As far as you can tell, creation manifests a rounded shape, perhaps a sphere, perhaps an egg, or, as a cosmologist might put it, a curved surface on which existence plays like a shoal of fish in a net of dimensions.
You see light, like mist: a glowing and dark gas. For a tiny span of time you see every particle of it. You are quite a way outside this sphere, or glob, and can see it, whole and in its parts, because you are not looking at visible brightness, which has not had time to reach you, but sensing its existence.
You are still within and a part of the realm of the sphere, having been thrown out onto a dangling thread floating away from the dimensional net.
Your sight is drawn toward what you know intensely. This is everything.
A few Sundays in December-January I went to St. Mark’s, Fitzroy, my inner Melbourne neighbourhood church. These forays into the church world arise not so much from an inner, unspoken prompt, but from a reawakened desire for music and company. St. Mark’s is a big bluestone building from the 1850s, with a grassy square and a wrought iron fence, a very High Anglican church with a good small choir and a fine old English pipe organ that purrs like a Rolls Royce. They’re all very nice, a typical small Anglican parish. There are a few middle-aged and elderly stalwarts, a married couple with small children, an ancient retired vicar who sits in the front pew and one or two quiet, very conservative looking papery young men who cross themselves and bob up and down with shy fervour. They never stay around to say hello to afterwards.
When I’ve got my good manners on I get on well with elderly Anglican ladies.
“Doooo have another champagne dear, and one of my very own Scotch finger biscuits,” says one of them after midnight mass, her grand-maternal bosom-shelf swathed in a garden of green and blue silk. And I usually don’t put big foot in sharp mouth until the uneasy feeling trips me up; that I might be exuding the charms of a well-read Teutonic gigolo (and one no longer young).
One of the silver foxes on the Parish Council had asked me to lunch before Christmas. I got quite tipsy at his party, and in my rather innocent (liberally urban American Catholic) way gave him a brotherly hug as I departed. I sent him a thank you note on a card with a painting of two Grecian muses holding up a watery world, and just to be amusing I scribbled little black beards on their faces. I was invited back for a little supper a few evenings later (me, still clueless). He had one of the other parish people over too, an ex nun who likes to hike. Interesting, I thought. But after a drink and some church gossip, she left, saying, “it’s time for me to leave you two to your supper.” I became less clueless.
My new friend was lonesome. His lover had died years earlier. He didn’t know what he believed, as far as religion went, but he loved being a part of the church. After dessert, enjoying the silver fox’s mellow company I agreed to stay and watch an old black and white movie.
“The TV’s in the bedroom. You don’t mind . . .?”
Well, I didn’t want his loss-of-face to end the evening, so I sat up on the edge of his bed with him. He was a perfect gentleman. I think I dozed off for a little while before I apologized and went back to my studio apartment, too much wine and too little sleep.
I got the cold shoulder after that. He didn’t need another friend he needed a boyfriend. Perhaps I’d come across as a tease. After so many years abroad I had forgotten how British the social culture is in Melbourne. So no more tipsily grateful brotherly hugs or funny thank you cards until I know the score.
The vicar of St. Mark’s is a pleasant Englishman, though very traditional and a bit stuffy when robed. He’s a monarchical priest. He exhales the gracious attention and dignified indifference of a Viscount—Viscount Fitzroy perhaps. In accordance with his rank in the sacerdotal aristocracy of the First Estate, this would be his style and title. The vicar presides over the Eucharist and pulpit like a solemnly hieratic and gravely masculine Noel Coward, and he has a good steady baritone too. But at the door after church the first couple of times we shook hands he was all blushes and smiles, though he had forgotten who I was from the time before.
“And what is your parish?” he’d ask, plummily.
“Oh, I’m a bit of a vagrant,” I’d reply with a grin.
St. Mark’s Fitzroy is like a little Hanoverian court. I am at one of the Deity’s minor palaces, at the Sunday morning levee, when the masters of the bedchamber gently awaken the King, the Prince Royal, the Presence, while gentry and servants look on. In some courts the queen mother drops in to lend a kindly maternal ear. One church I sang at a few times, St Ignatius of Antioch on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was so steeped in the incense of 18th century English custom the vicar ought to have gone the whole way by wearing a powdered wig and red-heeled court shoes.
Why do we need gilded rooms?
And stained glass?
So we can assign a tangible value on our love and look safely through to the light?
Do we erect very high ceilings to remind us of the loftiness of our imaginations, and to keep the elemental, transforming creator as far away from our bare heads as possible?
In order to get some conversation going I emailed the vicar a hello, attaching, as an introduction, the short essay The New Year’s Cadence which I’d done a couple of months earlier. I never heard back. He may have been scared off. Many bachelor priests find themselves wary of the type of parishioner who arrives to vex them with an interest in devil’s advocacy or their private persons. After a couple of chats with the music director and a bit of wavering I agreed to sing with the choir for their concert at the end of this month, but not commit to Sunday mornings.
Sometimes you need to feel welcomed in from the burning sun, or the heavy rain, or the darkness of a cloudy night, or the busyness of foreign streets, or the barrenness on your pillow. You find the ritual and symbolism human and nourishing, in small doses. Your heart and mind speaks this language, when there’s language to speak. But you’d become ill and constipated if these rich, pre-cooked spiritual dishes were to take over your natural diet. This must be why you still long from time to time to be accepted at court, but insist on bringing your rude, out-of-doors notions with you.
“The soul of man cannot live on cake alone,” you mutter to no one in particular.
You turn around for a moment, and there is nothing but void. Terrifying, void is. It extends nowhere. It is nothing, not even space.
You must fight hard to turn your back on it; to turn back in order to see existence. Why is void so frightening?
Void is end and void is not. End is never. Never is, and never was. I mean, never isn’t, and never wasn’t.
It isn’t ‘The Void’ because there is no such “thing”, and there is no such “place”.
What did you not see when you turned around?
This is the point at which horror arises. You wonder if one day you will be terrified of death.
The more elegant forms of Church-ianity (ones I love too) are kept in stasis by a particular spiritual tyranny; the hurt and reproachful feelings of the elderly when faced with any breaking open of the protocol of their religious observance. I remember my octogenarian landlady, Miss Nimmo, supported by her friend Miss Cannon, standing up at St. Gabriel’s annual parish meeting in Pimlico, complaining in hurt and horrified tones about the phrase “seen and unseen” having replaced “visible and invisible” in the Nicene Creed. Clearly, the language of God, set down in the 17th century, had been affronted and perverted. The responsibility to see or not to see has been placed on us.
Many priests will accede complacently to the demand that nothing must change. There’s no point rocking the boat, and a modestly good living and secure sense of self depends on not doing so. This observation is, of course, as unfair as it is true of many of life’s vocations. The protokollon of religious observance contains the glue that holds faith together. If there were no protocol, faith might fall apart for a lot of people, and more wars might erupt, so the reasoning goes. But I wonder if the gospel message is really a gospel of glue, or one of breaking open into new life? And doesn’t growth germinate from flesh that falls apart?
On one of those Sunday mornings I’m sitting in silence in my pew at St Mark’s, after the vicar’s irritating, psychologically uncomprehending sermon. He was mildly self-deprecating in his opener, but grew very firm about the tradition and authority residing in his position. He went on a bit about people these days creating their own versions of religious truth. Us and Them, it seems. I find myself in a curmudgeonly, Cromwellian mood about the whole lot of them.
Suddenly, I am taken to task by the Jesus of my Anglo-Catholic imagination. A shimmering Christ hovers before his mahogany and silver gilt cross, creamy hands outstretched, showing me his delicately sculpted puncture wounds. He is so beautiful: quiet, tall, noble, his visage gravely joyful, slightly melancholy, as though he were Ingrid Bergman in the lean body of a man.
“Lorentz,” he sighs, his lilt could be Aramaic, or Nordic.
“Suffer the little old ladies to come unto me.”
It was only a fear, of the eventual terror of death, which frightened you.
Existence is beginning. Beginning is always.
The comforting constancy of creation is always beginning. It is not a preserved thing.
You are often captured by the wise blind smile of a newborn child.
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org