We were watching a programme the other night on Joan of Arc and I reflected that it is very rare for me to entirely espouse the English point of view. Then I figured out why I was so hostile to her. It’s the God question.

Joan of Arc, whether you admire her or not, was an extraordinary person, who as a teenage girl declared that God had sent her with a message for the king of France. She was sent to take charge of his army and to fight the English. God would be on their side; she would drive the English out of France, and he then the Dauphin, would duly be crowned king of France in their traditional place for coronations which was Rheims Cathedral. He had been unable to be crowned at Rheims (the French equivalent of Scone (pronounced Scoon) in Scotland as it was in the hands of the English.)

God knows the English have a habit of going where they have no business, and the fact that I share their view of Joan does not imply any sympathy for their cause in France.

But I have the greatest suspicion of people to whom God has entrusted a mission, (allegedly, generally by themselves) especially one which requires other people to carry out this mission as well. I think such people are either deluded or charlatans. I think personally that Joan of Arc made it all up – that she was both attention seeking and delusional. Why should she (or indeed anyone) have a hot line to God? Why should she be in charge of the army when she had no military experience? France (at that time) was partly under English occupation. Her visions were proved to be in error and she (God’s own woman of high destiny according to her) fell into the hands of the English and was burnt at the stake as an heretic, the English not being magnanimous in victory.   She certainly had ‘bottle’ but she lacked the guile ad strategic planning and caution necessary to be a military success.   Her chief talent seemed to be in self publicity.   She was a celebrity in her day

Incidentally in these cases where the Virgin Mary has allegedly appeared to some peasant girl, she never has anything in the least novel, or interesting or news-worthy to say, but just repeats such platitudes as might occur to an uneducated person. I am not so unspiritual as to deny that mystical experiences do exist. However, I firmly believe that these experiences are for the see-er of the vision alone, and he should not attempt to subvert other people to his vision. Neither do I agree with the medical profession which tends to the view that these experiences represent a brain malfunction, an aspect of disease (though they may do in some cases.) Every person who dreams a dream, or sees a vision, has to integrate that experience into their psyche, however best they can, or dismiss it as of no account. But it’s a problem for them alone.

I completely disapprove of the habit of mankind of declaring people to be saints. Who are we to say? Our own behaviour falls so far short that I doubt if we could recognise a saint (supposing such a thing exists.)

The whole thing reminds me of the woman who in a dream was being chased by her psychiatrist. She kept running and running in increasing terror until eventually she was backed into a corner and in despair said over her shoulder to her pursuer: What are you going to do to me? Lady, he replied. It’s your dream.




The puff of smoke came faster than expected.    Like the genie out of the bottle, the incumbent was not perhaps what was expected, and once let out, cannot be put back in again.

All the following remarks are without any proof whatsoever, and are therefore merely conjecture, but here’s my impressions for what they’re worth.    I observe, of course, from a point of view of detachment not being one of what the Roman Catholic church would call ‘ the faithful’.

My impression was that from the church hierarchy’s point of view,  the election of this candidate was a mistake.   I wonder if it turned out rather as Margaret Thatcher’s election apparently did, where no-one actually intended that she would be the final selected candidate but somehow things went wrong and they were stuck with her.   I wonder whether the opposing factions were balanced in opposition, and voted for the successful candidate as an exercise to buy time and regroup, choosing some-one sufficiently obscure that nobody thought he had any chance of winning.   Clearly God does work in mysterious ways…   I felt those officials whom one did see or hear were gob-smacked, unprepared and dismayed, for all their fair words.

Pope Francis 1’s appearance reminded me of the ambiguous scripture, (Isaiah 53:2) ‘(The Son of Man) hath no beauty that men should desire him’.    I hadn’t previously  considered that Popes John Paul and Benedict were strikingly handsome men, even in old age, whereas this man’s physical appearance would never draw a second glance.   He had, however, a powerful presence.   He has the look of a man it would be wise not to cross.   He looks merciful and fair, but not weak.   A formidable man in every respect.    It seemed to me that he had not desired the appointment, that it had come to him entirely as a surprise, and not by any means a pleasant one, and he was gathering his courage and resources for the task ahead of him.   He was calm, accepting of Fate.

The crowd was polite and welcoming and responded to him, but it was not overly enthusiastic.    They did not know him.

One could speculate that possibly when Pope Benedict received the report on corruption and malpractice within the Vatican, he felt that he  himself, having been a Vatican insider, was not the man to tackle the job, and possibly that age and infirmity meant he lacked the strength.   Did he decide I wonder that he would help a new incumbent, if his successor were so minded, to deal with the problem, so that the new Pope had an advisor, and did not face the difficulty of being a newcomer, and perhaps  rather like an incoming Cabinet Minister at the mercy of entrenched civil servants?   Already the Press, which sits in moral judgement on everyone though it lives in a glass house, is pursuing the aspect of his relationship with the Argentinian dictatorship.   I am not certain that outright opposition to the party in power in a country, with the result that your religion might be driven underground and yourself ‘disappeared’ would be the wisest action nor in the best interests of ‘the faithful’.   One has to suppose there is no shadow of sexual misconduct associated with him, otherwise  we should certainly have heard of it by now.

Pope Francis spoke well.   He reached out.   He asked the crowd to pray for him which suggests that he remembers that we are all sinners and have much need of blessing.    He said his blessing was for ‘all men and women of goodwill throughout the world’.    Even I, though the church would regard me as an heretic and apostate, could say Amen.

It is just possible that he is genuinely a man of God.    Merely a mortal, and subject to human weakness like every one of us.   But still, a stout-hearted man is certainly a blessing to be counted.

May he walk in the light.




In the light of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent resignation, I’ve been pondering the tribulations of the Roman Catholic church.

I should perhaps declare my position up front.   I’m a daughter of John Knox and a protestant rebel in every fibre of my being, and therefore  I’m not in the camp with the church of Rome.   But though I personally could not contemplate an authoritarian, patriarchal religion where women are not regarded as equals and where the clergy have authority over the laity, I have many friends who are Roman catholic.   I respect their beliefs and appreciate their charitable and god-fearing view of the world and have no desire to be either disrespectful or cause offence.   Nor do I approve of Ian Paisley calling the Pope the anti-christ.  Quite apart from his impoliteness to an invited guest , it is said that God’s house has many mansions.   There are fine, and there are not so fine,  people in every institution and walk of life.

It has long appeared to me that essentially Christendom comprises two opposing parties.   There is the Catholic church, and there are protestors against it;  and you are either of the one group or the other.   I always resent how the catholic clergy refer to their flocks as ‘the faithful’ but from the Church’s point of view the institution has remained faithful to the doctrines which it considers were handed to the first Pope from God as his one and only true church on earth.   It’s adherents have  also remained faithful to those doctrines (nominally anyway).

So far as I am aware, no significant tenet of faith has ever been abandoned by the church.   They believe that the Pope is Christ’s representative on earth;  that they are the one true church;  that the priesthood must be of unmarried men;  that marriage is a sacred and indissoluble union between man and woman;   that intercourse should be primarily for procreation;   and that a woman’s salvation lies in childbearing and that any attempt to pervert this natural outcome is sinful.   As far as I understand it, any non catholic is an heretic, but that God is merciful and the church forgiving and will gather to its bosom any repentant sinner and rejoice in their salvation.   For them, there is no salvation except through the medium of the catholic church.   These articles they have always believed and they have been faithful to that belief.   They see themselves as obedient to God’s commandments.

(I’ve been writing about obedience recently too.   Frankly I don’t think it’s the virtue it’s made out to be.)

But the point I’m labouring to make here is that it is that dogged perseverance and loyalty to its original doctrines (what they themselves call faithfulness):  that it is the strength of the Roman Catholic church which has never moved from its position.   It stands where it has always stood, and in its view, it is the only gateway to heaven.   If the catholic church were to give way on any major point, it would undermine its whole position.    Let us imagine  that the church were to agree that women could become priests, or priests could marry.   To do so would be to admit that it had previously been wrong.  If it were wrong about these matters, over what else might it be wrong?   Then it could no longer stand in its holy place as God’s true and only church on earth.   It would just be another religious sect with changing views.

However, the catholic church is under attack on all sides.   It is interesting to note how very, very few of the children who have been reared in the Roman Catholic church in the UK, choose, when they come to marry, to do so in the faith.   Secularism and the Body Scientific undermines all religion.    The church cannot truly make restitution for the damage that has been done to its own people by paedophile priests.   And there is pressure from within for it to give way and agree that priests may marry; women can become priests;  homosexual couples may marry;  contraception is not sinful etc.   Giving in to any one of these demands will only increase the expectation that all these changes are inevitable.   By this zealous, reforming body, each successive Pope  is judged and found wanting.   Yet (I as an outsider looking at this) can understand that were the church to give way on any of these issues, it would no longer BE the Roman Catholic Church.

Could it be that the Pope actually is making an enormous sacrifice?   Although elderly and frail, he does not appear to me to be a man whose vital strength has departed.   I think Pope Benedict has enjoyed being the Pontiff (in an entirely appropriate and proper way.)   I see no evidence that, with the help which would be available to him, he is incapable of carrying out his duties.   The suggestion that he had become despondent about Vatican insider politics and decided to abandon the struggle is in my view risible.   One does not get to be Pope without a thorough understanding of Vatican politics.

So I’m left wondering if Pope Benedict has, contrary to all his instincts and desires, decided to stand aside in order that he and like minded brethren may influence the selection of a pope who will stand firm against these attacks on the Church?   If this were true, it would represent a truly great sacrifice on the part of the pope, worthy of the great christian tradition.   If this were true, perhaps it might also maximise the chances of some young, charismatic, say African pope, one with a few decades left in him to fight the good fight;  and who could be described as a modern, progressive choice, while actually being deeply conservative.

It will be interesting to observe the process of election of a new pope.   Will this be the dawning of a bright new day?   Or will the whole thing just go up in smoke?


Last week we had the pleasure of a visit from my daughter Joanna and her husband and children.

We girls went on an outing to Uckfield, a small Sussex village near us. At one point, a few shops are recessed back from the street and up about 6 steps, and as we approached them a motley assortment of persons were setting up what turned out to be a Good Friday service, using the pavement in front of the shops as the platform, while the ‘congregration’ stood in the space between the ‘platform’ and the road. There were no barriers, nothing was cordoned off… they were creating rather a hazard to navigation, but it’s a free country after all and one has to respect the views and beliefs of others.

We went in to the shop behind all this curfuffle (the shop was not connected to the service) and got on with our business.

Some considerable time afterwards, we approached the exit of the shop to leave, but the clergy had backed in to the doorway, which was now blocked. I’m not sure of the fashion rules of cassocks and clerical garb – people were sporting different colours but I don’t know whether this has any significance – or if the service was multi-denominational. Anyway, we stood politely waiting for an exit moment while a man who couldn’t play guitar accompanied a woman who couldn’t sing on some modern happy clappy hymn I’d never heard of.

It became apparent to me that we could stand there to kingdom come for all the clergy cared. Eventually we sent out the children, who were allowed, grudgingly, to pass, but were treated with great disdain.

I’m still standing with my trolley that assists me to walk, when the caterwauling stops and one of the ‘be-cassocked’ launches into a very long prayer. I have been well brought up, so I remain standing silently, though I do get to the How long, O Lord, how long stage before he mercifully draws to a conclusion. I tap (very gently and when he himself is not speaking ) on the shoulder of the officiant nearest me, who turns and glares at me with undisguised venom. I am slightly taken aback by the unchristian ferocity of his look, but I smile, standing there with my trolley, and I mime silently that I’d like safe passage through their midst. He is about to issue some clerical reprimand, when something in me stirs slightly, and I think, firstly, that if he says a single word, I’ll point out that this is a public highway and he’s causing an obstruction. But then hard on the heels of that, the killer remark offers itself. Whatever he says, I think, I’ll just smile and say, And may the peace that passeth all understanding encompass your heart also on this Good Friday, dear brother.

But it’s not just the peace that passeth all understanding; so does the ability some of us possess – including him – to hear that which has not been actually spoken, and he thinks better of saying anything and, grudgingly and ungraciously, stands aside.

Then I do wish him peace from my heart, unloving brother though he may appear to be, let me not be an unloving sister, and I think (Dune fashion) that I can thank him for giving me the opportunity to practice forbearance. Perhaps he stood there in physical pain; perhaps he had suffered a loss of faith and wondered what the point in his labours was; perhaps he was distressed at the loss of influence and lack of interest and respect what he believes in now receives; perhaps someone he loved had passed away and he was in despair. Perhaps he was just an unhappy, grumpy, ill-tempered, bad mannered, ungentlemanly man who leads a miserable life.

We have all found ourselves at some point wandering in distress, and some unknown person appears from nowhere, and merely by recognising us in our unhappiness, and perhaps saying a kind word, carrying our bag a little way, giving us a cup of coffee, tying our shoelace, has lifted our spirits and sent us on our way recovered out of all proportion to the small gift they appeared to give us; occasionally I have wondered (not very seriously, you understand) whether these people, who appear out of the mist when we need them, give us aid, and disappear again forever, are perhaps what was meant by the phrase ‘entertaining angels unawares’. Is it not possible, I wonder, as I wander down the streets of Uckfield towards a coffee shop, which my daughter who I am sure is fortunately thinking along much more sensible and practical lines than I am has sourced so that I do not have to walk too far – is it not possible that Fate as well as sending us ‘Angels of Mercy’ also sends us these little trials – trials of our faith, of our fortitude, of our loving kindness? I must in my lifetime have failed such trials far too often. The deadly javelin of hurtful words has always leapt unbidden to my hand. I have, with my capacity to aim for the jugular, mea culpa, flung it many many times, stepped over the fallen opponent, and walked on with barely a backwards glance. Perhaps thirty years ago I first recognised that though there was no amulet in life which would protect you from falling a little in love with some man who laid siege to you, never-thre-less, you were in no way obliged to do anything about it.    You just walked on by.   So it has taken me 60 years to understand that it is not necessary to destroy everyone who crosses you.   You have your lethal weapons, should it prove essential to deploy them, but in most cases, you can just walk on by.

I say a little prayer for my poor brother, the priest. May he find comfort. I say a little prayer of gratitude for my loving daughter, who has had thought and consideration for my comfort. I say a little prayer for the village of Uckfield: may it grow and prosper.

As we walk away, on the street behind us, the caterwauling begins once more. But if I listen very carefully, I can just hear, very faint and far away, from the farthest outpost of my imagination, the angel choir behind it.



One of the interesting things about travelling elsewhere is what you learn about yourself.   I did not realise how much I loved Britain until I first went abroad.

What amused me on our recent trip to Japan was how, although I regard myself as an original and independent thinker, holding to no particular body of opinion, it appears I am in fact just the product of my background the same as everyone else.

Because my father had, as I used to tease him (and not absolutely without malice either), his own hot line to God and an urgent desire to persuade others to his opinion, which I found irksome, I myself have been careful not to express my personal philosophy to others and to leave everyone alone to form their own religious view (or not, as they please.)     I found it surprising that at least one of my children had an antagonistic attitude to religion of any description, considering that no religious issues of any kind had ever been presented during their growing up.    I think the actual objection was ‘other people telling you what to think’, a view with which I had the utmost sympathy.

I would regard myself as being, in the widest possible sense, within the great body of the Christian – well even here I hesitate to say ‘church’ – Christian ethic, though I accept no creed or instructions from anyone and make no visible external demonstration of my inner belief.    I suppose one could be put in the category of Do It Yourself religion that the present Papal incumbent so disapproves of, though a greater authority than he is did say, My father’s house has many mansions.     To those persons of such poor judgement as not to recognise the inadvisability of summoning an irritable householder to his own door to ask fatuous questions at inconvenient times, eg what do you think God’s plans for world peace might be, I resist the temptation to reply:  Actually He was talking to me about this only last week; and deliver a 30 minute oration along the lines of ‘God’s idea is this’…     I politely say that I’m comfortable with my religious philosophy and don’t wish to discuss it, and wish them good-day.

If visiting a Stone Circle, I hail the gods of long ago; and I never undertake so much as a river crossing without making a (mental) genuflection before the altar of the god Neptune.    My father had a beautiful well, 9 rings deep, and every summer before we left to return to the South, I would say to him, Let us visit the Temple of Neptune then, and we would ritually walk with the little children and the two cats trailing behind us down the hill to the place of the well.     We would pass through the meadow, waist high with summer Scottish flowers, and larks would sing above the other moorland fields.      My father would solemnly unlock the well shed, and then remove the well covering.    I would kneel at the edge and stare down into the still depth of the crystal clear water which miraculously seemed to remain full to near the brim however dry it was or how much we used it.   My father, who, in the kind light of retrospection, sometimes did know when to be silent, shared my reverence for the bountiful planet which gives us life;  what does it matter to what name you offer your expression of gratitude?

You will perceive therefore that I regard myself as enlightened and tolerant (though I held it against a woman who once called me ‘pantheistic’; and in the case of another ‘christian’ who said to me once that ‘for a pagan’ I was well educated in religious matters, I doubt if I ever exchanged more than the minimum of polite greetings with him thereafter.)

So I am completely surprised by my hostility to non-European religions.     Buddhism.     Although I find the beauty and simplicity of a Zen garden attractive, and the faces of some monks have an innocent joy, I do not find it an appealing philosophy.   Fat man sits under a tree and gets enlightenment.    And in his writings, ‘It is very difficult for a woman to walk the path  to enlightenment’.    I think, could this be because she might have too much to do, not being able to sit under a tree all day?

And a Shinto shrine…   beautiful, of course, and generally wonderfully set in the landscape.   But I find this religion difficult to understand at all.    It’s as if we had made Memorials to former kings and worshipped them as gods.    Henry VIII as a god.   Well, I’m sure he would have approved.


So it would appear that European gods I can accommodate.   Confronted by non European religions, that Scottish Presbyterian I didn’t know I was rises up in righteous disapproval.   Heathen gods and superstitious nonsense, I find myself think, and then wonder, did I say that?   I am ashamed of my reactions and would disown them if I could, but it seems an unfortunate truth that though I may masquerade as a moderate modern woman, in fact there lurks in my secret heart a creature of covert Scottish prejudice.   

Daughter of John Knox?   I fear I am, monstrous regiment of women though he said we were…