A staunch atheist, Jake Scott was not interested in God. But when he attended a Christmas mass with his nan, it unlocked something in his heart


Source: Photo by Igor Miličević: pexels.com

Every Christmas, my nan attended mass. When she and my grandad would visit us, someone would volunteer to drive her to the church, drop her off, and pick her up again once the mass was finished.

As a young boy, and especially as a teenager, it struck me as odd - why would she not want to relax on Christmas Day? Of all the days in the year, surely this was the one to not feel like you had to do anything. It didn’t help of course that I was an unrepentant and unashamed atheist back then.

But the year I passed my driving test, I volunteered to drive Nan to church. I did not stay - I was too keen to get back and eat mince pies and watch Christmas films. When I picked her up however, I had this moment of sadness - I asked how the mass was, and she said, before anything else, that she wished I’d stayed.

I soon came to learn that my nan hadn’t always gone to church on Christmas morning. This was something that she had only started doing after her own mum died. Learning this, I felt unbelievably guilty - at a moment when she must have felt more lonely than ever, her family’s attitude was to drop her off, pick her up, and that was that. No taking part in something that clearly mattered to her.

There was no earthly reason why I felt what I did that Christmas

The following year, despite my insistence that I was an atheist, I made it my plan to take her again, although I never intended to go into the church, only wait in the car park. But when my nan asked if I wanted to go in with her, I felt myself pausing, before saying: “OK”. It has proven to be my best decision to this day.

The presence of the divine

I did not go in with any intention beyond keeping my nan company. I had been in the church before, and I was expecting the usual pleasantries, but this time something felt different.

I remember being struck by the feeling of peace that came with the hymns. The mass, as I now realise, was highly Catholic. It was very traditional in the readings, and included the bells and smells I’ve grown to associate with the act of worship. But it was in the hymns that we sung that I felt the sublime, overaweing power of the presence of God.

I had heard and sung hymns before, of course - I went to a Church of England primary school - but for the first time, I really took the opportunity to listen to the melodies, read the words and feel the music as it swelled around me. It helped that we were joined by excellent choristers and musicians.

Those of us who believe in God and have faith of any kind struggle to explain in purely rational terms the kinds of feelings I was confronted with in that small chapel. I felt peace, happiness, openness, acceptance and a sense of realisation - something I still feel, every time I go to pray.

Beyond the known world

After that experience, I delved deeper into what is philosophically called ‘irrationality’; the general field that attempts to understand the human condition beyond mere materialism and rational thinking. Foremost among my reading was Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. This sense of feeling so completely overwhelmed by the limits of comprehension most closely describes what I experienced.

It was in the hymns that I felt the sublime power of the presence of God

There was no earthly reason why I felt what I did that Christmas. But the realisation - that there was no earthly reason - led me to search for a something that might explain it. It caused me to reconsider what I presumed to be true, and open my heart to the possibility that there lay answers to my questions beyond the immediate world I was part of.

The start of a journey

I was not an immediate convert. I did not start going to church every Sunday, carrying a rosary or reading the Bible every night. But I did start to read, watch and listen more: popular testimonials; live services on the internet; podcasts and lectures. After a while, I felt compelled to visit local churches, exploring the different methods of worship and the communities that surrounded each one, before settling on a High Anglican church that felt right for me.

Over time, I began to participate in the services, eventually joining the serving team as an acolyte. Sadly, I have since moved away from that area and left that church community behind - but I know, waiting behind every church door, there is that same feeling I experienced, and the same community. And it all started that Christmas, with my nan and mass.