Five years ago I walked into a church in West Wales, and my life changed.
I grew up in a Roman Catholic family – it was a broken family and the adults weren’t kind, enough said. I would head off to church whenever I could, because the actual building became a sanctuary, a place of safety. Looking back over all these years, I think that’s how I saw God. He was a place of safety. A refuge. And I really really wanted to know him. As a child I craved for safety.
In a Catholic church, back then, the altar was raised and a balustrade ran across in front of it, separating the congregation from the altar or sanctuary. There would be a small lit sconce on one of the sanctuary walls to indicate that the host was in the tabernacle. The tabernacle would be a sort of stand-out safe, on the altar, draped in an embroidered vestment, locked to keep out thieves and desecrators. And inside the tabernacle would be the host, the consecrated wafers of bread that we were told had become the actual flesh and blood of Christ when transubstantiation took place… No wonder we genuflected as we approached.
In a Catholic church in the 50’s, during Mass (the service of worship), no woman could be in the sanctuary (at a convent, an exception was made for the nuns, who could serve during the mass). A priest would officiate between the tabernacle and the people, to mediate for us. And he wouldn’t just be a priest, trained and ordained and given the power to forgive sins (really! That’s what we were taught) but he would be robed…..first of all, a cassock, the long black robe…. Then the alb, a long white robe made of fine linen…. Then the amice, a sort of cape tied around the shoulders, and then a cincture that’s a belt made of cord, worn in a certain way and tied in a certain way, then a maniple which was a decorative band of fabric hanging from the arm…. then a stole which is a narrow sort of scarf draped around the neck (the priest kisses it before putting it on) and over it all, a chasuble… decorated and often brightly coloured. And as he came in to serve the Mass, flanked by altar boys in black robes with white surplices, the priest would carry a gold lined chalice in which to place the host, and he would be wearing a biretta, (a hat, not a gun!)
That may sound obscure and exotic, trotted out like that, but each of those vestments signifies something, carries a symbolic weight and, like all traditions and ritual, these things came into being over a long period time, and with the best of intentions.
There would be a Mary chapel somewhere nearby, or maybe just a small niche with a statue depicting the mother of Jesus, and a whole load of candles so that each one lit would signify a prayer offered to her. On the walls would be the 14 stations of the cross, pictures or plaques, representing incidents as Jesus was condemned to death and His burial, used as points of meditation and devotion. At the door would be a font of holy water (often simply blessed by the priest, but maybe even bottled and brought over from Lourdes or Rome).
Dotted around the church would be other statues, maybe Joseph (Mary’s husband) usually carrying his emblem of a lily, or Francis of Assisi surrounded by birds, or … well, there are over a thousand canonised saints, so there are plenty to choose from. Sceptics accuse Catholics of idolatry because of these statues but they don’t pray to the statues, they use them as a focal point for prayer, and again these are described as intermediaries, interceding for the ordinary person to God.
That’s what church meant to me. That’s the nearest I could get to God, going through the mediation of a priest, or a dead saint, turning to a priest for forgiveness of sin. I don’t look down on any of this, and I don’t judge any of those believers, because I was heartily and passionately one of them, and I know too that the church is a living thing and with time and God’s grace we grow in our understanding. I know that if I had visited my own little church here in Wales at that time, I would be telling you about a pulpit (we no longer have one) , about deacons ceremoniously entering with the pastor (no one’s ceremonious now), about formality and rigidity and legalism…. so, truly, believe me, I don’t judge anyone from those times. Indeed, I found some kindness in the Roman Catholic Church, and usually that longed-for sense of safety.
On Sunday I’m inviting whoever is in church to look at a verse with me. It’s from Jeremiah 33:3 “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.”
I didn’t know that this verse would consume me as it has this week. Just yesterday I learned a new way of learning, of reading the Bible. And the excitement of that, and this verse, has somehow sent me back, skittering down through all the years, careening into memory, ricocheting off new and startling insights. I’m sort of spiritually and emotionally knackered just now.
Sometimes the great and hidden things God spoke of seem tiny, tiny, tiny to an onlooker but MASSIVE to the learner. I’ve been wondering what the difference is between trusting God and complacency. Yesterday I learned and it was a lovely refreshing insight, coming with reassurance and clarity. I lay awake last night, going over it, applying it to this situation and that situation, marvelling at God’s work in the world.
And this morning I am knackered, my little dumplings. I didn’t get to the beach until well past 8 o clock.
So I’ve deleted my last two blogs (too crazy, too excited, too me) and I’m taking a step back; today I’m writing only this blog, giving myself time to be with God, to reflect on all He has done for me in the last five years. I’m taking the time to really delve into my thankfulness, and to contemplate the greatest hidden truth that God has revealed to me… He loves me so much that I can go to Him just as I am. Right now. Any time. Whatever state I’m in. He will not turn me away.
Hey … and those of you from my church who are reading this…. I’m taking time to thank God for you.