Sent into exile

PTDC0059

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.