All in all, though, I believed that I was attracted to Catholicism by the depth and riches of its theology, and by the Church’s commitment to social justice. I was also deeply drawn to the charisma of Pope John Paul II, who, in those globe-trotting days of his early papacy, was making the Catholic Church a key player on the international stage, even though I was suspicious of the institution of the papacy. So when I eventually approached a priest and began to attend the RCIA evenings, I thought I had my motives clearly sorted out, and neither the papacy nor the Virgin Mary was high on my list of attractions.
Indeed, so suspicious was I that I nearly dropped out altogether, when the leader of our RCIA group took us into the dimly lit church one evening to explain the meanings of the different statues and pictures. He pointed to an icon in the Lady Chapel and said, ‘That’s called our Lady with the Perpetual Sucker.’ Thinking it was an image of Mary breastfeeding Christ, I rang him up the next morning and said how shocked I was that Catholics called Jesus ‘the perpetual sucker’. After his initial bewilderment, the penny dropped. It was of course an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
I sometimes ask myself what it was that began to change my mind about Mary. I think it is in no small part due to the fact that, having finally been received into the Church, I found myself in an environment surrounded by maternal feminine symbols. For the first time in my life I was made conscious of the relationship between my gender and my faith, not in terms of playing out the role of the submissive evangelical wife (which was always something of a parody for me), but in terms of being invited into a language of prayer and spirituality that related to my life and my experiences.
A year after my becoming a Catholic we moved to Bristol, and I began to explore the contours of my newfound faith in my local Catholic church. The dusty Madonna in the Lady Chapel, trampling on the serpent and holding her baby in her arms, spoke to me of that combination of dread and tenderness that a mother feels when her children are very young. At the back of the church there is a painted sculpture of the Pietà – Mary cradling the body of her crucified son, looking helplessly up to heaven with tears running down her face. I used to go to that statue awash with the guilt and grief of the bad days of motherhood. With the struggle of trying to adjust to a new country, a new faith and a new way of life, I had begun to feel like the old woman who lived in a shoe. To light a candle and kneel in front of that grief-stricken mother consoled me. She was there for me, and in some imperceptible way she had moved from being the greatest obstacle to my becoming a Catholic, to being the greatest reason for my doing so.