The rain it raineth on the just

I was just wondering what the worst possible personality trait to have been born with. What would be a real curse? So, internet-says-this:

  • Arrogance
  • Rudeness
  • Dishonesty
  • Moodiness
  • Conceit
  • Unreliability
  • Condescension…

The trouble with all these nasty traits is that the person who possesses them is almost certainly not the person who suffers from them. That’s other people. If you’re conceited, arrogant or condescending you’re most probably unaware of the fact. Think of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice; think of Mr Collins for that matter: Condescension and Conceit in league with one another and comfortable in their own skins.

Rather, it seems to me that the worst trait to be cursed with, from the point of view of the individual him- or herself, is a Sense of Justice. It’s the unshakeable conviction that the world must be fair – that things just have to work out right in the end. Most of us are afflicted with it and it’s so difficult to shake off.

The advice always seems to be: man up, get over it. The world isn’t fair; it never was and it never will be. Fairness/justice – that’s just something people invented so as to feel a little less scared. Who can bear to know that they are at mercy of an unfair, unjust world where just about anything could and might happen at any time?  Once again we are floating specks in a vast, impersonal universe.

I was talking to my sister yesterday – the Canadian one whose husband is gradually dying of cancer. She is tormented by this concept of fairness/unfairness as never before. They had planned their retirement together – time at last to drive off and discover the rest of Canada, time to travel the world; the new ‘retirement’ car that was already on order and now has to be cancelled; time to get stuck into all those much researched and looked-forward-to hobbies. How can all that not be going to happen now?

Having never really considered it before she finds herself tossed into that most basic of philosophical debates – the Problem of Suffering and Evil. She made the mistake of mentioning to a woman at her crafts group that she was feeling angry at God for what he had done to her and to her husband. How can he be a Loving God, she asked, and inflict such pain on the human beings he is supposed to have created?

She regretted this, rather. The woman didn’t say much at the time but went away looking troubled. Later that evening she telephoned my sister to deliver a long, long lecture on the necessity for Faith, for Prayer, and most especially for Hope. Her husband had also been quite ill in the past, she said, but she had prayed for him; she had put herself in the hands of the Lord. My sister said yes, but your husband wasn’t actually dying, was he? Dying’s different.

Why can’t we just say to someone who going through a terrible time, of course you’re angry? Anyone would be. What are you worth if you’re not even allowed to be angry and say so when life rears up drooling, like Alien, and bites you on the bum? My sister’s decided not to mention the God problem to anyone else, in case they turn out to be a tactless, deluded, insensitive do-gooder.

My only thought during this transatlantic telephone conversation was that if there is indeed a God he surely has far better things to do than torment the tiny people he created in his image and claims to love. Why would he put so much energy into creating Heaven and Earth, broad skies; towering mountain ranges; fathomless oceans – all the way out to the farthest, star-strewn reaches of the universe – only engage in such despicable, lily-livered, nit-picking tinkering and meddling? That’s the way humans behave, not gods.

It’s an age-old problem, not solvable by anyone else. Rather, it’s something each of us has to wrestle with alone, in the silence inside our heads. Life refines and changes us – we are tempered in the fire, like swords in the making; and maybe that’s the point.

stolen umbrella

The rain it raineth on the just

And also on the unjust fella:

But chiefly on the just, because

The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.

Lord Bowen (1835-1894)

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course

Am I alone in thinking that God only pokes His head out when the congregation goes away? Or maybe I mean that He is there all the time, quietly, but you’re more likely to find him if you go between services, when hymns aren’t being sung; when rabbits are sunbathing among those time-smoothed, drunken gravestones; when bees buzz and crickets chirrup. I never yet sensed God in a church service, but if you go to a church alone, and don’t look for Him, or even think about Him, sometimes He seems to be there, keeping you company.

I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I worked in one of the 0ffices at Wye College for a while and spent my lunch-hours over at the church. If it was rainy I sat in that porch thing at the front, on the hard bench, and ate my sandwiches, but if it was sunny I sat at the back of the graveyard under a tree. Nearby was a new white headstone, with a teenager’s name, and a picture of a musical instrument engraved on it. The gilding was still intact. It was sad, this new, white stone at the back, among all the unreadable, moss-covered ones, but we kept each other company. The dead, like God, like a bit of company from time to time. Sometimes I would talk to my grandmother in that churchyard, even though she wasn’t buried there. In fact, I don’t think she has a proper grave. They cremated her, as was the fashion. Grandad wasn’t allowed to go to the service – or maybe he just couldn’t face it. I never did get to the bottom of that one. We came back to find him staring at the knitting she had left behind on her chair. He hadn’t moved it.

I’ve visited most of the churches on Romney Marsh. My favourite is St Thomas à Becket at Fairfield; the one I used to walk to with my parents. They used to rent a chalet in the grounds of a farm, miles away from anywhere. You couldn’t even get a mobile phone signal; there was a strong smell of garlic at certain times of year – we imagined it was wild garlic, a plant we had vaguely heard of, but a turkey farmer’s wife (poor old turkeys) told us it was something they sprayed on the potato crops to stop them getting wireworm. Frogs sang in the ditches. It is rumoured that the frogs on Romney Marsh are a rare, giant variety, unlike any others in Britain. You never get to see them, though, so it’s difficult to tell. They just serenade you, invisibly.

Fairfield Church is right out in the middle of a field. To get to it you have to borrow a giant, old-fashioned key from a house further down the lane, then walk back. You have to get in through an awkward gate or over an awkward style – I can’t remember which at the moment – and then walk out to it, along a grassy causeway. All the way, you are having to look where you are going because of all the cowpats and sheep-droppings. And even then it’s not straightforward. The door is round the back, and then when you go in – it’s tiny, with box pews and a triple-decker pulpit, and bells. It’s quiet in a way that almost makes you uneasy. It’s quiet in a knowing you are here sort of way. The church, or what’s inside it, is considering you – very carefully. But I like it because it reminds me of holidays, and Mum and Dad when they were at their happiest and easiest to get on with.

Like many places on the Marsh, at one time you could often only reach it by boat during the winter flooding. I visited it once with my then-husband and a friend of his. That was a different sort of day, in the autumn. The key had already been collected, and there were cows in the field, all round the church. A low-lying mist meant you couldn’t see the bottoms of their legs, so they looked… truncated. Ghostly. And when we opened the door we found a party of bell-ringers inside, circling round the bell-ropes. They treated us to some unexpected music, and told us they were on holiday, touring churches and ringing in every one.

I have sat about in graveyards all over the place, come to think of it. In Ashford town centre there’s a weird one, where they moved all the gravestones over to a narrow strip on the left to make way for a square little park, with diamond-shaped borders and row upon row of purple and yellow pansies. I sat in there sometimes, with my everlasting sandwiches, on one of the uncomfortable benches under the evenly-spaced trees, but my eyes were always drawn to the left, and those heaped and broken gravestones. What is the point of gravestones, I wonder, if people are going to move them? Does it matter that there is no one left to remember the person the name belonged to? Surely it only matters that they are there, in the earth, keeping us company? Circling with us under the sun. Wordsworth got it right. In that place of desecration, I would often think of his lines:

          A SLUMBER did my spirit seal;
            I had no human fears:
          She seemed a thing that could not feel
            The touch of earthly years.

          No motion has she now, no force;
            She neither hears nor sees;
          Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
            With rocks, and stones, and trees.

 

Her mind is Tiffany twisted, she got the Mercedes bends

Well, this is going to be a post about Heaven – or at least my idea of Heaven – and I was going – rather obviously, in hindsight – to use that line from The Eagles’ Hotel California This could be heaven or it could be hell. Then I came across this other line and couldn’t resist it. How could anybody think up a line that brilliant? It’s got everything. I am lost in admiration.

What set this weird and wonderful post off? Well, I was lying on the sofa, as is my wont (what is a wont I wonder?) watching TV and half asleep. There was a cat wedged under my chin, making it impossible to turn my head – so technically I was listening to TV – another cat on what would have been my lap had I been sitting up, and third cat half on, half off of the sofa arm, reclining heavily against my bare foot. And I was thinking – it wouldn’t be Heaven without cats.

How many cats? I wondered. I concluded it would have to be every cat in the world, plus all the cats that ever had been. Heaven would not be Heaven with a single kitten or manky old stray excluded.

You would be wading through cats, I told myself.

No, myself replied. Heaven – if there is such a place – must be infinitely vast. Heaven, if cats are involved, must also have trees, and shelves, and cardboard boxes. It must have an infinite number of hidey-holes and secret places. A cat is not happy without a perching place and a hidey-hole. That would make Heaven the classic house with many mansions – a rambling, Victorian, wood-panelled, bookshelved, mouse-holed, secret-passagewayed sort of set up. It would need to be full of dusty, half-open carpet bags, broken luggage trunks with interesting, pattable metal clasps, spiderswebs to get caught in, spiders to pursue and, eventually, chew.

It would need dirty window panes through which could be glimpsed acres of rolling countryside. It would need coaches coming and going, and gardener’s boys, and at night, foxes on the lawn. It would need moss-covered statues for butterflies to alight on. It would need a moon, and starlight.

It would be a kind of indoor place with an outdoors to watch.

It would need owls, and bats. That would be for me and the multitude of cats.

It would need books and paper, and pencils, and pencil-sharpeners. That would be for me. The books would need to be old. Musty, their pages uncut for centuries. Hidden knowledge. Sleeping stories.

It would need a park, because maybe I could go outdoors sometimes. In that case it would need to be a park emptied of people. A park with broken benches and flower beds full of pansies, daisies or daffodils, according to season. There would need to be chestnut trees, and sparrows, and blackbirds, and worms for the blackbirds to tug at.

And there would need to be the sea, somewhere or other in this particular Heaven. A warm sea and an empty beach. And fishes in the sea, all colours of the rainbow. Fishes with stickle-fins and iridescent scales. Maybe a mermaid or two. Mermaids wouldn’t bother me as long as they kept their distance, as they probably would because mermaids are not very sociable.

And it would be possible to fly, of course. Who wants to be earthbound in Heaven? Maybe the cats could fly with me.

I suppose that’s it, though. That would be my Heaven. But supposing I was a cat-hater or a dog-lover? Supposing I was by nature a sociable type, the life and soul of the party? How could it be Heaven, to that person, without parties to go to, champagne to quaff, the tinkling pianos and the dancing girls? Ergo, there would need to be a separate Heaven for each of us, a self-created paradise – and maybe that is the case.

My own feeling is that we move from lifetime from lifetime in a continuous process of learning and growing. My sense is that we are God Becoming, or God Conscious. We move from lifetime to lifetime, perfecting ourselves and enhancing or enriching That of which we are fragments. Except that linear time is an illusion, so whatever it seems like, all is happening now – is happening, has happened, will happened –in a single moment. We are, in a way, angels dancing on the head of a pin.

After each life we are able to rest for a while. Then we begin to design or to be attracted back into, the next life. And maybe at some point we come to some kind of transition or translation, where rebirth becomes voluntary rather than obligatory, and we can rest for ever if we want to. We experience what we set ourselves to experience; when in life we suffer and are enraptured and all stages in between, daily, hourly, from one micro-second to the next, moving between a multitude of levels and states of being.

Which could be Heaven, or which could be Hell.

What do you think?

 

ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL

IN the Methodist Chapel, once, there was a bird amongst the organ pipes.

All sorts of things got in – birds, mice, dust, rain. The place was full of holes. Some of the stained-glass windows had little panes missing and these little panes had been blocked with folded-up brown envelopes. In winter when the ceiling heaters were on occasional drops of hot brown liquid fell on the necks of the congregation, and brown worms trickled down the yellow walls. On summer Sunday mornings shafts of sunlight came through the various cracks and I would be fascinated to watch specks of dust dancing in it. When they told us the Biblical story of the mote and the beam I knew exactly what they meant. I was swimming in motes.

Anyway, a bird got in, and it was flying round and round, in and out of the organ pipes. The organ pipes were behind the organ and formed a kind of pipe mountain between the chapel and the vestry next door. The vestry was where Pastor Hall put on his robes and counted the collection. The pipes were of various heights and didn’t go all the way up so there was plenty of room for a bird to thread around them.

And this was the strange thing. Everybody just carried on singing. The bird was making a terrible racket, wanting to get out, but the hymns were more important; to them, but not to me. I was tuned in to the bird’s distress. I couldn’t tune out. I wanted to cry. The bird was crying. Weren’t they listening?

I think it was at that point that my view of God began to diverge from that of the congregation. To them he was a kindly father perched upon the clouds. He was going to reward them for their patience in plodding through life, toiling in their dull professions, bearing and raising their children. Yes, and on the last day, when the trumpet sounded and black horses came a-clattering from the four corners of the globe they would rise from their graves, brush the earth off their Sunday best, and there He would be, beaming a giant-size welcome. From then on it would be one big Sunday School party, all jelly and blancmange, spin-the-collection-plate, piano thumping and let’s all have a jolly good sing-song, for ever and ever, amen.

But to me God was the bird in the organ pipes, the dancing of dust in the sunlight, the fine veins in the leaves outside the porch. He was rain falling and grass growing. Couldn’t they feel him?

However, I still attended. I even got prizes for attendance – a Bible, a hymn book; lots of brightly coloured tracts, like giant postage stamps; bookmarks in the shape of crosses with Jesus on them. I got gold stars in my little blue book. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I had a choice about going, and in fact I probably didn’t. One day, when I was quite small, my hand had been grabbed and I found myself being taken to Chapel by an older girl, the daughter of a lady my mother used to chat to in the street sometimes. We started off in the infants’ class, sitting among the empty pews before the main congregation came in, singing little songs with the help of flip charts, the teacher pointing at the words:

I’m HAPPY / I’m HAPPY / I know I am / I’m sure I am / I’m HAPPY

I used to find this annoying as I wasn’t HAPPY, really, and the song made no attempt to explain why I should be. I liked Jesus Bids Us Shine better. It had a good tune and made more sense:

Jesus bids us shine / With a pure, clear light, / Like a little candle / Shining in the night. / In this world of darkness / So let us shine, / You in your small corner / And I in mine.

I loved singing in those days, before I realised there was such a thing as good singing and bad singing, and mine was the bad sort. The Methodist was a splendid opportunity for loud singing. The congregation was so small and the Wesleyan hymns so militarily enthusiastic that loud singing was the order of the day. The organ would launch into a thunderous introduction – missing the odd note – the organist playing, his assistant pumping a kind of bellows arrangement behind a curtain of dusty and, as I later discovered, rotten purple silk. And in would leap the congregation. Methodist hymns often began on an off-beat: musically very satisfying, but you had to be ready or you’d miss it:

 Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom (deep breath!)

GOD is love, His the CARE / Tending EACH, everywhere, / God is love – all is there! / Jesus came to SHOW him, / That mankind might KNOW him. / Sing a-LOUD, LOUD, LOUD / Sing a-LOUD, LOUD, LOUD…

And we did. And it did us all a power of good.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VcvnISi3ZQA

Hymns were my first taste of what was to become the greatest pleasure of my life – poetry. I wasn’t bothered about the message so much as the words – the sound of them, the way they could be arranged in patterns, the imagery they could conjure up. I used to like There is a green hill far away (‘without’ a city wall) which taught me that words have a historical ‘trail’, and their old meanings often coexist with the new.

My grandmother had told me that this was called etymology. She actually possessed an Etymological Dictionary and I looked up every new word, finding out whether it had Latin or Greek roots, or was a corruption of an older English word, or once meant something similar but not quite the same. This is something I still do. Thanks to my grandmother, I can hear a word for the first time, spell it and quite often define it, because I am splitting it into its component parts, running it past the Etymological Dictionary in my head, and reassembling it. This happens so fast I do not even have to think about it. It annoys people. I once worked in a big typing pool. My team supervisor, many years younger, detested me because the other typists soon realised they could ask me how to spell things  and I would always know. After a while I used to pretend not to know, or insert a long delay while I appeared to be attempting to recall… She still detested me. She knew I knew.

I also liked In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti. In those days I assumed that hymn-writers and poets were two different creatures, and it was not until much later that I came across Goblin Market and other poems by the same lady.

 In the bleak midwinter, / Frosty wind made moan, / Earth stood hard as iron, / Water like a stone, / Snow had fallen, snow on snow, / Snow on snow, / In the bleak midwinter / Long ago.

It was simple, but it was real; something she had seen out of her own window, maybe; and now I could see it. It was as if we were looking at the same scene, a new world. This is what good poetry and writing does. You look through a window, you walk through a door into another world, and suddenly there are two pairs of eyes, the reader’s and the writer’s, seeing the same thing, two imaginations in harness, and behind them, stretching back into history, all the other imaginations and influences that fed those two.

This is magic, in a world where there isn’t much of any other kind of magic.

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves, / Missing so much and so much? /  O fat white woman whom nobody loves.

Frances Cornford: To A Fat Lady Seen From A Train (1910)

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted; / And beauty came like the setting sun: / My heart was shaken with tears; and horror/ Drifted away… O, but Everyone / Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Everyone Sang: Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1897)