A Prayer for the Possible…

Yesterday morning a dear friend sent me a link to a televised Mass from a Catholic church in Ireland, which she’d tuned into by chance, because she wanted me to see how the Mass had started. She knows me well, and she knows that the way in which Catholic Masses traditionally begin (verbally acknowledging that we are sinners, symbolically beating our breasts as a sign of penance and admission of sinfulness, and then asking for God’s forgiveness: “I have greatly sinned…through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault…“) is something that I would like to see changed.

It’s not a matter of fanciful personal preference or whim, rebellion against doctrine, condemnation of tradition or of the Church as a whole. It’s much simpler than that. It’s that it’s not the truth of what I hear God saying to me in my heart and soul. And, no matter how many times I’m told differently, or who is doing the telling, God’s message to me never changes. What I hear is: “I want you to see yourselves as I see you. I want you to understand that you are created in my image…and that I am pure Love“.

The driving force behind my passionate wish to see the wording of the Mass changed is that words have power and, as the central celebration of the Catholic Faith, the regular repetition of these words at the start of each Mass reinforces an internal image that we are sinners and not that we are living, human containers of God’s Love.

Of all the beautiful places I’ve visited on the Camino de Santiago (and I’ve walked it several times), the site of the oldest church on the entire route, in the tiny mountainous village of O Cebreiro, has long been a place of special signnificance for me…and for many others, I’ve discovered. I’ve had a number of truly memorable visits, including sleeping on the stone bench outside the church in August 2021 – on the night of the Perseides meteor shower – because the village was full of pilgrims and there was no room at any of the hostels. But it’s the experiences I’ve had in the church that are most memorable and that stay with me.

In 2016 I worked as a volunteer for a month at a pilgrim hostel near to O Cebreiro and would regularly climb up to the village via its beautiful mountain path, and then sit in the church silently, because of its incredible sense of peace. I’ve had several interesting moments of clarity there when, using the silence to listen, answers to things that had been troubling me suddenly came.

But it was only really this year that the priest at the church made any impression on me, and he made it by the way in which he started the pilgrim Mass. He began, not by asking us to acknowledge that we are sinners, but, rather, by reminding us that God is Love. He told us that we are each individual, miraculous creations and containers of that divine Love, and that our purpose in life is to recognise and share that Love, as brothers and sisters of the same human family, in the way we live our lives. It was a Mass that filled me with hope and inspiration…the very things that Jesus did his best to fill us with in the message that he brought…and it made me believe, if just for a moment, that a change in focus is not only necessary but also possible within the Catholic Church as a whole.

I thought, at the time, it was an isolated example; an inspired priest with enough courage to do what his heart called him to do, to touch the hearts of a specialised, visiting congregation. And then, my friend sent me the video of the Irish Mass this morning…and this is how the priest began:

Normally we begin Mass by remembering our unworthiness or our sinfulness, but I think today the first line from the reading of the Hebrews gives us a different perspective, it says ‘God would not be so unjust as to forget all you have done and the love that you have for his name.’ So I think today we should remind ourselves of the love that we have for our Lord, and of the good we have done, because God also acknowledges our goodness“.

And the small but thoughtful gesture of my friend, in sending me the link to this Mass, reminded me once again that anything and everything is possible, when the Spirit of God’s Love is on the move and at work…

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. …”

1 Corinthians 13:13

Where there´s a will…

Another young man knocked at the door of the church hostel this week, Julien, a French pilgrim who has spent the last few years living in Japan and is now walking the Camino backwards towards Lourdes and then onwards to his parents´ home in France. He´s hoping to arrive in time for Christmas and is making his pilgrimage now because he wants to reflect on his last few years´ experience of living abroad and to decide how he wants to shape his life over the next few years.

“I´m here to think about what I really want to do” he said as we were sharing a cup of tea after he´d settled in “but I also want to ask God what his will is for me too. It doesn´t feel right to make a decision like this without taking his wishes into account”. The open, honest and slightly embarrassed way in which he said these words was both touching and admirable at the same time. “My father said to me before I started ´You may not receive an answer to your question you know´ and I know he´s right, but I´ve got to ask anyway”.

Julien´s timing was perfect as, coincidentally, the priest´s sermon at Mass that evening was all about making time for silent prayer, to listen to what God´s will is for each of us as individuals. The part of his dream that relates to us, was how he put it, and not being too impatient to receive a quick answer; having faith that if we just keep living our daily lives as actively and positively as we can, whilst also making time, space and silence for God, the answer will eventually make itself known to us.

As we were eating dinner together later the priest joined us briefly to ask Julien about his Camino and how it was going. “I try to pray when I´m walking, but it´s hard” he said “I keep being distracted by everything around me”. The priest smiled and said that nature IS God talking to us. He advised the young pilgrim to look to the mountains, to stop at the rivers and to listen to the birdsong as he walks and eventually, he said, Julien would hear what God is trying to tell him.

What do you say when you pray to God?” “Nothing…I just listen…” “Then what does God say to you?” “Nothing…he just listens…”

Interview with Mother Theresa of Calcutta

Later Julien told me that he had tried to Google God´s Will but that all the sites he found said similar things…”Read the Bible, all the answers are in there”, which made me smile because it brought back two significant and valuable memories, which I shared with him. The first was a conversation I had with a young Italian peregrino, when I was volunteering at a pilgrim hostel in the city of Ponferrada earlier this year. His view, based on personal experience, was that becoming too enmeshed in trying to figure out the meanings contained in all of the Scriptures has the potential to distance us from ourselves and other people and (in some cases) to even threaten our mental health…and I agree.

The second, equally valuable but slightly more positive memory, is what a priest in Fuerteventura said during a Mass that I attended there in January of this year:

“Take whatever speaks to you from the Bible, when you hear it or come across it by chance, and feel free to ignore the rest. You’ll know when you hear words that are truly meant for you because your heart will respond to them and you won’t need anyone else to interpret them for you. That’s your job, using your heart not your head. If it doesn´t speak to you, don´t worry about it, because it wasn´t meant for you”.

…and I agree.

I felt for Julien because “What´s my purpose?” has been a question that´s travelled with me throughout my life. Sometimes it´s travelled silently, when I was entertained or distracted by other things for a while, and sometimes it´s spoken (or at times even shouted) when I´ve spent too much time ignoring it. I believe it´s the question that my spirit was asking continually and the one that weighed down my soul when I tried to convince myself that it wasn´t there.

I would never have described it as God´s Will for me, I would only have said that it was a deep sense of knowing that…”there´s more to life than this”. And the answers that other people offered to me (ie: having as many different experiences as possible; having as much pleasure and fun as you can; there is no purpose, life is just a game; or the ultimate… life has no meaning at all) just never felt right to me, in my heart-of-hearts.

The more we talked openly and honestly about our thoughts and feelings, the more Julien and I seemed to say things that helped each other and, recognising this, he asked if he could stay another night in the hostel, which the priest agreed to, and so we continued our conversations over breakfast, lunch and dinner the following day.

I explained to Julien what the last 5 years of my life have taught me; namely, that I had to recognise and hear the voice of my own heart before I could truly hear and respond to the hearts of others. I believe that if we do something because we feel we should, or we´re told by others we ought to, or we´re shamed or made to feel less-than-we-are because we don´t, we´ll never do it with our whole heart and, over time, we´ll become resentful about doing it at all. And that resentment will slowly start to leak out in different ways, doing damage to ourselves and hurting others in the process.

I believe that, as a collective human race, we thrive when we live, work, celebrate, love and learn from each other, in community. BUT…and this is a vital and essential part of the human equation…not as clones of each other. We were each born with unique gifts, interests, passions, natural skills and abilities and we were born this way for a reason. If we never explore what our special gifts are by listening to the voice of our hearts, we never develop sufficient self-respect to live happily and fully as that person (God´s Will for us, if you like) and we become easy targets for other strong-willed individuals who try to dominate us with the force of their own personal agendas and wills.

“I rejected my Catholic faith at the age of 16” I told Julien, “because I couldn´t accept the message that other people´s needs and wishes mattered more than mine. It just never felt true in my heart. Now, for the first time, I´m hearing a Christian and Catholic message that says Love God first, and then love others as you love yourself. The three work together. They´re equally important. And because I believe God IS love, that means doing everything that I choose to do with love or, if I can´t, then choosing not to do it at all.

I don´t believe that God´s will for me is to do anything spectacular, impressive or particularly memorable. I think he just wants me to live compassionately but unapologetically and fully as the person he created me to be; listening to my own heart always and trying to listen and respond to the hearts of the people that I come into contact with each day. We have the unique strengths that we each have for a reason, and I believe that reason is that we´re supposed to share them with others. I really think it´s just as simple, and as challenging, as that”. And that seemed to strike a chord with Julien who said he´d been concerned that, whatever choice he made about his future, it needed to consider and include the Will of God.

When he was preparing to leave the next morning I asked him how he´d slept. “Really well” he said. “And how do you feel now?” I asked. “Relieved” he answered, with a smile. “Whatever I decide I´ll just try to share God´s hope and love wherever I am and in the way that I do things. I don´t have to decide anything else right now…” And, in saying that, he reminded me of the importance of dealing positively with what is, in the here and now, and not over-thinking or worrying about things that still lie far ahead and unknown in the future.

Because, where there´s a will to truly live with love, and faith that it can be done, a way will always appear…

“There are as many ways to finding God as there are individual rays of sunshine and they all begin and end in a search for love”

– Anonymous