In Ways I Never Expected
I grew up in a Catholic Family, I went to church every Sunday not just at Christmas. I was christened, had my First Holy Communion and was Confirmed. I was an altar girl for many years and stood beside the Priest each and every Sunday as he blessed the Body of Christ. I was a good little Catholic girl and said my prayers each and every week.
It wasn’t until I stood next to the altar on the day of my Grandmother’s funeral that everything changed. I was young, I was angry and from that day on I doubted the existence of God and questioned everything I had been taught.
Despite my doubts, I still went to Sunday school and took part in my Confirmation. I stood at the altar of the Cathedral and let the Bishop slap my face as I confirmed that I would continue with my faith into adulthood.
Well, I lied. At least that is how it felt at the time. I lied in front of God, the congregation and my family. I stood up there and I lied to everyone. I didn’t believe. I didn’t want to believe. I didn’t want to go to church anymore.
Then, my mother did something unexpected. Instead of waking me up early to go to church with her, she gave me a choice.
I chose not to go. I chose to turn my back on a faith that I had believed for over 13 years.
These days, I struggle to consider myself a devout Catholic because I question so much. I have faith that there is a plan for me, I believe there is a plan, but I also believe that we choose the path we want to take to get there. It doesn’t matter if you believe it is God or the Universe that guides your path, personally I took comfort that as my youngest daughter was fighting for her life, someone up there was looking over her.
I am pro-choice. I believe that women should have a right to their own bodies. I believe in contraception and sex before marriage but I don’t believe in the idea of Hell.
Most Catholics would say that because I question so much, I shouldn’t call myself Catholic. I believe that the world has moved on since the dark ages and that my faith (much like Pope Francis) has become more progressive.
You might ask what it was that shifted my thought process. The answer… I took a trip to Jerusalem.
My husband travelled to Tel Aviv for business a lot, and on one occasion I asked to go with him. I had always been curious about visiting Jerusalem. It wasn’t the first time myself and my husband had visited a Holy place together. At the beginning of our relationship, we lived in Barcelona together, and we visited The Sagrada Familia. He loved asking me questions about the significance of all the small details of the church, and I loved teaching him. He is much less religious than I am, but most of the time we don’t discuss it. In my opinion, religion is a personal matter and doesn’t always need to be discussed.
I am not really sure what I expected. I looked forward to walking the path Jesus and his disciples walked. I looked forward to experiencing all areas of Jerusalem and The Holy Land and knew that there was much more to it than just the Christian quarter. What I didn’t expect was the sheer amount of emotion that would rush through me.
Each ‘quarter’ of Jerusalem has its own unique charms. Walking through The Gates of Damascus, you are faced with the most amazing smells and colours as street traders sell their wares to the passing public and tourists. I may have been utterly naive, but the one thing I didn’t expect was to see just how many people live within the walls of Jerusalem. For me this place always felt like a living ‘museum’ in my mind. Somewhere that all faiths would pilgrimage to, so to see so many families and young children just sitting on the cobbled streets living their day to day life made the whole thing feel so much more real to me.
As I walked through the streets from one quarter into the next, I was amazed at how peacefully all the religions lived together in such close proximity. With so much fighting between nations and religions, I felt safer inside the walls of Jerusalem than in any European country. The same calm came over me whilst walking the streets that does when I walk into a church. A feeling of safety, comfort and sanctitude.
As we walked up to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a chill raised the hair on my arms and a lump rose in my throat. To this day I have no idea why. Even writing this and recalling the day fills me with goosebumps. I was flooded with anticipation, gratitude (I was experiencing something so many would never have the chance to), and a large dose of Catholic guilt maybe mixed in there somewhere too. I was not overly emotional about visiting this sacred land when I booked my flights, I was more curious than anything – yet my emotions quickly took hold as I placed my hand on the walls of the building.
The church itself is one of the most awe inspiring places I have ever had the privilege to step inside of. The Sagrada Familia may have the wow factor and the artistic flair of Gaudi, but this is breathtaking in an entirely different way. Your breath is taken away by the emotions that surround you. It’s palpable. The entire building seems to pulse with it. The walls seem to hold pride and heartache together in a tight embrace.
The soundtrack that envelops you consists of gentle sobs of those laying candles on the Stone of Unction (Stone of the Anointing) to be blessed, and hushed tones of those milling around the ‘Navel of the Earth’ (which lays beneath the dome and is highly regarded at the spiritual centre of the earth).
The floors seems to shiver with anticipation. The colours seem brighter and the smells more intense.
As I stood in the Chapel of the Crucifixion, I cried. Silent but boulder like tears. I couldn’t put my finger on why and silently wiped them from my cheeks not entirely sure what emotion I was feeling. The art on the walls, the cold of the stone alters, the intricacy of the details – this was a holy place for many more reasons that I expected.
I cried not necessarily because I am religious, or because I believe that Christ was a saviour sent to save us. Not because he died for our sins. But because he died. Because this one humble man, no matter your beliefs and religion, this man was killed for his beliefs. He was killed because he chose to believe something others did not. He stood up for his own views and was crucified for them. And hundreds of years later, people of countless religions, beliefs and faiths pass through this one hallowed place each day and pray over the path that he once walked. No matter what you believe, the measure of faith cannot be questioned.
I have never felt serenity, or calmness in my life more than the moment I stood in the Catholicon with the ‘Centre of the Universe’ at my feet and an incredible mosaic depiction of Jesus in the Dome above my head. A man condemned to death because of his faith and love.
I don’t believe we are tolerant to religion. Not as much as I would like to hope we will be. There is still prejudice and judgement. Wars are fought and lives are lost because we can not agree on which God we should believe in. But that day, I stood surrounded by people of different faiths, in a Basilica which holds more than thirty chapels for different religions and was proud that we have come far enough to be able to share and join together to experience such a hallowed place.
I could prattle on for another 1000 words about the colours in the church, the striking images and cobbled stones of the streets that weave throughout Old Jerusalem; the intricate details or the eerie silence of the Wailing Wall – but I don’t need to. Because Jerusalem is not a place you should read about.
Quite simply put – it is a place you should experience for yourself, no matter what religion you are.
I cannot put into words the peace I was left with that day, or the changes it made to my outlook on religion – what I can say is that I would defy anyone, no matter race, religion, age or sex, to visit this amazing place and not feel in some way ‘changed’ by the experience.