More on Saints

March 10th was the Feast Day of Saint John Ogilvie. I went along to Mass and found out some interesting things:

Feast days are celebrated on the anniversary of a Saint’s death or martyrdom, which might seem a bit morbid unless you think of it as celebrating their birthday in heaven. This turns on its head our ideas of birthdays as marking another year in this world.

On a Saint’s Day, the priest wears vivid red robes to symbolise the blood shed by the Saint. Sometimes all this colour coding makes me feel as if becoming a Catholic has sent me back to the nursery stage. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 18:3, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

All my senses are engaged at Mass. There is the sight of colours and pictures and symbols, the touch of holy water, the taste of bread and wine and the smell of incense. That’s not to forget, of course, the importance of hearing, in listening to the Word. Hearing was the one sense I was used to associating with churches when I was a child as sermons often went on for over an hour, and there was nothing to look at but rows of hats and bald heads in a gloomy church interior.

I have been warming to St. John Ogilvie ever since I found out that, like me, he was brought up in a Calvinist family. I tried to pray a novena in honour of St. John Ogilvie in the nine days leading up to his feast day.

When I started, it didn’t seem like a big deal to say a prayer every day for nine days, but it became increasingly difficult. Round about day five or six, I felt as if I couldn’t trust God, and the last thing I wanted to do was pray to Him. If I hadn’t been in the middle of a novena, I’d probably have just distracted myself with other things and told myself that I was too busy to pray. However, because I had committed to saying the prayer, I was forced to face my lack of trust and bring the feelings to God. It hurt. By the ninth day, I felt is if I had been through a painful spiritual fitness regime.

Father K says that Catholics don’t pray to saints; they pray through them. I’m still trying to understand what that means. The novena asked the saints for their prayers, just like I might ask a friend for their prayers when I am in difficulty. I don’t know of any Christian believers who have a problem with asking others for their prayers. The difficulty for Protestants lies in asking saints who have passed on for their prayers. If we pray at all then we can’t believe that the barrier between this world and the next is as solid and opaque as the evidence of our senses would suggest. The difference between the Catholic and the Protestant worldview is that Catholics believe that those who have passed away still take an interest in us and in some way still participate in God’s work in our lives through their prayers.

In the culture that I come from, there is a sense that the unseen world is just behind a veil and there are many stories of interactions between the dead and the living. This awareness is stronger among those who still have links to traditional cultures. Because of my family links, the Communion of Saints was one of the Catholic beliefs which came to me more naturally.

A Saint or a Hippopotamus?

I didn’t give saints much thought until a week before I was received into the church when Father K, our parish priest, asked me if I had an attachment to any particular saint. He might as well have asked me if I had considered keeping a hippopotamus in a tank at the bottom of the garden and if so, what did I intend to call it. I admitted that I was completely ignorant about saints and he suggested St. Bridget, who, I guess, is the fallback saint for clueless Celtic Protestants like me. St Bridget sounded nice, but I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t bother to find out anything about her.
I had a last minute panic on the morning I was supposed to be received into the church. Was I going to be called Bridget during the ceremony? What if I felt afterwards as if some stranger called Bridget had been received into the church instead of me? Seasoned Catholics will probably see this worry as being as naïve as Paddington Bear’s misapprehensions about the human world. In defence, I’ll only say that the first confirmation I attended was my own.
I told Fr. K that I would be much more comfortable if he used my middle name as I was sure that there must be a saint associated with that, although I had no idea who. He said that that would be fine.

After my confirmation, I did actually bother to do some research on google and found out that my middle name (Christine) is associated with a medieval saint who did things, such as deliberately putting herself in danger, which seem totally incomprehensible to me although they probably made sense to people at the time. I felt no connection at all with this lady, but it probably served me right for not making any effort to choose someone.
I thought that was the end of the business. It wasn’t very satisfactory, but I had ticked the required box. However, it wasn’t the end of the story. Very recently I visited a church in which there is a shrine to St. John Ogilvie. He is the only Scottish Catholic martyr from the post-Reformation period. I was brought up in a family who had great respect for the Protestant martyrs, and as I walked past St. John Ogilvie’s statue, I thought about the many Scottish Protestants who lost their lives at the start of the Reformation.

It was safe to say that I had mixed feelings about St John Ogilvie, not least because life-size statues in churches take a bit of getting used to if you are brought up in the reformed tradition. As I sat in the church, I hoped that St John Ogilvie and the Protestant martyrs were shaking hands in heaven in a spirit of reconciliation.
When I got home, I looked up St. John Ogilvie on the internet and read that he, like me, was a convert from Calvinism. This completely changed the way I thought about him. Here was a saint who was relevant, and who could understand where I had come from and what I was going through as a recent Catholic convert. I also read that he concealed his Rosary beads during his trial and torture and that, at the last possible moment, he flung them into the crowd gathered to watch his execution.

Later that day I received an unexpected gift in the post. I had entered a competition in a Catholic magazine and won a book on praying the Rosary. I felt as if I, another Protestant convert almost 400 years later, had put out my hand and caught St. John Ogilvie’s Rosary beads.