by Katherine Sanders
Around the age of 18, I was at art school, fulfilling my life’s ambition. I had a boyfriend and was living away from home. I then had what I think of as a breakdown – or breakthrough. I wasn’t able to structure my life properly and without the support of my family, I quickly dropped out of a very prestigious fine arts course, where more than 4000 students apply for less than 40 places. I was in despair and had no idea why.
In my desperation, I began to draw Christ on the Cross – it seemed that somehow only this image was strong enough to express where I was. Billy Graham visited Scotland and I went along with my boyfriend’s mother – at the end, when he asked people to come forward, I found myself stepping down to the front to be prayed over. My heart felt like a black weight, burning and poisoning my soul. I had lost my beloved grandmother, I had been unable to cope on the course I had worked most of my school life to get onto, I had to return home, broke and beaten, unable to live by myself.. I desperately wanted to feel whole again.
I began attending church with my boyfriend’s mother, who was a church elder in the village Church of Scotland. The minister was a very intelligent, thoughtful and caring man, who was happy to spend hours talking to me about my life, about Christ, about the Bible – here my love of Hebrew and Greek first began – and in a year or so, I was attending a more ‘practical’ secretarial course, living at home and was christened into the Church of Scotland at the age of 20.
I was delighted to have found a church of my own, even if Communion was only served quarterly (at that time I believed it was merely a representation of the Eucharist) and the most decorative item in the church were the flowers (which I genuinely believe God has created for our delight and comfort – how can looking or smelling at a rose do anything other than give joy to us). The classes on the bible continued and if I felt slightly disenchanted at the separation of my daily life with a once a week service, I got over it by trying to read the Bible more often and praying, eyes shut tight and trying to feel the presence of God.
At the same time, I was once more trying to live alone, having a relationship that was not good for me in several ways – he refused to accept that I no longer wanted the same kind of relationship and I was too weak to break it off – and pretty soon, being bullied awfully in a secretarial job.
This pattern continued even after a serious illness which left me bedridden for months and with a slew of health problems that continue to this day. I believe that life would have continued like this indefinitely – he was about to propose marriage – when I decided to return to college and study to become a minister or a teacher (the very thought makes me laugh now but I was entirely sincere).
I went on holiday to Cyprus around this time and visited my first Orthodox church, where the locals assumed I was Russian by my behaviour. A local restauranteur and his wife took me under their wing, got me nice headscarves, showed me where to stand and so on. I was given kollyva and shown how to reverence the icons, although I didn’t really understand what was going on, I was fascinated. This rather threw a spanner in the works and the unhealthy relationship declined, messily, even as my relationship with that particular church diminished as I no longer went with his mother and the minister moved elsewhere.
My boss said I needed to go back to university, as it was clear I didn’t fit in to office life. I aimed for literature and theology but ended up in Religious Studies, which covered everything from the Old Testament, Egypt, Indian religions, etc. This gave me a fresh view on lots of things and at the end of the first year, I met the man who was to become my husband during one of my many summer jobs.
We travelled widely, including a holiday in Rome where we visited early churches – the apostles and early saints had lived here, and I was desperate to find a church which was full of mystery and history. In one church, I felt very close to some kind of truth but always the stumbling blocks of what I had grown up with as a strong prejudice against Roman Catholicism continued.
There were too many things I could not ignore and so I continued searching for God.