Thinking of a mother I know

20160214_144754

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.

Lent …. again

20160207_205528

Just when there is a stretch in the days, and the wind dies down and the sun casts a pale shadow through the cloud, Father K stands up at the end of Mass, waves an envelope with the SCIAF collection box, and reminds us that Lent begins on Wednesday.

What, Lent? Already? My health hasn’t been great recently, so I haven’t indulged in coffee or chocolate for a while. Now that my stomach has finally settled down, I find out that there are only a few days left to enjoy it.

Why, oh why, oh why, did I join a church which has an annual six week period of penance? Because I had to, is the answer. I’m not talking about external pressure, but about the still, small voice inside, which said that this was the way I must go. I might not always like it, or feel like doing it, and I might moan about it, but I have to go on.

What I used to think about Lent

As a Protestant, I had very vague ideas about Lent. I knew that it had something to do with Pancake Tuesday, and using up all your eggs. However, I thought that it was a sort of medieval thing which people didn’t do any more.

I got a bit of a shock some years ago when my husband announced that it was Lent, and that it would be a good idea for us all to give up chocolate until Easter.

My angry reaction was out of all proportion to the small sacrifice involved. I enjoyed my wee nibble of chocolate now and then and no-one, certainly not some stuffy, traditional church, was going to dictate if and when I would give it up.

However, I knew that small children will not give up chocolate biscuits, if they see their mother eating them, and so I went along with it. I started without much good grace, but soon realised that giving up something made me conscious of others who had much less than I had. It made sense. Perhaps this was the first step on a slippery slope which eventually brought me into the Catholic church.

How things are now

Even though I’ve done Lent a few times, it doesn’t get any easier. I’m a bit apprehensive. Last year was difficult. Without even trying to turn up at church in a penitent mood, I found that I was quite affected by Lent and became very conscious of my own failings and inadequacies.

In a world where resources are so unevenly distributed, and where foodbank collection points have become a permanent feature in the local supermarket, I hope that doing without small luxuries for a while, will help me to be grateful for what I have, and remember others who don’t have enough.

Lent is mirrors the forty days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and praying. When I think of Lent, I remember that Christ gave up far more than I can ever understand just to take on human form. I’m sure that he enjoyed his human life. He started his public ministry at a wedding feast, after all. However, he willingly gave up his life.

I’ve just used up all the cocoa in the house. I’m still not sure what this year’s Lent will involve, but I think that it may require an internet diet. If I write this blog, it might just be to put up quotes I’ve found useful. Best wishes for the Lenten season.

 

 

 

Tethered again

20160128_122243

I know that I promised I wouldn’t write any more about the Sacrament of Reconciliation on this blog for quite a while, but almost a year has passed, and I think I could get off with one small little post.

When I considered becoming Catholic, I felt about the same level of enthusiasm for going to Confession that a dog feels about having a bath. My dog doesn’t think that baths are necessary, and I thought that confession was one of these unnecessary things which Catholics had added to Christianity.

Suffice to say that by the time, I actually went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I had changed my views on this considerably. Father K told me that I should go to Confession once a year ‘or when I felt the need to go’. After the trauma of making my first confession, I appreciated that it was useful and necessary, but I couldn’t imagine ever actually feeling the need to go.

I have been proved wrong on that last count. Sometimes I have felt so far away from God, that I have begun to wonder if confession would help. The first time I felt like this, I asked a Catholic friend how you know if you need to go to confession and realised that if I was asking the question then I probably already knew the answer. I told our parish priest how I was feeling. Without putting any pressure on me, he told me that he would hear my confession the next day if I still felt the same way. My answer came in the peace and relief I felt when I knew that I could go and confess the things which were bothering me.

I haven’t felt the incredible feelings of peace which other people talk about experiencing after the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I think that I am resistant to being carried away by feelings. However, I have felt as if I have been unblocked spiritually and able to move on.

There is still a Protestant part of me which is extremely suspicious of things like confession. Recently I was puzzling over the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and trying to justify it to myself. An image drifted into my mind of a helium balloon, bobbing around in the air high above the ground. I was the balloon. The ground was a long way below, but I was tethered to it by a long string. Although I moved around in the air currents, I was reassured that I wasn’t going to be blown high into the atmosphere where I might burst, or be carried away to a far off place.

The long string was my faith and the ground was the ground of my soul, the deepest part of me where God dwells.

Sharp gusts of wind put a strain on the string and it snapped. I began to float away. The strains of life and the bad choices I had made had been too much for my faith and I had lost contact with the ground. I was high up in the sky, and I wasn’t able to retie the other end of the string on my own.

I realised that the Sacrament of Reconciliation was the help that I needed to retie that string and renew my relationship with God.

As I meditated on this, I looked down and saw that some people had grabbed the end of the string, and were smiling and waving up at me. I was too far away to see their faces, but I think that they were the saints, letting me know that I wasn’t alone and that they would help me not to drift away until I had a chance to restore the link of faith.

My very last thought on this was that every time the string breaks and is retied, it gets shorter. The balloon moves a little closer to the ground, and I move a little closer to God.

 

Purple is for Advent

20151129_120400

I had heard of Lent and giving up chocolate in the weeks before Easter, but it was a not entirely pleasant surprise to find out that Advent is also a time of self examination and penance when Catholics prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ.

The reformed church in which I grew up did not recognise Christmas as a religious festival. Some people did not celebrate Christmas at all, and others kept it as a purely commercial festival for the sake of the kids. Christmas for me was a time of quietly counting Christmas trees glimpsed through open curtains, delving into stockings, unwrapping presents from gaudy paper and over-indulging in food. Although I knew the story of Christ’s birth, I was more likely to hear it in July than at Christmas time.

The idea that the time leading up to Christmas is one of self-restraint as Catholics prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, came as a bit of a shock. I find it hard to reconcile what is going on inside and outside the church at this time of year.

Outside, shops are full of tinsel and bright Christmas displays. I brave packed department stores and queues at checkouts and leave with heavy bags and an empty feeling that I have somehow missed the point. Harried mothers exchange notes on how much shopping there is still left to do. I feel the burden of Christmas as an annual commercial ritual, which becomes more costly every year.

Inside, the church is quiet, waiting, the only decoration is the four candles in the Advent wreath. Extra time has been set aside for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The readings from the prophets talk about God’s mercy, a people being redeemed and returning from exile, streams flowing in the desert dryness. The cry of John the Baptist from the wilderness echoes down the years.

The priest wears purple, just as in Lent. I always thought that purple was a royal colour, a sign of wealth, more suited to celebration than penance. I wondered, why purple was used, and in the liturgical year book for England and Wales for 2013-2014, I found this beautiful explanation. For those who don’t know, as I didn’t until recently, a new liturgical year begins at the start of Advent.

The Year begins in darkness a deep purple darkness where we long for light and the bright shimmer of a star is a sign of hope and life. In the Liturgical Year, purple or violet is a colour of longing, renewal and expectation: in Advent and Lent, at funerals or in the Sacrament of Penance, purple should speak to us of that which we long and yearn for: like a deer longs for running streams, so we yearn for the living God to come to us, to heal us, to be with us. Our purple is a sign of all we long for: the presence of Christ, the washing clean of all sin, the resurrection of the dead.

Purple is also a sign of kingship and majesty the One who comes, the One who heals, the One who raises the dead is himself the King who reigns from the cross….The Church and the liturgy should be waiting not quite there yet, just around the corner….Advent is the unfilled glass polished and made ready speaking in its emptiness of what is to fill it.

 

Just a piece of bread?

20151129_120013

There’s still a lot I am discovering about the Catholic tradition.

A few weeks ago, a friend unexpectedly sent a link to a Youtube video of Adoration. She said that Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament through this video had a similar effect on her to actually going to church.

Scepticism

I was a bit sceptical, but I thought that I would give it a go. When it comes to religion, I operate on at least three levels. The top one is rational and scientific and only believes in the evidence of my senses, and in things which I can test and analyse and describe with numbers. This part of me says that a piece of bread and a person are very different things. While I accept that a tiny seed can grow into a plant, and a caterpillar can turn into a butterffly, it is quite clear for this part of me that a piece of bread cannot contain a person.

On a deeper level, I still experience doubt about religion, but this part of me reckons that since I am in a mess, and the world is not in a great state, I might as well give it a go. This is the part which keeps me praying and going to Mass, even when I don’t expect too much from it.

That isn’t the whole story. I am sometimes surprised by something which I cannot taste or see or touch, but which nevertheless moves me on a deeper level than thought.

A part of me struggled to believe that Jesus was present in the Host in the church where the video was recorded many months ago, and it seemed like a stretch too far to believe that Christ’s presence could be experienced through an image on my computer screen.

I watched the video twice. There was a lot going on in my life, and each time I ended up in tears without even being quite sure why I was crying. I wrote to my friend that I didn’t think I had felt especially close to Christ, but that I had ended up in tears. She wrote back and said that this was exactly the effect it had on her.

A few brief moments

If the internet version of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, moved me to tears, then I definitely wanted to experience the real version. Unfortunately Adoration takes place in my parish church at a time when I am never free. However, I recently travelled away from home for work, and public transport somehow conspired so that I arrived earlier than expected. I realised that if I hurried, I might just make it to the church before Eucharistic adoration finished at midday.

I didn’t quite run, but I must have been more rushed than I realised, because I clumsily crashlanded into the pew, trying to take off my heavy rucksack at the same time as I knelt down. This had the effect of overbalancing me so that the empty pew in front wobbled forward under my weight and righted itself with a crash. The nuns further down the church kept their heads firmly turned towards the front.

I stared at the thin wafer in which, my religion taught me, the Lord of the Universe dwelt. It wasn’t a symbol or a reminder of His presence. He was really there, or so I was told.

I searched the surface of the wafer, looking for the trace of a face in the shadows and light patches. I wondered what I was meant to see or feel or pray, and told myself not to be disappointed and doubtful if I felt nothing.

Deep inside an emotion jerked, like a string pulling open a floodgate. The tears started and once again I didn’t even know why I was crying. There was something in there of longing and recognition. Deep calls to deep. I wept because the way I had entered the church, late and rushed and carrying a heavy bag, seemed like my hurried and worried life at the moment. I cried, because being a convert is like entering a strange land where you don’t know the customs and haven’t learnt the language properly, and are always a step behind everyone else.

I had hoped that the priest would be late, and would give me a few minutes longer with the Sacrament, but, bang on twelve, he strode efficiently up the side aisle. A few minutes later, he emerged from the Sacristy in white robes. I was confused. Was there going to be a Mass?

He said a prayer and held up the monstrance, the metal stand containing the host. He held it over his head, swinging it from side to side, like a sportsman holding up a cup, and then he returned it to the gleaming tabernacle at the back of the church.

I had had two minutes, perhaps three, in the presence of that sliver of bread. For the next ten minutes I remained in the church, crying tears into my hands. Those few minutes strengthened me for the rest of the day, like a brief and unexpected encounter with a loving friend.

So is it just a piece of bread? The rational part of my mind still struggles to believe that Christ our Lord abides in a brittle morsel of wheat. However, on a deeper level, I know that it wasn’t just a scrap of food which moved me to tears.

Encouragement

I got a lot of encouragement from this quote from St Pio of Petrelcina, a Capuchin priest . Again I found this quote in The Tablet just around the time that I really needed it.
Do not anticipate the problems of this life with apprehension, but rather, with perfect hope that God, to whom you belong, will free you from them accordingly. He has defended you up to now. Simply hold on tightly to the hand of his divine providence, and he will help you in all events, and when you are unable to walk, he will lead you.

The desert

I am reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’. His mother died when he was very young and his father died when he was a teenager, after suffering a long illness. In his mid-twenties, Thomas Merton converted to Catholicism, from a life that had been up until then without religion and without many guiding values. He was to eventually become a monk. He writes the following about his life after being received into the church:

I had come, like the Jews, through the Red Sea of Baptism. I was entering into a desert – a terribly easy and convenient desert, with all the trials tempered to my weakness – where I would have a chance to give God great glory by simply trusting and obeying Him, and walking in the way that was not according to my own nature and my own judgement. And it would lead me to a land I could not imagine or understand. It would be a land that was not like the land of Egypt from which I had come out: the land of human nature blinded and fettered by perversity and sin. It would be a land in which the work of man’s hands and man’s ingenuity counted for little or nothing: but where God would direct all things, and where I would be expected to act so much and so closely under His guidance that it would be as if He thought with my mind, as if He willed with my will.

It was to this that I was called. It was for this that I had been created. It was for this Christ had died on the Cross, and for this that I was now baptized, and had within me the living Christ, melting me into Himself in the fires of His love.

This was the call that came to me with my Baptism, bringing with it a most appalling responsibility if I failed to answer it. Yet, in a certain sense, it was almost impossible for me to hear and answer it. Perhaps it demanded a kind of miracle of grace for me to answer it at once, spontaneously and with complete fidelity – and, oh, what a thing it would have been if I had done so!