Here's All the People
24 December 2001
It's been a long time since I've been in one of these. Funerals, I guess, were the last times but most of them don't even come here anymore, it's usually civic crematoria with fake pine panelling and some anodyne suited functionary, the reception room of a hotel, even, once. It's lost none of the familiarity, though: transepts, vestibule, cruciform. How come I remember the haphazard instruction of primary school RE so clearly (sharp pencils, please, girls) when of the revolutionary writings that inflamed and inspired me as a woman, I can barely remember a word?
I was surprised by it, to be honest, tucked in on a corner of the griddle of suburbia, like an ambitious neighbour whose renovations have gone a little too far; nestling in between the double-glazed dolls' houses as though it were all in the planning permission. So close, too, and yet I'd never even seen it poking over the rooftops. It's much older, of course, probably Sixteenth Century with the stone wall panelling and the looming dark tower. Maybe that's what enticed me in, in the end, the age and the atmosphere and memories of peace.
I was still shaken; they were only boys really, at least when I was young they'd have been thought of as only boys, performing tricks with their skateboards on the library steps and I would have just waited or gone around but of course Ruth had to say something and that's when it all turned nasty. I really felt stupid for letting it get to me, after all I'm far more used to the language than Ruth is and I've never let myself be intimidated by anything, but it was when they were circling around and coming so close, on those steps as well, that I remembered my fall last April and I felt so vulnerable all of a sudden.
They haunt me sometimes, those hard young faces and that unquenchable venom, that won't hear or be emolliated or respond to any rational argument and I think of the pleasantries and the banal niceness of prayer circles and Bible study groups from all those years ago and can't help wondering, for all the baloney, whether we've somehow lost something along the way. Maybe that's why I was weak.
Inside my fears were realised: no pews, torn out (no doubt) to make way for these lines of chairs, designed to link together in little chain-gang rows, so much easier to stack and move around, throws open the possibilities of what you can do with the space. They're Anglicans so they have no idea, of course: their whole business is religion and yet they seem not to have grasped that the only ways to induce people to believe in God are to win over minds with rationality or to win over hearts by creating the sensation of his presence. The Anglicans fall between two stackable chairs and as a result their only adherents are those born into the faith and either too stubborn or too ritualised to give it up.
Catholicism, of course, is the master of induced sensation: candles, incense, Latin and mystic rites, it's no wonder that even the lapsed so strongly identify, even when you reject the morality it's impossible to shake off the feeling of the numinous. That's what they're all striving for, the creatures of the deep all rising up in homage as Poseidon passes over the surface in his chariot (secondary school Greek), whether it's the smell of food in a lamp-lit Hindu temple or the crackling fire at the centre of a Pagan ritual. Everywhere a burning bush, why do we see God in a naked flame?
We went the opposite route, of course, so sure of the strength of our arguments that we tore down the idols and demysticised the sacraments so that nothing would distract from the blazing light of our logic, there could be no accusations of anything other than the simple truth. And when people asked why for any of our beliefs we would not couch in vagueness or exemplify from the world but say because it is written here: 'Do not be yoked to an unbeliever: for what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion has light with the dark?' 2Corinthians 6 v.14
A vicar emerges from an office somewhere (I hadn't imagined they just leave these places unlocked anymore) and, catching me in a moment of contemplation, smiles. He probably imagines me a pious old lady offering up a prayer, or maybe admiring the architraves, part of his natural catchment. My instinctive reaction is to go over and challenge him on substitutionary atonement in order to break the illusion but he'd probably have to look it up so instead we chat pleasantly ('Miss,' I correct him) and I leave.
A vicar emerges from an office somewhere (I hadn't imagined they just leave Before I even get in I know it is going to be a struggle. Part of me whispers why not give into it? What's the point of having got this far if you still can't indulge yourself, if you're still fighting things back just to get on with your day? But there's dignity at stake so I put away the shopping, make myself some lunch and potter around the garden. It's the afternoon and I'm writing a letter to a friend when I finally crack, a tear smudges the ink and I know I can't hold it back anymore. I fetch the photograph from the drawer but more as something to cling onto than that I need to look at, my vision is bleary and the image is burnt into my mind.
He's had a whole life since then, of course, possibly right through to its end. He's had a lifetime of work, travelling, children; he's married someone else (who didn't say no, even when they loved him) and is probably with her now, warm-hearted and content, shrivelled and grey, but I don't think about that much. I think of him how he was (but why now? Why so much? After forty-eight years of life fully enjoyed?) young and earnest, warm-hearted and intense. And as the shadows deepen I light my candles and abjure the cold evening by gripping the picture and mouthing a litany of His name.