Commuter Mysticism

Damp Wednesday morning, seven o’clock,
the sun not up, nor looked to be;
the park a triangle of nothing
bisected by the pale path, trimmed
on each edge with lights
and pallid rags of early daffodils.
I walk. Bin men, cyclists,
ghosts in washed out yellow,
pass me, smiling. Two cars, then silence.The secret holiness of streetlamps,
quivering amber in the mist,
lighted windows, bus route boards –
whose destinations glow, picked out in gems:
MerrowKingston
Bushy Hill
and whirling flames on dustbin trucks:

Earth is afire today, and every breath
absorbs the sacred. Above, a sudden
blackbird.

Truth becomes real; dull illusions
I live between fold flat; more
dimensions leap into being, and I,
startled by sharp joy, can tell my gratitude
only in tears, and think how strange
to weep in wonder, where, bare
days ago I wept in desolation.

They stand close, close as to touch,
but never meet,
and both dissolve, and flow
in salt water.

Faith, belief, doubt, and pedantry

I think, for me, there are two main elements to this: the way faith works for me in the context of my history of depression, and my religious background.

First, thought, it’s worth mentioning that I draw a distinction between faith and belief, and that I am acutely aware of the difference between knowledge and knowledge (why doesn’t English translate savoir and connaître properly?) – knowing intellectually, in the head, if you like, and knowing in the heart – the difference between knowing facts and knowing people.

Faith, for me, is not the same as belief. (This, I know, is not something that all Christians would agree on, but I am only talking, here and throughout, about one Christian.) I can remember a real lightbulb moment a few years ago, at one of my parish’s Lent Courses Where One Is Not Told The Answer, where somebody linked faith to trust rather than to belief, and I suddenly stopped feeling guilty about not believing hard enough. These days I think I would describe it as ‘relationship with the Divine’ and leave it at that.

I’m very Anglican. I am both catholic and protestant, and neither Catholic nor Protestant. My non-conformist streak is Quaker, and Quakers don’t conform with anything, particularly non-conformists. And I say all this because the thing about the very Protestant Churches that I was most glad to leave behind was their insistence on belief, the idea that one has to believe the right thing to be saved. It always felt all wrong to me.

I am finding increasingly as I get older (she says, from the ripe old age of 28) that what I believe is becoming less and less important. I don’t worry at all about whether other people are believing the right thing, whatever that is. My own belief has become less certain, and less defensive. I don’t know what I believe about all sorts of things, and that no longer seems to be a problem, except to other people. At the same time, my faith has become much surer. I can’t really describe it, except by saying that it’s a sense of being loved, in a very calm, sustaining kind of way.

Which is all very well, when my brain is working. Quite often it isn’t. I’ve had depression on and off for the past twelve years, I would guess. There are two things about this that are particularly relevant to this post. Firstly: when I am depressed I cannot remember how it feels to not be depressed. (Conversely, when I’m not depressed, I find it difficult to remember how awful being depressed is, but, because my brain is working better all round, I can – if I choose, which I usually don’t – describe it via imagination.) Secondly: when I am depressed I cannot feel love, either giving it or receiving it. I can have my best friend hugging me and feel about as much emotional response as a dustpan.

This is where savoir and connaître come into it. In my head I know that my family love me, that my husband loves me, that my friends love me. Sometimes they tell me this using actual words. They mean those words. And in my head I know all that, and it means absolutely nothing. It doesn’t get any further. When my brain is working, on the other hand, it’s fine. It all gets through and I feel it deeply. I can quite often be in love with the entire universe for whole seconds at a time. (An interesting side-effect of this is that I now cry at pretty much anything. Tinny call-centre Vivaldi, for example. Also discovering that I have more and better friends than I thought I had, which has happened quite a lot over the past few months because of my brain not being so broken as usual.)

What I am driving at here is probably obvious: that a faith that manifests itself predominantly in a sense of love cannot make itself felt all the time, particularly when I can’t feel love all the time anyway. And I suppose the spaces between might well be called doubt. The thing is, though, that I know that the ones who love me don’t stop loving me just because I don’t have the capacity to experience it, any more than the sun stops burning when it’s behind a cloud. The same feels true of the Divine. Apart from anything else, that’s always the first thing to come back.

So: that’s me, and faith, and doubt. I hope… I don’t know what I hope. But there it is. Be gentle.