1995, Sussex, England
Age 42 – Neptune square Neptune; Uranus opposite Uranus; Pluto square Pluto
It was the strength of my feelings for Mary, along with the mystery of my lost connection with….. I resist using any word to try and define It but there has to be one…. with God that caused this book to be written. The miracle of Mary, I was to realise later, was that she had no ego.
I worried that I might be gay, or that people might think I was, not that I had anything against gay people, it was just the idea of being different; I was slow to see it, but the identity problem was there from the start. My feelings for people had always been indiscriminate of gender – I had liked men for their female qualities and women for their male strength – a person was an enduring spirit independent of a body. I had realised at once that Mary and I were soul-mates and that we should be together, but I did not know why – especially when it all started to go wrong.
Having lost God I felt insecure about losing Mary – she was 30 years older than me – so I needed to find out what happened after death, why a person died when he did; would we meet again if we wanted to, how much time would have elapsed? Questions I had time to consider only after Jack and I were no longer together, after my son, Bert had left home, and after I had stopped teaching.
For the 2 years before I met Mary, I had been full of energy. I loved most to be out walking the hills. I had designed a series of literary and spiritual tours around the country for foreign tourists to keep me out and about. That was how I met her. She had been just as full of energy, but for her it was music which connected her to the universe, which calmed her spirit or excited it, which gave her a feeling of balance. She was more at home in herself and the world than anyone else I had ever known. It was as if any disaster might befall her but somehow it would be okay. She radiated at-one-ment with life.
Three years after we met we began to make our home together, and then, instead of finding resolution, harmony and fulfillment, I became out of sync with everything. I discovered vulnerabilities in myself that I had not known before, and my spiritual awakening went to sleep while I tried to play this new role and acquire some self-esteem in a new part of society. If I had created this situation, what was I supposed to do with it? The only solid form was the strong bond between us, every other aspect of life I found questionable. I didn’t know how to fit in or what I was supposed to do. My strong spiritual beliefs had been fine for just me, but they did not tell me what to do now. Now I was with Mary I had to find out how to proceed as half of a new couple.
I picked up the phone and a confident voice said, “This is Henry Bean, the vicar”. I had heard him referred to as Father Henry but I was glad he called himself Vicar, I’d rather say Vicar than Father. He wanted to discuss my letter face to face and he sounded a little guarded, so we fixed for me to go the The Vicarage at 2.00pm. “2.00 – vicar; take notebook; wear skirt; take Mary.” A person is not only what she eats but also what she believes and if I had any foundations at all I did not want them shaken, nor did I want to inadvertently shake his.
When Mary returned from her music-making – she’d been playing quartets in town – I told her we were going to interview the vicar in 10 minutes about a character in the book I was writing, and that she could come too and pose as my assistant. She had attended a whole range of churches – Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran – but only to play the organ.
“God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life…” she muttered as she got ready.
“We are the ones asking the questions,” I said, “we don’t have to account for ourselves.”
“….He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside still waters, He restoreth my soul..”
We had attended church together once, when we first came to live in the village, I had not liked Father Henry’s air of righteousness, but with the weight of The Church and the Almighty always there to back him up, he couldn’t help but feel sure of himself. In the face of such certainty how could anyone practise humility?
One hot summer day last week as I walked the ancient footpath between Bosley and the neighbouring village of Fishley, a thought had descended, an idea for a new story: the main character would find she was pregnant, but because her partner was a woman and she had not been with a man for years, the search for who-done-it would lead her along both biological and spiritual pathways providing all sorts of possible story-lines and scope for investigation. It would turn out to be a modern miracle. But at the beginning she would wonder about the facts concerning Jesus’ conception, since here she was in the same position as the Virgin Mary.
Mary and I walked quietly together down the road in the heat. It felt like we were about to be judged.
“Do I look clean?” she asked.
“You look angelic. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried.”
“You always say that when I say don’t worry.”
We were a few steps away from contact with the unknowable, upon which speculation rested the entire bastion of the Church of England. All who represented it and trusted in it, all those eminent, Conservative churchmen, the Queen, the Government, all of this was built on speculation. No-one knew where we came from or where we go to – anyone’s guess was as good as anyone else’s – which accounted for all the religious wars. I prepared to summon up the language with which to speak of these unknowns. His front door was wide open to keep the house cool.
“Hello, come in, sit down,” a friendly yet still guarded Father Henry bid us, pointing at two low chairs, and a silence which none of us filled confirmed we were all feeling unsure of ourselves or each other. The room was a mixture of antique furniture, ecclesiastical ornaments, computer, photocopier and fax. He sat at a table by the window which looked out onto the lane where the tourists trickled slowly by in the heat. He looked uncomfortable in his tight black shirt.
“Too many words,” said I to the vicar, gesturing to his stuffed bookshelves.”
“Yes, indeed.” Another silence.
“I think you asked several questions in your letter, I’ll just read it out so that we can all remind ourselves…..”
A tactic designed to dislodge an opponent. He felt defensive.
He read the letter out and said almost as an aside, “You have your doctrines a little confused…”
“Yes, the Immaculate Conception is accepted by the Roman Catholic church whereas the Virgin Birth is orthodox Protestant belief.”
I was not sure I saw the difference exactly, but I was pleased we were getting right to the point. He asked what I was writing, I said a novel in which a character was finding it hard to reconcile the history of Christianity with the Bible stories and could he tell me what was true and what was not.
“Oh,” he said, “It is all true.”
I must have looked blank, “For the church there is no question that it is all true,” he continued.
“But what about Joseph? And didn’t Christ have siblings?”
Mary was sitting meekly and mildly. I felt as if I was consulting the doctor on behalf of a friend.
“You can look it all up in the first two chapters of Luke. Many people in the church will say it doesn’t matter anyway. God is the father of Christ.” He said this with some embarrassment as though we were questioning his parentage.
But he went on, “History says that Mary and Joseph were espoused before the birth but married by the time Christ was born. But if “your character” is searching for a way to believe in Christ it is better not to start with his birth, better to start with his death….”
“But his birth is the starting point for many people, children especially.”
“Yes, I know,” he recrossed his legs, “Christmas is in many ways a vicar’s nightmare.”
“But… so.., what is the answer? We know a virgin birth is impossible. Could the father simply be Joseph?”
“It was a miracle!” His face sparkled with perspiration and wonderment.
I didn’t think intelligent people really believed in them. “Do you believe it?” I asked him.
“Yes I do,” he said. “In poetry, for example, truth is revealed which cannot be explained in prose. It is something you know in yourself without needing verification.”
“So, what you mean is that your belief in God is bigger, in a sense, than any text or explanation. But you do think there is a gap between the stories and what we know to be empirical fact.”
“You asked in your letter if truth was the same as faith. Well, religious truth is the same. Faith is like saying: I don’t know, but I believe. In this way, paradoxically, there are elements of agnosticism in Christianity. To have faith is to act on a hunch, to act before the evidence.”
He quoted a bible story about the tribes going down to the River Jordan with the stone tablets, the Ark of the Covenant, believing that they would, with God’s help, be able to carry them across and because of the strength of their belief, as soon as the tablets touched the water, the waters parted.
I looked to Mary, “What do you think?”
“Well, I don’t think anything really”. She muttered something about being an agnostic and then asked conversationally if they had finished translating the Dead Sea Scrolls yet? She was clearly in a bad way.
I had one more question. “What about the image of the church, it is so sure of itself – how can it demonstrate humility when its voice is so dogmatic?”
“I know what you mean, I know many impossible Christians who believe they are totally right and everyone else is wrong.” He paused to mop his brow. “I can’t honestly say that I know anything for sure, I can only say that I simply believe. Christianity is so much me that I don’t know anything else. It is part of me.”
It seemed a fair answer, perhaps it was his best shot, or perhaps he was too hot to put up much more of a show, or perhaps he thought we weren’t worth the effort. In any case I declared myself to be satisfied for the time being, he joked with Mary about how he hoped there would be some nice place waiting for them in heaven, and we left. We drove to a nearby beach to find some breeze and think it all over.
“What do you think? Do we believe in miracles?” I asked her as we paddled calf-deep in the warm sea. The tide was all the way out so we were well away from the masses. She smiled radiantly as she looked into the water.
“Well, he gave us some pretty good answers. He was very careful not to lay down the law as most of them do…. just as liberal as he could be – whilst denouncing the Bishop of Durham twice, did you notice?”
“But he believes in miracles! How can he?”
“Because he’s a Christian. Some are chosen and some are not. Some have been given grace you see, which enables them to believe. I could never accept that God was so unjust. Why some and not others? This idea of the chosen few……”
“Well, you don’t need grace anyway. I’d forgotten about grace.
God loves everyone, though, sinners and everyone alike.”
“Yes, but love isn’t the same as grace.”
We walked in the warm shallows all the way to the next village, trying to understand how it was possible to believe in miracles. Mary remembered that the Holy Ghost had to descend upon you; probably it meant enlightenment. But the irony seemed to be that you could only swallow the whole lot, if you were first a Christian, and if you weren’t a Christian, nothing could possibly make sense. So it turned out that you couldn’t actually learn Christianity, you had to believe without knowing and this belief had to descend from out of nowhere at which point you had been given the grace to have faith. All that had descended upon me recently was the idea for my book; the idea of a miracle.
“Well, I can’t believe it”, I said, “I don’t know how to. I suppose it means I haven’t made the grade enough yet to be descended upon. It seems unfair. At least with Buddhism you don’t have to take anything on faith.”
“No, Buddha was simply a man who went out into the world to find the answer to suffering in general – he did not claim to be God, or God’s relative. The Buddhist premise is that all life is suffering, but suffering is caused by desire, and desire is born out of ignorance; so you can fight off desire by following the eight-fold path, the Middle Way… In other words, it is up to you to do something about it, it puts you in control. You don’t have to wait for grace. When everything is seemingly hopeless you find out that you can do something about it. Whereas with Christianity you have to start by accepting a miracle which is impossible unless you are weak-minded or already enlightened; and if you are, why would you need religion at all? Not only that, this idea of the chosen ones makes a person feel inadequate all over again.”
“I tend to agree.”
“And anyway, if the Bible stories, like poetry, are a way of saying something that can’t be said directly, what is the Virgin Birth trying to tell us?”
“That the child is God. That God can live in us and through us. You are supposed to somehow feel, through an understanding of the story, that there is an awe-inspiring, benevolent power out there, called God, who is there to care for you.”
“What about the Eucharist?”
“The Catholics believe in transubstantiation so that we might feel that we have God inside us; for the rest of the Church it’s a reminder of the last supper, before Jesus gave His life for us in order to save us.”
“How was His dying supposed to save us?”
“To show that death was nothing to fear because He was returning to God. If we believe in Him, we will be saved; we will have no fear. He is going to prepare a place for us in His father’s house, so that we can look forward to eternal rest in heaven.”
“Another miracle to show he is the Son of God and has accordingly survived death, as we will.”
“Well, why doesn’t He appear again when people like me need convincing?”
“Seek and you will find.”
She hitched up her skirt out of the water and looked up happily. “You are supposed to just believe – throw everything else out of the window and give yourself totally up to Him. The final proof is in the Resurrection which is proof that He is God and that all He said and did had meaning and is true.”
“Where do I find grace?”
“I don’t know. It’s not fair, is it.”
“Miracles don’t happen in my world. I shall have to try and see it all from another perspective, one that does not depend on common sense. What organ do you perceive religious truth with?”
Mary had never paddled in an English sea before. All serious matters had flown – if only I could be that way.
“I don’t know. But there are some things which defy anyone’s intelligence.”
“How come you don’t need grace? Why can’t you explain to me why you are the way you are?”
“I don’t know what you mean. I just am.”
“If you do something you are ashamed of and you feel terrible, do you pray?”
“What do you do?”
“I feel very bad for a long time.”
“So, you’ve been strong enough to do without grace all these years, answerable only to yourself. I don’t know anyone else like you.”
“There must be. Let’s think….. I have never felt special. Life just happens.”
“Yes, but you let it – you allow it to happen to you. It seems you always have. Look at your marriage, when it goes wrong you don’t fight it, you say: oh well, I’ll just have to carry on and make the best of it. Whereas I say: I’m not going to stand this a moment longer and I do something, take some action. You act by doing nothing, going along with events; I seem to have to change everything.” I was beginning to get frustrated. “Your passivity verges on the complacent. You seem to expect nothing out of life at all, when anything good happens you are pleasantly surprised.”
“I don’t know,” she said, “I just seize opportunities. The older I get the more certain I am that I know nothing. If I’d needed a religion I expect I would have found one. But if you’re not hungry you don’t go off in search of food. Music was always all I needed.”
“So, what about miracles?”
“I believe that things happen all the time that we do not understand…. I’ve told you about the time Mother saw a ghost in San Antonio, the black slave girl sewing; and about my near-death experience when I was little, the bright light…”
“And your Guardian Angel…..?”
“Oh I know what we call paddling!” she said.
” – wading! We go wading, not paddling. Paddling is what dogs do.”
Revelation heaped upon revelation. On the way back we paddled towards the beginnings of a big red sunset.
Life is a series of graspings and letting-goes, like climbing a ladder. It changes and we change with it. You find a religion, a belief, a philosophy, you simplify it till you understand it, you live by it, you hang on to it as long as you can – all your life sometimes – but eventually you have to let go and move on: nothing is static, not even your soul.
Having already been once awakened, it was all the more difficult to rise to that height again – like an athlete who falls from a peak he has already once reached. Why bother? What you have already tested you think you already know. I found that I could not use the same route as before since it had already failed me. I needed new and different answers. I had to look in new and different places – places I had never looked before and I had to be open to any possibility.