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Diary: Catherine Fox

09 December 2022


Word of God games

I LOOKED from afar, and lo, I saw chocolate-filled Christmas countdown calendars replacing the proper Advent ones. Cause of endless indignation! When I was young, there were no chocolate calendars.

Naturally, I wished to maintain that tradition when I was bringing up my own children. When kind old ladies in the congregation donated chocolate calendars, I intercepted the gift and quietly took it out of circulation to ensure that my sons only ever had improving Advent calendars “with a religious theme”. These can be hard to track down in the chaos of secular alternatives, but those who seek shall find (pro tip: look in cathedral shops). I generally bought one that had Bible verses behind the windows. In the absence of confectionery, vicarage children must make their own entertainment.

Thus began the December ritual of “Challenge Dad,” which involved reading the text out to see whether he could accurately give us chapter and verse. I commend this as an Advent discipline.


Change of view

NOW that I’m a grandma, all that has changed. I am more than happy to buy my granddaughters sparkly princess-ballerina calendars bursting with chocolate. I am also prepared to buy vulgar plastic toys with a thousand small parts; puzzles and games requiring constant adult participation and supervision; high-sounding electronic bagpipes and vuvuzelas for making a joyful noise. In short, I’ll buy anything that will go some way towards paying back my sons for all the cheek and sleepless nights that I endured as a young mother.

Oh, yes, the world changes when you become a grandma. It comes at you in strange ways, often from left field. For example, I was at Walsingham on a brief retreat recently. It was an unguided retreat, which consisted of blundering into the different chapels in the shrine church and sitting there, crying. I also repeated a prayer that I’ve been finding helpful in recent years: “Oh dear.” Not one of the great “O” antiphons of Advent, but a powerful orison all the same.

I went and sat by myself in a small chapel near the Holy House, as I didn’t want to alarm the other pilgrims. Almost immediately, I experienced what felt like a weird heightening of the spiritual temperature. Odd. I got up and went to read the notice outside. It was the chapel of St Anne — or “Holy Annie, God’s Granny”, as I’ve been taught to say in the reverential Catholic circles in which I now move. Somehow, that seemed to account for it. More left-field grandma stuff.


Last orders

IF YOU come from an Evangelical background, St Anne has probably passed you by. A quick Google search reveals that “according to Christian and apocryphal and Islamic tradition, Saint Anne was the mother of Mary and the maternal grandmother of Jesus. Mary’s mother is not named in the canonical gospels.”

The last phrase alone is sufficient reason for ignoring her if you’re an Evangelical. Not biblical. That said, most Evangelicals have no problem singing “Little donkey”, and picturing ox, ass, and angel at the (never-mentioned) stable.

The other thing that Evangelicals tend to be wary of is the intercessions of the saints. Praying to St Anthony about lost keys? Dodgy. We don’t want to end up on the slippery slope of attributing soteriological function to the Virgin Mary, after all. But intercession is baffling. Does it work? Patchily, it seems to me, depending on what we mean by “work”.

Our prayers are sometimes answered — possibly because sometimes they are aligned with something bigger than we can see, some blueprint behind our perceived reality. Half the time, we don’t know what or how to ask. I remember when a child posing my sister a trick question: “How many inches in a pint?” She looked at me suspiciously. “A pint of what?” Brilliant comeback. I bet half my prayers fall into that kind of category confusion, and need untangling.

What are you really asking? A pint of what? It usually comes down to a handful of very simple things: to feel safe; to know I’m loved; for this trial — whatever it is — to be over. A pint of the steadfast love of the Lord, basically.


Here and hereafter

DO THE saints in glory intercede for us? Why not? We all pray for one another on earth. And, once again, we don’t always know how or what to ask for one another. I’ve found the concept of praying for someone’s “intentions” a helpful one. I have no idea what you are asking for right now, but let me put my shoulder to your prayer wheel. I don’t need to know the details. The Lord knows.

The sense of being prayed for is sometimes almost tangible. Five years ago, when we were navigating my husband’s cancer diagnosis, I believed in the power of prayer because I could feel it beating on me in waves. In the strange tunnel vision you get when walking through the valley of the shadow of death, I utterly believed that the saints on earth and in heaven were leaning in and wishing us well; that we weren’t walking that narrow path unaccompanied.

At the time, very few people knew what we were experiencing. Since the story has become public, I’ve had friends asking whether prayer can be retrospective. I have no idea. Maybe it can. None of our human measures apply, if this tiny bubble of life is held within an eternity of loving kindness.


Catherine Fox is an author, senior lecturer, and academic director of the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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