THE EASTER liturgies were filled with special feeling for our family this year. My wife was received during the Vigil Mass, our son took his First Holy Communion, and our daughter was serving on the Sanctuary. The entire week was the fulfilment of several very different journeys, and for us blessed with a surprising sense of having come home.
I say surprising because my wife and I had both resisted the idea of "coming home" which many converts find attractive. Being "at home" is another way it is often expressed. To us, the notion seemed irrational and sentimental, and we felt embarrassed and threatened by such
emotionalism. What happened during the Easter liturgies was that we discovered a new understanding of what such unease might signify.
There are many ways of coming into full communion with the Church, of finding Christ, or letting him find you. I was received at Pentecost 1995 after two years of weekly meetings with our parish priest. My wife started her two-year journey almost immediately afterwards, choosing one of our local RCIA groups to help her find her way.
My own journey had to be private. I had painful experiences to deal with, and could never have talked about such things with a group of strangers. In effect, I would not have been able to talk about the very thing that had brought me to the Church in the first place. More than that, I had spent many years in academia, and the sort of questions I wanted to ask were not appropriate for the RCIA programme. I need silence and the kind of mediated talk with God that a priest can provide.
During my two years of preparation, I met the idea of "coming home" in all sorts of contexts. This may be partly due to the imagery of the Pilgrim Church, but with several of the people I talked to it also reflected a deeper reality: a lifetime's experience of exile, a new sense of belonging. For a religious people with a history of exodus and exile, the sense of "home" may be experienced as a simple yearning, or a much deeper mystical awareness of displacement. Some of the greatest spirituals ever written sing of "going home", and the yearning has considerable theological significance in the Exodus stories.
I'm obviously not going to claim such grand mystical realities for my own experience, or suggest that the more comfortable sense of "coming home" may be somehow less spiritually deep. For a lapsed Catholic or a convert from Anglicanism, the experience of conversion might well be one of welcome return: of a "coming home" to what the poet Geoffrey Hill describes as the familiar rhythms of the liturgy "telling of a rhythm of social duties, rites, ties and obligations from which an individual severs himself at great cost and peril". This seems to be a very real experience for many converts, and one I regard with envy: the RCIA programme is particularly important here in offering the communal support of friends and sponsors throughout the pilgrim's journey: a genuine Pilgrim Church.
But even in the RCIA groups it needn't be like that. For my wife, her experience was almost a journey into speech, rather than into silence. She needed to learn
to talk openly about emotional experience. To do that among a group of relative strangers can be very painful, the kind of challenge we find extremely difficult. But the point of the groups is to create a living community in which such things can be shared.
TRUST Is one of the most important experiences of the whole RCIA journey. During the course of two years, a lot is going to happen to any group of 12 adults. In my wife's own group, they shared a great deal: bereavement, illness, the birth of a child, deepening friendship. You can't spend two years together without becoming some kind of community.
And yet for both of us the heart of the matter has to be a sense of estrangement. For me, this estrangement grew from the rich liturgical life of
the Church, the sacrament of Confession, and unfamiliar devotions such as the Rosary.
For my wife, the main difficulty was the problem of relating to emotions, but she also felt uncomfortable with the use of symbols: the handling of bowls of sand to "give up" sins, the significance of candles and oil, the rites of welcome, election and procession, all those rituals through which the RCIA programme takes inquirers.
In our separate ways, we both felt like strangers in a strange land. We didn't feel comfortable. We didn't find anything familiar. Some of the time we felt quite lost. And the most distressing moments for both of us were when the past became "another country" in the most hurtful sense in the cold response of friends and family. Then we felt like exiles, caught between two worlds. And it is this reality I am struggling to describe. In existential terms, the truth of our journey has been the shock of finding ourselves in a strange land, and yet finding that land familiar. Which is partly what the Magnificat is about, and what I think Chesterton means when he says that our spiritual task is "to learn to look at things familiar until they become unfamiliar again". In making the world strange, we see it all the more clearly.
Holiness in biblical terms means otherness, incomprehensibility, beyond conception, beyond imagination, awesome. In our separate ways, my wife and I found the necessary unease, disease, restlessness, to glimpse that truth. In our moments of greatest distress, but also of joy, we are all homeless persons. And yet the homelessness is familiar precisely because it puts us in touch with the ground of our being, our true home: God.