I was received into the Catholic Church forty-three years ago. The road has been long and winding since that day, and I fetched up in Methodism almost by surprise. I suppose I must have made a conscious decision to bring that about but it felt more like something that arrived in my life incrementally, an unlooked for tide coming in. And here I am.
But in 1976, when I was nineteen, I became a Catholic — and that was a clear and glad choice.
I remember the day. It happened at More House, the Catholic chaplaincy of York university, where my friends lived or gathered and I spent most of my time.
Father Fabian Cowper, an Ampleforth monk, was our chaplain, and I loved him very much. He was a man whose life shone with Christ's kindness.
I was sitting in the kitchen, chatting with whoever else was there, when someone came in and said, "Fabian's waiting for you upstairs."
There was about the remark that faint ambience of injured surprise and reproach — I saw immediately that I should somehow have known and been somewhere else, that I'd been remiss and got it wrong. I think I was expecting to be received into the church at Mass, and hadn't grasped I was supposed to have an audience with Fabian first. But this must have been discussed at some point, because I remember my feeling of panic as I ran up the stairs, racking my brain for what to say in this, my first confession.
I knew I was meant to lay my sins before my confessor, and he would absolve me.
But in those revolutionary and radical days of the 1970s, as spirituality was increasingly seen through a psychological lens and moral norms were being rapidly reinvented, I no longer felt certain what was and wasn't sin. I couldn't think of anything to tell him.
I have always been an instinctual person, at least half troll and the rest more animal than human, and I had no idea how to operate my moral compass or evaluate the ethics and integrity of my choices and actions. I just did what came most naturally from moment to moment, trying to fulfil the expectations of others, escape disgrace and somehow blunder through.
Very often, as on that particular day, I found myself in situations where I had disappointed someone or got into trouble, mainly because I hadn't been paying attention at some crucial point. My mind had wandered, strayed too far, and let go of the threads that tied me into the fabric of whatever was going on.
Consequently, when I hurtled late into the room where Fabian sat quietly and patiently waiting, the only thing I could think of to say was, "I just don't love people enough."
He made the best of it he could and kindly affirmed that, yes, loving people is very important.
Thinking back to it now, I do believe I put my finger — entirely by mistake — on something very real. I don't attach, I wander off, emotion and connection drain me; I just don't love people enough, even after all this time and effort.
It's not that I lack awareness, or that I don't care. It matters to me immensely that people should not suffer, should have enough to eat and enough money to live on, should be housed warm and safe, and have their time in the sun. I just want them to have all that without the claustrophobia of too close an interface with me.
I think of friends who foster children needing loving homes, or of people I've read about who welcome refugee families to live with them. I couldn't do it. I just could not. I don't have too much trouble understanding and accepting people; I just don't want to spend all that much time with them. I need space, I need solitude; I just don't love people enough.
But there are some people I've met who, in my opinion, love too dearly and deeply and intensely.
I had a friend (she's dead now) who, if I went to visit her, wanted me to stay for two hours or three, or a whole day, or better still go on holiday together and arrange the next meeting before the first one had even ended. I used to go home feeling wrung out and sucked dry, almost frantic with emotional exhaustion. She could never get enough of me, though heaven knows she tried.
I had a friend who wrote to me, brought me flowers, wanted me to meet her family, wanted me to visit again and again. It's not that I didn't like her, she was a sweetheart; but the power and strength of her love all about wore me out.
I had a friend (also now deceased) who gave me the keys to her house and wanted me to go there to write. Every time I was speaking anywhere, there she'd be, tiptoeing to my side from some oblique angle to discuss her love life with me in every single space between each session. I would visit her at home as often as I could stand it, and after I'd been there two hours and was thinking it was not rude to leave now, she'd get to her feet and announce a cup of tea and scones, cakes, cookies (oh, no!). I realised it would be at least another hour before I could leave.
When I was a Methodist pastor, I faithfully visited everyone in my congregation. Times without number, after I'd sat in their homes chatting affably for forty-five minutes, as I began to make noises about leaving they would say: "You must come back for a proper visit soon." What?
I had a friend who went through the horrors of a messy divorce. Subsumed into his ex-wife's life and under the power of her influence, his bewildered children no longer wanted to see him. He besieged them with phone calls and texts, he poured out his love to them on every possible opportunity, petitioning for increasing and deeper connection He bought his teenage daughter roses for Valentine's Day. The more he suffered and longed for his children, the more they recoiled and withdrew. He loved them too deeply, too passionately, too devotedly — he just loved them too much. And he felt terribly hurt and bewildered that the more ardently he desired them the further off they took themselves.
Jesus had the art of loving people, and I do my best to glean what I can from his ways. He was simple, candid and direct in his conversation. He let people come, and he let them go, and he never made it all that easy for them to find him — the love of Jesus is not the suffocating variety. He saw where they were suffering or trapped, and he did something about it. When they were lost and ostracised, he went and found them. And then he went on his way. When the crowd got word of his whereabouts and came jostling down to the lakeside by the Sea of Galilee, he borrowed someone's boat and took off for the other side. He lived on the road, he walked in the hills, he didn't settle. When someone tried to pull strings, he said, "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" And that was his own mother.
Jesus loved people enough. But not too much. That's why he is so very peaceful to be with.