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About a year ago I watched a film called Novitiate. Set across the 1950s and 60s, the film stars Margaret Qualley as a young girl called Kathleen who comes from a non-religious (and really quite troubled) home. Wanting the best for her, Kathleen’s mother enrols her in a Catholic school. It’s there that she encounters nuns for the first time and finds herself caught up in a whirlwind of teenage romance – only it’s not with a boy, but God.
Accordingly, Kathleen decides she wants to enter a convent at the age of sixteen, much to the dismay of her poor mother, who is left wondering where she’s gone wrong. The convent in question is depicted as a sort of nightmarish girls’ boarding school from which one can never graduate (or leave – unless you put a whisker out of line and end up getting sent home in disgrace, of course). One is likely to be struck by how egotistical and thoroughly un-Christlike many of the main characters seem to be, in particular the megalomaniacal Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), under whose auspices the sisters live and work. The film is rich with the clericalist and elitist sentiments which characterised the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. When Kathleen enters her novitiate after a period as a postulant, she and her fellow novices are shown dancing exultantly around a bonfire in the wedding dresses they’ve worn for the day, with one girl exclaiming: “we’re so special!” (in an earlier scene, the same girl ponders aloud to her friends: “maybe I’ll die young and be made a saint!”).
Undoubtedly the most powerful aspect of the film is its depiction of the Reverend Mother’s world unravelling in the wake of the changes introduced by the second Vatican council – in particular by the papal encyclical Lumen Gentium, or ‘light of the people’, which asserted that sanctity is the universal call of all Christians, not just an elite few. One can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the sisters as they receive the announcement that they are “no more special to God than ordinary, faithful Christians”, a revelation which is enough to make some of them break down in tears.
The film is thought-provoking, and it set me pondering over this idea that Christians can be divided into “first” and “second” class. It’s an insidious false belief which seems to have pervaded all wings of the Church at one point or another. In Roman Catholicism, it takes the form of clericalism – perhaps best summed up by the following quote:
Clericalism is the appropriation by a clerical caste of what is proper to all the baptized. More simply put, it’s a club mentality which renders the baptized subservient to preening priests…It’s a hangover from tribal forms of priesthood – where castes were set aside for temple service – found in the Old Testament, and which morphed into a culture of “superiority” or entitlement, or as Jesus himself put it: “lording it over others”. (Bishop Charles Drennan)
Lest we be tempted to think of this as a problem of the past, one need only look at certain Catholic Instagram feeds (invariably Traditionalist and based in the USA) where young seminarians show off their vestments in smartphone mirror selfies, to a chorus of digital adulation. Some have even coined the tagline, “chalices, not callouses” as a way of expressing the exemption from manual labour to which they believe their vocation entitles them.
In Protestantism, it’s marriage which is exalted as the highest state – with those who are left single or without a brood of children, particularly women, often feeling as though they’ve been overlooked by God. The rise of purity culture (not to mention the disturbing balls at which young girls are encouraged to pledge their virginity to their fathers until they are married – ew, ew, eww), has left Christians (again, usually women) feeling like they can never measure up. Some even give up trying.
All of this is rotten fruit, and it’s symptomatic of a deeper spiritual sickness: believing that how God feels about us is dependent on what we do or don’t do rather than who He is. I have spent the last few months meditating over and over on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The following verses are especially resonant:
Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ.
Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in His presence,
determining that we should become His adopted sons, through Jesus Christ
for His own kind purposes, to make us praise the glory of His grace, His free gift to us in the Beloved, in whom, through His blood, we gain our freedom,
the forgiveness of our sins.
(Ephesians 1: 3-7)
If you aren’t bowled over by how wonderful this is, please read it again. We’ll just wait here.
God chose you. He did so before the beginning of time, meaning that He already knew everything you would ever do – good or bad. He knew, and He chose you anyway. And He didn’t choose you to live a half-life cloaked in shame and guilt, feeling like second-best, but to be holy and spotless, living and breathing in His love. He has blessed you with all the spiritual blessings of heaven – not just some. He’s not stingy. And you’re His child – a member of the Royal Family and a prince or princess by your adoption.
And through His blood, we gain our freedom. Freedom from the slavery of sin, yes, but so much more besides. We gain freedom from having to work for our Father’s attention or approval. We gain freedom from needing to be praised or thought highly of by human beings. The freedom of a child of God is truly glorious.
Why has He done all this? Why this almost gratuitous generosity? Paul tells us, and this is key – to make us praise the glory of His grace. The glory of His grace, not my good behaviour or special status in the Church. If we ever catch ourselves patting ourselves on the back for being such good boys and girls, or self-flagellating because we made a mistake, we’re pouring our energies into the wrong things and completely missing the point.
My Lenten word from the Lord was this: let your mouth be filled with praise and thanksgiving. This glorious Eastertide, let’s pray that the Lord would help us know, really know, who He says we are and what Jesus has accomplished for us. Then our mouths will indeed be filled with praise and thanksgiving as we proclaim, with one accord: “My God – how great thou art!”
by Lucy Stothard