One day a friend mentioned in passing that she had spent a happy day at a seminar in a monastery. She added, ‘You’d love the chapel!’
I felt a strange lurch in my heart at those words. My friend was a baptised Christian. Although I believed that Jesus was historical and a special human being, I had virtually no experience of mainstream Christianity and had never been baptised. Yet, right from a very young age, my desire to find God had taken me into a number of religions, including spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, and a fundamentalist Christian cult, among others.
Finally, much later I had found a sense of peace in Eastern religion through kriya yoga meditation. I felt that this was as close as I could get to knowing God.
So that strange movement in my heart at the mention of a chapel at a monastery near my home puzzled me. I began to feel an ever increasing pull to go there. Just to look. The Catholic Church was anathema to me, due to my upbringing, so it took several attempts to find the courage to drive through those gates into the monastery environment. I would stop just in front of the gates then wonder: What if I’m waved to a halt by a protesting monk and questioned why I’m here? Worse still, what if a priest confronts me?
At last the inner urging became a compulsion and I drove up the long driveway. The chapel had a notice on the door that mentioned the attendance times of unfamiliar things to me like ‘Divine Office’ and ‘Rosary’, then lastly the word ‘Mass’, starting at 5:30. It was then only 4:30 p.m. so I felt safe. There was no one around. All was silent. I crept inside and sat near the back, looking carefully around to make sure I was alone. There was an aura of peace, a deep, waiting silence, almost a presence of some kind.
I described this first occasion later in my journal: Near the altar stands a strange Jesus statue; he’s holding his robe open at his chest and pointing to a blood red heart. It draws me, this statue, even though it looks morbid. Of course, I know it has to be symbolic, that heart; Jesus directing our hearts to his, or something like that. I wonder if Catholics really do worship statues as some people say . . . There’s a little red light flickering on the left. And flowers. The white marble altar stands beneath a high domed ceiling. Behind the altar is a gold box on a pedestal fixed to the wall: a gleaming mystery ‘Pandora’s box’. Above it a large wooden crucifix seems to have some sort of life of its own even though it portrays death. But what am I doing here? This is so far removed from my spiritual life. I’m satisfied with yoga meditation. Christ and Krishna are one. There’s no need for all this church, rules and hierarchical stuff. Jesus the crucified gave us the cosmic Christ of whom we are all a part. So why am I here?
Time passed. I sank into a deep meditation. There was such peace. Then I was aware that people were coming into the chapel. Suddenly, panicky I felt trapped and conspicuous. What am I doing here? I don’t belong! I should’ve sat near the door so I could duck out easily!
A few men up front murmured prayers, probably the monks. Other people came in. A priest entered. Mass began. My first Mass. There were prayers and Bible readings; there were kneelings and risings and sittings. I remained latched to my seat like a defensive barnacle on a rock.
Communion was given. And I thought of the story of the holy grail, which had always fascinated me since childhood. I watched as they drank from the same cup and I thought: if you’re a true believer, that must be a strangely wonderful kind of sharing. But – Christ’s blood? I could never believe that. As for making the sign of the Cross, what a pagan act!
As the weeks went by, I began tentatively to love the place. I felt like a humming bird poised over a flower brimful with pollen, but I was afraid to experience the nectar for myself. It wasn’t only fear; it was a feeling that this particular nectar was exclusively reserved for those who intimately knew the flower that carried it; whereas this little humming bird had its own nectar in another garden.
One day I scrawled in large words in my journal: What’s happening to me? And I answered: I don’t know, I can’t see. I can only feel. And in this feeling there’s also a kind of knowing, which I can’t share yet. I’m wrestling with this unknown: the Catholic Church. I struggle against it entering as it is into my life. Yet – in some inexplicable way, wanting it! Oh my God, what am I saying! I want it to be wrong, it’s got to be wrong, out of time, out of date. Yet . . . the more I run from you, Jesus Christ, the more I want you!
I read voraciously, just the right books falling into my hands. The priest at the monastery was perceptive, helpful, without being pushy – just what I needed. And one of the religious brothers became a steadfast friend. There came a day which was a watershed. During Mass the priest spoke so intimately about the Eucharist. Towards the end I felt the tears welling up almost uncontrollably. It was all I could do to suppress them. I couldn’t let anyone see me cry. Not here. Not now. In the car all down the long driveway I sobbed and sobbed. Just before the gates I pulled over onto the grass, switched off the engine and cried as I hadn’t cried for a long time. They were tears of such love and gratitude. I quietened and sat with my hands unfolded on my lap. I was empty. Yet filled. Renewed. Accepting.
Wanting to experience Mass in a different environment I went to a local parish church. The consistency of the celebration of the Mass was just as beautiful as it was in the monastery. It was the Mass that called me and increasingly it was hearing the Last Supper words and the Eucharistic prayers which had brought Christ more into focus for me.
Finally, at one Mass my loving surrender was complete when I was able to freely make the Sign of the Cross. It was then I felt a sense of real home coming, of belonging, of radiant joy. I asked to be baptised.
It’s now a good few years later, and I offer this desert / burning bush poem as a metaphor for what Eucharist means to me:
I walk the wild lands
with shoes on
and a map of sorts –
I walk the wild lands
Here every bush
and even I –