I am 55 this year. For most of the last forty years, religion has attracted and fascinated me – the path of faith in all its manifestations.
I have loved watching Buddhist nuns sitting immobile, utterly still, in their early meditation, as the night gave way to dawn and then the rising sun slowly illuminated the room, morning light fusing with peace inseparably. Incense smoke. Inviting the bell to sound. Chanting quietly beginning.
Participating in the hospitality of the langar at Sikh gurdwaras, leaving my sandals at the door, covering my head, taking my place with the chanting women in the prayer hall, felt like such a wonder and a privilege.
Sitting in the stone chapel of a Catholic monastery, watching the matter-of-fact tread of sandalled feet and hearing the muffled ripple of moving robes as the community made its way in to prayer, fed my soul.
Attending a full immersion baptism in a Baptist chapel, hearing the testimonies; singing, for the first time ever, “To God be the Glory” filled my heart with joy.
Feeling the evening fold around me in the great spaces of York Minster; the candles, the mounting intricacies of carven wood, the water-clear beauty of the choir measuring the even paces of the psalm chant, this spoke peace to me.
Preaching at little Methodist chapels out in the English countryside, kept open in every place by a handful of ancient faithful souls who, while they could, bore witness – this humbled and moved me.
Poring over photographs and tales of the Amish, the Shakers, the early Quakers – how strongly the peculiar people of God stirred my heart and called me; “You too!”
Religion in the many faces of its reverence and numinous awe has been my preoccupation for decades.
And it no longer is.
A while ago the patient Badger asked me tentatively, “What have you done with your Holy Spirit picture?” For I loved this picture – when I first saw it I fell head over heels in love with it, capturing as it did the rapture and wonder of prayer when the Spirit comes. The Badger is wisely cautious. He waited some weeks after its disappearance to ask the question.
“I gave it to Paul,” I said.
He paused. I can’t remember if he asked the question aloud, because we can hear each other’s thoughts and do not always need to speak; but he wanted to know, “Why did you do that?”
So I explained, “Because I had seen it enough.”
It was a beautiful picture, an astonishing picture: I had looked at it every day for months, and now I knew it by heart, and it had slipped into the DNA of my soul. So I didn’t need it any more.
I am finding this with my books. Old books, loved books, firm favourites – I feel as though I have read them now, and am ready to let them go. Even, dare I say it, with dear friends. I love them as much as I ever have, but I no longer need to see them; they are already in my heart. I enjoy their company when we meet, but I no longer feel the need I once did to set up times to get together. Our friendship is understood; it is a given.
And this last year I am finding it is the same with religion. We talk about faith – that a person “has a faith”. I don’t know if I “have a faith”. I think I might not. If I had a faith I would be a better person, I would be driven by conviction.
I know that I have met the risen Jesus, and that He is beside me in every hour of every day. I know that God is the context in which all life rests and moves, arises and dies. I know that the Holy Spirit breathes through me and the whole of creation – every rock, every flower, every shining drop of water. I don’t need any faith at all for this. I know it.
Of those three knowings, the most vividly and tangibly real to me is the presence of Jesus. I could not deny that I have met Him, that He is alive, that He is real. I know this.
In pursuing their religions, people sometimes ask me what happens when we die and what the future will hold. I don’t know and I am not curious about it. I am sure that whatever tomorrow holds will have roots growing from the seed we sowed today. All that is necessary is to live with love and humility, with simplicity and kindness today, and the future will take care of itself.
I still go to church, because I want the track my feet make to say “Jesus matters,” but what we do there no longer finds a foothold in my soul.
We have the eucharist in bread and wine – but I think the eucharist is also there in someone tenderly and patiently helping a frail, blind old woman drink her cup of tea. I think communion happens in the hand-holding-hand I observe when I watch a beloved grandad walk slowly down the road with a child who trusts him.
At the funeral I attended this afternoon, I sat with my father-in-law from my first marriage, in the front pew of the side block, just a yard away from where my first husband was playing the electric piano for the service.
And I explained to my father-in-law how, when my first husband (his son) had left me, I had decided to waste no time – I resolved straight away that if he could no longer be my husband, he could at any rate be my brother, and so it has been. The love has continued, like convolvulus roots underground; we belong to one another, we are one family in Christ – and this is indestructible, it cannot be taken from us. “Yes,” he said: “I know.”
I don’t mean that I wish I had my first husband back; I do not, I am most happy in my marriage to the Badger, and my first husband is content in his marriage to the Fairy Princess. I just mean that Christ is in God reconciling all things to Himself, and because of this we (all of us) belong to each other forever, and this is a blessing.
The outer forms of religion – the beautiful temples, the old stone churches, the chanting and incense smoke and prayers and rosaries and robes – I love them, and they are in my heart, but they feel like a beautiful picture I have seen enough and would like to pass on now.
“He has shewed thee, O man, what is good: and what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?”
I would like to learn to do that now. I have lost interest in the other things – the things they have the wars about.
This is the one-hundred-and-eleventh day this year. Do you know when to hyphenate? I ask because many people do not. But the principle is simple. “This is the one hundred,” is a stand-alone sentence. “ ‘This is the one hundred,' is a stand,” is also a stand-alone sentence; though obviously they would both be very puzzling.
“This is the eleventh day this year” is also a stand-alone sentence.
If I write “This is the one hundred and eleventh day this year, technically nothing but your common sense (which I cannot necessarily rely upon) and intuition leads you to realise that I mean “This is the one-hundred-and-eleventh day this year.” Linking them into a train like that helps you see it’s meant as a one-thing package.
Maybe the necessity is not obvious from this example.
But what if I said: “She was a maiden and a half sister to the viceroy” (Lord only knows where that sentence came from!)
Is the meaning obvious? Maybe.
“She was a maiden-and-a-half, sister to the viceroy.”
“She was a maiden and a half-sister to the viceroy.”
See? The hyphenation makes clarifying links assisting access to the intended meaning.
“John kept up his see Venice and die running commentary going all afternoon.”
“John kept up his see-Venice-and-die running commentary going all afternoon.”
Don’t worry about this if it bores you.
Today’s Lost Object was a fine book of beautiful drawings and very good poetry. I enjoyed it, but realised that brief admiration felt a better fit than permanent attachment.