The faithful have been called to their knees. Odd, isn’t it, kneeling? But if nothing else, it concentrates the mind, ready for hearing softly spoken spells.
It’s the fourth Sunday of Advent, our fourth Mass (yes, I’m with the atheist**), but as it comes to an end I’m still taken by surprise. We’ve said ‘thanks be to God’ (no doubt with differing interpretations in heads around the church), we’re on our feet and it’s time to depart, but then –
‘the Angel of the Lord declares unto Mary,’ says the priest.
It must be nearly twenty years since I last responded to that declaration, yet it comes without a thought. I feel it – not ‘feel’ as in emotion, but as in its rhythm.
‘And she conceived by the Holy Ghost.’
I take part without any conscious effort.
My wandering mind sees a book of hours, exquisite pictures in luminous colours, embellished with gold. Toiling peasants bent over rows of vines. A castle, or maybe a church, perched on a hill in the background. I think of Little Crosby, its church surveying the fields from a modest advantage of height – there not being many hills to speak of round here.
I see farm workers labouring, lifting their heads at midday as a great iron voice bids them, ‘cease’. Pausing in their work they lift their eyes from the soil to the heavens, hearing the Angelus on some celestial plane. Mouthing Hail Marys, making the sign of the cross, kneeling as the Word becomes flesh.
The bell tolling, tolling, tolling. The muttered words rustling through their brains.
The last clang dies away and it’s back to the swinging of the scythe, the heaving of the hoe, the cultivation of earth’s fruits. To the terrestrial pulse, its cyclical rhythms.
Seasons, tides, the ever changing sky. Green shoots reborn. Flowers blooming yellow and white. Leaves turning crimson and gold as life departs. Skeletal branches black against the ice-blue winter light.
My young life wasn’t lived to those terrestrial rhythms, but to the seemingly endless rites of school and church. It was a family thing – headmaster, school secretary, a teacher – briefly (my sister).
At 18 I left for university. Unleashed, I partied like there was no tomorrow, but every Sunday morning would see Ros and me pedalling up the High Street to Mass at 11am – come rain, shine or hangover. Bookends, a friend called us, at the Chaplaincy.
It had to end. Ros died. I sank into London, with its endless charms and poisons. But I stayed the course alone.
Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter. Whitsuntide. The purple month, November. The souls waiting for our petitions, silent and calm. ‘Their lips no prayer can utter…’
Then Advent all over again. And again. And again.
He was a strange priest. He got very, very drunk and sang in the bars in the little commuter town outside Bath where we lived, atheist and I. He’d had polio when young and limped. He’d been a roadie for a band – he said. And he didn’t mince his words. Called me a vixen. Where university, frequent flying, illicit love affairs, rationalist boyfriends and my atheist husband had failed, he succeeded. I stopped. Just like that.
These days I work from home and freelance. We have no children, I have no office colleagues, no religion. There’s no longer any rhythm to my life, I must create my own.
The atheist says he might want to do a whole year of this Mass-going thing.
I did say the age of miracles was not yet past, didn’t I? He doesn’t know what he has unleashed.
And so, dear readers, given this Christmas tide is still upon us, please forgive me if I say to you – may whoever or whatever is your God-equivalent bless you, every one.
*[apologies to Pink Floyd for using their words as inspiration]
**he says he’s not an agnostic and never said so. I think he did but am not prepared to argue that one. Also, that second priest in that last blog, while we’re on the subject of getting things wrong, was a deacon. But it was still impressive!