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Confessions of a lapsed Catholic – Sheila Cassidy

12 July, 2012

Brief Review:
Dr Sheila Cassidy was cruelly tortured in 1970s during the ousting of the Allende government by Pinochet in Chile. Later she became a campaigner for the Hospice Movement in England and a writer on spiritual topics. In this book she sets out how she sees she has moved on in her spiritual journey and articulates answers to questions that moving on has thrown up for her: where do we find God today? How do we respond to God where we do find him? Sheila’s “Confessions” may find echoes in hearts and minds with regard to the practice of Catholic faith today.


Acknowledgments ix

Part I Some Reflections on Churchgoing

Chapter 1 The Lapsing of a ‘Good’ Catholic
Chapter 2 Why Catholics Go to Church and Why They Don’t
Chapter 3 Does Not Going to Church on Sunday Matter?

Part II Finding God in Humankind

Chapter 4 Finding God in Church
Chapter 5 Finding God in Individuals
Chapter 6 Finding God in Community
Chapter 7 Who are the Heathens Now?
Chapter 8 Now: Where is Your God?

Part III Finding God in the Written Word

Chapter 9 Finding God in the Old Testament
Chapter 10 Finding God in the Psalms
Chapter 11 Finding God in the Gospels
Chapter 12 Finding God in Poetry

Part IV Finding God in the Natural World

Chapter 13 This Planet Earth
Chapter 14 Living with Creatures
Chapter 15 Where the Wild Things Play
Chapter 16 God and the Tsunami

Part V Our Response to the Divine

Chapter 17 Caring for the Planet
Chapter 18 Caring for One Another
Chapter 19 Caring for Ourselves
Chapter 20 Caring for God

180 pp. Darton Longman & Todd Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.dltbooks.com

Part I
Some Reflections on Churchgoing

Godhead here in hiding whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart,
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

St Thomas Aquinas



The reader will have gathered, from the title of this book, that I am no longer a practising Catholic: that I am what is known in the Church as a ‘lapsed’ Catholic. For those unfamiliar with Roman Catholic jargon I should explain that being ‘lapsed’, for me, means that I no longer attend Mass, and I no longer avail myself of the sacraments, those ‘outward signs of inward grace’ which sustained me in my earlier years. To my priest friends (of whom I have many) I explain that this is a sort of sabbatical and that maybe I shall return, on my deathbed or before, pulled back to Holy Mother Church by what G. K. Chesterton called ‘a twitch upon the thread’, that invisible cord by which Catholics are tied to the Church.

My intention in writing this book is not to denigrate Catholicism, which has led, comforted and sustained me for over sixty years, but to shed a light upon the way God is to be found outside the Church even more than in it: in nature, in people, in animals, in poetry and in all the wild and wonderful works of the Divine. Francis Thompson, a Catholic poet writing in the late nineteenth century, says it most beautifully in his poem, ‘In No Strange Land’:

The Kingdom of God is within you

0 world invisible, we view thee,
0 world intangible, we touch thee,
0 world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air –
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?

Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!
The drift of the pinions, would we hearken?
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

The angels keep their ancient places –
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ’tis your enstranged faces
That miss the many-splendoured thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry – and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry – clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Genesareth, but Thames!

I love this poem because it makes sense of my deep intuition that God is everywhere, in everything shining forth, if we only care to look. Some would accuse me of pantheism, the worship of nature, but they would be wrong. What I worship is God the Creator whom I find each day, each moment, in nature. The Jesuits understand this thinking because they talk about ‘finding God in all things’. Funnily enough, it was my increasing appreciation of the Divine in nature, people and animals that made possible my lapsing. One day I asked myself in a simplistic sort of way: ‘If God is so amazingly present in the world, in my house, my dogs, my garden, my patients, how can he (or she) be more present in church, in the “Real Presence”?’

I should explain that the Real Presence is what Catholics believe to be God, Christ, really and truly physically present in the Eucharist. The high point of the Mass is the Consecration, where the priest says over the bread and wine: ‘This is my Body. This is my Blood. Do this in remembrance of me.’ The bells ring as the priest raises the consecrated Host for the people to revere: it is a moment of incredible awe and wonder and the congregation bow their heads in adoration. Later in the Mass, the priest and his helpers distribute Holy Communion and the people return quietly to their seats to adore the God within them. I always found the receiving of Communion to be a deeply spiritual experience and, for many years of my life, went daily to Mass in search of this closeness to the Divine. This was for me, as it is for so many Catholics, an experience of God Immanent, or, as the Muslims say, ‘God is as near as the neck of my camel’. At one stage in my life I rose early, canoed across a river, walked half a mile through a field and then caught a bus in order to attend daily Mass. So how is it that I can leave it behind me? How can I deliberately deprive myself of the Bread of Life, of the Food for the Journey, when it is available daily in the church around the corner?

The answer, I think, is that I no longer believe that God is more present in the bread and wine than he is in the sea, in the mountains, in the gentle alcoholics who greet me as I walk my dogs. Instead, I believe that God is within me, that I have only to acknowledge his presence to know him as powerfully as if I had received the bread and wine. This acknowledging of the Divine presence within is called a Spiritual Communion and is much used by devout Catholics who are not able to attend Mass because of distance, illness, or lack of a priest. I had reason to teach this devotion to a group of unhappy Anglican men and women in Venice some years ago when I was leading a retreat for an enterprising venture called ‘Retreats beyond Dover’, run by a delightful man called Anthony Weaver.

On this occasion, Anthony had engaged me to lead the retreat and a priest to celebrate Mass for the twenty or so Catholic and Anglican men and women who had signed up for what was a sort of holy holiday. The high moment of the day was, of course, the liturgy and most of us assumed that all members of the group would be united in worship. Imagine my dismay (which turned later to fury) when our chaplain made it clear that he could not give Holy Communion to the ‘non-Catholics’.

There has been much discussion about ‘intercommunion’ over the years and my understanding is that in a private ecumenical liturgy such as ours, no ‘scandal’ could be given (i.e. the onlookers would not be shocked) if those who were not Catholic were given Communion with the Catholics. Father X, however, felt obliged to stick to the letter of the law and said that only baptised Catholics should receive Communion.

I was both surprised and saddened by the reaction of the Anglican members of the group, who felt that they were being denied something enormously precious and important. It was as though we Catholics had slammed the church door in their faces, or demeaned them by counting them unworthy to receive the sacrament. Our priest was unmoved. ‘Let them celebrate their own Eucharist,’ he said, ‘or come up to the communion rail for a blessing’ It did not matter to him that this was an ecumenical retreat and that it was therefore key that worship should be in common.

I felt both ashamed of the Church and angry at the cruel obstinacy of its representative and set out, therefore, to make amends. I explained as best I knew how, the concept of ‘Spiritual Communion’ and assured my friends that God would be as much present in their hearts as in the hearts of those of us who partook of the bread and wine. Alas, I might have not bothered because they were totally unconvinced and still felt deeply deprived. I then did the only thing I could think of, and deliberately refrained from taking Communion myself in an act of solidarity with the disenfranchised. If I had thought of it at the time I might have persuaded all the Catholics to join me; but I didn’t and they didn’t.

This experience was important in making me question something which had been fundamental to my belief system for over forty years. The Catholic teaching that the Mass and the receiving of the Eucharist was the most important act of my day – that it was the Eucharist which gave me spiritual strength for each day’s journey and made me a better, more compassionate person. It is in this context that I feel the need to question what can be understood as a magical quality of the Eucharist –the mysterious transforming of the offered gifts into the Real Presence of the Divine. In the context of my Venetian experience I have to ask: were the Catholics who received the sacrament more blessed than those of us who invited the Divine into our hearts? I suspect the answer is no. The Divine is mysteriously present in our hearts anyway and perhaps our personal invitation to him, or her, does not increase that presence but rather makes us more aware of it.

Another set of circumstances which has made me question the teaching on prayer and the Eucharist is the sad revelation of the cruelty of the Magdalen Sisters in Ireland to the illegitimately pregnant girls in their care. Up to the 1950s – or perhaps it was the 1970s – this order of religious sisters ran homes for the care of those unfortunate young women disowned by their families who could not stand the shame of their daughters’ situation. In a documentary film of these sisters and their charges, I witnessed both physical and emotional cruelty unworthy of any woman, let alone a nun. The girls earned their keep by working in the Sisters’ laundry, which was the way the convent supported itself. I read too The Light in the Window, by June Goulding, an account of these girls’ lives, written by a young midwife who was hired to supervise and help with the births. She was clearly appalled and angered at the treatment these vulnerable young women received at the hands of the nuns.

My question is simple: how could these women, who had given their lives to religion and spent several hours a day in prayer and study of the Bible, behave like this? The same questions, of course, may be asked about the shaming numbers of paedophile priests. As I write, the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, is apologising to Australians on behalf of the Church for the abuse and cruelty suffered by so many innocent children. These guilty priests also had sacrificed career and marriage to serve the Lord. They said Mass daily, received the Eucharist, said their psalms and prayers – and then went off to beat and sexually abuse those in their care.

It was not all of them, of course; many, many of these celibate men and women have lived heroic lives and loved the children in their care as their own. We thank God for these saintly people. But their existence neither negates nor explains the behaviour of the abusers.

A couple of years ago, I talked to one of my Jesuit friends and asked him what he thought. After a while he said that he thought it was the ‘spiritual formation’ of the young recruits: the novices who underwent special training to prepare them for their life in religion. Formation today is very different, but fifty and more years ago it was considered necessary to ‘break’ the spirit of the novice in rather the same way as a horse was broken.

This is not the place for a litany of the sins of Novice Masters and Mistresses, but the type of training used was often deeply counter-human, seeking as it did to instil an attitude of unquestioning obedience to the Church and the superior of the community in which they would serve. The attempt to eradicate, or at least suppress, normal human desires has, of course, led to the use of self-flagellation and other extreme methods of self-denial. A classic ‘Life’ to be found in the older noviciate libraries was that of the Irish priest Father Willie Doyle, who, when driven mad by desires of the flesh, threw himself into a bed of nettles! I remember, too, Father Michael Ivens SJ (an enchanting, gentle pastor and scholar, alas now dead) telling me how the novices had to break the ice on the pool before their compulsory morning swim!

My own eighteen months of noviciate life was not a happy one. This was in the late 1970s and was in no way abusive, but I nevertheless came away feeling as if my face had been deeply scratched and that the whole experience had been somehow worse than prison. A doctor friend of mine ‘tried her vocation’, as they say, in an enclosed convent also in the 1980s, and emerged much the worse for wear when booted out of the convent at twenty-four hours notice for asking for more time to consider taking her final lifelong vows.

My good friend Anne, however, is wise and jolly and extremely happy in her Carmelite convent, as is another friend who entered a couple of years ago.

Enough. My point is this: hours of prayer, daily attendance at the Eucharist and generous renunciation of sexual love and marriage does not necessarily produce kind, gentle, honest, humble nuns and priests. What a pity: and, of course, what a mystery!


Over twenty years ago, when I was a lot more pious than I am now, my niece Lucy, then a young teenager, refused to go to Mass. When I asked her why, she said quite simply: ‘I don’t get anything out of it’. Now, as I write, this seems to be a very reasonable response but at the time I was quite shocked. As a Catholic child of the 1940s and 1950s, I had been brought up to go to Mass on Sunday whether I liked it or not. No one ever asked me if I got anything out of it: I was a Catholic so I went to Mass and that was that. Furthermore, I had been clearly taught that to deliberately miss Mass on Sunday was a mortal sin and, if I didn’t confess and receive absolution, I would go to hell for all eternity. It was as simple as that, and I, as a ‘Good Catholic’, never questioned this teaching until a few years ago.

Now, as I sit writing in my friend Clare’s house in Maine, I think that this teaching is quite simply crazy. What kind of a monster God would consign a ten-year-old child – or a seventy-year-old woman for that matter – to eternal damnation simply for refusing to go to a religious liturgy? In the next chapter, I propose to take a look at why people go to church; and why they don’t. As always, this will be a personal view, happily uncorroborated by surveys and statistics!




When I was a child I went to church because my father, a career Air Force officer, made me. I didn’t enjoy it at all, or ‘get anything out of it’. I found it long and boring and a difficult place to pray. One day, when I was about eight, I forgot my hat – and all good Catholic girls knew then that they must cover their heads because St Paul had said so, two thousand years earlier. To my surprise and indignation, my father said I couldn’t come to Mass without my hat and condemned me to wait in the car (the official Air Force limousine), watched over by the chauffeur.

As I sat sulking in the car, however, I gained far more spiritual insight than I would have done had I been allowed to go to Mass. The first thing I knew was that my father was wrong: he was, poor darling, a very letter-of-the-law Catholic, raised as he had been by the Australian Christian Brothers. I knew, deep in my heart, my middle or wherever one knows these things, that God loved me as much without my hat as with it.

As the years rolled by and I was a young teenager in Australia, I used to spend my summer holidays with my Aunt Isobel, my father’s widowed sister. Old enough to roam around Watson’s Bay (in Sydney) unchaperoned, I took to visiting the church when it was empty. There, in my shorts and shirt, I sat and gazed at the altar and opened my heart to the Divine. Oh how different this was from going to church on Sunday when the church was heaving with people and it was so hard to be still inside. Years later I took to going to daily Mass, where there was only a handful of people and we could each have a pew to ourselves. I realised then that, if I had a choice, I would go to Mass every day except Sunday, when I would have a well-deserved lie-in!

It wasn’t until I was in the senior school, at Our Lady of Mercy College, Parramatta, that I began to appreciate the way that good liturgy could make me feel. My dearest memories are of when I was a boarder in my final year and we went to Benediction on Sunday evening. Benediction, I should explain, is a short liturgy (now rather in decline) in which a consecrated host is ‘exposed’ in a fabulous gold vessel called a monstrance. The monstrance displays the host through a little glass window surrounded by rays like the sun and, in the candlelight, it is an awesome and beautiful object to gaze at. Add in the smell of incense, the ascending clouds of smoke and the blissful music of the service and one can be transported into a seventh heaven, reminiscent of the prophet Isaiah’s experience in the temple when he had a vision of the Divine:

In the year of King Uzziah’s Death I saw the Lord Yahweh seated on a high throne; his train filled the sanctuary; above him stood seraphs, each one with six wings: two to cover its face, two to cover its feet and two for flying. And they cried out one to another in this way,
‘Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Sabaoth.
His glory fills the whole earth.’
The foundations of the threshold shook with the voice of the one who cried out; and the temple filled with smoke. Isaiah 6:1-5

These memories of Benediction bring to mind the thought that having something to focus one’s attention on makes prayer much easier. Later in my life, at Mass in Plymouth, England, I used to focus on the altar, thereby screening out the other worshippers so I could feel that I was alone with God. When the Bishop decided to refurbish the church (should he have spent the money on good works instead, I ask?), he placed the pews facing each other rather than towards the altar. That meant that one could only see the altar by turning one’s neck through ninety degrees (something which gets harder as one gets older!). I was furious because I felt that he had deliberately sabotaged my system of worship. More importantly, the other parishioners were furious too. ‘We don’t want to look at each other,’ said, ‘we want to look at the altar’ (where Jesus is, they might have added). The unfortunate parish priest suffered his outraged parishioners’ complaints until he could stand it no longer and gave in, turning the pews back to face the altar.

All was well until Cardinal Basil Hume OSB came to visit Plymouth and the Bishop insisted that the pews be put back facing each other, the way they are in monastic abbeys. Cardinal Basil praised the Bishop for his understanding of modern liturgy and, from that time on, the pews in the Cathedral of St Boniface in Plymouth have faced each other. No doubt it didn’t occur to Basil, or his Bishop, that in monastic pews you can raise the seat and face the altar; whereas in standard church pews you can sit or kneel or stand but you can’t face the altar instead of your neighbour.

All this seems a bit petty but it is illustrative of the way in which decisions in the Catholic Church are often imposed from on high and not discussed or negotiated with the laity.

Returning to the question of focusing as an aid to achieving inner stillness in prayer, I have long found that a single candle in a darkened room is a wonderfully effective way of shutting out the distractions of life. An alternative I have also found helpful is to focus on the crossbar of a window, probably because of its resemblance to the traditional crucifix. I should add here that images of Jesus’ tortured body hanging on the cross make me feel profoundly uneasy.

Two different kinds of focusing, learned from the practice of Buddhist meditation, are focusing on the breath and the repetition of a mantra, such as `Maranatha’ – the Aramaic for ‘Come Lord Jesus’. I prefer the focusing on the breath, in which one sits relaxed but in an upright posture and, with eyes closed, breathes in through the nose and out through the mouth. The act of observing the sensation of the cold air entering the nostrils soon stills the mind by banishing thought and what Annie Dillard, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, describes as `the mind’s muddy river’:

The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance. ‘Launch into the deep’ says Jacques Ellul, and you shall see.

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.’

Enough about focusing. We don’t go to church to focus on anything or anyone; but it certainly helps if we do it more when we’re there.


One of the principal reasons many Christians (Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and others) enjoy church is the liturgy: the theatre of the service, and especially, of course, the music. I spent a blissfully happy eighteen months living on the periphery of a large Benedictine Monastery, Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire. I attended the liturgy, the Divine Office (a collection of psalms and spiritual readings), five times a day when the monastic services were held. Matins, the first prayer of the day, was chanted rather than sung, but had a charm of its own. I loved being a part (not necessarily appreciated by the monks!) of the monastic offering, and shared in my heart their fatigue and discomfort at being up so early in the morning.

After forty minutes of silent personal prayer, the monks returned to their choir stalls and we sang Lauds, the joyous office to greet the new day. There is something completely magical about Gregorian chant, the ancient music of the Church dating back hundreds of years. I love it most sung by monks: their lower voices please my ear more readily than the higher voices of the nuns. I enjoyed the chant when I was a novice too but was irritated and saddened by the fact that my voice was too cracked and unreliable to join in.

Gregorian chant plucks at the strings of my heart, causing it to sing inwardly in a wild ecstasy of delight, and I have a sneaking feeling that it is the music which brings many of the worshippers to church. It is rare to hear Gregorian chant in a parish situation these days, although the old favourite ‘Credo III’ gets the occasional airing. To my ear, some of the older hymns (and a few of the newer ones) come second best to the ancient chants, though the words of some are a rich source of devotion. A writer can talk more powerfully about God in poetry and hymns than in prose and I often read them to myself at home. I find that many express a theology which chimes with my own and that, of course, feels good.

One that comes immediately to mind is `Will You Let me Be Your Servant, by Richard Gillard. I love particularly two lines in this hymn:

I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the night-time of your fear

because they epitomise for me the heart of my years of work with the dying: the being there as friend and comforter to the patients in both the hospice and the hospital.

What a contrast, too, is the notion of God as servant: the Servant King who washed his disciples’ feet to model his way of ministering, his way of being God. It always fascinates me that although the three evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, record the breaking of the bread in their account of the Last Supper, John, the beloved disciple, makes no reference to it, focusing instead upon the washing of the feet and Jesus’ mind-blowing teaching about Love:

Love one another as I have loved you.
By this shall men know that you are my disciples. John 13:34-35

Where has the institutional church gone wrong? Why do Catholics put the Pope on a pedestal and dress him up like a king? Where did they get that from? Surely not from the Gospels. Why do we revere him as the ‘Holy Father’ and, indeed, what opportunity do we give to him to be holy, locking him up in a palace far away from the people he is called to serve? My ex-Jesuit friend, the Canadian writer and broadcaster Neil McKenty, looked at the Pope on American television last night and said: ‘Where are the women?’ How come Christ’s representative on earth is surrounded by men, and celibate men at that? Roll on the day when Catholic priests may marry and Catholic women become priests. More of that later.

I write this book as Anglicans in the UK are discussing (dare I say, bickering over) whether women should be ordained bishops. I find the arguments and the behaviour of the anti-faction both sad and ridiculous. ‘Jesus didn’t have women apostles,’ moan. So what? We’re talking about over two thousand years ago in Palestine, when the culture and the role of women was so very different to our own time.

In this, the twenty-first century, women are accepted as doctors, lawyers, engineers and even heads of state. In the Anglican, Lutheran, Jewish and Methodist churches, women have been admitted to the priesthood for some time. I have vivid memories of my friend Carolyn Brodribb’s ordination in Exeter Cathedral: it was a beautiful and moving event – as indeed are all ordinations. The best moment for me, however, was after the service as I stood outside the cathedral and watched two little girls rush up to one of the women ordinands, who gathered them into her arms. Motherhood and priesthood: what a glorious and fitting combination, for are not mothers mentors, comforters, arrangers of celebrations, chastisers and the ever-present sustainers of the unity of the family? I applaud Housetop, the charity which works for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church: more power to their prophetic elbows.

The subject of women clergy leads me naturally back to the subject of why people go to church. Many people go to church for simple reasons: because they like and respect their priest or minister, for example, and he or she preaches a good sermon. Charismatic or holy ministers will always draw people to church, and that is surely as it should be, even though I was taught that the Mass was the Mass, a fount of grace and spiritual strength whoever said it. When I was in medical school at Oxford I rode my bike a mile or so every morning to attend Mass in the Catholic chaplaincy, when I could have more easily gone to the Church of St Aloysius, which was next door to my college. No one questioned the reasons for my choice of liturgy but I see now that it was because I adored the chaplain, Father Michael Hollings, who was a truly remarkable man.

Michael, who sadly died some years ago, became a life-long friend and mentor. I loved him when I was a student because he was kind and funny and a wonderful listener: always there, both physically and emotionally, for his young flock. He was generous to a degree, providing tea to any student who dropped in and food to any tramp who knocked on his door. Michael continued this hospitality after he left Oxford for a London parish, and I have a vivid memory of him making piles of sandwiches and stirring soup for the men of the road.

Alas, not all priests I have met were like Michael. Our parish priest in Australia once angrily tossed the small change from the Sunday collection on to the road in an effort to make his parishioners more generous. If I’d been older I’m sure I would have delighted in putting fistfuls of the smallest coppers in to the collection the following week. Something else I remember clearly, however, is the sight of the same priest sitting on top of our farm gate, with Rusty the Alsatian snapping at his heels and my
mother, who hated the Catholic Church in general and the priest in particular, giggling weakly at his fear and indignity. All of which leads me to the conclusion that priests are men before they are priests, and merit our respect only if they earn it. My hunch is that years of subservient ‘yes Father, no Father’, derived from the notion that the priest is God’s representative on earth, has given the priesthood an aura and mystery that it does not deserve.

In the medical world there is a similar hierarchy, with a mystique attached to those at the top. Perhaps the consultant’s pin stripe suit is the equivalent of the priestly dog collar, a sign of authority and superiority. Things, of course, are changing and not all consultants wear ‘The Suit’, just as not all priests wear ‘The Collar’. I personally welcome this trend toward informality because both priests and doctors are, by nature of their calling, servants, as Jesus was a servant and a washer of feet. As Richard Gillard’s hymn both begins and ends:

Will you let me be your servant?
Let me be as Christ to you.


Another important factor which draws people to church is what the Anglicans call ‘fellowship’: the meeting of like-minded people for prayer, hymn-singing and good conversation. This kind of community-building can be really good, provided the group formed is open to welcoming the stranger and reaching out to the needy. Parishes of all denominations do wonderful things, such as ministering to youth groups and visiting the bereaved and the elderly. Much of this depends upon the energy of the priest or pastor and his or her ability to lead and energise his or her parishioners. Although I have no figures to prove it, my guess is that Anglican churches are better at this than most Catholic ones – but I could be quite wrong. One of the Catholic arguments for a celibate priesthood is that a man unencumbered by family will be freer to be available to his people. This may be true, but I find the argument that a man or woman supported by his or her family will be emotionally more resilient to the demands of ministry more cogent.

Lastly, or, more correctly, firstly, people go to church to honour God. Clearly religious people have a need to worship and many find the church setting conducive to prayer. I am, no doubt, in the minority in that I find myself more at peace in empty churches than in full ones. Even for me it was not always like this because, as mentioned earlier, I have a deep love of monastic liturgy with its Gregorian chant and beautifully-read scripture. In some ways, my time at Oxford spoiled me for ordinary parish Catholicism, which could never live up to the liturgy at the student chaplaincy or at the Dominican church at Blackfriars. The other issue for me was that I had a deep sense of belonging to the hospital community and had no desire to embrace the church one as well. All these are very personal reasons, and other Catholics or Anglicans will have their own reasons for going or not going to church. My need for formal liturgy has diminished as I have got older and I suspect that I am not alone in this. Maybe my absence from attendance at church is a sabbatical and maybe it isn’t, but does it really matter if I find God in other places and in other ways? More — much more — of this later!




This, of course, is the question that I asked myself every week when I first started missing Sunday Mass. My ‘lapsing’ was gradual, and came about because of practical issues rather than spiritual ones. I was working very hard as a senior doctor at the time and had no wish to sacrifice my one lie-in of the week. There was Mass at six o’clock on a Sunday evening, which was fine because it didn’t clash with anything important. At some point, however, I took to visiting my brother and his family fifteen miles away on a Sunday afternoon and, after a walk or a trip in his boat, we would gather together for a typical English afternoon tea. Mike always had tea at five and that meant that I had to either rush off at half past five or skip Mass and stay chatting with the family.

At first I felt very guilty, and worried that the wrath of God would descend upon me, but after a while it seemed right to stay with my family whom I saw only once a week. Some of the time I went to the University chaplaincy Mass but then my friend Barry, the chaplain, was sent off to a far away parish by the bishop and I gradually drifted away from churchgoing. I give you this rather boring detail to make clear that my lapsing had nothing to do with a crisis of faith or an attack of atheism; it was just that, like my niece, I didn’t feel I was ‘getting anything out’ of going to Mass any more, and I came to believe that the church’s teaching that deliberately missing Mass on Sunday was a mortal sin was unreasonable, if not ridiculous.

Once I had made that decision, all sorts of seditious ideas occurred to me. I thought of the Irish farming communities of my forbears and the power and authority that the priest held over his parishioners. Of course, many of those priests were good and holy men whose power lay in the fact that they were literate and better educated than the men and women they ministered to. I did wonder, however, if the idea of God being more present in the Eucharist than in the land, the sea and the beasts gave them a certain hold over a simple community. To put it bluntly, God was locked in the tabernacle and the priest held the key!

My question is: was God more present in the tabernacle, with its seductive little red light, or was the Servant King outside, tilling the fields, cutting the turf and feeding the babies with his people? God the carpenter, the fisherman, the healer, does not seem to fit comfortably within the confines of a small box, however beautiful the door; whereas El Shaddai, the God of the mountain, and Jesus, the itinerant preacher, seem utterly at home in the open air.

I find it quite scary to write this because I know that I am challenging one of the fundamental teachings of Catholicism, which is held very dear by millions of people throughout the world. Who am I to challenge this teaching? And yet, why shouldn’t I? Surely God and his Church are used to questions, and a retired doctor’s musings should damage neither.

Returning to the title of this chapter, I repeat my question: does not going to church on Sunday matter? The answer to this question clearly cannot be a simple yes or no because a number of different people are involved. Perhaps then we should ask: to whom does it matter? First and foremost, we must ask: does your or my not going to church on Sunday upset God, the Divine, the mysterious creator of the Universe?; does God get pleasure from us sitting or kneeling in church, trying to concentrate on a service which gives us no joy and no obvious spiritual nourishment? I suspect not. What God asks, if we are to believe the Bible, is that we should be kind and just and honest. We should not hurt his earth or his creatures, and we should look after the poor, the sick, the old and the children amongst us. That, as I understand it, is what being a good Christian, Jew, Muslim or Buddhist is all about.

My next question is more complex: is an individual damaged, spiritually or emotionally, if he or she stops going to church? The answer to this is clear: it depends upon the individual. If this person ceases to cultivate his or her relationship with the Divine, and embraces a life of self-gratification with no care for his neighbour, then yes, he is damaged. The trouble is, life is not nearly as simple as that. Going to church does not necessarily make an individual a better person: it depends upon whether or not he or she takes in and acts upon what is taught. As Jesus said:

‘Blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it. ‘
Luke 11:28

It is perfectly possible to go to Mass on Sundays and practise as a Chilean dictator, a mafia boss or a rapist the other days of the week.

So, what are we to do? Should we close down the churches, stop training priests and abandon religion? Of course not; we can only do what most Christians are doing already: try to make our churches places of warmth and hospitality, and our liturgies life-giving and life-changing. One of the great difficulties for pastors is that different people want different things from their churches; by which I mean that Christians can be culturally very different.

The style of service that I personally find helpful these days is a simple Eucharist with a small group of like-minded people. Before I got my dogs six years ago, I was a frequent visitor at a Jesuit retreat house in the Midlands, where I went to pray, to read the scriptures and to talk to one of the priests. I found these visits deeply life-giving, and they suited my way of life as a busy hospital doctor. The liturgies there suited me well too in that they were quiet and reflective, very different from what was available to me in Plymouth.

I loved, too, the liturgy at Ampleforth, set as it was in a cathedral-like abbey, and performed with enormous grace. The music, of course, was wonderful and I have rich memories of singing this Advent hymn:

O comfort My people and calm all their fear
And tell them the time of salvation is near
All mountains and hills shall become as a plain
For vanished are mourning and hunger and pain.

I love the music of this hymn, but mostly I love the words, so relevant as they are to my vocation as a doctor and to my work with the dying.

Best of all the monastic liturgies were the Easter ceremonies. The Lamentations of Jeremiah, sung solo and unaccompanied in the early morning on Good Friday, would send shivers up my spine, as would the sound of the words ‘Lumen Christi’ (the Light of Christ), which were sung three times as the priest entered the darkened abbey church. First one candle would be lit from the Paschal candle, then another and another, until the church was glowing with candlelight, symbolising the light of Christ in the world. (Then, alas, they turned the lights on for safety reasons and the magic was gone!)

Clearly this was a good emotional experience for me and hopefully it strengthened my faith. Other people, however, are culturally very different. I feel at home in an Anglican cathedral liturgy but, frankly, cringe when I see American Pentecostal services on the television. The people involved in such services, however, clearly enjoy their worship and it makes them feel closer to God. ‘In our Father’s house there are many mansions’ – room for plainchant, for Negro spirituals and for rock music. All we can hope is that the walls are soundproofed or there will be serious trouble in heaven!

Another of my concerns about missing Sunday Mass was whether or not I would upset the parish priest, or give ‘scandal’ to other members of the congregation. I came to the conclusion, however, that even if the priest cared he would get over it and those parishioners who missed me would probably pray for my conversion.

Lastly, there is the question: ‘what has abandoning church-going done to me personally?’ Am I the poorer for this loss of the Eucharist, and have I strayed from the path of righteousness? My answer to this would be a definite ‘No!’ because I feel that, as one door has closed for me, so many others have opened: my experience of Christianity is not only wider and deeper, but also infinitely more joyous. It is this joy that moved me to embark upon this book, in an attempt to share the riches I have found.

I should explain at the outset that there has been a radical change in my way of life since I retired from work at the hospital eight years ago. Up until August 2002, I worked full time in a big cancer treatment unit, seeing breast cancer patients in the clinic and anyone who needed emotional help in our drop-in support centre, The Mustard Tree. I truly loved the patient work, though I got tired and hassled like everyone else. What I didn’t like was the rush to get to work on time, the struggle to find a parking place and the endless piles of paperwork which called for my attention. The other thing I didn’t like was the inevitable tension between different members of staff. I fell out early on with the woman counsellor appointed to form a team of volunteer counsellors for the patients –something that I thought of as my job. These kinds of differences of opinion and outright hostility are very common in hospitals, just as they are in other institutions (including convents) where strong-minded men and women encroach upon each other’s territory. (When I wrote my thesis for my psychotherapy qualification, I chose this subject of conflict in the work place and had a fascinating time reading around the subject.)

Suddenly, on my sixty-fifth birthday, my life as a doctor ended. I could get up when I liked, drink coffee by the sea, write another book and learn to paint. Greatest of all these joys was the fact that I could have a dog! My Chow-chow puppy, Anka (to ‘anchor’ me to Plymouth), had in fact arrived a month or so before my retirement, being ready for homing towards the end of May. He was, in part, the gift of my close colleagues, whom I loved and love to this day. He cost a lot of money (and still does) but I would rather live in a bed-sit on bread and water than part with him or his sister Mollie, a fabulous black Chow bitch who joined us in October, a week after I had had a bilateral mastectomy for breast cancer. I should explain to the uninitiated that Chows are large, woolly dogs, descended from the arctic wolf (and possibly from bears), and are definitely not to be confused with Pomeranians, which are vaguely similar in design but much smaller! They are stunningly beautiful animals and invite endless comments from passers-by when we promenade upon the sea front each day. They are, however, also extremely stubborn, wilful and given to running off to explore some important scent. They are, in fact, hunting dogs and are definitely not to be trusted with cats, squirrels, sheep or joggers!


I have no doubt that all these benefits of retirement have made me a happier and more relaxed person, but they have also impacted upon my spiritual life in that I have become much more aware of, and grateful for, the Creator and the world which he, or she, created.

What has happened, I think, is that I have slowed down (as one does with age and leisure) and become much more ‘contemplative’ in my approach to life. When I was thinking about becoming a nun I had to choose between a ‘Contemplative’ order and an ‘Active’ one. I should explain that I was tormented by a sense of calling to Religious Life from my last year at school until I exorcised it for ever by ‘trying my vocation’ in my forties. The ‘Active’ orders, like the Sisters of Mercy or the Jesuits, live in the community and do good works such as nursing or teaching, fitting their prayer into the spaces between their good deeds. For the Monastic, or so-called ‘Contemplative’ orders, the theory is that prayer is central and work secondary. A Sister teacher will rise early to pray, work all day in the classroom and say her prayers wearily at night. The Carmelites or Benedictines, on the other hand, rise early or even in the middle of the night to pray, and interrupt what they are doing for Lauds, Midday Prayer, Vespers and Compline. Their prayer is their work and their tasks are done without idle talk. The idea is that they should mull over and reflect upon what they have read or heard of the scriptures – the Word of God – and raise their hearts and minds to God in praise and gratitude. That, at least, is how it’s supposed to work. Either way of life suits some people wonderfully well while others somehow wither emotionally and never reach their full potential.

When I entered a monastic order in my early forties, I became deeply unhappy and quite unlike my normal exuberant, and somewhat irreverent, self. It wasn’t that I was bored but, rather, terribly lonely for kindred spirits and the dialogue, light and serious, which had hitherto been integral to my life. Our recreation period in the evening was in some ways the worst moment of the day as we sat around a table knitting or sewing and making polite conversation. My sister-in-law, Pat, hit the nail on the head when she described it as being ‘like a cocktail party without the booze!’

There was lots about convent life that I loved; the liturgy and the silence and the constant exposure to the scriptures were meat and drink to me (although not as aesthetically pleasing as the deep voices of the men at Ampleforth!). What did not suit me, however, was the largely unspoken discipline, which produced in me a constant fear of doing the wrong thing. I was absurdly afraid of the Novice Mistress who, though ten years my junior, had a great air of authority. In some ways it was similar to the interpersonal tensions of the workplace, with the one difference that we couldn’t go home at the end of the day and put up our feet in front of the telly!

Now that my convent years are well behind me, I understand the word ‘contemplative’ in a wider sense. I prefer to talk about Active and Monastic religious orders rather than Active and Contemplative ones, because contemplation is a virtue which is certainly not confined within the walls of convents and monasteries. To contemplate, in its ordinary sense, is to observe: we contemplate a plan of action, a beautiful scene or the devastation that follows a tornado. Contemplation, in its narrower, spiritual sense, is to observe the footprints of the Divine; to sit, poised, waiting for the crack of a twig or the rustle of leaves to indicate the Presence. If this rather poetic language leaves you baffled, let me try once more to explain. Contemplation is a practice in which a person stills mind and body, emptying the mind if possible or ignoring the ceaseless flow of thought and chat, opening himself or herself to the presence of the Divine. This is something that can be done in church or at home, gazing at the mountains or sitting in a train. It is not something you do while driving a car or performing surgery, but it is perfectly possible to do it while ‘tuning out’ a television programme others are watching.

This practice of contemplation can lead to an increased awareness of the Divine Presence in all things. As the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, over a hundred years ago:

The World is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to greatness, like the ooze of oil

From ‘God’s Grandeur’

I seem, once more, to have strayed somewhat from the stated theme of this chapter so let me end by saying that I do not believe that I personally am a worse or a less spiritual person for having abandoned churchgoing. Furthermore, when I admit to my Catholic friends that I no longer go to Mass I find that many of them share my ‘lapsed’ condition.


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