I trod an unconventional path to the Christian faith, via a left-wing secular home, a northern comprehensive education, and a few years working in London media absorbing the cynicism of newspaper journalism. By rights I should now be a thoroughly sceptical liberal atheist. I held beliefs typical of my generation: Christians are deeply unfashionable at best, sinister at worst; Catholics even more so.
Yet … I always had the sense that God was there, it just made little difference to my life. I didn’t really know how it could.
In my late 20s I trotted back up North and started a spiritual quest. I tried all the usual avenues for my generation – Buddhism, paganism, new ageism. Somehow I’d absorbed from the cultural ether that these religions were more positive, compassionate, and most definitely more trendy than anything Christianity had to offer. I found only dead ends: each left me disappointed or even repelled when I read of their origins and attended their communities. They didn’t have what I was looking for.
To my surprise, it was Jesus in the Gospels who drew me to Christianity, albeit kicking and screaming. The lure was the beauty of his teaching, the hope of God’s love, the glimmer of something eternal as I started to pray to him. I felt compelled to attend church, but I’d arrogantly argue with the folk within. One of my most common criticisms was the wealth I saw in the church – surely Jesus saved some of his strongest words for those living in luxury?
Yet somehow, I became a Christian, attended Evangelical churches and delighted in the riches of my new faith.
It’s a bigger surprise that after a decade of belief, I feel a pull towards Catholicism. My route to faith involved a lot of questioning of my secular, liberal worldview, so it was only natural that I’d also question my particular brand of Christianity. But Catholicism? I’d rarely been in a Catholic church, and had heard a lot of efficient propaganda about a church full of dry religion, idols of Mary, and scary priests. I’d considered faith in Christ to be most important rather than the particular quirks of denomination.
I still do. Yet over the past few years I’ve felt the Catholic tug several times. Once from the rosary, a bizarre attraction for a low church woman like myself. However, on purchase, the instructions were so complex that I gave up fast. Other times I considered Catholicism included when I read more about the Protestant Reformation and theology. I love the Bible, but Sola Scriptura didn’t make sense to me unless the good book also contained the means of its own interpretation. The character and behaviour of the Reformers didn’t encourage me to follow their beliefs, either – though I’d have similar difficulties with certain popes. In the present day, some conversations with Calvinists have made me feel that, frankly, I’d want to adopt any belief they didn’t hold.
This year the pull is stronger. On Christmas Day I went to compline at a nearby monastery. The incense, chanting of the psalms and the beauty of the chapel brought more peace than the guitars and lively pop songs of my usual places of worship. It was ethereal.
I realised I’d found an answer to one of my original complaints about the church. Why don’t more Christians do what Jesus explicitly taught: give away their material goods, for example? In Protestantism there are a few lone folk who have done so, usually missionaries, but it’s rare. I realised that monasteries have many who take a more radical step to follow Christ, though mostly without books written about them, like the famous missionaries. I pondered on the faith needed to be a contemplative – to believe that the best use of their life was just to pray. I sensed a humble life that Jesus talked of; to surrender to superiors and obey, to give up the chance of romance and money. All without any fame, any “main speaker” invitations to the platforms of Christian festivals.
It’s a practice I’d always been seeking in the church. I thought of some of the spiritual classics I’d read by Brother Lawrence and other monks and nuns, or the 2005 reality TV series The Monastery. I saw something deeper in their faith, something gained from spending all those hours in prayer and scripture, committed to poverty, chastity and obedience. It’s not a life I imagine for myself; I am still a fledgling when it comes to spiritual growth. But it is deeply attractive to know its presence is in the church, its wisdom available on retreat if needed.
So, I find myself with a decision to make about Catholicism. I’ll take it slow, like the monks and nuns, with thought and prayer, waiting for an answer.
Heather Tomlinson is a freelance journalist
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