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.

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Lousy at Lent

It’s the last week of Lent, and I’ve got to admit that I’ve been pretty lousy at it. For one thing, we have lots of birthdays in Lent and children have to have cake. I’ve been told that birthdays are an exception, like feast days.

This made me wonder. How many saints have feast days in Lent? I can only think of only St Joseph (19th March) and St. John Ogilvie (10th March). Did anyone ever try to find as many saint’s feast days as possible so they could wriggle out of Lent? Okay, I know that’s not the spirit of the thing.

This Lent I’m realising that it’s not so much about what you give up as what you put in. My resolution of going to bed earlier to spend some time in prayer or reflection did not go too well. Just five more minutes on facebook, email or online news, I told myself each night and five became ten and before I knew it, I was heading up to bed at my usual time too tired and too distracted to try to pray.

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Show me your face

Hmm. Okay, I’ve tried harder over the last week and have finally managed to finally get into my Lenten book Muestrame Tu Rostro by Fr Ignacio Larrañaga (literally, show me your face, but the English translation is Sensing Your Hidden Presence).

Ignacio Larrañaga’s book From Suffering to Peace helped me through a difficult time, and I was looking forward to reading another of his books. However, I got bogged down in the first few chapters of Muestrame Tu Rostro. If I hadn’t made a commitment to at least try to read it during Lent, I’d probably have abandoned it.

The first problem was that I was trying to read the original version. I love reading Spanish, but my ambitions sometimes exceed my abilities. I have to read slowly, and it takes a lot more commitment to persevere with a Spanish book than an English one.

My second stumbling block was that Fr Larrañaga starts a book about prayer by talking about the difficulties and discouragements of praying. He illustrated this with examples of people who dedicated their lives to God, but never experienced anything but dryness in prayer and a sense of God’s absence. Hmm, I can recognise myself when it comes to the feeling that nothing is happening, and perhaps maybe I’m just talking to myself.

A lot of work for little effort?

He also talks about how prayer, unlike many other things in life such as studying a language or practising music, doesn’t yield results which related to the effort put in. For instance, someone could keep an all-night vigil in church and leave with absolutely no feeling of peace, and another person could turn their thoughts briefly to God as they walk through a crowded station and feel filled with peace.

Fr Larrañaga also talks about the transcendence of God and the inability of our finite minds to grasp the mystery of an infinite God. As soon as we approach what we think is an encounter with God, God slips out of our grasp and recedes further. After reading the first few chapters, I felt the same way about Muestrame tu Rostro as I felt about the Cloud of Unknowing: this is just too discouraging and I want to give up on the book and maybe give up on prayer, too.

However, I persevered and although I’m only about half-way through, I’m glad I did. The book becomes more encouraging as you go on, with practical advice on prayer, such as using the Psalms or set prayers to start you off. It has exercises to help people empty their minds and prepare themselves for prayer.

Unfortunately, I have nodded off each time I tried the meditations, but no less a person than St. Therese of Lisieux admitted to falling asleep in prayer. She said that just as parents love their children when their asleep, God continued to love her when she fell asleep in prayer.

I have also found useful what Fr Larrañaga says about abandoning ourselves to God. If there is something we can do to change a situation, we get behind it and give it one hundred percent. If nothing remains to be done, then we stop resisting the situation and let go so that we don’t hurt ourselves and others by our non-acceptance. Fr Larrañaga gives some simple prayers for accepting what can’t be changed: physical appearance, personality, our parents, hurts from the past.

Making time for prayer

He also emphasises the importance of setting aside time each day to withdraw into prayer. If we don’t have these ‘off’ times, we become distracted and pulled in many directions, exactly what I experience when I click quickly from one internet page to another. Fr. Larrañaga says that when our minds are full of anxieties and thoughts about what needs done, an encounter with God is almost impossible.

I’m still reading, but now find the book encouraging rather than overwhelming. Fr. Larrañaga emphasises that it is important to set time aside for prayer, even if we don’t ‘feel’ anything or see results. He often repeats that faith, hope, patience and perseverance are necessary. Even if our prayers don’t seem to do anything, we believe by faith and hope that God’s grace is at work.

Wishing you a peaceful holy week.

Dispossessed

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A house of cards

Is life like a precarious house of cards with only the rich enjoying even an illusion of security?  If so our cards have been scattered in the air and are still fluttering downwards. I have no idea where they will land.

We are in the middle of a family crisis. One of our children is in hospital (away from home) and may be there for some time. All our carefully-laid plans are in disarray. We don’t even know where we will be living in a month’s time.

On top of the distress of my child not being with me, and the feelings of guilt (perhaps I didn’t love enough, try hard enough) I have been worrying about practical things. What is going to happen about dog, job, schools and above all, a place to live?

The distress comes not just from what actually ‘is’ happening, but from not knowing what is going to happen. I wanted to own the future, but this crisis has meant that most of our plans will have to be scrapped.

If God has a plan, it’s not clear yet. It is hard to trust that He has a plan, and even more difficult to accept that this illness is part of it.

The illusion of possession

In all this, some of my distress comes from dispossession, or rather the illusion of possession. The things I had planned to happen will not now happen. The future was never mine. I haven’t actually lost anything. All that is gone is an idea of security, my thoughts about how things should be.

I am reading ‘From Suffering to Peace’ by the Spanish priest Ignacio Larrañaga. He says that a lot of psychic suffering comes from the ego. It is full of desires, fears, illusions and above all, a desire to possess. He argues that the only way to eliminate suffering is to lose your ego (yourself) with your fears and desires. Only by freeing ourselves of our ego and desires and by becoming poor, can we become pure in heart and see our situation as it really is. He connects this to the beatitudes (Matthew 5): ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: the kingdom of Heaven is theirs’ and ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: they shall see God.’

“From Suffering to Peace” is written for everyone, both those with a strong faith and those with none. Ignacio Larrañaga recommends exercises to reduce psychic suffering, such as emptying your mind through becoming aware of your body, sounds and what you see. These techniques help us accept and embrace the gift of the moment rather than lassooing our desires around some future idea of fulfilment. In the final chapters, Ignacio Larrañaga discusses the meaning of suffering in the Christian context.

Lack of possessions

Somewhere deep inside me I accept that crisis is an opportunity to recognise my own poverty and thank God for what I have, even if it isn’t what I expected or hoped for.

I think of Jonah the prophet. He was understandably tired after being swallowed and regurgitated by a whale, and then going to preach to the Ninevites. He made a shelter to rest in and God caused a plant to grow around it. Jonah enjoyed the shade until the plant was attacked by a pest and died. Jonah was very angry with God for letting this happen to ‘his’ plant. God replied that Jonah did nothing to grow the plant. It was a gift, coming up in the night and dying in the night.

When he began his ministry, Jesus gave up his possessions. He set off to find John the Baptist, leaving behind ‘his’ family, ‘his’ home, ‘his’ career as a carpenter and ‘his’ community. I imagine that he took very little money and didn’t know where he would sleep that night. For three years he wandered his country preaching. He had no fixed abode and was essentially homeless and yet God provided.

Jesus sent out seventy-two apostles (Luke 10), commanding them to take no money or possessions with them, not even a change of clothes. Whenever I read this Gospel, I can’t help wondering if they got a bit stinky. Did they manage to wash?

Despite the lack of possessions, they came back rejoicing at how well their mission went. Jesus referred to this at the Last Supper (Luke 22), but he said that the next time they went out on a mission they should go well prepared: ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and the same with a haversack; if you have no sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’ (Luke 22:36)

Sometimes it seems that it’s all right to make plans, and at other times when our plans don’t work and we are left with nothing to prop us up, we have to just trust in God.

Thanks

In every Mass, the priest says ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord’ and the congregation replies, ‘It is right and just.’

I can’t pick and choose when I give thanks. God is the same and His love for me is the same whether things are going what I label ‘well’ or whether they are going ‘badly’.

I am very lucky. My child is alive and receiving care. I have to let go and leave her in other peoples’ hands. We have a roof over our heads and even, unlike the seventy-two apostles, a few changes of clothes. The sun is shining and I hear wind in the leaves. For the moment, I have done all I can and I remember the words of Eckhart Tolle, ‘When there is nothing you can do, rest in peace, rest in God.’