Reconciliation

The last post I wrote on difficulty in believing in God’s mercy is less than half the story. Here’s some more.

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I am a Catholic Presbyterian or a Presbyterian Catholic. I’m not sure which. In any case, I will never cease to be what I started out as.

Where I started out

The culture and religion of my childhood was rooted in Highland Presbyterian tradition. We were in the world, but not of it. We dug our feet into the ground and stubbornly resisted the flow of wider culture.

I wore a long dress or a skirt to church and always covered my head with a hat or an ugly grey beret. I was encouraged to find fulfilment in marriage and childbearing rather than a career. Listening to modern music was forbidden. I wasn’t allowed to take part in school dances, not even Scottish ceilidh dancing. On the Sabbath Day, I was not allowed to do or even talk about anything which wasn’t either absolutely necessary or connected in some way with God and religion.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water

When I went to university, the gap between what everyone else, even other Christians, was doing, and what I was supposed to do, became unbearable. I kicked against the traces and got out. However, once you throw out some of your upbringing, it’s very difficult to keep your orientation. Without a guide light, how can you pick and choose your values? If you reject some of them, why not throw them all away? In many ways, I threw the baby out with the bathwater.

A Catholic or a Presbyterian?

When I first thought about becoming Catholic, I thought that I could draw a line under my previous church tradition and put it quite firmly in the past. I wanted to emphasise the differentness of being Catholic as opposed to being Presbyterian. I thought that I would gradually become more and more Catholic until all the Presbyterian was squeezed out of me.

That’s not how it works. God wants us to be whole. He doesn’t want divisions, even within our own lives between what we were and what we are now. In some mysterious way, God, through Christ, can take the pain of the past and not only heal but transform it.

Fr. Michael Seed is a Franciscan Friar who is a convert to Catholicism. In the publication, “Thinking of becoming a Catholic?”, he writes about converts:

They are now members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And they continue with their communion with whatever they were formerly.

They don’t cease to be Anglicans or Methodists or Quakers. I have never ceased, ever, to be a member of the Salvation Army or a Strict and Particular Baptist. …They are all beautiful signs of God’s grace. Catholicism embraces all the previous states of your life.

How is that possible? Because Jesus founded only one Church. … In the ceremony of reception you embrace in a unique way every denomination, because Christ is present, in some way, in all denominations.

Reconciliation

Reconciliation goes further than forgiveness. With forgiveness, you let go of something which has wounded you, and free yourself and others to move on. However, the past may still be a painful place which you try to forget.

Reconciliation transforms the past. It twines loose ends together and tucks them in so that what didn’t at the time seem like the right thing or enough becomes exactly what it was meant to be.

C.S. Lewis wrote ‘The Great Divorce’ which refers to the great divorce between Heaven and Hell. In a vivid dream, the narrator visits a dull, grey place where nothing is of good quality, no-one is happy and people argue with their neighbours and move further and further apart. They are offered the chance to take a bus trip to Heaven. Although heaven is beautiful, the reality of it is so painful that many choose to leave on the return bus.

At the end of ‘The Great Divorce’, the narrator has a vision in which he looks back at his life, and understands that if he turns towards God, even the most painful things he has gone through on earth will be transformed and become a part of his experience of Heaven. Conversely, if he turns away from God, misery and resentment will eat backwards through memories of his life on earth, contaminating even pleasures and moments of happiness.

Since becoming Catholic, there have been brief moments when I have almost understood what C.S Lewis meant. Rather than nursing my wounds, I have experienced total acceptance of the past and gratitude for what has been and what is.

That is a grace which only God can give. In the next post, I will write about a few of the things in the Presbyterian church which prepared me to become Catholic.

Doubts and reaching out to God

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

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

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

Discussing faith as a Protestant

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

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

Getting used to being silent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doubting Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

Easter joy

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Joy was the emotion that struck me the first time I was in a Catholic church at Easter.

As a child, I saw church as a kind of Sabbath day penance. We were Presbyterians and proud of it. We sat on hard pews and listened to a long sermon which lasted at least an hour. The minister said a lot about sin, but not much about love or joy.

In between the two long church services, we were quiet, not talking or laughing or playing, because the Sabbath day belonged to God, and God liked you to be solemn and serious.

The first time I was in a Catholic church at Easter, I was just beginning to think about becoming Catholic. I didn’t understand the context of Easter Sunday coming after more than six weeks of preparation. My vague idea of Lent was that it had something to do with giving up sweeties. It was quite a while before I realised that Catholics don’t just give up something during Lent; they also try to give more of themselves by making time for prayer and sharing their time and money with others.

Lent is something which I’m still learning about. Last year I was shocked to discover the emptiness of the church on Friday, when the Host is taken out of the tabernacle and the statues are shrouded in cloth to symbolise Christ being in the tomb.

This year, I felt that I learnt more about Holy Week, when the church re-enacts the last week of Jesus’ life, from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through to the last supper and his death on the cross. Even though I couldn’t attend a Mass during Holy Week, I went into the church to pray and tried to go through the daily Mass readings, which followed the last week of Jesus’ life. These events occurred 2000 years ago, as far as we count time, but I felt that through the church I was participating in them in some way.

On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I knew on an intellectual level, that Christ had risen and that this would be celebrated in the Easter vigil on Saturday. However, I felt that I was sharing in the Jesus disciples’ confusion and grief, and in their long vigil between his death on the cross and the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

Holy week seemed very long and I got weary concentrating on the events which led up to Jesus death. Whenever, I went into a church to pray, all I saw was a man on the cross, his face distorted by intense pain. Wasn’t this focus on suffering and death a bit macabre and unhealthy? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on the fact that he has risen, rather than making ourselves dwell on the fact that he went through an unfair trial on trumped up charges and that he was handed over to Roman soldiers and tortured to death?

Despite these feelings, I recognise that if Christ hadn’t suffered, I wouldn’t be able to relate to Him. If He had come in triumph rather than sharing in our poverty and smallness and failure and death, I might subjugate myself to Him as King, but He wouldn’t be my Saviour. If Christ hadn’t suffered, if God hadn’t suffered, then He could not understand my suffering.

Without death, resurrection has no meaning, and Easter is just a muddle of fluffy bunnies and cute chicks and sweet chocolate. Without the silence and darkness of the church on Easter Saturday, the candles that are brought in during the Easter vigil would have no significance. It is only because I tried in my flawed way to take part in Lent and Holy week that the joy of Easter Sunday broke over me like a wave.   

A convert visits Rome Part 2

A visit to Santa Maria d’ Antiqua

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

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

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

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

The destruction of images

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

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

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

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

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

Does God like bling?

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

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The Virgin Mary and child – Santa Maria d’Antiqua

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

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

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

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

No-one has a monopoly on Christ

 

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Last week the Pope visited the Lutheran church in Sweden in order to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

It might seem strange for a Catholic Pope to commemorate in any positive way an event which caused a seemingly irreconcilable split in the Christian church. However, Pope Francis said, “With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to Sacred Scripture in the Church’s life.”

When I first became Catholic, I might have felt threatened by this. I wanted to assert my Catholic identity by kicking against the church I had come from. There was a very great temptation to see everything Catholic as good, and what I had left behind in the Protestant church as bad or at least inadequate.

However, I’ve come to recognise that a part of me will always be Protestant. By becoming Catholic, I didn’t change my personality or my family background. A priest who is a Protestant convert told me to treasure this part of me, because it would make a positive contribution to the church. I didn’t want to listen to him at first. However, I now recognise the wisdom of what he said.

Christ broke down barriers

If Christ was here today, I am sure that he wouldn’t stick to one church and ignore the rest. He would reach out to all sorts of people in many different kinds of churches. He would also hang out with people who wouldn’t dream of darkening the door of a church. Christ would be found in pubs and betting shops and at street corners. He would talk to homeless people in doorways and lost and lonely people in mental hospitals and care homes.

During his ministry, the sharp end of his tongue most often fell on the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of his day. He criticised them for burdening people with rules. In the stories he told, the poor and dispossessed are invited to a wedding feast and a father gives the son who squandered his fortune a lavish welcome.

Jesus was someone who tipped over conventions and broke down barriers. He healed on the Sabbath day. He mixed with women. Not only that, he mixed with women from other religious backgrounds. His disciples were astonished to find him conversing with a Samaritan woman. He healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman and the servant of one of the Roman soldiers who was occupying Palestine.

Five hundred years ago, part of the Christian church branched away. Since then it has divided many times. I was brought up in a church which had split at least four times since the Reformation. There are so many differences in interpretation of the Bible and forms of worship that the differences between churches seem irreconcilable. However, what is impossible in a human level is not impossible for God. Perhaps, beneath it all, there is an underlying unity which we miss because we are so concentrated on the surface details.

Recognising the other

What I am sure about, is that Christ is not constrained by our barriers. He sees what we cannot. In an article in the Catholic newspaper, The Tablet, the Lutheran archbishop emeritus, Anders Wejryd, said of the Pope’s visit to Sweden, “When it comes to ecumenism, the first stage is diplomacy. That you acknowledge that the other is there and that the other church is more or less a real church, even if you don’t share all of its opinions.”

He describes what to me is a Christ-like attitude. At a time when politics seems to be increasingly about divisions and Us against Them, it is advice which could be applied not just to religious differences, but to our daily life. Barriers will only be broken down when we learn to see others as they really are.

Protestant or Catholic?

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Am I Protestant or Catholic? I’ve been received into the Catholic church, but as far as identity goes, this isn’t an easy question to answer. Over the past few weeks I’ve had exhausting dreams in which I’ve been attending Mass, and then rushing off to go to one or other of the Protestant churches I attended as a child.

When I decided to become Catholic, my husband, who was raised Catholic, warned me that I would always remain Protestant. At the time, I dismissed his comment, because I had been through huge changes in my thinking and beliefs. I felt that I was already more Catholic than Protestant.

Now that all the excitement and euphoria and challenge and worry of converting has died down, I realise that he made a very astute comment. I was brought up steeped in the Highland Protestant tradition. From my mannerisms and background, people assume that I am Protestant, and in a way they are right. I can’t change the fact that my Protestant background is woven into me, a fundamental part of my identity.

I have chosen to become Catholic, or perhaps it is better to say that I was invited to become Catholic; the idea certainly didn’t originate with me. After making a long hard journey into the church, it is painful to realise that Catholics will always spot me as someone who wasn’t brought up in their tradition. Sometimes I feel as if I am going around with a label pinned to my back which reads ‘Brought up Protestant’. Not only that, people in the know can often work out, after a short conversation, exactly which flavour of Scottish Protestant.

Where am I in all this, caught between two traditions and not really belonging in either? Before I was received into the church, a priest told me that I would always have my Protestant identity. He said that becoming Catholic was like adding another layer of clothing on top of the Protestant layer on which was already there. He told me that I didn’t need to lose my Protestant identity, or try to distance myself from it. His words gave me comfort at a time when I was worried that I was betraying the people who had loved me and brought me up and taught me to worship God in a particular kind of way.

I understand better now that I can’t and shouldn’t try to remove that Protestant layer, even though it can at times feel so deep and strong that I wonder if I really am in any way Catholic. In Mass recently, I had an image of the Protestant part of me as being like a thick, deep layer of soil. Into that grows a Catholic root, long and strong enough to go right through the soil, down to the core of my being, the quiet place where God speaks and identity no longer matters.

I need the soil to nourish the plant, as well as the plant to bring life to the soil.

So, am I Protestant, or am I Catholic? The best answer I can give is that I am both, but that I am a practising Catholic. That is confusing and difficult for me, and perhaps also for other people, but I hope that God works in the pain and the discomfort of being neither completely one thing or the other.

Sent into exile

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This is definitely the last post I’m going to write about how I left the church. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 are here. The phase of my life when I was trying out different churches ended quite abruptly and not entirely by my choice.

I met no lack of people who were eager to tell me about the churches they attended. Several people recommended a church in central London, and I eventually decided to try it out. On the day I visited, the sun was shining. Young people were approaching it from all directions. I felt hopeful. Perhaps I would find some peace here.

From the moment, I came in sight of the church, however, I felt a force pushing me back. It was like walking into a strong wind, except that the air was still. Determined to go on, and either ‘find God’ or prove that he wasn’t to be found, I pushed on. The force seemed to get stronger, the closer I got to the church. When I reached the church steps, it suddenly stopped.

I sat down in an empty pew at the back of the church, and became annoyed when a youngish man with greasy hair took the seat next to me. I cynically noted that the singing was led by an attractive, willowy blonde. When the pastor asked the congregation to make the sign of peace, the man beside me would not let go of my hand and began to chat me up. I decided that the only way to avoid him was to run out of the church..

It was the first time I had ever left a church in the middle of a service. I felt as if God had decided to send me into exile. From that day on, with very few exceptions, the only time I darkened the door of a church was when I attended a wedding or a funeral.

Looking back

I don’t want to make the narrative of this story that I never fitted into Protestant churches, because they were no good, and that if I had only started going to a Catholic church earlier, I would have been okay. I had, at times, a pretty appalling attitude when I attended church, and so it wasn’t surprising that I didn’t get much out of the experience. However, I think that the main reason I never found what I was looking for, was that I simply wasn’t ready. I had too negative an image of God and too many difficult experiences to get over. I simply couldn’t, at that stage in my life, really believe in God’s mercy.

These four posts about leaving the church have been difficult to write, but I wanted to show that I didn’t go from being a nice, devoted Protestant girl to switching my allegiance to becoming Catholic. I was a hard nut to crack. I viewed church-going as being as destructive and harmful a habit as smoking. I avoided events in church halls out of fear that someone would use the opportunity to proselyetise.

God used suffering to bring me back to the church. However, I can’t really explain what has happened, except that it’s some kind of miracle. Going to church doesn’t make sense until you start to see the sense in it. On the surface, churches don’t have a huge entertainment value. There may only be a few people gathered there (try going to a weekday mass in a small town), the responses might be lost in an unclear mumble, or the voices singing the hymns may be weak and wandering out of tune.

The miracle occurs within. I can’t explain the universe of feeling contained within the chant of the Kyrie Eleison, the only part of the liturgy still in the Greek language used by the early Church. Nor can I explain the longing I feel for the Eucharist and why a sliver of wafer and a sip of wine can make me feel as if I have attended a feast fit for a King.

I started this series of posts with a provocative statement: Don’t go to church until you find the church you can’t stay away from, and then keep going. Sometimes I start to forget this new way of seeing things and am tempted to think I’m too busy to go to church. Often it’s on these days, when I feel that I’m managing quite fine on my own, thank you very much, but still keep going,  that God has the most to say to me.

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.

Jumping up or reaching down?

I went to school at a time when it was fashionable not to teach grammar. The theory was that as long as we could speak, read and write English, we would get through life. I arrived in secondary school knowing what a verb and a noun was, but that was about it. The poor lady who had the job of trying to teach us French was shocked that we didn’t know the difference between an advert and a preposition. She finally accepted that she would have to give us some English grammar lessons before she had a hope of trying to get us to understand French grammar.

In the same way, I only started learning Protestant theology when I began investigating Catholicism, in order to try to understand the similarities and the differences. As a child and young adult in the Protestant church, I had a good knowledge of what we believed, but I didn’t understand why we believed what we did. Theology is a bit like grammar. It takes what we do unconsciously and analyses it to understand the structure and the reasons behind it.

One of the big Protestant-Catholic differences which was flagged up in the books I read was the Protestant belief that we are saved by grace alone versus the Catholic belief that salvation is an ongoing process. Have I got that right? I’m not sure, and I get into such knots thinking about this that I am wondering whether the two positions are always so far apart when it comes to practical experience. I’m not going to discuss grace versus works from a theoretical viewpoint. However, I’d like to just say a few words from a personal point of view.

If someone had told me that we are saved by grace alone, when I was still in the Protestant church, I would probably have been quite surprised, and perhaps even annoyed, because it felt as if salvation was hard work. It seemed as if I was standing on tiptoes, with my hands in the air, and jumping up and trying to touch the sky. I knew that I would never manage to please God, but I had to try, because not making any effort would make Him even angrier …

This feeling of always trying and hopelessly failing was probably the main reason I left the church in which I was brought up.
I felt great relief, when I began learning about the Catholic Sacraments. I no longer had to try to do the impossible and stretch up and touch the sky, because God, through Christ, was willing to reach down and bridge the gap. All I had to do was open my arms and be ready to receive. Long before I became Catholic, I felt as if I could bring my struggles and the things which were bothering me to Mass. In abandoning myself to God, I could let go of my worries and failures and trust that God would do the rest. That’s what grace means to me.

I found this quote by one of the Greek fathers, Dionysius the Areopagite, which describes how God reaches down to us:

So let us stretch ourselves in prayers upward to the more lofty elevation of the kindly Rays of God. Imagine a great shining chain hanging downward from the heights of heaven to the world below. We grab hold of it with one hand and then another, and we seem to be pulling it down towards us. Actually it is already there on the heights and down below and instead of pulling it to us we are being lifted upwards to that brilliance above, to the dazzling light of those beams.