Where does the longing come from?
Early memories may carry clues – tucked up in bed, cosy and warm, safe and sound, listening to the winter North wind tearing the world apart. Night after night after night. Other nights, clear cold, wintry, still. Standing on the concrete of the garden path, gazing at the clear night sky above the roofs of the houses at the top of Ellison Road hill, awestruck with delight at the blaze of radiance dancing in the heavens. The Northern Lights, heavenly dancers.
(I have never seen them since childhood. It is my keen wish to see them again before I die.)
I used to ask myself : what vast Power generates the destructive energies of the wind, the visual delight of the Northern Lights? What are they for? Who performed the long, hard labour of setting upright on a Hebridean moor that great Neolithic astronomical calendar, the Callanish Stones? Why did they do it? What rites were performed there? What gods were honoured ?
Where does the longing come from?
For as long as I can recall, I have longed to know why we are here, why the world with its staggering diversity of teeming, turbulent life is here. I have tried to find out what our presence here may mean, whether it is random or not.
During my lifetime, the vast scale of the Universe has been visually confirmed by the explorations of science far beyond the boundaries imagined by Darwin or Einstein. I have the Hubble images on my wall, and gaze at them every day. Their beauty, and the vastness they invoke, goes beyond the power of words to express.
We now know that our Universe is one of many, that there may be a vast Multiverse: matrix from which arise countless Universes. We are so minute, here on planet Earth, the Solar System, The Milky Way Galaxy, home to millions of other stars. Why am I standing here, wondering why we are here and what it all means?
It’s a long way from the Metaverse to the eccentric Rev. Dr. de Sousa in his green plus fours and his rusty bicycle, teetering precariously from his gloomy rectory to his sombre church during the late nineteen fifties.The small island town in which I grew up, a place of some five thousand souls, was remarkably well served for churches in those days. There was no shortage of Christian establishments in which I could place myself in an attempt to find some answers to my big WHY.
The Episcopal church was regarded with suspicion because of its uncomfortable perceived closeness to Rome.
There was the United Free Church, where Popery would have shrivelled to a cinder had it ever crossed the threshold. Serious Christianity was practised here. No flowers, no music (apart from precenting), definitely no graven images. An old testament God hung out here. Fun and laughter were not encouraged.
Then there were the Seceeders, whose precise denominational and doctrinal position remained a mystery to me throughout my youth. I knew they had split off from some other lot, and therefore regarded themselves as “a cut above” – but above what, I never quite established.
Then there was the plain old Church of Scotland. The minister, a mild, thin, bookish looking soul who had been at school with my father, bore the distinctly uninspiring nickname of “Optic” which had stuck with him since his very short-sighted schooldays. His spectacles, I was convinced, really were made out of the bottoms of milk bottles.
I used to attend his sermons with hair rollers under my Sunday hat as a mute and invisible but satisfying form of protest. He had had a charisma bypass, and took boredom to punishing levels. However, I always liked the Benediction at the end “…...In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost…” it always seemed to come from somewhere other than him, although he was saying the words. This sense never failed to confuse me…..
We went there on our intermittent forays to Church, depending on whether inertia or guilt dominated my mother’s frame of mind on a Sunday evening. Trips to Church were usually minus my father, apart from hatches, matches and despatches.
A spiritualist medium, describing my father’s wayward character to me with remarkable and eerie accuracy not long after his death, said he was a man “who knew his God.” Wherever Dad’s God hung out, it was not in any of the establishments on offer in our mid-20th century small Scottish town.
Personally, long before my encounter with the medium, I always thought my father’s God was out there in the distant hills where he went to poach deer, or in the eye of a storm at sea. Not that we ever talked about such matters. The only time we ever discussed my spiritual life was when, aged twelve, I realised that I could not face replacing the utter tedium of seven years of Sunday School with the probable continuing tedium of Bible Class, which is where you went on entering secondary education.
An epiphany prompted my nervous and tentative approach to my father. We had recently aquired a Readers’ Digest World Atlas, a huge book which I could barely lift. I was riveted by a double page spread of the whole world, with countries coloured in according to religion. I realised that day how many world religions there were.
Although Christianity appeared to hold its own across the world, it was visually clear that the great majority of the world’s population – which was a mere two and a half billion in total when I was doing my big religious sums – believed in something else altogether.
I then looked for the tiny isles of the Outer Hebrides, coloured Christian pink. Next, the top island where I lived, barely discernible in the context of the whole world. A wave of inescapable logic washed me away that day. It simply did not make sense that a few thousand members of eg the Free Church of Scotland considered themselves to be right and saved, leaving almost the total remaining population of the world wrong and damned regardless of the integrity and sincerity of their differing beliefs.
My mind buzzing with this powerful realisation, I told my father that I didn’t want to go to Bible Class. I now wanted to do some of my own reading and work out religion for myself. “Fine” he said. “Don’t go, then.”
At the age of twelve, that was it for me and Christianity, for a very long time, although I continued under pressure to attend church intermittently and always enjoyed singing the hymns at hatches, matches and despatches.
The longing, however, continued, like a barely audible ghost of a sound, echoing my heartbeat….
To read the first two parts of “Swimming in a secret sea” click HERE
The next episode will be
“Fortunately, it was a peat bank we hit. That cushioned the impact, saving the car from much damage. Uncle Patrick had stopped singing “Abide with me”: for once, he was completely silent. Perhaps he was wondering how to get the car out of the ditch. Aunt Maria, white faced, was leaning over into the back of the car where I had been jolted onto the floor behind the driver’s seat. No one had heard of seatbelts in the 1950s. “Are you all right, dear?” she said anxiously. “I think so,” I said. “Maybe I’ve bruised my knee, that’s all.” ….“
to be continued
(note: inspiration for the title of this series of posts was taken from a book which I read a very long time ago but whose haunting title I have never forgotten: “Swimmer in the Secret Sea“ by William Kotzwinkle)
1300 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010
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