Lisa Byrne - my renewed appreciation for churches
PUBLISHED: 09:50 12 June 2017 | UPDATED: 09:55 12 June 2017
Lisa Byrne rediscovers her faith and revels in its serenity
The late George Michael may have sung ‘You gotta have faith’ while shaking his hips in a rather indecent fashion, but it seems the rest of us don’t agree. Attendance of church services across God’s Own County has plummeted in recent years. We’d rather be mowing the lawn, preparing Sunday lunch or hitting the pub than sitting for an hour in a cold church worshipping a God who may not even exist while being unable to take a sneaky look at our smartphones.
When I was young, religion was a huge part of my life. I was educated at the oldest surviving working convent in the country, The Bar Convent on Blossom Street, York. My school was so ancient (founded in 1686) that part of it has now been transformed into a world class museum, depicting the story of the brave nuns who continued to practice the Roman Catholic faith, despite being persecuted by Protestant monarchs.
And from a young age I was aware my school was different from any other. Our chapel – hidden from street view within the middle of the convent to stop angry Protestant protestors – had a priest hiding hole and a stunning gold cross, which, we were told in no uncertain terms, contained a splinter from the real cross of Our Lord.
Between lessons we were taken on regular visits to the relic room to gaze in amazement at an array of unusual artefacts including a bone from the skull of St Edward the Confessor and a lock of hair from the head of King Henry VIII’s ex-best friend, St Thomas More. However, the most gruesome relic was a glass case containing the shrivelled hand of St Margaret Clitherow preserved in wax. We were then regaled with the tale of how poor Margaret, who’d committed the heinous acts of harbouring priests and having mass said in her house, was sentenced to a horrific death. Despite being pregnant with her fourth child, she was taken to Ouse Bridge, laid across a small sharp rock and had her own front door placed on top as four desperate beggars (two sergeants were too distraught to carry out the execution) continually put rocks and stones on the door until Margaret’s back broke 15 minutes later. A priest is believed to have later chopped off her hand and given it to the nuns at the convent.
Despite these gruesome tails and the constant praying, I absolutely loved my school, but had a very contrary relationship with some of the nuns – the majority of whom were absolute darlings and I still enjoy visiting the convent/museum today to say hello.
But religion wasn’t just left at the convent door. Throughout my youth I was literally dragged to Sunday mass by my devout Catholic mother, or bribed with a bar of chocolate to be devoured the second mass was over. And goodness, wasn’t it heavy going. I would be bored to tears by all the repetitive, dreary mass rituals while trying not to choke on the incense being flung around. To stop myself from going demented I’d day dream about kissing Morten Harket, wondering when I’d be able to afford that striped Ra Ra skirt from Etam and if Boots 17 Twilight teaser lipstick made me look like Madonna.
However, the last straw was when we went to mass on Hallowe’en evening. After the readings the electrics suddenly fused so we had the rest of the service by candlelight. Then during the priest’s homily he started discussing the vast amounts of exorcisms he was performing and that there were too many demons in our city. I’d recently watched The Exorcist so that was enough for me. I skedaddled from the pew and never returned.
But 20 years on my views have, predictably, changed. After losing a number of very close family and friends I have turned again to the spiritual side of life for comfort. I love spending an hour meditating and praying, it’s almost like having a bit of control over a world which feels totally unbalanced. Recently, my husband and I were strolling down Micklegate feeling rather desolate about an adored family member who was dying from cancer when we stumbled upon the ancient Holy Trinity Church and decided to pop in. Walking through the huge wooden arch into the hallowed church where monks had worshipped for a thousand years was an incredibly spiritual experience and instantly made us both feel more relaxed. We lit candles and wrote down prayers, attaching them to a huge wooden prayer post where countless other troubled souls had left notes praying for sick relations, lost pets and the orphans of Syria. Stepping out into the sun it seemed as if the world was a little brighter. We’d briefly connected to our spiritual side and it felt fantastic.