Similarities

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Recently I’ve been reading ‘From MTV to Mecca’ by former MTV presenter Kristiane Backer who converted to Islam in 1995 at the age of 30. She later became a Sufi, part of the mystical branch of Islam.

The book leapt out at me from the library shelves because I thought that it would be interesting to read about the experiences of another convert, even if the religion they converted to isn’t my own. I expected to find parallels in the process of conversion. What I didn’t expect, and what has delighted and challenged me, was to find parallels between the Muslim and the Catholic faith.

Here is a very rough list of the things which struck me as being similar:

  • Muslims, like Catholics, have a tradition of saints and believe that a spiritual blessing can be received through the relics of holy men and women.
  • Both Muslims and Catholics pray for the souls of the dead.
  • Physical posture, such as kneeling, is used in worship.
  • Both faiths have a period of fasting or eating restrictions (Ramadan and Lent).
  • The Muslim and Catholic faith both have traditions of pilgrimage to holy sites
  • The word Islam actually means ‘surrender to the will of God’. Surrendering to God’s will lies at the heart of the Christian faith as we follow the example of the Virgin Mary who gave God her fiat when she said, ‘Let it be done unto me according to Your will.’
  • In Sufi tradition, the heart is seen as a cup through which Divine Love can flow. However, before it can be filled, the cup needs to be emptied of the ego and unhealthy habits and attachments. Sufi’s say ‘Die before you die’ and Jesus said that unless the wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will not produce fruit.
  • The Muslim, like the Christian, tries to turn to God through regular prayer and remembering God in their daily life. They call this practice dhikr.

I have had many ‘Aha’ moments reading Kristiane’s book when I have recognised something which I have experienced or read about or striven towards. These similarities have led me to the conclusion that the One God whom we recognise as Catholics also works through other faiths and religions.

My own faith, often assailed by doubts, has been strengthened

by reading about the pull Kristiane felt towards Islam and the many ways in which she has sought God through the Muslim religion. Sometimes I wonder if I am on the right path, if I am on any path at all, or even if there is a path. However, seeing that paths which are different on the surface lead towards the same spiritual principles of turning to God and seeking to do His will, has helped me in my struggle with doubt.

As I read this book, I think of my elderly Sufi friend who pointed me towards a spiritual path before I became Catholic.

I think also of the many ordinary Muslims whose lives have become complicated by attitudes to the few people who take an extreme interpretation of their religion. If we take a long hard look at Christian history, we will find extremists on both the Catholic and Protestant sides. Kristiane Backer also wrestles with this and concludes that love is at the heart of the Sufi tradition. As she says, there is no such thing as a Sufi terrorist.

Why not differences?

I could quite easily have written a post called differences. Perhaps the most significant difference for Christians is that Muslims honour Jesus as a prophet rather than the Son of God. However, my own background has led me to look for God at work in the lives of others rather than concentrating on what sets us apart.

My faith journey started in a little church where we believed that everyone who held different beliefs to ours, including other Christians, was on the broad road to hell. As a young woman, I rejected church and Christianity, but never quite ditched my belief in God. Despite difficulties with organised religion, I developed an awareness of God’s presence, and felt that I recognised God working in the lives of people from different religions or no religion at all.

When I thought about becoming a Catholic, I didn’t want to close myself off to this awareness of God in the lives of others. If becoming Catholic meant believing that my Protestant family and friends were all going to hell, then I would have to regretfully turn away.

I brought these difficulties to our parish priest. He pointed out that while the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that Baptism is necessary for salvation, it also says, God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments (CCC 1257).

Reading on a little , I found the following:

‘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.’ Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity. (CCC 1260)

I took this to include people who may have been born and brought up in cultures and communities where the Catholic church or the Gospel was very foreign to them. God calls some people to jump across religious divides, I am one of them, but is everyone called to do this?

Only God can judge the heart of another. When I see love being practised between people, I think that God must be at work and that they are living out the message of the Gospel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is God extravagant?

Flowers

I didn’t usually notice the flowers in the church, but they were particularly beautiful. While I was admiring the mixture of creams and whites and greenery in front of the altar, I realised that there were another two vases on either side of the altar. Two smaller vases stood on either side of Jesus’ feet. Mary hadn’t been left out; she had two vases of her own, making a total of seven.

Seven vases of flowers. Who needed that many in a church?  They served no purpose except to look nice and add a bit of grace to the altar. Surely one wee bunch could do the job. They were nice to look at, but we could do without them. The only flowers that made it into the wee church of my childhood were the silk ones on the ladies’ hats, and it never occurred to us that a few fresh ones might brighten the place up a bit.

These flowers were lovely, but was it right to buy expensive ones like lilies. I hated to think how much they had cost. Come to think of it, should the church be buying any flowers? They would be better spending the money on the poor.

Hmm. Wasn’t there a Gospel story which went something along these lines. I thought a moment, and then I had it. Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume, and then Judas Iscariot complained about the extravagance, suggesting that the money could have been better spent on the poor.  Jesus accepted Mary’s extravagant gift by gently rebuking Judas, ‘You will always have the poor, but you won’t always have me.’ (John 12:8)

I accepted the rebuke and bent my head to concentrate on the Mass. If someone wanted to spend money filling the church with beautiful flowers as an expression of their gratitude to God, who was I to judge?

Everything in moderation?

After I got home, I realised that my cramped reaction to the flowers was very similar to my reaction to the Roman churches filled with art and decoration. My feeling in both cases was that neither flowers nor paintings were necessary in churches. A little of  both might be permissible, but to fill the church with decoration was extravagant. Things like flowers and paintings which are there simply for their beauty, are probably just as indispensable as sleep.

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When we collect, appreciate and try to create beautiful things, we are imitating God. He gives us beauty in profligate, reckless abundance. On top of our own world teeming with life, we have been given the amazing and humbling vastness of space. Here are a few facts:

  • If you look up at the sky on a clear night, you will see a white smudge stretching across the sky. You are looking into just one of the spiral arms in our local Milky Way galaxy.
  • The sun is just one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
  • There are thought to be around 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.
  • It takes light, travelling at 300 000 000 metres per second, four years to reach us from the closest star Proxima Centauri.
  • Andromeda, our closest galaxy, is 2.5 million light years away.

Have a look at the  scale of the universe . It is a great site which attempts to give people some kind of idea of the immensity of the universe.

Is God extravagant? There is no such thing as moderation when it comes to the universe. The facts speak for themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

A convert visits Rome. Part 1

Before I became Catholic Rome was probably bottom of my list of European cities which I wanted to visit, but things change and I found myself wanting to visit Rome, and then making the opportunity to do so.

I went loaded with expectations. Surely I would feel something profound when I visited the church built on the site of St Peter’s martyrdom. I liked the boldness of going to Rome, and hoped to integrate myself better into this strange thing called the Catholic church. I also hoped for peace and some of these quiet moments when I would feel, just for an instant, the touch of God.

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Trevi Fountain

 

I loved Rome: the coffee, the food, the piazzas and fountains, the narrow alleys with antique shops, and the colourful streets in Trastevere, The visit was rich in experience. However, as far as religion went, I found turbulence and challenge.

On the first evening in Rome, when it was almost dark outside, we wandered into a church near the Trevi fountain. In contrast to the brightly-lit white marble fountain, the church was like a dark tent of deep red and blue, lit by candles and a few electric lights. The richly-decorated side chapels receded into darkness. A mass was underway and near the front of the church, women in dark clothes, some wearing mantillas, recited responses in Italian. Nothing looked or sounded familiar. I had the feeling that I had stumbled upon the rituals of a totally foreign religion.

Even when I visited churches in the daytime, I was overwhelmed by the amount of religious imagery: scenes from the Bible, saints, martyrdoms, or simply decoration covering every available surface.

I was brought up in an ultra-reformed branch of the church. No religious image or symbol was permitted either in the church or in our home. I remember being punished for decorating my Bible with a cross. Given my background, it probably isn’t surprising that all this religious imagery was a real challenge.

A visit to St Peter’s

St. Peter’s, from which I had hoped so much, was too much for me. With the long nave, huge marble columns, more than life-size figures of past Popes and the large, ugly canopy over the main altar, it felt large and draughty and masculine. I stared into the side chapels and found one containing, quite incredibly, relics from the 4th century saint St John Chrysostom. I stared at the painted cupula above, trying to make sense of things, when someone pushed my arm. All they wanted to do was ask if I would take a photo, but I was feeling so confused and overwhelmed that this small nudge pushed me to tears. Fortunately, my husband was on hand to take the photo and exchange small talk.

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I went into a side chapel set aside for prayer and adoration. However, it was covered in so much gold paint and decoration that I felt as if I was inside a jewelled box. Even though I was surrounded by people kneeling in prayer, I had no sense that God was there. I asked God where He was in all of this, but the only thing I took away was a question, “Does God really like all this bling?”

A challenge to faith

I left St. Peter’s with some very uncomfortable questions. Why all these paintings and opulence? Why memorials to saints and past Popes? Why this devotion to saints and relics, and since I was questioning other things, I might as well ask whether the church needed devotion to the Virgin Mary? I yearned for a tiny chapel with white-washed walls, which was totally free of images, and wondered why the Catholic church couldn’t adopt this plan for its interior decoration.

The narrative I’d learnt as a Protestant went something like this: when Jesus founded the church, it was pure and simple and good. However, somewhere along the way (although it wasn’t quite defined when), the church acquired unnecessary and even idolatrous practices, such as confession and praying to the saints and the Virgin Mary. The Reformation came and allowed Christians to return to the simple pure form of worship which had existed in the early church.

After visiting St. Peter’s, I felt the attraction and the persuasiveness of this argument. Perhaps the Catholic church had drifted far away from what Christ intended. Maybe I had made a huge error joining it.

To stop this post becoming too long. I’ll describe in the next one how I received answers to these questions.

So much STUFF

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I am sitting beside the tinsel tree, amongst paper ripped off presents. I feel the weight of the annual seasonal obligation to show my affection for loved ones by giving and receiving STUFF.

On Christmas Eve, I watched Nativity Play 2 with my kids, a story in which a poor school enters ‘A Song for Christmas’ competition. There are a lot of catchy songs, including one that goes something like, ‘this Christmas I don’t care about Peace on Earth; All I want is stuff.’

That song didn’t win, of course. I thought the film might just be another story of underdog wins music competition, but there was a plot twist. The posh school give up their chance to be on stage so that the down-on-their-luck school can perform their winning song, and in turn that school lets the posh school pick up the money prize. So maybe Christmas isn’t just about stuff, although it’s hard to keep sight of that in all the pressure of giving and receiving.

A time when there was less stuff

This Christmas, I am thinking back to a time when my life wasn’t so weighed down with things. In the BC (Before Children) era of our lives, my husband and I tried to walk lightly on the planet, leaving as small a footprint as possible. We cycled and recycled. When our contemporaries were scrambling onto the first rung of the housing ladder, we were more interested in travelling from place to place clocking up experiences.

During my first pregnancy, I took the Scottish superstition that you shouldn’t buy much before the child is born to an extreme. When our baby arrived, we had acquired a small basket for her to sleep in, one blanket, one towel, five sleeping suits (neutral colour), five vests, a changing mat and one pack of newborn-sized nappies.

In those first few days in hospital, I realised that we might need a few more things. The first outing with the newborn in a baby snuggly, was a walk into town to pick up a nappy bucket and other practical items, including the pram which we finally ordered two days before the birth.

Christmas adds to all the stuff

Quite a few years and several children later, we have acquired a house, a car and a lot more stuff. Sometimes Christmas seems like an exercise in weighing ourselves down with even more items. I have tried to mitigate it by buying useful things (socks) or educational things (books and learning games) as well as the toys and gadgets which they simply want. This year I even bought them a Cafod world gift. They scarcely looked at the card telling them that fruit trees had been given to a family on the other side of the world before ripping open the next present.

This year we have encountered the additional hazard of social media where kids post pictures of themselves with the latest electronic gadget or arty photos of the perfect Christmas scene. It’s an uphill battle telling my children that happiness isn’t to be found in things or images.

Happiness without much stuff

I look back many years and see myself walking along a street in a tatty pair of jeans and hideous trainers with bright pink soles. I didn’t have any money to buy new clothes because I was volunteering for a charity, living in very simple circumstances, and paid only a few pounds a week. However, as I walked along that street, I realised the lightness and liberation of not having much.  

I can’t give my children this kind of experience. Cancelling Santa at this stage in their lives would simply cause anguish. However, I hope and pray that even in this culture where there is a tremendous pressure to acquire and to be seen to have things, my children will learn that peace and happiness does not come through STUFF.

More thoughts on Advent

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Calendars and chocolate

Every morning almost the first thing my children do is open their Advent Calendar and eat the chocolate. After this highlight has passed they have to wait another 24 hours before they can open the next door.

I think that my dog now understands the word Advent. While they are opening their chocolates, she sits patiently on the floor and follows every gesture until someone remembers to open the Doggie Advent Calendar and give her a thin, brown slab which looks very like chocolate. It’s okay. I checked. There’s no cocoa in it, just chocolate flavouring.

My dog has to do a lot of waiting. She lurks under the table while we are eating and waits to be fed afterwards. She waits to be taken out for walks. While we’re out at work, she sleeps and looks after the house and then almost turns inside out with joy when we return.

Waiting

I’m not very good at waiting. As I’ve already mentioned, I’m trying to do a new job which involves learning new skills. That’s a lot more difficult than acquiring knowledge.

Knowledge can be broken down into manageable steps. I can see how far I’ve gone and how far I’ve still to go. However, I don’t learn new skills easily. Although I try hard, I tend to be tense and worried and impatient with myself when I don’t make visible progress. It took me two years to learn to swim and four attempts to pass my driving test.

It’s hard for me to be patient in the situation of learning a new job. I have to be humble enough to accept my own failure; I make mistakes every day. Experience is only gained through trying, failing and trying again. Often I feel as if I am trying to climb an icy slope in skis; every time I make a little progress, I fall and slither back down again.

Caryll Houselander’s meditations on Advent

In the middle of this, I am reading Caryll Houselander’s ‘Reed of God’. The Reed of God refers to Mary’s emptiness and her willingness to be used by God, like a reed which is fashioned for breath and music. Our parish priest recommended it, because I am still struggling, as a Catholic convert, to understand the role of the Virgin Mary.

Three things have surprised me about Caryll Houselander’s writing. The first is the simple and direct way in which she writes, turning over what I thought were familiar ideas and showing them in a new light.

The second is the fact that I often forget that the meditations are on Mary, the Mother of God, because Christ is at the centre of them.

The third thing which has surprised me is relevant these meditations, written during the Second World War, are to my life at the moment.

Writing about Advent, Caryll Houselander says:

‘Advent is the season of the secret, the secret of the growth of Christ, of Divine Love growing in silence.

It is the season of humility, silence and growth.’

She writes about Christ growing within us unseen, like a baby in the womb, or a seed in the soil. In the darkness of winter, it looks as if nothing is happening, but hidden in the soil, a seed is beginning to sprout.

Just as the Mother of God waited for Christ to grow within her, a time of quietness and darkness is necessary for Christ to grow within our souls. Even if nothing seems to be happening, we must recognise by faith that Christ has taken root within us. If we do then we will learn to see that our lives are not insignificant, because where we go, Christ goes with us.

‘By His own will Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent: He was absolutely helpless; He could go nowhere but where she chose to take Him; He could not speak; her breathing was His breath; His heart beat in the beating of her heart.

To-day Christ is dependent upon men.’

Work, too, is a part of this process of waiting and growing. For Caryll Houselander it is something into which a person must patiently put the whole of themselves, whether it is in the creation of something which takes time, such as a sculpture, or something apparently ephemeral, such as sweeping the floor. She writes:

‘The permanency in it is in the generation of Christlife. That outlasts time itself. It is eternal.’

My own Advent

Reading ‘The Reed of God’ has helped me to recognise and accept my own season of Advent. It is a period when progress, if any, is slow and almost imperceptible. At a time when God’s presence is lighter than a breath, something so quiet and gentle that it is hard to recognise amongst the noise and business of my life, I must learn to nurture the life of Christ within. Caryll Houselander says, ‘We must fold our concentrated love on Him like earth, surrounding, holding and nourishing the seed.’

Growth can be painful. These words from ‘The Reed of God’ have given me encouragement to be patient:

‘If only those who suffer would be patient with their early humiliations and realise that Advent is not only the time of growth but also of darkness and hiding and waiting, they would trust, and trust rightly, that Christ is growing in their sorrow, and in due season all the fret and strain and tension of it will give way to a splendour of peace.’

Purple is for Advent

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I’m reblogging this post from the first Advent after I became Catholic. Although I didn’t admit it at the time, I wrote this piece just after making the embarrassing mistake of picking up the wrong colour of Mass book. I didn’t realise that New Year and a new mass book begins at the start of Advent. The post still reflects what I’m trying to understand about Advent. I’ll put up another one with new thoughts in the next week or so.

When I became Catholic, I had heard of Lent and giving up chocolate in the weeks before Easter. 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.

A new conversion story

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‘Night’s Bright Darkness’ is the story of the poet Sally Read’s conversion from atheism to Catholicism in nine brief months. It opens with a description of Sally as a young student nurse laying out a body for the first time. She doesn’t spare the reader the practical details of handling a dead body. When she had finished, the Irish nurse who was instructing her told her to open the window “to let his soul fly”. However, Sally was an atheist and the idea of the soul seemed like an anachronism.

Her life was not without compassion. She trained to become a psychiatric nurse in order to help the weak and vulnerable. She sought for some spark of personality left in patients whose minds had gone, leaving behind the living husk of the body. When her father died, she didn’t allow herself any delusions. She remained firm in her belief that there was no transcendent being, and that all that was left of her father was his ashes. During this difficult period, her atheist convictions almost pushed her into the void. She describes sitting down one day and saying, “This is hell.”

God did not step in at that point. However, he caught up with her years later when she was living in Italy with her husband and small daughter. Research for a book she was working on, brought her into contact with a priest. ‘Night’s Bright Darkness’ tells the story of how from that small opening her life and convictions were turned upside down.

Some things I like about this book

‘Night’s Bright Darkness’ is not always a comfortable or an easy read, but it is a beautiful book. True to her poetic calling, Sally Read doesn’t waste words. Each passage counts. She gives vivid, succinct descriptions of her life in London and Italy. The story is fast-paced as the fire of her conversion rapidly burns through her previous liberal and atheist beliefs.

At times she grapples with describing experiences which go beyond the logic of the five senses. She describes grace “as if I had been blindly rifling a thick black backdrop before I unexpectedly put a hand through where the two halves of the fabric met.”

The book is not written in strict chronological order. The author has divided it into chapters on the Father, the Spirit, the Son, the Church, the Mother and the Mystery. Each contains relevant reflections on her life before and after she became Catholic. She mentions things which I recognise from my own journey towards the church, but hadn’t really thought about. Writing about her first confession, she says, “The Catholic Church, which I had always seen as wrapped in barbed wire and brambles, was as yielding, accommodating and non-judgemental as a mother.”

Sally Read does not shy away from describing the painful adjustments her family had to make in order to accept not just her new faith, but the fact that she had also changed as a person. I appreciate her frankness in writing about things which are probably experienced by many converts. Conversion affected all of my relationships, and it took some time before I and the others in my life could accept these changes.

This book fills a gap

My own conversion was like a deep, strong current pulling me seemingly unstoppably to a place I had just about sworn I would never go. During this period, I trawled the internet devouring conversion stories in the hope that they would help me understand what was happening.

Most of the stories I found were written by North Americans. Almost all of them described the painful process by which Evangelical Protestants question their church and eventually, despite all their initial objections, turn to the Catholic church for answers. These stories were important. They helped me to understand and answer the questions I had about Catholic faith as someone coming from a Protestant background.

However, I longed to find a conversion story from a culture closer to my own. I also carried the burden of turning away from the church, mocking belief and wanting nothing to do with organised religion.

None of the conversion stories I read during this period described the process of going from almost hating churches to a deep hunger for the Eucharist. However, ‘Night’s Bright Darkness’ fills this gap. It describes how God can turn a life in a completely different direction and replace atheism with the peace of his presence.

It’s important to record these mysteries because the fire of conversion eventually cools. Sally Read says, “We have to remember…, because these feelings, so right and pure, get muddled and muddied in the daily tramp of life and all its obligations. History disappears down the long line of dates; the supernatural recedes into some distant sky.” I appreciate this story, because at a time of doubt and darkness, it has helped me to remember the sure sense of God’s presence which drew me into the church.

Towards the end of the book, Sally Read describes her struggles to bear witness to her faith as a mother, as a writer and translator, as a parishioner organising adoration, and as someone whose love for her faith spills over into conversations. As she says in the last paragraph, this is an unfinished story about an ongoing journey. She writes with insight, honesty and passion, and I hope that she will share more in future books.

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.

Mary as Christ’s mother

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Marian devotion was my biggest sticking point when thinking about becoming Catholic. I had no instinct for it. Eventually I decided that since I was convinced about other aspects of Catholic faith, I would trust the church on this one.

Even before I was received into the church, I felt drawn to praying the Rosary. I wouldn’t be without it now. Meditating on the life of Jesus and Mary in this way often brings me peace when nothing else can.

However, I still puzzle over devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Our priest says that people fall into two errors when it comes to devotion to Mary: either they show too much devotion, or not enough. But what is enough? What role does she play? How does she fit into the picture? When praying the Rosary, she sometimes emerges as a concrete, human figure, but at other times she can seem elusive. Most of the time I feel more connected to my favourite saints than I do to Mary, the mother of Christ.

A dream

Recently I had a dream which helped me understand Mary’s role a little better. It was the kind of vivid dream which wakes you in the middle of the night and keeps sleep away for a while. In this dream, I was in a modern-looking church in which benches fanned out in a semi-circle from the altar. I felt apprehensive as I looked around. Many of my relatives and friends where spread out around the church and I knew that they would take a dim view of a Catholic Mass.

When, the priest began, I was on edge, hoping that the Protestant visitors weren’t feeling too out of place. It turned out to be one of those days when a hymn was sung in praise of the Virgin Mary. I felt like sinking through the floor of the church as I imagined the reactions of my Protestant friends. Why on earth did they had to turn up on a day when particular devotion was shown to the Virgin Mary? In my experience, Catholics are much more likely to sing a hymn in praise of the Eucharist than in praise of Mary or the saints.

 At this point, the Protestant visitors began protesting. I can’t remember everything that was said, but they argued strongly against Marian devotion. One of my relatives delivered the final blow. He stood up and declared that Catholics give Mary an equal position to Christ. They claim, he said, that she is co-mediatrix, an equal partner in our salvation.

My faith tottered. I wondered if I was deeply offending God by having any devotion to the Virgin Mary. I knew that I had to stand up and say something, but I had no idea what. I got to my feet and to my surprise words came to me. I said that Mary was as much a partner in Jesus’ work of salvation, as my mother was in my getting a degree.

An Analogy

These few words were enough. I awoke. It was dark and I was in my own bed, but the dream still felt very present. When I thought about it, it seemed that I had been given a good analogy.

My mother never had the chance to get a college or university education. She didn’t understand my degree subject, and I enjoyed teasing her by coming out with strange facts which she had trouble accepting. However, without her help, I would never have got a degree. She gave birth to me and brought me up to have a respect for education and knowledge.

My parents provided financial support. My Mum fed me up at half-term and sent me off again with packages of food. She didn’t bat an eyelid when I turned up with some of my strange new friends from university and told her that they needed a meal or a bed for the night. When I was lonely or things were difficult, I called her from a red telephone box in the rain. At the time I took my mother for granted, but now that I’m a mother myself, I appreciate her a lot more. Without her support, I wouldn’t have achieved what I did.

There is a parallel with the role of Mary in God’s plan of salvation. Christ, her son, did it all, and yet she was an essential part of God’s plan. She gave birth to Christ, and brought him up to love others and to love God. She encouraged and supported him, and even followed him to the foot of the cross.

Christ was fully human and yet fully divine. Like other human beings, he didn’t come from no-where. He had a family and that family helped to create the circumstances in which he could carry out his ministry and his work of salvation. Perhaps part of the reason we show devotion to his mother, is because he wants us to join him in appreciating the part she played in his life.