Below (when I’ve finished wittering on) is an extract from Killing Hapless Annie. I think I can get away with offering it here! This bit’s about the attempts of its protagonist to find God, or at the very least to find a church. I have refracted my own experience (but not necessarily events at which I was present) through its description of a religious encounter. But I want to offer a counterpoint, drawn directly from my own experience yesterday, to this.
For reasons that shall remain opaque, or at least seen through a glass darkly, I spent this Sunday with Benedictine monks in their monastery (well, obviously; it’s where they live). That will probably sound like the scenario for a ‘Carry On’ film and you would be partly right about that, because they actually were quite saucy when they got going. I watched them as they conducted and participated in their Sunday service; there were only six of them, but they filled the chapel, devout and hands extended. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They were brimful of joy. That is what they were.
After the service, I saw that prayers for my family were listed in the nave and I had to face the wall because, from within, came a big wall of cry. It was the sort of cry that I could not have stifled.
I wandered around their gardens – beautiful places, with the vista of open fields beyond; in the long grass were red campion and snapdragons: it was, to quote W.B. Yeats, a ‘bee-loud glade.’ As I’ve said before, I see metaphor in everything; sometimes, I look at the natural world around me and I wonder if I am missing its language: that in front of me is the biggest metaphor of them all. Everyone, I think, wants some sense of meaning; at some point – or at multiple points – perhaps everyone experiences what is commonly referred to as an existential crisis. I might be wrong. For some, meaning is in no meaning; that is a meaning in itself, I might argue. Why should an atheist not use the language of grace?
At lunch, not today in silence, they laughed and didn’t stop; they had laid a camelia by the side of my plate, just for me – not because I was special or important, but because they noticed things. And Father Christopher (not his real name) said, ‘Beauty and happiness. Those are the routes to faith. And I am mad for beauty.’
It can’t be an easy life in some ways. The Benedictines’ life is founded on stability, but that means a repetition and, potentially, a lifetime enclosure – which is its own challenge. But I am coming to think that the state of happiness rather steals upon you. Perhaps it isn’t about searching for its roots, but about letting the sense of our demanding individual self slide away. I loathe with some uncertain passions those recycled ‘New Thought’ books, such as The Secret, with their emphasis on levering things towards oneself; with their drive towards consumption, with their anti-intellectualism which insists that the universe exists only to be bountiful to us as individuals. I wonder whether we find ourselves when we let go; when we surrender our greater selves. And that is where we find faith.
I say, I wonder. That is what I am doing. Wondering. This is no conversion on the road to Damascus.
And anyway, I can’t live secluded. I swear way too much. Below, I’ve got from conversion scenes, to orgasms with Albert Camus, to cake-making…..Here’s the extract from Killing Hapless Annie: it’s from a chapter called, ‘Hanging out with the Holy Rollers.’ PS: the bit about writing to Tony Benn and Glenys and Neil and making rock cakes for CND protestors – absolutely true.
HANGING OUT WITH THE HOLY ROLLERS – FROM KILLING HAPLESS ANNIE
When Annie was fifteen, she struck up a friendship with a boy in a Christian fellowship. They used to have what she considered were extremely dry romps in the back of his Ford Escort and he was a great fan of the Conservative party, which Annie, writing a Christmas card to Tony Benn every year, asking Glennis Kinnock for advice on politics and boys (Glenys said, ‘Neil and I advise sticking with Labour and only courting the Welsh lads because they’ve got fire and sense. Tidy.’- which was fine by Annie) and making rock cakes and mufflers for the women protesting at Greenham Common, instinctively had a hard time reconciling with being, well, of God. It meant instead, ‘I am a wanker and I don’t care.’
The boy’s parents were kind and thoroughly respectable but had an unsteady relationship with immigrants, gippos, lefties and feminists, all of whom they tended to besmirch over a Sunday Roast. But the boy – let us call him Ichabod – and his respectably fascist parents brought her along to the Sunday morning gathering.
Now, Annie really tried, but then, as now, she is repulsed by Christian rock, being more of a fan of the censer, the dirge-like hymn and the furiously non child friendly service. It is like a phrase of Mrs Doyle from Father Ted: ‘I don’t want to go on a pilgrimage to enjoy myself, Father: I want to have a miserable time.’ This is exactly what Annie wanted from a church: to be penitent; uncomfortable – and for it to be very very long and with clouds of incense. She thought that all the twangy guitars and baggy bass were simply too joyful: it sounded like a Bon Jovi concert, but it was less funny and entirely lacking in camp and Jon Bon Jovi’s tight arse. And as for ‘Kum ba yah’ with an acoustic guitar! The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end – and not with pleasure. There was much groaning and mumbling from the congregation, however, so Annie launched herself into the song, feeling sick but still wanting, in some way, to feel the same happiness the others seemed to feel. But it didn’t work.
The service worked in crescendo and diminuendos and with each ascent and descent, arms were raised, tears were shed, sometimes a body writhed on the floor and had to be helped up and everywhere people were speaking in tongues. To hear the language, if we call it this – a gift of the spirit – excluded her. She had no sense that she would ever ever be able to do such a thing. She plucked up the courage to ask someone about it and was informed that this gift could come to her if she truly believed. Like a child she screwed up her eyes and willed herself to, but no: week after week, nothing. Ichabod took her to his pastor, who sat her down on the velour sofa after tea and custard creams, with more Christian rock gently and painfully playing in the background and said,
‘Prepare, sweet child, to receive the Holy Spirit, as Ichabod did.’
All Annie could hear was the traffic outside and all she could think of was the fact that the velour sofa was a bit slippery and a bit squeaky and also that she had sat on a rather damp dog toy and it was digging into her arse.
Opposite her, above the gas fire with its fake stone fireplace, there were several wooden ornamental Name of Jesus jigsaws. Annie knew, in glancing at them, that the jolly little wooden ornaments irritated her. It wasn’t their fault: what she would have preferred, rather than this bright and optimistic room, with its zealous central heating, was a sepulchral cold and damp: a hard seat and some properly Catholic pictures of Jesus bleeding from the crown of thorns and holding up the stigmata. Pine Christian knick knacks and all the rest of the twee God stuff just didn’t hold or enthuse her in the same way, but she found it hard to discern whether that was owing to an aesthetic predilection or a spiritual one. Perhaps Santa Maria had been right about the baby-in-the-bucket: because her daughter now entertained this ungenerous kind of thought.
‘Who do I ask? What can I do?’
Annie had a brief conversation with Dante; he had rejected her before, but she asked again,
‘Who will be my guide? How will I go and what will I see there?’
And up came Dante into the stuffy room, gently telling her to make the journey and come back through her weird Annie and Hapless Annie world to glimpse something else,
‘Yes I am here! I give up! If you will leave me alone afterwards, you can borrow Virgil; he will guide you. Remember these words, Annie, as you go’:
‘To get back up to the shining world from there
My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,
And following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I – so far,
Through a round aperture I saw appear
Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears,
Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars…’
Then suddenly, with Annie thinking of how it would be to see something beautiful and know that it is ok for you to look at it, Dante was gone and the hand on her arm was not that of Virgil, but of a pastor – sweating; urging and mouth breathing heavily like the nasty dentist of her childhood:
‘You might feel it like heat, or get a buzzing in your ears. But feel it you will.’
There were no stars to see, no hidden tunnel to find and access or aperture to behold as the pastor spoke tongues and hissed all over her. Annie shuffled on the sofa and tried to shift the dog toy from under her left buttock and wondered if the pastor was making the whole thing up. The tongues sounded more like Esperanto than, say, Hebrew or what she imagined Aramaic might have sounded like. But she felt mean for having the thought and tried to dismiss it.
‘I know you feel it. I can see it in you. I am your guide; your conduit. Do you feel faint, loose limbed or dizzy? Ohhhh Spirit we welcome you.’
It sounded more like the séance she had once been to after a village show in The Land beyond the Sea, the Ohhhhh recalled the orgasms she’d seen on forbidden late night telly and tried to emulate with Albert Camus behind the sofa. Now Annie was getting restless (plus she was suppressing a snigger). So she said,
‘Yes to all those things’ as the glasses shuffled on the sideboard and the pastor announced that the Holy Spirit had been in the room with her and had entered her and we must all now rejoice.
The pastor laid her hands firmly on Annie’s head again and announced that again she might feel a kind of heat – or maybe the buzzing thing. Then she abruptly released her hands and it was all over, with a lie. Well, she had been very hot but that was because the central heating was jacked right up. On the way out, verily skipping with the Spirit’s presence, she recalled painfully a particular section from Philip Larkin’s ‘Faith Healer’ and walked home, feeling lost and all the way there dreading a holiday, to begin that night, in The Fucking Caravan. She wished that hands would come, ‘to lift and lighten.’ Annie became acutely aware that this early adventure with the Pentecostal church did nothing to dull the ache she felt. It was the same lonely thing that had her scurrying for the bookshelf and The Wind in the Willows when she was younger or, for that matter, tracing through adequate space between the objects on the colour table in her bedroom. The impulse had been the same:
‘In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.
That nothing cures. An immense slackening ache..’
Later, in attempts to understand and feel what the others feel, Annie tried regularly to go to Church of England services, but there was a sense of a club; a group of people with whom she could at best flirt and acquiesce. Some of them were terrifying and territorial women who didn’t like her children. Or possibly just didn’t like her. She tried with a powerful but ultimately impotent insistence to be one of them: to feel the presence of God. But it never came. She tried to understand The Bible from an intellectual and theological perspective; she met immeasurably kind true believers, but nothing shifted the immense slackening ache; at its best it was watching the comfort derived by others that kept her trying – but were they deluded? Just desperately clinging to something that Camus would have suggested you slough off – and that after terror, there should come liberty and so Virgil, with Dante smiling kindly alongside, as he wrote him, would show her the firmament?