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Diary: The Sign of Peace fills me with terror

Women embrace at the sign of peace (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

I managed an impressive shriek during the Consecration on Saturday, while I watched in slow motion as my two-year-old seemed to be about to plant himself face-first onto a large rock.

We were attending Mass outside Padley Chapel at Grindleford in Derbyshire. But rather than meditating on the fate of the Catholic martyrs, my recurring thought was: “How can I make sure my son doesn’t crack his head open?” And at that point in the liturgy, I really thought he was about to.

Fortunately, he came away from Padley unscathed and I would warmly recommend it as a beautiful spot for anyone planning a little pilgrimage. The church once served as the private chapel of Padley Hall, which was owned by the Fitzherberts during the 16th century. Given the Fitzherbert family’s staunch Catholicism, the estate was regularly raided for evidence of Catholic worship. On July 12, 1588, two Catholic priests – Nicholas Garlick and Robert Ludlam – were discovered there and executed the following month.

It wasn’t until 1934 that the altar stone, hidden by the Fitzherbert family just before their arrest, was found buried in the garden and was restored to its original place.

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We were a very small group at Mass in Padley and so it felt a bit rude not to exchange the Sign of Peace with every member of the congregation.

Increasingly, I find the Sign of Peace a source of social anxiety, partly because every parish has subtly different manners and mores. Northerners are generally a more tactile bunch, so much so that even the most frail-looking octogenarian will readily scramble across three rows of pews in order to shake hands with the lonesome soul at the back. But southerners, especially Londoners, are very different.

I was reminded of this during a recent lunchtime Mass at Westminster Cathedral. First, you have to establish eye contact to see if the person nearest to you wants to shake hands. And even when you think it’s safe to approach, sometimes you call it wrong and end up exchanging an awkward wave, feeling rejected (and paranoid about your personal hygiene).

The other scenario is that you are obliged to go for an ambitious stretchy handshake with that rare keen bean standing too far away, so you inevitably make a hash of things and then stand there grinning at each other apologetically during the Agnus Dei. At least at the London Oratory all of this uncertainty is removed as very few people exchange the Sign of Peace. Perhaps it’s better like that.

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I was up early to catch my train to London that morning, and I decided it wasn’t fair to turn on our very noisy coffee machine in case it woke up my husband. This felt like a virtuous move until I started chatting to my taxi driver on the way to the train station, who said: “It felt so weird to have a cup of tea this morning.” I was a bit puzzled and so he elaborated: “Ramadan just ended.”

I remembered then that for Muslims, fasting means nothing to eat and nothing to drink from dawn until sunset. Delaying my first cup of coffee until I reached the train station didn’t feel quite so virtuous after all.

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Since moving into our new home and unpacking all our boxes after eight months of renovations, I’ve wiped the dust from a pile of old cookery books and enjoyed flicking through them. Among them are my Ottolenghi tomes, with meals that make one salivate at the mere thought of them.

I had such good intentions when the weekend came around of preparing an Ottolenghi feast, that I whizzed around Tesco and Aldi faithfully gathering all the ingredients. By the time I returned home, I was so frazzled from trying to hunt down all the exotic components that I had to lie down. When my husband discovered me huddled under a duvet, I mustered up the strength to bleat: “How about a Nando’s tonight instead?”

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The Nando’s was disappointing – which served me right, I suppose. I’m currently listening to a podcast by a Catholic couple with 10 children who somehow manage to serve nutritious and healthy meals every night, cooked from scratch.

The podcast, The Messy Family Project, also recently dedicated an entire episode to how to enthrone the Sacred Heart in your home, which inspired me and my husband to follow their example. No sooner had I fixed a date with our priest, I discovered that this wonderful publication also had an article dedicated to enthronement plus a thought-provoking piece on the loss of this beautiful devotion.

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I hope that devotion to the Sacred Heart will make a comeback, if it isn’t already happening. I’m learning the hard way that this life is ultimately a lesson in learning to let go – which can be overwhelming and difficult to accept. Thank God there is a simple antidote: “O Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in thee.”

Madeleine Teahan is a freelance journalist