Sunday, 18 July 2010

Twilight Reflections

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?


  1. This is a beautiful post; thank you.

  2. Tina

    At least you're honest, I'll give you that.

    I urge you to read the Catechsim of the Catholic Church from start to finish post haste. It has to be your next project. You've made two schoolboy errors on the definition of the Magisterium of the Church and also on Holy Orders. Any orthodox Catholic can see this from a mile off. Once you've read it you might understand why the orthodox posters here are getting shirty with you.

    Good luck.


  3. Tina,

    When you became a Catholic, you didn't say, "I believe a, b, c and g of the Faith but not d, e, or i."

    You said, "I profess that I believe ALL that the Catholic Church teaches to have been true and revealed by God."

    All. That includes the doctrine of Papal Infallibility and the Supreme Authority of the Successor of St Peter to teach the Faithful, as well as the Deposit of Faith, which he guards faithfully, which Tradition holds does not allow for women priests.

    It now sounds like you were bare-faced lying to God (and those present at the time) when you were received, since now you are actively campaigning for women clergy.

    The Catholic Church isn't a limited company which you join and then 'work to change', alter and whose 'ethos' you campaign to have radically transformed, since it has been established by the Son of God for our Salvation.

    As a Catholic you are a 'servant' of the Church. St Paul in today's reading, says that he too is a 'servant'.

    Pope Benedict XVI, though Pope, is 'servant' of the Church, of Christ. Because he is servant to both Christ and His Church he hasn't the authority to change the teaching on the ineligibility of women for the Priesthood.

    I'm sure you are a very lovely person, but really, Tina, your position is schismatic and heretical. Both schism and heresy are the biggest dangers to the very heart and life of the Church.

    For the record, I don't think you should leave the Church since the Church is the place of Salvation. I just think you should recant of your heresy and get on with the very important and high privilege of being a Catholic loyal to the Church, instead of being a Catholic loyal to The Tablet.

    Here's my blog.

  4. I don't think you should leave. Nor do I think it makes any difference what anybody thinks on that matter, it's between you and God, as you understand HIm. I do think you should baptise your husband, when he's not looking though, or asleep haha!!
    You do seem a little sad, maybe even a bit depressed. I always draw close to Our Lady at such times. Ongoing problems, be they one's own or others can get overwhelming. And to be ill at ease in your Catholic faith re any important issue must add an extra cross to situations.

    I wonder if you have ever looked at Fr Dwight Longenecker's blog? It's called Standing on my head. He deals with lots of issues that you mention. He is a convert as well. I don't say you will agree with his views, but he allows for debate and if he is wrong, or his words cause pain, he does self examine and come back with a more deeply thought out post on whatever the subject was that caused strife (bit like you, maybe?).
    I do hope you find some peaceful roots around obedience to the Pope soon, without compromising who and what you are, of course.

    Jesus will ask of all of us, one day "Who do YOU say that I am?" It's going to be no good to say "Oh I just went along with what everyone else said, even though I didn't agree." We have to know we can trust our leaders, before we agree to obey. Trust always takes a bit of a risk too, now that I come to think of it. I totally trust Our Lady and it is through my growing closeness to her, that anything in my Catholic faith grows or improves. Of my own self, I wander down too many dark avenues so it is easy for me to throw myself upon God's Mercy and guidance seeings as I always misread my own spritual maps.

    I do trust the Pope, and don't worry too much about mistakes, because my job, according to scripture is to make my spiritual leaders task an easy one, seeing as they have to give an answer for what they have taught me, before God, on Judgment day. (Hebrews 13:37).

    Your garden sounds like Narnia, by the way. May God bless you and send his ministering Angels to bring you peace of mind.

    Hope I haven't been too intrusive, with my comment. It's so easy to overstep the mark with blogger. the rules having not been established yet, in such areas. Rules, rules, rules!! :)

  5. Well I'm sure most of us haven't read every word of the Catechism cover-to-cover. It is a bit dry, but I did find the book "Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine" very helpful (by Archbishop Michael Sheehan). Available from Do you pray the rosary daily Tina? I find it helps immensely, if you are struggling with doubts about Catholic teaching, or doubts about anything, for that matter. If you're going to read anything (and I certainly wouldn't recommend Polly Toynbee . . .) I would ask you to read about the Fatima message, especially Sister Lucia's memoirs, Volumes I and II and her 'Calls from the Message of Fatima' book. They are sublime books. God clearly worked a miracle at Fatima - the solar miracle witnessed by over 70,000 people, believers and atheists alike. He doesn't perform miracles like this for trivial reasons. Read about Fatima. Pray the Rosary. Consecrate yourself to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Wear Her Brown Scapular or a Miraculous Medal as a reminder of Her motherly protection. You can have as many doctorates in the theology and symbolism of the Virgin Mary as you like, but unless you live Her simple message and humbly perform the little requests She made at Fatima, they won't get you very far. Please read about Fatima, especially Sr Lucia's three books.

  6. A truly beautiful post.

    Do not be dismayed by the wickedness and evil nature of those who criticise you.

    May God abundantly bless you.

  7. I glean what I can from the riches of this richest of rich traditions...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?

    How is it that I just discovered you? Yet again, you move me to near tears by articulating my struggle. An absolutely beautiful post - thank you.

  8. All I can say is that you are definitely not alone !! There must be many of us in the same position who have the same frustrations as you. Ron Rolheiser states why he remains a Catholic despite all the difficulties and there is a wonderful piece by Carlo Caretto on why he stays in the Catholic Church which I always revert to when things get really bad !! ( You probably know it but I will send it to you if you like)
    My blog is Blue Eyed Ennis and also have a look at A Seat at The Table blog by Claire Bangasser.
    Do not be afraid !! Stay and get support from your fellow Catholics.

  9. Thank you for a wonderful piece of prose and a great reflection on the struggle of being a Catholic Christian. I find myself bemused by the certainty of some of your critics since there was more obvious faith and love in your blog than in the critical responses.
    In my opinion the Catechism is about as much use to a caring Catholic as a sex manual is to a couple deeply in love -it may be technically accurate but it is not a substitute for true love or honest faith.
    That is not to say that I agree with you entirely. I do believe that just as a little knowledge is a dangerous thing (the fault of most conservative Catholic bloggers) so also the over-intellectualisation (sic) of faith can be a real hindrance. I know a number of theologians and I have failed yet to meet one that gave the impression of having found the secret of holiness -not like the half dozen great priests and nuns I have have had the privilege of knowing or meeting.
    However I do believe that the hierarchical church is sadly implicitly misogynistic. The church is happy to have women as the backbone of parish life but as soon as any woman starts trying to effect change the barriers come up and the person is branded interfering, domineering or, worst sin of all, a feminist!
    A few years ago I had a wonderful conversation with an Irish nun in her 70's. After the Second Vatican council her order encouraged the nuns to move from a life of mechanical prayer to reading and discerning scripture, contemplation and study. After many years of this process the nuns started looking to play a fuller part in the life of the church but found themselves rejected by the secular priesthood which had not had the same level of re-formation.
    At the time I met her I had been a permanent deacon for 8 years and she asked me what it was like to be a deacon. She sensed the latent frustration in my response -"It's just like being a nun!" she exclaimed.
    We keep getting told how important the laity is to the church, but the laity are consistently ignored. Many in the religious life feel deeply frustrated. The diaconate, of which I am a member, has become a minor clerical level to help out with the shortage of priests but has failed to bring new life to the church because of the stifling clericalism of the church's hierarchy.
    And so we find ourselves with two reasons to remain in the church -the often wonderful communities of faith we find in our parishes and Peter's rhetorical question "Lord, to whom shall we go".

  10. Dear Tina, When Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza was asked why she did not leave the Catholic Church if she disliked the Pope so much (it was JP2 at the time), she answered, The Pope should leave the church, not I...

    We stay in the church, because We Are The Church. The pain we feel has been felt in their time by Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Teilhard de Chardin, Karl Rahner, Dorothy Day... We are in very good company :-)


  11. Tina

    Ask yourself who your true friends are here. Are they the people who are slapping you on the back telling you you are a great fella all together or are they the orthodox Catholics like me, Laurence England and Patricia Phillips who "resist you to the face" (Gal 2:11) and come to you in the spirit of fraternal correction?. See this situation for what it is. We are are offering you the Truth but they are offering you a scorpion.

    Somewhere in what you have written is a person big enough to admit they haven't read the Catechsim. That tells me you are salvagable. Re-think the path you are treading and get yourself back on board. You are making basic errors in terminolgy and this is leading you to bigger and bigger errors later on. It's obvious to anybody with two eyes in their head.


  12. At the risk of being seen to tell you 'you are a good fella (sic)' or of making 'schoolboy errors' could I just urge you to continue to be 'a thinking Catholic woman' (and to continue to read Polly Toynbee as a beacon of fairness and justice). As an intelligent Catholic woman I haven't been educated to 'knuckle down' and make our leaders' task easier. Critical debate is healthy and necessary. Please continue.

  13. Thank you again for your contributions.I don't respond to every one separately because I think the dialogue unfolds without my constant interventions, but I read and reflect on them all and will follow up the links that people have recommended. If nothing else, these contributions suggest that debate in the Church is alive and well!

    Somebody suggested that I should reject 'anonymous' contributions. I must admit, I'm troubled by anonymity. If we hold our views with integrity - and of course, integrity doesn't make us right, I'm not saying that - we should surely be willing to say who we are?

    But, woolly liberal that I am, I think censorship should be minimal, and I'm thankful that in all these conversations there has only been one posting which fell below a minimal standard of decency and respect. So I'll continue to publish anonymous postings, but can't deny that I'd rather know who you are.

    And now - to blog is not to live, so we're going to climb into our VW camper van and head off towards Italy without the distractions of the virtual world! I've changed the picture on the blog, so that you can celebrate the sunshine in the garden with me (does it look like Narnia?!)

    A friend who has been following this blog but hasn't contributed told me that her little child once asked her to tell her about 'Jesus in the bewilderness'. What a wonderful expression which I think I'll leave you with, because if he follows any of these blogs maybe he is just a little bewildered. I know I am!

  14. Re BJC, I'm reminded of a line from a Monty Python sketch "this isn't an argument -it is mere contradiction!".

  15. P.S. I should say that my holiday reading includes Gilead, Home, Lacuna, My Name Is Red, some poetry, some thrillers, even an edited version of the Summa Theologiae, but not, I regret to say, the Catechism.

  16. Over the years I have come to understand that the reason there are so many divisions between the Catholics and the Protestants is because they both have a valid viewpoint.

    By logic it may seem that if one is right then the other is wrong but it doesn't work like that. They are both right in their own way!

    I have recently left the Catholic church because there are things I just can't agree with, but I am still a Christian. There are many, many things to admire about the Catholic church but equally many, many things to admire about the Protestant churches.

    I'm sure that any decision you make will be the right one for you.

  17. Over the years I have come to understand that the reason there are so many divisions between the Catholics and Protestants is because they both have a valid viewpoint.

    By logic it may seem that if one is right then the other is wrong but it doesn't work like that. They are both right!

    I have recently left the Catholic church because of things I don't agree with but I am still a Christian. There are many, many things to admire about the Catholic church but equally many, many things about the Protestant churches.

    I am sure that any decision you make will be the right one for you.

  18. Are you familiar with the Eastern Orthodoxy - evangelical, but not Protestant, Catholic, but not Papist...

  19. Tina,
    For goodness sake don't regret not including the Catechism among your holiday reading. Anything by Claire Tomalin gets my vote.

    As for your critics who call themselves your true friends, don't be dismayed. They surface on my poor blog too and I get the impression it is not me they are trying to save but their own chosen take on how they would like things to be.

  20. Too late to suggest you take on holiday a selection of the works of Alfred Adler? You quote Freud and, occasionally, Jung in your books but Adler, one of the first of the major early psychologists to support feminism and the most practical of the three giants, seems to fit with your views admirably. The current re-assertion of authoritarianism by the Catholic patriachal hierarchy reflects its growing weakness and impotence to stop the inevitable progress of women in the church.

  21. Another thought-provoking and beautiful blog Tina. Don't let the vipers get you down, you do so much for so many by saying what we feel.

  22. I've discovered how to reply to comments - see my Facebook page for a link to the website which enables you to do this. I won't reply to every comment here, but I thought I'd make a very brief response to those that ask questions or invite a reply, although I appreciate it has been quite some time since most of this conversation took place.

    However, having now returned from our 3,000 mile camper van holiday through France and Italy, I hope to post some new blogs with photos about the experience soon.

  23. @Laurence EnglandLaurence, you seem to have a view of the Church which is frozen in time, and which belies the ways in which we belong to a fertile, diverse and changing tradition which is continuously challenged and enriched by each new generation. The stories of some of the greatest saints are about people who were first persecuted for their beliefs and then beatified.

    As for accusing any other human being of 'bare-faced lying to God', that is one of the very few comments on this website that I do find profoundly offensive.

    But thank you for your contribution nonetheless.

  24. @shadowlandsThank you for this thoughtful post. No, you haven't over-stepped the mark at all - it is kindly and considered.

    I don't think I'm depressed, but nor do I seek to avoid the quiet sadness that settles like dust on the soul sometimes.

    As for secretly baptising my husband, why do I think that would be the most profound violation of his integrity and freedom?

  25. @AnonymousYes, I gaze from a distance and think it's a Church that attracts me, but I still feel that I belong within the Roman Catholic Church, however unwelcoming and uncomfortable it sometimes feels.

  26. @AnonymousI read some of Adler several years ago, when I was studying Hans Urs von Balthasar for my book New Catholic Feminism. I thought there was an uncanny similarity between some of von Balthasar's ideas and those of Adler, even although Adler wasn't acknowledged or cited. Then I discovered that they shared a house together in their twenties!

  27. "As for secretly baptising my husband, why do I think that would be the most profound violation of his integrity and freedom?"

    Well, I was half joking ( only half now I come to think about it) but I hadn't thought about it like that. Your description reminds me ( personally) of the aborting of babies, which is also the most profound violation of integrity and freedom, in my beliefs.

    I hope your talk goes well tonight.


Comments and contributions are welcome so long as they respect the rules of courtesy and respect, which is not to inhibit robust disagreement.