Religion and Spirituality

Just the mention of the word ‘God’, has been enough in years gone by, to make me want to turn away, to switch off and roll my eyes knowingly. The words “oh, here we go – more preaching” echoing in my mind.

From as far back as I can remember, I have been aware of God. God has been present throughout my life in one form or another. I’ve sometimes referred to the presence of God, as God, Lord and as Father during conversations within myself (internal dialogue). While at other times I’ve used the terms ‘Source, Life Force or Infinite Wisdom, depending on who I was speaking to or how I have felt about God at the time. My journey with God could be described as turbulent. I am ashamed to admit that this has mostly been a one sided relationship, in which I have regularly played the role of abuser – all in and attentive one minute, dismissive and uninterested the next.

During different stages of my life, I have adored then, ignored.  Relied then, denied.  Abused, Accused, Pleaded and Begged, Blamed and been ashamed of,  always taking for granted, but never really listening to what God might have to say. Never really understanding who God really is.

Being the eldest, religion was something of an issue for me as a kid, in as much as my relatively young parents hadn’t quite worked it out yet. My Mum, a devout Roman Catholic who believed children should be brought up in the Catholic fold, my Dad, C of E, believed they should not. There was some push and pull about where us kids belonged religiously;  as often happens in families, and so for the first 8 years of my life I was considered to be C of E, which essentially meant my Dad had won the argument. As a result, I attended a C of E school and God didn’t really figure in any of it. I didn’t need to attend church either within school or outside of it, apart from the odd hymn, school didn’t involve a relationship with God at all. Religion for me felt distant, removed, cold and indifferent, it wasn’t something I felt I was part of. I can say this now because I am able to make a comparison, but I didn’t know anything different then, I just remember – God wasn’t involved in my life and so I didn’t really notice he was there. C of E School for me was about learning to read and write in ways that made the teacher happy, it had nothing to do with God.

By the time I was 9 my Mum had won over,  and following our return from living in Africa, my siblings and I were christened Catholic and sent to a Catholic school. It was different – very different. Nuns doubled as teachers in this school –  called Sisters, and they were married to God. A confusing concept for a 9 year old newbie, but seemingly not something to be questioned,  because like God, Nuns were to be revered, especially this particular Nun, that was now to be my teacher.

Being a Nun who was married to God, essentially meant you were closer to God than the kids or any of the other teachers, therefore Nuns were tasked with keeping the kids in check by punishing them often enough to ensure they never toyed with any madcap ideas about misbehaving. You didn’t actually have to do anything wrong to be in trouble in Sister Winifreds class. Sister, along with her trusty red pen, was a dab hand at child misbehaving prevention, an avid supporter of children in need, of a good stabbing with the aforementioned pen! She terrified me, which led to me frequently being stupefied in her presence – another behaviour she couldn’t tolerate.

The Catholic School and The Catholic Church functioned as one as far as I could fathom.  I was expected to attend Mass and Confession regularly at Church, while prayers and assemblies were continued in School. God would know those who didn’t attend Mass, because He was always watching – and Sister would soon find out about it.

There were lots of new rules for a kid to learn, for example; It is considered rude to look behind you in Church and usually resulted in a thick ear! A harsh learning curve for an inquisitive kid. Turning your back on the alter in Gods house isn’t the done thing, eyes forward, head down, honour and respect are the order of the day. I was introduced to Mary, Joseph and Jesus – this felt so much stricter, but strangely, it felt closer, warmer even, a togetherness which was intense at times. I fainted on numerous occasions in Church, I think it was due to the worry of getting things wrong – the smell of incense still makes me queasy. I didn’t understand the relevance of the feelings back then, or why one religion felt different to me than the other – it has taken me half a century to figure it out and to understand what the feelings meant for me.

Growing up I was an observer of life. Watching, listening, digesting, interpreting. A quiet but challenging kid I imagine – always questioning things that were ‘none of my business in an era when children should be seen and not heard rarely won me favour.  I quizzed away silently – internally, drawing my own conclusions from the information I was observing. I could never understand the relevance of going to Church on Sundays to recite the same words over and over again; week after week, year after year, repeating the same thing – what did it mean? what was the purpose of it?. I haven’t been to Mass in almost three decades but I can recite an entire Mass by heart.

Growing up a Catholic,  I often wondered if this ritual was what made someone a good person. Attending church every Sunday and being able to remember all the right words and actions in the right order wasn’t easy, but is this what makes someone a good person in the eyes of God? I had my doubts about that, and if this were to be the case, what about the rest of the week?

I knew some people who never missed Sunday Mass, but I had my doubts they were ‘good people’. God would undoubtedly disagree with that. The playground bullies who appeared to forget about God during the week, the gossips and the judgemental, – those people who showed up for Mass dressed to the nines and looking fabulous, while eyeing up and down with an expression of pity or disgust, those of us dressed in less glamorous hand me downs; “You should stick to wearing your school uniform you should, it makes you look much less scruffy” was the kind advise I received from one hypocritical regular church goer. God didn’t mind I don’t think, he could see beyond clothing – he knew what was in my heart.  I decided this is what confession must be about.  Maybe God doesn’t actually expect people to be good or even nice to each other all of the time, and as long as they are sorry afterwards, every week – then all is forgiven and God will be pleased! A peculiar set up I thought and one that I was aware baffled my paternal Grandad.

I wondered about the people who regularly turned up late for Mass, since I was always in bother for being late. They’d attempt, in vein to shuffle in unnoticed – clanging through the double doors with their car keys rattling during silent prayer. Clambering clumsily into the pew at the very back, which usually meant they ended up sitting next to me. A crisp five pound note would be neatly placed on top of the loose change in the offertory tray, then they would nip away early before Mass had even ended – seemingly way too busy to give God their undivided attention. I never once saw any late comers getting a thick ear or the hard stare, no one seemed to mind their tardiness or interruption, then adults are treated differently to kids. I often wondered if the fiver made a difference to God? It certainly caught my attention, since our family could only ever manage a few loose coins.

A fiver would have bought the required ingredients for a decent family sized meal. A favourite homemade meat and tattie pie perhaps, covered in a thick crust pastry, with lashings of gravy, that my Dad had perfected. Baked in the old Range in a huge metal mixing bowl, money well spent in my view! My meagre offering was usually a solitary scruffy ten pence piece, retrieved earlier from the back of the couch or pinched from my Mums purse to save me from the shame of having to pass the tray along without putting anything into it. On a bad week, when I turned up to Mass with no money for the offertory, I would take the round wooden tray from my neighbour with one hand, shaking it gently while holding a clenched fist over it with the other hand, creating the illusion that I was dropping coins onto the green felted wooden tray. As a child, I’d developed ridiculous ways of disguising elements of my life that I was embarrassed or unhappy about – having no money being one example. As an adult, I realise it is unlikely I fooled anyone with my coin rattling charade, but it helped to make me feel better.

On a good week, my offering was a shiny new 20 pence piece taken from my Mums empty steradent tube collection, which were her savings for a rainy day. In my mind it would have been better spent on a quarter of Kop-Kops from the little shop next door, and I’m ashamed to say, very occasionally it was. The indiscretion inevitably led to confession the following Saturday, 3 Hail Mary’s, 2 Our Fathers and a Glory Be – I have to admit, it was worth it – I loved Kop-Kops . I wonder how many other kids confessed about their ill gotten sweet-fest in the confessional, or was it only me?. Either way, I was glad the shop keeper wasn’t a Catholic else Sister would have had plenty to say about it.

Being a helper; handing out hymn books, offertory trays, playing the Organ, being an alter boy, reading out or singing a psalm- these things seemed to win favour. I’m not sure if it won any favour with God but being a helper certainly won over the Priests and the important people in the Parish. I wasn’t a Church helper and my singing was and still is highly offensive,  so I stuck to helping out the old people in our street and the residents in the old peoples flats. God wasn’t there to witness it, but the old people, like Murray Mint George, Custard Cream Pat and our neighbour Auntie Pearl, known by the local kids as The Witch.  They all appreciated help from my younger Sister and I, running errands in return for a Murray Mint, a soggy biscuit or a delicious coconut covered snowball – and in my mind, the old people needed our help far more.

Over the years I experienced many twists and turns on my journey with Religion; regularly feeling judged or frowned upon, restricted and not good enough, but this is neither the time or the place to go into that. Needless to say,  I pulled away from the Church and it’s teachings and as a result – I excluded God from my life for a while.  Growing up I had come to know God as part of a religion. I was desperately trying to make sense of things that didn’t make any sense to me. Reprimanded for asking questions about things I didn’t understand, and treated as though I was being disrespectful by asking, when in reality I was seeking answers. I was regularly advised to ‘just have faith‘ which never felt like an answer to me, I interpreted it as ‘shut up and do as you are told’.  Trying to figure out what this remote, mysterious, bearded super hero, that I envisaged looking down from his kingdom in the clouds, expected of me.

I was protective of my God;  fearful of listening to other peoples ideas of religion incase it offended my One God. Affronted by people who attempted to force their religious beliefs onto me – those who appeared to assume their God was the right God, and a different God to mine. I got involved in many arguments about religion over the years, which wasn’t really my intention.  I closed the door on a God who I believed had stepped aside, leaving me alone to cope and allowing some of the darkest hours in my life to almost destroy me. A God who in my mind couldn’t really love me as he had failed to intervene on my behalf.

For me Religion, with its hierarchy, rules, regulations and restrictions, with all its the pomp and circumstance, misogyny, preferences and exclusions  –  had clouded my judgement and confused my relationship with God. It has taken me almost half a century to truly connect with God, which I have achieved through the art of meditation – a practise previously known to me as prayer, albeit on a much deeper level.

Like pulling back the curtain to reveal Oz in the The Wizard of Oz, I found that by separating God from Religion, for me it revealed Spirituality.  I discovered God within.  With it came clarity, a feeling of connectedness, truth, light, insight and inner peace. I realise now that by having knowledge of God as a child, I’d learned the difference between what felt like being close and warm was God in my life and a sense of belonging,  as opposed to the empty, distant coldness of not knowing God.

Religion had introduced me to God, and whether it had intended to or not, it had inadvertently taught me that God was an external being, a source outside of myself, a force to look up towards, to worship out-with, a Creator of all living things, looking down on me from above.

With Spirituality came the realisation that God is within me – within each of us, a part of us and within all living things – God is the universal life force that dwells within the souls of every single one of us and without it we are lost. By focusing my attention inward I am connected to God, an entirely different feeling to what I previously understood about God and religion.  This has been a life changing experience for me, it has changed the way I live my life. It has changed how I treat myself and others. It has brought new understanding and clarity to things that are important to me.  I recognise that not everyones journey or relationship with God, Religion or Spirituality is experienced in the same way and therefore this blog post may or may not make any sense to you, the reader. However, one thing I am absolutely certain of is that when God was excluded from my life, the emotions I experienced within myself felt cold, empty, uneasy distance; the reverse is also true.

I’m not suggesting for one minute that anyone else has or will experience either religion or spirituality the same way that I describe it here in this blog – I only ever speak for myself and my experience. I mean no disrespect to anyones beliefs or chosen religion, be that Catholic, C of E or other – all knowledge of God is valuable.

Through Spirituality I am closer to God and connected to the universe. I feel warmth, connectedness, peace, gratitude, contentment, love and joy. I see beauty in things that previously went unnoticed, I find joy in the simplest of tasks, gratitude for the love I feel and life that I share, understanding has replaced confusion, I feel grounded and contentment where once instability reigned.

If you are suffering within and have yet to find inner peace, my advice is – meditate, you can be sure the answers are within you. I wish you love and peace.