Aside

Let’s Get Traditional

 I find romance in it and move in circles steeped in it; I’m a girl in love with tradition. Some people say family is loyalty to each other, I suggest that it is the loyalty to tradition that makes you a family. Generation to generation customs are passed down and they become the thing that brings us joy. From what goes on the table at Christmas to where you spend your new years eve, and woe betide any one who comes between a Gallagher and their rightful caterpillar cake on their birthday, or any one of us and that light blue polo. Most importantly we are part of a universal family drenched in ceremonial tradition.  

So I’ve made my point, I love tradition. It’s consistency is secure, its “the living faith of the dead”. Maybe this is why I didn’t do well as the bohemian starving artist I had dreamed of being during college. Many of my heroes scoffed at tradition calling it the jail of creativity and the antidote to innovation, saying that when the mind is secure it begins to decay. Maybe this is why many youth workers steer clear of tradition with their young people. Constantly trying to be creative with the liturgy, this saddens me somewhat. The more I’ve learnt about tradition the more I love it, and this time its not just habit got out of hand, it’s tradition with real meaning. 

I recently learnt about a couple of traditions that got me really excited and I learnt them during a latin mass. Firstly I learnt that the priest puts water in the precious blood to symbolise the water that flowed from His side as He was pierced. Secondly I learnt that the priest puts his amice on his head because it represents a helmet. St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians talks about “the armour of God” and so the amice is the helmet which protects the mind from assaults by the devil.  

It’s not often I get to watch a priest vest up, but in the retreat centre were I worked the sacristy was a cupboard so priests would often put on their vestments as I set up the chapel for mass. It always fascinated me about the different layers and the different meanings. It wasn’t until recently, though, that a priest told me about “vesting prayers” as I bugged him about the significance of his amice. He told me that when he puts on his amice he prays “Impone, Domine, capiti meo galeam salutis, ad expugnandos diabolicos incursus.” (Place on me, O Lord, the helmet of salvation, so I may overcome the assaults of the devil.)

The catechism, as ever, speaks quite poetically of tradition; calling it a “living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit”.  The catechism tells us that tradition is how the Church breathes in the next generation.

 “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.”“The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.”

So why does the word ‘tradition’ seem to terrify so many people? I remember telling a friend that I had just been to an Extraordinary From Mass. His face dropped when I told him I had really enjoyed it and eventually he came out with “I didn’t realise you were traddy…” as if I had just confessed to enjoying witch hunting of a weekend. On another occasion I remember pulling a mantilla on to my head as I walked into my parish church. Again, I may as well have just popped a wet fish on my head. 

Some times when the older generation sees a young person wearing a mantilla, or indeed enjoying a bit of latin, they react as if we’ve opened the long-lost trunk in the back of the attic and are trying on nanna’s wedding dress. They’re a little taken aback that you found the trunk but they find it quite twee that you think you know what you’re doing. Some of the older generation love it, they see a true sign of personal ownership of faith in the gesture. For others it just makes them angry, I’ve been told that covering my head is a step back for feminism in the Catholic Church. (interestingly only by men.) 

Some praise it, some are cautious, and others are just baffled. So let this blog go some way to explain my personal reasoning for wearing a mantilla, as I think each person’s varies slightly. It began well over a year ago when, in my preparation for lent I began reading the gripping tale of Rachel Held-Evans’ challenge to live a year of ‘Biblical Womanhood’ in which she tackled the virtue of modesty. At the time I wrote about standards of modesty, but what really caught me about this particular section of Rachel’s journey was the fact she covered her head during every prayer. To me it seemed like a little prayer bubble. I love praying in community but I’m often distracted, particularly during adoration, by other people twitching or shuffling, it seemed that this simple gesture of covering your head would keep all of that out (it sounds ridiculous but I find it to be true). Looking back on it, I suppose, it’s similar to the amice in some way, a helmet to protect you from distraction in your prayer. 

At this time I spoke to a friend who was in seminary and I told him that I wanted to cover my head, he told me to back myself. As Easter drew closer I found myself being part of an acting out of the stations of the cross. I was Mary (obviously) and I thought that because I was Mary, I would have to cover my head. After that my mantilla got put away for a little while. It wasn’t until a couple of months later that I realised it’s importance to me. In the place where I worked, we’d go in and out of the chapel for prayer several times a day. It’s not until you have those profound moments of prayer, that inescapable realisation of the true presence that you realise, this isn’t just another room in the house. In those moments you realise what the words “this is God’s house” really mean. Not least that, in that chapel over the last three years had been some of the most profound turning points, the really deep moments of conversion of heart. In that place I had, and still do, shed many tears, shared many laughs, many signs of peace and many, many prayers. This place was special, it is the centre of all I did that year and whatever happened in it required a special level of reverence.

I struggle in adoration, they say that creative types aren’t supposed to be made to sit still for too long. Every tiny noise or movement seemed exaggerated in my head. It suddenly dawned on me exactly what I needed, a prayer bubble.

Towards the end of the year I started wearing my mantilla more and more, and it had a strange effect on me. It was like a helmet, when I put it on it reminded me that the place I was sacred. It reminded me that the only focus should be on Him, who bought me here. My mantilla, I feel, became a visible and tangible for me that which I feel in my heart. 

I’ve tried to explain this to people before, when they’ve asked me about wearing my mantilla. Sometimes they don’t really get it.They don’t understand how it helps me to pray and to feel God’s presence, but also they don’t get how my hair could distract others. People say it’s a pretty old-fashioned way of thinking, that, just as it is no longer obscene to have one’s ankles on show, your hair is no longer a cause for attraction and therefore has no place being covered. St. Paul would disagree, and who am I to disagree with St. Paul? 

I nourish my hair (it may not look like it) but if I was to go out for the night, I wouldn’t go out without doing my hair first. So Paul says “if a woman nourish her hair, it is a glory to her” so it only makes sense to cover it, because it is His glory that is our focus. In this small act we reflect, in a tiny and as ever insufficient way, Our Lady. This submission to God’s glory above our own, by taking part in something so deep-rooted in ecclesiastical tradition and in scripture (“Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age” – Catechism, boom), the counter-cultural step towards modesty, we can find ourselves coming closer to Our Lady, who in turn brings us closer to Her Son, with each point. 

I don’t think covering my head is as stuck in the past as many people think. More and more I see other women covering their heads, and for many different reasons I assume. I must admit it felt a little strange at first, something that was designed for modesty that quite obviously made me stand out, but once I settled into it and remembered why I wear it, it really did become like a helmet for me. It now stays in my bag always, just incase, even on Copacabana for the Papal Mass, I’ve never seen a mantilla more covered in sand than this one when I got it home!
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I know this is a very specific tradition that I’ve spoken about, but it’s one that I feel really reflects my love for and the importance of tradition. Moreover the importance of asking questions, being ever more curious about our faith, like little children. 

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Obedientia et Pax

I’d been getting a little emotional that John XXIII has been a little over looked in the recent celebrations. The more I read about him, the more I begin to see that he was over looked in his own time also, and many of those who write so fondly about him now say that his ordinariness is what made him so special. I must admit, if it wasn’t for my combined love of Italy and books, I may not have known much about him either. 

I was desperate to go to the canonisation, outwardly because I’d never been to one before, but also because I love Italy and was desperate to go to Rome. The iminent canonisation of two saints and had prompted me to try to read some of JPII’s books, as I was already a large way through Theology of The Body. During my Amazon search JXXIII’s ‘Journey of a Soul’ came up in my recommendations, so I bought it and added it to the bottom of a pile of JPII literature I was reading. A while later I went to see a friend who absolutely raved about the book. I’ve probably mentioned before that I love journals and letters; they speak so so deeply to me and it’s no surprise that I fell in love with JXXIII’s words in his.

Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was a stretcher bearer in the first world war and as Pope Francis puts it, alongside JPII he “really knew the pains of the 21st century, but wasn’t overcome by them”. This really hit home for me. I’d read about the lives of both Popes and how much they’d been through, to hear these words from Pope Francis gave me a new fire and a new courage to fight through adversity for my faith. 

 

I find affirmation in Johns own encyclical, he says of missionaries and priests “They have overcome many obstacles and inconveniences and given themselves to God so that other men might gain Christ.” John, as ever, is thorough in instructing the faithful in his fatherly way. When faced with obstacles, in faith, or in life, John urges us to turn to Our Loving Mother and reflect on the words of the Apostle: “In all things we suffer tribulation, but we are not distressed; we are sore pressed, but we are not destitute; we endure persecution, but we are not forsaken; we are cast down, but we do not perish; always bearing about in our body the dying of Jesus, so that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodily frame.”
JXXIII really was in touch with the world, through his journaling it’s clear to see that he really did know the pains of society. He never put himself above them, nor separated himself from them and yet, as Francis, says he did not drown in them. “See everything, overlook a great deal, correct a little.” It’s clear in his encyclicals that this was a message close to his heart. He saw the changing of the world around him and he cracked open the windows of the church to let some air in.
I can see why Pope Francis liked him so much, and why he was called the Good Pope. In his writings he talks with a gentleness which is paternal, a fatherly advice, and since I’ve become an over emotional soppy blogger, I’d like to say it makes me feel a little bit warm and fuzzy. He was exceptionally humble and his simple motto, obedience and peace, reflected his humility and is in turn reflected throughout papacy.
JXXIII spoke fondly of the Cure of Ars, celebrating St John’s humbleness and self-denial, which he urged all holy men to consider. His passion in being “aflame with charity” was clear and he believed in being generous to others in your self-denial. “Not even his (the priests) thoughts, his will, his feelings blond to him, for they are rather those of Jesus Christ who is his life.” It astonishes me that a man can make self-denial complete, down to the realisation that even your thoughts and prayers belong to Christ. You owe your entire being to him. It is through the example of his beloved cure that he is able to do this, the example which, JXXIII says, “attracts and practically pushes all of us to these heights of the priestly life”, and indeed for us lay faithful and religious John Vianney is still an incredible example of holiness and dedication of faith and we ought to exert every possible effort in this direction.
It’s often in my mind as to how St. John Vianney managed all of this, such “pastoral zeal” and dedication to the Eucharist whilst enduring lack of food and sleep . JXXIII says “his only motives were the love of God and the desire for the salvation of the souls of his neighbours.” and in another place, John XXIII says that “in all that she does the Catholic Church is motivated by heaven’s inspiration… all of her children contribute with a selfless and dynamic will to mutual respect, the fraternal union of mankind, and solid peace.”
John XXIII talks so fondly of souls. In his encyclical on the Rosary, he talks about the need to pray the rosary for the church, her missions and social problems. Again, he gives us gentle, fatherly encouragement. He affirms us that he grows all the fonder of Mary’s rosary and we “should never fail to turn in spirit with ever greater confidence to the Virgin Mother of God, the constant refuge of Christians in adversity, since she has been made a source of salvation for the human race.” And we must always remember to pray for rulers of countries and other people. Again, he talks passionately of the urgency of the need for peace. Mostly he urges leaders to remember that “individual souls of men were created by God and destined to possess and enjoy Him.” and to never forget that He is “our refuge and our Redemption”
In general John XXIII was a kind and witty man, he talked so fondly of his humble upbringing and the town that he was from. His wonderful words confer the image of a kindly, fatherly man who speaks with compassion and understanding. He spoke of priests and even his predecessors with abundant gratitude. The man was a saint… oh wait…

Adoramus Te, Christe.

I’ve been neglecting my discernment recently. I’ve just deleted two paragraphs justifying this, but I guess that’s not important. What is important is what I mean by that. My vocation story isn’t one I share often because, well, like most other things in my life – It’s insane. 

When I was 15 I remember sitting on a bus going from Billericay back to my home in Basildon. (the details aren’t important, I just like to set the scene.) I was thinking about evangelisation. I had two particular thoughts. I was young, I had a lot of questions, but my first, overwhelming, thought was that I knew I wanted to love and serve the Lord. Secondly, I knew that I wanted other people to know this. At that moment I envisaged myself boarding the bus in a full (grey) habit, wooden rosary beads in hand.

You may think this is the start of a wonderful story of how I lived a prayerful life discerning my vocation from a young age. It is not. I wish it was. All of the time, I wish I had taken these thoughts seriously. I wish I thought it was possible or even plausible. I feel like this may be a problem for a lot of young girls. I ignored this, for a long time. I ignored my faith for a long time, I ignored the things that being a Christian meant in my life. I essentially forgot about the things I had really desired on my bus journey. They just faded out. 

Not long after I had turned 18 I met a sister, who was attached to our parish. I’d never met a religious sister before even if she had been in our parish for some time. I’d never really spoken to her. One day I did, I was really curious about her life and what she did. I’d always imagined nuns to be locked away, constantly praying and usually silent. Yet, here she was. Definitely not silent, or locked away. The back bone of our parish, a true woman of valour and a real inspiration. I asked loads of questions, about what she could and couldn’t do. She was so patient with me and I will always thank her for that. 

Through all of this my life had it’s complications. I became something of a tear away. I got swept up with the ‘worldlings’ I craved excess in every aspect of my life. My life became a blur, everything was fast, and surrounded by a cloud of smoke. Looking back I was a mess. My skirt was always shorter than the hem of my fur coat, my tights always laddered, I wore last nights eye liner to college and I constantly had a cigarette stub hanging out of the corner of my mouth as I picked at some sort of scab on my hand or arm, scribbled down notes, or did some sketching.

I struggled with depression and a social phobia so I never gave myself much time to think. I played super mario on the bus, spent my breaks smoking, my evenings drinking and my weekends in the arms of my boyfriend. I made so sure that I never had to think that my faith never crossed my mind. Church was just another thing to add to the long list of distractions. I’d never anticipated that my faith might one day save me. 

Not long after I turned 18 I became a confirmation catechist. My first trip to Walsingham House didn’t exactly make me fall off my proverbial horse, but it did change me. I was already passionate about my faith, but only in the same way I was passionate about pound a pint night. I enjoyed my weekend, I had fun, I learnt some stuff. I didn’t think it had really affected me at all, but as soon as I left something wasn’t right. I felt just ever so slightly unease about a lot of things. Stuff didn’t feel right any more, didn’t bring me the same satisfaction any more. Slowly they began to destroy my last few teenage years. But that’s a story for another time.

Exactly a year later I returned to Walsingham House with my confirmation group. Again, I didn’t fall off my horse. But, an unstoppable chain reaction began. I’d arrived with great troubles. My entire life had begun to crumble on the foundation of a succession of some monumentally bad decisions. We had a reconciliation session and I knew I had to go to confession. I’ve always disliked confession, I never know what to say or quite how to go about it. Some people make good confessions, I think. Some people are good at it. Me, I’m uncomfortable, edgy, and probably a little suspicious. I had to prepare myself. 

I’d never given myself much time to just talk to God. Prayer wasn’t a huge part of my life, unless I genuinely wanted something, or was grateful for something specific. We never just chatted. I found myself alone in the chapel, having the first of my many chats with God. By the time I had finished my prayers, people had come and gone, hours had come and gone. I felt God’s true presence, and though I could never explain it at the time something changed inside me. I was some how glued to the spot, lent against the back wall staring at the tabernacle. I felt like my heart ached for something. Like, when you’re hungry but you don’t know what it is that you fancy. I felt a need, a desire, a want, but I couldn’t think of what it could be for. I felt like I’d been plunged into cold water. I took several deep breaths and began to cry. 

They say that most people don’t know the affect they’ve had on your life. Some people know exactly what they’ve done. Michael is one of those people. It’s a story I’ve told many times and perhaps I’ll tell it again one day but not here. To cut a very long and emotional story short, I arrived in Lourdes and that week changed my life. On the steps of the rosary basillica I felt that same pull, and it overwhelmed me, like my heart had stopped. 

Another year later and I’d been accepted to join the Walsingham House team. Not long had I been on the team when something major in my faith journey happened to me. The tiniest of gestures became my biggest moment. I’d returned home for the first time to see my parents. My dad disappeared for a while and when he returned he had in his hand something magical. It was his breviary. He’d had it since he was young, younger than me I suppose. He’d bound it himself in leather and embossed the words “Daily prayer” on the front. It closed with a popper and was filled with all his prayer cards. As a child in mass I remember his matching missal, filled with similar prayer cards. I remember these books being precious, we weren’t allowed to touch them and now they were in my hands. I felt that thing that I’d felt in the chapel and in Lourdes. It was the prayers of others. How many people have sat were I sat, stood where I stood and prayed, praised, glorified, begged, pleaded, bargained. In this book were the prayers of my father, for his intercessions, and soon it would be filled with mine too, and God willing, maybe even my children’s.

In our first month (or so) a quick succession of spectacular things happened to me. One evening we went out for dinner, perhaps the wine had got the better of me, but half way through dinner I proposed this question to the table “Do you think I’d make a good nun?”. I heard the words leave my mouth and I was as shocked as the rest of those who had heard me. Firstly, I’d never actually thought about becoming a nun, it wasn’t something I had felt I wanted to do. I had a boyfriend, who I loved very much. It was almost as if someone else had said it. Thankfully, the replies were in jest and I laughed a long as if I had intended to make the joke. 

On another day we were invited to watch a sister of the community of Our Lady of Walsingham profess her vows. The service was simple, and beautiful. I was growing quite frustrated with the fact I no longer seemed in control of my emotions. I couldn’t work out what it was that I was missing, and in my desperation I turned to prayer. Whole heartedly emptying myself before the Lord, handing myself over to him. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, it was more something I needed. Imagine Esmerelda at the feet of Mary. 

Finally we come to the pinnacle of my vocational tale. We took a trip down to Walsingham for a little pilgrimage and informal catechises. In the slipper chapel it hit me. Like the kind of shock you get when you get bad news. When it hits you in the chest. I knew I was being called to something bigger, something greater and something just for me. 

I worked to be praised, and that’s what was lacking, a true vocation. My true calling.

“I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God’s thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking.”
― George MacDonald

There was my joy, there was my fullness. In following this path that had been chosen for me I would then be complete. Sounds perfect. But I wasn’t prepared for just how much I would sacrifice, and here’s why abandoned my discernment.

Any wise person will tell you that every good thing comes at a price. J.M. Barrie tells us that we can have whatever we want in life if we are willing to sacrifice everything for it. On the floor of the Chapel at Walsingham house I promised to change my life and standing under several wax limbs in the room of prayer at Apericeda I consecrated my life to Mary. I knew that this meant giving things up, turning wholly away from sin and towards Jesus because, well, you can’t be half a saint. There are days when these sacrifices seem worth while, and you remember why you made them and then there are dark times and you’re not quite sure just why you’ve made these promises and would it be so bad to break them. Of course the toughest sacrifices are the ones you don’t see coming, when we don’t have time to come up with a strategy, to pick a side, or to measure the potential loss. When that happens… when the battle chooses us and not the other way around, that’s when the sacrifice can turn out to be more than we can bare.

Unfortunately life is not a spectator sport. You can’t just make promises in the quiet and in the still and in the peaceful and then be happy and content that you can carry on this way. Life is a game, and there will be plays you never expected. You made a promise and you said a prayer, you spoke to God and he spoke to your heart. You’re off guard. Those are the times to make promises. The messy times, the dark times, the 3 am when you’re chocking on your own tears times, the perched on the edge times. 

Tonight a Norbertine priest told me to be myself in a way that I’d never quite considered before. He said you can’t wish to become like someone you’re not. Theres no use wishing to be a Tyburn Benedictine, yessex, it’s just not who you are. You make sacrifices whether you want to or not, some of them you understand and some of them you don’t. You must be you, you must open yourself completely to Christ so that he may fill you with his grace. 

I don’t know much about life, or myself for that matter. I know that before I begin to establish who I should be, I should probably figure out who I am. I know that I adore Christ and to be in His service is my greatest desire. I know that, in the words of Edward Sharpe, “reaching for heaven is what I’m on earth to do”. I know I must have trust. 

Sometimes it feels that you’re being pulled and you find yourself in a situation that is just too big for you. You can feel too much. Too much sadness, fear, joy or anticipation. You can feel like the pull is taking you to somewhere too great for you to handle. Dr Sues says that there’s no one youer than you. God knows that too. He wants you to be bigger, to be greater. Just trust. I can’t tell you how, just trust.