Hooray… a great pub at last. Just as well after yesterday’s ill-tempered rant at down at heel pubs with which the UK is infested. We lunched at “The Bridge” at Bidford-on-Avon. This pub is excellent. . The staff seem genuinely pleased to see us. It’s clear someone had taken trouble with the decor -,and a first-class menu. It was, of course, crowded as quality always attracts customers, so we lunched in style. Two friends walked with us.
We discussed “living wills” … no small talk this time. We agreed we find “assisted dying “distasteful. Who is to stop us from refusing, say, chemotherapy after a certain age if we so wish?
Two friends have died in the last few months. In each case, the funeral was limited to “close family only.” Sad that! Jane and I are thereby denied the chance to roar out a few hymns, shed a tear, and say a fond farewell to our old mate. Surely simple ceremonies serve a vital social function punctuating key occasions in our lives – births, marriages and deaths. They are important because they are the glue that keeps our communities together, and they remind us powerfully that we all need each other.
A family I know faced the tragic death of a daughter who was crushed in a riding accident. She had massive head injuries. She was on life support for a month: then, the family met to decide whether or not to turn off the life support system. The family of nine all voted to turn off the machine, bar one. The mother tearfully begged to allow one more week. On the fourth day, the daughter opened her eyes…the next day, she was reading normally. Today she is back on a horse. No one in the family has told her the detail of the family conference!
You can hardly blame them.
The Mystery of Faith
I wonder if you know of American poet Don Marquis and the toad “Warty Bliggens”?
Warty is convinced that the world was created especially for him. We are told that the sun was made “to give him light by day”, and the moon and wheeling constellations designed “to make beautiful the night for the sake of Warty Bliggens”.
The poem ends with Warty being asked, “to what act of yours do you impute this interest on the part of the creator of the universe? Why is it that you are so greatly favoured?”
“Ask rather,” replies Warty “what the universe has done to deserve me.”
I know lots of self-centred folk just like Warty Bliggens. If people regard themselves as being at the centre of the universe, what’s the point of church? To the likes of Warty, church is an irrelevance. Sad that, for time marches on and it’s later than you might think…
A Sense of Awe
So why do I go to church?
It’s precisely because I don’t see myself as Warty Bliggens. Far from being at the centre of the universe, I am hanging on at the edge and my knuckles are white – so give me the drama of a high church service to whisk me away from tedious reality. I favour a style of service far removed from my day-to-day existence. I like the soft-coloured light that slants through stained-glass windows, rich robes, singing that soars to the roof, and the spectacle of the solemn procession where clerics solemnly carry crosses and Bibles. I like the mystery of it all – the choir, a cleric expounding something wonderful (no jokes for it’s too serious for that, and anyway, vicar jokes are never funny) and a transcendent sense of awe.
I don’t expect something profound to happen every time I go to church because I rarely have an illuminating revelation. Nor do I think being distracted matters much for the service will happen anyway. I need somewhere calm, and I want to be taken out of myself and away from my absurd worries. My preoccupations don’t matter. What’s important is being somewhere where people throughout the ages have said prayers of joy and thanksgiving or expressed remorse and guilt. This is where prayers are valid.
I relish the ancient ritual, the handing out of bits of paper, the singing with others, the standing up and kneeling down, the offering of peace to people you have never met before, the democracy of the queue for communion. I repeat words I did not compose, and only ever say in church.
None of us are expected to do anything, nor do our opinions matter much, if at all. The words were all agreed by clerics long since and the poetry has been repeated endlessly throughout the ages.
Calm in a Storm
The mystery of faith reminds me to forgive others, however difficult that may be, and I am commanded to love others whether I feel like it or not. I am told of the promise of life after death. I listen once again to the stories I have heard so many times before – to the radical absurdity of the Gospel where my world is turned upside down, where the rich and powerful stand little chance of entering heaven, where the winners are losers, and the losers – the hopeless and weak, people like me – are, miraculously, the favoured ones. I am reminded of the place just over the horizon where injustices, small as well as monstrous, can be reconciled.
Whatever my mood, the service calms my chaotic soul, and it calms others as well. It’s the routine of little acts, the repetition of the same words that bring a comforting harmony. The service interrupts my deadly doing. It makes politics less cruel and less relevant because I am reminded that deep in the root of my being is the knowledge that the ultimate questions that face us all, the ones that really matter, can never be resolved on Earth and it’s plain stupid to even try.
These are some of the reasons why I go to church. So sad for those who don’t.