Often I wonder how it was that I managed to stay out of the Catholic Church, until the age of fifty. I suppose it was much the way my ancestors stayed out, for centuries. They found Christianity fairly obvious, back then, but the claims of Rome less so. Or even if they saw the claims, still could make excuses. Notwithstanding, one thing leads to another.
In my view (that so prevails at this website) it is the “mystical” aspect of Christianity that so repelled them, and attracts me. This is what filled the monasteries both East and West, and works also to retrieve people over the bridge of Evangelicalism. In quite different ways, Calvinism and Lutheranism and State Anglicanism and their various mainstream disestablished Episcopal, Baptist, Congregational, and Methodist successors (I’m sorry if I’ve left anyone out) worked to undermine it — through iconoclasm, rationalism, nationalism, and so forth. But that is some vast topic, which revisionist historians like Eamon Duffy have only begun to survey.
Little people like me have been pulled to Rome, modern historically, partly because the common war on Rome faltered, with the collapse of mainstream Protestant congregations. Most of course drifted away to post-Christian hedonism and fey atheism (“agnosticism”), or to the myriad pseudo-religious consumer cults. A revived New Age gnosticism, too, became popular, often masquerading as Buddhism. (Not the Buddhists’ fault, they assure me.) Today the old Puritan impulse, where it survives or is rekindled, pulls towards radical Islam. (The old Scots Presbyters were much like the Taliban.) It is a bewildering disintegration, out there, but also inside the Roman Church, “in the spirit of Vatican II,” where mainstream Protestantism is making its last stand.
Gentle reader must know all this already, however.
My point is only that there are those moments at the fulcrum, where one in effect has no religion at all, and nothing to listen to, except the Holy Spirit. This puts him in great danger of falling into a very traditional and orthodox Roman Catholicism, that will leave all his respectable Protestant ancestors spinning in their graves.
There is already too much autobiography in these Idleposts, I will try to suppress a full chronology today, but when I look back I see that opportunities and motives “to pope” were there almost continuously from early childhood forward, along with little revelations. But rather than read, as it were, these “signs of the times,” I found some way to deflect or ignore them.
Here I am using the quoted phrase in a slightly unusual way. I am not thinking of such a thing as an event in a chronological sequence, or “narrative”; nor as the moral of a story, supplied at the end; though I’m not excluding those aspects entirely. Rather I am thinking of a moment “outside time,” though of course it must have intersected with time, for the “event” had a temporal location, and I am nothing if not temporal myself. Art, great art and poetry, captures and communicates such moments, or translates a divine mystical form into something less mystically human and tangible.
(All great art is essentially religious.)
It is the year of grace 1972. I am nineteen, and waking in a little attic room, as self-imagined poet in a garret. The sun is rising on a warm midsummer day, and outside the window is that morning light, and thick ivy. Sparrows are chirping in that ivy, a flock in the leaves chatting merrily all at once. This was a sign of the times.
Suddenly the world seemed very ancient, and very new. It came into my head as my eyes were opening, and the light streaking above the floorboards, that I was reclining in Paradise. There are sparrows like this in Paradise, I thought. (I was unquestionably an atheist at the time.) Not ancient, specifically, nor new, but immortal, I thought. I had a theological idea. This moment on Earth is itself immortal, in the sense that it is meant to be, but also in the sense that it is undeniable. The world will pass away, but the memory of this event will not pass, as it were, “in the mind of God.” The sparrows on the leaves are immortal, every note they have uttered “just so.” They hatched, they spawned, they will die; but forever, they will have been. They cannot be effaced, from having been; they will always have been, just here, in the immensity. No tyrant, no accident, can take them away.
This led to a little logical quandary. If this is so, I thought, in a budding scholastic way, the arrow of time must be an illusion. But it can only be so, because it is not an illusion. For it was something not imagined and “abstract” but constructed from the indisputably real and corporally present. For now I do not mean the moment itself — the short space occupied within a single second — but each and every living sparrow, each growing leaf, and every particle of dust floating in the air. All were unmistakably real, and each will always have been, here, in the co-ordinates of this moment. I could “prove” this, easily to myself, because I was here, too.
Perhaps these things are hard to describe.
“Nothing is lost.” That was the “moral,” if you will, that I took from that moment, and as I say, it was “a sign of the times,” vouchsafed to me by the Heaven, by the Grace of God, as I now realize. Yet no empire had crumbled, and the sky had not turned red.
So many people, even in my inbox, are almost in a state of despair about “the way things are going.” It would sound glib to say, “Don’t worry about it.” The Biblical expression is less glib. It is voiced as an angelic command: “Fear not.”
Or a little later in time, when I found myself lying in a hospital bed, in a lung ward (this was before I took up smoking), with old men around me, all terminal cases with lung cancer, and I had watched one die earlier in the evening right across from me — paradoxically, of a heart attack. (I rang the buzzer; staff got there quick; but he was dead already.) This man had spent the whole of the previous night curling into a fetal position, and calling for his mother. (He was ninety years old.) This was memorable.
And the old Welsh coal miner in the bed next to mine (also about ninety), who was down to one half of one lung, and in terrible pain — but stoic, smiling, joking, “unkillable” — a member of God’s own working class.
Perhaps I should explain that my own case wasn’t terminal, at all. I had only a tube stuck in my chest, above a collapsed lung. (Say after me, “spontaneous pneumothorax.”) They’d stuck me, rather literally, in that terminal ward, because it had the right equipment, and there was a shortage of beds at Westminster Hospital. Or, seen from another angle, God had stuck me in there to watch old men die.
I was still an atheist; but a firm believer in “the Bible as Literature.” I had borrowed a King James Bible from a (very pretty, born-again) young nurse, only for something to read. I needed magnificent literature, I did not need a paperback, at that time, lying in that ward. I was near to panic, the darkness was encroaching, I was in physical torment myself, and felt the closing in of “the valley of the shadow of death.” Verily, I was beginning to understand what terror feels like.
Purely for distraction I reached (painfully) for the Good Book. It fell open at one of the young nurse’s bookmarks: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, …”
Though the earth be removed. Though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled. Though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.
This was a sign of the times.