“What difference does it make if the bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of Christ and we don’t?”
― Godfrey Diekman OSB
Emerging Adult Faith
I’ve come to realise that I make very strong attachments to people and places. Moving to London to study held a great deal of trepidation for me. My Father assured me that it would be one of the most exciting things I could do. Studying at Heythrop college was, of course, no ordinary place to study. The intake was very mixed with school leavers, mature students, post graduates and Jesuits doing their very lengthy formation studies. My year group bonded together very quickly and I think this was in no small part due to the fact that we all felt at sea with the content of the degree. There were also several Religious, male and female, at various stages in their ministry. I will be forever grateful for all that they brought to my time at Heythrop. There was such a lot of laughter and genuine community.
My first essay was a bit of a crunch time and I really wanted to go home. Trying my best to ignore the rising panic, I took refuge in the college chapel. I don’t remember it as a particularly beautiful place. It was in the basement, with wooden floors that creaked and the minimum of natural light. I sat there hoping for some confirmation that I should go home. None came. What came instead was a sense that I was on the threshold of something potentially life-changing.
There was Mass each day at College at either 12.30 or 1.00. This fitted with the various lecture schedules. Here I at least I felt at home. In the Heythrop environment it was the most natural thing in the world to go to daily Mass. It’s only with hindsight that I see how personally liberating this was for me. There was something very grounding for me about breaking the day by celebrating the Eucharist. No one would think I was odd. When feasts were celebrated the music would be provided by the students. I loved these celebrations. This hymn, more than any other reminds me of those days
Yahweh is the God of my salvation:
I trust in him and have no fear.
I sing of the joy which his love gives to me,
and I draw deeply from the springs of his great kindness.
Open our eyes to the wonder of this moment,
the beginning of another day.
Be with us, Lord, as we break through with each other
to find the truth and beauty of each friend.
When evening comes and our day of toil is over
give us rest, O Lord, in the joy of many friends.
Take us beyond the vision of this day
to the deep and wide ways of your infinite love and life.
Looking at the words now I can easily imagine this text being slated by certain quarters of Twitter. Probably words like ‘saccharine’ and ‘banal’ would be used and there would be questions as to the theological content. Its focus on connection, friends and the depths of God’s love and kindness are easily parodied. In 1984 these were very much the words I needed to sing. These words and many others like them, began the journey for me from what was largely a personal piety to a sense of community and the power of shared witness.
My experience at the Catholic Chaplaincy in Gower St was key to my growing awareness of community and what I would later come to recognise as Eucharistic theology. Sunday evening was the big gathering time. I can’t remember how I filled my Sunday mornings, but I remember the anticipation of Mass in the evening. The Chaplaincy drew a huge crowd of people from all areas of the university. There were always Royal College of Music students on hand to lead music and some of us formed a slightly informal choir. I had a sense that there was room for everyone at these gathering. As soon as Mass was finished a couple of us would act as sacristans, clearing the altar to make way for the disco equipment. The sense of community and connection that we found as a Eucharistic community continued on the dance floor. Often past students turned up on a Sunday evening and they’d get such a welcome from the chaplains. There was genuine interest in how their lives were going.
The White Fathers and the Mill Hill Missionaries sometimes sent their deacons to the chaplaincy for some pastoral experience and they brought a huge enthusiasm to any group they joined. In the summer term they’d host BBQs in North London and we’d sing and dance together. These gatherings for me were the very best of what it meant to belong to the Church. Occasionally we’d talk theology and any very cerebral notions of what we might mean by Eucharist or Church were laid alongside the pastoral needs which these men were preparing to meet in their mission postings.
From time to time the chaplaincy would host an African Mass. There is something about the ‘call and response’ form of African songs and hymns which touches my heart and soul most deeply. Add to this a drum rythym and perhaps dance and I experience a very powerful sense of the sacred. I had never experienced anything like this growing up in the North East.
The chaplaincy team was large and diverse: a lay woman, a Dominican Sister, a Sister of the Holy Family of Bordeaux, two diocesan clergy and a Jesuit. They were able to offer a variety of activities and support, but mostly they were a presence. Fairly early on in my first term at college the chaplains offered us the opportunity to follow the 19th Annotation Retreat. At first I couldn’t even grasp what the words meant. I’d never heard this type of technical language. A small group of us showed interest in making this retreat and we met together. I found it all thoroughly confusing. I imagine the chaplains will have started by explaining the The First Principle and Foundation.
People are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save their soul; the other things on the face of the earth are created for people to help them in attaining the end for which they are created. Consequently, people are to make use of them in so far as they help them in the attainment of their end, and they must rid themselves of them in so far as they prove a hindrance to them. Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds true for all other things. Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.
Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius
The formality and technicality of the language almost put me off from the very beginning. Up until then my personal prayer had involved sitting quietly in churches and not doing anything in particular. I wasn’t sure that I would cope with this structured format. Once we were assigned spiritual directors things shifted a little for me. I was assigned Sr Trinitate Dullmann, a German Dominican who had lived in Zimbabwe. This was a very smart move on God’s part.
Week by week I became accustomed to the format of the retreat and despite the fairly alien language, I began to find that a way of prayer was opening up for me. What surprised me was just how much hard work was involved. Gone were the slightly day dreamy experiences I had had sitting in the back of churches and instead I was faced with the deep challenge of engaging with the Biblical texts and the text of the Spiritual Exercises. Thankfully we weren’t given the straight text from the Spiritual Exercises. I remember being given the prayer material on sheets of coloured paper, with line drawings and pieces of poetry. A vital part of the 19 Annotation is meeting weekly with your director. I wasn’t quite ready for the rigour that this involved. And I wasn’t ready at all for the fact that my first instinct was to analyse any text that I was given. Without realising it I was bringing the tools that I was learning in Biblical Studies to my prayer. Gently and subtly my director nudged me along. Little by little I learnt to make space for God to work. One thing that was a tremendous help to me was having two different Bibles: NRSV for exegesis and the Jerusalem Bible for prayer.
I can look back now and see how God was leading me. I can look back now and see that my faith was maturing. It didn’t feel particularly re-assuring at the time and I did wonder just where the retreat was leading me. One of my abiding memories is of hearing my director say: ‘Birgitte, don’t analyse.’ She was right, of course. This was a matter of the head and heart coming together.