I found myself transported back to the time of Cardinal Newman this evening, sitting in a glum old seaman’s church on the coast at Walmer.
Neo Gothic and built in 1848, it sits opposite the sea where for hundreds of years the locals took supplies out to ships sheltering in the Downs.
Once one of the biggest ports in the country, nearby Deal housed Nelson and Lady Hamilton on occasion, as the British fleet was anchored offshore, protected in a sheltered channel between the shingle shore and the legendary Goodwin Sands.
The evening glowered; the light was poor and the rain drizzled down on the grey, cold and lifeless seafront.
And yet there was calm, beauty even. I love dour Victorian churches with their fake Gothic arches and their heavily coloured (and equally heavily didactic) stained glass windows. The folk seemed from another time too. I was reminded of my fierce old Baptist grandmother, born at the end of the 19th Century, who lived in nearby Ramsgate. She was present somehow, amidst these local townspeople, a part of them.
Similar class, similar trade I guess and these people too reminded me of nothing short of Victorian shopkeepers. Was it my imagination or did I see mutton chop whiskers and frock coats? Who knows, the light played tricks on me perhaps.
Apart from one youthful member of the Choir, I seemed to be one of the younger participants. A not uncommon occurrence if one has a passion for sung evensong, in a format which has remained little changed since the days of Henry Tudor.
As is my wont, I turned up early for a few minutes of peace and reflection and while the choir practiced I thumbed through the race card.
I have often sung versions of Cardinal Newman’s beautiful poem but tonight the words struck me with more than usual poignancy. We were to sing it as one of the hymns.
“Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on;
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene: one step enough for me.”
I felt a mixture of emotions. A fish out of water perhaps, despite my unmistakable Englishness. It’s been a long time since I sat in my grandmother’s modest children’s clothing shop in Ramsgate, filching Victorian pennies out of the ancient wooden till. With permission from the old dear, I hasten to add.
The other side of the family was different altogether – wealthy, vulgar perhaps, with hindsight. And the years since childhood have taken me so far from Ramsgate and little shops in provincial high streets. More is the pity maybe.
Glamour, travel, expensive hotels and, well, some degree of wealth I suppose. For all that that means.
So it is grounding, I guess, sitting in this church. Back to my humble roots perhaps, or those of my grandmother.
And those wonderful words of Newman – let someone else worry. Look not where your path might lead. The night was indeed dark and although I was not far from home, I felt it. Emotionally, physically. I am all too often amidst encircling gloom and pride certainly ruled my will. Probably still does.
To have the childlike faith Newman talks of – what a wonder that must be.
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
But, you know, with or without conventional faith there is a lot in the teaching. The code of behavior – modesty, kindness, lack of show. The idea that you should just plug on and let it all happen. And let someone else worry about it.
The whole experience left me feeling quiet, contemplative and satisfied. Cut out the god stuff and those Christians have got much of it spot on.
This made me think about one of the things that helped me cope during my transition from “believer” to atheist, which is the realisation that the environment acts in much the same way as the spirits, gods and angels that have been thanked and trusted for millennia to get us through the troubles we face and bring us home. Our evolutionary fitness is our staff and comfort. Were we the wrong type, size and shape, with the wrong behaviour, we’d have perished with the rest. But we who have arrived, despite all the odds, are the “chosen” ones (chosen by chance and natural selection).
Along with this comes the sobering reality that these aids are as fickle as any god (though believers refuse to attribute such failing to their god), so chance can go the wrong way for us at any time. There are no guarantees of deliverance. But generally, on the average, we’re just about the right strength to get us through a decent length of life in 9.8 Newtons of gravitational force; our heart is built to last, our brains to cope with the challenges, even the laws of our society are designed to keep us relatively safe, driving within speed limits and not blithely juggling swords for no good reason. Some idiots free climb and base jump, to be sure, and natural selection takes a few of them.
Modesty and kindness play their part too in helping particular individuals avoid temptations – drugs, alcohol, too much sugar, base-jumping – and find support, since kindness begets kindness.
I slid gradually from worship of some mythic Universal Mind into glorifying the mysterious universe, then to seeing that most of the universe is deadly, so maybe Gaia ought to be the recipient of my reverence? Finally, I recognised that I have an evolved instinct to worship or revere, which has also played a part in the human journey, but is just as pragmatic as all the others. It’s hard to leave that feeling. I’m so grateful, but there’s no-one to thank except people. I’m left with almost complete incomprehension. I know not how I’m here, beyond vague speculation. Yet, I live somehow, and the facts are friendly. I relax, as though into the arms of a divine Mother or Father, into this, whatever it is. Being seems to give only one injunction in this state – enjoy. What else is there to do with a moment in between eternal emptinesses?
Blimey, I don’t know what to say really. Wonderfully frank comments. I don’t think I have ever been a “believer” as such. Perhaps a would be believer is more accurate. A pretend believer, in the same way as when I am in a theater or watching a movie I get absorbed into it and it becomes, fleetingly , my reality. It’s rather the same way as my visits to church and evensong. It lulls me for a bit and if I so chose I could live in that lacuna. Instead I slide in and out of it. My “beliefs ” as such waver in the wind. Not my religious beliefs – I have none but I love religion nonetheless in the same way that I love Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books. Glorious faery stories. And to be honest, there is nothing wrong with a good story, I can live with that. But almost all of what we know is a “belief” in a way. Scientists waver about Big Bangs and the Big Whimpers. Do we believe in “strings”, multiverses and so forth. I think it was Dawkins who said in “Unweaving the Rainbow” that the world is so weird and wonderful that it is the only faery story we need. That, I suppose is his religion – wonder at the universe. Who knows, perhaps that gives him comfort.
None of that was meant as criticism, by the way, just you tend to inspire me to think such things, for which I am always very grateful.
“I don’t think I have ever been a “believer” as such.”
Yeah, that might account for some of the difference in our experience of religious memes (and I’m sorry – every time you do these posts about your secular appreciation of religious stuff, I forget that you never were a believer – note to self…).
Not that I believed in the Christian God, just some vague universal consciousness type thingumajigs. I wonder if this is why I feel uncomfortable when I read those “beautiful” words (and also when I look at the photograph of the inside of the church) – I’m mildly repulsed by the falsehoods, which undermines any appreciation of a secular message that might be in there. Rather than feeling peace and other positive things in church (last time was a grand-neice’s Christening, as usual), I feel ill at ease, but it’s not against ingesting falsehoods by accident or something, mostly it’s a weird readiness to feel uncomfortably embarrassed for the people around me. People are saying and doing such utterly stupid things (or that’s what the space and its iconography are for even if the church is empty), acting like they’re hypnotised, talking to invisible super-friends, bowing to icons, reciting superstitious spells – sometimes honouring people involved in creating all that guff who, unbeknownst to them, were probably white supremacist slave owners or casually beat their servants and whipped their children. So it doesn’t lull me at all.
I know that’s a rather extreme reaction and there will be lovely caring people in the Judeo-Christian lineage, I just don’t feel that at all. The same happened largely with all the Indian stuff I was into. Weirdly, though, I don’t feel that way listening to Bach or other religious music from Jd-Xtian heritage, but then I’ve never gone out of my way to translate what is usually in a foreign language (I find the English stuff icky), and music has its own inherent emotive power. I quite like the underlying message of Bereitet die Wege and such like if my German suffices without effort, just mine’s a different road. (That’s one that I’m often humming to myself…love those Bach cantatas – I’m mad!) So I do see what you mean. What the hell is it? Yeah, got it – I am actually resentful of the annexing of moral worth by religion, when we need to be establishing secular morality as firmly as the other is entrenched in Western culture. We need to replace all the guff with rational secular humanist values, so we can shut those deluded archbishops up! /rant
Another little niggle – although, technically, I share your view, ‘all we know is a “belief” in a way,’ there is a sliding scale of confidence I have (as do others) about all the propositions one could construct. The point of science is that there’s a whole bunch of these up towards the certainty end that we have lots of confidence in, and I feel it’s missing something important to describe these merely as beliefs. But yeah, “in a way” I understand as meaning there is nothing at the certainty end itself. I read a while ago a great thing about three stages in regard to this: absolutism, which was prevalent all through history and is still de rigeuer in certain quarters. The philosophical failure of this leads to postmodern relativism, where nothing is true or false, just opinion. This is unrealistic, however, and also leaves us all at sea. There are better and worse opinions, things that are more or less likely to be true, and the arbiter of those is science, which gives probabilistic confidence in propositions. The absolutists (like Jordan Peterson whom I’m writing about at the moment) make out that the alternative is the shifting sands of postmodernism, where anything goes and morality is meaningless and we might as well be nihilists or dead, and we need to deny both of the first two value systems and validate the third.
Few people get me thinking as much as you do. Thanks 🙂
No, I certainly did not take it as criticism.
To a large extent we are in the same boat. Except, against all reason and sanity, I still find myself wishing I could fuck off to Narnia. My wardrobe doesn’t seem to lead there…oddly enough.
Being in churches, or temples or ashrams is to visit a land of make believe and I have always found such stories beautiful and hence such places illogically comforting. Newman’s language in that poem is only just on the right side of tweeness and triteness, but for me just about makes it through the door.
So for me it is the beauty of a non-existent state of being or magical land which such places and such language invoke. The unattainable land of milk and honey. The happy ever after story. Such places just put me in a good frame of mind, especially if accompanied by early renaissance choral music (in Latin, naturally). Or as you say Bach, Purcell or any of our magnificent Western composers.
It is all something I wish for but know does not exist. Not unless we bring it about ourselves in generations to come. Through science and technology. And yes, empirical proof (such as exists) is for me also better than faith.
Needless to say I quite agree with the necessity to translate the moral and practical teachings of Western and Eastern spirituality (to use the rather embarrassing word) into a modern secular context.
My rants about economic growth form part of this. The whole stupid uselessness of building great temples to mammon and pissing nature down the drain by drowning it in concrete.
Through no real fault of our own we live in an uncaring universe and are part of a system of life where survival rests on killing and destruction. We could have outgrown Darwinism by now. We ought to have done. But we have not.
Which is why I keep banging on about transhumanism, qualia research and genetic engineering. Which is also why people like Frank Tipler have always fascinated me – his Omega Point may indeed be science fiction at present….but if there is any hope for “redemption”, that is where it will come from. By pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps and changing the very nature of humanity.
Oh and by the way, since I can’t piss off to Narnia, the Culture would do just as well.
Beautiful. Thank you for your thoughts. I’m in the midst of a lifetime, I’m sure, of unravelling my strange and often confusing catholic upbringing and pulling out the threads that I need to make a tapestry of my own in my middle age. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in facing a like journey with an open heart.