It’s not easy to become a mother

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Pregnancy, birth and bringing up a small child aren’t easy, even in the best of circumstances when you have support from a partner and/or family and friends. I’ve been fortunate to have always had someone sticking by me. The first time I gave birth, I had a well-paid job to return to, but it was still tough.

Having a child is a sea change in a woman’s life. It affects her physically, mentally and I believe, also, spiritually. I went from only thinking about myself to always thinking about them, and now am at the point of recognising that one of the people I also need to look after is myself (forgotten sometimes in the avalanche of requests).

In the past women, were only valued as wives and mothers. Nowadays, when it comes to work, women can play on the same field as men, but things are by no means equal. As I’ve found out through personal experience, if you have a child, attitudes change. You might be seen as a shirker or someone who’s voluntarily jumped off the career rat-race. In my case, it meant losing any chance of promotion and a permanent position.

I want to talk about the abortion referendum in Ireland, and I feel it’s important to start from a point of empathy and compassion. Without having walked her walk or been in her shoes, I can’t judge any woman who’s felt unable to continue with a pregnancy. Given the same situation, would I have made her choices? I’ll never know.

So what I say is directed, not at individuals, but at the Yes campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the Irish Constitution. The Eighth Amendment protected the unborn child by giving equal rights to both. Until now, abortion was only available in Ireland in very limited circumstances, such as if the mother’s life was at risk (including by suicide).

The campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment

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In the last few months and weeks, my Facebook feed was flooded with links to newspaper articles about the referendum. From the ‘Yes’ side came heart-breaking stories about women whose child died in the womb and were not given the option of inducing a miscarriage until the body expelled it naturally. I read about mothers whose baby had a fatal foetal abnormality, but weren’t given the option of terminating the pregnancy in Ireland.

The gist of the articles and messages was, vote Yes to give women access to proper medical care. Who wouldn’t want to vote ‘Yes’ if it meant better healthcare for women? For a long time, I was genuinely confused. Was the repeal all about making provision for women whose unborn babies had died in the womb? If so, I had a lot of sympathy.

Only recently, I realised that the ‘Yes’ vote was about making abortion available to everyone, on demand, in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. There was very little acknowledgement of this in the Facebook shares from my ‘Yes’ friends. The emphasis seemed to be about helping people in tragic circumstances.

In the last week or two, however , the tone of the shared messages changed and became quite aggressive: our bodies our choices, think of the suffering women have to go through with an unwanted pregnancy.

I imagined all these women, shut up and silent for too long, now almost literally screaming through facebook shares and posters and protests. They were shouting so hard that it was hard to hear anything else. Their message almost put the moral burden on people to vote ‘Yes’. If they weren’t, they were going to let women down, oppress them, leave the country in darkness etc.

My reaction to the campaign

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I tried not to have a knee-jerk reaction, ‘I’m Catholic, so I think abortion is wrong.’ I really tried to understand the others’ point of view, particularly that of women who feel, for whatever reason, that their pregnancy is an unbearable burden.

What bothered me about the ‘Yes’ campaign is that there was little or no recognition of the fact that a life would be lost. In the debate about women’s rights over their own bodies, they didn’t acknowledge the fact that an unborn baby would die.

The women were shouting, and the unborn babies were silent.

The thing which upset me most about the ‘Yes’ campaign was that it didn’t even weigh up the rights of the baby against the rights of the mother. It was silent on this, as if an unborn child had no rights at all.

When the ‘Yes’ vote won last week, my ‘Yes’ friends put up self-congratulatory posts and talked about going out to celebrate with champagne. In Dublin, people were partying in the streets.

There should have been no partying on this one. Even if they felt that the mothers’ rights weighed heavier than those of her unborn child, there should have been an acknowledgement that at the heart of every decision to terminate a pregnancy, is a tragedy, both for the mother and the child which dies.

No value?

It’s not acceptable to euthanise an old person when they can no longer look after themselves, or even to abandon your dog or cat if you feel it is a burden. However, it seems that we have reached a point, where it is perfectly acceptable to kill an unborn baby. Perhaps this is because we can’t see or hear it’s suffering. By its very nature it is silent.

Articles like Vonny Moyes writing in the Scottish newspaper, The National, celebrate the fact that since the Irish campaign, women no longer even have to show regret over an abortion (Vonny Moyes writes brave articles on health, parenthood and womens’ rights, but I have to disagree with her on this one). It seems that secular society is moving towards a consensus that the unborn have no rights and no value.

God works in silence, through the small, the weak and the powerless. Today we have the feast of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary to Elizabeth where she says in the Magnificat, ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.’ What if God sees things differently? What if every human life has value no matter how small, weak, old or sick?

What does it take to choose life?

To choose to protect an unborn life, whether that’s through the law or in a decision to continue a pregnancy, you need both belief and faith.

The first is belief that the unborn child has value, in and of itself, despite the fact that it is completely dependant on the mother’s body for survival.

The Catholic Church has been described as ‘holding out’ on the issue of abortion, as if everyone else has moved on. However, I’m glad the church is standing firm. Sometimes, when I’ve gone to church feeling troubled, I’ve had a strong feeling that I’ve entered a refuge. The church has been described as the barque of Peter or an ark. Would I feel safe, if the church didn’t defend the rights of the voiceless? As an unemployed mother with a sick child, I’m in a vulnerable position. Would I feel valued if the church said that it was okay to end a defenceless life?

Secondly, you need faith to open yourself to the possibility of pregnancy, accept the changes in your body, give birth, tend for a tiny, helpless human being, bring up a child. You have to have faith that what you’re doing is valuable and that you’ll get the help you need at each stage.

I don’t know what it is to experience an unwanted pregnancy. However, I do know what it is to have a child with an illness that no-one expected or planned for, and which meant huge changes to my own life and that of the whole family, including having to stop work and even facing difficulties over finding living accommodation when she was in hospital. I know what it is to feel unsupported, and totally out of my depth or so worn down that I can hardly face the next hour or the next day. Faith helped me to keep going even if it didn’t always make me feel better.

Many women facing unwanted pregnancies, may not have religious faith. However, faith and belief can also come from other places: from a supportive family where children are celebrated as a gift. It should, of course, also come from society, but we have a long way to go. I could say a lot about the way single mothers are ostracised and women side-lined at work after having a child, but I’ll leave that for another post. All I’ll say, is that if we want women to choose life for the unborn, we have to do a lot more to support and value mothers.

I’ll end with a link to a profound article from the ‘No’ side of the Irish campaign where a woman talks about her experience of having an abortion.

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Spring is coming

This might seem like a strange title for a post at the end of May, but until a few days ago, the wind still had a cold wintry bite.

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I live in a wet, windswept corner of the Scottish Highlands where we are used to grey skies, rain and above all, cold weather. Temperatures of less than 10 C in July are not uncommon.

Spring can be cold, with frost in May or even June. Sometimes the excess rain can be a problem, with potatoes put into the ground in dry, sunny days in April, rotting in flooded soil after a wet spell in May. In the past, people built the soil up into long ridges (feannagan or lazy beds) and added sand and seaweed to improve drainage. Nowadays, we still do much the same thing although they are smaller and we just call them raised beds.

Planting

My hobby is growing vegetables and it’s always a toss-up. Do I plant earlier and give the plants more time to grow? We only have a very short growing season with winter gales returning from September. Or do I hold off and plant later in May when we can usually be sure of milder weather.

This year, I was a bit over-enthusiastic. We had a cold but sunny winter and a similar, although slightly less bitter, spring. After a run of sunny days in April, I was chafing at the bit. I wanted to get planting. Surely the sun would have warmed up the soil.

I had ordered some Jerusalem artichoke roots, and they were already sprouting shoots. In the first week of April, I got the kids to dig some holes and we planted them.

Jerusalem artichokes grow from roots, a bit like potatoes although they look more like a ginger root. You can eat the root, but they have a reputation for causing flatulence. The reason I’m growing them is that they form a tall, flowering plant which makes a good wind break (I mean wind as in weather …)

Patience

I planted the Jerusalem artichokes near my vegetable beds and then tried to be patient. Two weeks passed, with no sign of the new shoots, but it was early yet.

Three weeks went by and there was still no sign of the Jerusalem artichokes, but I wasn’t too concerned. I busied myself planting peas, beetroot, potatoes and carrots.

After four weeks had passed, I began to get worried. When it got to five or six weeks, I gave up altogether on my roots. They must have rotted in the soil.

The pea seeds also seemed to have rotted. Out of thirty seeds planted, only two to three had come up. Likewise there was no sign of the carrot or beetroot seedlings. Meanwhile the plants I’d started indoors and put out in April were huddled under a net, their growth slowed by a biting east wind.

Faith

Planting requires a mixture of skill and judgement. Is the seed fresh? Have I added enough feed to the soil? Is the ground warm enough? In the end, though, it requires an act of faith to put a dead-looking seed in the soil in the hope that it will sprout into green life.

This year, I felt like I’d got the planting wrong. It just seemed like another thing in a long list of things which had gone wrong in my life, despite my best effort.

However, all was not lost. I’d simply not had enough patience. A few days ago, I saw the first Jerusalem artichoke shoots poking above the soil. It had taken more than six weeks, but they were there. The beetroot shoots have come up, as well as some of the peas. I’ll fill in the gaps with the peas I started indoors.

Only one carrot seedling was in sight. Just to make sure of getting carrots, I started planting more seed, and in the process uncovered a few seedlings. Oops, I should have been more patient.

Signs of spring

When I look at the seedlings in the vegetable patch, I feel as if God is chuckling at me for having so little patience and faith that anything would grow.

I need to have more patience in my own life, too. The last year has been incredibly difficult with one of my kids getting ill and having to give up any kind of work. However, even though there has been no rapid, dramatic change for the better, there are still signs of spring.

Sometimes I am like one of the green seedlings put out too early and exposed to the wind. Because I’ve been bitten by the wind, I’m afraid to grow and try new things even though the weather has taken a turn for the better.

Maybe, too, our lives are a bit like the Jerusalem artichoke roots. Even though we can’t see what’s going on, perhaps God is getting things ready and making things grow.

I just need to have more patience.

 

The heart of the matter

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I’ve started re-reading Graham Greene. I read his books many years ago in my teens and early twenties along with most of the other books considered classics.

I’ve begun with The Heart of the Matter. I doubt I got much out of it as a young woman, because the only thing I remembered was that it was set in a hot place, so hot that the protagonist couldn’t touch his wife at night without sweat running between them. I understood that this was a symbol of the problems in their marriage, but I didn’t remember or understand much more.

I’ve really enjoyed rediscovering Graham Greene, and can’t think of any modern writer who can match his prose for creating setting and atmosphere in a few sentences. I’ll try to say a few things about the novel without too many spoilers.

A love square

The main character, Scobie, is a respected policeman serving in the British colonial service in Sierra Leone. The second world war is on, making it difficult or impossible for the colonial administrators to take their annual leave. In the hot climate and small colony, gossip breeds, tempers fray, men become corrupt. Sometimes people even go mad.

Scobie, however, keeps well out of it. He’s been there fifteen years and has grown to love the place and the indigenous people. All he wants is to do his work in peace. However, other people stand in his way. One is his wife who is unhappy and desperately wants to get away for a while. In trying to make his wife happy, Scobie commits his first mistake. He accepts a loan from a corrupt businessman to pay for an extended holiday for his wife.

Scobie finds himself in a love triangle, or perhaps it’s a love square. He has made promises to three people: his wife, his mistress and God. He loves all three of them in different ways. However, his promises are incompatible. Whatever he does, he’s going to let one of them down.

Can God cope with disappointment?

God, Scobie reasons, can cope with disappointment better than a mortal. He can do without Scobie’s love, and the policeman decides on a course of action which, he believes, will keep his mistress and his wife happy, even if it cuts him off from God.

The prose is spare, yet in a few deft words, Graham Greene paints vivid pictures of the colonial town and the heat. Each scene tightens the noose around Scobie’s neck as he becomes more morally compromised.

Scobie is a Catholic, a convert in some ways lukewarm and going through the motions of keeping the rules. However, he has great respect for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He agonises over whether to take communion when he believes himself to be in a place of mortal sin.

Did Scobie love God?

Scobie is a flawed character, someone who made what seemed at first to be small mistakes. Instead of getting everything out into the open, he covers them up and falls deeper into error.

The novel poses questions about rules versus God’s mercy which are relevant to all of us since we all make mistakes and can identify to some extent with Scobie.

I felt that Scobie, despite his choices, was a man who loved God. Some of the passages were so beautiful that I felt myself open out to deeper love of God. In the end, isn’t that what great literature is meant to do, open our hearts a little more?

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Good Friday

Why is the day marking Christ’s death called Good Friday? What is Good about someone suffering a horrific death? Are we meant to be good on Good Friday? Or are we meant to think of God’s goodness in giving us His son. Is it because death was necessary in order to reach the greater good of the resurrection? When I was Protestant or agnostic, Good Friday, simply meant, ‘Great, a day off.’

My train of thought was started by the realisation that today is simply Dihaoine na Ceusta in Gaelic (Friday of the cross), which just tells us what actually happens. This is another example of language throwing a different perspective on things.

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I’m also thinking about how the joy of the resurrection makes no sense without the sorrow of the cross. At the same time, the cross is just a meaningless loss without the resurrection. I’ve reflected before on how the emptiness of the church on Good Friday has helped me to recognise the presence of Christ at other times.

We’ve had a very difficult year, perhaps the hardest of our lives. As I look forward, sometimes I just anticipate more suffering. To be honest, I often just want to curl up in a corner and not even try, because living is so darn hard.

When I was thinking about Gethsemane and Jesus anticipating his suffering and death, I wondered if he only saw suffering, or if he also looked forward to joy. Perhaps he didn’t know exactly what God was going to do. Maybe he didn’t know that after his body was broken, it would be raised to life. However, I think he knew and trusted that God would bring good out of his suffering.

That’s the challenge for me right now: to look ahead in the hope that God will give us strength and also to trust that God knows what He’s about.

Sally Read’s poems

I want to share two things. First of all, I’m sharing a link to Sally Read’s website on which she has a poem about the crucifixion. Sally is a Catholic convert and I really enjoyed reading her book Night’s Bright Darkness, an honest account of her conversion.

A short piece on Easter

Secondly, here is a short reflection on my different experiences of Easter:

We don’t do Easter in our church, but the minister tells us about Christ’s agony on the cross. I feel sad, because it’s my fault Christ had to die, and the nails must have hurt a lot.

Mrs Higgins tells us the Easter story at school. I draw a picture of the stone rolled away from the tomb, but I can’t see Jesus.

I attend a different church when I go to university. My friend’s plump cheeks glow with joy on Easter Sunday as she sings about being saved. I feel angry. What right have these people to be so happy? We could never be sure God would save us.

I’ve stopped doing church altogether by the time I spend Easter in Spain. On Good Friday, I wake in the night, and see men walking down the street in silence, bowed down by the weight of chains. I think of my childhood, dragging the weight and guilt of my sins without hope of relief.

Many years pass. Easter is marked as no more than a holiday, a few days of freedom. I begin to let go of the guilt and pain. Perhaps, just perhaps, God created me for joy.

My faith is no bigger than a grain of mustard seed when I begin attending Mass with my husband. I’m taken aback by Easter. I see the joy of the resurrection in the faces around me, feel it in the water splashed on my cheeks, smell it in the incense, and hear it as we once again sing, ‘Glory to God in the Highest, And on earth peace to people of good will’. I don’t yet taste it.

Over the next few years, I learn the rhythms of the church: forty days of fasting and prayer, the solemnity of Holy Week. On Good Friday, I find the tabernacle open, the statues hidden in purple drapes. Jesus is dead and in his tomb. I weep in the empty church, feeling as if I have lost a loved one.

Easter comes, but it feels as if Lent continues. My daughter is ill and her condition worsening. As I kneel in church early on Sunday, I don’t look for Easter joy. How can it come this year? Something catches at my heart, opens it a chink and God’s love floods in. Later, we drive up the mountainside and take a hike. My daughter has a few hours reprieve, and Easter Sunday feels like a taste of heaven.

My daughter’s condition worsens. She spends most of the summer in hospital, and things slowly turn around. I learn a new rhythm in the hopes and disappointments of caring for someone with a long-term health condition. In each small sacrifice, I share in Christ’s death, and in her tiny steps towards recovery, I see signs of resurrection.

I am learning that Easter is present every day, in suffering and joy, in the death of self and worn out dreams, and in the slow turning of my soul to God.

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.

Christ at the heart of Lent and Easter

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I’ve been a bit troimh-cheile over the last week, which is a Gaelic word that means being in a bit of a guddle, which is a Scots expression that means, well, a bit all over the place. A bad cold has left me not wanting to do too much. I wanted to share some thoughts on a TV programme on Lent and am only now getting around to it.

Last week, I watched Traisg ‘s Caisg, a programme on how Lent is kept in the Western Isles of Scotland. It is in Scottish Gaelic with English subtitles and has some lovely shots of island landscapes. I realise that anyone outside UK can probably only watch the clip. However, the programme gave me a lot to think about.

A bit of background

Firstly, a bit of background. The Western Isles stretch north to south about 40 miles off the northwest coast of Scotland. Thanks to causeways, you can travel along the whole 120 km length with only two ferry crossings. They are also known as the Outer Hebrides, the name coming from the Irish St Bridget.

The Southern Isles, Barra and Vatersay, north to Benbecula, contain some of the few Catholic communities which survived both the Reformation and the Highland clearances. The Northern Isles, North Uist to Lewis, are strongholds of reformed Presbyterianism. Despite the religious differences, the islands share the same language, culture and administrative council.

It’s worth saying a bit more about this. Until the mid 19th century, the main church in the Scottish Highlands was the Church of Scotland. However, people became unhappy that their landlord had the power to choose the local minister. After the Highland clearances, when landlords evicted large numbers of people from their ancestral homes, feelings came to a head. In 1843, 450, or about a third of the ministers, walked out, giving up their churches and manses to form the Free Church.

The new Free Church was particularly strong in the Highlands. The Free Church also did a lot to mitigate the effects of the Highland potato famine. It had radical roots, even if it is now seen as the status quo. Ministers gave up their churches, homes and a reliable source of income. Sometimes they preached from boats until new churches were built.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the Highland Free Church has fragmented many times due to disagreements over doctrine and church practice (just take a look at this diagram, and it doesn’t show all the splits). Even in the last year, people have formed new churches, rather than resolving differences.

Whatever the particular branch, Highland Presbyterian churches tend to be distinct from the Church of Scotland. Usually, they observe a strict Sabbath, and have unaccompanied Psalm singing instead of hymns, although this has eased up recently. Another difference, which was strong when I was growing up, is that Christmas and Easter are not celebrated in church. When I was a child, we simply marked them as commercial festivals, a time to give presents and over-eat at Christmas and to get chocolate eggs at Easter.

A look at Lent and Holy Week

This brings me back to the programme on Lent in the Western Isles. It gave interesting insights into local traditions, such as eating a chicken on Shrove Tuesday or putting no iron in the ground on Good Friday. The programme highlighted not just the forty days of Lent, but also Catholic traditions around Holy Week from Maundy Thursday through to Easter Sunday.

I wish I had watched something like this a few years ago as it brought together Holy Week traditions which I just picked up as I went along. The programme explains how the events around Jesus’ passion are re-enacted in the church, such as the covered statues and bare altar on Good Friday in memory of Christ’s death and burial, or the five pieces of incense put into the Easter candle, to symbolise the wounds of Christ.

I was wondering why the programme went into such detail on Holy Week, when I realised that it was probably aimed at helping Protestants understand how Catholics prepare for Easter.

Christ at the heart of Lent and Easter

It took me a long time to accept Easter. Many years ago, I attended my first Easter service in a Baptist church, and my reaction was anger. What did these people have to be happy about? Wasn’t religion supposed to be a long, cheerless trudge without any joy?

I was a considerable way into my journey towards Catholicism before I could stop looking over my shoulder at the church tradition I had come from. For a long time, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that they were right about not celebrating Easter and that the Catholic tradition was wrong.

Another thing, I struggled with was the leftover belief that Catholics worship statues and symbols instead of Christ. This programme on Lent did a very good job of showing that Christ as at the heart of Catholic practice related to Lent and Easter. We use images and symbols as an aid to bring us deeper into a mystery which goes beyond our senses and our mental processes. The symbolism of a church in darkness, and the Easter fire being used to light the candles which will then bring new light into the church, can help us move deeper into the mystery of the resurrection.

I also think that these signs and symbols speak to the child within us. After all, don’t we have to become like little children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?

So what is it about rules ….

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I love being Catholic, except at the start of Lent …

I’m thinking about Ash Wednesday and Lent and about why religions have rules. All the monotheistic religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity – have rules about what you can and can’t do if you want to remain in communion with the religion.

Different kinds of rules

Some of these are moral rules, such as not killing, stealing or sleeping with someone elses’s spouse. A lot of these moral rules have been absorbed into society as either laws or expectations of what is decent behaviour.

Other rules are to do with taboos or showing respect in a place of worship. For instance, taking your shoes off in a mosque or covering or uncovering your head in church depending on which sex you are, or being silent at set times.

The third type of rule is trickier. I’m thinking here of the rules to do with fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and giving up something for the six weeks of Lent. This would be similar to Ramadam for Muslims.

My experience of Protestant churches was that there are generally no rules to do with fasting. However, the church in which I was brought up had high expectations of how we should keep the Sabbath. We were told not to do, say or think anything which wasn’t connected with God or religion. Needless to say, I totally failed. Although this rule was based on the fourth commandment, the way it was interpreted was so strict that I think it probably came under the third type of rule: religious practice.

So what is it about rules ….?

So, why is this third type of rule there? Not for a moral reason. After all, I’m probably not going to upset anyone if I eat chocolate during Lent.

When I was a young woman, still chafing from religious rules which were almost impossible to keep, I would have argued that this type of rule is only there to place a heavy burden on people. Jesus himself spoke out frequently against the Pharisees and their rules, which often drove people away from God, rather than bringing them closer. In no less than three Gospels, Jesus says that it would be better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea than to cause ‘these little ones’ to stumble (Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2).

After my experience of legalistic religion, I didn’t want anything to do with Christianity for many years. Now that I’ve become Catholic, I find that there are rules related to religious practice, such as fasting for an hour before Mass or giving up something for Lent. These aren’t onerous rules and exceptions can be made, for instance if you are ill or poor or a guest at a meal, you are excused from fasting on Ash Wednesday.

Before becoming Catholic, I became quite annoyed when my husband encouraged the children to give up chocolate for Lent. I couldn’t very well guzzle chocolate if the kids were giving it up. I hated giving up my autonomy for some silly religious reason.

My first reaction to Lent helps me to understand what it’s about. I think that Lent and other rules related to religious practice are there as an act of devotion. By making small changes in my behaviour, remembering not to eat or drink right before Mass, or buy chocolate during Lent, I’m voluntarily giving up a small part of my freedom. My thoughts turn to the reason why I am doing this, and I remember God.

I think it’s a bit like rearranging your day so that you can see someone you love, or going out of your way to cook something they like or go with them somewhere. If we love someone, we give up a bit of our autonomy to share things with them.

An act of devotion?

For various, very good reasons, I’m not giving up a lot this year in terms of food. A bigger challenge might be to give up time, to stop writing or surfing the internet a bit earlier and go to bed with a book which helps me turn my thoughts to God. Whether we give up big things or small things, the aim should be to love God more rather than see how well we can keep a rule.

My final thoughts bring me back to the rules of my childhood. I could brush my hair on the Sabbath Day, but not wash it. I could polish my shoes for church, but not wash clothes. We could cook Sunday dinner, but not prepare it; all the vegetables had to be washed and peeled the night before. I wasn’t allowed to play and had to sit still, even on sunny days, and read Christian books.

I experienced the many rules around the Sabbath as constricting and stifling. However, the old people in the church loved keeping the Sabbath as an act of devotion. What crushed the life out of me, was a delight to them.

Practices which bring one person closer to God, might drive another away. For this reason, it’s good that the church isn’t too prescriptive about rules. There will be some people who will give up a lot during Lent and spend many hours in prayer, and others, like me, who can only manage small things. Whether what we do is big or small, it’s important to do it as an act of devotion rather than just for the sake of keeping a rule.

Doubts

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Doubts have been getting to me, like maggots burrowing under my skin, nibbling holes in the beliefs I took for granted:

Was Christ just a good man or was he really God? Even if he is God, how can I believe he’s really present in that scrap of wafer and sip of wine? I don’t feel anything. Shouldn’t I feel something? 

Square up to hard, cold facts and face life alone without clinging onto this comfort blanket you call faith. Or if you need some consolation,  make up your own beliefs. Cherry pick a few things from the smorgasbord of New Age religion. Much better than unpalatable beliefs about a man who was God dying on the cross and hiding himself in the form of bread and wine.

So say the doubts.

Do doubts have a place?

I thought that this blog was mainly going to be about faith, but I quickly realised that it was just as much about doubt. If I look at the word cloud on the right, I see that I’ve categorised 20 posts under doubt and 30 under faith. In fact, many are under both categories

The priest who instructed me in the Catholic faith encouraged me to ask questions and even said that doubts and questions are part of faith; they can’t be separated from it. At one point, I hoped to eradicate doubt through asking enough questions and reading enough answers. However, I’m beginning to accept that I’ll never run out of questions or reach certainty about belief.

Probably a good thing; there is nothing so frightening as someone who is certain they are right.

Doubt and uncertainty have their place because God is infinite and I cannot know Him in the way that I might know a book, a place, an animal or even a human being.

Doubts and questions are part of learning

Doubts and questions are also vital to the process of learning. From his research on child development, Piaget concluded that children are continually constructing a model of the world. When they encounter a new piece of information which doesn’t fit their previous ideas, they have to modify their model to fit the information. However, if the information is too many steps ahead of their current ideas (try telling a five year old child or even many adults that astronauts aren’t actually weightless; they’re just falling), they will reject the new idea and not learn anything.

 

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Photo credit: NASA

 

As adults, we risk becoming too rigid and no longer learning. We carry with us our ‘facts’ and way of seeing things, and reject anything which doesn’t fit into our world view.

However, if we go into any branch of knowledge at an advanced level, we find that it isn’t just about facts. True, there are things which we are fairly certain about, and which are unlikely to change, but at the edges, where the research is being done, ideas are being thrown around, models are tried out, rejected, modified, tried again.

Science progresses through questioning

Over the course of the 20th century, huge advances were made in physics. Old models could no longer explain observations and new theories were developed.

Newton’s theories of forces and gravity were superseded when Einstein showed that they no longer applied to objects travelling close to the speed of light. If you travel fast enough, all sorts of weird things can happen: time dilates and lengths shorten.

Strange things happen when you look at very small particles. An electron can behave like a wave under certain circumstances, but if you measure its exact path, it will behave like a particle. We can’t say what state a fundamental particle will be in until we measure it; we can only give a probability. It’s not just that it’s difficult to measure, it actually isn’t in either one state or the other until it is measured. (Look up George Gamow’s story of the bank clerk Mr Tompkins who plays quantum billiards).

Even Einstein struggled with the idea that quantum theory deals with probabilities rather than definite predictions. He made the famous statement, “God does not play with dice.”

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Perhaps nothing beats the advances in our understanding of the universe. Astronomers have recently admitted that only 4 % of the universe is in the form of the ordinary matter and energy with which we are familiar. The rest is dark matter and dark energy

No, don’t think Star Wars. Dark matter simply means that it reacts only very weakly with the ordinary matter of which the earth, the sun and the other planets are made of. We can’t see it and it also doesn’t emit measurable radiation such as microwaves or radio waves. However, we know it’s there, because of its gravitational effect (see Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall).

It was my job to ask questions

As a research scientist, it was my job to constantly ask questions and take nothing for granted. For each problem solved, many more opened up. When data didn’t match my model, I couldn’t just ignore it; I had to find out why.

When I think about it, perhaps science and the development of faith have more in common than I realised. In science, absolute proof is impossible. However, we can test an idea to see if it works. If it doesn’t, we reject it.

The same goes for faith. The test is life. I can look at how I feel when I let the doubts convince me that all I am is animated dust, and I can look at what happens when I try to trust that there is a purpose in life, even in the difficult things.

In science, questions can be painful. A model might have served us well up until now, but we have to let go of it, when it no longer explains all the observations. Sometimes the new model, like relativity or quantum theory can make frightening predictions.

In faith, too, it’s hard to detach ourselves from an image of God or an idea of faith which no longer matches our life experience. Faith which doesn’t acknowledge our experience of life, which causes us to warp ourselves or erase a part of our personality is not genuine. Perhaps, as in science, questions and doubts are a necessary part of moving on to a deeper level of understanding.

Plunged into the night

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I’ve taken the title of this post from a quote by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, from his book “Between man and man”. I wrote it down many years ago when I was questioning the strict religious faith in which I had been brought up.

In the signs of life which happen to us we are addressed. Who speaks?

It would not avail us to give for reply the word “god” if we did not give it out of that decisive hour of personal existence when we had to forget everything we imagined we knew of god, when we dared to keep nothing handed down or learned or self-contrived, no shred of knowledge and we were plunged into the night.

When I left home to go to university, I questioned everything and dared to keep nothing. As I danced to R.E.M.’s song ‘Losing my religion’, I thought, that’s me (yes, I know that’s not what it’s about). All the certainties of the religion I was brought up with where slipping away like sand through my fingers.

The other song which spoke to me was ‘Every River’ by the Scottish band Runrig:

You ask me to believe in magic
Expect me to commit suicide of the heart
And you ask me to play this game without question
Raising the stakes on this shotgun roulette

The church demanded unquestioning belief and I couldn’t do that. It was like trying to believe in magic. If I had forced myself to suppress my doubts and questions, I would have killed a part of myself.

I lost my faith, not for an hour or days, but years. I’ve described some of that process in these four posts: Don’t go to church …, I took a scunner to churches, Do we need to be born again? Sent into Exile.

Even though I had no religious faith, Martin’s Buber’s words held out the possibility that one day I, too, would be able to answer, god, to the questions of life.

‘God of Surprises’ by the Jesuit priest Gerard W. Hughes also gave hope that I could eventually go beyond the questions and doubts without reverting to unquestioning belief. He devotes a chapter to discussing the stages of religious development: infancy, adolescence and maturity, and argues that all are necessary.

In the stage of infancy, our senses are involved: smell, sight, sound, taste, feeling, and this is also important in worship. When we are children, we like clear rules and boundaries. We aren’t able to understand grey areas and complex issues. Rules and clear teaching are also necessary in faith, but there is a danger that we may get stuck there. When this happens, our religion can become separated from our experience of life.

In order to integrate religion with our life experience and reach a holistic understanding, we need to question. This is the adolescent or critical phase of religious development. Hughes writes that God is present in all things and that there is no issue, however complex, which falls outside the scope of religious inquiry.

He warns that when a church doesn’t allow questioning and exploration, ‘There will be a disharmony between the teaching of the Church and our everyday life, and the teaching presented will split off and become a part of our consciousness which has nothing to do with the rest of our human experience. A church isolated from our human experience can only survive as long as it can succeed in forbidding its adherents to ask questions and think for themselves.’

These words summarise my experience of church as a child and adolescent. My questions could not be contained within the church setting, and as a consequence, I left.

I still believed that there was a God, but I rejected Christianity with a bitterness which was related to the way my questions had been suppressed. Sometimes I even longed for God, but I knew that I could not go beyond this stage by myself. Moving on required some kind of grace.

Gerard Hughes describes the third stage in religious development as the mystical element, where we encounter God not through external rules or intellectual reasoning, but through our inner thoughts and feelings. He emphasises that elements of all three stages are crucial for religious maturity.

I became caught in the adolescent or critical stage for many years. I would have described myself as an agnostic who leant towards a belief in God. I didn’t make much of an effort to move beyond this stage. Sometimes, it takes crisis for us to turn back to God and try prayer again.

How I changed from criticising and kicking back against religion to being to turn to God is a mystery, a matter of grace. If I go back to Runrig’s song ‘Every River’, the next verse says:

But you came to me like the ways of children
Simple as breathing, easy as air
Now the years hold no fears, like the wind they pass over
Loved, forgiven, washed, saved

It speaks of the mystery of faith: going through questioning to a child’s trust with an adult’s understanding.

PS – I had a pretty difficult week, but managed to look at some other blogs and am going to try to keep on reading other peoples’ stories.

Peep!

I’m feeling a bit bruised. Last week, I tried to tweet, but as a newcomer to twitter it was more of a peep or cheep.

Nobody seemed to hear me. I squawked into the ether and the world of twitter went on as if I didn’t exist.

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I stared at the little heart button beneath the tweets and thought how nice it would be if even one person would click on it. Just one, that’s all I asked. My feeble tweets had cost me a lot of nerves, and I felt that I was owed a wee bit of encouragement.

Technology overtook me around the time that my first kid was born. All I could do was keep up with the feeds and the nappy changes, or rushing babies to and from childcare. Meanwhile, people began to connect with texts followed by smartphones which made them available at all hours of day and night. I didn’t want any part of it, especially since I was already available around the clock to several small people.

Okay, so it took a lot to cheep into the big, busy world of the internet. Maybe I was expecting too much if I thought anyone was going to take notice. Certainly that little heart symbol which remained stubbornly empty came to take on too much significance.

Just because the big, bad internet didn’t give me a thumbs-up, I began to think that maybe I was no good: an unemployed, middle-aged mum who can’t get the hang of this new way of communicating.

I felt like I was talking in a crowded station where no-one had time to stop and listen. When I realised how insignificant my little cheep was, I felt small and unimportant and it was hard to remember that this isn’t a measure of my value. Maybe God loves me despite or even because of my smallness.

I’m no good at networking, either in-person or online, so I think I’ll have to just accept that tweeting is not for me.

The other day, I read that even popularity is for sale. if your product or page isn’t getting enough likes, you can buy fake likes on the internet. However, I’ll give it a miss.  

Rather than tweeting or bellowing or lowing or howling or braying any more words into the ether, I think I’ll take time to listen and try to visit the pages of every person who’s been interested enough to follow or like my blog.

And please let me know in the comments line if there’s anything you would especially like to be read.