Dear Donagh,

…. Could I ask you something that might help my mother.  She has been terrified of God all her life.  Everything about religion is fear with her.   She probably put some of that into us all when we were small, but we all recovered from it someway or other.   She’s now 86 and she’s terrified of dying and being judged by God.  She thinks she’s going to hell.  Is there anything I can say or do for her that would take this big load off her mind.  She was always loving and hardworking, and were brokenhearted to see her like this.  Thanks for any help you can give me.  Maureen

Dear Maureen,

Yes, it’s very sad to see anyone in the grip of such fear for a whole lifetime, especially when it is your own mother.  You said, “Everything about religion is fear with her.”  Does this mean that she is not fearful about everything? – that she is not a fearful person by nature?  I hope it is fear that is focused rather than generalised.  If so, there is some chance of helping her out of it. 

I was intrigued to discover a while back that the penny catechism I had learnt by rote in my childhood had been republished and was sitting in a religious bookshop in Dublin.  It was the catechism for children in the dioceses of Cloyne in the 1950s when I was in primary school.   Sixty years later the questions and answers had a familiar ring – I had remembered something of it.  Then I read the first chapter, which was all about God.  To my astonishment the word ‘love’ appeared nowhere in it.  Nowhere did it say that God loved us, much less that God was love.  That was a scandalous omission, but no one ever objected to it. 

What we say about God has every kind of bearing on what we say about ourselves.  There followed a question: “Why did God make us?”  And the answer was: "God made us to know, love and serve him, and by this means to be happy with him forever."  'By this means'.  It said that knowing loving and serving God was a means to an end: the end being our own happiness. God was not the Ultimate, but a tool for our happiness. If a man said such a thing about his wife we would see that he knew nothing at all about love.  The people who put that catechism together couldn’t be expected to know anything about married love, but it is clear they didn’t know anything about God either.  “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8).

I wondered if things were as bad elsewhere.  What were American children, for example, being given at that time?  I looked at the 1941 edition of the New Baltimore Catechism. 
Question: Why did God make us? 
Answer: God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.  “Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love him (I Corinthians 2:9)”
This was quite a different diet from what was available in Cloyne in the 1950s.  I discovered further that what we got was what the Baltimore Catechism had been serving up in 1891. 

Cloyne: Does God see all things?  God sees all things, even our most secret thoughts and actions. 
Baltimore: Does God see us? God sees us and watches over us with loving care.  “Be not solicitous therefore, saying: ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘Wherewith will we be clothed?’ For after all these things do the heathens seek. For your heavenly Father knoweth that you have need of all these things” (Matthew 6:31,32). 

The Baltimore catechism stayed close to the Scriptures and quoted them frequently as part of the answers.  No prize for guessing which catechism this comes from:   God is infinitely lovable in Himself, and from His fatherly love every good comes to us.  Cloyne: “God made the world to show his power and wisdom, and for man’s use and benefit.” No mention of the word love (and certainly no prophetic headline for ecology). 

Is it any wonder that your mother, and so many like her, is wounded by a crippling religious education?  What is heart-breaking is to realise that the catechism that crippled so many was not an authentic expression of the Christian tradition.  It was the product of a group of people who knew precious little about that tradition, and who were making do with a barren and rule-bound spirituality. 

What can I say to you in particular that might help?  I could put you in touch with one of the most profound and beautiful books in the world.  It was written in the 14th century by a remarkable woman called Julian of Norwich (after the name of the church to which she attached herself as an anchoress).  The spirit of this book is so warm and motherly that it will surely have a healing effect on your mother.  These passages are just a few of the many I could send.  Why not print them out and give them to her, or read them to her every day?  Encourage her to memorise them.  It would repay her effort better than the catechism did.

“I saw that God is to us everything that is good and comforting for our help. God is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that God is everything which is good.”

⇰ Because of the true union which was made in heaven, God's Son could not be separated from Adam, for by Adam I understand all humankind, and by all humankind I understand Adam. And the loving regard which he kept constantly on his servant, and especially when he fell, it seemed to me that it could melt our hearts for love and break them in two for joy.

⇰  It is God's will that we have true delight with him, and in it he wants us to be greatly strengthened and com-forted, and so he joyfully wishes our souls to be filled with his grace. For we are his bliss, because he endlessly delights in us; and so with his grace shall we delight in him.

⇰  I desired many times to know what was our Lord's meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.

This is from a woman who is not quoting someone else’s thoughts but speaking from direct experience.  She is a reliable guide to what our faith is meant to feel like. 

God bless,


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