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When we were on retreat recently I was reading Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, by Augustine Thompson, OP. It sets out to be a historical reconstruction of his life, based on a huge number of historical studies over the last few decades. It’s not written with a destructive spirit, as if Thompson were trying to debunk the often beautiful mythology that has grown up around St Francis over the years. But it is trying to discover the authentic heart of the man, and the life that is presented here is both simpler and much more complex than the standard biographies that are based uncritically on much later and less reliable sources.

assisi

Many things struck me and stayed with me: How Francis’s conversion was inseparable from his first-hand experience of war, violence and imprisonment when he went to battle as a young man; the relationship between psychological trauma and spiritual awakening and healing.

Those beautiful stories about Francis walking into a church and hearing the gospel call to poverty and radical discipleship are true. But they were not the scripture readings of the liturgy of the day. There was a tradition of Christians coming to the priest for guidance, and asking him to him to open the scriptures three times at random, and in this way picking three passages from the bible that would somehow cohere and provide direction for the one who asked. This is how the Lord spoke so powerfully to Francis about the call to evangelical simplicity and obedience.

How difficult his gradual conversion must have been for his family. His father comes across not as a worldly tyrant but as a concerned father who doesn’t know how to react to his son’s apparent psychological disintegration and the consequent implosion of his family business.

How unsure Francis was about his new way of life. It’s very clear from this reconstruction that when he first went to see the pope to have his ‘rule’ approved he had no intention to preach. The preaching mission came from the pope, and he followed it obediently.

It’s true that poverty was a central theme in Francis’s vision and lifestyle. But according to Thompson it was not the theological key. Francis, according to the historical sources, spent far more time preaching and teaching and sometimes writing about the Holy Eucharist and the Catholic priesthood than he did about poverty. He was captivated by the idea that Christ was present in our midst in the Mass and in the reserved Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacles of every Catholic church throughout the world. He showed the utmost respect to Catholic priests, fully aware of their weaknesses, because he believed that they represented Christ sacramentally for the Christian faithful.

He was horrified when he came across a church or chapel that was in a state of disrepair. It he found any altar linen that was dirty he would take it away to wash it. If he found any sacred books that contained the scriptures discarded on the floor he would put them in a more worthy place. When we hear that Francis was called to rebuild/repair God’s church we often think that this was a metaphor for a spiritual renewal of the church, which of course it was in many ways. But we forget that Francis’s first concern, which never left him, was to make the actual church buildings into sacred spaces that would be worthy for the liturgy and the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

And I learnt how much Francis suffered, especially in the last years of his life through sickness. I knew this already, but the extent of the suffering comes across in this biography: the discomfort, the heartache, the sheer agony that Francis often lived through. He was a broken man at the end, but a man fully alive. The joy and the simplicity are there, but in this book they shine out of a very earthy humanity.

I’m not saying these are the central themes of the book or of St Francis’s life. They are just some of the ideas that made an impression on me that hadn’t come across so strongly in other biographies I’ve read. It’s a fascinating book – do read it yourself.

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Thanks to Lazarus for putting a link to this 2009 article in St. Anthony Messenger about Dave Brubeck’s conversion to Catholicism in his later years.

To Hope! A Celebration was Brubeck’s first encounter with the Roman Catholic Mass, written at a time when he belonged to no denomination or faith community. It was commissioned by Our Sunday Visitor editor Ed Murray, who wanted a serious piece on the revised Roman ritual, not a pop or jazz Mass, but one that reflected the American Catholic experience.

The writing was to have a profound effect on Brubeck’s life. A short time before its premiere in 1980 a priest asked why there was no Our Father section of the Mass. Brubeck recalls first inquiring, “What’s the Our Father?” (he knew it as The Lord’s Prayer) and saying, “They didn’t ask me to do that.”

He resolved not to make the addition that, in his mind, would wreak havoc with the composition as he had created it. He told the priest, “No, I’m going on vacation and I’ve taken a lot of time from my wife and family. I want to be with them and not worry about music.”

“So the first night we were in the Caribbean, I dreamt the Our Father,” Brubeck says, recalling that he hopped out of bed to write down as much as he could remember from his dream state. At that moment he decided to add that piece to the Mass and to become a Catholic.

He has adamantly asserted for years that he is not a convert, saying to be a convert you needed to be something first. He continues to define himself as being “nothing” before being welcomed into the Church.

His Mass has been performed throughout the world, including in the former Soviet Union in 1997 (when Russia was considering adopting a state religion) and for Pope John Paul II in San Francisco during the pontiff’s 1987 pilgrimage to the United States.

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I was delighted to hear that Dorothy Day took a further step towards being declared a saint recently, when the US bishops engaged in a formal consultation about her cause for canonisation at their annual general assembly.

She is already a ‘Servant of God’, which means that the Vatican has agreed that there are no objections to her cause moving forward; and the unanimous vote of the American bishops in her favour gives this movement even greater momentum.

Fr Thomas Rosica, of Salt and Light, writes about her life:

Dorothy Day’s story captivated me as a young high school student and I have never forgotten her. I met her once at a rally in Rochester, New York, along with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers. She is a remarkable, prophetic woman of our times. She transmitted the good news by her life and actions, and at times by her words.

Born on November 8, 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, Dorothy was neither baptized nor raised in the church. After dropping out of college in 1916, she pursued the radical causes of her day: women’s suffrage, free love, labour unions, and social revolution. But when a decade of protest and social action failed to produce changes in the values and institutions of society, Dorothy converted to the Catholic Church and the radicalism of Christian love.

Her life was filled with friendships with famous artists and writers. At the same time she experienced failed love affairs, a marriage and a suicide attempt. The triggering event for Dorothy’s conversion was the birth of her daughter, Tamar in 1926. After an earlier abortion, Dorothy had desperately wanted to get pregnant. She viewed the birth of her daughter as a sign of forgiveness from God.

For 50 years, Dorothy lived with the poor, conducted conferences, and published a newspaper, all dependent entirely upon donations. She dedicated her life fighting for justice for the homeless in New York City and was co-founder the Catholic Worker Movement. Seventy-five houses of hospitality were established during her lifetime, where the hungry were fed, the naked clothed, the homeless sheltered, the sick cared for, and the dead buried.

She was put in jail, for the first time, at the age of 20 while marching in support of women’s suffrage. She was put in jail, for the last time, at the age of 75 while marching in support of the United Farm Workers. She was an avid peacemaker and a prolific author. Dorothy died on November 29, 1980, thirty-two years ago at Maryhouse in New York City, where she spent her final months among the poor. She was an average person who read her bible and tried to live and to love like Jesus. She challenges each of us to take seriously the message of the gospel.

In March 2000, the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York City, formally announced the opening of the Beatification Process for this great woman of faith, calling Dorothy a Servant of God. In his letter, he wrote: ‘It has long been my contention that Dorothy Day is a saint – not a ‘gingerbread’ saint or a ‘holy card’ saint, but a modern day devoted daughter of the Church, a daughter who shunned personal aggrandizement and wished that her work, and the work of those who labored at her side on behalf of the poor, might be the hallmark of her life rather than her own self.

Rosica makes a special point about the particular way that Day’s life speaks to us today.

First, it demonstrates the mercy of God, mercy in that a woman who sinned so gravely could find such unity with God upon conversion. Second, it demonstrates that one may turn from the ultimate act of violence against innocent life in the womb to a position of total holiness and pacifism. Her abortion should not preclude her cause, but intensifies it.

Dorothy Day’s life is a model for each one of us who seeks to understand, love, teach and defend the Catholic faith in our day. She procured an abortion before her conversion to the faith. She regretted it every day of her life. After her conversion from a life akin to that of the pre-converted Augustine of Hippo, she proved a stout defender of human life.

May this prophetic woman of our own time give us courage to defend our Catholic faith, especially to uphold the dignity and sacredness of every single human life, from womb to tomb.

DorothyDay, please continue to inspire us. Teach us to love the Word of God and live by it. Move us. Shake us up. Show us how to cherish the gift of human life. May we never forget that we are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us. Lead us to love the poor in our midst. Pray for us!

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OK, the reviewers were right, Total Recall is verging on the truly terrible. [Warning: Plot spoilers to follow] They even had the nerve to steal one of the best scenes from the first Bourne film (you could hardly call it a homage), when a man without a memory finds a code that leads him to a safe deposit box that happens to be full of passports, cash, and lots of other secret and mysterious stuff about his secret and mysterious former identity. I had to see it, of course, because I have an inability to not see (forgive the grammar) any new film involving time-travel or implanted memory. It’s a childhood thing. (See my Five Greatest Time Travel Films of All Time post).

But the great thing about even a terrible sci-fi film is that it still makes you think; in the way that a terrible Western or rom-com or road movie is simply terrible full stop. In case you don’t know the story, Colin Farrell is a guy who may or may not have had his memory completely erased and replaced by another set of artificial memories, making him unsure about his true identity; and this whole ‘who am I’ identity crisis, which is most of the film, may be taking place in the ‘real world’ (whatever that is), or it may be an artificially implanted memory created by an amusement company called Rekall to ease the boredom of his mundane life – a freely chosen escapist fantasy.

This is all very familiar, but I still find it fascinating! And the final scene, despite being so predictable, sent a shiver down my spine – when we think we are in the real world, at the end of a moderately satisfying drama, but we see Farrell catching a glimpse of a poster advertising Rekall, and we wonder whether anything real has happened at all.

So it raises the obvious questions, that have been raised a hundred times in sci-fi short stories: Is there a ‘true self’? Does it matter whether our ideas and memories about the past, and especially our experiences and personal identity, are true or not? Does it change the person we are today if we discover that something we thought was true turns out to be false, or if something we never knew or imagined turns out to be true? There is a nice moment when the baddie asks Farrell: why can’t you just accept who you are in the present, without worrying about who you might have been in the past?

Part of me is attracted to this. The whole notion of human freedom, and conscience, demands that in some sense we are not completely determined by the past, however much it influences us. We can to some extent remake ourselves, re-invent ourselves, make a new start, experience a conversion.

But here is the rub: there is no such thing as the pure present. We are always moving from a past to a future, making sense of the present and future in terms of the past, even if it is a conscious repudiation of that past. But there is no such thing as ‘no past’, because even ignorance or forgetfulness colours how we experience the past, and how we understand our identity.

All of us have moments of remembering things we have forgotten, or finding out that some powerful experience didn’t happen in quite the way we remembered it. Some of us have powerful, liberating, or terrifying moments when we are brought face to face with a truth from the past that so disorientates our world that we are unsure who we are any more. Our identity is fractured and even fragmented, our understanding of ourselves is transformed. This is often the case with deep and dark family secrets, and it’s why – as I understand it – the present philosophy within social work is to let adopted children know that they are adopted, rather than hiding it from them, or springing it on them later in life.

There is something about faith here as well. Part of coming to know God is discovering, perhaps for the first time, that what you thought was your beginning, your identity, is not the whole story. You are not just a random evolutionary product, or the fruit of a human relationship, but child of God, created by him out of love, cared for within his loving providence, and destined for a life with him for all eternity. Baptism is not, like Rekall, the implanting of false memories; it is the uncovering of memories much deeper than our own, and then the creation – through the grace of the sacrament – of a new identity. And this new baptismal identity is not imposed like an ill-fitting mask or a forged passport that has no connection with our former self, it is the fulfilment of that former self, the raising up to new life of a life that was always secretly longing for it.

If you want to see a really good movie about these themes, get hold of Moon, which I saw over the summer for the first time. (Just to make a contemporary London connection, this is by director Duncan Jones, who is the son of David Bowie from his first marriage, who – David Bowie – is the subject of a retrospective at the V&A which is just opening.)

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I’ve just spent five days in a field a mile outside Walsingham, where the annual Youth 2000 summer festival took place last weekend. This little village, as one of the speakers said, is not just in the middle of nowhere; it’s on the very outer fringes of nowhere, and it’s a miracle that anyone gets there at all. (Apologies for this very London-centric view of North Norfolk…)

A glimpse of the congregation before Mass

One of the young people arriving said they had got into a conversation in a shop on the way, and when they said they were going to a youth festival, the other person asked, ‘So who is headlining then?’ No-one could agree on the best answer: Jesus, the Bishop, or the Youth 2000 Music Ministry.

It’s a time of grace, of witnessing the beauty of the Christian faith, and of real conversion. It’s also a very ordinary experience of the Church, and by that I mean there is nothing extraordinary about the content of the weekend. It’s just Catholicism pure and simple. That’s probably why it ‘works’, and why it makes such a profound impression on people. The Eucharist at the very centre; dignified and joyful worship; devotion to Our Lady; the teaching of the Catholic Church presented in a straightforward, unapologetic, inspiring and practical way; the power of conversion through the sacrament of confession; the challenge of connecting faith with everyday life, study, work, relationships; the call to vocation, witness and service; prayer, music, food, fellowship, fun.

Keeping vigil during the night before the Exposed Blessed Sacrament

You see young people serving other young people, and witnessing to their own personal faith. It was striking, as well, how many people were here for the first time – brought by someone who had come before and wanted to share the experience. You see a wonderful integration of the different vocations of lay people, priests, and religious and consecrated people. One of the lovely small innovations this year was creating a cafe-style atmosphere in the dining tent, so that people could relax together in the evening when the services had finished. Another innovation was the hot showers!

It’s easy to make a list of all the events and activities that take place; it’s harder to describe the almost tangible sense of faith and spiritual joy that permeates the main tent when nearly a thousand people are there worshipping the Lord in silence or in song, or listening to the Word of God opened up for them, or hearing a teenager describe the moment when they really began to believe and to see their life changing through the touch of Christ.

There are many wonderful initiatives for renewal and evangelisation taking place within the Catholic Church in our country – this is just one of them. They all point to a genuine renewal in the Church, a sense that something important is happening, that lives are really being changed. The catechetical blog “Transformed in Christ” catches something of this in these reflections on the festival:

One of the beautiful things about Youth 2000 is that it brings you right back again to the fresh experience of conversion. It brings you back to basics – being simple and humble, open and intimate with Christ. It is so beautiful to see this journey beginning in young souls. I don’t have dramatic experiences of God’s love anymore like I did when I was going to retreats at 17 and 18. God needed to get my attention back then, and now my faith has deepened and strengthened, so now it is more a daily experience of his love in my life.

But on Sunday night, we heard testimony after testimony from young people, all aged between 16 and 21, of the powerful experiences of God’s love they had received through Confession and the Eucharist. They often articulated them nervously, but an authentic, unmediated experience of joy, peace and freedom from having just been touched by Christ, radiated from each one.

I am sure that, this hidden work of the Holy Spirit and the open response of each individual, young soul is the most precious thing in the whole Church, the whole world!

When I was 17 I didn’t quite realise how precious it was, and perhaps those young people who with such courage and faith got up to give their testimony, don’t either. No one gets to see these miracles within souls. The humility of the Lord in working in such a hidden way is exquisite. But this is exactly what is beautiful about being a Catholic – the joy of being touched by Christ. If we ever lose sight of that, we are lost!

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When I told a friend I had been at the 40 Days for Life prayer vigil, she told me I should read Abby Johnson’s book Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey Across the Life Line.

If you haven’t heard of it, here is the blurb:

Abby Johnson quit her job in October 2009. That simple act became a national news story because Abby was the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas who, after participating in her first actual abortion procedure, walked across the road to join the Coalition for Life.

Unplanned is a heart stopping personal drama of life-and-death encounters, a courtroom battle, and spiritual transformation that speaks hope and compassion into the political controversy that surrounds this issue. Telling Abby’s story from both sides of the abortion clinic property line, this book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the life versus rights debate and helping women who face crisis pregnancies.

In many ways it’s a simple story, simply told. She’s young, idealistic, naive, and a little bit damaged; she ends up working for Planned Parenthood almost by accident; she’s good with people and good at her job; she’s increasingly uneasy about what she is doing and what the organisation stands for; and this is brought to a head when she’s asked to participate directly in an abortion procedure because they need another pair of hands in the theatre.

It’s not a story of a radical pro-abortion campaigner having a sudden conversion; it’s more about how an ordinary person without strong moral convictions and without a habit of reflection can drift into this world and find themselves standing in a place they don’t really want to be. I was struck by her apparent innocence, her naivety; and then by the courageous way she reacted when she knew she was in the wrong place.

You learn a lot about Planned Parenthood and the reality of day-to-day life in an abortion clinic. You see, in a non-judgmental way, how much of this work is motivated by sincerity and misplaced compassion; and it is a credit to Johnson that she writes with kindness and respect for her former colleagues. You also get an insight into the ongoing development of the pro-life movement in the States, and the genuine charity and concern that motivates those involved in the vigil outside the clinic where Johnson worked.

The drama of her final conversion, and her decision to cross the line and seek help from those on the other side is incredibly moving.

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Do make some time to watch the first episode of a three-part documentary called ‘Catholics’ that showed this Thursday, 23 Feb, at 9pm on BBC4. You can watch it on iPlayer here.

Richard Alwyn and Jennifer Forde spent most of the spring of last year filming the series, and the first episode focusses entirely on Allen Hall and the vocational journeys of some of the men here. It’s an honest, unaffected, sympathetic and uncensored look into the life here. I’ll put a link to the iPlayer version when it is up after the broadcast: See the link here.

This is from the production company’s blurb:

Filmed over six months and with extraordinary access, CATHOLICS – PRIESTS is an intimate behind-the-scenes portrait of Allen Hall in London, one of only three remaining Roman Catholic seminaries in Britain.

CATHOLICS – PRIESTS is the first of a remarkable new three-part series directed by award-winning documentary film-maker Richard Alwyn about being Catholic in Britain today. The three films – one about men, one about women, one about children – are each portraits of a different Catholic world, revealing Catholicism to be a rich but complex identity and observing how this identity shapes people’s lives.

As the Catholic priesthood struggles to recover from the scandal of child abuse, numbers of men applying to join have fallen greatly. In 2010 just 19 men were ordained in the whole of England and Wales.

In this first film, Alwyn meets the men who still feel themselves called to the priesthood.

Rob Hunt is in his first year at Allen Hall. A cradle Catholic, he ignored his faith for years, had several relationships and worked in various jobs, spending time as a roadie for a Funk band, before deciding his life was veering off course. With little education, he thought he had as much chance of becoming a priest as an astronaut. Today, surrounded by box sets of The Sweeney and Harold Lloyd, he is adapting to seminary life.

At the other end of the seminary, Andrew Gallagher is in his final year. Now 30 years old, he worked in a City law firm before joining the seminary.  He sees this not as a career change but as a response to a life-long calling – at school, his nickname was “Priest”. Andrew Connick, is also in the last year of his ‘formation’. Intensely private, it was only at the end of his university years that he felt he too could no longer resist a calling that had been with him all his life.

CATHOLICS – PRIESTS follows Allen Hall’s seminarians as they pursue a timetable that swings from the esoteric to the practical – from Biblical Greek to lessons on how to live a celibate life. But Alwyn’s film reveals how seminary is no “Priest School”; beyond learning the tricks of the priestly trade, the seminarians believe that they are being prepared to be fundamentally altered as human beings… only then able to celebrate the Eucharist and perform the act that is central to Catholic life – the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This mystery is what Catholic priests exist for – to make Christ present in the world.

“I will give you shepherds after my own heart”, said the prophet Jeremiah, stating God’s chosen method for guiding and caring for His people. In CATHOLICS – PRIESTS, Richard Alwyn brings rare and moving insight into the lives of those who believe themselves to be God’s shepherds in the 21st Century.

CATHOLICS is a Wingspan Production in association with Jerusalem Productions.

And this is from an article by Joanna Morehead:

A few years ago he was a roadie with a band, living what he admits was a rock’n’roll lifestyle. Today, 42-year-old Rob Hunt is training for the Catholic priesthood in a seminary in central London. It’s a very different way of life from what he’s been used to. [...]

The rethink that followed brought Mr Hunt to Allen Hall in London’s Chelsea, one of the four remaining Catholic seminaries in Britain, where he is one of 51 men studying for the priesthood. His story features in Catholics, a new BBC series starting this week, which lifts the lid on how priests are trained. In the film, Mr Hunt’s room in the seminary is shown, its walls covered with pictures of St Thérèse of Lisieux and the Virgin Mary. “In the past, you would have found slightly different women on the wall,” he says.

The documentary paints a picture of a life that borders on monastic. But another of those featured in the film, 26-year-old Mark Walker, who’s in his fifth year at the seminary and who expects to be ordained in summer next year, says it’s not all it seems. “You’re living in a mostly male environment, but there’s plenty of freedom to come and go,” he says.

Mr Walker says that, though the celibacy he must embrace as a priest seems strange to many, it’s not too difficult to accept. “There’s a belief that a good sex life is essential, that it’s what you need to make you happy,” he says. “But it’s not that your sexuality is turned off once you’re ordained, but you learn to fold it into the rest of your life.”

Mr Walker says he “always had a nagging thought” that the priesthood would be the right path for him. He was raised a Catholic, and it was on the day of his first communion, at the age of seven, that a priest suggested that he might have a vocation. “It planted an idea in my mind that never quite went away,” he says.

Father Christopher Jamison, director of the Catholic Church’s National Office for Vocation in London, says that although the number of men enrolling in seminaries hit an all-time low at the start of the 21st century, it is now significantly on the rise.

“In 2001, the number of men joining seminaries in England and Wales was 26, the lowest in living memory,” he says. “But from 2006 onwards the figure started to go up, and in 2010 there were 56 new recruits.”

The rise in seminarian numbers has been due in part to the setting up of “discernment groups” for Catholic men and women, Fr Jamison says. “It’s not about straightforward recruitment into the religious life. It’s about helping both men and women work out what’s right for them in their lives.”

In the wake of the child abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church, the application process for would-be seminarians is, Fr Jamison says, extremely rigorous. “We have an in-depth psychological analysis including an explicit analysis of their sexuality. Candidates are asked to describe their sexual history; they are given tests by a psychologist and interviewed by a psychiatrist.”

Let me know what you think, and what impressions it makes, in the comments below.

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