An updated photograph - because after the quiet of twilight comes the jubilation of morning
(This is the garden with the allotment behind)
Written late on Saturday evening:
Why am I a Catholic? Why don’t I leave the Church, join the Anglicans perhaps, because I struggle with so many aspects of the Catholic faith?
When I first approached a Catholic priest in Zimbabwe twenty four years ago with a view to converting from the Presbyterian faith of my childhood to Roman Catholicism, he began to expound about transubstantiation. I told him that wasn’t my problem – it never has been – one shouldn’t seek to rationalise or explain the mysteries of life, faith and God. My problems, I told him, were the Pope and the Virgin Mary. He laughed. ‘If you can attend the Mass and say the Creed in good conscience, you have the rest of eternity to sort out those lesser problems,’ he said. Thank God for that priest. Since that conversation (when I was 32), I’ve gained a degree in theology and a doctorate in the theology and symbolism of the Virgin Mary, and I sometimes say I now have only one problem. The Marian tradition is my guiding light and inspiration in my Catholic faith. The papacy remains a problem – as contributors to my blog will recognise.
But let me try to explain why I’m still a Catholic, albeit by way of an impressionistic explanation which won't satisfy doctrinal purists.
When I moved to Bristol in 1988, my four children were very young, I was a secretary turned mother, and I was frustrated, bored and dislocated - a brand new Catholic in an alien culture and an alien country (I'd spent most of my life in Africa). My only reference point was my local Catholic parish and the school associated with it, which my children attended. We still live in the house we moved into then, and when we climb up our steep back garden to the allotment beyond with Bristol spread out around us, we can see the school and the church which first offered me a place of belonging in England – a foreign country, for a Scottish Presbyterian ex-colonial.
Since those days of migration, life has moved on and so have our relationships. Many of those earliest friendships endure, from when the parish community was the focal point of our lives and the binding element that held us together. Yet, of that early group of Catholic mothers, very few of us remain within the Church.
This evening, my husband and I went up to our favourite place – a bench on the allotment, overlooking Bristol – with a bottle of wine. (So be warned – this is a wine-sodden blog). These last few weeks we’ve found ourselves mired in painful struggles with friends and family, whose suffering is not directly ours, but for whom we feel a deep sense of responsibility, care and involvement. There’s so much to be gleaned from these times when, as vulnerable human beings, we plunge into life in all its light and shade, and stand in awe before what it asks of us.
But tonight, as we sat in the quiet fading of a day rinsed clean with rain and glowing with the light of a summer evening, with the clouds of evening winging up towards infinity, I knew why my response to the God who created this wondrous, mysterious world is and must be Catholic. The gulls soared above us, squalling their lonely cries to the wind and the sea. The magpies chattered in the trees behind us – alarmed perhaps by the strange cat we’ve acquired, which is always with us but not with us, bestowing his company upon us as he follows us up the garden, but turning his back to us as if to assert his impenetrable otherness. I, a Cat, am created by God just as you, lowly humans, are. Together, we will celebrate the chorus of evening, but you will never know what I am thinking, for all your arrogant claims to be stewards of creation.
So, with the cat and the birds, my life's companion and I sat together, in all our ups and downs, muddles and misunderstandings, not even conjoined in a sacrament, although we've been married for thirty five years, because he was never baptised. I looked out over the rooftops of Bristol and the greening of summer. I thought of one of my favourite poems, by e.e. cummings (how lovely –that resistance to capital letters, how much lovelier if popes and bishops would follow his example):
i thank you God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any - lifted from the no
of all nothing - human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened).
It occurs to me that, for twenty two years, year in and year out, we’ve sat in this same spot above the city and watched the seasons revolve, the trees festoon themselves anew each year with the garlands of summer after the winter’s skeletal chill. Each year, our children have grown, our relationships have changed, we've measured our lives in losses and gains. Creation, incarnation, death and resurrection constitute the cycles of regeneration within a natural order which defies our litle human minds. What remains – apparently unchanging – are the bricks and mortar symbols of ownership and mortgages, their prim rows stretching away and melting into the edges of the city and the fading light. Houses do not shed their leaves in the winter and renew themselves in the summer (although perhaps the forgotten tradition of spring cleaning was a lingering echo of these cycles of nature). Only we humans are capable, year in and year out, of asserting our presence and proclaiming our success and progress without decay and regeneration, without going backwards as well as forwards in the cycles of life.
And yet, and yet ... when I look at these houses, they’re not unchanging. There is inconsolable grief in in the house next door – I know because, bad neighbour that I am, some stories penetrate even the impenetrable barriers of neighbourly distance. The suicide of a son refuses to be absorbed and normalised within our domestic facades, and the house still breathes an uncontainable sorrow. Two doors along, the old lady who finally moved into a home after years of raising her children and burying her husband has been replaced by an altogether different kind of family – although undoubtedly less different than they appear or want to be. All across the vista of the city, loft conversions sprout from red-tiled roofs (we have one too). What do they proclaim? Success? Economic growth? Or something more organic – a house that breathes and lives and grows with the people who inhabit it? All these, perhaps, and more, an essence of being that will never be captured in the language of property and home improvements.
I took the newspaper up to the allotment with me. (After thirty five years, one doesn't always have to be talking). The Guardian, of course – dear reader, what else? Polly Toynbee spells out in chilling details what this grotesque new government will mean in terms of social care – the NHS, the education system, the wondrous visions which have, in spite of ourselves, made we Brits more than a small and warring tribe on the fringes of Europe. Reading her, I felt a sense of deep sadness about the times we’re entering, and this week, watching a chronically ill friend trying and failing to gain support from the NHS, watching her despair as friends have had to step in to the chasm that politics and economics have created, I had a sense of the times to come. The state has failed. The rich are richer, the poor will become ever poorer. Every one of us who claims a different vision from that promulgated by the political classes will have to put our money where our mouths are and our hearts where our brains are – we’ll have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk, in order for the rich to remain rich and the poor to survive. Where is Marx when we need him? Benedict, will you listen and respond when you visit us? We are desperate for the wisdom you might offer, if you have eyes to see and ears to hear.
But sitting up there tonight, with the seagulls and the magpies and the loft conversions spread out around us, I thanked God that, because once upon a time I converted to Catholicism, I’ve felt obliged to struggle with this faith, day by day, moment by moment. And, because I have an intellectual hunger, I’ve read Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena, as well as Hans Urs Von Balthasar and papal encyclicals – but, I must admit, I’ve never read the Catechism cover to cover. Sometimes I feel like a make-believe Catholic and a bogus academic – I’m not nearly serious enough to be either a good Catholic or a good academic. I laugh too much, dance too much, drink too much. And, funnily enough, this seems to be a common failing of Catholics who are always so much more than the moral prescriptions and middle class preoccupations of some forms of Christianity, including much that passes for Anglicanism.
I glean what I can from the riches of this richest of rich traditions, and somewhere in the transition from my Scottish Presbyterian childhood to my Roman Catholic ‘now’, I’ve come to love the seagulls that soar, the magpies that chatter, the loft conversions that erupt across the city skyline, and the friend who today has been weeping in despair because why in God’s name would God ever inflict this multiplication of sorrows on a person? There are no answers, but Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have been guides along the way to accepting what we may never understand. My Presbyterian childhood never invited me to read and learn from these voices, but in reading and learning must I not also challenge and question?
My life is patterned by the Catholic faith, my mind is shaped by the Catholic faith, my quarrels are with the Catholic faith, and my hope is in the Catholic faith. Tell me now, why do you think I should leave?