Wishing you all a happy, peaceful Easter spent with those you cherish.
This Easter I plan to work on forgiveness. Where misdemeanours are involved I find forgiveness easy but with major things I find that I have a vengeful heart.
Years ago I shunned the Catholic Church. This was difficult for me to do because I was devout, pious, truly one of the faithful. One priest changed everything for me, however. His heinous acts that altered the lives of my cousin and many other people I knew made it easy for me to walk away from the entire Church and all I had come to believe in. I hated that man. I hate that man. What he did in the name of God……..
For over 20 years I haven’t entertained the idea of walking into a Church to celebrate a Mass. It has been a decision that for the most part I haven’t regretted, this switching allegiances from faithful to faithless. I felt I was on the side of right, that my decision to reject an entire organisation because of the actions of one man was a sound one, an indisputable one.
Many of the flock came along for the ride – cousins, sisters, brothers, aunts, mothers, uncles, grandfathers. But their numbers have dwindled slowly as they returned to the place that gave them solace. So I stand alone, clutching my sense of self-righteousness like some kind of religious artifact. It is not a comfortable place to be.
You see, I have come to realise that despite everything that has happened, I miss the Church. The sense of the sacred, the beauty of the liturgy, feeling like you were in the presence of something greater than yourself when you joined everyone else’s voice in song.
Jesus Christ was a great man, an extraordinary man. A man to whom acts of forgiveness came as easily as breathing. And I wonder what he would think of me turning my back so him with such conviction. Would he understand or would he blame me for not being able to rise above my vengeful self?
Eight years ago, my dear Great Aunt Shona died. She was a remarkable woman. In 2002 Peter Mullan made a thought-provoking movie called The Magdalene Sisters about ‘fallen’ women in Ireland who were placed in reformatories run by the Sisters of Charity. There was much debate at the time as to whether or not the claims made in the movie were true. Mullan was widely criticised for bashing the Catholic Church.
I can tell you that the claims were true because my Great Aunt Shona was one of those women. In 1954 she became pregnant at the age of 17 to the widespread disbelief of her family. It was unacceptable. It was scandalous. She was branded with every negative appellation under the sun from sinner to scarlet woman. In those days there was no support for single mothers. There was nothing. It was suggested by the parish priest that Shona be placed in one of the reformatories run by the Sisters of Charity.
She worked ten hour days cleaning, cooking, doing laundry for the Sisters of Charity. (The Sisters primarily supported themselves by taking in laundry from local factories, hospitals, and so on.) It was a harsh, unforgiving existence.
When she went into labour nuns stood around her bed, reading aloud from the Bible in the hope that she wouldn’t give birth to a ‘child of the devil.’ Her son was born on August 24, 1954. ‘He had a good pair of lungs on him,’ Aunt Shona always said. She was not allowed to hold him. Although she searched for him years later and pretty much every day for the rest of her life, she never saw him again.
Aunt Shona was one of the fortunate ones. Blessed with a strong work ethic and a quick intellect, she won a scholarship to University, where she trained as a social worker. She worked tirelessly for years setting up homes for girls who found themselves in the same predicament she had, putting systems in place so they could keep their babies and find jobs.
During the hard times not once did she turn away from the Church. I know she was disappointed in me for my unmoving stance. ‘Accept God’s mercy,’ she would say. ‘Let Him help you.’
I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I didn’t want to give anyone in my family the satisfaction of saying : “See. I knew it was only a matter of time until she cracked, until she gave in.” But I have realised that maybe in being so intractable all I have done is hurt myself.
My neighbour called out to me as she was hanging out her washing yesterday. Good Friday. One of the most momentous days on the Christian calendar. The irony of her being called Grace, is not wasted on me. She is extremely religious. ‘God Bless you on this Easter Day,’ she said. She handed me a present wrapped in tissue paper, smelling of rosewater. It was a tiny, mother-of-pearl crucifix. I felt happiness as I held the tiny cross in my hand, so light I almost couldn’t feel it. But I also felt sadness because I knew I couldn’t turn down her offer to attend Mass with her.
Sadness, because part of me wants to remain unrepentant, unrelenting, flawed. I still believe. I still pray but my prayers take place outside next to trees and birds, under the sky. Some would say that I am fooling myself if I think this is enough, some would say it is all I need.
So I sat, full of trepidation, next to an elderly lady and her daughter in the old sandstone church down the road with the stained glass windows depicting the Stations of the Cross. To smell the incense and the worn, rich leather on the Bibles was like smelling a meal from childhood I almost thought I had forgotten. Cinnamon buns or deep crust apple pie. It was less awkward than I thought. And I didn’t feel as guilty as I had thought I would or that I had betrayed those who were wronged.
I don’t know if I’ll go to Mass again but I feel better than I have for years. I feel one step closer to forgiving the Church but also to forgiving myself. And that, I suppose, is what Easter is all about.