Wrinkle-free

The Cath News headline got me – Pope criticises obsession with looking forever young.

I read further. He was talking about Nicodemus. Now Nicodemus is not a Gospel someone who gets a lot of notice. I imagine him as a politician – one of the quiet ones, rarely seen on TV, but respected by his peers for his sincerity and intelligent approach to important issues. He would probably have a law degree and live in an up-market house in a leafy suburb.

The Nicodemus portrayed in John’s Gospel (3:1-21) was all of those things, but he was also anxious, timid and uncertain about new ideas, worried about being seen with the wrong people, a pragmatic man, thoughtful and reflective, serious about his religion. There’s something very appealing about Nicodemus. Maybe it’s because many of us we can recognise something of ourselves in him.

Jesus was so patient with this serious man who had trouble with creative language.  Words meant to encourage Nicodemus to see God’s Kingdom in a different light went straight over his head. His thinking was single track, and he had trouble hearing strange and unfamiliar expressions such as “born again”, as anything but literal. And these were the two words Pope Francis focused on in his current series of talks about old age.

“Today,” he said, “there is a dream of an eternal youth and a myth that makes us want to return to our mother’s womb, to come back always with a young body.“ The Pope’s focus made me smile because it’s so left field from the theology that is usually wrapped around this lengthy encounter that Jesus had with Nicodemus, confronting him with the need for a totally new beginning, like starting life all over again, if he wished to be a disciple.

To be able to see God like this, Nicodemus needed to think beyond the parameters of religion as he knew them. His rational mind coped wonderfully with Jewish law, but what Jesus asked for and offered was faith – faith that can embrace the mind boggling fact of God’s love for each and every person something that has nothing to do with our desire for a wrinkle-free face – and hands, and a body that moves easily between sitting and standing up. Maybe, too, the Pope had been finding his need to be in a wheelchair recently just a bit confronting.

All journeys from youth to old age, from childish to adult faith, need to wrestle with lots of God questions. We struggle to recognize God in the ups and downs of life, in the shadow and the light in the gradual move into aging. Some days it all seems a breeze, occasionally a bit of despair creeps in. More often there’s a kind of indifference or forgetfulness because the God stuff gets swallowed up in our everyday.

Nicodemus can be a model for us as we struggle to deepen and broaden how we live the God relationship formally gifted to us in Baptism and how it is changes in our fast moving world.  One day we will leave its shadows and darkness behind and move into the light that is God. And God won’t ever notice our wrinkles.

Judith (judith@judithscully.com.au)

Will my religion matter when I die

This is a question I’m asking myself now I’m of an age with way more time behind me than ahead. I’m also a Catholic and have been so since I was thirty two days old. Following religious tradition, my parents took me to their local church where prayers were said and promises made, a priest poured water over my unsuspecting head of black hair, and for better or worse, I was now a Catholic. I have a certificate to prove it. Not that I actually had a choice.

Most religions are passed down through family. My father was born into a Catholic family and my mother became a Catholic not long before she married, so it was taken for granted that my three brothers and I would be Catholics too. 

If I had been born in a Middle Eastern family I would probably have been a practicing Moslem, wearing a headscarf and praying to Allah. Or, with a name like Judith, I would have been right at home in a Jewish family, keeping all the religious rules about food and dress, but leaving the more important religious stuff to the males. More realistically, I might have grown up in a Methodist family like my mother did, going to Sunday school with my cousins, familiar with long hymns and able to quote bits of the Bible, chapter and verse

As it was, I learnt to colour my life the Catholic way. There were rules laid down to deal with any religious issues that might arise and a recognised line of authority to respect. Theology was the province of the clergy and contemplative prayer belonged in monasteries and convents.  These were my boundaries and it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I began to question them.

Talk about religion is as divisive as talk about politics. Is religion something one grows out of, like a school uniform or a wedding dress that still looks wonderful but no longer fits?. Then there’s the matter of the sexual abuse of children that for decades hid behind religious walls.

We don’t need historians or social scientists to tell us that the rate of change over the last fifty years is the highest it has ever been. Religion has been caught up in those changes. Church pews are more empty than full, churches are no longer open all hours, but locked to keep insurance costs down. Many country churches have been creatively re-purposed into family homes and bed-and-breakfasts.

Weekends have had a makeover. Shopping malls are a go-to gathering space, football moved across to Sunday and children’s sport has done the same. Weddings and funerals, once family affairs marked in a familiar church, are more often celebrated in a garden or a specialised religion-free space and christenings or baptisms replaced by a naming ceremony or first birthday celebration

All religions have a basic common goal expressed in a multitude of ways, namely to seek God. On a world scale, religious doctrines, moral codes and rituals each reflect something that is true and holy. The origins of hospitals, schools and social services can be traced back to a spiritualty that began as something deeply personal that eventually spread and expressed itself religiously.  Religion puts shape around our values – that the sick will be cared for, the hungry fed, the homeless sheltered and justice is a right for all.

Not long ago I stood in the little side chapel where I had been baptised and wondered at the way  Catholicism has  marked my life. There have been times when  I have been tempted to experiment with another brand of Christianity, one with better music or a more open approach to divorced people, a church that welcomes a woman as priest or pastor or minister, a church where a women’s viewpoint is  respected and their skills appreciated. Along the way I’ve learned – and had to unlearn as well – a great deal about religion, catholicity in particular. I’ve discovered that all religions have a common goal: to reveal God’s presence in all of us.

Somehow, I always return to the basic fact that my way to God is to be found in the Catholic tradition, even while I’ve given myself permission to colour outside the lines.

Judith judith@judithscully.com.au

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