Or: My faith, my wife, my son and the strange things we do when we see that death is coming.
Twenty five years ago this year my son had high hopes of becoming a priest. He had thought about it on and off while growing up, and as an older teenager and university student, in between different girlfriends, the idea continued to resurface. He had even talked about it with his girlfriends, which at first they found moving but, later, just boring. My wife and I encouraged him to go for it because we thought he would make a good priest, and more especially, a good teacher.
When he was visiting his old school in Southampton in the spring of 1995, he visited a school teacher who, like me, was a convert to Catholicism. That old teacher said to him, “Ferdi, when you are ordained, I hope you can do something about Catholic education. My daughter spent 15 years in Catholic schools and still does not seem to know about the Immaculate Conception. That was one of those dogmas I had to study, and struggle to accept, when I converted. It was one of the main differences between Anglicans and Catholics.” Ferdi agreed with his teacher and decided to do a bit of research. He asked a young girl in our parish about it. She had been until recently Head Girl at the local Catholic girls’ school. “Immaculate Conception … you mean the Virgin birth?” came the reply. “No,” said Ferdi. “It means that Mary was conceived without original sin and never committed any sins.” “O dear …” came the reply. Then Ferdi asked another youngster, the Head Boy of the local Catholic boys’ school who was his best friend and is now a famous theologian, and who gave him a similar non-plussed response. Ferdi then came to ask me about it. I was, at the time, in charge of instructing converts in our parish in the RCIA programme. “O, yes’”, said I, “that is where Jesus has no earthly father, so we know that God is his Father.” “O, no it isn’t,” said Ferdi. “It is all about Mary being prepared to be the mother of Jesus, by being cleansed of original sin at the very moment of her conception.”
“I see”, said I, and asked for more information. My son, the only one out of three Catholic youngsters who had been to an Anglican, rather than Catholic school, was able to explain it all very plausibly. “And we have to believe that, do we?” “Yes, you do,” he said authoritatively. “Well then I do believe it ” I said. Every time since then, when I sing “Immaculate Mary, our hearts are on fire”, I remember what it actually means and I get a little kick out of it.
We try to teach children as best we can, and to give to them a taste for learning. Then, if we get it right, they teach us.
Eventually my son became a teacher and not a priest, and because I thought he had a gift for it, I helped him to start a school. I am glad I did. He hasn’t stopped getting me to see reason, and as will become apparent, even in my old age, I do not find it humiliating … it is a part of life. We try to teach children as best we can, and to give to them a taste for learning. Then, if we get it right, they teach us. That is how civilisation works, and it is how we will build it up again from the ruins.
I remember hearing many times at Mass those two readings from Scripture: the one from St Peter about how when we are old, someone else will fasten our belt and lead us. Then there is a line from the Old Testament, or perhaps somewhere in St Paul, about how we should be kind to a father, “even when his brain may fail”, and that this would purge away our sin. I thought of this in the last years of my own father’s life. And in my own life, I have for many years, been taking counsel from my son, because although it sometimes hurts, I know he has his head screwed on, and gives me good advice.
In a way, as a proud man of the world, listening to my son’s advice makes me proud too. It is the time of life when one’s pigeons come home to roost. It is evening. For many years I looked after my son, but now he is looking after me; well, I guess we look after each other. It has been a long journey, this life of mine, and it has taken me to many interesting places. I hope there will be adventures yet to come.
When I was a boy in the beautiful Dorset countryside, I sang as an Anglican choirboy. I loved it and for a while I was quite faithful to it, turning up twice on a Sunday for services, as well as practices in the week. We had some great vicars on those days: men of deep belief. My own father, God rest him, was struggling with his own demons at that time and had left my mother, my sister and me. It was granny who picked up the slack: a wonderful lady born in 1901, and still something of a Victorian. I remember one of the elderly Anglican vicars of my boyhood who used to fast on orange juice during Lent. Every year he would lose a lot of weight, and all that passed his lips from Ash Wednesday to Easter, was orange juice. The rest of the year he didn’t touch the stuff.
The Catholics, on the whole, were down to earth, good with money and very faithful to their church. One of them was the fishmonger, with a beautiful Spanish wife and an even more beautiful little daughter.
Another memory was of the Cistercian nuns who had a little convent near our house. They were very few Catholics outside big cities in those days, but these nuns were very much respected by everyone. With my grandmother we would go to the big feast days which we thought were beautiful, to see the flowers and the vestments, and the choirboys and the girls strewing rose petals as part of the Corpus Christi procession. Sometimes granny would take my sister and me just to visit the church, especially to see the Christmas crib, or just to listen to the nuns singing in Latin. Once a week we also went to the whist drives, card-playing afternoons that brought Catholic and non-Catholic elderly ladies together, some with their little grandchildren, in the little hall attached to the convent. The Catholics, on the whole, were down to earth, good with money and very faithful to their church. One of them was the fishmonger, with a beautiful Spanish wife and an even more beautiful little daughter. I remember it well even though I was only about 10 years old.
As a pupil at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wimborne, founded in 1485 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, I was known as the boy who was always up to pranks and could often be found skiving off class, or reading novels , often in French. I was interested in the girls, and I was desperate to get out of school and have adventures in the world.
“You can’t resign,” he said. “You are only a boy”. But resign I did.
By the time I was about 15, I was quite the rebel. I had done my O-levels early and was early studying for A-levels. The Headmaster called me in for a caning one day, on the basis that he thought I was not working hard enough. I took the caning, but came in the next day with my resignation. “You can’t resign,” he said. “You are only a boy”. But resign I did, and persuaded my poor mother to let me join the Royal Marines at 16, which is where I stayed for five years.
During my time in the Marines, I quickly noticed that on a Sunday and other occasions when there was an official Anglican church service, there was a way to get out of these religious observances. At a certain moment on the parade ground, the sergeant major would holler “Jews, Catholics and Other Denominations fall out”. We could then slouch off to see the friendly old Catholic priest instead. In Wimborne I had got to know the dear old lay brothers who worked in the fields at the Cisterician convent. At 16, and very much still a boy, this was the beginning of my many years of spending time talking with Catholic priests. The military priest quickly realised I wasn’t really a Catholic, but like the other boys in the group, usually only 3 or 4, I happily ate his chocolate and listened to his stories.
In the Marines, I saw the world, and I saw active service, but I would not want to discuss that in detail, even today, for all sorts of reasons. Suffice it to say, those reasons have left deep scars and have been a cause of tears, sometimes years later. I was only a boy, but I was entering a man’s world, thrown in at the deep end of the cesspool of life. I was, even under military discipline, a bit of an awkward customer, as they say. I stood out from most of the other marines, many of whom could not read, but I was never promoted, probably because of my creative approach to military discipline.
Once I left the marines, I just wanted to find an interesting life and perhaps fall in love and marry. I was only 21 so there were plenty of candidates, but I was on the lookout for a proper lady, and I found one rather quickly.
I never married the Hispanic looking fishmonger’s daughter of my boyhood, but I knew I rather liked the idea of marrying a nice Catholic girl. A few weeks after leaving the marines, I found there was a Catholic teacher training college in my home town of Southampton. I hung around for a while, and met a lovely, somewhat older and more sensible Irish girl who chatted with me. I was 21 and she was 29. It was love at first sight. So a few days later, smitten, I lingered outside the Sunday Mass waiting for her to emerge. “Hello, Andrew,” she said when she recognised me. “I didn’t know you were a Catholic”. “I’m not, but I am interested in spiritual things.” It was not exactly untrue. I was interested in her, and she was a spiritual thing. Two weeks later we were engaged and two months later we were married. That involved my having to take a crash course in Catholic doctrine and promising to allow any children of the marriage to be brought up as Catholics. Nine months after the wedding, my lovely wife gave birth to my son, and a couple of years later there was a daughter.
I think especially of those times in the first three years of our marriage, when the demon drink risked losing me the dearest thing I had, my new wife.
Fifty years on, we are still married, thank God. No regrets there. My wife has had to put up with all sorts of nonsense for half a century, and not a few times it was only our belief in marriage as a sacrament and a lifelong commitment that has kept us going. I think especially of those times in the first three years of our marriage, when the demon drink risked losing me the dearest thing I had, my new wife. Rather than run that risk, I did not touch a drop of alcohol for over twelve years. Although, whenever we are at a dance or other event, with me being a famously extrovert personality, people always used to say that I could get drunk just on the atmosphere. I was sometimes breathalyzed by incredulous policemen who had to admit I was stone cold sober!
My wife, in all my enthusiasms and “crazy schemes” has always followed me and supported me, not just through her marital love but also by her Catholic faith.
To every other married man reading this, I can say that if your wife loves you, then after God, that is your dearest treasure. It is like your life savings in the bank. Never put that capital at risk. I thank God for my wife’s faithful prayers for our marriage. God has always kept us in His care.
When I survey the wreckage of divorce in so many other families, and the loneliness of people who have left spouses rashly, betrayed their children, de-stabilised our whole society and found only sadness and loneliness, I am so glad that God did keep us in His love and that we both kept on trying to do our best, in thick and thin.
The phrase “in sickness and in health” from our marriage vows has taken on its full meaning in recent years, because after a life where long periods of time have been spent apart we now find ourselves looking after each other in our various illnesses. I had to help my wife through near blindness and then some successful cataract operations. She has had to nurse me through cancer and back to relative good health. The amount of stress I have caused her over the years of our marriage has no doubt contributed to the bouts of forgetfulness that are now beginning to hit us both. But the old love is still there. She is still my beautiful Catholic lady, with her silver hair and her string of pearls, and her rosary always by her. Thank you, my dear!
I have not explained how I did eventually become a Catholic. It is simple. When my son was being confirmed at age 12 or 13, I eventually signed on the dotted line and became a Catholic at the urging of my son, and the parish priest. No ifs, no buts, no regrets. When I received Holy Communion that day, for the first time, it brought back memories of my time as a choirboy, singing in Wimborne Minster. But the church of my youth, I already knew it, didn’t exist anymore. It had been overrun by socialists with guitars and gay rights. Jesus Christ had long been sidelined by most of its members.
When Evangelicals ask “have you been born again”, I never know what to say. Many times, I suppose.
I certainly mourned the passing of the old Church of England that I had known and loved. There were many good and holy people in it. But Catholicism was, it seemed to me, the only natural place to be now. I cannot say there was a particular moment when I converted, except for the ceremony. I had romanced my way into it slowly from my boyhood. Looking back now, obviously, I can half detect a guiding hand, the hand of God, that was present through it all. But at the time, it was more like a process, a series of natural steps, like a child learning first to crawl and then to walk. So when Evangelicals ask “have you been born again”, I never know what to say. Many times, I suppose. Every time, I pick myself up after a spiritual fall.
I am 71 now, and in the last few years I had the very salutary experience of being confronted with imminent death.
Those who know me will remember that in 2016 I was confined to bed for months, then covered with tubes, then in a wheelchair, without any hair. Then somehow or other, thanks to prayers (other people’s most probably, rather than my own), I slowly got better from cancer. It looks like it might return now, but suffice it to say I have been having great adventures cheating death. I have also had over the years long periods of separation from my wife, and have, in between bouts of fighting cancer, experienced - painful to admit it - a kind of belated midlife crisis, with all the typical desires: to be young and healthy again; to be more active and more popular; to escape the inevitable call of the grave, the one certain thing that waits us all. One other thing that can hit you, as you become a reluctant old man, is a desire for an adventure, a desire to escape the boring, to rage against the new-fangled nonsense of modernity and the bleakness of individualism.
So I started joining things.
My remaining man friends in London ended up being a group of friendly old soldiers, I made a rather daft decision, and started going along with them to a masonic lodge.
I was already a stalwart of my Catholic parish, and frequently on the reader’s rota, but that wasn’t enough. I had lapsed from the Knights of St Columba and my work had slowly squeezed out a once frenetic commitment to the pro-life cause. Now that my work was drying up, I was left a bit listless. First of all I joined a kind of unofficial reserve army group that dedicates its efforts to rescuing mistreated horses and providing first aid at large public events, but that lacked the sparkle of religion and the patina of antiquity. So I joined a Catholic order of chivalry that before I joined, made me sign a declaration that I was not, and had never been a freemason and that was kind of exciting. I started collecting antique swords, even catching the train to auctions to buy them.
When later, my remaining man friends in London ended up being a group of friendly old soldiers, I made a rather daft decision, and started going along with them to a masonic lodge, thereby undermining my previous commitment, but as I will explain, I found ways to rationalise that. I seemed to shake off the cancer and I was now involved in so many organisations that my diary was full enough to pretty much stave off any thoughts of death or aging. Indeed my increased activity, together with my healing spine (I had had cancer of the spine) now made me feel I was actually getting younger.
Like most men living a midlife crisis, I had secrets.
My main one was that I was now communing with Rudyard Kipling, Robert Burns and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in a strange circle of professional men who met four times a year to talk about values, traditions, personal and civic virtue in an atmosphere of mysterious solemnity. I was vaguely apprehensive that at some point something really shocking might happen … I had read plenty of novels about freemasonic plots and the like. In the end, it was a bit of an anticlimax. I had thought it might be like joining the mafia, but it wasn’t like that either. The people were all very nice, very kind, and very honest, and they liked a few beers after a meeting. They were and are, in human terms, very good men.
Secrecy, or rather discretion, is an integral part of freemasonry, and so it did not necessarily seem sinful or wrong to keep quiet about it. It was just part of the game.
Of course I knew I was not really meant to be doing this, for reasons I did not really appreciate fully at the time. I just knew that those reasons existed out there, somewhere. And I had sought around for a way to justify this to myself from a Catholic point of view. Why? Because with my advancing years, I was getting more religious as well as more eccentric, I needed a way of rationalising this odd activity (which however seemed to me, at the time, rather romantic) with my lifelong Christian commitment which was, I knew, more essential to me. The lodge I joined was under the rule of the United Grand Lodge of England. I heard that this was not the same as the revolutionary and atheistic lodges of France. Somewhere I read something that suggested that English freemasonry was acceptable for Catholics, and that the Vatican was only really worried about continental, godless Masons.
Of course, the English are the only ones who understand the nuances of these things, I said to myself. Secrecy, or rather discretion, is an integral part of freemasonry, and so it did not necessarily seem sinful or wrong to keep quiet about it. It was just part of the game. How very English. On a personal level, my participation in freemasonry, minimal as it was, did not lead me to commit any immoral or illegal dealings. It did, however, by degrees, contribute to a feeling that I was somehow part of an inner wheel, that I was somehow doing something secret and important for the good of the world. It made me feel, really and truly, finally, genuinely grown up.
But simultaneously that was when part of me also realised, as I slipped out of my midlife crisis and back to my senses, that what I had really believed most of my life was somehow becoming less of a reality to me. Because what I had always, deep down, believed was that it was the Christians who were the inner wheel, the salt and light, the leaven in the loaf. My hold on Christ as my Saviour, my Redeemer, the “one and only” was becoming a looser hold. Except of course when at Mass, lifted by a beautiful hymn or prayer, I felt Christ’s hand on my shoulder again. In fact it never left me, or rather He never left me, as we shall see.
After getting involved in freemasonry, I learned that there are two Masonic organisations in the world. The first is the Grand Orient, where members are almost all atheist and republican, and whose Lodges have always worked against the Catholic Church, and also against all monarchies, sometimes violently. The second organisation is made up of Grand Lodges, for example the Grand Lodges of France and of England, where members must believe in the one true God and follow all the laws of the state where they live and be loyal to whoever leads that state. I comforted myself with this whole apologetic for a couple of years. Many do.
But when in January 2019, my son sent me a long email, telling me that he guessed what I had got involved in, I began to crumble. He told me in no uncertain terms that I was acting like a fool. He also told me that whether or not I was respecting the laws of the land, I was very clearly breaking the laws of God. It was just the kick up the backside that I needed, in fact. There was a little voice, that hand on my shoulder at Mass, the whisper of Christ my God, that was telling me my son was right. At his insistence I spoke to two priests about all this. One is my very friendly, devout and ascetic, middle of the road, parish priest; and the other - who asked me to come and see him and to whom I was sent by my solicitous son - is more gruff and more conservative.
I gave them both, to begin with, the line about the Grand Orient, and how I was not part of it, how we were all essentially God-fearing old geezers who missed the Empire and were nostalgic for our military days. I described the members as very upstanding, traditionally minded members, for example lawyers, doctors, a judge, bankers and other similar types including serving and former military officers. I mused, rather romantically that it was making me think more carefully about my life, just like the character Pierre in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Outside the meetings the talk was about sport, about beer, about our ailments, or the economy in general terms. I painted a fair picture of it all to both priests, and they each told me that if I wanted to remain a mason, then I should probably do so. Neither of them saw a real problem with it.
After speaking with each of those priests I felt differently. After the first conversation, I felt relieved that nothing had changed, but when the more Conservative priest invited me for a chat, I felt myself hoping he would convince me to leave freemasonry; that he would give me the proper treatment for Catholics who had broken the rules. That he would throw me a lifeline. That it would somehow be a watershed moment. I found myself wanting to be converted from my escapade into middle age esotericism. But in the end, the result was the same. Fr X said exactly the same as my parish priest: “Just carry on, Andrew. Don’t worry about it.” I left this time feeling that I wanted my money back, except that I hadn't paid anything. But there was that feeling of choosing the most expensive item on the menu and then being disappointed.
“It is not really a question of whether it is possible to be a freemason and a Catholic. The main question is why would you want to be a mason in the first place?”
In the event, when, a few months later my son, tired of waiting, just tackled me properly and spent the time to lay all the arguments before me, I was relieved. I wished that he had just done this in the first place a year before and saved me a year of wasted spiritual energy. I had been ready to hear the truth, but I did actually need to hear it, physically, from another human being. He pointed out that it is all very well that freemasonry enjoins the following of the laws of the land. God should be first, the law of faith comes first. The final argument was this very simple one: “It is not really a question of whether it is possible to be a freemason and a Catholic. The main question is why would you want to be a mason in the first place?” I found myself unable to answer that question convincingly, and as I contemplated resigning from the lodge, I realised that the very fact I could contemplate doing so quite easily, whereas to resign from my baptismal promises would have been unthinkable to me, led me very quickly to understand that there was no contest; that I had made a very silly mistake.
About six months ago, a short while after this conversation with my son, I handed in my resignation to the lodge, a bit wistfully, but knowing I had done the right thing. It was this, and not my whirlwind masonic romance, that was my real moment of growing up, at 70 years old.
Like so many mistakes I have made in my life, I found myself asking “Why did I do that? How did I not understand all the ramifications of my actions beforehand?” But one must move on, make one’s peace with man and God. We live and learn, under God’s providence.
There are two lessons that we Catholics could learn from the freemasons: one is about camaraderie and fellowship, we are not good at that in general, and we should be, if we are to be real Christians. The other is that we need to feel we are part of a mysterious and exciting project to make the world a better place, because we are, we really are … we just need to be reminded of that sometimes. It is called the Kingdom of God.
And so to my son, whose advice and support I highly value I say “God bless the work!” I look back on my own life over the last few years and I feel a mixture of relief and embarrassment, but mainly I feel gratitude. I would not be the first man to have made dire choices at a difficult moment in his life. But now I feel now a bit like St Lazarus. He was raised from the dead for a purpose … in order to lead a more perfect life so as to prepare for a second and holier death.
I now face my own; I thank God, and I thank my son, that this time around, and when the cancer or whatever else takes me, I will be facing up to God and my responsibilities, like a real grownup man in his 70s (after all 70 is the span of man’s life in the Good Book) … with eyes wide open, and carrying the lamp of faith as I walk into the darkness of the undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveller returns. I do not need to be afraid, for the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not fear. He hath furnished a table for me in the face of all my foes! He anoints my head with oil and my cup is overflowing!
Viva Cristo Rey!