others by our non-acceptance. Fr Larrañaga gives some simple prayers for accepting what can’t be changed: physical appearance, personality, our parents, hurts from the past.

Making time for prayer

He also emphasises the importance of setting aside time each day to withdraw into prayer. If we don’t have these ‘off’ times, we become distracted and pulled in many directions, exactly what I experience when I click quickly from one internet page to another. Fr. Larrañaga says that when our minds are full of anxieties and thoughts about what needs done, an encounter with God is almost impossible.

I’m still reading, but now find the book encouraging rather than overwhelming. Fr. Larrañaga emphasises that it is important to set time aside for prayer, even if we don’t ‘feel’ anything or see results. He often repeats that faith, hope, patience and perseverance are necessary. Even if our prayers don’t seem to do anything, we believe by faith and hope that God’s grace is at work.

Wishing you a peaceful holy week.

Changed in translation

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Today I am thinking about how meanings can be changed or given a different emphasis when we translate from one language to another, or even when we use a different translation in our own language.

I’m aware that there’s a big dispute going on just now about whether we will go on using the current translation of the Mass. I began going to Mass when the old translation was still in use and I had just got used to that when the new translation was brought in.

All change is challenging and I think it’s particularly difficult when it comes to something as close to us as prayer. Initially I felt as if I was going to a version of the Mass which had been put through the hands of a poor writer of science fiction, with clunky words like oblation and merit thrown in.

I’ve got used to it, over time. I can understand the reluctance to introduce another change, and yet it’s important to get language right. Our choice of words can present both bridges and barriers to our understanding.

Mary’s way

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The thing which set off me off on this train of thought was learning the Gaelic word for rosary. Thanks to Reidio nan Gaidheal’s thought for the day, I now know that it is Conair Mhoire. According to MacLennan’s Gaelic dictionary, conair means a path or a way. It can also mean a set of beads, or, interestingly, a crown.

Dwelly’s dictionary had an even more comprehensive set of meanings for conair. As well as a path or a crown, it can be a haven, a blessing, a help or a circle.

I am excited because learning a new word in Gaelic has brought a whole new set of meanings and connotations to praying the rosary. The rosary has been a haven and a blessing to me, a prayer where I can rest when my worried mind won’t give me peace to sleep or to pray in any other way.

It’s nice that the Gaelic word has other meanings and isn’t just used in a religious context. I read in Mitch Finley’s ‘Rosary Handbook’ that rosary comes from the Latin rosarius which means a bouquet of roses. This is another nice image, but I don’t get roses very often, only on special occasions, and yet I turn to the rosary almost every day.

I like the idea of the rosary as a way to Christ, conair Mhoire, or Mary’s way. We find the way to Christ through meditating on his birth, ministry, death and resurrection.

I usually say the rosary prayers in Gaelic although I sometimes deliberately switch to English just to get a different perspective. Words are only pointers to something much bigger and I find that hearing a prayer or reading a part of the Bible in another language can sometimes nudge me closer to an aspect of the truth.

This happened with the Hail Mary prayer. The first line is taken from the angel Gabriel’s greeting at the annunciation. In Gaelic, Hail Mary is ‘Fàilte dhut, a Mhoire’, which literally means welcome, Virgin Mary. Suddenly I have gone from Hail, an old-fashioned greeting where I imagine myself waving at the Virgin Mary from a long distance and shouting to be heard, to fàilte where she seems much closer. This soft word (pronounced faltcheh) has me visualising opening a door and welcoming the Virgin Mary inside.

A barrier or a bridge?

Words can intentionally or accidentally be used to give positive or negative connotations. I was brought up with the old-fashioned King James Version of the Bible and became used to hearing prayers where God was referred to using old words like thou, thee, thy and thine. Although the minister might have intended these words as a sign of respect or even affection, the effect was to make God seem very far away and hard to reach.
When I left home, I was shocked to encounter groups of evangelical Christians who treated God as a friend and even believed that he loved them and was interested in them. Sometimes this could seem a bit too cosy, but it challenged me. I can still remember the moment when I realised that I didn’t believe God loved me, and that it was almost impossible to believe in a loving God.
Language had contributed to this feeling, and language helped me to overcome it. On a trip to France, I bought a Bible in a modern French translation. This led to another moment of shock: God was addressed with the familiar form tu, rather than the formal form vous. In every language I have managed to learn, God is addressed using the familiar form. This includes Gaelic, where I spoke to my grandmother and elderly aunt using the formal form sibh. God, on the other hand, is addressed using the familiar form, thu.
My French translation of the Bible didn’t immediately result in me believing in God’s love. However, it gave me a neutral space. Reading the Bible in French, allowed me to put aside my fears and expectations and see what was there, rather than the tyrannical, oppressive God who seemed to stride through the well-thumbed pages of my KJV Bible.

Language diversity

Changing our choice of words within a language or switching from one to another can affect meaning.

These subtle and sometimes not so subtle changes which occur within or between languages argue for doing all we can to preserve languages and dialects. When we lose a language, we lose a large part of the culture that goes with it as well as a unique way of seeing the world.

When it comes to Scripture reading or prayer, we are particularly sensitive to the choice of words, because language points to a truth beyond our powers of expression. And yet Jesus came as the Word, and words can help us find the way.

Travelling …

Canach is on her travels and seeing some lovely parts of Scotland. Not much internet access, but that is probably a good thing!

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I’ve heard some good news from my friend who was separated from her son. A decision has been made and he will be coming back to live with her. I really hope that everything goes well. I have appreciated people saying that they would pray for her. Sometimes when you care about someone and you’ve been worrying and trying to pray for them for a long time you get kind of, I’m not sure what the word is, reconciled or exhausted. At that point, prayers don’t feel very effective, and so it’s good to know that a few other people are adding theirs. Thank you.

God’s providence

Another thing I’m getting used to about being Catholic, is the mysterious habit people have of leaving cards with prayers or thoughts on them at the back of the church. A short while ago, the table at the back of the church was scattered with prayer cards. Someone must have bought a bumper pack. I eyed them suspiciously, turned one over, and decided that I wouldn’t take any. There were too many to choose from, and someone else might need one more than me.

About two weeks later, there was only one sort of prayer card left. Since nobody else wanted them, I decided to pick one up. I was feeling pretty useless that day. The things that were happening in my life were difficult, and didn’t seem to make much sense. I read the prayer, as I walked away from the church, and it spoke right to me, particularly the part about perplexity. It gave me assurance that even when things are painful and confusing, God is still at work. Here it is.

God’s providence by Cardinal John Henry Newman

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.

Therefore I will trust Him. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me- still He knows what He is about.

Thinking of a mother I know

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Mothers Day (6th March in the UK) has come and gone. I was showered with gifts: a hand-painted box, a card, a picture of Batman and Robin saving a city from evil villains and a shower gel which makes me smell like a cake. It’s nice to feel appreciated.

My friend’s story

On Mothers Day, my thoughts turned to a friend who has recently been separated from her son. We’ve known each other since university. Looking back, she was at the root of many of the crazy, fun things I did in that time. We hitch-hiked around Scotland together. Our first lift was in the open back of a fish truck, which didn’t make us attractive passengers for anyone else. I remember trecking along lonely roads in the north-west sticking our thumbs out, hoping that the one car which passed that hour might pick us up. We stopped speaking somewhere in Wester Ross. I have no idea why, but remember the relief when we forgave each other.

When you can survive a trip roughing it round the Highlands and still be talking to each other at the end, then you know that you’ve found a real friend.

Becoming mothers

We became pregnant at the same time. My friend gave birth two weeks before me. She phoned afterwards to tell me that it would be one of the hardest things I would ever go through, but that I could do it.

We’ve never lived close to each other, but we’ve made the effort to visit. Since her son came along, my friend has focussed most of her energy on caring for him and making sure that he has the best chances in life.

She wanted her son to learn and achieve his best. Sometimes I worried that she would push him too much, or that he would become spoilt, but when I saw them together, I realised that they have a fantastic relationship. They are at ease with one another and laugh and chat. Her son is a kind and caring person, and patient with my younger children. My friend isn’t just a good mother; she is an excellent one.

My friend was always creating fun learning experiences for her son, such as visiting a new place or a museum, going for a walk, reading a book, playing a game or making something together. Two years ago, we visited them in England, and arrived to find Scottish flags made out of blue and white card strung between the trees. When I remarked on the work that must have gone into making them, my friend said wryly, “It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have a TV.”

Difficulties

Things haven’t been easy. My friend gave up a well-paid job to have her son and has never got back on the career path. She has struggled to make ends meet. Her son’s father, absent from the start, continually adjusted his income to wriggle out of maintenance payments. This led to legal challenges to get the school fees paid as well as money for food and rent. Like chancery in Dicken’s Bleak House, I saw no end to it and advised her to walk away from the court battles. However, it was very important to her that her son would get a private education, and the only way to afford this was to pursue his father for money.

After many years of marking his presence in his son’s life with expensive presents and occasional holidays, her son’s father wanted more involvement. His mother was reluctant to co-operate. She made a few mistakes, which one of us hasn’t, but the consequences have been awful. By some sleight of hand and with the help of skilful lawyers, her ex-partner managed to gain custody of their son. When I heard, it was almost unbelievable, a gross injustice, like the news that disabled people’s benefits are being cut or that many people now rely on food banks. However, there is a danger, for us as onlookers, that what strikes us as manifestly unfair, can gradually become accepted as the status quo.

Its been six months now. My friend’s son is living with his father pending a final court decision. In the meantime, she is going through an agonising wait. It’s David against Goliath. She could scarcely afford a lawyer, but has managed against the odds to get legal aid.

A prayer or a positive thought

I am writing my friend’s story, because I want to remind myself that something has gone wrong when a boy who has lived for over ten years with his mother, goes to live with a father who until recently tried to dodge his responsibilities.

All I can do is pray. When it comes to prayer, I don’t know where to start. It isn’t like an internet shopping list: click here for next day delivery. Although the boy’s father might seem like the villain of the piece, perhaps he also feels a need to love his son and spend time with him. I am hoping that by some miracle a solution can be worked out that gives everyone what they need.

I pray that mother and son will be reunited, and that my friend will receive the love and support she needs. I pray that no matter what happens, her son will never forget the love she has given him and the values she has taught him. I pray that her ex, regardless of whether this move was motivated by revenge or a desire to save money, will learn to genuinely love his son. I hope that a miracle of love will come out of it all. Most of all I want to send my friend a big hug, with the hope that a few other people might read this and add their own prayers and thoughts.

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.