a story

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Today, I just want to put up a link to a story I wrote for the Coming Home Network.

The story is about how I went from Highland Presbyterian, to atheist, to agnostic and before eventually returning to the church and became Catholic. Most of all, it’s a story of how ‘I fled him down the nights and down the days’. My journey has taken me from being totally unable to believe in God’s love and mercy, towards beginning to trust that God is love.

Because of this, and maybe also because I’m writing from a female perspective, I’ve tried to put the emphasis on how different events or phases in my life caused me to move towards or away from God, rather than on theology.

The story is called Discovering God’s love and is here.

Coming Home

I can’t speak for other people, but in my case becoming Catholic has felt like finally finding my spiritual home after much wandering. That’s one reason why the title of the Coming Home Network appeals, although I didn’t discover them until recently through a link on another blogger’s site (thank you Charles Johnson).

I’ve enjoyed reading other peoples’ stories on the Coming Home Network and about their journeys from one place to another spiritually. The journey still continues. Joining the Catholic church isn’t an arrival. It’s more like boarding a boat that’s going to help you travel into deeper water and new destinations, using the wisdom of others to guide you into new ways of prayer. Rather than stumbling forward alone, I have the support of others on this journey and the Communion of Saints. One of the amazing things about being Catholic is being able to ask someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta for her prayers.

When I read other about other peoples’ journeys, I see the spark that’s set them alight, the sense that something’s taken hold of them which can’t be explained logically and which won’t let them go.

I recognise that spark. Sometimes I ignore it, muffle it, forget it for a while, or even rebel against it, but I will never be able to say I haven’t seen what is the aim of my life, what I’m longing for.

It’s the pearl of great price, which a merchant sells everything to buy, or the treasure hidden in a field. Once someone discovers the treasure, they go off, sell all their possessions and buy the field (see Matthew 13:44-46).

The Coming Home Network

The Coming Home Network offers resources and support to people who are thinking of becoming Catholic or who are converts. My only quibble is that there is a heavy bias towards American men, and particularly pastors, among the conversion stories. That isn’t surprising considering that the network was originally set up to support Protestant clergy, who had a lot to lose by becoming Catholic.

However, it’s only a small complaint and I’ve enjoyed and learnt a lot from the written stories and videos. Here are links to two of my favourite videos which feature women:

Sr Miriam Heidland, a Catholic revert. I love what she says about our need to be healed.

Another video I really like is an interview with Thomas and Lovelace Howard. Thomas Howard is author of ‘Evangelical is not Enough’, which he wrote after discovering the liturgy through the Anglican church. The title says it all. He isn’t saying that evangelical is wrong, just that it isn’t enough. Reading this book was an ‘aha’ moment.  It helped me understand why I felt more comfortable in churches with structure and liturgy. Further along his journey, Thomas Howard became Catholic. However, for me, the real star of the video is his wife.

In this video, the Howards discuss with Marcus Grodi, not just people who go from the Protestant to the Catholic church, but also the flow in the opposite direction. They acknowledge that both are due, in some mysterious way, to God’s grace.

Yes, it matters which church we’re in, or even if we’re in a church at all, but right down at the most fundamental level is our relationship with God. Sometimes God calls us out of a place we can’t see Him properly into the wilderness or into another place so that we begin or deepen that relationship.

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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?

Schroedinger’s cat attempts to go to church

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I recently faced a dilemma which most converts come across at one time or other: What do you do on Sunday when you are visiting your non-Catholic relatives? There were three possible options:

Option One – attend the Protestant church with my parents

Because I more or less developed an allergic reaction to any form of organised religion (see Don’t go to church), this was a sticky option. I had pointedly avoided my parents’ church for years. I wondered if I should go to show respect for their beliefs, and to make the point that I have changed. Before I announced that I was becoming Catholic, a request to attend my parents’ church would have been met with unreserved delight, and hope that I was finally seeing the light. However, nowadays it could potentially cause a lot of embarrassment. I had no idea what I would say if some well-meaning person turned to me after the service and asked, “Which church are you going to these days?”

Option Two – attend Sunday Mass at the local Catholic church

I grew up near this church. My friends and I dared each other to run past the gates, screaming in terror. A few years later, I considered it a normal part of life that the boys from our school would beat up the boys from their school. I was secretly proud that the boys from our school won most of the fights, or so they said.

When I walked into the church to light a candle, I felt uncomfortable almost to the point of feeling sick. It was the second hardest thing I ever did after telling my parents that I was going to become Catholic.

Option 3 – don’t go to church at all

A friend of mine, who is also a convert, gently pointed out that it was possible to just do nothing and not go anywhere. I didn’t find this option very attractive, because it seemed like reverting to the default position I had held through all the long years of agnosticism. I was afraid of disappointing God by just doing nothing.

Decisions

I tried to pray, and ask which choice would lead me a little further along a path of peace and reconciliation. However, I received no clear answer. All through Saturday, and even on Sunday morning, I was as undetermined as Schroedinger’s famous cat, whom Terry Pratchett said could be dead, alive or bloody furious. I was in a superposition of states; I simply did not know what to do.

Shortly before I would have to go out, if I wanted to make it to any kind of religious service, I realised that I was in a state of such tension, that I would become physically ill if I tried to attend church. I fell back to default position 3 with a bump. I wasn’t going anywhere, and the relief unwound at least five knots in my stomach.

I worried that I had let God down and disappointed Him. Doubts snapped at my heels like yapping terriers. Why on earth did I have to rock the boat by becoming Catholic? Why couldn’t I have just shut up and put up, and remained in the Protestant church, even though I was never really at home there, and towards the end felt pretty miserable. Perhaps I was meant to feel miserable.

On Monday morning, seeking some kind of peace or at least a feeling of resolution, I set out on a long walk, which I timed to coincide with Mass. When I arrived at the Catholic church, about forty elderly people were already there saying morning prayer beforehand. I didn’t have a Missal and I didn’t catch all the words, but what I heard was enough. The Psalms and Gospel verses reaffirmed my faith. I was participating in something which went far beyond my troubles. I could only see a few dozen people with greying hair, some of whom very obviously had their own physical ailments, but these prayers were being said in churches across the world. This dark, echoing, rather ugly church seemed in some mysterious way to graze the edge of something much, much bigger. I felt still and safe in what had once been the heart of the enemy.

After Mass, I had an image of myself as a tiny, frail bird. In my mind’s eye, it was bright yellow, like a canary, but it couldn’t have been a canary, because I can’t sing for toffee. I imagined that Christ was holding the tiny bird in His hands and gently protecting it, because it was too small and weak to fly far.

I felt that He was gently reproaching me for my contortions, when I tried to stretch tiny wings and be in two places at once. He knew that Option 3 is the only one I can manage right now.

He is in both places, but I can only be in one. Someday, when I am strong enough and whole enough, He may send me out to flit between the two places, but it will be a thing of lightness and joy, and not a fearful obligation. I will know within myself when it is right.