Retreat

This summer I spent a few days in Pluscarden Abbey in Moray, the only medieval monastery in the UK which is still being used for its original purpose.

I simply didn’t know what to expect, beyond the fact that the womens’ guesthouse was in an isolated spot some distance from the main abbey and that I would have to bring my own food.

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Arrival

A taxi from Elgin was the only way to get there without a private car although I later realised that there is a pilgrim walking path which I would try to take next time. The taxi left the town and was soon travelling through wood and farmland along winding single-track road.

The driver, perhaps a little worried about leaving me outside the abbey when there was no-one in sight, set me down by the front entrance and rang the bell. A sleepy-looking monk appeared, muttered something about ‘meridian’ (which I later learnt was afternoon nap), and gave me a key to the women’s guesthouse.

The guesthouse was at the end of a track beside a large field. Each of the rooms bore the name of a saint. I chose St Clare, because she had been a friend of St Francis of Assisi, dumped my bags on the floor and burst into tears with relief that I had got here and could finally rest.

The last year has been difficult. When faced with challenges, I have learnt that I simply can’t operate without prayer. However, sometimes I don’t pray or don’t make it a priority. The week before going to Pluscarden had been particularly busy trying to finish things before I left, some of which could have waited. By the time I reached the Abbey, my nerves were so jangled that I couldn’t have gone on another day.

My first prayer was that my own state of un-peace would not disturb this peaceful place.

Awe

Bells rang out to announce each office. On first seeing the medieval church with its grey, stone walls, gothic arches and stained glass windows, I simply felt awe. The daily Bible readings during Mass are read out in English. Apart from that, everything else is in Latin although there are leaflets for each Office with the Psalms both in Latin and in English.

The Psalms are sung in Gregorian chant which after a while seemed to get inside me and go through my mind like the rhythm of prayer, even when I wasn’t in the church.

More than the building itself, I was impressed by the monks’ faith. Apart from producing their own food and some products, such as honey, to sell, they don’t have any way to earn money. And yet they open up their home to guests without charging any fee although donations are gratefully accepted. That takes faith.

The monastery was founded in 1230 and a community lived there for over 300 years until Scotland separated from the Catholic church in 1560 when it fell into private hands. By the twentieth century, it was a roofless ruin. However, the current owner, the Marquis of Bute, offered it to the Benedictine Community in Prinknash, England.

In 1948, five monks went north to live in the ruined abbey. Somehow, while spending five hours a day praying the Divine Office, these monks oversaw the restoration of the Abbey. As one monk said to me, ‘If they hadn’t prayed eight times a day, very little would have got done.’

Overwhelmed

In Pluscarden, everything revolves around prayer. On the website, the Prior says, ‘We came to the monastery to pray: we’re not in a hurry; we have nothing better to do.’

To say I was completely overwhelmed by the formality and beauty of the prayers and the solemnity of the Latin Mass would be an understatement.

Just as they had in Rome, my Protestant criticisms rose again. Was I really part of a church which spoke Latin, and made liberal use of the incense burner and holy water shaker? Why did the church expect its monks to pray seven times a day and rise once in the night for prayer? Wasn’t that a bit excessive? And while I was at it, I might as well have a go at the rules governing Catholic laypeople, the Sundays and the Holy Days of Obligation. My Protestant voice told me to pick and choose, take the bits I was comfortable with and leave the rest, whilst my agnostic voice told me to step back, view it from a distance without getting too involved or committed.

I didn’t expect to be assailed by doubts in a monastery, but that’s sometimes what happens when you take time to be still and another layer of doubt and mistrust is uncovered.

Refuge

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I overcame my doubts (with some help!)

During the Latin Mass, I listened for the bell and the words of the consecration as the priest lifted up the bread and wine, and I felt more peaceful. Christ was here. God is transcendent, but also immanent.

Compline was my favourite office, the last of the day, when we sat in the candlelit church for a few moments silence before an act of contrition and a Psalm. It ended with an anthem to the Virgin Mary. As a former Protestant, I struggle with devotion to Mary. How much is too much? How can focussing on Mary bring me closer to her son. However, sitting in a medieval chapel in the evening listening to the monks sing Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) sent goosebumps up my spine and left me with a sense of peace.

During my time in Pluscarden, I often thought of ‘Seven Storey Mountain’ by Thomas Merton, a convert and Cistercian monk. He describes saying the Rosary with the other monks as they returned from the fields and says, ‘Who knows what grace overflows into the world from that valley, from those rosaries, in the evenings when the monks are swinging home from work!’

I felt gratitude that there was such a place as Pluscarden. Surely some of these prayers must overflow, not just to guests, but to the wider world. It was also a place where I began to learn about recognising grace in the small things in life.

Take away

What will I take away? Calmed nerves and an increased feeling of peace, but that won’t last unless I continue in prayer. The monks’ witness is strong. I’ve seen what can happen if you make prayer a priority: medieval ruins can be rebuilt and become a refuge for Catholics, other Christians and people of other faiths or none at all.

I’ll also bring back an appreciation of the Divine Office, the challenge and delight of praying the Psalms and the words of the Prior when he paraphrased St John of the Cross and said that our mission as Christians is to ‘have faith where there is no faith, hope where there is no hope and love where there is no love.’

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Beyond

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I’m going to be very brave and post a picture of my courgette plant (zucchini to those on the other side of the pond). Woops, no, that wasn’t the bit I was going to be brave about.

Okay, after many rejections, I’ve had a few stories published. Some of these I wrote before my conversion, and some after, but writing has always been a way of spiritual seeking.

I’m sending links to two of them that I thought might be of interest.

An analogy of faith

The first story is Beyond by Christine Grant (the pen name I use) and is in the Winter 2017 issue of Metafore Magazine on page 10 (approx. 3500 words).

It is set in a country hemmed in by mountains, where an unusual situation means that the inhabitants never see the sky. I wrote it shortly after becoming Catholic as an analogy of faith – something which is occasionally glimpsed and never certain.

The opening lines:

Piers scanned the sky, as he did every day, looking for the light that his mother had
sought for the last six years of her life. Today there was no thinning or brightness, no sign that anything lay beyond the layer of steel-grey cloud visible between the high buildings.

Letting go

The second story is One-Way Ticket by Christine Grant (approx 2300 words) and appears in the August 2017 issue of Scarlet Leaf Review.

The second story is about a young man who sells his possessions to buy a one-way ticket to the Grand Canyon. He takes with him one thing which he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to give up, but the beauty of the canyon begins to change him.

The opening lines:

Eric took a deep breath of hot, dry air, glad to be off the bus which had jolted him awake during the overnight journey through the desert. He stuffed his ticket into a bin at the bus stop. He wouldn’t need it again; he wasn’t going back.

Enjoy the summer holidays!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ecumenical

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Recently I visited the baile mor (big city). Okay, Inverness is big to us. As I was walking along the river bank, I passed St. Andrews Cathedral and decided to go in for a few moments of prayer.

St Andrews is Episcopalian (Anglican in Scotland). Since becoming Catholic, I’ve tended to avoid going into non-Catholic churches. Part of this has been worry about feeling awkward, but mostly I’ve been afraid of sitting in a cold, empty building and feeling as if God wasn’t there.

However, on this particular day, I was feeling open and curious. What would be different, what would be the same? A splendidly-dressed man in full Highland regalia stood just inside the door beside a table with information. Okay, that was certainly different. Maybe he was just there for the tourists.

Different rituals

The rituals which I found so difficult when I first went to Catholic churches, have almost become automatic responses. I looked around for a holy water font. Not seeing one there, I looked towards the front. Yes, there was an altar, but where was the tabernacle. Did they have them in Episcopalian churches? I was in a quandary. Should I curtsey towards where I thought the tabernacle might be?

Stop making a stupid fuss, I told myself. Do what you always did in Protestant churches. Walk down the aisle and take a seat in a pew.

Further up the church, I spotted something familiar: a stand for candles. They were tall, thin ones rather than squat tea lights, but so what. A candle is a candle. I lit one and read the prayer beside it, which was exactly the same as one I’d read in many Catholic churches.

I chose a pew near the candles and faced the next decision. Should I kneel or sit? I would normally kneel if I went into a Catholic church to say a prayer. There was a cushioned kneeler on the floor. However, the other people in the church were all sitting, and I decided to do the same.

Trying to pray

Next, I tried to pray. I’ve been reading a book on contemplative prayer by Ignacio Larrañaga which recommends starting with an exercise to calm yourself and clear your mind, such as concentrating on breathing or pulse. Sometimes thoughts intrude. On other days I manage a verbal prayer, a thank you or a please help. Often, I nod off, even sitting up, but wake up feeling more peaceful.

Fr. Larrañaga says that contemplative prayer should have no other aim beyond just being in God’s presence, being open to God and just letting ourselves be seen by God. Contemplative prayer, he says, should go beyond words.

Unfortunately, I’ve seldom managed to get into this state of praying or being which goes beyond words and mental processes. Fr Larrañaga says that it takes patience, perseverance and above all, grace. Sometimes you can do a lot of work for little apparent result or at other times a little work can yield a huge result.

Reaching a state of peace

In St Andrews Cathedral in Inverness, I had one of these rare moments when I entered God’s presence and just was. Without doing more than the most basic exercises to calm my mind and place my worries in God’s hands, I reached a state of peace and well-being.

I looked around the Cathedral, watching the flickering candles and smoke trailing from one which had guttered out, listening to an organist practice hymns, observing a woman priest – yes, a woman! – prepare the altar for Communion. A mother came in with a pushchair, sat at the front for a few moments, and then left.

I saw all this without letting my thoughts snag on any of it. At the same time, I experienced an incredible calmness and peace and sense that God was there.

Can you take something back from contemplation?

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The organist finished practicing with a loud chord which jolted me out of the state of prayer and into simply sitting on a wooden pew in a dim church.

The fruits of contemplation are not something which you can take away, exploit or trade with. I can’t even describe to myself what happened. All I remember is that I felt as if I have been falling over the past year, further and further as false securities have been stripped away. Only faith gave me hope that somehow, despite all appearances, God is there.

However, in this brief period of contemplation, I felt that instead of falling, I was being held. I had finally reached the bottom, touched the ground of my soul, and discovered that God is there.

I left the cathedral and went shopping on the Longman Road in a state of bliss. Now, anyone who knows the Longman Road will acknowledge that this alone is proof that something supernatural happened. It is a busy, polluted road going through an industrial estate: the kind of place you only go if you really need something, like a car part or a D.I.Y. tool and not normally associated with states of peace and joy.

If course, I bobbed back up to the surface very soon like a cork in a bottle. Over the next few days, I felt irritable and neglected prayer. If that’s the standard, how on earth am I ever going to reach it again? Perhaps there’s no point even trying. A strong experience of God is a gift. However, if I don’t set time aside for calmness and prayer, I’m not making myself available to receive the gifts that God might want to give.

The fact that God chose to make His presence felt in a non-Catholic church, is a reminder that no-one has a monopoly on Christ. It also strengthens my conviction that God doesn’t call people across religious divisions to dig deeper ditches. Rather He wants us to bear witness to the fact that God is present on both sides of the divide and in the no-man’s land in between.

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.

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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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.

God takes all

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It’s close to Christmas and the anniversary of my reception into the Catholic church has come around.

I was sitting in church after Mass thinking back over the last few years, when the phrase came to me, ‘God takes all.’ I couldn’t get it out of my head all day and a few minutes ago, I realised that this is the title of this post although I will have to write it to find out why.

God’s presence

From the moment that I felt a call to become Catholic, I felt an almost miraculous sense of God’s presence. It wasn’t up there or down there or just at my side or behind my neck; it was everywhere. Like a fish becoming aware that it swims, dives and floats in a medium called water, I became aware that I existed in the presence of God.

I began to understand the phrase in the Mass, “Through Him and with Him and in Him.” He was St. Patrick’s breastplate:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

It was a time of miracles: moving consciously in and with and through Him, sensing the Communion of Saints during the feast of St Peter and St Paul, glimpsing a man in white robes walking up the side aisle during Mass.

Just over three years ago, when I was still trying to decide if I could make the leap and become Catholic, the sense of God’s presence left me. I was a simple fish again, moving through the day, feeling the aloneness of my little body, and wondering if I had really remembered this thing called water.

Loss

God took away the sense of His presence and it was from that point of loss and confusion that I decided to become Catholic. I realised that I couldn’t just do it for the nice feelings. I also knew that I couldn’t become Catholic and take the Eucharist unless I was willing to let God be in charge.

However, I wanted to keep a lot of things to myself. My prayers went something like this: ‘Do what you like with me as long as you don’t touch my kids. And by the way, I will find it very difficult to hand over X, Y and Z.” In the end, I felt that I didn’t have the guts to hand myself over to God. The best I could manage was, ‘I can’t do this, but I want to be able to do it.’

On the anniversary of my reception into the church, I stayed in the church on my own after Mass and thought back over the time since I became Catholic. The last year has been incredibly challenging as we gradually realised that one of our children has a serious, chronic illness. From this perspective, all the things which I thought were vital to my sense of self –  reputation, success in work, creativity – don’t seem to matter anymore.

I was feeling utterly exhausted by another round in the battle with this seemingly intransigent illness, empty and drained of all confidence, creativity and energy. In every area of my life – motherhood, work, interests, marriage – I have been weighed and found wanting. That’s when the thought popped into my head, ‘God takes all.’ I am still puzzling over what that means.

Abandoning myself to God

During that moment in the church, I realised the extent of my helplessness and impotence. I was trying to say, ‘Over to You, because I’ve just about reached the end of the line.’

In my distress, I was able to do what I can only pray to be able to do in easier times, and that is, abandon myself to God. It’s such a strange thing to say. Abandonment is a word I associate with babies being left in cardboard boxes or dogs being left behind when their owners move house. It speaks of giving up on something or someone, not being able to put any more effort into it.

Maybe abandonment is the right word. At times, I feel that I can’t do any more on my own. All I can do is abandon the expectation that I can’t make things right and sort things out, and hand the situation over to God.

God gives all

Has God taken all? Of course not. God gives all. I breathe, we have food to eat and a roof over our heads, but my current difficulties have allowed me to glimpse my utter dependence on God. I am beginning to understand the opening lines of the Magnificat which Mary sang during her Advent:

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid

I’ve underlined the word lowliness which I’ve also seen translated as nothingness.

The hard bit is to take the next step from realising my nothingness, let go of my pain and cynicism and despair and believe that in God’s hands miracles not only can happen, but always will happen, even if it isn’t the obvious miracle of physical healing.

Changed in translation

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Today I am thinking about how meanings can be changed or given a different emphasis when we translate from one language to another, or even when we use a different translation in our own language.

I’m aware that there’s a big dispute going on just now about whether we will go on using the current translation of the Mass. I began going to Mass when the old translation was still in use and I had just got used to that when the new translation was brought in.

All change is challenging and I think it’s particularly difficult when it comes to something as close to us as prayer. Initially I felt as if I was going to a version of the Mass which had been put through the hands of a poor writer of science fiction, with clunky words like oblation and merit thrown in.

I’ve got used to it, over time. I can understand the reluctance to introduce another change, and yet it’s important to get language right. Our choice of words can present both bridges and barriers to our understanding.

Mary’s way

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The thing which set off me off on this train of thought was learning the Gaelic word for rosary. Thanks to Reidio nan Gaidheal’s thought for the day, I now know that it is Conair Mhoire. According to MacLennan’s Gaelic dictionary, conair means a path or a way. It can also mean a set of beads, or, interestingly, a crown.

Dwelly’s dictionary had an even more comprehensive set of meanings for conair. As well as a path or a crown, it can be a haven, a blessing, a help or a circle.

I am excited because learning a new word in Gaelic has brought a whole new set of meanings and connotations to praying the rosary. The rosary has been a haven and a blessing to me, a prayer where I can rest when my worried mind won’t give me peace to sleep or to pray in any other way.

It’s nice that the Gaelic word has other meanings and isn’t just used in a religious context. I read in Mitch Finley’s ‘Rosary Handbook’ that rosary comes from the Latin rosarius which means a bouquet of roses. This is another nice image, but I don’t get roses very often, only on special occasions, and yet I turn to the rosary almost every day.

I like the idea of the rosary as a way to Christ, conair Mhoire, or Mary’s way. We find the way to Christ through meditating on his birth, ministry, death and resurrection.

I usually say the rosary prayers in Gaelic although I sometimes deliberately switch to English just to get a different perspective. Words are only pointers to something much bigger and I find that hearing a prayer or reading a part of the Bible in another language can sometimes nudge me closer to an aspect of the truth.

This happened with the Hail Mary prayer. The first line is taken from the angel Gabriel’s greeting at the annunciation. In Gaelic, Hail Mary is ‘Fàilte dhut, a Mhoire’, which literally means welcome, Virgin Mary. Suddenly I have gone from Hail, an old-fashioned greeting where I imagine myself waving at the Virgin Mary from a long distance and shouting to be heard, to fàilte where she seems much closer. This soft word (pronounced faltcheh) has me visualising opening a door and welcoming the Virgin Mary inside.

A barrier or a bridge?

Words can intentionally or accidentally be used to give positive or negative connotations. I was brought up with the old-fashioned King James Version of the Bible and became used to hearing prayers where God was referred to using old words like thou, thee, thy and thine. Although the minister might have intended these words as a sign of respect or even affection, the effect was to make God seem very far away and hard to reach.
When I left home, I was shocked to encounter groups of evangelical Christians who treated God as a friend and even believed that he loved them and was interested in them. Sometimes this could seem a bit too cosy, but it challenged me. I can still remember the moment when I realised that I didn’t believe God loved me, and that it was almost impossible to believe in a loving God.
Language had contributed to this feeling, and language helped me to overcome it. On a trip to France, I bought a Bible in a modern French translation. This led to another moment of shock: God was addressed with the familiar form tu, rather than the formal form vous. In every language I have managed to learn, God is addressed using the familiar form. This includes Gaelic, where I spoke to my grandmother and elderly aunt using the formal form sibh. God, on the other hand, is addressed using the familiar form, thu.
My French translation of the Bible didn’t immediately result in me believing in God’s love. However, it gave me a neutral space. Reading the Bible in French, allowed me to put aside my fears and expectations and see what was there, rather than the tyrannical, oppressive God who seemed to stride through the well-thumbed pages of my KJV Bible.

Language diversity

Changing our choice of words within a language or switching from one to another can affect meaning.

These subtle and sometimes not so subtle changes which occur within or between languages argue for doing all we can to preserve languages and dialects. When we lose a language, we lose a large part of the culture that goes with it as well as a unique way of seeing the world.

When it comes to Scripture reading or prayer, we are particularly sensitive to the choice of words, because language points to a truth beyond our powers of expression. And yet Jesus came as the Word, and words can help us find the way.

Excess baggage

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I often drop into sacredspace, a site run by the Irish Jesuits which offers a way of praying and meditating on the daily Gospel. Each week they also have some thoughts taken from either a blog or a book.

This week’s piece was Lost Luggage in which Vinita Hampton Wright describes a bag being lost in transit and continuing her travels without even missing the contents. She postulates that we carry around too many burdens, both physical and psychological.

This struck a chord with me because I’ve just had a similar experience. My family life is a bit nomadic at the moment. We are away from home for what was meant to just be a few months. We were due to return today, but have had to delay our return because one of our children is in hospital.

Ten days ago, we moved from one temporary place to another. The bags we had brought with us seemed to have bred during the few months we were here. I felt burdened and harassed by the amount of luggage. Even so, we’d managed to forget quite a lot of stuff. My husband dropped by to pick up a bag of forgotten belongings and I was astonished going through the bag, because I’d actually forgotten that I owned these things.

I have a house stuffed full of belongings and it’s actually a relief to be away from it and realise that there are very few things I miss.

What I don’t miss

  • An old denim skirt I haven’t worn in a long time and keep just in case I run out of anything else to wear.
  • Hand-painted china teaset (even if it was my grandmother’s)
  • Champagne flutes (elegant wedding present, but when was the last time I had champagne)
  • The rest of my jewellery collection. I especially don’t miss the odd earrings I have hoarded just in case the lost one turns up. St Anthony has found a lot of things for me, but I guess there are limits.
  • Bags of baby clothes which we have kept just in case we have grandchildren
  • Boxes of Duplo and baby toys which have been kept for the same reason
  • Books I have already read. Do I really need to re-read Pride and Prejudice for the seventh or eighth time?
  • Ornaments, vases (a cut out 2-litre bottle will do the same job) and other clutter.

What I do miss

  • The dog and all the walks
  • The garden
  • The potatoes I planted before I left
  • The peat stack and the peat bank. At this point I have to admit that my peat stack is very far from a traditional herring bone pattern. In fact, the only way I can keep these peats dry is to put them in old animal feed bags on top of a wooden pallet and to top the whole lot with a plastic tarp.
  • Box of lego for the children
  • Books – the childrens’ books and all the books I haven’t read. I’ve just made a pilgrimage to a second hand bookshop to pick up reading material.
  • My crochet project which was far too large to pack into a suitcase. However, I don’t miss all the half-used balls of wool which I was hoarding ‘just in case’

A place to stay

In the last post, I wrote that I was looking for accommodation, because we wouldn’t have anywhere to stay in three weeks. We have had to change all our plans, because one of our children is ill.

During the last week, I have been flat hunting and I have been thinking about Mary leaving Nazareth for the census in Bethlehem. She was heavily pregnant and it wasn’t a trip that she would have made unless she absolutely had to. She must have worried about finding a place to stay, about when the baby would come and whether the stress of the journey would cause it to come early.

When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem and found all the inns full, they must have been feeling pretty desperate. Up until now, I have imagined Mary exhausted, perhaps already in labour and at the absolute limit of her endurance, being turned away and refused shelter.

In my present predicament of needing to find a place for my family to stay, I have begun to imagine the scene differently. I have hoped and prayed that God provided a place for Mary and Joseph to stay and rest from their travels before Mary actually gave birth. I have pictured her having a few days to settle into the stable, sleep, eat and perhaps even share a joke or two with the census enumerator before giving birth.

I have needed to re-imagine this Gospel scene, because last week I felt that I was getting close to the limit of my faith and endurance. I wanted to believe that Mary had some time to rest before the baby came, because I felt that I was soon going to be too exhausted to do more flat hunting. Before moving again, I needed some time to rest in the knowledge that my family wasn’t going to be homeless.

In fact, we found a place after searching for a week. It is simple and cheap, but we have realised that we don’t need much.

A week ago, this would have felt like a miracle. In fact, someone came forward out of the blue and said that they had a flat to rent. The strange thing about miracles is that the human brain has a way of adapting to them and taking them for granted.

I have a tiny thread of faith, not much, just a mustard seed. I am so frightened and full of doubt. I wish I had more confidence, but this seems like an answer to prayer. Maybe that’s why I am writing about these difficulties here, to record what happens so that I can look back some time and hopefully see how it all fits together even though it just seems confusing and frightening right now.