Dear Donagh, I wonder if you can help me. I'm always worrying about the past, if I did the right thing…. My husband gets impatient with me at times and he tells me I have little to worry about compared to a lot of other people. But I always feel that God must think me terrible. When I think of the catechism we learned in school I wonder am I a Catholic at all…. All this worrying makes my husband unhappy, and cross with me at times. He only gets cross in order to help me, he says. But I wish I could stop worrying…. He suggested writing to you, and he’s going to send it for me. I'd be glad of any help you could give me…. Anne
Dear Anne, Thanks for your long letter, and I hope you don’t mind that I shortened it to the above. I'm sending you a few suggestions privately, but here in public may I add just a couple of things.
That school catechism that you mentioned at length was republished recently. I looked through it in a bookshop, and I was deeply shocked. In the first section - which is about God - there is no mention of love! It says God is the Creator, the Lord, the rewarder of virtue and punisher of wickedness; but nowhere does it say that “God is love.” What does that do to us? A God who is not love, and yet who “sees all things, even our most secret thoughts and actions,” is a nightmare, and truly a horrible caricature of God. We older people grew up with that, and we pray that it didn’t sink in too deeply! But it did go deep with many sensitive people. I don’t know the motives of the publishers who recalled this nightmare stuff to us; perhaps they believe that people are longing for old certitudes in a world of rapid change. That is undoubtedly true, and it’s a good thing to get down to basics at such a time. But the basics are the gospels, and not a dated catechism. There’s a sad sort of Catholic fundamentalism that thinks the catechism, and not the Gospel, is the bedrock of the faith. I assure you, Anne, the word that renews and strengthens us - and sets us free - is the word of God. The other thing did not come from some golden age of the past, but from a low period in Catholic spirituality. I pray that you will be healed of these wounds; and since I situate myself in the continuity of Catholic preaching I apologise to you for those wounds you suffered and still suffer.
When John the Evangelist (the one who said “God is love”) was a very old man he used to be brought along to speak to the Christian community. He would just repeat, “Children, let us love one another.” They got tired of hearing this over and over, and they asked him to say something else for a change. “But it is the Master’s whole teaching,” he replied.
If we lose sight of love we lose sight of the Master, and without him there is no Christianity. The catechism looked tough and hard-edged - no nonsense - and it could make talk of love seem weak and sentimental. But Christian love is first and foremost about knowing God: without it, we don’t know what we are talking about when we talk about God. John wrote, “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). After that, it is about loving our neighbour. It is not a weak and self-indulgent feeling, but something real and practical.
Don’t be surprised at this shift of emphasis from the days of the old catechism. The Christian tradition is constantly correcting itself. It is a walking along the Way (the Christian faith was known as ‘the Way’ before it was called Christianity). Walking, when you look closely at it, is a kind of leaning from side to side - now to this side and now to that. What you need to lean on now, it seems to me, is the love of God. “This is the love I mean,” wrote St John, “not our love for God, but God's love for us” (1 John 4:10). This is the bedrock. Without it, nothing stands. I'd suggest, Anne, that you spend some time every day reading that first Letter of John. Read it as slowly as you can! Take one line, or even a word or two, and sit back and let them fill your mind and then your heart. Be in no hurry to get through it. Spare it: it’s only 8 or 10 pages! They are the inspired word of God; they are Jesus speaking directly to you. Let this wash over you and heal your wounded conscience. Most of us have consciences that are hard to get at: that may be why we were not too badly wounded! But you have a delicate conscience: you need the healing love of God all the more.
In addition to the Scriptures there is a vast Christian literature to dip into as we need it. Julian of Norwich could become a special friend to you and do you much good. Get her book, or ask your husband to get you the short readings from it on this website.
God bless and take care of you, Anne