We have a Spanish student staying with us on exchange and it’s part of the deal that we arrange for her to attend Mass – so today, along with my daughter and said student I had my first experience of Roman Catholic worship.
I am, I confess, prejudiced against Catholicism. I live in a very athiest, rational, philosophical household and for many years I have gone along with various family members filling me with liberal anti-Catholic sentiment. And I confess that I find it difficult to understand how sincere and devout people that I admire as individuals can accept the authority of a deeply flawed organisation. Also, like many people who view it from the outside, I see Catholicism as a great manufacturer of guilt.
However, I have also had a long and tortured relationship with the evangelical wing of the Church of England. In the end, I left, knowing it was the only way to save my marriage and my sanity. It was terribly painful to do it at the time. I don’t think I’ve been in Church on Sunday morning for over ten years now. And yet I still can’t hear the liturgy without it stirring a deep chord of recognition in me. The responses come automatically.
In many ways the Mass I heard today was similar, liturgically, to the one I heard week by week, but in others it was totally different. I can’t say I came away converted, but there were things about the Catholic service I really responded to and, strangely, one was the privacy of it. There was a real sense of order and reverence. People of all ages came in and prayed rather than talked. This included quite young children, to my surprise.
Once I would have said that the service was dull, stifling, devoid of feeling. Now I’m older I can see that lifting your hands heavenward and speaking in tongues isn’t the only way to commune with a higher being. I’m not denying the sincerity of such behaviour, but it is possible to worship quietly and unobtrusively, and I rather liked the way that the congregation regarded their attendance as a matter between themselves and the Almighty. There was something quite matter-of-fact about it, I felt. Catholic guilt? Hmm…I’ve seen plenty of evangelical burnout, competition and guilt in my time. It tends to peak after, rather than during, the service, in the ritual that Adrian Plass once referred to as "the great Sunday morning lie-in," where you all smile in a brainwashed way over coffee and talk about what wonderful things God is doing in your life. Yes, my husband is still looking for a job, my mother with dementia is driving me crazy and my son’s doing drugs but, you know, God is really challenging me and showing his glory through the whole situation….You probably know the kind of thing I mean.
I have no right to comment on Catholicism, but my personal impression is that it recognises, institutionally, that human beings are fallible, it’s a fact of life and therefore there are mechanisms of dealing with it. It is a mistake to assume that because of this, people’s attitudes as they go through those mechanisms is also mechanical. I really appreciate being able to use a church for communing with God – as for the social side, they have a social club for that sort of thing.
And, I haven’t time to unpick this in any detail here and now, but it also occurs to me that it can’t do any harm for me, in my capacity as a student of Shakespeare, to experience and reflect on some of the differences between the Protestant and Catholic traditions, since it’s a cultural fault line that runs through his life, his times and a lot of his work. And we all need to be reminded that we have prejudices from time to time. The Catholic church is far from perfect, but by golly, neither are the other ones.
If we tell ourselves we have no prejudices, we decieve ourselves and the truth is not in us.