Thursday, October 22, 2009


Oh dear....during a conversation with an agnostic friend the other day, the talk turned to spirituality and then religion, the result of which was that she started to question me, very kindly and interestedly, about my faith. And I'm afraid to say that I did not give a very good account of it or myself. I always find it difficult to discuss my beliefs with anyone, as - I have to confess - I'm not entirely certain what they are myself. I just can't put what I feel into words or rationalise it in a way that either sounds satisfactory or coherent.
It's like trying to communicate what the feeling of 'being in love' is like to someone that never has been.
A lot of people can empathise with the awe that one feels in a great cathedral, or be moved by sacred music, or love to see the incense-filled spectacle of the Mass, or be moved by icons and flickering candle light and I admit that it is difficult to define exactly what it is I feel in addition to the uplift that these things certainly give. To the rational mind (like my friend) that is all there is: a need for the feeling of transcendence, and there may be a lot of truth in the neuroscientists' claims that man is 'hard-wired' to feel religious. Maybe I'm not really a 'true believer' as I harbour a great many doubts, both about the church and the religious tenets that it espouses. I carry my doubts about as rather regrettable baggage that stands in the way of my unquestioning acceptance. I'd really like a true, clear faith, unclouded by dark 'what-ifs'. But I haven't got one. I don't really know if God exists, or if Jesus was his son - but I act like I do because I want (and trust) it to be the case. I want it to be the case that this life doesn't end at the grave, that we do - in some form, either bodily or atomic - meet our loved ones in a love that transcends death. I keep these feeings in tension - not entirely happily - within me, as I know that there will be no resolution in this life. Not for me blind, unquestioning obedience to the church either. I am not happily yoked, although I still pay lip-service it and am happy that there are such black and white, incontravertible teachings handed down to us. I know that the church has been responsible for some absolutely terrible things being done in the name of Christianity, awful unforgivable abuses of power. That is a fact that cannot be escaped, but power in any organised form can give rise to horror. It is part of our flawed humanity, the need to dominate and control at any price - and it cannot be excused. So how do I convince her that what I feel is either real or, indeed, desirable? Well - I can't. I just know that once I had precious little faith, and then (after an epiphany of sorts) I did, as if I had suddenly grown another layer of consciousness, or extra organ that supplies it, and it is refuelled by the liturgy and beauty of the church. And if that sounds lame or self-deluding, I'm sorry. But that's how it is. I'm mute in the face of questions, because it's not something that can be rationally explained away or even given voice to. The nearest analogy that I can give is the 'magic eye' pictures that were popular around ten years ago. On first examination they appeared to be an unintelligible mess of colour and pattern, but if you relaxed your vision - 'gave in', in a way - and looked beyond the picture, an image startlingly appeared to hover in front of your eyes. And the strange thing is, once you could see it, you couldn't 'unsee' it.
Well, my faith is somewhat like that....

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


The long dry and mostly sunny autumn seems to have eventually come to an end: today is distinctly cold, dreary and wet. Daughter #3 has very bravely gone off to rowing-training, though I don't imagine it'll be as much fun as it was in the lovely mellow days just gone. She's doing tremendously well and has taken part in a couple of races, thoroughly enjoyed them and won a couple of medals. She is so good at organising herself for this, her guitar lessons and school that it's difficult to remember that she's still only twelve. Twelve, and on her road to independence. I am, by turns, very proud of her and sadly nostalgic that she's growing up so fast. I am feeling somewhat overwhelmed by my doctoral studies. Not that I'm not enjoying them - I really am - it's just that having got funding, the pressure is on to crank up the pace to submit in two and a half year's time - not the five years that I'd originally scheduled. There is so much to do and so much I don't know that even chipping away at it bit-by-bit is quite daunting. Luckily my supervisor is excellent and keeps my feet firmly on the ground, so I don't have the hassle that a lot of my friends have had with unsatisfactory working relationships. The only thing I'm finding a bit of a trial is the obligatory hoop-jumping that seems part and parcel of PhD work nowadays. 'Investors in People' meets academia: paper trails and finding and completing exercises just to have them box-ticked on my training-needs record. Honestly - I'm coasting downhill towards retirement. I'm not realistically going to find gainful employment at the end of the day, am I? (fair enough, my younger colleagues have none of them, to a man, found a job in their chosen field), so why pretend that all this time-consuming workshop attendance is anything more than a form filling exercise that takes me away from the real business of writing?
Half-term looms again (can't believe we're nearly half way to Christmas this term already) and fortunately we've lined up a real treat: Barcelona, courtesy of Airmiles earned through shopping at Tesco. Brilliant - I can't wait, never having been there before. I'm going to try and savour every single moment, not get too stressed over the travel arrangements (like I usually do), and take time to stand and gaze in awe at all the unfamiliar stuff around me. It should be lovely, and a much needed break for the Husband, whose job is pushing him into meltdown, if not complete burn-out.....

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Glimpse of Eternity

Daughter #3 and I went into town this morning to see the relics of St Therese of Lisieux which are in the Minster before making their way (not under their own steam, obviously) to Leeds' and then Middlesbrough's cathedrals. Despite being allegedly incorrupt (and apparently emitting the odour of roses on inspection), the remains themselves were not on open display, being enclosed in a tiny casket within a glass case. The faithful and the curious filed by respectfully touching the glass with their prayer cards to absorb some of the sanctity of the saint who died at the age of 24 never having left her convent. Her 'little way', is seento be achievable by absolutely anyone - to do any task or service, however menial, with complete love. Relics are indeed curious things, dividing even the faithful in their reactions to them. Some, like my Pa-in-Law, shudder at the thought of them (squeamishness? horror mortis?), others reverence them deeply. I'm most certainly not in the former camp, nor yet really in the latter: I am curiously drawn to them, and will seek them out if given half the chance. The continent is particularly rich in relics and any self -respecting cathedral has a number of mummified body parts, splinters of the true cross, phials of saints' blood, and bones mounted in crystal reliquaries, usually badly top-lit by buzzing neon tubes. The family is either quite resigned to, or heartily sick of, what they see as my almost prurient interest them. But do I love to visit them. I can't quite describe the feeling that I get in the presence of relics. I tried to describe it the Husband (I'm not sure he really understood) as a feeling of mildew: of timelessness, like you get from the smell of incense or hot candle-wax, damp wood or cement; from the sound of distant dripping water, or the feel of your hand on marble; the sight, on dull drizzly days, of gloomy thickly carpeted altars in dim side-chapels, covered in faded silk flowers or dead roses; those flickering votive candle-bulbs that light up at the drop of a coin. A feeling of unity with all those who have prayed there before, lives lived and gone, young girls who became mothers who became old women. Red velvet covered by heavy white lace. Whispering. Candles. Holiness.

I can't quite remember which was the first relic I ever saw. I think it was the tongue of St Antony of Padua (he was a renowned orator). I remember thinking, full of atheistic eleven year-old scorn, that it looked like a raspberry. Not long after we were taken to the relic-filled treasury of St Mark's in Venice by some devout Italian family friends. I revisited these when we went back there this spring and was not disappointed. Rome was well-endowed too, and we visited the Capuchin crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione on the via Veneto to see the ossuary where the dead monks' bones and remains decorate the dank subterranean walls. In St Peter's we visited the undercroft where Pope John-Paul II is buried in a flower strewn tomb amongst his papal predecessors. Even my daughter's school has the mummified hand of St Margaret Clitheroe in its chapel (she says that it looks like a rice crispie). I would like to sit in their presence and try to fathom out what it is that I feel, but the children are too antsy and the Husband, although kindly tolerant and nominally Catholic, would rather not. One day I will take myself off to Rome and find a quiet church (St Ignazio has a wonderful altar with a crimson-robed saint in tiny slippers and a silver death-mask) and sit there and think, and work out what exactly it is that I get from the dead. (below: the relics of St Robert Bellarmine, St Ignazio, Rome)