Accompanying an atheist having a religious (so to speak) experience. My blogs in the order they were written, beginning in Advent 2012
A taste for varnished wood. Thoughts of a ‘resting’ one on going back to Mass
‘I’d like to try Advent and see what it’s like.’
Odd words from a committed agnostic. Even odder when it’s Sunday morning and he’s lying in bed reading the papers. It’s the kind of comment he might come up with after a few glasses of wine on Saturday evening, forgotten overnight. But not on Sunday morning, when it’s actually feasible.
I check my watch. We can make it to Saints Peter and Paul.
Here in Recusant World (Lancashire, as was) we’re spoilt for choice – four Catholic churches within easy walking distance, more if you’re a hearty walker. But Saints P & P has a USP: 11.30 am Mass. A civilised hour, don’t you think?
I’m nearly ready, just applying the lippy.
‘Got any money for the collection?’ he says.
How odd that he thinks of these things. I’m the one who’s the resting Catholic.
‘There are some pound coins in the car,’ I say, feeling mean. We’ll put in a serious sum at Christmas. If we’re still going.
The bell is ringing. Slow. Resonant. Deep.
The church is pleasant, stone-built, just ornate enough. Inside, white decorative work around the altar rises into pale crenellations over inset images of holy scenes.
I’m wearing my new purple hat with a big floppy brim. When I was a child all females had to cover their heads in church. I had a triangle of grey lace, a ‘mantilla’. They were rather popular – less damaging for the hair-dos, I suspect, as well as cheaper than a titfer. But I digress.
The agnostic’s nudging me.
‘There’s one other hat,’ he whispers.
I don’t look round. I know before he tells me that it’s on an old lady and probably furry.
The organ fires up and the choir belts out the first hymn. The place is almost full and there are two priests. Two priests!
I look down at my hand resting on the pew in front of me and, for an instant, the world around me vanishes.
I’m a child again, struggling to keep still. Enforced silence. Enforced kneeling. Enforced backache. A slap when I get home for fidgeting.
I lean forward on my tired little knees and lock my open mouth on the pew – it’s just the right height for biting. My teeth sink in ever so slightly, there’s a kind of grainy feel to it as it gives way, just a little, beneath my milk teeth. The taste of the varnish is sweet, with a slight tang of pine.
The organ pipes up again. I turn to look at the agnostic.
The age of miracles is not yet past.
The Tolling of the Iron Bell*
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!]
Eleven footballs* and a five-letter word – a thought for the day
It’s dark. Curtains are drawn. If the outdoor light goes on when we lob the footballs over the fence the people inside won’t notice. (I retract that ‘we’. The man of this house will lob them over. Throwing balls was never my forte, though I did make the rounders* team at school. Desperate, I guess they were.)
One by one, eleven balls soar over the wall and thud as they land on the Astro Turf. Always green, always clean, never growing, that’s the ‘lawn’ in the ‘garden’ backing onto ours. Three boys live there. Boys who like football. Boys who have footballs. Boys who are watching TV, I hope, and don’t hear the noise.
But why did we have eleven footballs? Why haven’t we thrown them back? They’ve been here for months, why haven’t the boys been round to claim them?
The screen goes wiggly, we step back in time …
In our small, verdant garden, the walls are lush with climbers – with ivy and wisteria, with roses and honeysuckle. We value our privacy, but we’re not obsessive. Trees do a moderate job of screening us from our neighbours. We can’t see them when they’re in their garden, though we hear the lads on a sunny summer’s day. Boys will be boys. Boysterous – ha ha!
But back to our green oasis. There’s a gap in the planting, a spot that doesn’t see much sun. Seeking inspiration we visit a nursery for ‘specimen plants’ which promise instant (if expensive) gardening gratification. We stroll through the rustling aisles where a showy shrub stands out.
Not what we had in mind.
Dark shiny leaves. A profusion of perfect – almost too perfect – blooms. Just this side of tarty, a deep, royal crimson, not a bright, blowzy scarlet. The price? Sharp intake of breath.
Camellia flutters her flowers. She’s sold.
We plant her feet in special soil. She blossoms in the lee of the wall, under the dappling leaves of an elegant, if immigrant eucalyptus. My, but she’s pretty.
But – just a minute. What’s this?
I’m standing in the window. A man’s wandering round in the garden behind ours. How come I can see him?
And look – the ivy – it’s flopped off the wall. No, hang on, everything’s flopped off the wall. The wooden panels that everything was attached to – they’re gone!
Tangles of greenery tumble over Camellia. She’s wounded. Limbs broken, shape distorted, she’ll never be the same again.
We wait, dumbfounded. Surely they’ll come and tell us what they’re doing?
Two days later new panels replace the old, panels so short I can still see Mr Destructor strutting. And I can see him setting up goalposts against our wall. Their wall.
Three balls fly over. We throw them back. More rain on us. And more.
We put up our own, higher fence. Do our best to pin the greenery back in place. Camellia, no longer the pretty girl she was, hides her blooms and drops her leaves in shame.
We cease to return the balls.
Nearly three years. Not one apology. Not one ‘please may we have our ball back’. Nothing.
So here we are, on Christmas Eve, throwing back eleven. A minor Christmas truce.
I anticipate a note of thanks, a token something thrown over the fence, a card pushed through the letterbox.
At Mass on Sunday (yes, that’s where this was going) – a thought occurred to me. Well, many did, but here’s just one. Catholics grow up with guilt. I know, I know – you may laugh, people do. They also grow up with words like contrition and repentance, penance – and absolution.
We spend our lives with ‘sorry’, but also ‘I forgive you’.
But here’s the thing. If you never feel guilty, how can you say sorry and mean it? And if you never say sorry, isn’t it hard to be forgiven?
So, my thought for the day:
- admit it when you’re guilty, practice saying sorry, enjoy being forgiven.
[*Dear Americans, Footballs here are the round kind used in what we call football and you call soccer; Rounders is a game or sport like baseball, but without the fuss and helmets – and much enjoyed by girls. (Incidentally, the ‘man of the house’ is American and has one of your ‘footballs’ which broke my finger one memorable day as I made to catch it. )]
Full in the panting: on dealing with disappointment and dodging the black dog
We’re still conducting the grand experiment, Atheist-man and I. A year of living religiously – well, in the sense of religiously going to church each Sunday, anyway.
It’s making a big impression on both of us. We relish the time to think – about life, society, others, not ourselves. We revel in the language and the stories. Assemble some animals for sacrifice, says God. Cut them all in half. Except for the birds. Leave them whole. Why? On all sorts of levels, why? And of course, there’s the chance to sing. ‘Bread of heaven’ twice in two weeks. Amazing the roof’s still on. (Join in, go on!* )
But this Sunday I confess (well, it is a Catholic church) I’m a tad disappointed. What with a new Pope and all, I hoped we might sing Full in the panting – a hymn to, ‘our Pope, the great, the good,’ in which ‘the note redouble till it fills with echoes sweet the seven hills’. I loved the words as a child. (Yes, it is redouble not redoubles. Just because.)
We don’t sing Full in the panting. It’s not even in the hymn book.
It wouldn’t normally register as a disappointment – and it’s not much of one. But black dog’s circling at the moment. He can sense I’m disappointed in more than just a hymn. His baleful eyes are on me and he’s dribbling, waiting for me to acknowledge his presence. I ignore him and stare at my computer screen.
I write. At least, I try. It’s been a while since my last blog and I write many pieces. Rubbish pieces. Boring pieces. Priggish pieces.
Disappointments. Self induced.
I disappoint myself quite often – that’s what attracts him, the sniffer dog of self-flagellation.
It’s bad enough when you let down people you respect.
‘I’m disappointed in you.’
Chilling words from a parent, teacher, friend. How demoralising, then, to disappoint yourself. Day after day.
A spark of life emerges from my fingertips.
Detective Inspector Mike Gorman jumps from the page. Friend of motorbike-riding priest and amateur sleuth, Gerry Carroll, he of whom I blogged a few posts back. Another bit of back-story, to give you a taste for the book.
I finish it with a flourish and show it to my mentor (Atheist-man has many guises). He loves it. I ready myself to put it online. Then I re-read it.
Ping. That unmistakable dart of conscience.
My shoulders droop with my morale.
There’s an emotional twist, a vulnerability, an Achilles’ heel in the tough cop’s life. A fictional tragedy, part of my character’s life ever since I created him. But now it has befallen someone real, someone I would not wish to hurt. I cannot put it online.
At this point black dog’s come nearer. He’s sitting at my feet. But I turn my back on him. Apply my fingers to the keyboard. Seek my solace in words.
Inspiration strikes once more.
It’s one of those days when my fingers can’t move fast enough, when exhilaration trips along the keyboard as I write. I’m breathless as the words gush out. It’s not always a good sign. Sometimes I read what I’ve written – and cringe. But this time it’s worked. I can feel it. My entry for MsLexia’s short story competition, sorted.
I set it to one side, excited, tense, wondering if this time, maybe, possibly, it will be short-listed. Or win. Black dog wanders away, dejected. I wash dishes with gusto.
Mentor-man reads it while I hide in the kitchen.
I hear a long sigh as he finishes. Then silence.
‘That’s good. That’s very good.’
I format it. Edit it. Check it again. Then – ping.
I lie awake at 3 am on the day I have to submit. I can’t do it.
The story’s inspired by a trauma, a trauma I was closely involved in, which affected me deeply. But it was a friend’s tragedy. That friend, is far away. That time was long ago. But this is the internet age. Nothing is long ago, or far away.
So this is all I’ve salvaged. This piece. Not a lot. Not a story. Not a breathless piece of prose. No competition entry. Not even a great blog.
And yet, I feel a little bit better. I’m not disappointed in myself. I may have lost the best chance I had of winning a short story competition. But I’ve been true to what really matters.
And the sun is out.
I’ll hop on my bike and leave black dog howling in the garden. Let’s hope he’s vanished with the early morning fog when I return.
[ * Make your day! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJCxt2DjZK0]
[I didn’t post the You Tube version of Full in the Panting because they used the Wrong Tune aaargh! Is there no end to the disappointments?]
Small town, big lives
Snow has etched white lines into the wet, dark furrows in the fields. Spring is shivering underground, hiding under bark, cowering inside buds, slowed almost to a halt by the bitter winds from the east and the fallen, frozen flakes.
So it is, then, that we make our well-wrapped way to Mass, Atheist-man and I. Crosses made of palm-fronds lie in piles inside the door, waiting for the sprinkle of holy water that will render them blessed. I take two. Atheist-man looks slightly puzzled but says nothing. The puzzlement deepens as he turns to page 8 in the Mass book to find out what’s going on. By the time I sort him out (a number dropped off the board, obvs, it’s page 83) the first hymn is done, the first lesson begun.
Today’s different. You could say it’s bipolar but I probably shouldn’t. Let’s just say that it’s a service of two very distinct parts.
The vestments are red, the statues shrouded in purple. The priest, the deacon and altar servers process as we sing. The palms we clutch are now holy-water-blessed.
But the palm-waving crowd of the first part is fickle. A mighty fall is coming. In rides Jesus to Jerusalem, to praise and adulation. Minutes later – well, in today’s time – the end is nigh.
It’s a long gospel. The kindly priest tells us we may sit, if we need to, but no-one does.
The tragedy unfolds, doom-laden words intoned by three people on the altar – and by us.
Crucify him! Crucify him!
There. We have all done it. All said it. How easily we are swayed.
I’m one of the braying mob, if only for pretend, if only for today. Inflicting a cruel injustice on an innocent but dangerous man. A man from Galilee not Jerusalem, a man who threatens the powers that be, challenges the status quo.
It’s easy to blame the outsider. Anyone who’s different and – possibly – dangerous. The illegal immigrant or benefit scrounger, gangster scum or bogus asylum seeker. Anyone we don’t understand.
I look around the church as we ‘offer each other the sign of peace’ – shake hands, smile, make eye contact.
A whole lot of shaking’s going on. Not just handshakes but jolly waves across many rows of pews. This is more than the polite and temporary breakdown of the cell walls that divide strangers, the kind of ‘kiss of peace’ I’ve been used to from churches I’ve attended over the years.
I feel a deep pang of envy. Not a serious, ‘I-hate-you-why-not-me’ kind of envy, but more of a ‘sigh, I wish, if only’ kind of envy.
Saints Peter & Paul is full to the brim with families, friends and – for all I know – foes. People who were born here, grew up here, went to school here. People who married, procreated, worked, played, retired here. People who were happy and sad, healthy and sick here. A couple on their golden wedding anniversary, waiting with their friends for a blessing after Mass.
I’m an outsider. Born a mere 25 miles away I might just as well be from Texas, where Atheist-man once belonged. A real outsider.
People talk a lot about roots. Where are mine, I wonder? They aren’t geographical that’s for sure. Yes, I can slip back into the comfortable armchair of ritual, the church – but still, it’s not my roots. I’ve been a pot plant a very long time, on many a different windowsill. I took my chances and this is the price.
No, I’ve never been part of anything like this. Well, except maybe school. And I don’t just mean the church – it goes beyond that, it’s the town. The people here form a very real community, whether they know it or not (I suspect many of them don’t). They may not act like a community in public, but in private, it’s there, like sinews beneath the skin.
It’s something special, in this day and age. It’s a family of a kind. A family of many families, of many generations.
And, yes, families can be claustrophobic, restricting, limiting – maddening. But at least then you have something to kick against, to spur you on to rebel. To be different. To be dangerous. To become an Archbishop, a trade-union leader, an actor, musician, footballer, paralympian, radio-presenter. Like some of this town’s finest.
To make a difference.
The irony is that, for all the friendliness, humour, community and embedded-ness that we admire in this place, we are outsiders in a town of insiders, Atheist-man and I. We’re more at home – more welcome, perhaps – in places without the community we admire. With other pot plants on another windowsill.
As we walk to the car a woman speaks to us. Someone we don’t know (of course). That’s nice. We talk about the wind, the weather.
Behind her the graveyard forms a backdrop. It should be bleak, on this oh-so-wintry day, but somehow it looks comforting. Serene stone angels smile, their hands forever joined in prayer. Row after row of crosses, books and urns. Plain stones inscribed with messages of love and hope, sadness and wisdom.
I think of what Atheist-man said the other week.
‘I don’t remember seeing graveyards when I was growing up in the US. It’s healthy, living with them, don’t you think?’
Strange. But possibly true.
HP sauce, pipe tobacco, betting slips – and standing-room only at ‘our local’
A bank holiday. A beautiful sunny day, the spring-blue sky marked only by a very few fragile clouds. A relief after all that glowering gloom and incessant snow. Sparse incessant snow. Enough to remind you it’s wretchedly cold, but too mean to settle and paint a pretty scene. But then, it’s not Christmas. Not even winter. It’s spring.
So what to do, this glorious day? Something joyful, noisy, wild and abandoned? A walk somewhere pastoral and leafy? A stroll by gurgling streams or crashing waves?
I know, how about joining a load of other people in a big cold place. then reflecting on torture and death?
Atheist-man’s a hard task-master. Lent draws to an end and he still hasn’t ‘done’ the ‘Stations of the Cross’. So that’s where we’re going, this morning. In Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral.
Despite the mood-enhancing sun, my own mood’s far from bright. I’m grumpy. Very grumpy. We drive in silence into town.
It’s quiet, as befits a solemn day. We park under the cathedral. It’s my favourite car park, this one. An odd thing to say, I know. It’s quiet in a padded kind of way, but warm, too. As if some energy lives there, sustaining the great empty church above through its quiet hours. Sometimes when I park here alone I stand and listen a while. No people, just insulation. Hmm.
My grumpishness dissipates. Sun sparkles through the jewel glass that’s everywhere in this modernist interior, pale and subtle, strong and bold, different moods in every side chapel round its circumference, rainbow bright in the lantern above the central altar, the heart of the circle.
We wait for the priest, eighty or so of us wearing coats, scarves, gloves and sober expressions. He arrives in a black cassock with red buttons, looking not exactly mournful but certainly sad, as if some deep, repressed inner torment is worrying away at his head. As it is, I suppose. He is, after all, about to lead us around those 14 ‘stations’, take us through the accusations, torture and condemnation, the gruelling climb and immolation, the death of the man who, just a week ago, rode in glory to Jerusalem.
Another ritual comes back to me without a conscious thought as we follow him from one to two. I genuflect and repeat words I did not know I knew.
The priest weaves magic with humble words. A local man, brought up in Scotland (Scottie) Road, one of Liverpool’s most famous addresses. He tells stories, provokes thoughts.
He has been privileged, he says, to be with many people as they died. Often in pain. How extraordinary to feel that as a privilege.
He talks of the women of Jerusalem, the women of Liverpool. Of Veronica the carer, wiping the face of Jesus with her towel as he climbed his way to death with the burden of the world on his shoulders. Of matriarchy and Mary.
But he also talks of memories. Of loved ones gone. His dad, evoked by pipe tobacco, HP Sauce – and (after a pause and a smile) betting slips. We smile with him. A human being, then.
And so the ritual of the morning over, we drive back home and prepare for the next. Oh yes, the day is barely started, in religious terms.
At almost 3 pm we step into ‘our’ local church and I am gob-smacked. The place is not just full, it’s packed. People are standing. We shoe-horn our way into a row near the back. My view is limited, but Atheist-man being tall can see for himself what he never really believed when I told him – the priest prostrating himself. He turns to me and mouths, ‘he’s done it, he’s lying down.’ Plainly shocked.
I’ll leave it there. You don’t need to know about the empty tabernacle, its doors wide open, the procession, the entire congregation (except, natch, Atheist-man) one-at-a-time kissing the feet of a crucifix at the front of the church.
Or the queue of traffic leaving the car park.
This has been a momentous day for me. How come the sky was not grim? How come the Church was so full? This isn’t the Catholicism I grew up with. It should have been cold and dark and lonely and – yes, gritty.
But it was more than that, even if it was less than that.
And now I’m beginning to wonder about Atheist-man. His grandfather, after all, was an evangelist. A larger-than life Texan with a deputy sheriff’s badge and his own God-channel on the radio. Atheist-man said he could see the appeal, today. The ritual. The priest so obviously a frail human like us. What if he’s catching the bug, after all?
I tell him about the Easter vigil. It’s 9 pm on Saturday night.
Do I want to go to that, he asks?
No, not really, I say.
Thank God, he says.
That’s more like it.
[The black cassock’s red buttons suggested he was a bishop – I checked and he is.]
Travelling through time and space – with a crache
I watched Doctor Who last night.
‘I don’t know where I am!’
Such a familiar feeling.
So now it’s Sunday morning and the wretched clocks have gone forward – depriving me of yet another hour’s sleep. But I’m ready for church. Bathed, coiffed, wearing a bright green linen coat in honour of spring and resurrection. And early.
For the very first time we arrive before the bell starts telling – yes, telling, not tolling – us we’re late. The memory of Friday’s sardine-like experience still vivid in our minds we’re determined to get ‘our usual’ seat.
We end up almost at the front. As the organ pipes up a very large chap squeezes in next to Atheist-man. They’ve run out of hymn books, so the three of us share.
Soon the ushers are directing folk up the stairs, into the gallery above the side door. Standing room only again. Amazing. Utterly amazing.
We’ve sung two hymns, the Gospel’s done and dusted, the sermon well underway when I realise how noisy it is. Thank goodness the church has a sound system. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s why the toddler yelling ‘hiya’ and waving at the priest is quite so audible. He is, after all not far from the microphone, up there in the gallery. The toddler, not the priest.
We stand to renew our baptismal vows. Atheist-man never made them in the first place and is, understandably, silent. Time for a good look around.
We’ve just finished rejecting Satan and all his works when Atheist-man bends and whispers in my ear.
‘It’s a bit squirmy here today, isn’t it?’
It certainly is. And squawky, squeaky and crash-bang-clattery. I can’t help but think the priest looks pained, wincing at times. What a contrast with Friday. Not a peep from anyone. No children, Atheist-man pointed out. I hadn’t noticed, too busy holding my arms close to my side to keep to my personal space – and, more cerebrally, empathising with a man dying a horrific death.
The noise from the gallery increases. The toddler’s been moved to the back but I think he’s now found an echo chamber.
‘A crèche?’ Atheist man suggests.
‘A crache’, I respond, despite myself. The two of us look down and try hard not to snort with laughter. (You had to be there.)
‘My peace . . . ’ says the priest, then pauses ever so slightly and (am I imagining it?) looks up at the gallery before continuing, ‘I leave with you, my peace . . . ’ looks up again. Now I’m squirming.
‘Let us offer each other . . .’ he definitely looks up at the gallery before turning to us all, ‘the sign of peace.’
As the choir sings the chorus from the Messiah – you know the one – I ponder. Is this what English churches would all be like if Henry VIII had been gay? Or monogamous? I mean, setting aside the Lutheran reformation, Puritans, etc. After all, Spain and France remained Catholic.
Would all those beautiful Anglican churches (feels envy, a sin) that once were Popish be full to bursting? Pulsating with glorious music, with people singing and raising their voices, overjoyed that Christ has ‘a-risen, a-risen, ari- -i-i- -i-i-i- i-i-i- isen’?
I shift to a parallel universe. The sun is shining. England is Catholic. The Queen’s just a Queen. The crosses in small town centres are not all war memorials. Statues of the Blessed Virgin adorn many a flowery bower.
Back in my home dimension, Mass draws to a close. The good Monsignor tells the children to claim an Easter egg from the altar servers as they leave, then he hesitates, looks around wickedly (not really, obvs) and says, ‘but I saw them first’.
Nice one, Monsignor.
Oh, by the way, Atheist man says you can feel joy at the arrival of Easter Sunday without believing in God. Something to do with ‘the last one for a week’.
Well he did start this.
Happy Easter Week, everyone.
A cloud of unknowing. A cloud of forgetting. Where’s it all going to end?
I’ve woken up dazed. A concert arena popped up in my head overnight. The band’s last encore finished hours ago and the crowds have melted away, leaving fragments of tickets, bits of Malteser bags, beer-stains on the floor. It’s an empty, echoing void. (And no, it’s not a hangover. I think there’s a cold on the way.)
We’re six months into Atheist-man’s religious experiment and I’ve reached that point. That, ‘do I really have to go to church today?’ point.
‘I don’t mind if we don’t go to Mass,’ I say, expecting a rueful smile of acquiescence. Or something like that. But, no.
‘I suppose we could look up the readings,’ he says.
Oh dear. I should have known. If he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it.
I bathe away my reluctance. Stick my head underwater, hoping to unplug my muffled-up ears. It kind of works. No echo now. Just the hollow sound of something missing.
The first sign all’s not well with Atheist-man slips by me unnoticed. He leaves half his breakfast. But then, we did gorge our way through his birthday. Crunching through crisp battered haddock and chips. Chewing on brownies, sipping champagne. Twenty four hours’ indulgence.
But now it’s Sunday and it’s time to go – if we’re going. (I’m still sort of hoping.)
‘Would you mind driving,’ he says, ‘I forgot to put an egg in the pancakes.’
Ah. That explains it. He’s not all there. I ate the dollops of dough, dotted with hot banana, speckled with toasted walnut, out of politeness. I thought he left his because he didn’t need to be polite to himself.
Silly me. He’d never leave a walnut.
The first hymn’s rousing. By verse three my voice is an unpredictable squeak – then nothing at all. My larynx has gone on strike, come out in sympathy with my head.
We stand for the Gospel.
‘Do you love me?’ Jesus asks, three times, of Simon Peter – echoing the apostle’s own triple denial as that wretched cock crowed.
I turn to look at Atheist-man. A sixth sense tells me he’s in another place entirely (and it’s not Crosby Beach*).
‘Go walk around the graveyard,’ I hiss, risking the wrath of my neighbours for speaking during the reading. Face pale, he sneaks away.
And I turn my thoughts to love. Love beyond all knowing. Love that’s not been earned, deserved or even, maybe, desired.
Try and imagine it. It’s a wee bit scary, don’t you think?
With God, infinite love can be yours. But you have to want it, to accept it. You have a choice. You have free will.
But first, you have to find God.
A medieval mystic wrote a famous work, The Cloud of Unknowing, about finding the reality of God. Contemplation is the key. It’s far too deep to sum up in a shallow blog, but for me its essence seems to be, don’t use your intellect to find God. Forget knowledge. Lay bare your consciousness. Leave the window of your soul open. Let it all flood in. Feel the love.
I’m intrigued – you might say mystified – by the Cloud author’s concepts of ‘ought and nought’ – something and nothing. That ‘nothing’ is not an absence of everything, it can be felt. Everywhere and nowhere. Phew.
And then there’s the less well-known Cloud of Forgetting. That’s where you dump all your desires, distractions – and, I guess, your boring everyday thoughts, your did-I-lock-the-back-door, must-do-a-big-wash-this-weekend kind of thoughts. Well, that’s just my own, banal interpretation, reflecting my own banal thoughts.
Which brings me back to our secular, materialistic, twenty-first century world. Because we have a mystical cloud, all of our own. Yes, in this digital, ethereal, hyper-connected yet disconnected world we’re storing our dreams, hopes, worries, work, lives, loves and friendships in – a cloud.
You back-up your data and float it off to the cloud. Store your important stuff off site where you feel it’s safe. Protected from fire and theft. Accessible from anywhere.
Everyone’s doing it. Well, I’m not, consciously – though there are times when I have no choice. That’s the virtual world – free will, but only to a point.
But, where is everything?
Where is all this stuff that is everywhere – but nowhere?
They burned women for less.
[*Crosby Beach is the location of an installation called ‘Another Place’ comprising statues of iron men by the sculptor Anthony Gormley]
Weeping angels and speaking hearts
Since the age of eight I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who, a children’s TV programme in which an anonymous Doctor (who?) travels through time and space, battling evil. The Doctor’s also a Time Lord, which means he ‘regenerates’ rather than dying like the rest of us. Very convenient when you need a change of actor.
We humans are fascinated by what we cannot do, so travelling through time and space almost guarantees televisual success. But that’s not really what Doctor Who is all about. At least, I don’t think so.
For a start, there’s always a malign force to be overcome. Strange, evil creatures from other worlds or familiar ones from our own, rendered unfamiliar.
The weeping angels are, I reckon, the most terrifying creatures the Doctor’s ever faced. Familiar but alien, benign yet cruel, they’re just stone statues. Statues of angels. Well, as long as you keep your eyes open they are. Blink for an instant and they swoop. The only way to keep safe is by keeping your eyes open. So simple. So impossible.
But the Doctor will triumph, won’t he?
The classic duel. Good and evil. Fear and hope.
And conquering mortality.
Isn’t that why the Doctor never really dies? It’s a glimmer of hope. There may be a life beyond our own out there – somewhere, sometime.
And so we keep on striving. Live longer, travel further. Know more, do more. Earn more, buy more.
But then what?
What do we really care about?
When I was seven I learnt about the soul. The soul, in case you didn’t know, is made of chalk. White chalk. Draw a human silhouette on a blackboard, shade it in and you’ll see what I mean.
Sin is the absence of white chalk. A little sin creates a small black hole, but a big sin erases the lot. The whole soul. Leaving a big black silhouette.
I also learnt about God being everywhere. Seeing everything, hearing everything, knowing everything.
I began to believe that nothing existed but God and me and all the saints in heaven. That I was living in a make-believe world which existed solely to test me – to see if I would sin. To see if I would behave badly, pick my nose, think wicked thoughts, say nasty things.
I still feel like that sometimes. But now I’m aware of the reality of love. You learn about love partly by losing people who matter to you, my friend Ros, for example. My parents.
Love is the stuff of life. And though I haven’t been a parent I’ve seen the boundless, almost painful love a parent can feel for a child.
But is it infinite, that love? A parent must, one day, die. So how can it be endless?
‘Humans have an appetite for the infinite,’ says the priest. And I write it down on the newsletter. It’s printed on green paper on this ‘Communication Sunday’ – whatever that is.
Atheist-man frowns a question but I ignore him, listening hard.
I doubt the good Monsignor considered Doctor Who when composing his sermon, but I think he might agree with where I was going.
Because now he’s talking about heart speaking unto heart. He’s referring to a treatise on the love of God written by St Francis de Sales:
Eyes speak to eyes, and heart to heart, and none understand what passes save the sacred lovers who speak.
It was the theme of the last papal visit to this country. And it speaks (sorry) volumes, without even trying.
Technology has changed the way we communicate, says the priest.
But not how humans need to live.
To be friends on Facebook is not an expression of true feeling. Trading newsy Tweets is not about real knowledge. Blogging, no matter how thoughtful, is not the human heart reaching out and feeling the love of other human hearts.
It’s all just minds working. And as far as I’m concerned, my mind alone is never going to reason its way to a better world – much less a faith in God.
Dipping into the Cloud of Unknowing again this leapt out at me:
Of God himself no man can think. He may well be loved, but not thought. By love he may be grasped and held, by thought, never.
By thought, never.
I’m not attempting to construct a God my intellect can know. But I am, with some trepidation, leaving the door open to love. Infinite love. Even if the thought of it terrifies me.
Perhaps, one day, it will creep up on me when I blink.
Will Atheist-man keep his eyes wide open, I wonder?
Up she rises, earl-eye in the morning. One Sunday in May.
Amazing what the sun brings out, my parents would say. Like spots. Though it’s possible they actually said pimples.
Does anyone say pimples any more?
Religion is like a moral sun for me. It brings out my worst fears, agonies, shame, embarrassment – and guilt. I try and squash it most of the time but when you’re there, in church, beating your breast, accepting it’s not just your fault but your most grievous fault – well, it’s only natural, isn’t it?
Sunday dawns fair. Very fair. Warm too. It’s most peculiar. We’ve become so accustomed to this endless dour, miserable, mean, sneaky winter that we’re not quite sure about a heat that owes nothing to the gas boiler.
It’s lifted my spirits. Even waking early doesn’t bother me. I skip through the main section of the newspaper, impatient with the world.
Sort yourself out, foreign countries.
Stop being silly, politicians.
Don’t be so pathetic, celebrities.
And as for the magazines – HOW MUCH?!
For a handbag!?
Atheist-man finds it hard to assimilate, this cheery-morning side to me.
I’m standing in the hall with my keys, doors open, setting the alarm.
‘I’m not ready!’ he splutters.
I unset it, step outside and turn my face to the blue heavens with never a thought – I’m sorry – of God.
It’s unprecedented. We’re early enough to choose a different pew. And find the page before the singing starts.
Old fashioned hymns today. Comforting and sing-able. John Henry Newman and the like.
And a sung Latin Mass. I find the words in the Mass book for Atheist-man – he keeps looking questions at me – like giving a child a colouring book to keep him quiet.
The lessons are about the early church. Sounds dull, doesn’t it? But some tantalising things pop out. Followers of Christ don’t have to be circumcised any more – but they mustn’t eat meat that’s been strangled to death.
Odd, don’t you think, the strangled meat thing?
The priest in his sermon returns to a theme I find difficult – and he does too, I suspect. Pain, sorrow, misery in this world.
It’s all here today in the person of one sad soul. There may be many more unhappy creatures in the crowd, but I happen to know this one – let’s call him Anthony.
The first time I crossed the threshold of this church – and the reason I chose it for this experiment (as well as the 11.30 Mass, designed for sloths like me) – was for a funeral.
I’d been living here for a couple of years and after a string of tonsorial disasters (razor cut, anyone?) found a brilliant hairdresser. Brilliant, but – I suspect – mad.
Over weeks, months, he unravelled before my eyes.
The last time he coiffed me I washed my hair and drove round to his flat. I waited patiently as he stood before the mirror draped only in a bath towel, showing just a tiny, calculated amount of bottom cleavage.
Are warning bells ringing?
Fear not, his boyfriend, Anthony, is about to arrive.
Both men are devout. Church-going. Crucifixes are in evidence – and a statue of Our Lady.
A couple of weeks later my hairdresser was dead.
His funeral was a beautiful affair, as befitted an artist. A sculptor in three dimensions of human hair.
I see Anthony now and again. At first he was as before, just a little less present. But now he’s very much less present. He’s grey. Like a lost soul. Paralysed on one side. He limps, drags himself along like a victim of some terrible catastrophe – and that may be the truth of it.
His chest is hung with a large, full crucifix. His clothes are all biker black, like penitential robes, updated for the 21st century.
There’s no real recognition in his eyes. He looks at me and somewhere in the depths of his brain he places me.
A ghost of a smile – or did I imagine it?
He’s already looked away. Back to his prayers. To pain, sorrow and misery.
But still he prays. That’s hope, I suppose.
We leave the church and the brilliance of the day bleaches the greyness from my mind.
Down at the docks, the heat of the sun is unnerving. We wander, dazed, along the bank of the Mersey, past the grandeur of the three graces to the new Museum of Liverpool. It’s a sea shanty Sunday and in no time at all we’re joining in with ‘Hooray and up she rises’ – even though it’s not at all earl-eye in the morning.
Two sing-alongs on one Sunday.
Could winter be over, at last?
I hope so