Celebrating the great feast of Pentecost today, I am mindful that in the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles, the Church – the Mystical Body of Christ – was born. This set me thinking about the place of the Church in my life and in my subsequent spiritual development.
Born in the middle of the turbulent 1960s, my childhood spanned the late ’60s and into the ’70s. It was just a few years since the great Second Vatican Council had concluded – indeed, I was born just weeks after the closing of the Council. Later, I would discover that this period was seen as being a very difficult one for the Church, and that it would be blamed for all manner of ills – the Council had changed the Church (wasn’t that the point?); that it had gone too far; that it had not gone far enough. But at the time, I knew nothing about any of this. In Rome, the Holy Father was Pope Paul VI. I recognised his face and knew his name, but I didn’t really know much more than these basics. That would come much later on.
At Saint Swithun’s Primary School, life went on as usual. Mrs Clark, Mr Bolger, Mr O’Connor and Mrs De Marco simply carried on teaching us little ones the faith. It was all very uncomplicated.
They told us about Jesus and Mary and the Saints; and they explained to us – in ways we could understand – what our faith was all about.
Mrs Clark prepared us for our first Confession and then our First Holy Communion. I have photographs from that morning; in one, Mrs Clark is standing beside all the children, each one looking radiant, while Canon Cogan is speaking to someone in the background; and in another, some of us sitting in the hall, having a special lunch after the Mass. I have such lovely and vivid memories of that wonderful day and of all the people who were part of it and in many ways, it feels as though it were only yesterday.
I remember, too, that each May we had a ‘May Crowning’ in the Church; the statue of Our Lady was solemnly processed through the grounds and then crowned by one of the children once it had returned to the front of the Church.
Also each May, our classroom had a ‘blue altar’. On it, a small statue of Our Lady stood and we each brought in something blue since this, we were informed, was Her favourite colour.
Looking back on those schools days more critically from my present perspective, I see nothing that contravened the faith of the Church nor what the great Council placed before the Church – our teachers were always good and true, faithful to the task to which they had been called. They always faithfuly presented to us the faith of the Church, authentic and pure, and never their ‘interpretation’ of that faith.
Every Sunday, my parents would take me – and, later on, my sister also – to the Cathedral of Saint John, where I had been baptised. I learned clearly from my parents that Mass was very important, that it was central to everything else. In the Cathedral, how I loved that statue of the Sacred Heart, arms opened wide, which stood near the back, in a large alcove. The statue is still there today, as welcoming now as then – you can see it at the top of this page.
Near the front, on the right side, the life-size Pietà, with the Virgin looking so deeply sorrowful as She cradled Her dead Son. And to the left, my favourite spot – the Lady Altar. I have written previously about the value of holy images and the part they played in my spiritual development; these images in the Cathedral played an early (but very significant) role in this.
And so in those days, my faith was planted and then grew and began to develop in two distinct places – in the ‘domestic church’ of the home, and at school.
Both places were deeply important and formative for me – and especially the home, as I would remain there longer than I was at school. I have written in an earlier article, for example, about my mother’s habit of praying a novena every Tuesday over many years. This seems to be a habit I have learned from her, as I am not a stranger to the Catholic novena, finishing my most recent one just yesterday.
Time moved on, life spread out into many new areas as the years rolled by, but in many respects my spiritual life remainded very much in line with those early and formative days. It always was – and continues to be – a simple faith.
I am not one for joining religious groups or organisations – for me personally, the faith itself is enough and provides everything. Now, I have no doubt that many of these groups do great work in their respective areas and I am equally sure that they provide a strong spiritual formation for many. I have been in some groups previously – the Legion of Mary while I was at school, for example; and now, as an auxilliary member.
Now, my spiritual life takes two broad – but very simple – forms.
The first is the sacramental life of my Parish.
Being a part of the parish is deeply, deeply important to me. So much so, that I was heartbroken some weeks ago to have to miss the Easter Vigil; I had waited two years for that night, since the Vigil had not taken place the previous year due to the pandemic, and I had managed to reserve a place at the Mass. So you can imagine how I felt when I became vey unwell as the day went on and I had no option but to remain in bed and to watch the live-stream of the Vigil. Worst of all, I could clearly see the empty space where I was supposed to have been. Ours is a communal faith – the ‘Our Father’ speaks of “us”, not “me”. The parish is, for me, the place where that central communal facet of the faith is most beautifully expressed and lived out.
The second is the life of prayer.
Prayer is exceptionally important to me – but, not surprisingly, perhaps, it retains very simple forms. It all begins with the Morning Offering, which I have mentioned before; this sets the theme for the day and all it will contain, and I come back to it over and over as the day goes on; it’s intentions remain with me all through the day – this isn’t a prayer I say then forget.
There is also the Liturgy of the Hours, the ‘Divine Office’, which I have written about previously. I have written, too, about my struggle to be faithful to this offical prayer of the Church, despite trying hard to be so.
Along with the Office, I pray the Rosary daily. And for many years now, only by the grace of God, I have remained faithful to this devotion every day. I have written many, many times about the devotion to the holy Rosary – you can read some of these articles here, so I need say no more here on that subject as what I have written in these other articles covers it well.
My final daily devotion is the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy – and as before, I have already written a number of articles on this and which, I think, cover the subject reasonably well.
And so, looking back across all these years, it seems to me that my spiritual life today is essentially as it was when I was a little child – it consists of prayer and parish, the personal and the communal. But while the essential forms might be the same now as then, I would hope greatly that there is more depth now than then. My understanding – or at least my knowledge, if not necessarily ‘understanding’ – is both broader and deeper.
I see so much in my spiritual life today which has, in fact, always been there, which has always been a constitutive and essential part of my spiritual life – the presence of a small home altar; frequent novenas; Rosary beads; candles; holy images; prayer books.
At that first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended as tongues of fire upon the Blessed Virgin and the Apostles, gathered together in constant prayer within the Cenacle, the Upper Room. In the same way, He descends upon each one of us at Confirmation. So too did He descend into the hearts of so many people who been a part of my life this far, some of whose stories I have mentioned here before now, and all of whom have played a crucial and incredibly valuable part in my spiritual development over all these years. All of those people have had a role in my becoming who I would become. And I am so grateful for every one of them and that, because of them, I have a faith at all.
It is a simple faith, most assuredly – but a constant one.