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The Wedding Garment, a spiritual reflection

The Wedding Garment

Every now and again, I try to take a day, or at least a half-day, out of the busy-ness of life and spend time reflecting on what is going on for me, in my everyday life of home, family, community and spiritual journey. At these times, I ask my spiritual director to come up with a passage from the bible or a theme to use as the basis for my reflection - this stops me from picking my own agenda or from choosing something too comfortable. And so it was that in August 2002 I found myself reflecting on Matthew 22:1-14, the parable of the wedding feast, with an emphasis on ‘What is the wedding garment; .What is the wedding garment for you?'

It seemed innocent enough at the time and, as it was a fine day, I decided to take myself off to the coast where I knew I would be able to walk quietly along a hillside path overlooking the sea. The sun was out and there was a gentle breeze blowing as I left the world behind and found a bench to sit on where I knew that I would be undisturbed for as long as I wished. Undisturbed and decidedly uncomfortable as it turned out - the reflection that is, not the bench, though after some time the bench became uncomfortable too.

It was the question about my wedding garment that got me. I put myself into the picture and took my place among everyone else at the wedding banquet. I realised that most people had their own wedding garment, while a few people did not have one with them. I knew that this was probably significant, but also that it was nothing to do with me and definitely not something that I should be concerned with. I was aware, too, that everybody's garment was different -‘tailor-made’ for them as individuals - and that each garment was something to do with the wearer’s humanity or integrity, something to do with the fulfilment of their potential, of their becoming the person God created them to be. Then I realised that I, too, had a wedding garment, but that I wasn’t actually wearing it, I was carrying it - and I was carrying it because I was too afraid to put it on and wear it, as that would be to make a statement about myself that I just didn’t want to have to make.

In the middle of all this, Jesus was wandering around, speaking softly to people here and there, until finally he was standing by me. He said nothing; he didn’t ask why I wasn’t wearing my garment, but I knew that he knew why and, even though, as with the rich young man, ‘he looked at me and loved me’, I felt ashamed at my lack of courage. I think it was at this point that I realised what my problem was - that the statement that I didn’t want to make was that I feel called to ordination. Even to put this into print is difficult - not because I doubt it, but because it is a huge claim for a Catholic woman, and a happily married one at that, to make about herself. But it was seeing that call as a wedding garment, as a gift that must be accepted, owned and worn in order that I may be fully present at the wedding banquet, which made me realise that to do otherwise would be the same as returning a gift, unopened, to the giver, the Lover. Ouch !!

Coincidentally(?), within a few weeks I was invited to a baptism where the priest was a woman, and although I have been to many beautiful baptisms before, few have touched me as deeply as seeing this woman hold, cradle and speak so lovingly the words of baptism to the baby. She was, although not a mother herself, totally at one with the child in a way I had never seen at this sacrament before. I think that this was the first time I had experienced, or allowed myself to experience, a deep and very real pain at knowing that, even though I feel called to this, my church says that my gender precludes it.

I was born at the end of the Second World War to Irish parents who had come to England a couple of years earlier to find work. My father first took me to Mass when I was five, and I knew from the word go that this was special - it has remained so ever since. On passing my eleven plus exam, I went to a convent grammar school where I worked hard and did well, though, for the most part, my memories of the school are not particularly happy. However, I left school with a strong sense of my faith and Catholic identity, but I felt, and still feel, that this was more in spite of the convent than because of it. I learned to be good for the wrong reasons -fear, not love - though underlying this I was aware too that part of the jigsaw of my faith (the part about God being a loving God, rather than the ‘Uncle George’ figure described by Gerry Hughes) was missing. I was conscious that the staff were on the lookout for girls who would subsequently join their religious order, but fortunately they didn’t look at me in that light. This was just as well because, although I knew for sure that if the priesthood had been open to women I might well have explored that route, I had no wish to emulate these sisters by `becoming a nun !

The next twenty or so years were busy and fairly predictable - marriage, career and, eventually, family. It was a couple of years before my first child was born that I felt a real ‘pull’ in my faith life, a need to discover, and become, more. Throughout all this time I had been a firm and practising Catholic, and my faith had always been a very important part of my life, but now I knew that this was not enough ond that I was being called to something deeper, though I didn’t know what. I began to get involved in my local parish, initially as a reader where I soon found myself reading every Sunday at the 8.30am Mass. I gradually became more involved but the real change came shortly before my second child was born and we moved to another part of the country.

In my new parish, which was itself new, my wish to explore and become more involved was actively encouraged; I found that each step I took brought with it a sense of fulfilment and, somehow, of what I can only describe as ‘rightness’. Soon we had a new parish priest with whom I could discuss who and what I was and, perhaps more importantly, where I was going. With him as my Spiritual Director I began questioning, exploring, learning and growing. I knew that I had a vocation, in addition to that of marriage, to serve the Church, but I would not let myself think of it as a vocation to ordination, largely because my convent upbringing was still deep-rooted -and to voice such a thought, even to myself, would have been to give in to the sin of pride. Yet, the feeling of calling would not end did not go away so I responded as best I could whenever and wherever I could. I have been actively involved in my parish and Diocese for the past twenty years, undertaking a variety of ministries and learning as much as possible about my faith and my calling as prophet, priest and king until I now find myself studying for an MA in Theology and Ministry, with an emphasis on the ministry of women in the Church.

Over the years such comments to me as ‘why don’t they ordain you?’, or, ‘you’d make a good priest/deacon’ became more frequent and I could no longer dismiss them as light-hearted banter, but the fact remains that, as yet, the Roman Catholic Church will not entertain the thought of women’s ordination, so what’s the point, I thought, of ‘coming out’ about it? I use that expression with caution, as I would not want to hurt anybody’s feelings by appearing to be insensitive about a very difficult subject, but there are parallels to be drawn between the situation of women who feel called to ordination and men or women who feel that their orientation is towards people of the same sex as they are. For a start, until you’ve admitted the fact to yourself, you can’t, even if you felt it was safe to do so, admit it to anyone else. You can’t wear your own wedding garment until you’ve recognised it, identified it and actually claimed it.

So, by the time I’d finished my decidedly uncomfortable reflection on the bench, I’d identified my wedding garment and recognised the fact that I never wore it - in fact, at best I only carried it some of the time ! But what to do next ? After much thought, I went back to my Spiritual Director - a little hesitantly as I had more than a sneaky feeling that he would tell me what I already knew, i.e. that, at some point, I was going to have to do something about it. Needless to say, I wasn’t wrong. However, to my great relief he understood exactly where I was but even so he challenged me to think more about what I have described as ‘coming out’ about it, perhaps not immediately and perhaps only gradually as and when it felt safe. In answer to my question ‘what’s the point?’ he helped me to see that there is a great need to give witness to the fact that, whatever the Church may declare at this point in time, God does call, and is still calling women to Holy Orders - and until enough people have the courage to stand up and declare this as a reality, nothing is going to change.

So this is where I find myself at present, with one foot on the ground and one almost raised to take the next step. But I am afraid - not just of this ‘yes’ but of the other ’yeses’ I know will surely have to follow.

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