Starting from zero

A while ago, when I was particularly unfit, I decided I had to pull myself together and do something about it. Being part of Generation Technology, I downloaded a ‘Couch to 5k’ app onto my phone, along with an entire album of running music. It worked fantastically – every couple of days it would remind me to go out for a run, building up from running for a total of 8 minutes in 1-minute bursts, with walking time in between, all the way up to half an hour of uninterrupted running. To my amazement I actually reached this goal – albeit about 5 months later than predicted… For someone who had never jogged in her life to be able to run for half an hour was a revelation.

If only someone would invent something like that for prayer.

Since I became a Catholic I’ve tried, sporadically, to have a prayer life. RCIA, to be honest, didn’t prepare me that well, although it did mention some common prayers. I got to a stage where my husband and I were managing to remember to pray every night as we went to bed – a quick private prayer & confession, the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be. As I went to work in the morning on the bus I prayed the Rosary (on weekdays – this didn’t work at weekends). I thought I was doing ok, although I was sad that there was no link in my prayers to the rhythms of the Catholic year, and I knew that there were lots of people to whom this amount of prayer would hardly be a sign of spiritual flourishing.

Anyway, inadequate or not, I had a baby, and both running and praying fell by the wayside.

Nobody quite prepares you for the exhaustion of having a baby. The joy, sure, but also the exhaustion. The Rosary was the first casualty. I no longer had a bus journey to give my day rhythm, so I simply forgot. Night prayers soon followed – when you’re creeping to bed, sleep-deprived and trying to be as quiet as possible in order not to wake the baby, it’s easy to fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow.

I know, excuses excuses.

Anyway, I’ve felt bad about this for a while but it’s becoming urgent. Our son is now one year old, and I know that if I want him to grow up Catholic it’s important that our faith is not simply a Sunday thing, but pervades our lives. We struggle as it is with the lack of any kind of Catholic network – the Mass we go to isn’t conducive to meeting or socialising with anyone, and our families are either not Catholic or not-really-practising Catholics. It’s a bit tough. (Don’t even get me started on the hellish business of finding Catholic Godparents when you barely know any Catholics who actually believe anything).

So I went looking for advice on how to pray. The excellent Countercultural Father had a series of blog posts on ‘Keeping Kids Catholic’ which I have found fascinating, and will no doubt be useful guidance as we bring up our son and any other future offspring. You can find them here.

The problem is that his description of family prayer, whilst awesome and something I’d love to aspire to, is way beyond where we are now. A bit like trying the running app but setting it first of all to the full half hour run without any of the build-up.

…a Catholic family needs a routine for its spiritual life: a morning offering, grace before and after meals, the Angelus at noon, a family rosary at some time during the day, and bedtime prayers. These should be part of the fabric of our kids’ lives, just in the same way that brushing our teeth is.

This is the sort of thing I want to achieve eventually. But how on earth to begin? My plan is to try the morning offering, grace at mealtimes, and then bedtime prayers. The rest may follow.

That’s a fine plan, but the logistics of it are confusing me at the moment. What prayers? Where do I find them? Do we try and pray different prayers every day in line with the Church’s year? Or is that going to be too complicated, meaning we end up giving up? Do we all kneel somewhere? Do we sit together? Stand? I know these things sound stupid but in building up a routine it’s the details which make it.

So here it is: I’d love some advice. If you pray with your family (especially with a young family), what do you do? What works? What doesn’t? Specifically:

  • What Grace do you say? Before/after meals? Every single meal? Do you stand for Grace or sit?
  • What morning & evening prayers do you say? Do they vary with the Church’s year? Do they incorporate readings/psalms and if so how do you find them? Do you use a book or an app at all?
  • When you pray as a family morning/evening-time, where and how do you do it? Do you have prayers in your children’s bedrooms or as a family in the living room? Do you kneel, stand, sit? Do different people take turns to lead different parts of the prayers?
  • I know the acronym ACTS and think it’s a good guide for private prayers. Do you encourage your children to say their own prayers as well as more generic Catholic prayers? Do they confess each night? Ask God for what they want?

This probably sounds all very basic and stupid, but as I know from my fitness app, what you need in order to build a routine is a structured plan which helps you to build up good habits. Trying to do everything at once without really knowing how leads to discouragement and failure. I’d love to hear from fellow Catholics so I can see what seems to work, and hopefully use it to put together a Grand Plan, starting from zero, to build up a family prayer life that will get us – and our children – closer to God.


Exploring the EF

So much has happened in the 9 months since I last decided to write down my thoughts on anything. Particularly the fact that we now have a baby, who is coincidentally 9 months old. We also now live in the north of England, in a beautiful part of the country, with fields behind the house and hills in all directions. The community here is lovely and all in all, life is good.

I never intended to become an EF-goer. Whilst I don’t subscribe to the Holy Father’s idea of young people who attend the EF as rigid, I simply felt that I would rather be part of a normal parish meeting other Catholics who lived locally. I remember going to an Anglo-Catholic parish in my childhood and the people who attended were often quite scattered as they would travel up to an hour to attend. I’d rather feel myself part of a local community of ordinary Catholics, rather than like a special interest group.

That was, until we went to Mass at our local parish, and even my not-massively-fussed-about-liturgy husband said ‘we can’t go there every week, it’s horrendous.’ Suffice it to say that the only Sunday Mass is a family Mass, and we don’t really want our son growing up to think he’s the centre of attention, rather than what’s going on at the altar. Enough said on that score, I think. Anyway, we went to another Church in the parish for their early Mass (same Priest but much more reverent Mass), but we found that getting there early in the morning was causing problems. Far be it from me to wake a sleeping baby before he’s ready, that way a world of misery lies.

There was an alternative. There is a local EF Mass at a sensible time of day, every Sunday. We never really intended to become regular attenders, but somehow we have slipped into that pattern. I’m still not up to speed with the EF Mass but getting there. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed:

  • It’s not so different after all. I was fully expecting the EF to be totally different to the Novus Ordo Masses I’ve attended. In actual fact, most of it is very familiar. It’s in Latin of course, but we used to attend a Latin NO Mass anyway so that’s not a problem. The Priest here makes it a dialogue Mass, so actually we are saying quite a few responses. I have mixed feelings about that, because I actually quite enjoy the silence, and I am still getting used to the responses in the EF (rather than having them off by heart as I would do in a NO Mass), so it feels like a bit of an effort. But sometimes I just listen, rather than joining in with the responses, and that feels fine too.
  • The order is sometimes a bit confusing. The thing I like about the NO Mass is its logical sequence. The EF (especially the introductory rites) takes a bit of getting used to, because it seems to jump around a bit compared to the liturgy I recognise. There is a fair amount of what feels like repetition. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just not something I’m used to yet. It feels like what it is: a liturgy which has grown organically over time.
  • The readings. I am sad that we don’t follow the same lectionary as the rest of the Church. That said, I can look them up afterwards, I just need to remember! It feels strange not having anything from the Old Testament. But on the other hand, the translation is much better than the uninspiring one that’s used for the new lectionary.
  • The silence. I like it. It gives me time to reflect (or, more often than not, to wrestle with a very lively baby who’s trying either to pull my hair or chew the pew in front). I can see why some people might find it off-putting not to be able to follow exactly what is going on during the Eucharistic Prayer, but I’ve started to get used to the gestures of the Priest, and also be less fussed about knowing exactly where we are at any given moment, and try to pray more generally instead.
  • The reverence. It’s not so much that I have a particular attraction to the EF, but I love the way the Mass is conducted. The Priest’s gestures, the actions of the servers, the kneeling, the fact that we don’t all stop for a jolly hand-shaking and chatting session just before Communion, receiving at the altar rail, all of these add to the reverence of the Mass. The annoying thing is, these are all things which could happen in the NO, but they tend not to (although there are honourable exceptions). With the EF it’s mandated, so it happens, which is nice.
  • The children. I suppose because, like in the Anglo-Catholic Churches, people come from further afield. It’s a relatively small congregation but there are quite a few families. There are a couple of young men who serve (incredibly well) at the altar. I was expecting maybe one family but actually about half the people who attend come with children. I was warned that all families who attended the EF were slightly weird, but now we’re one of them I’m willing to believe that not all of them are… Seriously, though, I am amazed by (mostly) how well behaved the children are, and how involved and dedicated the young servers are. That’s something for our son to look up to as he gets older.
  • The veiling. Not everyone does. That’s something I was worried about before I went because I have never done it and at the moment I’m not comfortable with the idea (I feel as if I’d be doing it for the wrong reasons). I will probably end up compromising with a hat, but quite a few of the ladies are bare-headed and nobody seems to mind. Head coverings are something I still need to think about so we’ll see on that score.
  • The community. This is where I have struggled the most. There isn’t much of a chance to get to know people, because it’s not a parish as such. Lots of people come from further afield, and everyone leaves straight after Mass, it’s not as if there is any coffee or anything. I know that’s not what we go to Mass for, but it would be nice to get to know other Catholic families. on the other hand, we’re gradually starting to talk to people when we leave the Church, so I think it will happen, but slowly.

The lovely thing is that our son absolutely loves being in Church. There is so much to look at, people to flirt shamelessly with, and areas at the back to crawl around when he can’t sit still. He rarely cries, but does chat a lot, and the rest of the congregation are absolutely lovely – we have never had a single frown or anyone looking as if they’d rather he was quiet (let’s face it, you can’t make a 9 month old be quiet even if you try). I am hoping that if we keep going to the EF (which, at the moment we will), he will grow up still enjoying coming to Mass, as so many others there seem to. Let’s hope so anyway!

So all in all not what we intended when we first moved up here, but it’s funny how things never turn out the way you expect. We’ll see how things go, and whether we keep attending the EF, but I have to say that given everything that’s happened in the last few months, the words often come into my head: ‘…so he bringeth them unto the haven where they would be.’


A miracle of engineering

When I was about 16 weeks pregnant, I went out to a party with some of my friends.

One of them, an engineer, started talking to me about the baby. After the standard congratulations, part of our conversation went like this:

Him: So, what’s the baby like at the moment? I mean, how much of it is there already?

Me: Well, it’s pretty much all there and has been since about 12 weeks, it just needs to get a lot bigger and everything needs to develop…

Him: That’s incredible. Seriously. A baby is such a complex thing. And the fact that the human body can build something like that in 12 weeks is just… well, it’s amazing.

He’s a structural engineer, a very down-to-earth guy with an appreciation of the work that goes into complex building projects. And here we were, marvelling at what an incredible job the human body does at assembling, from scratch, a fully functioning human being in less time than it normally takes for engineers to draw up initial plans for a building project, let alone get the whole thing structurally sound.

I know it is stupidly obvious, but I don’t think we think about this enough. It *is* an incredible thing. It is amazing. And it deserves a bit of reflection. In 12 weeks in the womb, a human being is formed. Yes, it doesn’t look exactly like the finished article; yes, it still has a lot of growing and developing to do before it can survive outside its protected environment. But it is all there – skin, bones, organs, the works – and all from a single cell 12 weeks before.

That’s an incredible feat of engineering.

Seeing double

Why is it that so many people are fascinated by others’ cultures, and yet seem so ashamed of their own?

It’s a question which has been bothering me recently. Cumlazaro has an interesting post about the need for Catholicism to take an active part in today’s culture wars, especially when confronting the growing number of people who self-identify as having no religion. He mentions the music, the Rosaries, the candles – all of those cultural markers for which Catholicism has been known for generations. The excellent Nightfever does just that – invites people in from the streets to light a candle in Church, where Catholics are adoring the Blessed Sacrament. The visitors are not asked to commit to anything, not even to stay; merely invited to light a candle and, if they wish, linger for a while in the prayerful atmosphere, surrounded by music and candlelight and face to face with Our Lord. Some depart straight away, but others do stay, and I can imagine that in a few cases a flame is lit, and not just in the Church.

So why, given the power of these cultural markers, do so many people seem ashamed of them?

It seems to me that a lot of the same people who are all for other people’s culture, are embarrassed by the traditions of their own faith. People seem fascinated, for example, by the Orthodox, and see nothing wrong with their elaborate vestments or complex chants. However so often Catholics are keen to ‘simplify’ their own religion: to use plain vestments or a drab altar; to have as few candles as possible; to replace chant with terrible hymns which owe more to 60s pop music than to Judeo-Christian tradition; to assume that people praying the Rosary are strange or old-fashioned; to try to minimise the ‘distance’ between people and sanctuary by inviting all the children to come and stand around the altar and hold their hands up with the Priest during the Our Father. (Actually I feel that the last one should go in a special category of Awful Liturgical Abuses, but at the same time it seems to stem from the general embarrassment of Priests with their Priestly state, which also seems to link back to the cultural embarrassment I was thinking about, so it’s going into the same rant anyway and no-one can stop me). Even modern Church buildings seem determined to move away from Western Catholic traditions and become as ugly, ‘functional’ or just plain weird and modernistic as possible. I have heard of at least one Church which was modelled on a Native American building. Why? Traditionally they weren’t Catholics, as far as I’m aware? Why not model it on Cologne Cathedral or Chartres or any other one of the amazing and wonderful houses of worship that belong to our own Catholic culture?

In saying all of this, I’m not trying to suggest that other cultures are in any way ‘less’ than our own. In fact, I think that’s part of the problem – that asserting the value of one’s own culture, in the Western world, is seen as denigrating other cultures. It’s not just the Church which has this problem of being embarrassed by its own traditions, but the secular world as well.

But for the Church it’s more dangerous; because when we try to ignore our culture, we risk losing those critical links to tradition – and tradition, after all, is our foundation. Without it, we are nothing. That’s why starting with getting rid of candles and chant and the Rosary and lovely vestments and beautiful altars and traditional buildings out of embarrassment, or fear of imposing our culture on others, or whatever it might be, starts us on that slippery slope that ends with lay people not really sure what their culture even is; Priests who are afraid to beautify their Churches because they are afraid of being called extravagant or ‘rad-trad’.

So people might judge us for having beautiful buildings and lighting candles and praying our beads and all the rest. So what? Better to judge us than to ignore us. Better to be an object of curiosity than a sad relic of the 1960s with no past and therefore no future.

I don’t have any solutions. But I know that a lot of Priests and lay people are fighting very hard to hold on to the culture; to make the Churches beautiful; to encourage people to take part in the cultural traditions of their faith. Let’s hope that in the future, they are the ones who prevail.

All change please…

It’s been a long time since I’ve had the time or inclination to publish anything here. I was meant to be musing on my journey into the Catholic Church, but somehow that hasn’t happened yet. Hopefully at some point I’ll have more leisure to go back and reflect.

For the moment, though, life has become incredibly busy. I’m going to be doing all the stressful things in life pretty much simultaneously – having a baby, moving halfway across the country and my husband will be starting a new career, all this summer, so it’s going to be an exciting (if bumpy) ride.

I’m so glad to be finally moving away from London. I’ve never liked living in a city, and we seem to spend a lot of our weekends driving out of it for hours in order to go walking, climbing and camping. Now we’ll have the countryside on our doorstep (almost literally), and we won’t be bringing up a small child in London. I grew up in the countryside, and I am so glad to be moving back (albeit a few degrees further north).

Before my Confirmation I was told by a Priest to stop trying to take control of my life and listen to God’s will. Well, I don’t know how well I’m doing that yet, but certainly a lot of things seem to have happened in a relatively short space of time, so who knows?

Whatever the case might be, your prayers over the summer would be much appreciated as we set off on a new stage of life with everything changing. Here goes…

Nothing in between

The Lark in the Morn by Elfrida Vipont

One of my favourite children’s books was The Lark in the Morn and its sequel, The Lark on the Wing, by Elfrida Vipont (there are more books in the series, but those two were the best). It’s about a girl who wants to become a singer, and she and her family are Quakers so Quakerism features largely in the whole series.

I loved these books and read them often, and by extension saw Quakerism through a mist of romance. What appealed to me in Quakerism was the simplicity – the empty room, the silence, the plainness, the directness of it all. When I thought of Quakerism, I thought that with none of the organisation, the ceremony, the grandeur of Anglo-Catholicism, there was also nothing in between you and God.

And yet… and yet. Conversely, I actually loved the grandeur. I loved the ceremony. Having attended an Anglo-Catholic Church from a young age, the beauty of the liturgy, the building and the music appealed strongly to the other half of myself. I loved the sense of history, and even more so when I discovered the Catholic Church with its immense claims to unity, to tradition, to the Real Presence.

For years I felt the lure of both sides. On the one hand simplicity, plainness, ‘nothing in between’. On the other history, tradition, beauty. I’ve never been particularly given to compromise, and following each principal to its logical conclusion, both of them seemed to make a lot of sense. Anglicanism, which is after all built on compromise, held less appeal than the two extremes of the Christian spectrum – the unified Catholic Church on the one hand and the individual encounter of Quakerism on the other.

I still see the romance in Quakerism, but these days I can see the downsides as well. For a start I’m the world’s worst at keeping my mind on what I’m doing, so I love the structure of the Mass – it helps to focus my mind and the music raises my thoughts to a higher plane than what I need to cook for dinner that evening (well, sometimes… most Catholic music is a painful topic for another post I think). I’m not fluent in Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic, so am wary of those people who cheerfully launch into their own Biblical interpretation in a translation that someone else has produced, ignoring the 300 or so years that the Bible didn’t exist in its current form, and pretending that Church tradition (that inconvenient thing which pulled the Bible together in the first place) is unimportant. I am very conscious that Our Lord Himself, as a devout Jew, would have worshipped in a structured way, with the worship led by someone, with Psalms chanted and prayers said aloud – and since He said nothing to suggest this was a bad way of doing things, it seems logical to build His Church along similar lines. Indeed from what I can tell, the early Church, led by the Apostles, bore far more resemblance to the modern Mass than to the Quaker meeting.

To add to all of that, though, we have explicit instructions from Our Lord about what He wants us to do in His Church here on Earth, and ‘Take, eat, this is my body…’ is one of the most important. I’m not going to get into a long discussion of the Real Presence, because that’s another post right there, but even the Anglican Church obeys the words, even whilst debating about whether they are literal or figurative. The more I thought about it, the more it became clear that Christ intends us to have a formal Church with formal worship, the Apostles continued this tradition, and it survives all the way through 2000 years of persecution and indifference to the present day.

And here’s the thing. I used to think that Quakerism was the essence of ‘nothing in between’. But now my feelings have changed. Quakerism seems to me to create a certain distance. Distance from tradition, distance from unity, even distance from the pattern of worship commanded by Christ. And the emphasis on individual, silent prayer to the exclusion of any other form of worship feels somehow isolating.

Contrast that to the Catholic Church. Some people think that the ceremony, the grandeur, the music, all serve to obscure the central mystery, but that’s not the case. Instead, when done properly, they point towards it. I know for a start that I instinctively drop my voice when I enter a building which is obviously designed as a sacred space, and the beauty of my surroundings lifts my thoughts heavenwards as well. The sense of tradition is palpable – I’m hearing the same words that Christ Himself said, and watching the same events unfold, every single time I go to Mass, and that’s important.

In fact that’s the most important thing. The point which really decided me was the Eucharist. In the Catholic Church, we don’t just worship Christ – we consume Him. We actually consume the Body and the Blood of Christ, which are really and physically present on the altar. I still have to repeat that to myself sometimes to get a grip on the sheer enormity of it all. And here’s the critical point – when you consume something there is no distance. A whole congregation can kneel for hours in adoration before the monstrance, and Christ does not appear only spiritually in the hearts of each individual, He is actually there before them in physical form. Each week when the Priest says the words of consecration, Christ is there and gives Himself to His faithful literally, really and actually. You can’t get any closer than that encounter.

So in the end, after my brief flirtation with Quakerism, I found that there was only one end of the spectrum that truly appealed after all. Catholicism had tradition, history, beauty, grandeur, ceremony – and at the end of it all a real encounter with Christ Himself, with absolutely nothing in between.

Style, substance and a trip to Germany

I spent the weekend with friends in Germany and visited a lovely old church on Sunday morning. It was nice to hear the bells ringing all across the city; it’s something I miss in the UK.

The Mass itself – well, the less said the better really. It was a kiddies’ Mass, so they had the German equivalent of ‘If I were a butterfly’ (I actually have no idea what they were singing about but it sounded pretty awful) and the Priest came to the edge of the Sanctuary and did the actions along with the children. Excruciating. I was lucky with the reading (although they only had one plus the Gospel which surprised me) in that it was that incredibly famous passage from 1 John  about love – which, incidentally, I remember from my own wedding – so I understood most of it, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of the Gospel as my German is incredibly rusty! And I was totally lost in the homily as well, so whether the Priest was the world’s most amazing preacher or a terrible bore I’ll never know. To be honest, it’s probably for the best…

But when it came to the Eucharistic Prayer I was on familiar ground. I don’t need to remember all my German to follow what is going on in this part of the Mass. The moment of the Consecration doesn’t change from Church to Church. And excruciating or not, the rest of the Mass paled into comparision when set against the mind-blowing fact that here, in the midst of all the action songs, and the Priest joining in in that terribly embarrassing way that adults have when they’re catering to the kiddies, and the hideous cheap-looking white-and-orange (orange?) vestments, and the bland liturgical music – in the midst of all of that, Christ Himself was still really and actually present on the altar. The Priest is offering the sacrifice of the Mass in the same way as every other Priest the world over, and the same thing happens, the same incredible, wonderful miracle, and nothing can change that.

This is why I became a Catholic. It’s very easy to find beautiful Anglican services – you just have to head to pretty much any Forward in Faith parish to find services which look and feel more Catholic than a lot of Catholic Masses. Including, in some places, the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (albeit often in the old translation), which can be confusing for those who aren’t familiar with Anglo-Catholicism. In fact, many Anglo-Catholics (including me when I was one) joke that they are ‘more Catholic than the Catholics’, and in terms of liturgical style that’s often true. But look and feel is not the only thing that matters. In fact, although a beautiful liturgy is important, it’s significantly less important than the substance of what is happening in the Mass itself.

In the Anglican Church, style becomes very important. Anglo-Catholic vs Low-Church is a huge deal. People don’t worship in each other’s churches, because they don’t like the style of the service – low church Anglicans detest the ‘bells and smells’, high-church Anglicans can’t get enough of them. I have to say that even in the Catholic Church I’m drawn to parishes with wonderful music and respectful liturgy. But in the Church of England, style is a pointer to other major issues. In the same ecclesiastical structure you have priests who believe in the Real Presence and priests who believe that it’s just a memorial. You have people who think you can have women priests and people who think that those same women priests – ordained in a church they are part of – aren’t priests at all. I became a Catholic mainly because I knew that in the Catholic Church, whether or not I like the style, the substance is undoubtedly there. Regardless of the awfulness of the music or the lacklustre attitude of the Priest or the bareness of the Sanctuary, what is happening in the Mass is the same everywhere and at every time. There are occasions when I spend the entirety of the Mass wincing and wishing myself elsewhere (and even back in some of those beautiful Anglican churches I bid a regretful goodbye to), but in the end Christ is there, and that’s the most important thing of all.

Yes, it’s important to care about making the Liturgy beautiful, because by doing that you remind everyone of its importance, and you help to create an atmosphere of adoration so that people can begin to understand the supreme mystery of the Eucharist. But at the same time, let’s not forget – in the Catholic Church style doesn’t actually alter the substance, and that’s something for which we should profoundly thankful.

I’m not sure I’ll be going back to that Church again though. Maybe I should try Cologne Cathedral instead next time…