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Ian's blog: "LETTER FROM LOTUSLAND"
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Now, on to this month's Letter:
I never took to religion. I'd like to say that the Other had visited me, some mysterious presence sidling up beside me, like an ideal dream pal, someone to tell all my troubles to and be reassured or else punished. Something personal.
Instead I had the dull Church of England. Maybe I should have been bathed in fire and brimstone under a thundering sky commanded by a fierce and fuming God of no forgiveness and much revenge.
The first time I can remember us going to church as a family was for my father's funeral in 1962. Before that, it was all school, compulsory services. At prep school, in the mornings in the big schoolroom, we sang hymns from the "Ancient and Modern" hymnbook. Some of the harmonies hit my heart in the right place; like "Abide with Me" towards the end, and "For those in Peril On The Sea" with its pants-lift chord build-up.
On Sundays, we walked to church in crocodile formation. There, in the cool stone with waves crashing nearby, I could gaze at a stained glass soldier giving up his life so he could sleep forever in the name of the slender man with the trim beard and calm smile who had thrillingly been thrashed and nailed to a wooden cross. I had seen him in our colored bible books, enjoyed the violence, and longed to do battle with the Roman soldiers in their short tunics; and in another picture was a heroic soldier with bulging calves standing before the same man who now hovered in the sky radiating a golden glow. In the next panel he knelt and worshiped, and I wished I could have such a sudden revelation too. Oh, how I longed!
The local vicar, The Rev. Shillitoe, delivered a plodding sermon, stopping now and then to point out some boy who was making a noise or sleeping fitfully. The headmaster would deal with the miscreants later. Meanwhile, it was back to the loaves and fishes. Sometimes we'd have a super talk-sermon by an old boy who had seen action in World War One. Then it was tales of zooming down in a flying crate made of canvas on trenches of cowering Huns in order to drop home-made bombs on them, curiously described as smallish and in the shape of a "lady's hand mower".
Just before lights-out in the dormitory, we were told to say our prayers. This was the closest I got to communion with God. He was asked to bless my mother and father, sister and brother, as well as our daily help, Mrs. Mercer, and the old sheep dog Panda. In return, I wanted God to always try to make things turn out right. I don't think he tried very hard - I got beaten and other punishments.
At Bryanston, where I was from 13 to 18, there was no corporal punishment, for it was a "progressive school". The headmaster was heavily into Christianity and gave sermons that were too intellectual for me. Again we walked to church, set amid fields and by the river. A lovely spot but missed by us because we were too busy gossiping. The school chaplain was lantern-jawed and mild-mannered. He once asked me, after I'd played a part in a school play," Don't you think, dear boy, some of us are born to be content as audience?" His spiritual advice was: "Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest". He had a celebrated slide show of boys he'd taken on summer retreat, identifying them, as they ran nude through sylvan settings, by their behinds: "Ah that's Ralph, and that, I'm sure, is Ginger".
I resisted being inducted as a confirmed Christian, but I did sing in the choir, where we ogled girl choristers from our nearby sister school, particularly handsome Victoria Heber-Percy who looked terrific on the tennis court in her tight white shorts. Much later, when she was a mother, I told her of our admiration. She said, "You boys were terrible dancers. So clammy."
At home, church was still out. My grandfather was the foremost unbeliever, calling himself a "scoffer" and holding a ceremony on Easter Sunday when he would open a window in his manor and announce: "He's risen, he's up, he's up!" All the same, as a local squire he felt it his duty to support the parish church. To this end, he donated a 19th century oil painting of "Jacob at the well" (or was it Rebecca?). He would invite the vicar round for drinks and as soon as the reverend had gone he'd announce, "That's the 120th scotch he's had in my house" or whatever was the relevant number. A remarkable memory. He had a story about Jesus hanging from the cross and refusing a sponge full of vinegar: "No, no it must be Sarson's!" - the ad line of a well-known British brand of malt vinegar. When all was said and done, my grandfather believed that all a decent person needed was an ethics guide rather than a bible. His son, who did so well as an RAF pilot in World War Two, enjoyed his father's jokes, but was still testing the waters in the field of religion.
In the 1960s, I joined Uncle John on a trip to Alaska to visit his daughter who was attending a Catholic school for natives deep in the frozen bush. A priest who had served a long time there was retiring, and the night before he invited us to his rooms for a nightcap. Tales flowed and so did the drink until, round midnight, my uncle posed this question: "Granted, our Lord was a wonderful man and performed many fantastic tricks - from fishes to people and whatnot. But do you believe, and can you prove, that he was truly the Redeemer?"
The astounded priest reeled in his chair. This was an unholy question. For the next half hour, he pulled from his shelves text after text with evidence of his life's work and beliefs. Soon his vestments were awry. "I only asked," pleaded my uncle. The bottle continued to circulate. When the priest looked as if he was ready to meet his maker, my uncle said, "Alright, I take your word for it. Let's call it a night".
Next morning we were sheepish as the poor priest staggered in for breakfast, his last one as he was leaving, retiring after 40 years of mission work. As he passed us, I swear he gave us the evil eye.
But I'd still love to witness the Redeemer. I need an avuncular figure hovering with promise of help from above.
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