Now I may have mentioned once or twice that the church I grew up in was a little, shall we say, less than liberal. And I don’t want to go on about it just for the sake of it. The journey of healing isn’t at all about that. If it was, I may as well just go and sit in the corner and mope because nothing would ever change. The reason for bringing it up now and then is so I can move on. Or to put it another way, become more loving, because in the early days of my taking apart my image of God and finding another, I did feel at times shall we say a tad crazy.
The other night, it being All Souls and all, I sang a Requiem Eucharist for the Faithful Departed in my cathedral church. My childhood church didn’t keep this particular day in any special way – it just denounced any commemoration of the dead as nasty Popish frippery. But to mark this day, my choir sang Durufle’s Requiem which is a truly gut-wrenching piece of music designed to transport you to the heavenlies along with all those faithful departed (and the unfaithful as well in my view.) But I digress. This piece of music has a lot of twiddly bits in it and so I spent most of the previous week hunched over my laptop, practicing my second soprano part with Kings College, Cambridge. They got all of the twiddly bits right, but to be fair they did have a bit more time to practice.
I stood there in the service and I felt so utterly and completely and peacefully right at home that it almost hurt. And when we were invited to light a candle to remember loved ones, I lit one for my first husband, Pete, a lovely and gentle priest who died very young. I say I’m not annoyed with God about that now, but if I'm honest, there are times when I do feel a little, shall we say, resentful, as I cuddle the grandchildren he never met. But I loved the chance for him to have his own light flickering there, dispelling the darkness, a shining reminder that death is not the end.
So, all this is happening for me right now and it acts as such a good counter balance to the perpetual record playing in my head that I shouldn’t be joining the Third Order. My inner script bleats that I’m just not good enough. Who the heck do I think I am dressing up in fancy robes to sing, and then compounding my wickedness by praying for the dead? Such practices smack of Catholicism and in my childhood church, Catholics were much maligned as not even Christian. I was told as an infant that these poor sods went straight to hell and it worried me a lot. I can just imagine hands being laid on me in the little wooden church of my childhood with muttered prayers for healing surrounding my consorting with Durufle and his like.
But in the end, it wasn’t Durufle who brought me to my emotional knees. Sorry, pal and all that, but while I think your music is astonishing, I was generally concentrating too hard on getting most of the right notes in the right order to have much energy left for feeling. No – it was the final hymn ‘Just as I am without one plea,’ which was my undoing, although you will be pleased to hear that I managed not to break down and weep over my white surplice, but stand there and sing and feel all at the same time. (If you haven’t got a clue what I’m on about, I invite you to Google the words).
I just love that hymn. It says what I want to say but it makes every word count and even makes them rhyme. I looked it up on Wikipedia when I got home and discovered that the author, Charlotte Elliott, ‘lay upon her sofa in her pleasant boudoir,’ (as you do) and recalling her turbulent sleep the night before when she had felt so utterly useless, questioning the ‘reality of her whole spiritual life,’ penned the words of this hymn. Some girl. Raised in a Christian home (as so many of us were) she felt chronic turbulent doubts and conflicts (as so many of us do) and in writing this hymn helped herself to give them a voice. Then by sharing it with the world, millions of other people could give their fears a name, including yours truly.
So, this is where I go when I feel, shall we say insecure about joining the Franciscan community. Yes – I am ‘poor wretched and blind,’ and I need ‘sight riches, healing of the mind,’ (and then some!) but God’s love has ‘broken every barrier down,’ and I can come. (It would be easier to type the whole flippin’ hymn).
I’ll go forward in my explorations singing this hymn and every time it pops up on the service sheet at church, I’ll know they are playing my tune. And if I feel a little pathetic waste of space in my spiritual life – I will recline on my bed in my imaginary boudoir with a large cup of tea and recite every verse.
I am a very fledging Franciscan – a newly-hatched novice who is still very much feeling her way and uncertain of the right direction. But I know that because I am loved, I will be shown what I have to do, where my energy must go, where to focus my prayers, my longings, my-self.
As ‘Just as I am’ says at the end of every verse:
‘O Lamb of God, I come.’