DECEMBER ISSUE: On Faith

Image from author’s collection: Book of Life - The Marshall Cavendish Encyclopaedia
Image from author’s collection: Book of Life – The Marshall Cavendish Encyclopaedia

The penultimate advance extract from The Cure for Sleep concerns faith: a time when there was a turn towards and then away from belief (and the belonging it might have bestowed).

Readers were invited to respond as follows: Do you have a faith? In what ways has it been tested, or tempered? Has the religion of your place or people sustained you as you have grown or gone away, or did you choose to leave it?

Any stories received on this theme will be curated below.

December extract

So many years after the near-death, it was only now that I’d begun to read books on faith and consider whether my dream life – with its insistent vision of grace offered and refused across a threshold – had been pointing me in the right direction all along.

/…/

On this day I’d come to Firle church simply to sit on the vestry floor and think, looking up at the blue and gold light of its bright John Piper window. Homage to William Blake’s Book of Job. Broken sun, crescent moon. Sheep lying asleep underneath, with only one that has its eyes open, looking out.

Job 28:12. But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?

The Bible in my hand was pocket-sized with a cracked spine and its coloured illustrations coming loose. Among the things I’d carried away from Granny Shadrick’s house, I took it for the only scraps of her handwriting I could find before leaving there forever: her mother’s month and year of death, recorded in blue ink on the inside cover.

But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?

There I sat, feeling stupid to be preoccupied by such unworldly things when outside I could hear a tractor reversing, and a delivery lorry unloading by the brewing company, and the blacksmith at her work. Everybody busy with the business of living.

Effort hadn’t cured me. Love hadn’t. The peace and clear purpose I had been searching for, and was trying now simply to live without. Might I find it here, after everything?

[Full extract on Substack]

The Cure for Sleep

Reader responses

Proverbs 31: 10-31 – The Closet

After her funeral, I found five coats in my mother’s wardrobe.

One I remembered from a childhood spent in the quieting-cold of weekly church services. Its silver-fox collar gave me more comfort than the priest’s words usually offered my sad-eyed mum. Consolation seemed unlikely, as we hovered above uncushioned wooden pews and inadequate kneelers, listening to sibilant threats veiled as promises.

A second was a thin, green, canvas macintosh. Mum had bright red hair and green was the only colour that ever made her brave. I was sorry that the contents of the wardrobe were mostly blue.

On a padded hanger, charmed by a stiffening lavender bag, hid the slubbed-silk coat she’d worn on her honeymoon. The lining matched the sixties knee-length sleeveless shift I never saw her wear. ‘Too risky’, she once told me. And I didn’t have the wit to ask her what that meant, though the dress and coat were shot with green too.

The fourth was a long, woollen housecoat. Our kitchen was perennially cold and it embraced her against the chill during late night cups of tea, or early mornings when the fire that launched the boiler hadn’t stayed in overnight. I took it off the rail to pack away and found smoothed rosaries in both pockets. As though she’d say two at a time, if things were especially hard.

The last was a car coat I’d bought her four years earlier. Tucked at the back of the wardrobe in a careful plastic cover. Forest green. Expensive. Suede. I had never seen her wear it. I took it off the hanger and held it close. In that emptying moment I regretted the faith that had never comforted me. The coat smelled of her favourite mossy perfume. I wept that she’d worn it at all.

E E Rhodes

I joke guiltily about my membership in the Church of the Great Outdoors. People who do not attend church on Sundays, I was raised to believe, are worse than sinners. They’re not even trying.

Of course, I dropped that faith – or demurred when it dropped me. Later I found instead, and sunk happily into, a faith that affirms no place and no day as more sacred than any other. That-of-God is present in all. We do not say ‘church’, nor ‘Sabbath’. We do not say ‘sin’. We might say ‘loneliness’.

Our meeting places are simple, without altar or aspirational spire to direct our thoughts ‘up there’. The best meeting-houses are old and whitewashed, with bare beams and clear windows. I used to visit a tiny one in the New York woods, with an iron stove in the center for winter meetings. A practical focus, giving sufficient bodily comfort for the mind to quiet.

But there is no meeting-house near where I live now. Instead, I find I persist in seeking the divine ‘up there’. I walk the hills of this rolling, golden land. The higher I climb, the more I meet that-of-God. I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, whence cometh my help, says the Psalmist – words preserved on a small plaque on a mossy bench, by the Peak District stream where my grandparents’ ashes are. We are hill people; and it seems that runs deeper than their quiet Methodism, my mother’s High Anglican mysteries, my father’s salt-of-the-earth evangelism.

Again and again, I meet the sublime where the land touches sky. Where ravens are agents of the Mystery and the scouring wind sings praise. I take worship with the cattle, communion in curious foraging; and the blood in my limbs surges and circulates, throbbing: here, here, here.

Nicola pitchford

A few years ago, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I took my daughter and her friend shopping to Exeter. On the way home, in the dusk, on narrow lanes, I hit a rock or a pothole and punctured a tyre. I swore very colourfully, and we limped to a lay-by. I got out the jack and the twiddly stick thing, and cursed myself for not really knowing how to change a tyre on this car. And I said to my daughter ‘What we need now are some Scousers to drive past.’

About 10 minutes later, a van stopped. A pair of (yes!) Scousers got out, changed the tyre, told us where the next garage was, and went cheerfully on their way.

Why is this about faith?

Because I don’t think they were angels, I don’t think they were sent by some higher power, I don’t think this was divine intervention. I just think I have faith in people. I believe in connections and kindness. I believe that people will reach out and help – not always, but often enough – and I believe it’s good to be one of those people.

I would love to have faith in a higher power. Who wouldn’t? What a relief, to know that death is not the end, to know that there was a purpose to all this. I’ve wrestled with that angel, though, as honestly as I can, and I can’t make the step. I’m left with belief in my fellow humans, in the green force that sends the root through concrete, and in my own obligation to take responsibility for my actions and myself.

sarah connor

The first marker I come to while walking the St Magnus Way in Orkney is attached to a wooden post. At its foot is lush greenery, but no path, and as I wade through the thigh-high stinging nettles, I hear myself thinking in a rather bad-tempered way, ‘shame on you!’ That’s a phrase straight out of my childhood and the Church of England in the 1960s and 70s; it’s not one which I expect to hear popping up in my head fifty years later. Shame on you – a turn of phrase, yes, but one which carries a world of significance. What I mean is, ‘how can the organisers of this pathway have let it become so overgrown, they should be ashamed’ and as soon as I hear these words in my head, I am ashamed.

The sermons I listened to during my formative years, the bible I read and learned by heart, the pictures I drew at Sunday School and the promises I made at Girl Guides, were supposed to make me a good Christian girl. I didn’t have an extreme upbringing, it was more of a cumulative thing, layers of hints about being a sinner laid down one on the other, blame and shame stacking up to form rock-solid foundations. Joining in morning assembly every day at secondary school and listening to exhortations to follow The Commandments, tasked to ask for forgiveness; I was steeped in it, and it wasn’t until I started to walk pilgrimage that I discovered that its tenets seemed to have lodged in my physical cells, maybe my very soul. Religion was there with its moral and ethical framework when I was learning to toddle, and apparently the action of perpetual stepping dislodges its toxic teachings.

Tamsin Grainger

Is that all that is left of life? A pile of carbon atoms?

I couldn’t bear the idea that after losing Dad, there was nothing more. Holding his bone-white ashes in my fingers and scattering the fine powder at his beloved bowling club and in Mum’s garden, I refused to believe it was the end. I hoped that his soul was enjoying the wildlife – that passion we had shared.

A seed of faith was planted when I visited Kata Tjuta in Australia a few weeks after his funeral. It was a freezing morning. It seemed that I was not the only one struggling with the fierce wind and arctic temperatures. There was no life to be seen at all. As I sat on brick-red stones, the pitted terracotta rocks towered over me like protective bodyguards; they looked as if they were crying sooty tears, joining me in my grief.

It wasn’t long before the most magnificent monarch butterfly flickered like a flame, dancing around my head. The wings were bright sunshine, the same colours as Dad’s funeral flowers. It was the only animal I saw that day.

Last Christmas, in lockdown isolation, I forced myself to get outside and walk. To place one metronomic foot in front of the other. To keep going. A robin flew to a branch above my head. It was fluffed up and looked cold. I vowed to take mealworms with me on the days that followed. Over time, he graduated from taking them from the ground to hopping on my boot and then flying to my hand. He grasped my fingers with his toes and tickled my palm as he pecked. This bird appeared every day until lockdown ended.

Every bird, every butterfly; he is with me. Whenever I am feeling down, I look to nature. Signs of life. I have faith that Dad is everywhere. But most of all, he is in my heart.

VAnessa Wright

It was the first time I’d prayed since I was a small boy. No-one had ever told me to pray, not then and not now. But what was strange now was that I had been an atheist, of sorts anyway, for decades.

I had just received the gut-wrenching news of F’s attack – a cowardly shit of a man had assaulted her for the keys to her car, and F being F, she had tried to fight him off. He didn’t know she was dying, of course.

I was 300 miles away, at work but now instantly by her side. Around the corner was a beautiful old church; I spent that lunchtime walking over and over whatever I considered to be its hallowed ground, praying for her. An atheist is supposed to see prayer as childish wish-making, but it isn’t.

What it is:

a longing for grace,

for them to be held in gentleness and care.

That is all.

This is something fundamental, and powerful, and good.

I would pray many, many times over the course of her illness. Sometimes pleading for mercy for her, sometimes for strength and grace for myself and others. And then an unexpected third type, which isn’t really prayer at all…but rather the sudden noticing and acceptance of a truth, that where you are standing right now, and everything that is happening, is holy. That every moment is sacred: every meal made with love, every moment of truly noticing and seeing the other, is intensely and powerfully holy and precious. And then you have no desire to defile anything with foolishness, or unnecessary anger. May I always keep that alive within me.

paul miller

I was raised Roman Catholic – at 8 years old I moved to an RC primary in the next town. I learned how God looked for my mistakes and wanted to punish me, but Jesus was crucified (also my fault) so he was willing (reluctantly) to overlook my inherent naughtiness. This God didn’t look like the Jesus I read about, and I struggled with the disparity. I had a personal faith, it felt real, but still found a gap between the all-powerful, dominating, vengeful God and the life presented by Jesus in the Gospels.

As I grew older, I moved through Anglican, then Charismatic Evangelical flavours of Church, eventually into leadership roles within the latter. However, the nagging problem between what Jesus looked like and how ‘God’ was often represented remained.

Some years ago, a political theologian friend began researching a Jesus-based politics of love. Critiquing the Sovereignty model, this looks at society, life, God, scripture through a ‘Jesus lens’, essentially that if Jesus is God incarnate, then God looks like Jesus. A life-laid-down, enemy-loving, self-emptying-of-power God. So our understanding of who God is must begin there. If it’s not what Jesus would say, it isn’t how God thinks either. Re-reading the Old Testament with this ‘lens’ radically changes the perspective. Not a dominant, hierarchical God, rather a horizontal, open, relational one. ‘Kenarchy’ arose from this research (see kenarchy.org) with seven principals, the first being the instatement of women. S/he isn’t to be found within hierarchical power structures, although they often try to use a domineering God narrative to justify their power and control.

Jesus’ response to the bleeding woman was to focus entirely on her wellbeing, not condemn her (Mark 5:25-34)

Mike Winter

Growing up, church and Baptist Sunday school were an inextricable part of my life. Weekly Sunday school was run by a mother and daughter who, confusingly for me, ran a local shoe shop during the week. We sang, tunelessly, various Jesus related ditties. I thought Jesus was rather greedy when we sang during collection, ‘hear the pennies dropping, listen as they fall, every one for Jesus, Jesus wants them all’.

As a fervent attender at Brownies and Guides, with military style monthly church parades, religion became ever more embedded until I was confirmed. The absence of thunderbolts or any stunning revelation led me to read about religion and to think and feel more deeply, until I decided that my experience of nature; walking on hills and in dales, on seashores and in woodlands and breathing in the air was all the religion I would ever need.

Sarah Playforth

Vibrato

Ginger had traveled the world busking

with her flute, she told me on the sidewalk

outside the Chinese restaurant.

She wore a beret and there was a gap

between her two front top teeth—it

made you smile when she smiled.

I confessed to playing myself and

that’s how I ended up in

a small white church among green hills

with a borrowed flute

on an August day. It’s where I learned

why Church words never felt right

but the music always did.

“What vibrato you have!” she exclaimed

after our first two-player round of

Dona Nobis Pacem.

My insides trembled from stopped up tears.

In all my years of playing I had never made

sound like THAT.

Big Velvet Notes

lived inside my fingers and lungs.

With my fingers and the air inside

I conjured stars and felt mountains.

AMY MILLIOS
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