When it was my turn to choose a verse for Friday’s Bible study I took the shortest verse in the whole book, “Jesus wept.”
Well, how foolish am I? It’s only sent me down the Hypostatic Union path, and straight into the Athanasian creed: “He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time; and he is human from the essence of his mother, born in time; completely God, completely human, with a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity. Although he is God and human, yet Christ is not two, but one. He is one, however, not by his divinity being turned into flesh, but by God’s taking humanity to himself. He is one, certainly not by the blending of his essence, but by the unity of his person. For just as one human is both rational soul and flesh, so too the one Christ is both God and human.”
Oh, wow. I’m convinced that there isn’t a single verse in the whole Bible that doesn’t lead to revelation or wisdom. Or study or prayer. I’ve spent the last three days thinking about that creed, praising through it, and I’m not done yet.
Looking at the origins of this creed itself, traced back to the 500s AD, I was fascinated to read that it’s also called the Quicumque vult , two words that – like Pavlov’s aroma – took me right back to my youth at Bath Convent. The words stirred a vague memory… what was it? What chord were they playing? Of course! Of course! Now I remember – the first line of this creed was taught to me as proof that the Roman Catholic Church was the one true and apostolic church, appointed by Christ.
Quicumque vult esse, ante omnia opus est, ut teneat catholicam fidem:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith:
Oh, you naughty nuns! To teach that the words ‘catholic faith’ refer to Roman Catholicism, when in context they refer to the universal belief in the Holy Trinity.
Naughty nuns! How we twist the truth to justify our own position. But I’m sure that the truth wasn’t distorted deliberately. The nuns were, for the most part, devout but poorly educated women and I think that their eagerness for our souls may have sometimes tipped them over into hyperbole or plain misrepresentation. There were some high fliers among them – BX (Bernard Xavier, our headmistress) was a clever, well educated, highly qualified graduate, as were a couple more of the nuns, but most weren’t. It must have been very tempting, faced by bright and combative teenagers, to slip a tiny untruth into the greater truth just to wriggle past the moment.
Do we all wriggle past the moment when the questions become too hard to answer? Is it sometimes because we simply don’t know how to answer and are too proud to admit it? Or is it because, like the nuns of my youth, we so long for something to be true that we add a coat of varnish to the knotty problem and so glide on?
Jesus said, when a child was brought to Him, “If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung round their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” . It makes me think of my convent. The God I was told about was not a God who wept, He was not a kind and loving Man, and a merciful, righteous and loving God. He was a venal, bribable, coaxable and petulant despot and at 17, after spending years longing to love God and even wanting to be a nun, I realised I couldn’t worship a god like that. Worship someone who was even more unjust and selfish than me? Not on your Nelly! And so I turned my back on god, small g, and in so doing missed out on God, wonderful big G.
I missed all those years of loving and worshipping the God I longed for.
I’ve been thinking a whole lot recently about praise and worship, about our emotions as we pray. I’m going through some sort of weird process – I can hardly enter into even the simplest prayer without dissolving into tears. And they’re not lovely sweet quiet ladylike tears…. they’re damn big snotty gulping ones. It’s exhausting. It’s annoying. It clouds thought. It disturbs others. It makes me feel like a mild hysteric and I get so mad with myself. I don’t know where it’s come from but I will be exceedingly glad when it goes.
But I know that worship and adoration are love, so how could any of us worship and adore without any emotion at all? I think I first learned about loving God in the Roman Catholic Church. I just didn’t meet Him there.
Look at this:
How beautiful is that? It’s a monstrance. The gold (or golden) container for the consecrated Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church, displayed in the Mass or in the Benediction of the Sacrament. In the centre, in that little window, the Host is placed. Then the monstrance (same root as remonstrance) or ostensorium (same root as ostentatious) in the service of Benediction is shown to the worshippers, thus:
The Host is an object of such great, great reverence that the priest doesn’t hold even its metal container with his bare hands but through the cloth of his chasuble, and when the Host is first placed in the monstrance he genuflects low to it, the altar servers kneel, the whole church bows. This, to the Catholic worshipper, is the actual body of Jesus Christ, made real by the miracle of transubstantiation. For the Catholic, a wafer of bread and a chalice of wine become the body and blood of Christ and so they have all the joy and wonder that they would experience looking at their risen Saviour.
I had that! I looked at my risen Saviour. I believed it. Who wouldn’t be in love with being in love?
And I absolutely loved Benediction! I did. Every Wednesday afternoon, after school, that was the highlight of my week, maybe even more than Sunday Mass. I truly loved the awe, the reverence, the bottomless adoration. It was my teenage romance. What youngster growing up in a loveless home wouldn’t find the love and devotion she longed for in that wonderful ceremony… the ritual so sweet…. the incense wafting from the censer, the murmured Latin, the tinkling bell as the Host was raised? The glint of candlelight on the gold. The thought that here, here, was my God. It fed my soul.
And when I realised that the god they spoke of was not the God I looked for, and when I walked away from the Roman Catholic Church, I went through a sort of grief.
The church I attend now has no genuflections, no gold ware, no tabernacle, no statues, little ritual. There’s a quiet formality to our services, but no ‘outward sign of inward grace ‘ (a definition of the sacraments), no ‘smells and bells’, no priests (because we are all priests), no sacristy lamp, no rosary, no Stations of the Cross, no liturgy of the Missal, no Holy Water. But we know what it is to adore our God.
I think that our adoration rises to God along with the adoration of all the other loving hearts in the world, regardless of denomination. A raggle taggle family of God’s adoption, all manner of people, all languages, cultures, understandings, united by the central truth that only by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ are we saved and brought safely into eternity. Only by God’s grace are we acceptable to Him. Only by His love, and then only because He first loved us.
Some of you, reading this, are Catholic. I understand you. You’re my family, my culture, my Irish Catholic roots. There’s an old saying “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” Well, that’s not true. I am no longer Catholic. I reject the doctrine of transubstantiation, I don’t believe in Purgatory or Limbo or indulgences, or Papal infallibility, or the priest’s absolution, or prayers to Mary, or her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, or in praying to and for the dead, but I do believe in your love and your devotion, and I do honour it. Big time. I look back on my convent and the nuns, and I honour them. And, here’s a little secret, I still love the ritual of Benediction, the sights, the sounds, the awe. I very occasionally watch a 5 minute video on youtube, Benediction in a church in Boston MA, and I recognise and remember and offer to God the worship I felt as a teenager.
Youngsters, setting out in the world, have an acute appreciation of justice and they reject injustice. They have no time for a venal god. I hope and pray that my little church will never turn any youngster away from our God. Not by our teaching, our actions, our omissions or our certainty. I hope and pray that we don’t cloud their understanding of the true God.
And I thank God that He pursued me all though a ramshackle life, and that He revealed Himself, and that He has restored the years the locusts had eaten.
The nuns would smile.
Back row, first on the left. And this nun was Madame Ignatius,
and we loved her.