Then, partly through a lack of any flashing lights calling me somewhere particular and partly due having to move home to my parents for a while – I found myself back in my home RC church, as their first ever employed youth worker.
I am aware that God has a sense of humour.
That same summer, I met the man who is now my husband and the father of my children. We are planted firmly (at least for now) in another Catholic church, and for the most part I love it there.
I am not very Catholic, and in many ways I resist the label. I don’t like labels unless they are truly helpful, and being pigeon-holed, where expectations of what I or others can do are limiting, really gets my back up. Sadly, however, I can be guilty of doing the very same thing.
There are quite a lot of things, most of which are theological, that I fundamentally disagree with, and think are utterly wrong and unhelpful about the Catholic church.
But in the same breath, there are a great many things which I think that the Catholic church has got very right. It’s position and depth of teaching (when you can actually find it!) on marriage, sex, dignity, the family and especially the sanctity of Life, for example.
Therefore to some of my fellow Catholics – I am a bit misguided, a little radical, and definitely potentially heretical. And to some of my other Christian brothers and sisters – I am very Catholic, a bit weird even, and obviously don’t understand birth control.
This is not a dig to anyone reading – I just don’t quite fit into either box.
Sometimes I enjoy not being tied to a particular denominational label. It means that my christian identity has to be rooted only in Jesus, something I constantly need reminding of. But sometimes it is really tough, not quite belonging or feeling truly connected – one in heart and mind- with people in my extended church family. Ultimately the only person who’s opinion matters is God and mercifully, in his grace he only looks at Jesus’ goodness in me.
One thing to be found in the Catholic and more traditional churches, which I find resonates deeply with me though, is the sense of rhythm. The flow of seasons and traditions explored on a three yearly cycle, has a journey and depth to be found in them, if you are prepared to be open to the Holy Spirit, which is often breathtaking.
This season of Advent, which we are on the cusp of starting, is particularly lovely. The scriptures are filled with both longing and hope for the coming of Christ, the messiah – the one who would save us from our brokenness and sin, restore us to freedom and reconcile us to our God. It also reflects the coming of Jesus in His Glory at the end of time, and provides real food for contemplation.
I love that there is a conscious choice to walk this journey together as a community. Through the structure of the liturgy, we are invited to accompany each other, hand in hand into the mystery and beauty of the incarnation.
In Advent we don’t sing or speak the ‘Gloria’ (a prayer, taken from the moment in Luke’s Gospel, where the shepherd’s first hear the angels heralding the arrival of the baby Jesus), so that on Christmas Day we can more fully celebrate with the angels proclaiming the wonder of God coming to earth. It’s the same throughout Lent, with the addition of leaving out any Hallelujah’s.
This is not a necessary thing to do, it’s not as though God would mind if we kept them in, but allowing ourselves space to reflect in their absence, on what these words mean, enables us to more wholeheartedly ascent to them with joy and wonder at a moment of celebration.
The truth is that we all have our own traditions, which we bring out year on year.
A friend of ours, when her daughters grew up and were less interested in helping to decorate the Christmas tree, began a more adult family tradition where they drink mulled wine, eat mince pies and play Christmas music as they decorate- it’s become something that they cherish.
My paternal Grandfather was Polish, and every year, we join a good selection of Dad’s side of the family to celebrate our Wigilia on Christmas Eve. It is a rich heritage of food (including fish, sauerkraut, mushroom soup and beetroot), there is always hay under the tablecloth to represent the manger, a spare place laid for an unexpected guest and presents and carols.
But for me, the most beautiful part is the sharing of opĹatek, which is a wafer. Traditionally blessed by a priest, we each break a piece and give it to every member of the family offering them a blessing for the coming year.
This used to be done by my Grandparents, slightly more formally, as they each went round and blessed us with encouraging words specific to our situation, although since my Grandfather went to be with Jesus, we all share the breaking and blessing.
It is a loving, heartfelt and powerful moment that I look forward to each year. On the two occasions when my husband were unable to be with the rest of the family, we have continued it ourselves. It is very moving, rich in symbolism of the last supper and an opportunity for reconcilliation.
Growing up I was always a huge advocate of family traditions, and since getting married and having our own children, I am even more keen to create and develop them.
- We now throw an Autumn Party most years to celebrate the colours and foods of the season.
- My brothers have been singing a completely a-rhythmic introduction to ‘Happy Birthday’ for years, and I love it when we all join in, despite the fact that it really doesn’t fit.
- Every year we read The Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughren, in combination with scriptures for the whole of advent, and hang our homemade symbols to on our own tree, to journey through our bible history up to the birth of Jesus. It’s an old Catholic tradition my husband introduced me to, from the times when most of the congregation were illiterate, and it acts a bit like a ‘suped up’ advent calendar.
- I have kept my own large knitted stocking that I was given by my Godmother when I was a very little girl, and I made my husband wait for the local Hospice charity shop to open, so that he could be first in line to buy the three knitted stockings they had had in their christmas display window. We now have five of them and will hunt for more as our family grows.
It’s safe to say that I am a big fan of Christmas, but more of that in another blog!
We have our traditions, even the ones which are more of an anti-tradition, because they help to anchor us to our past, our heritage, and give us a sense of hope about the future.
Our traditions can connect us to our humanity, simultaneously reminding us that our lives are transient, but also that we are part of something much bigger, that we can leave a legacy for generations to come. It is a beautiful way of merging the finite with the infinite.
However, whilst our traditions can be a way of freeing us to dive more deeply into the heart of an idea, if they become more important than the people who are celebrating them, or lose sight of why they were created in the first place, then they are just another source of bondage.
Jesus got very frustrated with the Pharisees when they were insisting that he could not pick some grain to eat, whilst én route somewhere, because it was the Sabbath. He rightly called them up on their misunderstanding of who the law was there for.
‘Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” ‘ Mark 2:27
My husband tells a well-known story of ‘The Minister’s Cat’ which illustrates the point.
“There was a group of people who met regularly at the church to pray together, and they would meet in one of the additional rooms. The minister would join them, but he had an affectionate and clingy cat who would clamber all over them in a very distracting manner. They got round the problem by tying the cat up at the start of every meeting and releasing it at the end. Years passed, the minister moved on and although the prayer group still met each week, none of the original members remained. The new minister didn’t have a pet, but the group would still make sure that they had a cat to tie up at the start of a meeting, releasing it at the end. No one knew why they did this.”
As daft as this story is, we as creatures of habit need to understand why we keep doing the things we do, otherwise they become pointless. Likewise if a tradition or ritual is too rigid to adapt to the people it serves, then it loses it’s purpose.
In our liturgies and ways of doing church, how we worship God and how we find it easiest to connect with him will be different. For some – silence can focus their attention, for others – loud praise music with stage lighting is what inspires them, for others still – something visual to look at will be what moves them and draws them into the heart of God.
Consider how you are inspired. Look there and you may well learn to catch a glimpse of God’s presence in the thick of it. We are creative people with many ways of expressing ourselves, but need to be aware that what helps one person may hinder another, particularly if the reason behind the form it takes is unclear. Taking responsibility to try to understand each other’s choices and to explain the reasons for our own, allows us to unite more freely in our joint worship.
Personally, I love the multi-sensory, structured nature of the Catholic mass, taking you on a journey through scripture, into sharing communion with one another, before sending you out to share the hope you have received with the rest of the world.
Wherever you go in the world you know the script, you know the moves, and the smells and bells help to connect you to God and your church family, engaging you on many levels. When it is celebrated by people with hearts full of worship, then far from being dry, the structure frees you up to go deeper with God.
When it comes to our understanding of who God is and how he moves, the bible as the inspired word of God, is the one constant that we should line all our ideas and theology up with. If our traditions in some way cloud or undermine the finished work of Christ, then we have got something wrong somewhere in our understanding. But where they do line up, our teachings and traditions can be hugely insightful, full of wisdom and practical application for our lives- gifts for each generation to build on. His word (and Jesus is the word made flesh) is the only infallible rock on which we should wisely build.
If you search for God with your whole heart, you will find him, whatever style, means or situation. But if we remain closed, then no matter how full of God a moment or service is, we will miss him.
‘Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.’ Jeremiah 29:12-14a
I will continue to enjoy discovering my Lord in the richness of structure and form and the freedom that comes with it. Equally I shall revel in the openness and flow of more free-form worship, because God is so rich and multi-faceted, we would be foolish to think He will only communicate in one way.
Which is why, despite my resistance to labels, if you look very carefully, you may just see a fiddler on our roof. His shaking silhouette will serve as a reminder that God is to be found in the seasons, rhythms and joy filled traditions of our lives.